Thursday, July 31, 2008

Brazil Resuming Nuclear Reactor Construction

Lula has authorized resuming the establishment of a third reactor, which had sat idle for 22 years at Brazil's Angra dos Reis nuclear power plant, in southwestern Rio de Janeiro state. The power plant was originally decreed in the 1970s as part of the military dictatorship's demonstration of how Brazil was finally attaining the levels of "development" it required to assume it's rightful place in the world (in what I would call Brazil's historical "order and progress" complex). The idea of the power plant was borne equally out of the fact that many members of the military brass saw nuclear power as the next necessary step to achieve progress in Brazil, as well as being influenced by broader geopolitical factors, including Argentina gaining nuclear power. Interestingly, the public met such plans with an at-best lukewarm response in Brazil when they first came up, but after Jimmy Carter heavily pushed Brazil not to turn to nuclear power, it attained a level of popular nationalism the military government itself could never have achieved on its own, thereby giving the project far greater popular legitimacy as well. Brazil ultimately gained its nuclear technology and capabilities via help from West Germany, and began working on two reactors. The third, begun in 1986, was quickly abandoned as Brazil entered inflation rates in the hundreds and even thousands in the late-1980s and 1990s. Now, with a booming economy and a growing need for energy, Lula has authorized resuming construction of the third reactor.

I am really ambivalent about this. Many Brazilians argue that if there is any country in the world that does not have the right to tell countries whether they can or cannot use nuclear power, it's the United States, given its arsenal and the fact that it's the only country that has used a nuclear weapon against an enemy. While I'm not sure that the latter part is fully germane to the issue at hand, I generally agree that any nation that has already attained nuclear power and has an absurd amount of nuclear capabilities, particularly in the military area, they really do not have a very strong base upon which they can tell other countries not to use the power they have enjoyed for decades.

Additionally, while nuclear power may not be the best options, I think it's demonstrated that, if done correctly, it can be safe. Yes, there are risks; there always were, always are, and always will be. Yet the fact that Brazil is looking to improve its energy system by moving beyond hydroelectric power. I'd still really like to see Brazil further explore wind power, which it's showing no sign of doing (though things can change). That said, I suppose if Brazil wants to turn to nuclear power in order to not have to dam up so much of the rivers in the Amazon and elsewhere, I'm ok with that.

However, this is where my ambivalence enters. While hydroelectric dams are definitely damaging to the environment, the disaster that could happen with the nuclear plant is infinitely worse. And again, that doesn't mean things will happen, but the sheer risk makes me antsy. Additionally, I've travelled around Angra dos Reis, and the location of the nuclear power plant is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, with amazing beaches in the region and thick forest butting up against small mountains; even the historical legacy of the area is great, as Paraty, an old colonial town that has been for the most part preserved, is less than an hour away from the plant. And there's no question that the plant could have amazingly awful damage, given that it rests directly on the oceanfront. Certainly, nuclear meltdown is nuclear meltdown; nonetheless, I have no doubt that there could be many places in Brazil that could host a nuclear power plant, and why the military government picked one of the most beautiful parts of the country (only 3 hours from Rio de Janeiro) is beyond me. In this sense, then, I'm really hesitant about Lula's decision. I don't presume to tell Brazilians where their power should come from. Still, the location of the plant makes me uneasy, and again, I just don't understand why the government doesn't investigate and invest in wind power more, especially given the amount of coastline that Brazil has.

All this is pretty much a long way to say I'm just not sure about Lula's decision today. I hope to god it works out well, and it probably will; France hasn't had any accidents, and it's drawing 78% of its power from nuclear power, and while accusations of corruption often fly in Brazilian politics, I'm fairly certain that nobody (even Brazilian politicians) is so stupid as to try to employ corruption when it comes to nuclear engineering and technology. I guess at the end of the day, I have the same unease about nuclear power as I do everywhere, that equal combination of "it will probably be fine" but with that vague "but what if..." and fleeting thoughts of Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, all combined with a knowledge of the physical location of the plant that makes me sad and confused as to why anybody would put nuclear energy there.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pesticides, bad state laws, a worthless EPA, dead bees, class warfare, and workers' rights…

I feel so welcomed to California. Yesterday they held an earthquake just for me, about 20 miles from where I live, and now I’m learning about the litany of problems facing my state’s agricultural industry.

This started this morning while I was listening to NPR; they were doing a story about a coalition of groups in Sacramento that is suing the EPA to outlaw the pesticide endosulfan in commercial agriculture. This particular pesticide has been linked to a variety of reproductive disorders and other health problems, and is banned in the EU and many other countries. The EPA, being the toothless shell of a regulatory body it ought to be because of its asshat appointees, has done little to regulate any pesticide manufactured by the Bayer Corporation. Today’s LA Times has an article about Bayer’s Gaucho and Poncho pesticides and their possible links to the death of large swaths of the California bee population (I’m not even going to get into the racist nature of Bayer’s nicknames for these farm chemicals…)

Why does the EPA need to be involved? In California, there is a fantastically horrible state law that bars local governments from enacting any kind of control over pesticides. Since the state agency refuses to do anything about endosulfan and local governments are prohibited by laws to protect themselves, the EPA is needed. Currently, there is a bill in the California Assembly to change this 25 year old law (bill AB977 for all of you Californians who want to send a quick message to your reps), but until this industry orchestrated law is changed, the EPA could (and should) be forced to help out.

Oh yeah, and for the real kicker—endosulfan is not legal for use in lawns and golf courses. This neurotoxin is only used in commercial agriculture (i.e., your cute little kids and your golfing buddies at the country club have nothing to worry about, but the EPA and State of California don’t give a shit about the people working the fields). So often the environmental questions of the day are framed in opposition to working class issues, but this example reinforces what is becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people—the survival of the working class and the environment are often tied together in the same struggle.

I Haven't Seen a Goof This Egregious Since Moonraker Put Mayan Pyramids in Brazil!

As I've outlined before, there are already many reasons to be outraged at the Disney movie Beverly Hills Chihuahua. The Latin Americanist points us to one offense that falls on the lighter side. Take a look (hint: the Incas, who built Machu Pichu, live in Peru, not Mexico).

Tim Kaine and the Absurdity of Punditry

A lot of the VP speculation is now centering on Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. I have no particular problem with the man, though I don't know very much about him. I guess he has the advantage of being a young fresh face from a state that Obama has a very good chance of winning. I probably would be OK with the pick, though I'd really rather he pick a qualified woman like Janet Napolitano or Claire McCaskill.

But I find it laughable that every Democratic politician from the state of Virginia has to be a potential VP candidate. Hey pundits, I hear there is a city councilman from Richmond who hasn't been considered yet! Better get on it!

While Kaine, Warner, and Webb all have some advantages, the real reason they are being pushed by the punditry is that Virginia is the only conservative state any of them ever spend any time in. They think Obama needs a moderate to conservative state running mate. They know absolutely nothing about the South or the Mountain West. So they reflexively turn to Virginia. They can read about Virginia politicians in the Washington Post. They see their campaign ads on TV. And that's good enough for them.

Let's face it, pundits are lazy people. They go for cliche over analysis. They repeat the same themes ad nauseum. They make overaching claims for small events. They don't want to have to work to come up with their talking points. That might take time away from their dinner parties. So they turn to what's easy. For VP speculation, the easy way out is Virginia politicians. And thus we have the attention on Tim Kaine.

In other news, Trapper John over at Kos is guessing that Obama will pick Tom Daschle. This is, um, strange, but I guess plausible enough. It would solve the supposed experience problem. Trapper John is right that the VP selection here isn't going to make much difference since the election is all about Obama. He calls Daschle a Cheney-like selection, which I guess is true. But if Daschle is as inspiring as he was when he was the Democratic leader in the Senate, I guess the VP debates will be a good time for a nap.

The Knoxville Tragedy and Republican Responsibility

I was deeply shocked by the shooting at the Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee. I used to live in Knoxville and knew people who went to that church. I did not know either of the people who died, though I do know one of the church spokespeople quoted in the report.

Actually, let me rephrase. I am shocked, but not surprised by the shooting. The shooter targeted the Unitarian church because of their acceptance of gays, liberals, and other people hated in Knoxville.

Let's change the scenario a bit. Let's say it was a young kid who did the shooting. He was a disturbed child but didn't have any particular hatred for gays or liberals. And let's say he shot up a Baptist church rather than a Unitarian church. Can't you already hear the Republican talk radio blathering on about the "culture" that allows such things to happen? They would blame heavy metal or television or comic books or some other cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with the killing but is easy to scapegoat. They would also talk about how liberals hate Christianity and that their secularism made churches a target for attack.

Well, now I am going to engage in some damn scapegoating of my own. I blame the religious right, right-wing media, and the entire Republican Party for the shooting in Knoxville. They have said horrible things about gays and liberals for years. They have painted gays as child-abusing perverted sadists. They have made the word "liberal" into a perjorative. They have said that gays and liberals (and feminists and radicals and abortionists, etc) are going to hell and that we will deserve all the suffering we get. In east Tennessee, I would guess that at least 2/3 of the churches preach this kind of hatred. The Unitarians are a strong exception to this rule. Thus, they became a target for a disturbed person. But this disturbed person was spurred on by the atmosphere of hate one entire political party has used for its own purposes over the past 40 years.

