Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review--Robert Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865

Robert Zieger's new survey of African-American labor history, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865, is a first-rate overview of the topic. As a survey, Ziegler doesn't break a ton of new ground, but I highly recommend his book for anyone interested in the topic. Moreover, Ziegler makes many several interesting points about African-American relations with other minorities, the role of African-Americans in the modern labor movement, and the racism that has traditionally plagued the American working class.

In some respects, the Zieger's story is both expected and sad. African-Americans experienced significant discrimination ever since their freedom in 1865. Both government and individuals worked to suppress African-Americans from improving their lives. Labor unions conspired in this racist program. While Zieger identifies several interesting cases of interracial unionism, the reality is that nearly all labor unions, whether local or national, discriminated against blacks. For many, racism was central to their appeal. This situation changed little when African-Americans migrated north during and after World War I. Forced into ghettos, African-Americans not only faced bad living conditions, but also significant discrimination from northern whites. Immigrants became whiter when blacks came into the picture; white solidarity formed over keeping them out of the workplace. African-Americans fought against racism from the beginning. Figures such as A. Philip Randolph led the fight for equality in the workplace and within the American Federation of Labor. The CIO did a slightly better job of organizing African-Americans but the kicking out of the communist unions in the 1950s, the failure of Operation Dixie, a program to organize the southern textile mills, in 1946, and endemic racism among the rank and file, made African-Americans suspicious of even this more progressive union structure. Once the civil rights movement accomplished the destruction of segregation and achievement of voting rights, Martin Luther King and others turned toward the plight of the poor and civil rights became about workers' rights. But with King's assassination while he was in Memphis supporting the garbage workers and the hostility of George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, this never really came to fruition. Finally, African-Americans did become central to American unions, but the manufacturing jobs they entered into in the 1970s and 1980s were soon shipped overseas.

Much of this story is familiar; again, the book is a survey. But Zieger takes on some interesting issues worth further exploration. First, he actively defends his stance to make African-Americans stand for race in America. This is problematic to say the least. Zieger is right when he says that African-Americans have a distinctive history and have faced more concrete and legal obstacles than other races. That's probably still true today, though Mexicans and Native Americans might have something to say about it. But it doesn't really matter--the story of African-Americans simply cannot stand for the story of race in America. This feels like a 1960s era construction. If the book is about African-Americans and labor, that's fine. It's a unique story that should engage any historically minded thinker. But other racial minorities also have compelling stories. If the book is about race, it HAS to talk about these other groups.

This unfortunate prioritizing of the black experience over the experience of others occasionally leads to somewhat questionable statements. For example, Zieger bemoans George Shultz's Order No. 4. Shultz, Nixon's Secretary of Labor, forced all businesses holding federal contracts to adopt affirmative action plans. Zieger's problem is that this could mean that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was expanded beyond blacks to Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans as well. Zieger says this inadvertently deflected attention from African-Americans. OK, maybe it did. And certainly the Nixon administration cared little about blacks. Nonetheless, and despite the inconsistent application of Order No. 4, the policy was something to be celebrated then and enforced today. Again, even though African-Americans have a unique history of oppression, emphasizing the story of one group as the story of race in America leaves a lot to be desired.

Zieger's discussion of race and the modern labor movement is quite fascinating. Zieger rightly I think accuses the current labor movement of playing down African-American concerns. One of the most important African-American voices within the AFL-CIO is the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The AFL-CIO has never been comfortable with constituent groups, preferring the face of a united front, which weakens the union in the long term. The CBTU has done a good job of fighting for African-American concerns within the labor movement, although often to mixed results for an organization that often gives more lip service to them than actually centering their unique needs. As Zieger points out, in 2004 the AFL-CIO decided not to fund constituent groups, which was really stupid given the success of CBTU get out the vote efforts among African-American communities.

Moreover, the CBTU and African-Americans generally seem to have felt solated in the power struggle that has racked labor in the last five years. The creation of the Change to Win coalition in 2005, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)'s president Andy Stern was spun to progressives as necessary to center organizing over political lobbying and to restart the struggling movement. Stern may be right, though certainly few concrete results have been attained. Zieger claims that Stern has shown little interest in African-American issues; he quotes long-time African-American labor activist Bill Fletcher saying that "They feel that it [the power struggle] is not about them and does not include them. I would go further and say that for union members of color, this is especially the case." Certainly labor has not done a good job articulating the specific concerns of their members of color, though this is just one of many problems with the AFL-CIO structure that mostly replicated itself in Change to Win.

Like any good survey, For Jobs and Freedom makes you think about a wide variety of issues. One particularly interesting point came in his discussion of how African-Americans were accepted into factory labor at the same time that globalization eliminated those jobs. Zieger talks about conservative black commentators like Thomas Sowell and John McWhorter blaming the victims for their bad economic times. Indeed, but I also wonder if the tough economic conditions economic restructuring forced working-class blacks into is also not a bellweather for the current economic crisis. One concern I have about this crisis is that we simply don't have the industrial infrastructure anymore to find employment for our workers. 30 years ago, theoretically the government could spur domestic manufacturing as a cure for our recession. Now that's almost impossible. We can push manufacturing and consumption, but that's through foreign factories and American domestic consumption, which played no small role in our current problems. No doubt conservatives will blame the white victims too while they are buying their ivory backscratchers. Again, I wonder if in 30 years we will look back on this current crisis and see the struggles working-class people had in the supposedly prosperous 1990s and early part of this decade as the canary in the coal mine that was ignored by a greed-crazed America.

A more peripheral, but extremely interesting, argument Ziegler makes is on unions and health care. His overarching point here is about the role of labor to speak for millions of people and how its leaders are often correct. He discusses how United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther and other labor leaders of the postwar period consistently fought against employer health care because of its expense. They tried to convince corporations to see universal health care as an intelligent expansion of the New Deal that would save both them and their workers in the long run. Of course, Reuther was right about that and we are facing the health care crisis of the present in no small part because of the short-sighted intransigence of business.

Zieger is correct that regardless of the labor movement's racist past, it must play a leading role in fighting for a rejuvenated America. Without a dynamic labor movement, how will working people have their voices heard by the American government. This is probably nearly as true under a Barack Obama administration as it was under George W. Bush. Certainly, that Obama has not included a future labor secretary one of his key financial appointments is a bad sign.

Historical Image of the Day

Filipino salmon cannery workers, Alaska, probably the 1930s but it could be as late as the 1950s.

Film Review: Australia (2008)

I feel really terrible for the Aborigines. First, they had their children stolen from them by racist Australians. Now they have to endure having such an atrocious, laughable, interminable, and borderline offensive movie as Australia dedicated to their plight. Will their horrors ever end?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The New York Times' Disgraceful Role as a Bush Mouthpiece against Venezuela

Rob links to Glenn Greenwald's great post on the New York Times' disgraceful editorial supporting the coup of Hugo Chavez back in 2002. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Times failed as miserably as any news agency, "legitimate" or not, could, totally pushing the Bush line on the coup even while contradicting itself repeatedly within its own editorial:

The Times -- in the very first line -- mimicked the claim of the Bush administration that Chavez "resigned," even though, several paragraphs later, they expressly acknowledged that Chavez "was compelled to resign by military commanders" (the definition of a "coup"). Further mimicking the administration, the Times perversely celebrated the coup as safeguarding "Venezuelan democracy" ("Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator"), even though the coup deposed someone whom the Times Editorial itself said "was elected president in 1998" and -- again using the Times' own language -- "handed power to" an unelected, pro-American "respected business leader, Pedro Carmona," who quickly proceeded to dissolve the democratically elected National Assembly, the Supreme Court and other key institutions.
Worse still, the Times Editorial mindlessly spouted the administration's claim that "Washington never publicly demonized Mr. Chávez" and "his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair." Yet less than a week later, the Times itself was compelled to report that the Bush administration "acknowledged today that a senior administration official [Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich] was in contact with Mr. Chávez's successor on the very day he took over"' -- a disclosure which, as the Times put it with great understatement, "raised questions as to whether Reich or other officials were stage-managing the takeover by Mr. Carmona."[all bolds from the original post]
I was in Costa Rica at the time, and the media there did as great a job as the U.S. media didn't. It was immediately clear that the U.S. was supporting the overthrow of Chavez and was in a large part behind the coup, as it had been in Chile in 1973, and as it had been prepared for in Brazil in 1964, in addition to dozens of other cases throughout the world in the 20th century. The Costa Rican media, which was neither pro- nor anti-Chavez, was rightfully condemning of the U.S. for overthrowing a leader who (at the time) had been popularly elected only four years before. Venezuela occupied the front pages and lead stories in the newspapers and television news for the next four days (a rarity in Costa Rica), and the media (again correctly) lauded the return of Venezuela's popularly elected leader. It covered things fairly and pointed out issues such as the U.S.'s hypocrisy in claiming to want "democracy" in Afghanistan (then just getting rid of the Taliban in government) while undermining democracy in Venezuela. In short, the Costa Rican media was a way better guage of the happenings in Venezuela in April of 2002 than the Times, which was little more than a Pravda-style mouthpiece for the Bush administration's efforts to legitimize the coup (and, by implication, its involvement in it).

