Saturday, August 30, 2008

On Palin

Ok, so I'm cross-cross-posting, but my full piece is up at GlobalComment, thanks to Natalia.

John McCain waited until after Barack Obama’s speech to make a superbly-timed announcement of his vice-presidential pick.

Unfortunately for him, he undermined what were his best arguments against Obama with that choice.

Sarah Palin is the first-term governor of Alaska, a large, oil-rich state with a small population, and she’s even younger than Obama. Her only political experience before beating the previous Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, in a primary in 2006 was being mayor of Walsilla.

Palin is a mother of five, including one son who’s off to Iraq and another, just born, with Down syndrome. She is staunchly pro-life and considered a Christian conservative, but, rather obviously, is a high-profile working mother.

She campaigned on ethics reform and is considered (much like McCain) a party maverick. She is also seen as a break from ethically-challenged Alaska Republicans like Senator Ted Stevens. However, Palin is under investigation herself for possibly having abused her office to get her former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, fired from his job as a state trooper, according to the Wall Street Journal. She supports drilling as energy policy, and her husband is a longtime BP employee, but he’s a blue-collar type. Palin has also threatened to evict ExxonMobil and its partners from their drilling rights to publicly held oilfields.

This woman is quite a contradiction, seen at once as a sop to the religious right who have not quite come around to McCain and as outreach to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters who value biological sex over a record on the issues. Read the rest

Friday, August 29, 2008

Katrina and Gustav

It's the anniversary of a lot of things, but right now the one topmost in my mind is Hurricane Katrina. With Gustav shooting New Orleans the death look as I type, I can't write any more about Obama or Palin. All I can do is hope that it doesn't happen all over again.

I have a picture of the French Quarter as my background on my laptop right now and on my Twitter page. I miss New Orleans all the time, but never more so than when she's threatened.

There's not much we can do about Gustav yet, but there are places you can donate that are still trying to rebuild New Orleans from Katrina, which struck three years ago now.

And cross your fingers, knock wood, and pray to anything you might believe in that Gustav fizzles before it causes any more destruction.

My Private Casbah and WOC PhD have more.

Dumb Anti-Government Arguments

Shorter Ruben Navarette: Because the government failed to respond properly after Hurricane Katrina, we should never expect the government to help us. Therefore, Barack Obama's economic plans are misguided.

I often wonder how people like Navarette get to write for major news organizations. Maybe they were once qualified and then got lazy when they started cashing those big paychecks. Because this is just plain silly. Government has helped people out many, many times in American history. But almost always when Democrats are in power. The New Deal? The Great Society? LBJ did a great job getting the federal government to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy struck the city in 1965.

But Navarette is using a slight of hand that should be obvious to anyone who pays the least amount of attention: he is using the failure of Republican governance to attack Democrats. Yes, if John McCain is elected president, Americans should not expect the government to help them effectively if they are in need. But there is no evidence that Democrats would fail in the same way. Except that conservatives want you to think that in order to keep you voting against your own interests.

Palin Quote

Clearly the most qualified person for the job:

“I tell ya, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me: What is it exactly that the V.P. does every day?"

At least Dan Quayle brought Indiana's sizable electoral vote.

Historical Image of the Day

Dan Moody, governor of Texas, 1927-31. Made his name successfully prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps is one of two decent governors in Texas history.

Sarah Palin?

What a laughable VP selection for John McCain. If Biden was everything Obama needed, Palin gives McCain nothing. She has almost no experience, having won the governor's position in 2006. This completely undermines McCain's harping on Obama's lack of experience. She is totally unknown to anyone outside of Alaska. She is a former beauty pageant queen, so I guess that means McCain is running with a younger attractive woman. Should make him happy.

And although she ran for governor of Alaska on an anti-corruption campaign, she is now being investigated by the Alaska legislature for abusing her power in a case where she dismissed the state's chief of public safety after he refused to fire a police officer who happened to be getting a divorce from Palin's sister. Nice.

So I guess the Republicans are just running openly on a bad governance platform this year. Alright then.

This is just such an amazingly stupid pick for McCain. If he's trying to attract Hillary supporters by choosing a woman, he picked the wrong woman. Selected Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson would have made a lot more sense. Impeccable conservative credentials, popular senator, well-known name, and the seat would remain in Republican hands if they won. But evidently, Hutchinson never received serious consideration.

I also wonder if we will ever see a ticket with two white men again? Or if we do, it will be considered a bad political move. I'm fine with that, but just curious to see what happens in 2012.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Fair Question

From a Times article on showing fortune cookies to Chinese people:

"The Chinese...would often tell me after trying the curved vanilla-flavored wafers, “Americans are so strange, why are they putting pieces of paper in their cookies?"



Wow. That guy can really speak. Best convention speech since William Jennings Bryan in 1896? Probably.

And I can't believe, I still can't believe, that a major party has nominated an African-American for president. This really is the most remarkable political event of my lifetime.

Legal Abortions in Mexico City

Last year in April, Mexico City's Legislative Assembly legalized abortion for the first trimester of a pregancy. (Mexico City has been governed by the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution since 1997). It was quickly challenged and criticized by the Catholic Church and the right-leaning National Action Party, but today, Mexico's Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in Mexico City, with 8 judges supporting the legalization of abortion, to 3 against. You can read more about the story in English here. (According to the linked article from the New York Times, the decision was not yet official, but it is official now).

Right now, the ruling only applies to the Federal District (which encompasses most of Mexico City), but it does open up the possibility for similar laws in other states. It will be interesting to see how this plays out across the country, especially if there is a partisan divide in providing access to legal abortions in Mexico. I'm not particularly surprised by the Court's decision, but I am surprised by the lopsided support in favor of the law by the Supreme Court judges.

Historical Image of the Day

Tobacco paper, Virginia, 17th century.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Low-Alcohol Beer

Yes, Yes, Yes.

That is my feeling about this article chronicling the rise in low-alcohol microbrews. Except they are not really low-alcohol. Reasonable alcohol is what we are talking about here. 4 and 5%.

I have been frustrated by the rise of the extreme beer. 9% beers. Extreme IPAs. Triple bocks. Little of this is good. When I go in to a bar to have a beer, I am not looking to get loaded. Yet you can have one beer at these places and feel pretty buzzed. I guess there's a place for that. But having choices is nice. Too often, the only reasonably ABV beer is Budweiser and who wants to drink that?

Mostly I feel that this extreme beer thing reeks of masculine bullshit about drinking the toughest stuff. Are the hoppiest IPAs really good to drink? Is getting wasted on 2 or 3 beers a good night? Not for me. I prefer a night of steady drinking where I am not going to get a hangover. I like a really tasty beer and I like to try a couple during a night. To me, that's a really fun night of drinking. It's hard to have these days. I'm happy to see a response to these unfortunate trends developing.

Levy Mwanawasa, RIP

The death of Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa has received almost no press in the United States, but Africa has lost one of its best leaders. Mwanawasa has been a continent-wide leader in attacking corruption since he took office in 2002. One of Africa's biggest problems is the widespread and rampant corruption of many of its leaders. Zambia traditionally has suffered from this as much as anyone. Mwanawasa took on corruption in his own country and had his predecesor tried in London for his bilking of millions of dollars from the state coffers. Just last year he was found guilty.

Furthermore, Mwanawasa was almost the only African leader who openly has attacked Robert Mugabe's thuggery, murder, and destruction of his own nation. African leaders, especially South Africa's Thabo Mbeki have been woefully reluctant to go after an old anti-colonist leader. Mwanawasa was less reticent.

Zambia still has tons of problems, but we can't expect one president to solve them. I am no expert on Africa and there may be bad things about Mwanawasa's leadership. He did open the nation up to IMF and World Bank demands. Certainly in Latin America that usually ended badly for the population. But regardless, it is sad that he died at a young age while Robert Mugabe and the Sudanese junta continues to live.