The right covering up its own hate is not an isolated incidient either. If you've visited the Oklahoma City Memorial, you might have noticed a gaping silence over context and responsibility for the bombing. It is interpreted as the act of a couple of loonies. But there is nothing on the relationships between the militias and the Republican Party. There are mentions of Ruby Ridge and Waco but nothing on how the right built on those events to spur a climate of hate against Bill Clinton and the federal government as a whole and nothing on how Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and the Republican leadership fanned the hatred for their own purposes, hatred that created a climate allowing Timothy McVeigh to act.

What do you see at Oklahoma City? Well, you actually get more discussion of so-called environmental "terrorism" as you do of the connections between militias and the rise of the right. Every little incident of some hippies burning an SUV is highlighted to show that terrorism is a real threat to America. Well, terrorism may be a threat to America but I don't think it is from hippie monkeywrenching groups. As far as domestic terrorism goes, the real threat is from right-wing hate groups that have ties to powerful Republicans.

Perhaps I am being unfair by saying that the entire right-wing establishment has a share of responsibility for the Knoxville shootings. There is certainly not any direct connection between Rush Limbaugh and the killer. But I can say this for certain. I am being a lot less unfair than Republicans who make threadbare connections between killers and heavy metal. At least I can legitimately say that a man acted on the hate spawned by the Republican Party and its supporters in a direct way. That hate has taken the lives of two innocent people. The Republican Party, the hate preachers, and right-wing radio demagogues have blood on their hands.

One of the Greatest Generals in History?

Am I the only one who finds John McCain's constant referring to David Petraeus as "one of the greatest generals in history" absurd? By what standard? He seems pretty competent, certainly more so than the military officers leading the troops during the beginning of the war. But how precisely is he even one of the greatest generals in American history? Greater than Washington? Then Grant? Then Eisenhower or Sherman or Lee?

I'm certainly no expert on military history. But I don't think I am missing anything here. McCain's desperately trying to show that the Surge has worked and is giving Petraeus all the credit. This despite the fact that Iraqis seem to believe the Surge is irrelevant and that the violence has dropped because Iraqis themselves were sick of the killing and started to work through their sectarian problems to rebuild their society.

Anyway, the idea that Petraeus is one of the greatest generals in history might be the single most laughable theme of this presidential election, rivaling perhaps only Fred Thompson's entire candidacy.

Racism, sexism, etc.

So I'm cross-posting this from my blog. There's a bit of backstory to it, but all the links are there if you need them.

So the stuff I was writing about here has mainly been excused by the fans of that vile cartoon by the idea that it wasn't intentionally racist! Just like that New Yorker cartoon was excused because it was SATIRE, man! Satire!

This is the thing: most of us are not intentionally racist. Most of us are not intentionally sexist. Yet these things still exist. (Yes, some people are gleefully, openly racist and sexist, but we're not talking about them here. Don't derail me.)

M. LeBlanc at Bitch, Ph.D. wrote an excellent post about racism and sexism a while back that I think you should read. Really.

Racism isn't only about burning a cross on your lawn or about saying that you wouldn't vote for Obama because he wants to enslave white people. It can be as simple as locking your car door when you drive through a black neighborhood, or assuming in your head that the black woman you see walking down the street with her kid must be unmarried. Or saying that the men in that cartoon don't have the right hair texture to be black.

Sexism isn't only about telling your wife to quit her job and get back in the kitchen, or jerking off to really offensive porn (whatever your idea of that is). It's assuming that a woman who looks a certain way is stupid. It's perpetuating a false dichotomy between "male" and "female" characteristics and according only the male ones value. (Why do you really think you value not wearing makeup and not shaving? Is it because doing those things makes you less a tool of the patriarchy, or because not doing them makes you less feminine?)

We all do a million little racist and sexist things every day. I do. You do. Barack Obama does and Hillary Clinton does and Noam Chomsky does and Beth Ditto does.

I love to harp on the fact that people are not either good or evil. There is not a line between the good guys and the bad guys that we can see. This isn't a Batman movie (and hell, even that recent Batman movie played with those lines in a way that made me quite happy).

I'm not saying that there aren't people who cross lines that make me unwilling to forgive them. Dick Cheney? No matter how much he renounced, I don't think I'd ever be cool with Dick. Jesse Helms? Jerry Falwell? I did not cry or pronounce one word of regret when they died.

But having it pointed out that you unwittingly participated in something racist or sexist should not be a call for a huge defensive freakout designed to point out that you're one of the good ones and therefore what you did couldn't possibly be wrong or bad, because you didn't intend for it to be!

In literary criticism, we don't worry too much about the intent of the author. We look at the signs and signifiers, and interpret the message based on those.

This is a long-winded way of saying if someone calls you out on racism or sexism, the best thing to do maybe is give it a couple of seconds of thought, at least, and decide if they're right. Then, the proper response is, if the questioner appears to be even remotely in good faith, "I'm sorry I offended you. I didn't mean to be racist/sexist/ableist/whatever."

Then you learn from it and get over it. It doesn't make you the devil, or discount the good things you've done in the past, or even make most people hate you. It makes you human.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Big Move

Well, here I am in Redlands-- once again back in Southern California. We had an earthquake today and I saw three Hummers at one stoplight. This place is really weird.

Moving was an experience. We had some great Southern New Mexico-style Green Chile enchiladas in Deming, NM, and enjoyed seeing the many, many NM truckstops that offered volume discounts on fireworks. I listened to Rush Limbaugh for 15 minutes outside of El Paso, and turned it off when some dumbass redneck was ridiculing alternative energy proposals and oinking for more drilling. Arizona was an interesting state to traverse, and I even got hooked into a progressive talk radio station in Phoenix (after seeing the station's anti-McSame billboard right on the interstate-- gutsy!). The wind farm in the Coachella Valley, California was by far the most awesome sight on the trip. On I-10, you slowly come around the mountain and down into a valley that is just packed with large windmills. There are 4,000 windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass in the San Bernadino Mountains, which produce enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley. I can't describe what it feels like to be looking at that many windmills all at once, up and down and on top of every mountain and hill-- very crazy. I felt like I was in a Mario Brothers game or something.

My Texas to California move now being over, I will be posting regularly again.

And I know he's off the campaign and all, but Phil Gramm is still a dickweed.

A Colombia Follow-Up: FARC, Paramilitaries, and Cocaine in the Rural Areas

Following up on my observations and thoughts on Colombia the other day, today the NY Times has this article up on cocaine production and FARC/paramilitary violence in Colombia's rural areas. Suffice to say, despite Uribe's recent efforts to show how successful he's been against the FARC, it's far from a victory by any stretch of the imagination (even wingnut imaginations). The article offers is an important reality check on those who are getting overly hopeful for Colombia (something I fear I may have inadvertently taken place in by not qualifying enough how ambivalent my hope for Colombia is now; things still look better than they have in a long time, but that doesn't mean they are better).

In addition, Simon Romero, the article's author, brings up the drug trade and its ties to the struggle. I suggested that, even if the FARC were to disappear, there's no good reason to believe the cocaine production and the violence tied to it would drop, and the article seems to back that up: "while the FARC’s share of the cocaine trade has declined, Colombia’s share of the world cocaine production has remained stable at about 60 percent. That means opportunities for new players like Colombia’s resurgent right-wing militias [my italics] and small-scale armed gangs taking the place of disassembled cartels."

Which leads us to the U.S.'s involvement in Colombia. It's been repeated so often that it may sound like a tired argument, but it's worth repeating once again: the "War on Drugs" does not, cannot, and will not work as long as it focuses strictly on production. When fields are attacked, they are either quickly replanted and/or pushed into more remote regions where it's easier to conceal your production. Additionally, the U.S. has made no secret in its willingness to pump lots of money into Colombia to fight "terrorism" (and, since Bush became president, maintain one of its few friends in the region in the figure of Uribe). However, given how close some top-level Colombian officials are to the paramilitary groups, the tie of U.S. foreign aid to Colombia is not hard to follow. I have no doubt that some of the U.S. funds end up in the hands of Colombian paramilitaries who are directly involved in the drug trade. Thus, while the U.S. is on the one hand spending millions and millions of dollars to combat drug production in Colombia, it is at the same time offering money to governments (both present and past) that are in bed with paramilitaries who are increasingly producing drugs. And even the farmers who are simply growing cocaine for survival aren't ignornat peasants; they are finding new ways to produce, all while the demand in the United States (where almost all of Colombia's cocaine goes) does nothing to force them to turn to other, more legal crops. So the United States ends up throwing money away by trying to combat the production of cocaine, while failing to address issues of demand or even reconcile how they can tacitly (and perhaps covertly) support groups involved in the drug trade even while combatting the drug trade.