There are two other aspects worth pointing out about the Times' article and what it signifies. First, April 2002 was still only 7 months after September 11, 2001, and the Times' open failure to question any aspect of the Bush administration in regards to Venezuela I think really gets at something we've lost sight of: how much good will, not just internationally but domestically and within the media, even the New York Times, now one of the wingnuts' main targets of the "liberally biased media," had towards Bush, and as a result, how much he really pissed away with the Iraq War and subsequent disasters climatic, economic, and otherwise.

Secondly, Venezuela really is the first example of the simultaneously arrogant and blockheaded foreign policy decisions that have dominated Bush's administration. When the U.S. was barely beginning to rattle the sabre for Iraq, Bush was already pushing a foreign policy with Venezuela (with whom the U.S. had had cordial relations for the first two year of Chavez's administration) that threw dialog aside and sought only to put in leaders that would be totally subservient to the U.S. and Bush's vision of free-market economic policies that perpetuated the gross inequalities in Latin America.

In short, before we went in and knocked out Hussein and and declared "Mission: Accomplished," only to find the Iraqi people further divided, we were already blockheadedly trying to overthrow popularly elected leaders, thinking the Venezuelan people would just go along with the coup and the U.S. could get what it wanted (in this case, oil and a free-market servant). But it didn't work out that way. Instead, Chavez only gained in popularity, bolstered by the fact that he had withstood a U.S.-supported coup, and the pie-in-the-face that his return represented for Bush quite probably gave Chavez a staying power in Venezuela that he arguably might not have had if it weren't for Bush's quick embrace of the coup.

And the Bush administration could have learned from this, just as it could have learned from the case of North Korea, when it lumped that country in with the "Axis of Evil," only to end up having North Korea develop a nuclear power plant in order to be prepared for a possible U.S. invasion. But instead of learning from their mistakes and trying to consider what other countries might actually want for themselves or considering the power of dialogue, the Bush administration continued down the same path of bullying, only to lose more "legitimacy" and heft in the world and to give further popularity to the very people it opposed simply by openly opposing those leaders. Iraq wasn't the first example of the sheer wrong-headedness and at times sublime idiocy of the Bush administration in terms of policy and planning; it was just one of the brightest stars in what has turned into a constellation of disasters. And, in the "united we stand" mist immediately following 9/11, the Bush administration didn't just find its mouthpieces on Fox News or talk radio; it found them throughout the media, including the New York Times. And for that, we should not let the Times or others escape the burden of guilt.

Historical Image of the Day

Inside of Shea's Paramount-Publix Movie Theatre, Buffalo, 1920s.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Terrors, tweets, gunshots, pings, blazes, buzzes, and explosions, Mumbai

It seems almost callous to talk about cutting-edge Internet technology amidst the needless bloodbath (is there another kind?), scores killed, grieving families, children orphaned, and spiritual journeys of fathers and daughters abruptly ceased, sadly due to another's notion of a very different kind of spiritual journey. But someone has to do it, if only to see some light in the terror that has ravaged the financial capital of India these past couple of days: amid the heroic commando forces, relentless journalists, and fleeing hostages are vigilant, Internet-savvy citizens typing away about the horrors unfolding in front of their very eyes.

India – thankfully, gratefully, gratifyingly – does not have to deal with a big-brother overseer in the form of its government, or battle with blocked Internet sites and censored news Web sites. That, combined with the cyber-competence of its people, and fast-developing Internet technology allowed thousands to transmit live updates on sites such as Twitter and Flickr and YouTube. As the Wall Street Journal reports - and as I learned through a tweet from Matttbastard – tweeters were busy supplying phone numbers for hospitals and hotels under siege, making calls for donations of specific blood types, and offering prayers and well wishes. Many were relaying messages from relatives outside the city that were unable to get through due to jammed phone lines. Thanks to Indian ingenuity, even a Googlemap of the attacked sites was put up within hours. Twitter posts with the #Mumbai tag escalated as the attacks continued.

In addition to 140 character updates that disseminated the most crucial information, civilians were offering detailed reports on citizen journalism sites such as Ground Report and Mahalo. Blogs such as Metroblog turned into news services, reported CNN before turning around and asking readers for images and videos for its iReport Feature.

To me, living so far away from my home country, shooting out text messages to everyone I suspected might have been in the vicinity, and being immersed in a challenging comprehensive exam this week, Twitter offered the sort of passive information channel I so desperately needed. Thanks to some very avid tweeters, I received 20 second updates: gunmen opening fire, commandos storming in, hostages taken, operations against armed militants, hostages being released, speculation on who was behind it, and so on and so forth.

This is not the first time that technology – and people’s interest in using that technology to relay information – has helped keep up with an unfolding disaster. Local bloggers updated the world about the Russia-Georgia conflict earlier this year, as did civilians on scene at the Myanmar monk protests. One of the earliest, and perhaps most unfortunate catalysts of Internet-powered citizen journalism actually came seven years ago in the form of the September 11 attacks. Much of the information was relayed by New York residents who blogged about their personal experiences and related first-hand accounts from relatives and friends. Amateur photographers also captured many of the pictures that showed the crash of the United Airlines plane into the second World Trade tower.

When the SARS epidemic broke in China, SMS was used as a medium of communication when the government there suppressed release of information by medical authorities. In the wake of the London train bombings in the summer of 2005, some of the most powerful pictures came from citizens, owing to better and more improved cell phone cameras. No journalist could have been expected to get there fast enough to snap those telling first images.

The citizen journalism site, is credited with saving lives during Hurricane Katrina: people around the country received text messages from those afflicted, and readers relayed the messages to the Web site, which was monitored by rescue operations. Local people were also able to provide the kind of city-specific information that no out-of-town journalist would know of. Two years later, when social media sites were even more prevalent, residents kept each other informed through blogs, discussion forums, Twitter, and email lists during the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

This is not to say that social media is inculpable; there were doubts, false alarms, and erroneous alerts among the Mumbai tweets as cnet reports. Most notable among them was one calling for all updates to stop, so as not to hinder the security operations. Facts were distorted, including numbers killed and injured. But if a single twitterer managed to help save a life, inform someone of a loved one, or update thousands around the world, we could live with a couple of false alarms, I think.

In the face of sheer and utter incompetence by Indian intelligence and governmental authorities, it is indeed heartening to see ordinary civilians rise to the occasion.

Collapse of the Academic Job Market

This is incredibly depressing.

There are approximately 1/2 of the tenure-track jobs in history this year that there has been in each of the last few years.

I assume the job market is equally grim in other fields.

Ugh. Hope the high schools are hiring in the next few years.

Historical Image of the Day

Ice delivery to the home of Fred Pabst, beer tycoon. Milwaukee, 1901.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Discussing Latin America, Part 2 - The role of iconic figures in political party conflict

Mr. Trend raises an important question in  Part 1 of this post related to understanding political parties in a number of Latin American countries.

Among the political parties mentioned in the previous post, I think there are some important distinctions that need to be made in how the symbolic figure becomes adopted. Among the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador, both parties were attempting to recover a national history that was somewhat lost or hidden through the iconic use of Nicaragua's Augusto César Sandino and El Salvador's Farabundo Martí. What sets these two parties apart from others is that the importance of these two individuals as national figures is still hotly contested in both countries (at least I think this is the case in El Salvador). Whether or not Sandino was an anti-imperialist hero, or a criminal lunatic is still very much a debate in Nicaragua. 

Both the Sandinistas and the FMLN were in some sense attempting to reinterpret the historical narrative in their respective countries, which is much different than say the use of José Martí in Cuba or Bolívar in Venezuela. My sense of the use of José Martí and Bolívar is that these two figures were, and remain so, national icons used to give nationalist legitimacy to a movement. There was not a conflict over the importance of these two figures to each country's national history as exists in Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

Mr. Trend suggests that Bolívar does not belong in this category, but I think it is an interesting case that does belong here. There has been an attempt by Hugo Chávez to reinterpret Bolívar as an anti-imperialist hero, and sort of whitewash his more unsavory characteristics. What is going on there is somewhat similar to how the Sandinistas chose to present Sandino during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Sandino's thought was collected in ways by Sandinista leaders to present a very narrow portrait of the man that would serve the Revolution's interests. Chávez is doing something similar by issuing collections of Bolívar's thought that highlight his thought in ways that serve the Bolivarian Revolution, but ignore some of the more anti-democratic and aristocratic tendencies of Bolívar. However, this use of Bolívar is not quite comparable to Nicaragua and El Salvador, because both sides in Venezuela accept Bolívar as a national icon. Anti-chavistas oppose Chávez' use of Bolívar for political ends, but not his place in Venezuelan history. 