Historical Image of the Day

Black Panther Party poster, 1969

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Republican Celebrities Rule

There is little question in my mind that Wilford Brimley's endorsement clinched the Republican nomination for McCain. Wrapping up oatmeal fans is a sure fire key to success in American politics. We now have a list of other A-list celebrities supporting McCain.

He has the endorsement of Dominican reggaetón star Daddy Yankee, giving me further evidence that reggaetón is the planet's most annoying musical form.

And wouldn't McCain's other Hollywood supporters make a great cast for an awesomely bad CBS prime time drama:

Patricia Heaton
Gary Sinise
Dean Cain
Jon Voight
Jon Cryer
Angie Harmon,
Craig T. Nelson
Lorenzo Lamas

That's some quality celebrity endorsements right there! Perhaps the show's theme can be composed by the McCain Girls!

No word yet on whether former Huckabee fanatic Chuck Norris has signed up with McCain and will star on the show.

Kevin Duckworth, RIP

I am sad to hear of the passing of former Portland Trail Blazers center Kevin Duckworth. He was 44.

Duckworth was on the great Blazer teams of the early 90s. He was kind of a weak link on the teams, but still average more than 15 points a game 4 straight years. He never had enough of a mean streak to become dominant, but was a very good player. Unforutnately, he was felled by an inability to control his appetite. This picture is Duckworth early in his career, when he weighed around 270 pounds. By the end of his career in the mid 90s he was at least 330 and was over 400 pounds in the years before his death.

I can't express how great these Blazer teams were. I believe they were the best team to never win the NBA championship. They should have won in 1991 but they choked against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. They were better than the Lakers that year, as well as the Bulls. Chicago went on to win the title in 91, Jordan's first. That Bulls team was pretty good, but was certainly the weakest of their championship teams. The Blazers made the finals in 90 but lost to the last of the Bad Boys Pistons teams. They also made it in 92, but fell to a superior Bulls team as Jordan and Pippen had really come into their own.

Duckworth was a core part of this team, able to put a big body against David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the other great centers of the era. He had a nice shooting touch and was a great offensive option, as really everyone on that team was. Without a doubt they are my favorite sports teams of my life.

Historical Image of the Day

Kansas State Senate, 1905

Monday, August 25, 2008

Uruguay's and Argentina's Tango Over Tango

The BBC recently had a really fascinating story about Uruguay, Argentina, and a brewing battle over Carlos Gardel. For those unfamiliar, Gardel is basically the patron saint of all tango. He was absolutely huge throughout Latin America and Europe.

Argentina has always claimed Gardel as their own, and he's definitely part of the secular holy trinity of Argentina (along with Evita and Maradona). However, the story of his early years is muddy at best; there is evidence to support his birth in France, but he also claimed to be born in Uruguay, and Argentina has always maintained he was born there. While there's no doubt that he lived in Argentina since his childhood, his status as a "born Argentine" is far from certain.

And therein enters the debate. Tensions are actually growing between Argentina and Uruguay over the issue of Gardel's birthplace. Uruguay's recent claims, which it (of course) says it can prove, have rustled enough feathers in Argentina that the latter wants the Uruguayan Parliament to discuss the issue.

Some can argue that it doesn't really matter where Gardel was born; what matters is his music and his legacy. However, this issue goes beyond anything most of us in the U.S. could relate to. I really disagree with how the reporter pooh-poohs Uruguay's claims as illegitimate; if anything, Argentina's claims as the actual, physical birthplace of Gardel are more unlikely than Uruguay's claims are. What is more, while there are important issues of nationalism and geopolitical differentiation going on here, the actual cultural differences between Uruguay and Argentina are nowhere near like the differences between Argentina and Brazil or the U.S. and Mexico. Still, the issue carries a fascinating severity for these two countries, and the reporter isn't far off when mentioning that Uruguay's claims are "like Canadians saying that Sinatra was not really born in Hoboken, New Jersey, but in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Or the British claiming that Edith Piaf really hailed from Basingstoke in southern England." I don't know how it will turn out, and I'm not even sure if, at the end of it all, it will matter, but it is a rather interesting manifestation of some regional rivalries and competing nationalisms in the Southern Cone, and worth checking out. (And if you don't know Gardel's music, give it a listen here - it's not for everybody, but everybody should listen to at least a little Gardel once or twice in their lives).

A link for you.

To a really, really excellent article on atheism, since it's been a topic of debate here, over at Global Comment.

I encourage everyone to read it, whatever your religious beliefs may be. Especially before we start up another argument on the subject over here. :)

Historical Image of the Day

Public health bus. Checking for tuberculosis. Seattle, 1960

Sunday, August 24, 2008

CNN - Most Self-Congratulatory Name in News?

I'm not the resident media-theory person, so apologies up front to Sarah and Karthika. That said, this has to be some of the most disgusting, vulgar self-promotion I've ever seen in the media:

"CNN forces Obama to release VP pick early"

This headline was (of course) on the front page of and on its "Political Ticker." I understand that all media outlets to one degree or another have to try to get the proverbial "scoop" ahead of everybody else. Still, this is some of the most self-congratulatory crap I've ever seen, and it's clear that CNN really doesn't care so much about politics as it does about selling its image as the "most trusted name in news," and all the profits that come with viewership. Jon Stewart nailed it on the head.

Historical Image of the Day

I.W.W. cartoon from 1920 Philadelphia dockworkers strike.

More thoughts on Biden.

So I've been thinking about him. And he's growing on me.

This might show my white privilege, but I think Biden's history of racist comments has actually been a point in his favor for his selection for this ticket. Hear me out.

Biden isn't a mean racist, not a hateful cross-burning won't vote for a black guy type. He's just a guy from that generation. He was born in 1942. And he's from fucking SCRANTON. (I can get you some really great stories about how rotten Scranton still is--one of my friends ran the Obama office there for the PA primaries.)

And the thing is, a lot of America thinks that way.

So to pick a white guy who has been criticized for racist comments both takes away that whole charge of the Black Agenda from Obama, and forgives a large portion of Americans for being casually racist themselves. It allows them to not be "the bad guys."

Don't get me wrong, whenever Biden says something dumb he needs to be smacked about it, and I'm certainly not saying we should just excuse racism. But we're never going to truly get past it until we stop making people into demons for slipups.

I mean, you all know I'm a feminist. I absolutely hate the word slut. Hate it with a passion. A couple of dear (male) friends of mine have used it in front of me and though it makes me cringe and kind of want to punch them in the face, instead I stop and talk to them about it. About double standards, about why it's wrong. And then they (usually, otherwise we wouldn't be friends) nod and tell me they'll try and do better.

They don't immediately become perfect. They do get a little defensive. But hopefully if I can talk to them about it, they'll learn.

If people can look at Joe Biden, Joe whitebread sixpack blue-collar commuter Biden, and see that he not only accepts Obama, but that Obama accepts him, they can feel more comfortable accepting and being accepted by Obama.

At least, I think that was some of the logic.

Plus, dude is FUNNY: (h/t Lawyers, Guns and Money)

So yes, Karthika, the more I think about it, the more he's growing on me. I do agree with Anthony (in comments) though, that this does somewhat legitimize the foreign policy critique. And I also agree with Anthony that foreign policy was the number one reason to support Obama. Still, I am optimistic about Biden.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday Night in Erik Land

Tonight, I am sitting in front of my computer sort of working on an article.

But this is totally different than most of my Saturday nights...

Historical Image of the Day

Richford, Vermont in the state's famous flood of 1927.

Biden? Meh.

So I know everyone stayed up all night waiting by their phones for their Obama text message about which old white guy experienced, vetted foreign policy expert he was going to choose for his VP.


Joe Biden.

I was dancing to New Order, Bel Biv Devoe, MIA and Madonna (yes, all by the same DJ) so I missed my text. Well, more accurately, I fell right asleep after dancing for a couple of hours, so I missed my text. But of course my phone had blown up with texts and emails by the time I woke up this morning, so here we go.