These two pictures of the continuing local violence in rural areas and drug production are indeed depressing, and serve as an important reminder of how far Colombia has to go. Do things look better than they have in a long time? Sure. Does that mean that they are even close to improving? Absolutely not. And it indicates how many other problems Colombia will face, even if the FARC were to collapse. So while we can be thrilled that hostages have been released and that FARC has sustained true losses, it is still, as Erik said, a group that is often little more than an organization of criminals and thugs. As depressing as it is, the problems Colombia is facing run far deeper than a "revolutionary" group involved in a 40+ year civil war, and the country is still far, far away from the day when these types of conflicts can come to a close.

Progressive Christianity

Hi guys and gals. I know I haven't been posting here much (and that's partly because of ye olde blogwar, over whether it's feminist to insult women for how they look if they look stereotypically attractive, that I got into at my own place--interested? Check it out), and I'm completely exhausted and not up to writing too much here at the moment.

A while back, we got into a discussion of religion and politics, and Christianity as a progressive force as opposed to a regressive, controlling one.

To that end, I'm posting a link here to the first Carnival of Progressive Christians, over at A Secret Chord. Purtek and Philomela have done a great job assembling posts by various and sundry progressive Christians, some of whom have churches they belong to, others of whom feel alienated by the direction the church has gone in.

It's pretty interesting, especially the "Sex-positive Christian" posts. Please read.

Monday, July 28, 2008

An Ugly Development in the Economics of Soccer in Brazil

As bad as the story about Dominican baseball players was, this story about a private company in Brazil buying soccer players' contracts and reaping a profit if they make it big really makes me uncomfortable. Basically, Traffic, a private company, is buying up the contracts of young, promising soccer players, and then making deals with Brazilian teams to let these young men pay. The teams pay the salaries, and by playing on big teams in Brazil, they have the chance to get the attention of European clubs and maybe get signed there. It may sound good at first, but I have a lot of problems with what Traffic is doing.

Firstly, as the article points out, buying players' contracts and then reaping the rewards of the transfer to Europe (something required in soccer) really pushes FIFA's rules banning third parties in soccer (in an effort to effectively prevent what is happening in the Dominican Republic). However, what really makes my skin crawl is this: "Instead of investing in the stock market or real estate,” Julio Mariz, Traffic’s president, said, “these people are investing in buying the economic rights to football players.

I'm not so naive as to pretend that there is no sport where players aren't used to make a private profit, and many sports probably privately view atheletes as these types of "economic investments;" indeed, the notion behind signing a Lebron James or an Alex Rodriguez is certainly in part the hope that the name will bring fans to the games, thereby helping the private ownership to turn a profit. But the money remains in the hands of those who are nominally the owners; it behooves them to try to invest in the team. Ceratinly, not all owners will use the money they make to improve the team (the Pohlads come to mind here), but by and large, the system seems to work for the most part (though admittedly because organizations like MLB, the NFL, and the NBA put into effect things like the luxury tax or the salary cap to help self-regulation). But by letting a third party enter into the equation, this simply kicks up to another level the ideological exploitation of players for the hopes of personal profit for a private company.

And this leads into my third problem with this setup - it takes the profit out of the hands of the clubs. The Times treats this like a new form of free agency, but that isn't really accurate. When European clubs want to sign Brazilian players from other clubs, they have to pay the player's previous club the "transferral fee." Therefore, if a player does great but decides to go on to play in Europe, his club is financially rewarded for its loss. This is huge, because soccer clubs aren't like baseball or football or basketball teams in the U.S. Each club is literally that - a club open to public, where your kids can learn to play soccer, basketball, learn gymnastics, learn to swim, and any number of other physical activities, as well as social events. These transferral fees in part help the clubs keep those activities going. Certainly, soccer gets the bulk of the money from these deals, but it doesn't just go there. And while you do have corruption among many of the clubs' boards where personal gain may be happening, at least some of the money has to go to the clubs. When an organization like Traffic becomes involved, that's no longer the case, and the club loses a major source of income for its programs. And of course, because soccer is first, that means lesser (but still important) activities like swim lessons, basketball, and all the others, will be cut first. And of course, previously, if a club was selling a lot of tickets to games and making money for the club due to a popular player, and that player then went to Europe, the transferral fee would help cover what might be an initial drop-off in game attendance. But with tactics like Traffic's, that's no longer an option, either.

Botafogo's president says there is no other way, given the rising economy and the growing difficulty of getting good young players to stay in Brazil long enough, but I can't believe this. He's absolutely right that it is increasingly rare to see young players in Brazil staying very long (when a young star of 17 years old or less emerges, the question is never "if" he'll go to Europe, but "when," "Where," and "for how much), but Traffic's operations do nothing to stem that flow from Brazil for bigger money. I really don't know what else can be done, either, because the clubs in Europe and in other parts of the world just make more money, and can offer more, than Brazil can; in some ways, the sporting world is one of the final arenas where old imperialist relations still play out regularly.

The article closes with Brazil's Football Agents president claiming that, while Traffic's approach is flawed, this could help gain investment for Brazilian clubs. To put it lightly, I'm not convinced. Rabello's partisanship as head of Football Agents should be clear enough, but additionally, agents and third-part groups simply will not make the clubs any money. They will poach young players, lease them only until they can make the maximum profit, and then send them to Europe, reaping the rewards while Brazilian football clubs suffer even further and witness a greater decline. Brazilians are the greatest soccer players in the world, but issues like this make the prospect of Brazil's national football league dim indeed.

Putting Human Rights Violators in Jail, from the Caribbean to Argentina

Last week, Argentina sentenced Lucio Benjamin Menendez, 81, to life in prison for his role during Argentina's "Dirty War," along with six others. Menendez's conviction was particularly important as he was head of the military in the Argentine province of Cordoba; as the story points out, the torture center in the region, which Menendez oversaw, had only 17 survivors of its more than 2200 political prisoners. And that's worth stopping to think about and repeat: only 17 of the more than 2200 people who passed through there survived.

In spite of these numbers, Menendez's conviction (as in the cases of other, previous convictions of military leaders involved in human rights abuses) focused on four specific incidents, finding Menendez guilty in his role of "overs[eeing] the kidnapping, torture and murder of four activists who protested against the military government that lasted from 1976 to 1983." Prosecutors in Argentina (as well as Chile and elsewhere) have used this approach to great effect, not overextending their cases and relying on the few that will virtually guarantee convictions and make sure those men who participated and are still alive will spend the rest of their lives in jail for their deeds; such is the case with Menendez. The fact that Menendez (and the other 6 officers and one civilian, about whom I can find nothing) was found guilty is nothing less than great.

And in the northern half of the hemisphere, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, a former Haitian paramilitary, is also going to find himself in jail. While Constant was under investigation for mortgage fraud in the U.S., his role as the head of the FRAPH paramilitary group (which was in part bankrolled by the CIA) came to light. Constant and FRAPH involved in the Raboteau massacre against Aristide supporters in 1994, when dozens (estimates are between 26 and more than 50) people were massacred as the military took over the Haitian government. While U.S. authorities had agreed to a plea deal with Constant for time served (10 months) in the mortgage fraud and larceny case, upon learning of his role in the Raboteau massacre, the judge ordered Constant to stand trial for the mortgage case.

This week, Constant was found guilty in New York, and is facing up to 15 years in jail. This reporter hit it on the head: "[Constant's] a thief as well as someone who commits human rights violations." One can still hope that he stands trial in Haiti for the actual human rights abuses, but regardless of how he ends up in jail, it's great news that Constant is going to jail, one way or another.

It's Always All About America

President Bush is upset that Asian and Latin American nations are subsidizing gas prices, thus protecting their citizens from the price spikes that have hurt Americans this year. These nations are doing so for a good reason--rising gas prices threatens their power. But more fundamentally, it's hard to feel bad for Americans. Although these subsidies are unsustainable at their current levels and ultimately are bad for the environment since they spur continued growth in oil consumption, they are also choices made by governments to support their poor and new middle class in their attempt to have a better standard of living.

But then Americans don't really care about that. We only care about maintaining our own outrageous use of resources at cheap prices. When this is threatened, it's someone else's fault, not ours. Our lack of consideration for other nations doesn't stop at gas prices though. Dave Noon quotes Kay Kagan's insistence that the only nation which counts in the Iraq war is the United States.

At the end of the day, the United States is not in Iraq for the benefit of the
Iraqis. American forces are not fighting to allow Iraqi leaders to make hard
choices. The U.S. is engaged in Iraq in pursuit of its own interests in fighting
terrorism and resisting Iranian destabilization and hegemony. Reconciliation
agreements within the Iraqi parliament are part of what is required to secure
those interests over the long term, but they are not now and never have been the
reason for the presence of American combat forces in Iraq.

This is how most Americans think about. Iraqis were never real people, either for the war supporters at home or for the government. Dave is outraged by Kagan's statements (as I am, for they are truly disturbing). But she's really only expressing how many Americans have always felt about this war. The fact that Iraqis may have thoughts of their own and are acting upon those feelings by pressing the U.S. to get the hell out of their country is very difficult for Kagan, the administration, and the Neocons to deal with. After all, weren't the Iraqis supposed to welcome us with open arms?

More broadly, this insular way of thinking typlifies Americans interactions with the world. The world exists to serve U.S. interests, feed us resources, and accept our power without questioning. When those nations do something really outrageous to defy the United States, we want to bomb them. But when they do small things, like subsidize their drivers or ask the U.S. to create a timetable for withdrawing from their nation, we are confused, not knowing how to respond and whining like babies without a bottle.