As for Perón, I'm not sure I would lump his Justicialist Party (PJ) in with the other cases, since it was Perón himself who formed the party. There is a fairly decent sized literature in political science on political parties formed around charismatic individuals (which maybe I will delve into in future posts?) that sets these types of parties apart from others on a number of organizational and ideological dimensions. I am somewhat familiar with the effect his leadership had on the future of the party, but I'm not familiar with the current status of Peron as a myth or national icon in Argentina. Does it cross party lines, or is he more seen as a symbol to supporters of the PJ rather than to all Argentines?

Thinking about parties formed around charismatic individuals, my sense is that we would be better off comparing Perón to Chávez, and possibly to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his foundation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Mexico. This comparison would be somewhat difficult because we haven't been able to observe a post-Chávez party or a post-Castro party, but the consequences for these political parties is likely to be distinct due to their foundational characteristics in ways unlike the FMLN or the Sandinistas.

In short, what I am suggesting from all of this in response to Mr. Trend's question is some form of conceptual typology to look at the consequences particular individuals have on political parties. I think we could look at these parties along three lines:

1) The use of contested national symbols (i.e. Farabundo Martí and Sandino)
2)The use of accepted national symbols (i.e. José Martí and Bolívar)
3)Parties formed around charismatic individuals (i.e. Perón, Chávez, Castro)

This typology allows for one party to fit in multiple categories, but I think it makes more sense to look at these parties in this way, rather than in a sort of holistic comparison of political parties across countries. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Comment Record

For the third consecutive month, we have set a new comment record. Last month, we had 604 comments. As of right now, with 4 days to go in the month, we have had 607 comments.

I probably said this last month, but you all have no idea how great it is to have people read what we write. The comments make doing this worthwhile. It's all exciting to be writing for a site that is steadily gaining readership. Certainly it would be nice to get some attention from the big sites. But we have developed a really great community here and for that I want to thank you on behalf of all of us.

And of course, you readers out there who don't comment--join the conversation!

Note: Final total was 638 comments.


Brian tagged us with this meme asking you to name 6 random things about yourself. My policy on these things is not to tag others, but to simply ask for volunteers to either bare your soul here or at your own place. If you care to embarrass yourself as I do, feel free to join in.

1. I have spent the last three July 4ths outside of the country.

2. I have a goal of visiting every county in the United States. And I keep track of them.

3. I really, really hate Andean flute music. That recent South Park touched a nerve.

4. I was almost put into a special education P.E. class in elementary school. I'm not really particularly uncoordinated now though.

5. I have a tendency to look at the ground when I walk. Due to this, I once gave myself a concussion while hiking when I smacked my head on a boulder. This may contradict the end of point #4.

6. The first beer I ever had was a Henry Weinhard's Red. Which is a weird first beer.

Your turn.

Crisis in Thailand

I have been incredibly lax lately in reporting on Thailand, something that I used to do quite a bit. For the progressive blogosphere, southeast Asia is a pretty big blank spot and I occasionally try to fill that.

Anyway, as you may have read, Thailand is a severe political crisis. This has been going on for 2 years now, but in recent days the crisis has severely escalated. Anti-government protestors have taken over Bangkok's international airport, crippling the nation's economy, especially its vital tourist industry. The military is calling on the prime minister to step down. For the first time, this crisis seems to threaten large-scale violence.

Here's the basic issue. To be incredibly simplistic, Thailand is 2 nations. One is the urban elite and growing middle class who have gotten rich through the globalized economy in the last 30 years. Two is the traditional farms and small towns outside of the capital who remain mired in poverty. To be fair, there probably is 3 Thailands, with the restless Muslim south, but we'll put that aside for the time being. The large rural population controls electoral politics. They are huge supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Two years ago, the military overthrew him in a coup supported by the middle class. Thaksin was both corrupt and democratic. The corruption allegations are pretty bad and almost certainly true. On the other hand, Thaksin was elected and his support remained strong. The military was unable to consolidate power. In elections held last year, Thaksin's party again took over, this time under the leadership of Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother in law.

The middle class sees no path to power except the military. They have almost no commitment to democracy. Many are calling for a new voting system that gives poor people less representation in government. I have had several conversations with middle-class Thais where I have heard them wish they had a Singapore-like dictatorship. Thailand has a long history of military control backed up by the all-important palace. The king is old and sick and I understand that his successor is hostile to democracy, giving the middle class and military support in their struggle for power.

I don't know what's going to happen. I suspect Somchai will in fact step down or be forced out and again the military will take control for a short time. But short of an oppressive military dictatorship, which I believe won't happen because of Thailand's role as a U.S. ally in the region and because so much of their economy revolves around tourism, I don't see the middle class-military alliance holding. I don't see a lot of reason to think the military and middle class will create a more successful government than they did two years ago, particularly given the hostility they face from the majority of the country's population. The military did a poor job of dealing with the Muslim separatists in the South, had no coherent plan for governing, and were inept at running the government.

Moreover, I don't see Thailand coming to any sort of stability anytime soon. Corruption is rampant throughout Thai society, including among the holier-than-thou elite. They are upset, not because of corruption, but because the other side's corruption is more effective than theirs. The poor have embraced democracy while the rich are rejecting it. The monarchy is going to play a big role here, as is the United States and other western nations. We need to make it clear that democracy must be respected in Thailand and that there will be consequences to a coup.

If the government does want to stay in power, violence is probably necessary. Somchai has shown remarkable restraint in not using violence to open the airport and arrest ringleaders. Perhaps this is because he fears the army. But the threat of violence has to be there, particularly when the other side embraces it. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has promised that his military would not use violence against the Bolivian people. That's a good thing in theory, but it has also emboldened the right-wing opposition into using extreme tactics, knowing that they are safe from any real crackdown. Somchai either has to use violence and risk being forced out or step down on his own. I'm glad I don't have to make this decision.

As always, Shawn Crispin at Asia Times Online has much more.

From Colony to Superpower: Americans' Blindness

Rob brings up a couple of points in his review of Chapter 3 in Herring's book that I want to expand upon.
While Rob rightfully points out the danger of drawing modern parallels for events that happened 200 years ago, broad comparisons can be useful.

In particular, Rob writes:

the Americans appeared genuinely incapable of believing that Indian violence and attacks stemmed from the behavior of settlers and the US government. Rather, British influence was blamed, virtually without evidence.

This is an important theme in the history of U.S. foreign relations. We have a complete blindness to our own doings. Maybe we're not that different from other countries in this regard, but we never see how our own actions create wars. 9/11 is the latest example. While not trivializing the horror of what happened on that day, the fact that most Americans saw our nation a completely innocent victim is disturbing. The idea that our own policies could somehow be at fault is beyond the pale of much American thought. We buy so strongly into our mythology of exceptionalism; if only other nations would follow our path, they too could be like the U.S. But this myth obscures the reality of American foreign policy abroad. Our support for corrupt anti-Democratic elements in South Vietnam surely has nothing to do with Tet! Having permanent bases in Saudi Arabia and consistently supporting Israel over Palestine is totally unrelated from 9/11! Mexican greed for their own land started the Mexican War; if only they let Texas have their totally unrealistic land claims, we wouldn't have to invade you! The Indians are savages and they are supported by the British perfidy. Our invasions of their land and wanton murder of their people are irrelevant!

I'd like to think that in a post-9/11, post-Iraq world, we are a bit more aware of our interactions with other nations. I'm quite skeptical however.

Rob also compares our unwillingness to recognize Haiti with the Cuban embargo. I think this comparison has utility so long as we don't place it within any kind of Caribbean policy framework. Certainly though, both nations have suffered for being in the Leviathan's sphere of influence. We (along with France to be fair) doomed Haiti to 200 years of extreme poverty. 99% of Americans have no clue about this history. We owe Haiti big time. Sending their refugees back while accepting Cubans is not only racist, but morally bankrupt. Our response to Cuba has had starkly different results. Cuba's not rich either. The embargo has something to do with that. Whereas we successfully isolated Haiti though, we have only isolated ourselves from the Cubans since no one else in the world respects our position on Cuba.

Moreover, rather than undermine Fidel Castro, we have reinforced his power, giving him an excuse for every one of his failures. On the other hand, from an social perspective, Castro did achieve great education and health care policies. On top of that, while his environmental policies have not been outstanding, they certainly have been no worse than that of his pro-American neighbors in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other nations. Closing off U.S. investment to Cuba has saved the nation's beaches from total privatization and development. I'm not really confident that this won't change in the next 10 years, but it is a note in Castro's favor. In any case, U.S. control of their government would probably have not led to better lives for the Cubans in the last 50 years.