Joe Biden. Reasons I think this is a bad idea are legion: he voted for the partial-birth abortion ban and abstinence education, and to loosen restrictions on cell phone wiretapping. He has a tendency to say stupid things. He's from DELAWARE. He's yet another old white guy who's been in the Senate forever, and his campaign was DOA after Iowa. And his whole partitioning-Iraq plan just sounds like colonialism to me--if the Iraqis decide they want to split their country up, great, but the U.S. taking the lead to separate the country into ethnic regions? Um, yeah, fail. Kind of makes me doubt his supposed mountain of foreign policy expertise.

Why it's a good thing? Well, he was really funny on the campaign trail, and he will call John McCain out on his shit. He is in fact an old white guy, which I guess is what they really need in terms of balancing this ticket. He does have foreign policy 'experience' in spades. And maybe this means that Obama's saving Richardson, Sebelius, Napolitano, etc. for positions in his administration where they'd actually get to do something?

I have no answers this morning, only snark. I think Biden does little for the "change" message, but I think we're beyond that stage now anyway--especially since Obama's recent bobbing and weaving has taken him to the center.

I studied boxing (and muay Thai) for a bit, so I know about ducking and slipping punches, and you have to move away from your opponent's strong side and yet keep 'em guessing. I don't know what Biden does to counteract McCain's supposed strengths, and I wonder when we'll hear McCain's own announcement.

I know Karthika is happy about this, so I'll leave it to her to make a case for Biden. Convince me, lady!

(ok, and what is the deal with the tag "Biden and the one-eyed trouser snake"? Erik?)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Calderón's War and support for Authoritarianism in Mexico

My guess is that many readers have at least heard in passing the increasing level of violence in Mexico as a result of President Calderón’s offensive against drug trafficking and organized crime. Since his election in 2006, Calderón has been relying on the Mexican military to attempt to dismantle organized crime networks throughout the country. Many of these cartels are heavily armed, and many times better trained than the military. The result has been catastrophic. El Universal reports that in 2004, there were 667 executions related to drug trafficking, in 2005, there were 1003, and in 2006 1410. Last year, the number of executions rose to 2673, and in the first 8 months of 2008, there have already been 2682 assassinations related to Calderon’s war against the cartels. The police, especially local law enforcement organizations, have been completely ineffective and in many cases are helping the cartels by alerting them of any actions taken by the federal police or the military. So far, the military has supported Calderón, as he is one of the first presidents to really pay attention to the military in Mexico and gave pay raises to soldiers and officers soon after taking office. (El Universal also has an interesting interactive map here, that shows the extent of the different cartels throughout Mexico)

In addition to the increasing drug-related violence in Mexico, there is increasing outrage directed at the level of kidnappings and other criminal activities, that the police have also been completely ineffective in stopping. Most recently, the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 14-year old son of a prominent Mexican businessman  has led to calls for the death penalty for kidnappers and the legalization of firearms. Calderón himself has voiced his support for increasing the penalty for kidnapping from 70 years to a life sentence, although all these options seem unlikely to be effective. The government recently released figures (probably highly unreliable) that suggest 97% of all crime goes unpunished. And of the remaining 3%, only half ever lead to some type of punishment.

All of this drug-related violence, impunity, and police corruption has of course led to all kinds of attacks from politicians of the PRI and the PRD in an attempt to lay the blame for the rise in violence on the PAN. The public is angry, and politicians are attempting to capitalize on this anger for their own electoral gain. It is somewhat ironic that the PRI is most likely to benefit from the outrage against all the violence in the 2009 election. If the blame should be laid anywhere, it should be with the decades of PRI governance that did very little to professionalize their police forces or combat drug traffickers.

The point of this post is not to give a history of public security in Mexico over the last couple years, if you are interested in reading more about Calderon’s war, click here and here. There are plenty of other stories available in English regarding what is going on. What I’d like to comment on is that the violence in Mexico is leading to an increase in voices that support more authoritarian and repressive policies, which is why I am very disturbed by an editorial from yesterday’s edition of La Jornada. La Jornada is probably the most important left-leaning paper in Mexico, and widely available (although like most newspapers, only read by the elite, politicians, and those interested in politics).

The editorial, entitled “The Weakness of the State,” was written by Soledad Loaeza, a Mexican political scientist well known for her work on the history of the National Action Party. In this piece, Loaeza argues that the inability of the Mexican government to deal with the increasing levels of executions and kidnappings is due to a weakening of the Mexican state, to the point where the state has lost its monopoly over the use of force within its national territory. All in all, this is fairly obvious, but she lays the blame for the weakening of the state on democratization, the economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, and electoral competition between the major political parties. According to her argument, these reforms and increasing political competition have weakened the Mexican state’s ability to provide security and public services, and have led to the politicization of the bureaucracy. Loaeza suggests the political parties in Mexico only have private interests, which has led them to weaken the state’s ability to serve its basic functions, instead of looking out for the public good.

I find the implications of such an argument fairly dangerous, especially in a country like Mexico, which has made some significant advances in democratization but still has a long way to go. If electoral competition and democracy weaken the state’s ability to provide security, then what is the solution? I don’t find it very far fetched that one could make an argument in support of more authoritarian rule and increased militarization from Loaeza’s line of reasoning. I find this especially disheartening since this is coming from a political scientist.

That's Quite a Way to Kick Off a New Presidential Administration

Well, Fernando Lugo certainly has made an interesting move in his first week as President of Paraguay:

The new Paraguayan President, Fernando Lugo, has replaced the commanders of the army, navy, and air force. The dismissals follow the removal earlier this week of the head of the national police by Mr Lugo - a centre-left former Roman Catholic bishop.[...] Presidential spokesman Augusto Dos Santos told the Associated Press that Mr Lugo, who was sworn in on 15 August, had signed 30 decrees naming new commanders of the armed forces.[...] The former bishop said soldiers would carry out humanitarian tasks for the poor and "never again ... be used to repress or harass" people."

Given that Paraguay had the longest dictatorship of any South American country in the 20th century, and that even after Stroessner was removed the military remained in control for another four years, Lugo's move can be seen as nothing less than wonderful. I don't believe the military was any grave threat to his administration, but cleaning house in an effort to completely remold the military's role in Paraguay is an excellent way to start his administration.

Details on the Deaths Colombian Paramilitaries Cause (and How the U.S. Is Involved)

I've talked repeatedly (here and here, for example) about the significant role paramilitary groups play in the high levels of violence in Colombia and the continued impunity they enjoy. The L.A. Times has a good article up giving detailed statistics on how the paramilitaries are directly responsible for growing violence in Colombia.

There were 329 so-called extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military and police last year, a coalition of Colombian rights groups asserts in a report, a 48% increase from the 223 reported in 2006."

In addition to this, the article states that, out of 900 cases of murder brought against military members and police officers, only 18 cases have resulted in convictions, and 14 of those 18 happened only after a special prosecutor's office was created in the middle of 2007. And politicians tied to paramilitaries still aren't being held responsible or accountable for their ties; indeed, just yesterday, one of Colombia's top senators (and a top ally of President Uribe) closely tied to the paramilitaries was released from jail after only four months. The prosecutor's office claimed a lack of sufficient evidence, but the likelihood that politics played a part in the inability/refusal to find enough evidence against him is pretty decent.

The LA Times article is also really worth checking out because it details the ways in which the U.S. under Bush has tacitly supported the paramilitaries' killing of innocent civilians that it later labels "subversives" (much in the way the innocent in Brazilian favelas are invariably "traficantes" once they're dead) by sending over $4 billion dollars in military and economic aid to a government that, again, is repeatedly and closely tied to the paramiliary groups; the best defense a U.S. spokesman could offer in face of the statistics above was the tepid defense that "such numbers were only "examples among a wide variety of statistics" gathered by various civil society groups that monitor human rights in Colombia.". Again, it's worth checking out the article in full, and it offers some bitter reality-checks for those who think that, just because the FARC has recently suffered some significant setbacks both politically and morally, Colombia is heading towards peace.