Water Economics and Conservation

It's not often that I get a request to blog on something, but Rob wanted me to talk about this debate on water and economics. As you all know, I really can't resist a bearded man. So here we go.

The economist David Zetland argues that we need to let market forces decide water rates. Only then will conservation happen.

If we had a reasonable price on water, we could have a sustainable water supply everywhere, forever.

People will have 100% reliability IF they are willing to pay. If businesses want reliable water, they pay. If poor people want to use water for more than drinking and sanitation, they pay. If a guy wants to irrigate his golf course, he pays A LOT.

The food supply would shift to higher value crops (less alfalfa and more broccoli). Food prices would go up, but they would reflect the true cost of growing food, not the subsidized cost from unsustainable practices.

Zetland's argument repeats the same problems I have often have with economists--it assums that all people are the same with the same power to buy and sell their goods and labor. I agree that we waste a lot of water and the low prices of that water is a major reason. But what about the poor? Should they have to pay higher rates for water in order to bring usage under control? Should water be treated like any other commodity? I have to answer no. I'm not sure that Zentland disagrees with me so much on this, in that he seems to believe that people should have water for basic uses, but then many of his readers don't have this commitment.

In 2000, the World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize some of its water. The right-wing government of the time sold the rights to Coachabamba's water to the multinational corporation Bechtel. Bechtel decided to charge a supposedly fair market price for the water. But of course, no Bolivian could pay for it. This led to enormous protests in the streets that eventually led to the death of one protestor. Bechtel withdrew after the Bolivian government paid them a large sum in compensation. The backlash to this helped along the rise of Evo Morales.

One major problem with letting market forces decide prices is its amorality. Society must take into account how its practices affects the poor. Another problem of course is that market forces don't actually exist as independent operators. They are constantly manipulated by the wealthy and governments to support big business and the rich. Those who scream the loudest for laissez-faire economics are the first to seek government intervention when the economy doesn't progress in their favor.

Several major progressive bloggers support Zetland's plan, including Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum. To me, this helps demonstrate the disconnect between too many leading left-leaning bloggers and the world's poor, as well as the happy acceptance of economists' constructions of the market without question. A more interesting criticism comes from Froude Reynolds, who questions our background on current water issues. He claims we have all read too much Marc Reisner, who wrote Cadillac Desert. This book condemned how California agriculture has used water throughout its history. Along with Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire, Cadillac Desert brought a lot of attention to one of America's most disturing industries. But Reynolds is right. Cadillac Desert is over 20 years old and a lot of its points aren't necessarily valid today. Agriculture doesn't dominate water in quite the same way as it did 50 years ago.

However, I think Reynolds overstates when he says that the system is "much less outrageous." It is just as outrageous, but in different ways. Agriculture still wastes a tremendous amount of water growing things in places where they should not be grown. Golf courses, housing developments, and theme parks waste gargantuan amounts of water. We allow people in Phoenix to grow orange trees in their yards, we promote pools in Los Angeles, and we love the fountains in Las Vegas. Our society is still based on the profligate use of water and this water is still used primarily by the rich for the rich.

This leads us back to the problem of the market-based solution. Zetland is no doubt right when he says that raising water rates would force people to use less overall water. But the problem is that the golf courses, agribusiness farms, casinos, and wealthy McMansion owners could and probably would still pay those rates. It would be the poor that would suffer. They would not be able to pay for the water they need everyday. The middle class would suffer too. Perhaps they waste money watering their lawns. This should be discouraged. But in a world of rising commodity prices across the board, can we afford to let mysterious market forces raise the water rates of everyone to ensure conservation? I wouldn't support that.

So what can we do? What options make sense? I think the most logical and fair way to adjust water usage is to combine Zetland's ideas with government internvention on behalf of the poor. Water should remain very cheap up to a certian level of usage. Today's poor, both in the United States and around the world, deserve clean water as a right. It is up to governments and international organizations to ensure that right. But after those rights are taken care of, then I think it is quite logical to raise water prices by quite drastic measures. This might not be the so-called laissez-faire market that Zetland and other economists like to talk about. But it does essentiallly the same thing. Through government policy, we can ensure the rights of everyone to supplies of good water while also lowering overall consumption and waste.

The crazy thing about this idea is that it supposes the idea of a government that works for the majority rather than the rich. The unreality of this possibility is perhaps the biggest obstacle from implementing a water plan I could support.

Favre--Please Go Away!

I'm not sure what I want more, Brett Favre to go into retirement, get hooked on painkillers (again) and fade into oblivion, or have him come back with the Jets or some other team and throw 54 interceptions this year.

One thing is for sure, I am sick of Favre's ego, as seemingly are the Green Bay Packers.

Says Favre

"I said, 'Let me compete, you'll know I'll win this job' and Ted said again, 'Brett, things have changed. Aaron Rodgers is our quarterback.' It's pretty clear -- and this is what I told the commissioner -- that they want me to go away, stay retired. They would much rather see me in a Packers' uniform, paying me $12 million to be a backup -- which you know they really don't want -- rather than see in another uniform, no matter what they say. They'll drag this out, asking a king's ransom [in a trade], hoping it all goes away."

Or maybe they are sick of your act and know they need to move on with their franchise. They know you are never going back to the Super Bowl and that if they keep living like it was in 1997, not only are they going to send their team into the toilet, but they are going to have completly wasted their first-round draft pick from 4 years ago when you were talking about retirement for only the 7th time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on Colombia, the FARC, and the Possibility of Hope

I agree with the majority of Erik's points below: that the FARC hasn't been anything more than a criminal organization hiding behind a thin veil of "ideology" for decades; that things are genuinely looking better than I could have hoped for in terms of civil conflict (and its potential end) in Colombia, and this shift has indeed been far more rapid than I could have imagined; and, regardless whether the FARC disappears or not, paramilitaries can, should, and need to be brought to justice, for they have been as involved as the FARC (if not moreso) in drug production and running and the murder of innocent civilians in the name of (stop me if this sounds familiar) "combatting terrorism."

That said, I think the hope still has to be somewhat guarded. First, the FARC isn't gone yet. As I've said before, the recent setbacks have been embarassing, and the deaths of major FARC leaders (including second-in-command Raul Reyes, Ivan Rios, and Manuel Marulanda Velez) are significant. That said, that doesn't mean some charismatic leader can't emerge or come out of nowhere to give the FARC new impetus. There are reasons to believe that FARC may very well be entering its death throes, but this isn't the first time that this outcome has seemed possible.

Another issue that of course will demand attention is what happens with the cocaine production. Both the FARC and paramilitary groups are closely tied to its production and sale in Colombia. Should the FARC be eliminated, I don't see cocaine production just dropping or disappearing. The demand is still out there globally, and there will certainly be others, be they members of the paramilitary groups or just standard drug-lords with no politics other than profit, who will want to fill the FARC's void (again, if there is a void ever). The possible end of the FARC does not mean an end to cocaine production or the violence tied to the industry, and the government will really have to work hard via social and economic programs to turn cocaine producers into productive units in other, more legal areas. Given how Colombia's presidents have acted in the past, I don't see a lot of reason to be hopeful of this.

Thirdly, as Erik alluded to, there is the issue of paramilitary groups. They are as awful and violent as the FARC in many regards, indiscriminately and often contemptuously killing innocent civilians and extracting payments from international companies via protection rackets, all in the name of the "war on terror" or "drug war" or in the name of combatting "subversives." Colombia has refused to deal with this issue, especially under Uribe, in part no doubt because both the current and past governments have been in bed with the paramilitaries via "unofficial" (and sometimes official) channels. Colombia needs to tackle the paramilitary issue as much as it does FARC. I have shards of hope that, were FARC to fade away, dealing with paramilitaries would be facilitated as human right organizations could deal more directly with paramilitary violence in ways similar (albeit in different contexts) to those campaigns in Chile and Argentina. Nonetheless, such hopes are indeed just glimmers without the promise of much coming of it, particularly given the close ties of multiple politicians, administration officials, and even presidents tied to the paramilitary groups directly or indirectly. Certainly, as time goes on things could change on this front, but right now, I see no real reason to believe the politicians will stand down on this issue and let the true issue of paramilitary action at all levels, illegal and governmental, come to light.

All this is not to belittle where things are right now. As Erik correctly pointed out, this is the most hopeful we can be about Colombia for a long time. Of particular interest is how Colombian politics might play out on the ideological level if the FARC were to all but die out. Would they be as beholden to the U.S.? Would Colombians start electing more centrist and leftist leaders? Would the rightighst politicians who are popular right now really be able to maintain their popularity in a political context where the opponent on whom they base their legitimacy no longer is a threat? There's no way of knowing now, because the FARC still is around, even if diminished for the time. Still, one can't help but think that maybe, after 40+ years of conflict and 25+ years of stagnant, useless violence that has torn the country apart, things are looking better than they have for awhile.