Note that I'm not really trying to defend Castro here, and certainly he needed to go 15 years ago at least. But he's still there largely because of the United States.

Historical Image of the Day

Alice Paul unfurling a banner signifying ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. National Woman's Party headquarters, August 26, 1920.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Worst Sports Announcers

Paul Campos mentions a few sports announcers he hates. But there are so many more.

I should say that some of my all time most despised people are mercifully gone. Steve Lyons for instance. And of course Dennis Miller. Then there was that Monday Night Football team for a couple of years that included an aging Frank Gifford, Joe Namath, and OJ Simpson. Wow, was that bad.

Anyhow, here is a short list of the most annoying sports announcers:

1. Tim McCarver. How exactly did McCarver become the default World Series color man. His constant references to Derek Jeter and inane comments about the game are annoying, but the fact that he is constantly wrong is a problem I would think someone might care about. I guess I'm wrong.

2. Tony Kornheiser. Does Kornheiser even care about the games he is calling on Monday Night Football? He clearly doesn't prepare. He constantly brings up trivial points that he finds interesting. He gets in the way of Ron Jaworski, which is a crime in itself. Last night, he had to bring up the idea that Green Bay should have kept Favre, even though Rodgers is having just as good a year. His argument was that Favre had led the Jets to a better record, as if Favre alone was responsible for the Jets improvement, or for the fact that the Packers gave up 51 points last night. Bleh.

3. Paul Maguire. In some ways, it is just too easy to pick on Maguire and his outstanding incompetence. Plus, he was demoted from the NFL Sunday night games to riding around on a moving cart in cold college stadiums on Saturdays. Nonetheless, his attempts at humor and, like McCarver, the fact that he is wrong on almost every point, make him as insufferable at ever.

4. Joe Buck. While Buck is a semi-competent play by play guy, I have three major problems with him. First, like his partner McCarver, he fellates Derek Jeter at every opportunity. Second, he is a legacy case. Actually earning his spot as a top announcer would have been nice. Third, his moralizing makes me sick. His "outrage" when Randy Moss fake-mooned the Green Bay crowd a few years ago was laughable. I love self-appointed moral guardians of our society. Joe Buck--the Bill Bennett of sports broadcasting.

5. Dan Dierdorf. Back in 1995, I was watching a Monday Night Football game when Dierdorf actually wished that he could be Jerry Rice for one day. That's some hard-hitting announcing right there. If that was a one-time thing, I could forgive it. But how you have such a lengthy career when you never provide one positive bit of information to the broadcast is beyond me.

6. Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is a disgusting human being. Enough said.

7. Joe Morgan. Like Maguire, Morgan is really easy to pick on. I used to have a soft spot for him. But in the last few years, not only has Morgan continued to provide vapid analysis that revolves around "experience" "guttiness" and other totally meaningless categories of analysis, but he has also come across as an arrogant jerk who is totally dismissive of any critique. Knowing that he is like that around ESPN headquarters too is pretty funny.

8. Billy Packer. Does Billy Packer actually enjoy watching college basketball? He shows about as much joy as a cardboard box. Why can't Bill Raftery be the #1 CBS announcer. Plus, Packer never met a bigtime program he didn't love. His contempt for mid-majors is constantly angering.

In fairness, announcers I really like include Ron Jaworski, Jack Ramsey, Bill Raftery, Steve Jones, Dave Campbell, and Dan Fouts. I really miss Keith Jackson. I also kind of like Bill Walton as a guilty pleasure, even though he is totally ridiculous. And Dick Vitale is in a category by himself. I don't like him much, but I can't really hate him either.

Thought for the day

George W. Bush may have made it easier for people to get involved in politics just by being so dumb that average Americans went "Wait a minute--I could do that."

Let the Pardons Begin!

Bush has started pardoning his loathsome friends.

The media narrative around this first round of pardons is that there were no high-profile pardons. Scooter Libby, Duke Cunningham, etc., were all left out. True enough, but we'll see how that goes. Those seem like January 19 pardons because of the criticism they will bring down.

But looking at the recently pardoned reveals some real scumbags. Particularly striking were the people pardoned for environmental crimes. These people aren't as sexy as Michael Milken so the media isn't talking about it.

But why would you pardon Leslie Collier, a man convicted in 1995 of widespread slaying of wildlife, including bald eagles, by laying out tainted meat? Or Milton Cordes of South Dakota, who violated the Lacey Act by smuggling wildlife into the country? Or Daniel Pue of Texas who was convicted of dumping toxic waste without a permit?

If you are George W. Bush, you pardon these people because you oppose any kind of environmental laws. You think it's OK to smuggle animals, kill bald eagles, and dump toxic waste. You oppose even early 20th century conservationist legislation. You are the worst environmental president ever. That's why you do this.

It's not as if these people served hard time for these crimes. Collier got 2 years probation. Pue got 3 years probation. Cordes got 18 months probation and a loss of hunting privileges for one year.

Historical Image of the Day

Editorial cartoon of Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, holding back the twin enemies of scab labor and the employer. Puck Magazine, 1886

Discussing Latin America - Political Parties in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Argentina

I was already thinking about Yann's post about Nicaragua's municipal elections from last week, and it, combined with a story at the New York Times about the divisions among current and former Sandinistas who are fighting over the role of the party, raised an interesting set of questions for me. Basically, those two posts/articles got me thinking about political movements/parties based on the "icon-ization" of a particular figure/hero/leader. I've been trying to figure out exactly what role(s) such a figure might have on political parties and party identities, how the timelines of mythification and division over the hero's supposed "vision" (which is often contested among the individual's followers) play out, etc.

In thinking about this, I was able to come up with three countries off the top of my head to whom this political scenario applied currently or in the past: Nicaragua with the Sandinistas; Argentina with Peronism; and El Salvador, with the Frente Farabundo Marti para Liberacion Nacional (FMLN).

In addition to these three countries with current political parties based on a single figure, there was also the case of Cuba with Jose Marti, but I think that, while Marti was particularly important to daily politics in pre-1959 Cuba, the ways in which Fidel has shaped Cuba over the past 50 years have resulted in Cuba being an outlier from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Argentina - there just isn't a struggle over Marti's thought in political life in Cuba today. It seemed possible that Venezuela could apply to this, as well, but I wasn't really sure it did merit a comparison to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Argentina (though further discussion may convince me it does). I didn't think it was in the same category because Chavez's "Bolivarian project" doesn't seem on the surface to include much debate over what Bolivar "wanted" for Venezuela. Although Sandino, Marti, and Peron were/are all symbols, too, the use of Bolivar seems almost purely symbolic, rather than evoking an ideological debate over the meanings of his views.

Anyhow, in all of these efforts at comparisons and contrasts, while I know a decent bit about Argentina and Nicaragua, I know virtually nothing about the case of El Salvador and Farabundo Marti. I e-mailed Yann, asking him several questions for discussion, and we've decided to move the discussion to the blog. He and I will be addressing each other here on this particular question, but we invite others to please join in in the comments. We don't really have any expectations as to how long this will last - as long as the conversation is worth having, I guess. However, Yann and I hope that this is also the beginning of a series of dialogues over Latin America between Yann, myself, and others here at the blog, and that this series of "Latin American discussions" can perhaps even become a semi-permanent feature of the blog.

Boring Books

I have actually read one of these (and h/t to our friend H. Wren for this one).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Just a Little Reminder....

...that horrible, ugly, terrible, racist hate-acts happen in the North, too. Hopefully, these guys get prosecuted and convicted as fully as New York State will allow. I don't know much about Long Island beyond the stereotypical image of it as lily-white and wealthy, but this sure doesn't help the island's image any further.

The worst idea I've heard lately...

Let me lay out my biases right now: I hate for-profit colleges, almost (but not quite as much) as I hate for-profit hospitals. Now, an asshat that used to work for the University of Phoenix (you know, the for-profit, on-line college with no football team but a giant $455 million football stadium) has started a company to certify (for a fee) adjunct instructors for colleges (don't let the .org fool you, it's a for-profit company-- another way these asshats try to fool everyone).

InsideHigherEd reports that the cost for the adjunct seeking certification is $395, plus $75 a year for renewal. The program reeks of pop-psychological, self-help, pseudo-scientific bullshit-- the "Ten Core Competencies" and the like (ever notice how any given list of desiderata is always some nicely even or iconic number like 7, 10, 12 or 101? That's a big red flag right there...)