Historical Image of the Day

Map of New Orleans, 1849

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Who knew that punctuation marks could so easily be thrown into gender roles? I sure didn’t, but this article from the Boston Globe—via Salon’s Broadsheet—makes the argument that this has been an ongoing debate. What about the semicolon would throw people into such fits? Too much time on their hands, I suppose, but it got me thinking about how I use punctuation and why. I’m a heavy semicolon user; it helps to smoothly extend thoughts never having to resort to abrupt sentence breaks. According to the article, this puts me out of step with male writers on the whole. Apparently, in regards to the mark, I’m supposed to say something like, “I’d sooner have my still-beating heart eaten in front of me by a rabid badger than be caught using such insidious punctuation.” No, I’d rather use the semicolon.

Punctuation is a weird animal anyway; usage constantly morphs with our fickle tastes. Is there no place in this country, then, for this handy piece of punctuation? According to the Boston Globe, semicolon usage is a mere quarter (17.7 semicolons per thousand words) of what it was a century ago (68.1/1000). In this time, major American writers have demonized the mark; many editors will not allow it at all. Once upon a time, Hemmingway was it for me when it came to literary influence. His almost exclusive use of the period and comma—with an occasional em-dash—was a great lesson in brevity for me. Eventually, however, trying to write in this manner became intolerably boring.

“Joe went fishing. He drank wine from the bottle. After, he went to a bullfight. Joe died that night, alone.”

What a bunch of boring crap, even if three of those topics are interesting to write about (I’m not much of a fisherman). To me, an utter lack of literary flourish is neither male nor female; it reads like a textbook. It’s just that, however, that the article seems to hang on. It’s silly to partition punctuation into male and female, just because popular American writers—males, all—have eschewed the mark. Hemmingway wouldn’t be caught dead in a trench with a semicolon? Have another round, Ernie, you’re not drunk enough.

I’m an equal opportunity punctuator; I like them all. Semicolons, as commented in the writer quotes on Broadsheet, acts as a kind of musical slur, allowing you to move smoothly to the next note without a full rest. Em-dashes are great for phrases not quite parenthetical—at least in my mind—or even the abrupt ending of a piece of dialog. Ellipses, possibly my favorite piece of punctuation, are the mainstays of both the dramatic pause and the trail-off. Hell, Joyce used “yes” as punctuation in the final chapter of Ulysses, and other words can be effectively used this way to add a strange, bouncy quality to sentences. Are we so single-minded that all we can use to express our thoughts in writing is basic elementary school punctuation? Are we so obsessed with statements of fact that a little bit of aesthetic gets in the way? With the proliferation of short-handed text messaging, does punctuation even matter in the 21st Century?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Going back to Natural Intelligence for a change

Ever typed a phrase into the Google search box only to scroll down to the 15th page of the one million hits returned to find what you were looking for? If you haven’t been living under a rock these past few years you probably have.

While it is relieving for us egotistical human beings to find that Google might not be infallible after all, there’s even better news to be had. The antidote to Google’s lack of discretion is not a computer, but rather the good old, archaic human mind.

Even in this seemingly post-natural world, a search tab cannot quite rival the precision of a human brain in its ability to discern information. Which is exactly why the increasingly popular search engine, ‘Ask ChaCha’, is manned by real people. Under the guise of the now familiar search box, thousands of human beings offer answers to questions, typing away at their computers.

Some binary code has to be transmitted somewhere in the universe before you can find out how many majors Tiger Woods has won, only you no longer have to battle with a confounded computer program to do so. The search engine also allows the option of different media forms. For those of us not yet savvy enough to own a BlackBerry, there is a number to call or text for that pressing 64 thousand dollar question that pops up on the subway ride home. ChaCha comes back with the reply in seconds. Think the phone-a-friend lifeline on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire.’ This is like having a thousand smart friends, all at once.

Chacha however, as NPR’s Mark Phillips learned, is not quite as objective as a search engine might be. Anything that involves a human being couldn’t possibly come devoid of feelings and emotion and judgment. So while it can give you the name of the restaurant that serves the best thin-crust pizza in your town, and decide who will win the Superbowl this season, it also has the audacity to proclaim that homosexuality is wrong!

But even the seemingly innocuous Google search box is subjective in its own way – it picks out answers biased by statistics, location, and search history. Now, what's wrong with adding a little human subjectivity to that mix?

“Artificial artificial intelligence” for tasks that the human mind can perform better than a computer was first launched by Amazon in 2005; cleverly named Mechanical Turk for the 18th century human chess-maestro, who masqueraded as a machine, the site recruits people to perform ‘human intelligence tasks’ for small sums of money. Companies employ Turk for wide-ranging jobs, such as comparing two similar products or picking up visual cues from a video.

Prioritization, judgment and reasoning after all are the hallmarks of the human mind. It is no surprise then, that scientific research, which is increasingly being performed by computers, could never match the theoretical prowess of that nerdy scientist who sits at his bench for hours putting together an experiment. As Chris Anderson writes in Wired, while a computer saves a human brain the task of theoretizing, it does so by sidestepping the processes of analysis and causation. It churns up spools of data, and merely uses patterns and statistics to correlate. This task, while cumbersome, is still far easier than innovating scientific experiments to answer basic questions – something the brain has done for decades.

But it is the same haphazard human mind that dreams up a foolproof experiment that also believes in ghosts and goblins and aliens. So, ChaCha might occasionally tell you that being gay is a sin or give you the wrong schedule for a sports team, and sometimes, as Jason Pontin found, even simply throw up its hands in despair.

But that’s why we love it. It’s fallible, and it knows it. On a good day, it learns from its mistakes. On a bad day it screams in frustration.

My computer on the other hand, no matter how hard I hit it, just sits there gleaming.

Something better to do than snipe at each other.

Click here, sign the petition, encourage your reps to vote for the Gulf Coast Civic Works act, and let's start rebuilding properly, what, three years after Katrina?

This has been your regularly scheduled reminder that there are many more important things in the world than calling each other names.

PETA is completely clueless...

I have been a vegetarian for over ten years now, but I have nothing but hatred for PETA. Have they done anything worthwhile in their almost 30 year history? Maybe, but most of their campaigns seem counterproductive and give those of us who are somewhat sympathetic with their aims a bad name. 

As if I needed another reason to loathe this group, PETA has decided they want to buy ad space on the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. to encourage border crossers to beware of the unhealthy diet in the U.S. and to go vegan. Sounds effective.... I agree with Feministing that the proposed ads are misoygnist and racist in the way they depict Mexicans. Way to go PETA, and thanks for giving your support to the construction of the border fence!!

I have another problem with PETA's strategy as well, they should do some research on the Mexican diet:

"The billboards, in English and Spanish, would offer the caution: "If the Border Patrol Doesn't Get You, the Chicken and Burgers Will — Go Vegan."

"We think that Mexicans and other immigrants should be warned if they cross into the U.S. they are putting their health at risk by leaving behind a healthier, staple diet of corn tortillas, beans, rice, fruits and vegetables," said Lindsay Rajt, assistant manager of PETA's vegan campaigns."

First of all, they assume Mexicans have a healthier diet than Americans. While traditionally, the Mexican diet is healthy, so are many traditional diets. The problem is that the reality is far different. The increase of greasy junk food and soda in the Mexican diet since NAFTA has been astronomical, to the point where the rate of obesity in Mexico is on par, if not greater, than that in the U.S. (sorry the link is old, but things haven't changed much in three years). While there is a difference between rural and urban areas in Mexico, its not accurate to characterize the Mexican diet as mainly tortillas, beans, rice, fruits and vegetables unless we are talking about some mythical past.

Second, if PETA actually cared about the diets of Mexican immigrants in this country, maybe they would try and do community work in areas where immigrants live and try to educate people on how to eat healthy on a limited budget. But, since they don't really bother to do this with Americans either, this seems unlikely. Like most interest groups, they prefer the flashy and controversial methods of getting their message out, rather than effective ones.

(Thanks to MJ for telling me about this story!)