Exploiting Young Baseball Athletes' Talents and Dreams in the Dominican Republic

This case of scouts and officials stealing bonuses from Dominican players is beyond shameful. The fact that scouts and local "buscones" were willing to pocket bonus money from poor players just trying to use their talents and their dreams to afford a better life for themselves and their families is more than bad enough. Preying on (usually poor) young men's dreams and hopes to further your own (already comparably considerable) financial well-being is disgusting.

Yet as bad as that is, I'm also really disturbed by how exploited the players clearly are, and how cowed all the young players interviewed in the article seem. It's not just that nobody knows anybody who is a victim of the scandal, even while they know of the scandal themselves; it's that nobody even seems to want to know about it. They just want to learn English, improve their hitting or pitching, and hopefully one day play major league baseball. These men and their dreams are so dependent on these apparently slimy (from the little information provided about them in the article) buscones that they don't even want to talk about the possible graft, simply because it would damage their chances at arriving at the major leagues. Of course, if these kids make it to the MLB, their paychecks will probably be more than the money skimmed off of them, but not all of them are going to make it that far; the bonuses they should be receiving would at least help them and their families out in very significant ways. Yet you have these scouts and buscones skimming and getting rich, as I said, off these young men's dreams and talents.

Clearly, this is not just a problem among a few ballclubs scouting in the Dominican, either. For all the rules and regulations in place in the U.S. in terms of drafting and hiring high school and college baseball players, there is virtually no institutional oversight in the Americas, and MLB's institutional and regulatory presence is minimal. I don't know what can be done about this - it's really going to take concerted efforts of the MLB to try to extend its authority over scouts and companies helping young baseball players in the Caribbean region. Of course, this doesn't preclude the cooperation with local scouts and officials, but there clearly has to be some kind of oversight. Otherwise, people like the unscrupulous scouts and preying buscones will have free reign, and you'll have more cases like the one emerging in the Dominican. It's just revolting, and I really hope that the scouts and buscones involved with this are prosecuted, blackballed, and totally removed from any contact with potential professional baseball players. I also equally hope that the conditions under which these young men struggle to make it improve enough that they can actually feel comfortable coming out when people prey on them and fight for their own rights without feeling like such activities would effectively prevent them from ever realizing their dream.

Hope in Colombia?

This is really more Trend's thing, but I thought I would comment briefly on the situation in Colombia. I've long had a list of countries that I thought would never get better--Haiti, Palestine, Congo, Somalia. And Colombia. The problems Colombia faces are so intractable that I thought it would take a miracle for the nation to normalize itself.

But perhaps that miracle is happening. The FARC has weakened signficantly in the last year, which I have occasionally commented upon. Although I usually support left-leaning Latin American movements, the FARC have been nothing but criminals for at least 25 years and have made any kind of real social reform in Colombia impossible. It was quite unlikely that Colombia could become a functioning nation with the FARC still active. But their decline, topped off by the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and other prominent hostages two weeks ago, makes me feel hopeful.

Even if the FARC goes away though, the paramilitaries have to be brought to justice. My fear is that a right-wing victory in Colombia could lead to revenge killings by the paramilitaries and perhaps a purely military regime. But Colombian senator Carlos Garcia, a right-wing politician, was arrested on Friday for his ties to paramilitary groups. Garcia's case bears watching closely. If he is prosecuted for his crimes, and if the Uribe government can bring the paramilitary groups to justice, perhaps Colombia can become a functioning nation-state for the first time in several decades.

Would you care to add anything Trend?


I support the protests against ExxonMobil advertising at the Washington Nationals stadium. Although I give the Nationals props for their own (relatively minor) environmental actions, ExxonMobil should be fought against on all fronts for their continued backwards environmental record, unwillingness to fight or even admit to climate change, and general greenwashing while engaging in horrible practices concering the environment.

As Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (and author of the superb book Bayou Farewell, about the decline of the bayous in Louisiana) states, ExxonMobil’s involvement in the park “burnishes the image of the worst environmental company on the planet.¨ This is true. While I'm sure the Nationals just see ExxonMobil has another advertiser, they could replace that money fairly easily.

ExxonMobil has tried for the past two years to greenwash its image, including in phone conservations with people like yours truly. But none of this erases the fact that the world's most profitable corporations continues to destroy the environment with aplomb, fight against the kind of large-scale reforms necessary to counter climate change, and even deny that climate change is taking place.

Unfair Coverage?

I can't speak for how this is being interpreted at home, but anchors on CNN International are repeating ad nauseum the idea that the news media wants Obama to win and is giving him unfair positive coverage. It's been quite clear to me ever since I got down here that a lot of the hosts on CNN International support McCain, but whatever. I do think the idea that the press is giving unfair coverage to Obama is absurd.

Is he getting more coverage? Yes. But is it because the media supports him? No. It's because the world wants to know more about him. The media is just following the story, the same way they did during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The media and the public are infatuated with personality and Obama has a lot of it. McCain simply doesn't. He's boring, he's old, and he has no message. Obama is young, inspiring, and popular around the world. This supposedly bias is not unrelated to the lack of media inquiry during the road to Iraq. There was no personality-based angle, the American public more or less didn't care, and thus the media was happy to go along. The Obama phenomenon may not make the media look favorable, but it's not for the reason right-wingers think.

On a related note, CNN International has made me realize the value of commercials. They have all the breaks the regular CNN does, but they don't run paid commercials. Instead, they promote their own shows endlessly. And they run the same public service announcements over and over again. If I hear Gwyenth Paltrow, looking VERY SERIOUS, talk about AIDS in Africa again, I'm going to shoot the TV.

Never Take A Bolivian Train

This is my advice to all of you. Bolivian trains suck.

We were trying to leave Santa Cruz for one last big adventure before we come back to the US on Thursday. We wanted to see the old Jesuit missions in eastern Bolivia, like the movie The Mission. We were told that the train was the best way to get to the coolest town, San Jose de Chiquitos.

I'd always wanted to take the train on one of my trips to the developing world, but I never had. So I was kind of excited about it.

That was a mistake.

The train was supposed to leave at 12. It was delayed first for 30 minutes. Then until 3. The train showed up and then we sat on it for an hour. It finally took off. 2 hours later we had gone about 35 miles, to the first town on the line. Then the track broke. We sat there until about 9 when I was finished. We decided to bail on the entire trip. I think the train finally took off an hour later or so. It was supposed to be a 6 1/2 hour trip. By the time we left, we were already at over 9 hours and we were, at most, 20% of the way there.

I was inspired to end the experience when we were waiting and suddenly my mind came to the great American philosopher/entertainer/chicken magnate Kenny Rogers. In perhaps his most famous dialectical opus, "The Gambler," Rogers opined

"You've got to know when to hold them
Know when to fold them
Know when to walk away
And know when to run."

I am not quite on the same level as Kenny, so I can't quite grasp the relevance of holding and folding to our situation. And I don't know if this was quite the running situation. But it sure as hell was time to walk away. And we did, returning this morning after a night in one of the worst rooms I have ever stayed in. And that's saying something given the time I was on the Thai-Burmese border and I walked into the bathroom and came face to face with a giant spider the size of my head. I'm not sure how we'll spend the last few days in Bolivia now, but I can guarantee you, it will not be on the train.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mister Trend's Best-of-2008 (Thus Far)

As in 2006 and 2007, it’s time for my annual mid-year music review. I’m a little later than I wanted to be, but these are my picks for 2008 (up through June 30). While I originally thought this year had been so-so on releases, it turns out there have been some great ones, and this may be one of the better (yet less heralded) music years in recent memory. New albums by Beck and CSS, as well as new material by Stereolab, could make this year even better (though they could be stale, too), and I haven’t had a chance to listen to some albums that already came out (particularly Spiritualized). Still, it’s been a great year for music, and here are my top 10 thus far.

1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes – The most beautiful album since Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Fleet Foxes manage to mix Beach-Boys-style harmonies, folk songs, and indie rock, yet there isn’t one second on their debut that sounds like anybody else. They magically and seamlessly bring together so many influences to make their own sound, and the purity and beauty of both the instruments and voices is remarkable. It’s going to be hard for another album to top this one at the year-end review for me.

2. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons – When Silver Mt. Zion formed out of the remnants of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the increasing addition of lyrics and shifts in dynamics of the music gave SMZ a great new dynamic, and their albums have consistently been great even while expanding. Still, the sheer force and power of this album, often delivered like a manifesto, is unrivaled in the GYBE/SMZ canon. And by the 16th and final track (the first 12 are just 70 seconds of a drone, with the album really starting on track 13) track, just when you can’t believe the album could be more powerful or violently beautiful, vocalist/guitarist Efrim and the rest of the band do something that they’d never done before: they sound hopeful. The music and lyrics across the four 13+ minute tracks are overwhelming and moving, and the sheer beauty in that hope and insistence make this hands down their best album, by far.

3. Portishead, Third - Vowing to not use any instrument that you used on your previous albums is simultaneously simple and brilliant. By doing this, Portishead somehow completely revamped their sound without losing any of their sound. Certainly, Beth Gibbons' haunting voice and lyrics are part of the equation in the continuity, but as important is the fact that Utley and Barrow have lost none of their feel for creepy, haunting, ambient sounds, even while they have successfully left "the trip-hop" sound behind.

4. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles – It’s a hell of a year for self-titled debuts. The Crystal Castles’ debut is just outstanding, wonderful, catchy (yet with more going on than a superficial listen indicates). Some songs (“Alice Practice,” “Xxzxcuzx Me,” “Love and Caring”) are clearly blatantly influenced by Nintendo-style games, sounding like your old 8-bit Nintendo has been developed an anguished and angry voice. Yet most of the album has calm, quiet, yet disturbing pieces like “Untrust Us” and “Magic Spells,” but songs like “Alice Practice” and “Xxzxcuzx Me” sound like your old 8-bit Nintendo games being possessed by angry, tortured, female demons; lyrics rarely intelligble, but that’s not the purpose – this is a new form of mood music that simultaneously takes one back to the old video game worlds and sets up its own moody, sometimes tranquil/sometimes terrifying worlds. Crystal Castles may not last long, but at this point, it doesn’t matter; their debut is just a great album, all around.

5. The Kills, Midnight Boom – As great as the bluesy, filthy Keep On Your Mean Side and No Wow were, the Kills, like the Black Keys, were due for some changes in sound. They didn’t disappoint. They still have plenty of their fire and dirty, bluesy influences (see “U.R.A. Fever,” “Cheap and Cheerful,” and “Sour Cherry”). Still, singer M’s voice is gaining increasing range and beauty, particularly on the ballad “Black Balloon,” or album-closer “Goodnight Bad Morning,” together with the hookiness of “Last Day of Magic” or “What New York Used to Be” is top-notch.

6. The Black Keys, Attack & Release – As good as Magic Potion was, it was also clear that Akron’s best band needed a bit of a change. Bringing on Danger Mouse to produce was a surprisingly excellent shift, as were the inclusions of Marc Ribot and Tom Waits sideman (and drummer Patrick Carney's uncle) Ralph Carney. The album shows a variety and a branching out that previous (excellent) Keys albums didn’t have, and Auerbach’s playing and singing is getting increasingly nuanced and impressive. And it's hard to see there being a better rock'n'roll song than "Strange Times" this year.

7. Nicole Atkins, Neptune City - She has a great, haunting voice, the most original since Neko Case (though not like Case's voice). Her songs do a great job borrowing from doo-wop and Roy-Orbison arrangements while sounding fresh. There's plenty of variety in styles from song to song, yet Atkins is never out of her league. It's yet another remarkable (and remarkably beautiful) debut album in a year already full of them.

8. Rhys Chatham, Guitar Trio Is My Life! - Certainly, what are literally 3 hours of one chord may sound terrible, but that's the beauty of Guitar Trio. Chatham went on the road last year to record his famous Guitar Trio, an avant-garde guitar piece based on one chord that builds in volume and violence, taking on different dimensions from performance to performance. This 3-disc set does a great job of documenting just how varying the piece can be from place to place and depending on the performers (only Chatham is the constant through each performance). The set here gathers performances from Brooklyn, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Montreal, Mineeapolis, and Milwaukee. Across those cities, the length, dimension, and sound of the piece shifts radically as each city has a different ensemble of guitars and drums playing. This is not for the faint-of-heart, but it is probably the most fascinating and challenging disc of the year.

9. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer – This is the one album I still feel I need to listen to more, but it’s already an impressive work that builds greatly upon the occasionally-brilliant debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Wolf Parade are sounding more assured and more willing to forge their own sound (I’m not complaining, but Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock clearly had his fingers on the dials on the debut), leading to some of the best indie rock in a genre that’s fast growing stale and too inclusive to do any good.

10. Free Kitten, Inherit - Back in 1994, when I'd buy anything and everything tied to Sonic Youth, I picked up their second album. Despite loving the experimental side of Sonic Youth, it was too much, even for me; it wasn't that it was too noisy or challenging. It's just that it seemed like a giant inside joke between Kim Gordon and Pussy Galore's Julie Cafritz, as though they just decided to get in the studio, dick around a little, and put the results on an album for sale. Suffice to say, I was stunned at how good Inherit is, with Gordon and Cafritz singing over excellent noise-ambient pieces. That Inherit actually has anything remotely resembling any kind of song structure was shocking enough; that it's really really good is too much to ask for, but there it is.

Best Reissue: Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue – One of those albums I’d heard people rave about, but always figured it was part of the Wilson-brothers hype (and don’t get me wrong – Brian’s done some great stuff, and Carl’s voice was unrivalled, but they didn’t crap gold or fart world peace or anything). However, the hype on Pacific Ocean Blues is more than justified. Dennis’s rough, vulnerable, scratchy voice conveys a level of longing, loss, sadness, and hope Brian and Carl never could match. The second disc isn’t even overkill, as the material that is available that would have been Bambu, Wilson’s follow-up album (had he not died), is far better than most odds’n’sods offerings. The Wilson cult will always revolve around Brian, but if there’s one project involving any Wilson (including Beach Boys material) that everybody should have, it’s Pacific Ocean Blue.

Best Box Set: Gas, Nah Und Fern – The four albums Wolfgang Voigt released under the moniker Gas were some of the best ambient techno albums ever. Unfortunately, they were also some of the hardest to find, and used copies were always well above $200. Fortunately, Kompakt has collected the four albums (Gas, Zauberberg, K√∂nigsforst, and Pop) into this set. Gas’s stuff is some of the most beautiful music out there, moving beyond many forms of ambient techno to include elements of classical music, jazz, glam rock, and even traditional ethnic music like polka. The results are some of the most expansive, hypnotic, and beautiful ambient pieces ever made, and this box set is a great way to finally get all the material Voigt recorded as Gas.

Pure Gas!!! Jesus!!!! 'Merica!!!!!!!

Although I have a lot of problems with the increased use of ethanol in gasoline, one of them is not some kind of weird patriotic feeling about 100% gasoline. Of course, it would be Oklahoma where this feeling is strongest. America's most urbane state, Oklahoma has given the nation such great political leaders of late as Tom Coburn, James Inhofe, and Steve Largent. And now they are leading a backlash against ethanol. Supposedly, they say the ethanol hurts their engines. But let's be honest--the real reason is that these Oklahomans and other Americans see the change in their car culture as threatening to their identity as Americans and it pisses them off.

There is an old country hit called "You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma." It is supposed to be a compliment. But I sure wouldn't want to be accused of such a horrible act.

Respecting Peasant Food

I have a long-standing love of Korean food from my year living there in the mid 90s. I have been delighted to see Korean food become increasingly accepted in the United States. It's a difficult cuisine frankly and not for everyone's taste. It hasn't caught on like Thai food has, but then again it has also stayed truer to its roots than Thai food, which increasingly only vaguely resembles the food you actually eat in Thailand. Korean food on the other hand is quite like what you eat there. The selection is more limited of course, but it is true Korean food.

So when I saw Matt Gross' article about eating his way across Seoul, I was excited. But mostly jealous. It's a pretty good article about the weirdness of Korean food and how it is slowly spreading across the U.S.

But one thing bothered me.

This kitchen was traditionalist at heart, and such conservatism was common
throughout Seoul, despite the city’s self-styled sophistication. Restaurants
advertised fusion cuisine, but simply served two different kinds of food on a
single plate. The phrase “well-being” had caught on as a trend, but it simply
meant adding green-tea powder to everything. Where were the kalbi hash and the
kimchi huevos rancheros? (Note to David Chang: Seoul needs Momofuku.)

Although kimchi huevos rancheros doesn't sound like a bad idea, I have a question for Gross. Why? Why does Korea need fusion food? Korea is a conservative country and Korean food is a conservative cuisine. There is nothing wrong with that. The glory of Korean food is its peasant earthiness. The use of cabbage, chile, onions, turnips, chicken's feet, and other peasant ingredients made Korean food what it is. There's certainly nothing wrong with improvising on Korean food. But respecting peasant food for what it is has great value as well. Do we have to globalize all food? Do we need to throw all cuisines together to come up with a one-world cuisine? I'm not trying to sound like a food protectionist here, but I fully support nationalism within food and the protection of local culinary traditions against their combination with the rest of the world.

An Apology/Regular Blogging to Resume Soon

I aplogize to our readers (all 15 of you) for having not blogged more this week. There's been plenty of things going on I've wanted to comment about, but fortunately, I got a new job this week; unfortunately, I had to start training while finishing my old job, so I was working double and just didn't have much time for writing. Fairly regular blogging from me should resume this weekend or early next week. I apologize. And if you came here because I was writing less, well, prepare to be disappointed.

Dead Baby Penguins on Brazilian Beaches Aren't So Unusual

Suffice to say, penguins aren't really native to Brazil, so last week's headlines about dead baby penguins washing up on Rio de Janeiro (the state)'s shores probably startled many (including my mother, who wanted to make sure I'd heard about this; I had). Alarming as this seems, my wife said it's actually an annual event. Every year, you have some baby penguins who overreach themselves when they start fishing and hunting, and they drown in the strong waters near their habitats. Their bodies then get caught up in the natural flow of the oceans, heading north and ending up on Rio's beaches.