Adjunct faculty are already the most educated section of the working poor. Many adjuncts work for as little as $2,000 a course, with their course load being limited to 2 or 3 classes so the University can avoid paying health insurance benefits (yes, enlightened universities also abuse workers in the same way Wal-Mart does). Adjunct work is often hard to find, and many young academics take the jobs for the resume building, even though they could make more money working at a Starbucks. Preying on contingent faculty fears that they may not get renewed or get that first adjunct job is just sleazy, and that is exactly what this bullshit "certification" process is doing. If Universities want better adjuncts, they should pay better and provide support resources (mentoring, teaching development workshops, etc.) out of their own pocket-- not feeding their adjuncts into a for-profit clusterfuck that serves only to line the pockets of the company and make administrators think that they doing something worthwhile. We are dealing with people with Ph.D.'s and M.A.'s-- they don't need more classes from University of Phoenix ilk.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty actually have some power here. If we find out that our institutions are giving employment preference or requiring people to go through this kind of certification, we ought to be raising some serious hell. Our contingent bretheren deserve our support-- and to paraphrase John Bradford, "There, but for the grace of God, go us."

Historical Image of the Day

The Fox sisters. These young women were the founders of the spiritualist movement, which was very popular in the mid and late 19th century. In 1848, they (at the time around their early teens or slightly younger) began claiming that they could communicate with the dead. Loud knocks were the sign. Soon, mediums popped up around the country. This proved particularly popular in the years after the Civil War, with so many grieving families desperate to communicate with their dead.

Later in life, 2 of the Fox sisters admitted that they produced those loud knocks by cracking their toe joints, which I guess they could very well.

My Year of Opera (I): Iannis Xenakis, "Oresteia"

A bit ironically (given that I live only a short subway ride from the Metropolitan Opera House), the first opera I attended was not at the Met, but at the tiny Miller Theater at Columbia University. There, at the beginning of September, I saw the American premiere of Iannis Xenakis' bizarre, terrifying, intense opera, Oresteia. While the Greek tragedies on which Xenakis's work is based are complex, Xenakis instead focuses on a few key portions of the narrative, mainly, Cassandra's challenge in being clairvoyant but having nobody believe her, the guilt Orestes feels before and after murdering his mother, and Athena's decree and the turning of the Furies into the Eumenides. To tell this story, Xenakis used primarily percussive instruments (with a few woodwinds and one cello mixed in), a men's, a women's, and a children's chorus, and one soloist (a bass). Additionally, this particular production included ballet dancers providing interpretive dance for some of the key narrative passages, and a large screen hovering over the right side of the stage, with random abstract images occupying it throughout the performance.

I had never heard any recordings of the opera, and it was remarkable and unlike anything I'd ever heard before (which is saying something). The real highlight was the second "movement," "Kassandra," composed strictly of a solo percussionist and bass Wilbur Pauley providing narration both as the leader of the Greek chorus in his natural bass, as well as the dialog of Cassandra, offered in a falsetto, leading to the bizarre-but-captivating effect of one man dialoguing two narrative voices with himself. Pauley's delivery of that mono-dialogue was extremely absolutely spellbinding (he would also do this later on as he took on the role of Athena decreeing the fate of Orestes and the Furies), and its intensity was matched only by the solo percussionist behind him. While a men's chorus and a women's chorus also provided narration and vocal context, it was really Pauley who had the meat of the material, and who stole the show.

In between Pauley's two solos, the men's and the women's chorus took turns furthering the narrative, with the men doing so in the first part of the opera and the women taking over halfway through. The men's chorus was very good, but it was the women's chorus that had the most memorable part of the whole opera. As Orestes is dealing with the torment of the Furies, the 25-30 female voices all sang different, conflicting, discordant notes, shrilly, at the top of their lungs, all at once, in a cacophony so terrifying that I thought to myself (without hyperbole), "Combine this sound with actual feelings of guilt, and this is what hell feels like, right here." I had goosebumps all over my body. I don't know how, but in that one bit alone, Xenakis hit the rawest, most terrifying, most emotional music I've ever heard in my life (and fortunately, that moment is recorded on the 50-minute CD version of the opera).

And that wasn't the only instant of such intensity. Throughout, the percussive music gave the opera a cutting edge that made everything tenser, and as the opera came to a close, the combination of percussion, winds, the men's, women's, and children's chorus (the latter portraying the Eumenides), all joining together at their loudest, resulted in a wash of sound again like any I heard, one that made me want it to never end, so intense, so raw, so emotional, and so unlike anything else I'd ever heard was it. Without question, the music was what made the spectacle such an event, so amazing.

That said, the other portions of the opera were none too shabby, either. I really enjoyed the dance, which surprised me somewhat. The thought of interpretive dance never seemed like it would be that interesting to me. Admitedly, I'd never seen any interpretive dance (save for the Dude's landlord, Marty, and his cycle in The Big Lebowski), and I was amazed by how fit and fluid the dancers were. In some other musical or theatrical contexts, their movements may have seemed ridiculous, but it fit the mood and music perfectly.

As for the (translated) libretto, it was sufficient enough to move forward the narrative in an understandable way. It wasn't particularly poetic in the traditional sense, but it didn't need to be, and Xenakis did a great job of keeping a sense of the Greek poetics of their tragedies in tact. Due to the length of the opera vs. the original plays, there were obvious gaps, but they weren't a detraction; indeed, the flowing, ephemeral, abstract narrative actually went quite well with the visual and musical components of the show, as did the abstract (and apparently completely unrelated) images projected on the screen.

If there was one complaint I had for the opera, it was the space. Miller was amazingly intimate, and so in that regard, it was great - even though I was in the last row of the balcony, the seats were way better than anything I could afford somewhere like the met. Still, part of the choreography called for the dancers to move out into the audience on the first level, and so they were out of my line of sight. Additionally, Miller's balcony is layered in such a way that an elderly woman directly in my line of sight in the first row of the balcony kept leaning forward for a better view, often times obstructing my view with her (unusually large for New York) hair. Still, this wasn't a total loss, as the fact that there was so much going on to watch (the televised images, the choruses, Paulley, the dancers, and the musicians) that I didn't lose any major component of the opera for too long. Still, ground level seats probably would have been much better.

In all, my first opera was a rousing success. Of course, there are few out there (at least that I'm aware of) that are like "Oresteia" in instrumentation, length, or presentation, but I don't really know what they are, so it was something totally new for me. It was hands-down an amazing spectacle and one of the best productions of any medium I've ever seen, period. After the show ended, it was clear that, while the "modernism" of the opera satisfied many (like myself), many others were of the persuasion of "what the hell was that?" or even "ugh - who could like that?!" But I was definitely impressed, and thought all the performers did a great job, especially Paulley and the musicians.

And for those who are interested in some other views (generally by people who know what they are talking about much more than I do), the Times, Opera Today, and this blog all had pieces on the Miller Theater performance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part III

This is the third installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

Chapter 3 covers 1801 through 1815, arguably the most desperate time in American foreign policy history. The U.S. was trying to assert its sovereignty with Europe while those nations were fighting the Napoleonic Wars. To say it didn't go well is an understatement. The U.S. survived and left the period with a new nationalistic fervor. But the nation could easily have fallen apart.

Herring really gives it to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He clearly considers the two of them complete disasters when it comes to foreign policy. Although I tend to be defensive of the Democratic-Republicans, at least when compared to the Federalists, it's hard to argue with him here. Neither of them were effective presidents. For all their achievements outside the presidency, neither seem particularly suited to the office. Certainly, they fumbled around in their dealings with Europe, started an unpopular war, and nearly saw the nation collapse around them.

If anything, Madison and especially Jefferson were even more belligerent and demanding of Europe than Washington, Hamilton, and Adams had been. Jefferson refused to compromise with the British over maritime issues. Even though such compromises had been hard on American pride before 1801, they had kept relative peace with the English. Not any more. Jefferson's own hatred of the English made compromise with them almost impossible.

The trickiest issue was impressment. No one comes out of this fight looking good. The Americans were openly recruiting British sailors to desert. Meanwhile, if the British had simply treated their sailors like human beings, they wouldn't have had these problems. The British certainly had no right to stop and search American ships and were completely wrong in the Chesapeake incident, when the HMS Leopard fired upon the USS Chesapeake in 1807.

Knowing that the U.S. could not fight the British, Jefferson enacted his famous Embargo of 1808, stopping all trade with both France and Britain. Typical of the overinflated sense of self-importance that most Americans felt in the nation's early years, Jefferson actually thought the Europeans would care. He thought they could not survive without American products. The French were completely indifferent to the embargo while the economic damage done to Britain was slight. Jefferson never explained to the American people his reasons for the Embargo, and it proved incredibly unpopular, especially in New England. In response, New Englanders just smuggled their goods to British traders. The U.S. enforcement agents could do almost nothing.