Wal-Mart in some hot Wal-Water with the FEC

1) First of all, fuck JoeZell Milberman. Add him to keynote speaker Mayor McAsshat, and you've got the recipe for an awesome Republican convention (though, as much as I loathe Lieberman and think Giuliani might be more of an idiot than even Bush, it is funny that the GOP hootenanny will feature two [at least nominally] pro-choice politicians).

2) The group Wake Up Walmart has filed an official complaint with the Federal Elections Commission regarding allegations of political coercion of their employees.

"In the months leading to the 2008 elections, and with the blessing of corporate headquarters, Wal-Mart stores across the country held mandatory political meetings aimed at scaring workers away from voting for Democrats."

The WJS reported a few days ago that a tape was obtained from a Wal-Mart employee that contained a recording of Wal-Mart managers spreading "inaccurate information" about the Employee Free Choice Act, saying that "If Democrats get the votes they need and elect a Democratic president, they said it will be the first bill presented and that's scary". This is, of course, in addition to the usual kinds of systemic misinformation and intimidation that the Wal-Fucking-Mart Corporation uses to beat down all attempts to organize.

At least the Canadians are starting to get it-- just a few days ago, a Wal-Mart in Quebec was forced by a government labor arbitrator to accept a deal brokered between workers and the company, making the store the first Wal-Mart in North America with a collective agreement in place (even though a few Wal-Mart stores are nominally unionized, this is the first successful CA).

And just for the record, I'm not an anti-corporate demagogue. Vertical and horizontal business growth has tremendous benefits to the working class if the corporation manages its growth and uses its leverage to raise the standards of living for its employees. As much we like local, small scale capitalism, Mom-and-Pop shops have a difficult time doing that (which is why I find myself defending companies like Starbucks, which offer health benefits to part-time workers and pay their employees at a much higher rate than a small coffee shop could possibly muster). Costco is another example, which is direct competition with Wal-Mart-- many of the Costco stores are unionized, part-time workers get full benefits, there is a profit sharing and retirement program for all employees, and the average salary is $17/hr-- a full 40% higher than Wal-Mart. Trader Joe's, a California-based grocery chain, operates with a similar pro-worker mindset. Are any companies 100% perfect with respect to workers (leaving out fair-trade and environmental issues for a moment-- these are of course, a whole different can of worms)? Of course not-- but the transformative power of large corporations on the economic stature of the country is profound if used and managed wisely. In the case of Wal-Mart, not only is the potential being pissed away, the company is actively trying to suppress workers' pay, benefits, and security.

Historical Image of the Day

"Atlanta, Georgia - Manufacture of Cotton-Seed Oil; Atlanta, Georgia - The Commercial Center"

Harper's Weekly, February 12, 1887

At the risk of reopening a can of worms...

My original point on the religion post that seems to have caused all this drama was that "trend" stories like the one Erik linked are terrible, shoddy, attention-grabbing journalism and are a huge part of why I think the field has gone downhill.

If you didn't know, Karthika and I are both working on our master's in journalism, and one of the first things they told us about accurately reporting on 'scientific' surveys like the one quoted in the article was that you have to report the questions asked and how they were worded, the sample size, how the participants were selected, etc.

This survey used a random sampling of 1000, and I'm going to assume that the people doing it had reason to believe that that was a large enough number to be able to generalize it to the American population at large.

But what the reporter did not do was list the questions asked. Instead, he repeatedly used the word "could," which leads me to believe that the question was something like "Do you believe that God could save a gravely ill or dying person?"

Which, of course, is a quite different statement than "Do you believe that God will save a gravely ill or dying person?"

A woman interviewed for the article, who was not a survey participant, made the same point that I did in my rather hasty first response post: "When you're a parent and you're standing over the body of your child who you think is dying ... you have to have that" belief, Loder said.

The survey also asked questions primarily about trauma and accidents, which are more shocking to people and allow them less time to prepare for the death of a loved one.

And as one of the doctors pointed out, it is quite rare that cases such as Terri Schaivo's actually happen.

If you read the article, you can also see a trauma nurse noting a certain "miraculous" cure that she saw herself.

In any case, "trend" stories, as journalist Caryl Rivers points out in Slick Spins and Fractured Facts (which I happen to be reading right now for my thesis) often rise out of one media outlet reporting one set of 'scientific' results which may or may not be repeatable. The headline on this story is far more sensationalistic than the actual article, which was more balanced (though as I've said, to report accurately on this survey the questions asked have to actually be included). But especially in the era of click-on-the-headline news, the heads have to draw you in.

Nevermind that for many of us, all we have time to do is skim the headlines.

So what would your answer be if you were asked this question?

"Do you believe that God has the power to save people who are beyond medical hope?"

Would it be a different answer than the answer to...

"If your loved one was lying in a hospital bed after being hit by a car, would you pray for a miracle?"

I lost a friend this year. She was 24 years old. She had a drug interaction that put her into a coma, and doctors were fairly sure she wasn't going to wake up. She had zero brain activity.

Her parents are Jehovah's Witnesses. Her husband is an atheist. The three of them agreed, however, to wait a day just in case, and to give themselves time to come to terms with what had happened to her before they unplugged life support.

It gave my sister and I time to go down to Baltimore and hold her hand one last time.

We slept in the hospital that night with a bunch of her friends who had been there since the accident. We didn't hold hands and have a prayer vigil over her body, but we were all there waiting for some miracle. Waiting for her to wake up and laugh at us, even though we knew deep down it wasn't going to happen.

I prayed that night. I don't normally. And I'll bet that most of us did, no matter what our level of belief might be.

They took her off life support. They didn't keep her on in the continued hope that if they prayed hard enough, God would save her. That's the kind of belief most people have, and it's hardly dangerous the way say, George W. Bush's belief is.

On another note, a couple of people have apologized for the way they spoke in the other threads. Let me be clear about two things: One. I am not 'hurt.' I was quite annoyed for a bit by the way people seemed to be talking to me as opposed to the way I saw them talking to Erik or to each other.
Two. Declarations that entire groups of people are 'stupid' have no place on this blog. (Unless McCain gets elected president, in which case you'll see me ranting about the stupidity of America for a while ;) ). You never know who you're offending. And there are plenty of "smart people" who are quite religious. This guy and this guy are some good examples. (I particularly encourage you to check out the first one. I don't share his religious views but I find his story fascinating).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Forgotten Bastard Blogging: Earl Butz

The unfortunately but perhaps appropriately named Earl "Rusty" Butz was a true American bastard. Not only was he a complete asshole and racist, but he has contributed more than any single person in American history to the obesity epidemic in the United States today.

Butz was the Secretary of Agriculture under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. I know you are surprised that an appointee of Nixon would make Bastard Blogging, but sometimes shocking things take place. Butz was born in beautiful Albion, Indiana in 1909. In 1932, Butz graduated from Purdue University, which by chance will be losing to the University of Oregon in a football game this fall. In 1935, he received a Ph.D. from the same institution in Agricultural Economics.

He quickly rose in the farm world. By 1948, Butz became vice-president of the American Agricultural Economics association and in 1954, President Eisenhower named him Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He served there until 1957. He resigned that year and went back to Purdue, becoming a member of the school's administration. Occupying high posts in a university administration is a pretty good reason to make Bastard Blogging but that is not the reason we are discussing Butz today. He also served on the board of directors of several food companies, including Ralston Purina.

In 1971, Butz became Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, a position he served in until 1976. This is where he really earned his bastard stripes. First, he was an incorrigible racist. He made fun of Pope Paul VI's Italian accent publicly, which was bad enough. But in 1976, he was on a flight to the Republican National Convention with Pat Boone and John Dean. Boone asked why black people didn't vote Republican (um, perhaps because the Republican party of 2008, er, 1976 was openly racist). Butz responded:

"the only thing coloreds are looking for in life are tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."

John Dean leaked this to Time magazine, which jumped on the story. Perhaps they also explained the loose shoes reference, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Anyway, Butz was forced to resign.

Classy, eh? I'll bet Nixon and Butz had a good ol'time telling racist jokes in the Oval Office.