Just because this is annual, though, doesn't mean there isn't cause for alarm. While I haven't seen concrete numbers in any of the reports, their numbers may be higher this year, and I think that while pollution may not be a cause (as one scientist in Brazil claims it isn't), the fact that penguins may be having to search further from "home" to get their food could be a factor, and that need to go further may be directly tied to climate change. Nonetheless, this story most certainly should not be taken simply as another "one more way climate change is wiping out animals in new ways" - baby penguins have always been susceptible to this fate. Still, that doesn't mean climate change is totally out of the picture, and if available, it would be really useful and interesting (and perhaps depressing) to see exactly how the figures have changed over the years.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Historical Memory and Nationalism

Thailand and Cambodia are presently near war over control of an obscure temple on their border. The temple, Preah Vihear, was just named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Neither nation seems to have cared that much about the site until last week, when UNESCO made this annoucement. But ever since, both nations are ready to fight it out over its control. There are a lot of factors in this weird situation. First, although it really is in Cambodia, it is almost inaccessible from the Cambodian side while Thais can basically drive up to it. So issues of development are central here. Plus, the Thai opposition, which engineered the military coup last summer but which failed to stay in power, is using the situation to embarrass the government. They are playing on militarism and nationalism to press the need for an agressive Thailand that is the dominant power in the region.

But the only way this is possible is to use historical memory for present political advantage. This is something Americans do not understand well, which I will get to in a minute. Southeast Asia has always been an area of shifting political power, with the Thais, Khmers, Laotians, and Vietnamese at various times being the strongest people, and with China always in the background. Right now, Thailand is clearly the strongest nation. Cambodia, though they had their time 700 years ago, has traditionally been pretty weak and certainly is today. But both nations can bring up issues that happened hundreds of years ago to rally support for today. For the Cambodians, the temples remind them of when they were actually important. The Thais have long claimed the area, but the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of the Cambodians in 1962. Ever since then, Thai nationalists have used this issue to rally support. Today, they bring the region to the point of what would be an incredibly absurd war. I don't think it will happen, but the danger is there for shooting to begin, especially given that both sides have pointed weapons at each other. If the present Thai government really begins to fear that the military could take the situation over, I am afraid that they actually could resort to violence as an act of self-preservation.

What is important here is the power that historical memory has for nationalism in today's world. I am seeing the same thing in Bolivia. Today, I saw members of the Bolivian navy (the world's greatest fighting force). Why does Bolivia even have a navy, given it is landlocked? Because they claim they will soon regain the ports they lost to Chile in the 1880s. 125 years ago they lost the few ports they had. Rather then move on, they cling to this as a point of national humilation. Ever since 1978, Bolivia and Chile have not even had formal diplomatic relations, though things have improved with Evo Morales and Michelle Bachelet in power. Frankly, Bolivia has a lot more important things to be worrying about. And I don't think Chile is too scared. But again, it shows the power of historical memory. Events long past can dominate current relations. We have seen this most powerfully perhaps in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

I think this is important for Americans to understand because we essentially don't have a historical memory. Maybe a few people still gripe about the Japanese over what happened at Pearl Harbor, but most young people couldn't care less. This is a good thing, but because we don't have a very good understanding of how our nation's actions affect countries that do have a long historical memory, we don't understand why these nations don't like us. Take Iran for example. If you ask most Americans why Iran seemingly hates us, they don't know. They say it's because they are terrorists or are just crazy or (and this is the worst) because they are Muslim. Yet at the heart of this is the CIA-sponsored coup in 1952 that placed the Shah on the throne, undermined any chance for legitimate political opposition, and turned people toward more radical religion as a way to deal with the regime. Iranians remember this. Americans have never heard of it. For other nations, the past is extremely meaningful. For Americans, it is something boring we have to take at school. Because of this, we suffer from nearsighted vision over our place in the world. The sooner we understand why Thailand, Cambodia, Bolivia, and Iran act in the ways they do, the sooner we can understand our own place in the world and the problems it sometimes causes.

Would an Obama Presidency Lead to More Dialogue with Chavez?

Last week, Erwin C. at the Latin Americanist asked whether an Obama presidency would be bad for Chavez. It's actually an important question: Chavez did get elected in 1998, but really came to global prominence after Bush's administration supported (perhaps materially) the failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002; since then, few can contest the fact that Chavez's role has grown thanks to his rhetorical and ideological role in challenging Bush and the American empire every chance he gets. But Chavez has made it clear that, while he does not like Bush, he does not dislike the U.S., either, a fact reinforced by the fact that, from 1998 to 2002, Chavez's anti-U.S.-administration (and this is a very important distinction from "anti-U.S." as an attack on American citizens - Chavez's rhetoric almost always takes on politicians in the U.S. and their policies, and not the people or our particular system of democracy) stance was much more toned down.

I've wondered privately (and not too thoroughly) if Chavez would readjust his rhetoric were Obama to win. On the one hand, it's not hard to see how things would almost have to improve, given simply that Obama never openly supported the coup attempt of 2002 against Chavez; on the other hand, Chavez's rhetoric has emphasized anti-imperialism as much as it has targeted Bush, and what Chavez perceives as the U.S.'s structural imperialism won't simply disappear just because Obama may be president. Complicating the matters are to what degree (if any) Chavez's reputation among some sectors of the world are based at least in part on his image as a leading voice of the anti-imperialism movement. If Chavez were to thaw relations with Obama, would his position among some sectors of the left and the "developing world" be threatened at least somewhat, given that that image is based so strongly on his attacks on the Bush administration?

Well, in a follow-up post at the Latin Americanist, Chavez apparently indicated that an Obama administration may not change his attitude towards the U.S. government much. Of course Chavez's claim that "The two candidates for the U.S. presidency attack us equally, they attack us defending the interests of the empire," is ridiculous. Regardless of claims of "empire," the fact that Obama has been willing to dialogue with Chavez while McCain wants to continue the Bush position would seem to be strong enough an indicator of how erroneous it is to claim Obama and McCain treat Venezuela "equally." While it's true that Obama has sharpened his rhetoric on Chavez a bit in the past few weeks, I see little reason at this point to believe it's anything more than a political ploy to appeal to the broader electorate. Even if it isn't, the differences between Obama and McCain are so substantive in foreign policy alone that there's no way that Chavez's claim that Obama and McCain are equal has any real substance. It may be different shades of gray from Chavez's ideological point of view, but I think anybody with the slightest notion of the subtleties of American politics can understand how major the differences between Obama and McCain are.

As to whether or not an Obama administration more open to dialogue would be a threat to Chavez's role as an anti-imperial leader who rails against Bush, I'm not sure. Given how much the U.S. and Venezuela still need each other for oil, as well as Chavez's slipping (though far from extinct) influence in the hemisphere, I really can't see how warming the relationship with the U.S. with an Obama administration would necessarily hurt; I think most global leaders are practical enough in their plans for their countries (Bush being an exception) that they won't think less of Chavez simply because he spent the last 6 years railing against the Bush empire but might open to an Obama administration. And if McCain were to win the election, all of the above would be rendered moot, as we'd be exposed to at least another 4 years of the same idiocy from Washington that we've put up with for the last 6 years (in terms of Venezuela). But I think ultimately that neither Obama nor Chavez would really be willing, at least at the beginning, to totally exclude any possibility of opening up or thawing of relations between Venezuela and the U.S. without some diplomatic pretext setting the two men at odds. Regardless of the outcome, the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela will be very interesting to watch in the first year or so of the administration if Obama wins the presidency, and it will definitely be worth paying attention to the rhetoric of Obama and Chavez up to the November elections.

The Middle East, Food, and Water

This New York Times story does a great job of summing up the most important problems the world faces in the 21st century. The Middle East faces huge problems concerning population growth, food, and water. There are already far too many people living in the region. Given the lack of birth control in these Islamic nations, these numbers continue to skyrocket. The biggest problem with this is the dry and increasingly degraded environment of the region. They don't have enough water for their people to drink and they can't grow enough food for their people either. This is forcing these nations to make difficult choices, none of which are likely to have positive consequences.

Should they export their food growth to poorer countries, as Saudi Arabia is doing? Not a terrible idea on one level except that it turns these other nations into colonies and could exacerbate political instability. Plus as nations like Pakistan also continue to see their populations explode, they will need that land and water for their own people.

Should they commit themselves to growing food wherever they can? This is a short-term solution at best because the soil is bad and because they increasingly don't have the additional water it takes to grow crops in the desert.

Should these nations protect the valuable farmland they have? Yes, but it's not going to happen. Land along the Nile and other major agricultural areas is also valuable for industrial developments and human habitation. Developers and industralists have more money and power than farmers. There is no sign that nations will go down this track.

Equally, there is little sign that the kind of population control necessary to bring these problems under control will happen either.