In 1809, James Madison took over. On the same day, Jefferson's Embargo ended. But Madison's handling of the British didn't go any better. Like Jefferson, Madison was unwilling to compromise with the British, particularly on issues of neutral rights. The British were contemptuous of neutral rights throughout the Atlantic during these years. Fighting for their lives against Napoleon, the English saw anyone helping the French as their enemy. Harassing American shipping was bad enough, but as Herring points out, the British actually bombed Copenhagen and confiscated Danish ships when that nation pressed for neutral rights. Given how little anyone respected the United States in 1810, no one was going to give the U.S. any quarter on these issues.

By 1812, war was on the immediate horizon. Pushed by the War Hawks, a group of western politicians who wanted to expand America's borders, Madison slowly moved toward conflict. However, the war would prove extremely unpopular in New England, eventually leading to the Hartford Convention of 1814, which saw some Federalist leaders advocating secession. The War of 1812 was fought without popular support, with a dithering president in charge, and with the nation's capital burned to the ground.

The U.S. could have easily collapsed by 1814. Yet once again, the nation survived through a combination of excellent diplomats (Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Albert Gallatin) and Europeans simply wanting to be rid of an American distraction so they could kill each other. The War of 1812 ended early in 1815 with a general declaration of status quo ante bellum. Very little was decided. The British agreed to stop fighting because it seemed the wars in Europe were starting up again. This may have proven a misstep on their fault because by end of 1815, Europe was at peace. After the war though, the conditions leading to the War of 1812 dissipated, particularly neutral rights and impressment. Eventually, the British changed a lot of their policies as the mercantilist system faded. The days of pre-modern warfare were almost over. The United States survived and became stronger with each passing day. They remained as obnoxious and belligerent toward other nations as ever.

I am surprised Herring doesn't focus on the Battle of New Orleans more. While militarily irrelevant because the war was already over, Jackson's victory in Louisiana in January 1815 gave Americans a big shot in the arm and created national pride that led to the rise in American nationalism that would lead to Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, and the expansion of the nation west.

The other major theme of the chapter is America's expansion into the West. Reading about Jefferson's expansionist policies, I was again reminded of my argument that the Revolution was maybe not such a good thing. Not only did Jefferson run roughshod over Indian tribes, but he also bullied the Europeans in Louisiana and Florida, laying claim to lands that the U.S. had no legitimate right to. Herring argues that while Jefferson claimed he held to principles of liberty, his lust for land and the expansion of the American republic led him to act in overtly expansionist ways to the nations that bordered the United States. Both Jefferson and Madison wanted to take Florida from the Spanish. The government encouraged American settlers in Florida to be prepared in case Spanish authority collapsed, but were embarrassed when those settlers went ahead and declared an independent republic of West Florida and then requested annexation to the United States.

Of course, the most prominent accomplishment of the Jefferson Administration was the Louisiana Purchase. Again, the U.S. gained from Europe's struggles, this time the Haitian Rebellion, which convinced Napoleon to dump Louisiana and end his dreams of restoring the French empire in the Americas. Again, this was a disaster for the Indians. The Lewis & Clark Expedition paved the way for American power throughout the continent. By 1815, with William Henry Harrison's win at Tippecanoe in 1811, the killing of Tecumseh in 1813, Andrew Jackson's brutal crushing of the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in 1814, and end of the War of 1812, the fate of Indians east of the Mississippi River was sealed. Americans rapidly expanded into their lands after 1815 and the long horrible nineteenth century for Indians was in full effect.

Jefferson also deserves to be castigated for his treatment of Haiti. Jefferson's racism and fear of slave revolts easily outweighed his ideas of liberty and justice. Jefferson labeled the Haitian rebels "cannibals." He hoped to undermine the slave revolt and agreed to support French efforts to retake the colony, though he later reneged on his promises to Napoleon. Although Haiti declared itself a nation in 1804, the United States did not recognize it as such until Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Haitian freedom movement was used as an argument against emancipation of the slaves. Combined with the cotton gin and available land in the West, the emancipatory rhetoric of the Revolutionary quickly died. Slavery and white supremacy became the ideology of much of the nation. U.S. hostility to Haiti also helped doom that nation to the endemic poverty and violence it still faces today.

All of this reminds me of a point I forgot to make last week, but is still relevant here. I think you can make a strong argument for the Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance as a key foundational document of American foreign policy history. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I believe in a wide definition of the term "foreign relations." One of the most important and understudied angles to this is environmental issues. The Northwest Ordinance placed the grid on the Old Northwest without any local knowledge of the land. While the act made splitting up the land easier from the perspective of the government, it devalued conditions on the ground. Ecology, waterways, soil--none of this mattered.

By the late 19th century, the U.S. was using the grid around the world to gain control of land for its own use and pushing the idea to governments as way to control land and people. Like in the Old Northwest, it devalued local knowledge. Why understand the land when you can grid it on a map? From the expansion of American forestry around the Pacific World to banana plantations in Honduras to mining operations in South America, the United States used the grid pioneered in the Northwest Ordinance to consolidate the power of its capitalist system.

I don't want to overargue this point. The U.S. was hardly the only western nation to use the grid--Britain and France were equal pioneers. If the U.S. had organized the Old Northwest in a more ecologically friendly way, the grid probably would have used in other ways. And certainly our foreign environmental policies have been influenced by ideas other than the grid and simplification. Nonetheless, I'd like to nominate the Northwest Ordinance as a core document of foreign policy for the groundwork it laid in the abstraction of nature and for the emphasis it placed on simplicity over understanding, central themes in the history of our environmental foreign policy.

The Death of Biofuels

This AP story claims that corn-based ethanol is dead and that Mexico's tortilla crisis in 2006 killed it.

Basically, it was when the price of tortillas rose rapidly in 2006 and into 2007 that people began to realize that societies needed to use food to feed people rather than feed their vehicles. Mexicans freaked out about this. I was in Mexico City as this was happening and it dominated front-page headlines almost every day.

I wonder if corn-based fuels are dead though. Certainly U.S. policy makers, particularly powerful politicians from farming states have no intention on letting it die. And does anyone think that American consumers will not clamor for ethanol once gas prices rise again? Certainly American consumers are more concerned with gas prices than starvation in the developing world.

The lesson of the story is that biofuels are alive and well. But not in ways that help U.S. politicians. Ethanol from Brazilian sugar has proven to be pretty effective with little affect on the world sugar supply. Europeans use rapeseed. But none of this means giant profits for American agribusiness.

At the core of the issue is scarcity. Food prices have gone up for many reasons. There are too many people on the planet. People in China, India, and Brazil want to eat like Americans. They want to drive and live like Americans too. We want to have more things every day. All of this takes up precious land and resources. While we definitely should not be taking food out of people's mouths to drive our Hummers, the problem of food prices, hunger, and scarcity run far deeper than just fuel.

Blogging and the Academy

An adjunct professor at Texas A&M International University was fired this week for posting the names and grades of his students on a blog. The professor was trying to humiliate them after catching people plagiarizing.

Katherine Haenschen at Burnt Orange Report
calls this "a worrisome precedent." I'm not so sure. This person was an idiot who deserved to be fired. Anyone who publicly humiliates students by name and gives out personal information about their performance is not fit to teach.

On the other hand, certainly the issue of blogging and the academy is on my mind. I blog under my own name. There is a risk involved. Theoretically, a school could google my name, see that I have a blog, and consider that too much of a risk to hire me. I hope this doesn't happen. I try to be professional here. I occasionally talk about teaching. Usually this is to work out a question or issue I am having, but occasionally I am frustrated with students. I would never ever give a name or any personal information. But it is a fine line. Being on the job market right now makes me nervous about everything I write.

Haenschen doesn't defend the said professor either; rather, her concern is that the story was spun so that it seemed he was fired for blogging rather than for violating professors' privacy. Instead of cracking down on plagiarism, TAMIU fired the professor. Personally, I think both sides are right here. Too often, by which I mean virtually always, universities are extremely lax on issues of plagiarism. I have an enormous problem with it. My sense is that professors just don't want to be bothered and don't care enough about teaching to deal with it. I now teach at a school that does it take seriously. It still happens, but it is nice having institutional support to fight it.

Nevertheless, the guy needed to be canned. Freedom of speech battles seem to always take place over cases where the person in question has done a loathsome thing that is hard to defend. And while TAMIU did not handle the matter particularly professionally themselves, there is no excuse for not canning his butt.

Historical Image of the Day

Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, abolitionist, women's suffrage advocate, playright, actress. Wrote What Answer, a novel featuring interracial marriage in 1868. Although evidence is somewhat scanty, gay and lesbian historians have pointed to Dickinson as an open lesbian.

I also again wonder why everyone used their middle name in the late 19th century.

Light Reading

I'm exhausted today, so I'm giving you links to read. Because they're good for you.