Butz also served time for tax evasion in 1981, though all but 30 days of his 5 year sentence was suspended. Typical. You know, if we threw wealthy tax evading criminals into real prison for their offenses and made them serve their sentences, I bet we'd see a lot less tax evasion.

What I really hate Butz for is his role in spurring unregulated corn production. You might ask how corn production is worse than a racist joke. Certainly his racist joke is reprehensible, but it doesn't make him any different than just about anyone else in the Nixon administration. But his corn policies are a major reason for the food problems we have today.

In 1972, the Soviets were suffering from bad harvests. The US offered to sell the Soviets all the grain they needed. From a geopolitical perspective, this was a sensible move. It was a nice peace gesture to the Soviets and saved people from dying. It was also intended to undermine support for George McGovern in farm states that fall. This turned out to be an unnecessary worry.

According to the environmental writer Michael Pollan, the problem with the grain sell off is that it took place at the same time that bad weather undermined the nation's grain crops, sending food prices spiraling up and leading directly to the big inflation problems that began in 1973. Butz, a free market fanatic, responded by encouraging farmers to grow all the grain they could. He dismantled the New Deal program of price supports for farm goods and replaced them with direct payments to farmers. Butz believed that the New Deal was nothing more than socialism that hurt American farmers because its programs didn't allow them to grow all the crops they wanted. Nevermind that the New Deal agricultural programs worked pretty well before Butz' time and had helped end the continual farm crises that plagued the nation throughout its history. Butz was a true believer in the free market. Reality be damned.

The transition from ending price supports to paying farmers directly sounds minor, but as Pollan explains, what this did was end the price floor for corn. When corn prices got low, the government subsidized farmers to ensure they still would keep growing up. The American taxpayer picked up this cost. American consumers would have cheap food. Agribusiness could handle the cost of low-priced corn. Small farmers got squeezed pretty hard by this and were forced to keep growing corn (and then soybeans for the same reason) because it became the only cash crop to sell, despite the abysmal prices.

The effect of Butz's policy was to make it in farmers' interests to grow as much corn as possible. This led to an immense amoutn of corn. The food industry began inventing ways to use that corn. The most profitable and widespread was high fructose corn syrup. This was invented in 1980 and today makes up an enormous part of our diet. Corn syrup replaced sugar in many products, most notably soda. And when just changing from sugar to corn syrup wasn't enough to consume all that corn, the soda companies just made their products bigger. Americans liked that a lot. High fructose corn syrup found its way into many other foods as well, from hot dogs to ketchup to chips to bread. All of this corn-based sugar that Butz and his agribusiness friends forced us to eat has led to not only high levels of obseity but also the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes that we are now only coming to terms with.

Perhaps Earl Butz doesn't deserve all the blame for this transformation. Agribusiness would have found some other tool to make massive crop production and low prices happen anyway. But Butz did start the process, changing the way Americans farm, eat, and live. And all for the worse. Combine this with his racism, tax evasion, and just general bad nature, and you have yourself one fine example of an American bastard.

I consulted Michael Pollan's The Omnivore Dilemma and this Tom Philpott post from Grist, which goes into more detail on the changes to farming.

Impeach Bush?

Brad Jacobson has an interesting post (a few days old now) about Nancy Pelosi opposing the attempts to impeach Bush. He supports the case for impeachment.

While admitting that Bush should be impeached, I think attempting to do so would be a distraction from the greater issues we as progressives face. Moreover, it reeks of the self-destructive and self-righteous actions the left so often engages in during election years (see Nader, R. 2000). If the votes were potentially there to impeach Bush, Cheney, and the whole crew, I would support it. But they aren't. There is no way impeachment would even pass the House, not to mention conviction in the Senate.

There are two realistic scenarios in which a president can be impeached. First, the president must have committed clear crimes that are so bad that members of his own party will vote him out. This is what happened to Nixon. While Bush has wiped his ass with the U.S. Constitution (to paraphrase Frank Zappa), what precisely are the charges? I'm not saying that he hasn't broken the law--I am saying that it takes something on the order of breaking and entering the opposing party's headquarters to wiretap their phones, having your thugs get caught, and then ordering a coverup to convince politicians to vote someone out. The clear crime that would offend enough Americans that their congresspeople would act seems unclear here.

Second, a dominant political party can punish a president of the other party for supposed political crimes. This is what happened to Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Although Johnson nearly was convicted, both presidents were acquitted and rightfully so. Johnson was a horrible president but the Tenure of Office Act was blatantly unconstitutional. As for Clinton, well, the Republicans made a mockery of the government there. In any case, the votes simply aren't there to even impeach Bush.

Wouldn't you rather see progressives' energy go toward electing Obama, increasing the majority of Democrats in Congress, and building the party in the states? Wouldn't you rather see political capital be spent fighting for legislation to help the poor, to get us out of Iraq, and to protect the environment? I sure would.

Religion, redux.

I can't believe I'm already having to repeat myself here, but here goes:

Why is it that on a blog that considers itself progressive, we still feel perfectly justified in writing off a large number of people's beliefs as "stupid"?

And more to the point, what purpose on earth is served by having a 12-comment thread about how stupid those people are? I posted a link to an actual writer dealing with the war in Georgia--no comments. We get more mileage out of insulting people because they believe that maybe, even when the odds are stacked against them, prayer will help?

Have any of you ever watched someone in the prime of their life slowly die of colon cancer? And if you have, would you have told that person that they were "stupid" for going to church again, "stupid" for praying every morning and night that just maybe they'd get another day? That their daughter and husband were "stupid" for praying that just maybe they'd get to keep their mom, their wife around a bit longer? That maybe she'd recover, or just stop being in horrible pain?

If this is the kind of party we've got here, count me the hell out.

Historical Image of the Day

Tlingit women and children, Kotsina River, Alaska, 1902

The 2008 Presidential Longshots: Moore change than even Obama could handle

The occasional series profiling the 2008 presidential election’s severe underdogs continues with the Socialist Party’s ticket. Brian Moore, a 64 year old veteran of sundry unsuccessful elections (Washington D.C. mayor, D.C. city council, U.S. House in Florida, U.S. Senate), is heading the ticket this year. Moore has worked in the health care industry as an administrator (a socialist health care administrator—that brings some interesting experience to the national health care debate, no?) and served in a number of ways in various civic organizations.

Moore has an interesting and varied past; in addition to his work in the health care industry, he was once a Franciscan seminarian, leaving his seminary just before ordination in the late 60’s. Recently, Moore challenged his local bishop in Florida over the Catholic Church’s “tendency towards nationalism” and “silence on the Iraq War”.

You want to talk about change? Moore has quite a list of ideas at his website, many of which would ruffle some serious mainstream party feathers. He supports nationalizing industries like energy, airlines, and pharmaceuticals—and even the sports and entertainment industries (can you see David Barrett and Mark Linn Baker as federal employees?). His health care plan is a single payer system, guaranteed for all people regardless of citizenship / immigration status.

On matters of foreign affairs, his positions are very direct and to the point, with little nuance (maybe the folks at that Orange County Megachurch church would have liked him more than Obama?). He proposes that we pull all support for Israel, disband NATO, end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq immediately, cut the military budget by 50% with the other 50% cut over 10 years, and call for unconditional U.S. disarmament. Wow.

On the home front, he supports a 30 hour work week with 6 weeks vacation and full pension, a living wage of $35,000 minimum, and an income cap of $350,000 per year (ten times the minimum). His platform includes a great deal of environmental initiatives—signing Kyoto, regulating carbon directly (not with a cap-and-trade system), large scale environmental restoration projects, sustainable transportation even in rural communities, etc.

Moore has some big problems, though (the lingering associative pairing of “socialist” with “communist” in the cultural psyche to be the most daunting, surely). One thing all of these profiled longshots have in common is the difficulty with ballot access. So far, Moore has qualified for only a handful of states, and is lagging in fundraising (he has a fundraising tally by state—a whole $25.00 from Texas, $40.00 from New York—totaling $10,848.00 in all, amounting to 0.0002% of the pile Obama has raised thus far).