Of any Middle Eastern nation, it is not surprising that Israel is in the best situation. Their agricultural programs are the most modern and the best for conserving resources. And although many religious Jews and some policy makers are concerned that Israeli Jews are not having children at the rate of their Arab neighbors, in the long run their limited population could provide them with the best internal stability. Unfortunately however, as these same problems spiral out of control in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and among their neighbors, they will be surrounded by nations with massive social problems, huge populations, and very little internal stability, thus making Israel's security all the more tenuous.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Last Three Anti-Colonialist Leaders--Mandela, Mugabe, and Castro

Nelson Mandela turned 90 yesterday. In watching CNN International's constant coverage of the event (which frankly made him seem more like a grandpa than the hard-core revolutionary that he in fact is), I could only remember three living anti-colonialist leaders. Mandela, Robert Mugabe, and Fidel Castro. Perhaps there are one or two more but I can't think of them. What a three they are too! They almost perfectly represent the different trends of post-colonial leadership.

Mandela of course is the ideal. Few stayed as committed to the welfare of his people as Mandela. Perhaps this was possible because he was in prison as so many of the best leaders went on the wrong track or were killed. Maybe he learned from the mistakes of others. But not only was Mandela arguably the greatest personification of the fight for good in the world during his years in prison but he was also an excellent president of South Africa. I'm no South Africa expert and perhaps he made some mistakes. But he worked to fight poverty and perhaps most importantly, to create a bi-racial country out of an apartheid regime. After he left office, he remained active and even today at the age of 90, he occasionally speaks out against poverty or even against his old anti-colonialist ally, Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe of course represents the worst kind of leadership. Unable to give up power, he has taken Zimbabwe straight into the toilet. From what I know, up until at least 1990 or maybe even 1995, Zimbabwe was a relative success story in Africa. Poverty remained strong there for sure, but there was some reasonable racial cooperation, the country brought in a lot of tourist dollars because of its great wildlife, and Mugabe was generally seen as a pretty decent leader. Then he went off the deep end. In his mid-80s now, it is clear that he will remain in power until his death. He was never a Mandela but now he is on the level of Mobutu. Too many nations of the developing world ended up with this kind of leadership, particularly in Africa and they suffer today from it.

With Mandela playing the saint and Mugabe as the monster, let's now turn to the man in the middle, Fidel Castro. Castro seems the most typical post-colonialist leader. Like Yassir Arafat perhaps, he was a great leader for his people, but his unwillingness to think outside of his dogmatic training ultimately has held his nation back. On the other hand, the lives of average Cubans is better than many nations in Latin America and certainly far superior to how they were under his precedessor Fulgencio Batista. Even here in Bolivia, you see the signs of Cuban successes everywhere, particularly with the Cuban doctors providing medical care to the masses of Bolivian poor. Still, like Arafat and many others, Castro has stuck around way too long. Had he stepped aside in the 1980s, perhaps Cuba would be more advanced today. Certainly, the lack of human rights seems ridiculous in today's world. I know that Raul is opening things up a touch, but it's really quite a bit too late.

Ultimately, although Castro is sui generis, probably most of the post-colonial leaders would have followed somewhat similar paths had they remained in power. Of course, all too many died before their time. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Malcolm X, Jacobo Arbenz, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi, among too many others, were assassinated. The United States (and to some extent the Soviet Union as well) eliminated leaders they didn't like. Many of the Arab nations went off into either extremism (Iran and Algeria) or dictatorship (Egypt and Libya). Outside of Castro, no anti-colonial leader was ever really given enough of a chance in the Americas to prove their meddle. Either they were killed and replaced by dictatorships or the U.S. funded their opposition and forced them to give up such as in Nicaragua.

Again, the three leaders that are left seem to really represent the fates of the developing world as a whole during the late 20th century. If there are examples I am not thinking of, please mention it in comments.

There Is No Coordinated "Lula-Calderon-Uribe Troika"

While it's an interesting idea, I don't buy this idea of a "Uribe-Lula-Calderon" troika countering Chavez at all, for several reasons. Firstly, as I've stated repeatedly, Lula has been willing to negotiate with many non-traditional (i.e. non-European, non-U.S.) partners. Simply because he has been working with Uribe on some issues (including strengthening military ties via a binational military base on the Colombia-Brazil border) does not mean he's out to undermine Chavez's influence. Indeed, while I'm just making a rough guess here based on news in Brazil over the last couple of years, Lula has cooperated with Chavez far more than Uribe, and certainly far more than with Calderon. Lula's first job is to build up Brazil's strengths in the hemisphere and the globe. If that means entering economic, political, social, or economic agreements (open or tacit) with Chavez, he'll do it; if it means entering such agreements with Uribe or Calderon instead, he'll do that too. He (and Uribe and Calderon) are working first and foremost to steer their respective countries in the directions they deem are the best, and I just really find it hard to believe there could be any "anti-Chavez" axis emerging between the three of them, explicitly or tacitly; each is going to look after the interests of his own country, and to assume some "alliance" of any sort between the three to bring down Chavez is rather far-reaching.

Secondly, I think Tannock really overstates Uribe's importance both presently and in a broader historical context. Yes, the FARC has been reduced through deaths (natural and violent) and embarrassments (accidentally turning over high-profile hostages to the Colombian army, who you mistakenly think are your own troops; using a boy that it turns out you don't even realize is no longer in your possession in hostage negotiations), and Uribe's efforts have played no small part in this. This to a large extent explains his high approval ratings (which, according to some, hit 91% in the wake of the Ingrid Betancourt rescue). However, basing your entire perspective of Uribe's popularity and historical importance based on these recent developments is premature and wrong-headed. There is still the fact that Uribe's close friends and allies are closely tied to paramilitary groups. While this does not make him immediately guilty by association, he has done virtually nothing to make a strong case that he is not to some extent tied to paramilitary groups, either; indeed, in a rather Bush-like way, he has dug in further, simultaneously denying his knowledge and/or involvement while dodging the question. Even if Uribe is never directly tied to the paramilitaries, he has done virtually nothing to combat their power, either, and this will be a lasting stain on his record, too.

But there is an even more fundamental problem with the argument that Uribe's influence is extending throughout the America's at Chavez's expense based on the recent victories over the FARC. As popular as Uribe's successes have made him in Colombia, it is radically faulty to assume that his recent successes have left the rest of South America falling under his sway and abandoning Chavez. Simply put, the ideologies and beliefs of other leaders and populations in South America don't fall in line with Uribe's ideology and locus on the political spectrum. Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Ecuador are all run by popularly-elected leftist leaders. Uribe is the only rightist leader on the entire continent, and outside of Colombia, many Latin Americans from multiple nations loathe him as much for his ideological stance as for his close ties to the United States, which they view as an anachronistic and damaging model of economic reliance on the U.S. that hearkens back to the 20th century and that these other countries are successfully leaving behind. Simply put, in some ways, Uribe is a "stain" to the rest of Latin America for his cooperation with the U.S. and right-wing positions. To presume that his recent successes have put him at the forefront of international leadership and cooperation as the lone rightist leader on a continent of leftist countries is tautological.

I think the final major problem with this article is the insistence that Calderon is part of this "troika," yet Tannock does absolutely nothing to really establish how and why Calderon is a major player in undermining Chavez's influence in the hemisphere aside from the fact that Mexico has "geostrategic" influence. Specifically, Tannock makes a Uribe-Calderon connection simply because both presidents are trying to deal with the drug trade and repress it; the fact that the two "wars on drugs" share very few similiarities and are in two completely different political, historical, and even geographic contexts seems to be of little importance to Tannock. And the assumption that Calderon and Lula are similar because they are both trying to renegotiate and strengthen their ties to Cuba is ridiculous; to reiterate what I pointed out above, Calderon, like Lula, is simply trying to do what he sees is economically and politically best for his country. To sit out negotiations and dialogues with Cuba while other hemispheric powers were improving relations with Cuba would be stupid, alienating Mexico even further. Calderon isn't doing this because of some new "troika"; he's doing it because it's the smart thing to do.

In short, I just don't buy this whole notion of a "Uribe-Calderon-Lula" troika. Lula is far more tied to Chavez than to Calderon or Uribe (without being dependent on Chavez), and there is absolutely no evidence that these three men are trying to collaboratively and collectively undermine Chavez's influence.

As a final point somewhat unrelated to the above, I also really take umbrage with Tannock's contention "that Latin America was going through one of its regular bouts of leftwing destabilization, given the rise of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, and their ringleader, Chavez." Firstly, leftism is not an inherently "destabilizing" force, and when leftist leaders in Latin America have witnessed "destabilization," it has been because of foreign powers' (particularly the U.S.) undue influence and open subversion of national sovereignty, be it in Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or Nicaragua in the 1980s. There's nothing naturally "destabilizing" about left-wing leadership. And the suggestion that the rise of left-wing leaders in Latin America appeared to be little more than a "bout" is totally ignorant of recent history, when country after country in South America witnessed its economy devastated by neoliberal policies instituted by rightist presidents, leading to a backlash that perfectly coincided with Bush's insistence on focusing only on Iraq and the Middle East, leaving Latin American leftists and leaders with an unprecedented ability to establish themselves and chart new, non-dependency-based economic and political courses for their countries. To suggest that the continent-wide victories of leftists in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador, is a "flash in the pan" is absurd; if anything, at least right now, it would seem that it's Uribe's administration that is the outlier.

In short, Tannock is right that Chavez's influence in the hemisphere may be declining, but not for any of the reasons he then tries (very unsuccessfully) to outline.