Yes, the first one is something I wrote over at GlobalComment. Inspired by Rachel Maddow, I did my own Lame Duck Watch:

George W. Bush is still in office and still has all the powers he did for the first seven years of his presidency, though his ability to set an agenda is diminished and he can give an exclusive interview to CNN that gets less hype than one from Sarah Palin does.

It’s been tradition for a while among presidents to save their shadiest business for their lame duck period, since our celebrity-worship culture will be enamored of its shiny new plaything, the president-elect.

Octogalore schools Larry Summers (and Ann-Marie Slaughter, too):

Then Larry gets into the area he’s most known for. He says overall IQ and mathematical and scientific ability vary based on gender. He looked at sex ratios in the top 5% of twelfth graders and says this group is “50% women, one woman for every two men.”

Now, Larry, here I have to point out, the alma mater we share did not do very well by you. 50% women is one woman for every one man. A group where there is one woman for every two men would be 33% women. Listen, I know you had to change from Physics to Econ, which at our school was basically a humanities class, but come on, man.

jdg at Sweet Juniper talks about why we need to save the auto industry(h/t Bitch, Ph.D):

I'm no apologist for the Big Three or their ridiculous missteps and lapses of judgment. But I do care about the regular people who work for these companies and who played no role in those poor decisions. Where is the compassion? Consider the charities that receive donations from both corporations and individuals connected to the auto industry and the people those charities help. Some of the moments when I was most proud of my fellow Americans were when people stepped up in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Asian Tsunami and gave what they could to help fellow human beings who were suffering. Three years after Katrina, New Orleans is starting again to look like New Orleans again.

It hardly looks like Detroit at all anymore.

...For Detroiters, of course, it is hard to separate all this talk of "buy local" economics from the misery of the auto industry, and not be frustrated with those Prius-driving yuppies in the Pacific Northwest calling for the death of this massive American industry while patting themselves on the back for buying butter made from the milk of organically-fed Oregon cows.

hilzoy makes a decent argument for keeping Gates at Defense.

Basically, I think that there are two main reasons for keeping Gates. The first is that it's very important to get bipartisan cover for the withdrawal from Iraq if we want to avoid some future conservative "if only the Democrats had let us win" story. (Likewise, bipartisan cover would be very useful if Obama decides to cut some weapons systems.) The second is that by all accounts the military have a lot of respect for Gates; keeping him on, therefore, would allow Obama to bypass the need to establish his own credibility and that of his Secretary of Defense with them. (Yes, I know: this shouldn't be necessary. But it is.)

Finally, a bit of news that makes me happy (h/t Feministe):

Ellen Moran, executive director of EMILY's List, will serve as Obama's communications director.

Moran worked for the AFL-CIO, coordinating "Wal-Mart corporate accountability activities," before returning to EMILY's, an organization dedicated to helping Democratic women get elected to office.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What blog are you?

In this world of 24/7 digital communication, that personality test in the back page of your favorite magazine is so passé.

Here is the new-age character analysis: a site that analyzes your blog to tell you what your personality is, based on your digital diary.

Since it spat out a paragraph-long summary of my character after going over what would certainly amount to over a million word treatise of my most visceral and profound thoughts on everything from religion to politics to little weird obsessions, I don’t necessarily believe it.

But it does beg the question, might technology be enhancing the profound human connections we make in our day-to-day life, as opposed to diminishing them, as so many traditionalists claim it is?

If I were to display to someone a comprehensive outlook of my character – both as reflected to the world, and as introspected by myself – I can think on no better testament to it than my personal blog, a one-stop shop for my thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints on a variety of different subjects.

If I spot an adorable puppy while crossing the street, I am no longer inclined to pick up my phone and call my dog-loving friend; my urge to relate the incident, and receive corroboration is satisfied by simply reaching for my phone and sending out a tweet. There is instant gratification there, without the disappointment of reaching a voicemail or interrupting a busy work day with a trivial squeal about a cute puppy.

This is not to say that person-to-person interactions don’t mean anything anymore – there is no technological equivalent to lending an ear to a friend over cocktails in a time of crisis. Neither can the sheer happiness of a graduation or wedding ceremony be transmitted over a celluloid screen or a BlackBerry monitor.

But no doubt social media and blogging and twittering have added a certain dimension to human relationships. In a world full of complicated individuals, each with his own set of tastes and penchants, it is good to find a niche, a group of people with similar interests to connect with, and relate to, based on the same esoteric things that inspire you.

Andrew Sullivan describes, as only Andrew Sullivan can, the unique relationship a blogger has with his readers in this month’s Atlantic. Since I’m too intimidated by his exceptional eloquence, I won’t attempt to say it better:

“Alone in front of a computer, at any moment, are two people: a blogger and a reader. The proximity is palpable, the moment human—whatever authority a blogger has is derived not from the institution he works for but from the humanness he conveys. This is writing with emotion not just under but always breaking through the surface. It renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

Most. Inappropriate. Product-Display-Arrangement. EVER.

So, earlier this week, I was at Macy's down by Penn Station (the Macy's of Miracle on 34th Street) doing some Christmas shopping. I happened to be browsing in the jewelry section, when I came upon a little case displaying various charms. One was a World Trade Center charm. Maybe a little tacky, but whatever. But RIGHT NEXT TO IT in the display case?

This charm.

I have no idea if this was intentional or accidental. Equally shocked and amused, I almost said something to the salesperson along the lines of, "um, are you aware of this? Does it strike you as perhaps a bit inappropriate, at least in New York?," but I decided to let things be and leave others with the chance to be amused or appalled. Seriously, you couldn't make things up like that if you tried.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Year of Opera - Intro

Like many people, I know virtually nothing about opera, and my experiences with it up to this point have been minimal. In my very young childhood, there were the occasional "operas" on Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, which I absolutely adored. In high school, I saw an English production of Mozart's Don Giovanni streamlined to draw audiences into opera a bit more, and I liked that well enough. Also as a teenager, I got into the music of Philip Glass, and I've remained a big fan of the three operas of his "revolution cycle" (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and my personal favorite, Akhnaten). Beyond those three youthful instances, though, my contact with and knowledge of opera has not really gone beyond knowing about Brunhilde (which I thought for the longest time was spelled "Brunhilda") and knowing that opera in general was a big production.

However, since moving to New York, I've begun to try to rectify this situation out of a genuine interest to learn more about what was once one of the more popular forms of musical expression. As I work at a university library part-time, I've begun checking out operas from the music library to give them a listen and figure out what I do or don't like and why (any suggestions, anybody)? And of course, with the Metropolitan Opera House only a short subway ride away, I am trying to attend a few operas here and there, albeit with the financial restrictions of a part-time job and a grad student stipend provide. That said, over the next year (or maybe longer), I thought it would be fun (for me, if for nobody else) to sort of go at opera from a layman's standpoint, trying to get into opera from the viewpoint of somebody who knows a decent amount about music but virtually nothing about a major genre that we're all raised with (even if it's to instinctively recoil at the notion of the "high culture" of opera).

Anyhow, consider this post an intro/warning of a new series. Although I hope to go into virtually every opera as uninformed as I can (primarily by not reading of reviews of the performances I'll see), I'll try to include some differing reviews by those who are more informed than I that may raise different criticisms or praises, for those who are interested. Ideally, this will get some interesting discussions going on operas, "professional" vs. "layperson's" views on/perceptions of opera, and which operas are duds and which are not; worst case scenario, this ends up being a vanity project that amuses me and nobody else, and given that that's how many blogs start off anyways, I won't feel too torn up about it.

Historical Image of the Day

Jefferson City, Missouri, 1861


Bill Richardson for Commerce Secretary and Timothy Geithner for Treasury Secretary.

Thank god, it's not Larry Summers. It is, however, his deputy and Wall Street seems to like Geithner.

As far as Bill Richardson, I wanted him to be Secretary of State, but I'm pretty much happy with any position that gives him power. He was the only other Democrat that tempted me in the primaries, and he's the kind of Clinton person that I like seeing back in the executive branch.


Hillary accepts the Secretary of State offer.


This is going to be an interesting administration. Could be brilliant. Could implode.

Also, this the 4th consecutive non-white male Secretary of State.

Privilege Check

While listening to NPR's Science Friday, a very interesting program on plug-in hybrid cars and other green car technology, I was stopped dead by this (paraphrased) question:

"Why don't we give the bailout money to people to buy these [electric] cars?"

Well, well-off white man, let me tell you why. Because the millions of people (yes, millions) who will be out of jobs can't eat electric cars. They can't live in electric cars. The electric cars cannot run without a home electric outlet to plug them into. Not to mention the impact on the rest of our economy if the Big Three go out of business.