Oh, (and this one is just for Erik), he’s also a Civil War re-enactor. That aside, if he can get on the ballot in California, he just might get my vote.

Monday, August 18, 2008

57% of Americans Need Intervention, Slap in Face

More than half of randomly surveyed adults -- 57 percent -- said God's intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile.

You can believe in a higher power if you want to. Whatever. But the idea that God is going to swoop down and save you is totally ridiculous. I know that I shouldn't be asking for evidence when it comes to religion, but when does "God" actually save someone?

This is my favorite line:

"Pat Loder, a Milford, Michigan, woman whose two young children were killed in a 1991 car crash, said she clung to a belief that God would intervene when things looked hopeless."

I'm sorry she lost her kids, but does it mean anything to her that God didn't save them? She says that ""I know that none of us are immune from anything." OK, but that doesn't tell me much. Does she believe that maybe God doesn't love her? Or that she doesn't exist? Or that he was playing video games and couldn't be bothered? Or something? Anything?

It's true that I simply don't understand blind belief. I grew up with this kind of thing and it still doesn't help me understand. While I'll admit that some kind of higher power may exist (although I don't care because it is an unprovable question), I mostly just think that people who believe God will intervene in their personal lives are just stupid.

Country Homes

Lloyd Alter asks an important question:

"Can a big house in the country be green?"

He suggests that the answer is no, but begrudgingly I think. On the other happy, I am happy to scream no at the top of my voice. Living in the country and working in the city is a dead idea. I suppose a few people will be able to afford it. And some of those people will make their house as green as possible. But their carbon impact will still be enormous and their behavior irresponsible. Sorry, this part of the American Dream is dead. Living in the city is not only the future, it is also the present. Despite the daily separation from the land, it is going to be increasingly hard for environmentalists to not argue for cities as the place of environmentally responsible living.


I mostly agree with M.J. Rosenberg and Ezra Klein about Joe Biden potentially becoming Obama's VP selection. I'm not thrilled about it exactly, but I would rather see Biden than any of the other centrist white guys with supposed foreign policy cred that are being touted. He's far more palatable than Evan Bayh or Sam Nunn. I've never gotten the whole Jim Webb thing and the more I hear about Tim Kaine, the less appealing he seems.

Biden definitely has his downside, but he will also punch a Republican in the face and that's going to be a valuable commodity this election. If he can learn when to shut up, he'd be an OK choice. Were he to become president I'd be more cautious, particularly on business issues since he is basically owned by MBNA. But again, Evan Bayh? Sam Freaking Nunn? Biden is a far superior choice.

Dispatches from Georgia

h/t Natalia Antonova.

Reasons: Pipeline (in case that’s intercepted the alternative is Russian pipeline), NATO (’our former in our very soft South underbelly can’t be part of NATO’), and personal dislike of our President Saakashvili by Russian Prime Minister Putin.

Then there is Kosovo - “if they should get independence, why shouldn’t the Ossetians?” - the thinking goes.

Then there is Iraq - “if US can hang whomever they dislike, why can’t we?”

Go read it all. Now.

Nouriel Roubini's Economic Predictions, or, Why Fernando Henrique Cardoso Was a Terrible, Terrible President

This weekend, the New York Times ran an absolutely outstanding article on Nouriel Roubini, the man who accurately predicted the current financial crises facing the United States in startling detail and an economics professor at NYU. The whole article is really worth reading, and contains many nuggets, both from Roubini and from author Stephen Mihm, (including the fact that Roubini actually analyzes markets and their future not just on sterilized models that have nothing to do with reality but that actually draw on real economic events of the past). Again, read the whole article, both for Roubini's ideas and Mihm's.

Still, there is one small part that pertains to Latin America that is secondary but important. In discussing how Roubini could have predicted the current financial crises in the US, Mihm writes:

The ’90s were an eventful time for an international economist like Roubini. Throughout the decade, one emerging economy after another was beset by crisis, beginning with Mexico’s in 1994. Panics swept Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia and Korea, in 1997 and 1998. The economies of Brazil and Russia imploded in 1998. Argentina’s followed in 2000. Roubini began studying these countries and soon identified what he saw as their common weaknesses. On the eve of the crises that befell them, he noticed, most had huge current-account deficits (meaning, basically, that they spent far more than they made), and they typically financed these deficits by borrowing from abroad in ways that exposed them to the national equivalent of bank runs. Most of these countries also had poorly regulated banking systems plagued by excessive borrowing and reckless lending. Corporate governance was often weak, with cronyism in abundance.

This is absolutely true, and really gets at why I think Fernando Henrique Cardoso was such a terrible president. To be up front, yes, Cardoso did institute the Plano Real, which, after no fewer than 5 other failed plans, finally pulled Brazil out of years of inflation in the 100s and 1000s of percent. However, Cardoso actually did that as the financial minister during Itamar Franco's administration, and not while president himself (the Plano Real was what basically got Cardoso elected in 1994). Once he was president, however, he did exactly what Mihm describes: spent more than the goverment made, taking out enormous loans from the IMF and World Bank; selling off to private companies many state industries that, while inefficiently run at the time, could have been improved had a president cracked down on inefficiency and bureaucracy; dangerously deregulating the banking system, leading to more and more financial speculation in Brazil; and not only failing to crack down on the corruption and cronyism that had dominated politics, but actively participating in it.

Eventually, these things did catch up to Cardoso, and the economy plummeted in 1998, only recently recovering under the (radically different) Lula administration; the only reason Brazil's late-90s collapse isn't mentioned as much is because Argentina's made Brazil's look less significant. And just to top off the despicable nature of his administration, Cardoso hid all of the indicators of economic weakening when he ran for reelection in 1998. He campaigned on a platform of how much he'd done for Brazil's economy and how strong it was. Yet the moment he was reelected, he announced that the economy had taken a "sudden" downturn, and devalued Brazil's currency by half. The economy under Cardoso never really recovered, and the ever-cynical Brazilian electorate saw Cardoso's ploy for what it was: a whitewashing of the facts to get re-elected, followed by a shift in the economy that negatively effected almost all but the richest individuals and (now-foreign-owned) private companies. It's for these reasons that the frequent defenses of FHC that I encountered in Brazil among middle-class baby-boomers, based as they were in his creation of the Plano Real, were insufficient and indefensible. Yes, he did the Plano Real, but it had nothing to do with his presidency beyond getting him elected to his first term. From there, he participated in the worst economic models available, doing everything he could to re-screw the very economy he'd actually salvaged in 1994. These are the issues that Roubini in this article used to accurately predict what the U.S. is going through, and these issues are why I will never be able to defend Cardoso, a president who acted like the nation's economic savior even while he undid so much.

Historical Image of the Day

Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson. She died in 1828 right after his successful candidacy for president. He always blamed her death on his opponents. They claimed she was a bigamist because the divorce from her first husband was not properly completed before she married Andrew. Maybe, but I'd say it probably had more to do with bad 1820s diets and her tobacco habit.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Most Inexcusable Indemnity Request. Ever.

This week, 175 former military members filed a case in Brazil's Supreme Court asking for 500,000 reais (roughly $300,000) each for "moral, physical, and psychological damages suffered." They claim they suffered these damages over 30 years ago, while fighting in the guerrilla war in Araguaia. In that struggle, fought between 1971 and 1974 (as Brazil's dictatorship entered its most repressive phase of its 21 years of rule), members of Brazil's Maoist Partido Comunista do Brasil (PCdoB) tried to launch a revolution against the military dictatorship in the Araguaia river basin in northern Brazil. After early attempts to quietly quash the revolt, the military dictatorship in the 1970s began torturing the individuals it captured. While some made it out alive in the early phases, the dictatorship quickly turned to torturing the revolutionaries for information on their colleagues and then murdering or "disappearing" the prisoners. While the battle only claimed 7 "combat deaths" among the PC do B and 18 soldier deaths, official reports put the number of disappeared revolutionaries in Araguaia at 60. Even so, the true number, as usual, is probably much higher, and the military has refused to open the archives dealing with Araguaia, leaving much about the battle unclear. Indeed, nobody outside of the military even knows what the military did with the bodies of the victims, leaving the victims' families with an ongoing sense of uncertainty and lack of closure over the deaths of their loved ones. Yet, in what can only be characterized as an absolutely filthy, vulgar, and completely unprincipled money grab, the members of the military who participated in the torture, murder, disappearing, and "cleansing" (the military's term for hiding and/or destroying the bodies in the 1970s) are the ones who are suffering and need financial assistance to compensate for their suffering. Please.

I suspect that at least some of these former soldiers who are now filing for indemnities were generally low-level grunts forced to complete the orders of the higher-ups. Still, this is one of the most ridiculous and disgusting things I've heard of in a long time. But that doesn't excuse anything in terms of their request. First, the fact that they've waited 33 years to file this request is absurd, and I don't really buy their justification that the events of Araguaia still cause "psychological distress" now. If it were the case, why not try to file years ago? If you've been going through 33 years of distress, why wait until 2008? This would be like one of the people at Abu Ghraib suing the U.S. government for money, citing damage he/she suffered torturing Iraqis "under orders." It's bad enough that the Brazilian ex-militaries escaped any possibility of prosecution (see Item 57 here); asking for reparations? That's just obscene, despicable, unforgiveable, unconsciable, and abusive, both towards the government and the families.

Mercifully, while the government (under the dictatorship itself and afterwards) may have guaranteed that the military criminals could never be punished, it also guaranteed they could never be rewarded indemnities, as the AGU (the government's legal apparatus, not entirely unlike the solicitor general) "does not recognize the rights of ex-militaries to ask for indemnity," and I doubt any of these soulless individuals will win anything. Still, the fact that they could even ask for a financial reward 33 years after the fact, even while their victims' families still suffer in not knowing the fate of their loved ones, is as offensive a display of chutzpah as I've ever heard of in my life.

Humans to Oceans: Drop Dead, Part II

Wow. This Jeremy B.C. Jackson article shows the decline in fish populations because of human activity. Via The Intersection. They have the whole list and I don't know how to put in on this site. Anyway, here's a few numbers.

Globally, we have wiped out 85% of the world's large whales, 91% of the world's oysters, 87% of the sea turtles, and 61% of the seabirds.

Locally, it is even worse. Since 1973, 97% of the tiger sharks off North Carolina have been killed. Since the 1950s, 99% of the oceanic whitetip sharks in the Gulf of Mexico have been killed. 95% of the entire fishery biomass of the Bohal Sea has disappeared since 1959. 93% of the live coral cover of the Caribbean has been eliminated since 1977. The list goes on and on.

The oceans have supported life for a billion years or so. We are looking to wipe it all out in less than 100 years. We are rapidly turning them into deserts. Our lack of stewardship toward the oceans is disgusting and the effects are likely to be permanent.

Historical Image of the Day

Advertisement for Columbia Bicycles, circa 1895

oh you binary things

“I say a boring word like woman takes all the fun out of being a girl.” –Foxglove, “Death: The Time of Your Life”

Granted Neil Gaiman wrote that line, and he is definitely a guy, a straight white British guy for goodness’s sake, but I’ve been trying to think of where I read it for months now, every time I see these humorless ‘radical feminist’ arguments for some sort of vanilla world where there are no gender signifiers—which, by the way, are totally Western gender signifiers like lipstick and high heels that they’re always fighting, and not any sort of universal perception of women as weak and in need of protection constantly.

I mean, the idea that to “smash the gender binary” we have to all dress in some sort of clothing that provides no hint of the pleasing curves of our bodies, that doesn’t in any way decorate the bodies we were born with—some sort of religious asceticism that says we can’t mess with the bodies God (the Goddess, in those conversations, and often a specific Goddess that, well, wouldn’t even know what to do with those Western gender signifiers if she ran across them, but sure knows what to do with people who don’t take her seriously) gave us… Yeah.

That’s just the outward coating anyway. The lipstick, the clothes, the hair, it’s just the wrapping, and not the problem. The problem is that with the external perception “Woman” comes all sorts of other perceptions about what that woman is like, what she can and can’t do, and whether or not she’ll fuck you, quite often.

And those ideas come whether or not I’m wearing makeup, when I’m in a man’s top and vest or in a dress and heels, when my hair is short or long.

The idea, especially, that gender is a construct, a choice, a game (an idea I like, personally, a Game of You like Neil said, again, because I’m just on that kind of trip right now), would seem to preclude some sort of need to protect Biological Woman from invasion.

If you want to break down the idea that certain traits come with certain genders, why do you always want to embrace the male signifiers? To me, sometimes, I see the idea of not shaving, of not wearing skirts, as just an embrace of the things that have always been coded male and powerful, rather than any sort of re-empowering those things coded feminine, and so how does that help us any?

These thoughts, of course, have been prompted by another round of what Queen Emily called the Trans Wars. To me, well, it seems pretty damn obvious that when you’re terribly concerned about the biology of the people who call themselves women, you’re probably the one actually upholding, reifying, policing gender binaries.

I mean, I look at it two ways: One is that it ain’t my life, ain’t my gender, so who the hell am I to tell someone that how they feel is wrong, that who they are is wrong? Basic empathy for human beings can get you so much further sometimes than reading books.

And two is that if you’ve got to be an asshole and try to theorize about people’s lives, well, this still doesn’t make any sense. How is the idea that your gender doesn’t necessarily match your body anything but a plus for people who want to get rid of the gender binary? How is the thought that we aren’t trapped by our biology anything but a cheering one for feminism?

Is your oppression so important to you that you have to police it too? Is your feeling of victimhood such an important identity that you have to protect it from outsiders? Or is it just that if you set up impossible goals, you can safely assume we'll never actually reach that happy vanilla genderless utopia where we all wear what, togas? and no one has kinky sex, or any sex at all really because that might imply gender roles or objectification, oh my? And that way you just get to complain away, continue feeling like a victim, and tell anyone who doesn't feel like a victim, or who feels like the wrong kind of victim, that they're wrong?

I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere by sitting in a corner whimpering about how beaten down we are. I feel like we get somewhere when we fight back. Or sometimes when we get together and laugh, have a drink, and realize that life can still be good. Thinking about how I’ve been fucked over never made me feel strong, but putting on sparkly makeup and dancing on a bar sure has. Yeah, poor deluded me, performing for the patriarchy, right?

See, Foxglove, who said that quote, above? She’s a lesbian. And a rock star. And yes, a character on a page and in Neil Gaiman’s head (and drawn so pretty by Chris Bachalo). Clear-eyed gaze and all. So who’s she performing for when she puts on her tight skirt?

Maybe she’s just doing what makes her happy. So was Wanda, back in A Game of You, when she left behind Alvin and moved to New York. And even though when she died her family tried to force her back into being Alvin, well, Barbie (oh, Barbie you supreme tool of oppression, blonde busty doll) scrawled her real name in hot pink lipstick on her grave.

I’m not trans. And I'm straight. I like men (quite often too much). And even my gender performance is drag. After years of jeans and T-shirts suddenly I wear red lip gloss every day and dresses and skirts, dresses and skirts, and I like it that way. It’s my armor and war paint and the noise that high heels make is much more satisfying to my ears these days.

And I was treated like a stupid little girl and had more assumptions made about my competence, skill, and sexual availability when I wore jeans and no makeup and worked on bicycles all day.

Policing our presentation doesn’t help. You really want to smash the binary? Fight the idea that how we look has anything at all to do with how smart we are, how competent we are, how strong we are. Fight the idea that women can only get anywhere by being just like men.

I’ve got another quote for you, this one snagged off the Twitter of a friend of mine.

“Sexiness and professionalism are both drag. The problems arise when people confuse them for honest attributes.” –Molly Crabapple

Oh, and Lisa, as usual, has much, much more.

(Cross-posted, of course)