Also not to mention that right now, half the problem with the Big Three is that the economy is already in the toilet, and despite talking heads on the news still debating whether or not we're in a recession, the bigger question for most of us is if we're in a depression. Nobody is buying cars. People would need to sell the cars they have to buy these electric cars, and if nobody is buying cars, certainly nobody's going to buy the old car that people have to get rid of.

The auto industry needs a bailout not solely because they haven't invested in new technologies and made competitive cars (though surely that's helped). They need a bailout because suddenly people are not buying cars. And people like me want them to get the bailout because of the people, mostly unionized workers, who would lose their good jobs if these companies do go out of business.

Also, while we're at it, the Big Three were producing gas-guzzlers because that's what the market demanded. If we're so devoted to the free market, why are we criticizing these companies for catering to what the free market wanted and not trying to force-feed us smaller, better cars? (/sarcasm)

I love the idea of plug-in hybrids, of solar panels, and of tax incentives to build and buy all of these things. But that isn't going to come anywhere close to fixing the problems of the auto industry, the economy at large, or the lives of millions of people for whom buying a new car is a pipe dream, let alone a house upon which to place solar panels.

This has been your privilege check of the week. (Should this be a regular feature? I mean, Erik already called out certain liberal bloggers...)

Seeing Evo Morales Speak

This past Tuesday, I had the enormous privilege of seeing Evo Morales speak at Columbia University as part of the World Leaders forum that Columbia hosts every year. It was a fantastic opportunity, and Morales didn't disappoint, talking for about 55 minutes and then spending another 30 minutes answering questions.

The first thing that struck me is how dynamic, charismatic, and well-spoken he is. I realize "eloquent" can and often does carry all kinds of racist connotations, but "eloquent" is exactly what he was. His detractors in Bolivia and elsewhere often call him an "uneducated Indian" (this was a common refrain among the right in Brazil), but anybody who's seen him speak could attest that it's far from the case. He did an excellent job discussing life in Bolivia, his path to the presidency, foreign policy and politics, and some of what he's done as president and what he still wants to do, but he did it all extemporaenously. It may have been a speech he's given before and been able to rehearse, but that didn't detract from its excellence. If Morales is "uneducated," then George Bush is a nobel laureate.

As for the actual content of his speech, it was also excellent, and quite thought provoking. In discussing his campaign for the presidency, he called the American ambassador to Bolivia his "best campaign manager." Apparently, in 2005 as the campaign went on, the U.S. ambassador repeatedly spoke out in public as saying that Morales was a terrible, terrible choice, going so far as to make the hyperbolic and ridiculous claim that Morales and coca growers were "just like the Taliban." Morales was clearly amused by and grateful for these claims, obviously believing that the U.S. ambassador's opposition and, by extension (as the ambassador is just the state's spokesperson for the government s/he represents), Bush's opposition, were key in making Morales a popular choice among many Bolivians who may have been hesitant towards Morales but had a rather low opinion of Bush's beliefs and attitudes. In short, Morales felt that at least some of his votes probably came from the fact that some Bolivians felt that if Bush believed Morales was a bad choice for Bolivia, then Morales clearly must be a good choice.

This humorous observation was amusing, but it also was great point that really got me thinking about how ineffective the Bush government has been at foreign policy. It's not just that Bush has pretty much taken the perfectly wrong path in dealing with the world (even before it threw away the goodwill we got for 9/11); it's that he has consistently, repeatedly, and clearly made the wrong choices in how he deals with countries again and again, yet he continues to try to bully the world expecting different results this time. His claims against countries have repeatedly emboldened them and made their leaders more popular at home, and yet he continued to speak but against these leaders, expecting the population to suddenly say, "hey, Bush is right!" The administration's refusal to dialogue with anybody and its stubbornness, perfectly embodied by Bush himself, has not only alienated the U.S. from the rest of the world, but that Bush's tactics have helped lead to exactly the results he may have wanted least (condemning Morales so strongly only helping the referendum further being an example). In other words, Morales's anecdote really encapsulates just how much the Bush administration's foreign policy has been equally arrogant and blockheaded - it's not just that it assumes an air of superiority that disregarded what sovereign nations might think is best for them; it's that it continued the same mistakes again and again in dealing with those nations and their peoples.

Morales also stressed the importance of dialog in international relations, and in this regard, he really reminded me of Lula. Morales made clear that he wasn't ideologically aligned with or against anybody, but was simply interested in trying to make the best political and economic negotiations he could for his own country. If there were breakdowns (as in the case of the U.S.), it wasn't through failed dialogue, but through the absence of dialogue, not from Bolivia's side, but from other countries. While he avoided explicitly mentioning Bush, he did say he looked forward to meeting with Obama at some point, and it wasn't difficult to read between the lines of his statements that he clearly thought that the U.S. really had a better chance in foreign policy with Obama than with Bush. However, he also raised the interesting comparison of Obama to himself, insisting that nobody compare the two, because Obama never had people spitting on him, he didn't face a societal structure in which it was difficult financially and socially for him to gain access to higher education, and he never had to lead strikes and face the threat of prison and abuse from police forces in the way Morales and indigenous leaders in Bolivia did. While that comment could have come off as arrogant and belittling, it didn't, instead serving as a strong reminder that, while Obama has indeed made enormous strides in arriving to the presidency, the contexts matter greatly in making such comparisons.

Another thing I noticed, and that I thought was of tantamount importance, was the complete absence of any mention, explicit or tacit, of Hugo Chavez or Venezuela. The U.S. media tends to always lump those two together when discussing Bolivia, and Morales often comes off as little more than a subservient follower of Chavez's "Bolivarian mission." Nothing could be further from the truth, and Morales's talk hammered home exactly what Morales is: a former poor, indigenous farmer who rose to the presidency of Bolivia and who only wants to see see Bolivia improve and to see the majority of Bolivians who have historically and perpetually been kept in poverty and away from national sources of power (political and otherwise) and wealth gain fair access and have a chance to succeed, too. And the goal of making life better for all Bolivians is not only a fair goal, it should have been done centuries ago. That Morales is finally doing this doesn't make him some some dangerous "communist" leader who follows Chavez around out of a lack of any convictions of his own and a little-brother-like devotion; it just makes him a president who has his own population's interests in mind, and is working to improve life not for some wealthy minority, but for the majority of his country's citizens. In that regard, given Bolivia's history and the functioning of a very small political/economic aristocracy there, and the changes Morales has brought about (including, hopefully, a fairer and just constitution this January), he's been hugely successful.

One final thing that struck me was what was in one way the relative "conservatism" of Morales in terms of fiscal policy. In discussing the conditions Bolivia was facing domestically when he was inaugurated, he stressed that, since 1940, there had not been one year where Bolivia was operating at a surplus. Simultaneously, the previous (neoliberal) governments had done little to actually help Bolivia financially (as opposed to helping themselves and the political elite), so that in 2004, the year before Morales's victory, Bolivia was pulling in $300 million in revenues from natural resources. In contrast, Bolivia had a net gain last year of over $2 billion, and while the rise in oil prices explains some of that increase, it's also aided by Morales's nationalization projects that, among other things, demanded fair prices for Bolivia's resources (rather than selling them off at discounts to foreign companies and pocketing the money), as well as the fact that, by nationalizing some industries, the money provided income for the state that had previously gone into the pockets of foreign national businesspersons who were already rolling in money. Yes, Morales has expanded some state programs to help the poor gain better access to good schooling, resources, food, health care, etc., but he has done so because he's created a budget surplus that allows the state to provide those services (as it should). That's hardly a "destructive" or "communist" vision.

To be clear, I'm not a Morales hagiographer, and I had some problems with some things he said, particularly in how he staked out the economic successes of the future in Bolivia. He paid lip service to the understanding that oil would not be there forever, nor could Bolivia stake its financial futures only on natural resources that would have a diminishing market, but then he went on to say how promising oil was for at least the next few decades. What is more, he then went on to discuss Bolivia's lithium deposits and how much they would help Bolivia in the future as lithium-powered batteries for cars increased even while oil demand decreased. However, that comment was completely disconnected from his previous line that Bolivia couldn't stake its economic future to exhaustible resources either for which the market would eventually wear down or the resources would disappear. In short, he claimed that Bolivia couldn't rely strictly on finite natural resources for its own financial well-being, yet he offered no alternatives that weren't natural resources that Bolivia could exploit.

That said, it was a really good talk with a good audience (it was clear that, while he had some adoring fans in the audience, he also had some pretty fierce oppponents). Ultimately, what emerged from his presentation was that the U.S. media (and what population does know about him) has virtually no understanding about the man or about what he is doing as leader of his own country. People may have their criticisms about him (and they certainly do, in Bolivia, Brazil, the U.S., and elsewhere), but by and large, those criticisms are baseless and completely out of touch with what Morales himself does, how he sees politics and society in Bolivia, and what he wants for his country.