Saturday, January 31, 2009

29 - The Best Decade of My Life (or: How I Became Alterdestiny's Bastard Middle Child)

While last year was a momentous birthday for me, this year, I'm merely 29. There's nothing cool that comes with that, like getting to be eligible for the presidency or anything. Instead, a "3" looms ahead of me, with the expectations of maturity, decency, reserve, and employment foisted upon me (fortunately, I should be able to defer on at least the employment part of that equation with the continued explanation "I'm in grad school," which always elicits knowing and sympathetic nods). I'd suggest that at least I could still claim to being the youngest on this blog, and therefore, the X-factor that kept us cool, but the arrival of Sarah J, Yann, Karthika, and Kim has rendered even that claim obsolete, leaving me more of the forgotten middle child of Alterdestiny. Indeed, none of my birthday compatriots - Nolan Ryan, (the late) Jackie Robinson, Kenzaburo Oe, Philip Glass, Piper Perabo, or former Miss Idaho 1997 Brandi Sherwood, has a major age to celebrate today (although Sherwood may be plotting her own Vice-Presidential run, given her qualifications as former state beauty queen).

That said, at the end of the day, I can't complain too much - I've made it through one of the more stressful years of my life, and, as with every remaining year of my life, I'll be able to be satisfied and relieved that I avoided sharing a birthday with Dick Cheney and Phil Collins, even if by just one day.

The "state" of Mexico's State

If anyone has been following headline's in the U.S. press about Mexico in the last month or two, you might have noticed a lot of alarmist and sensationalist garbage being thrown around suggesting that Mexico is coming close to collapse, is a "failed state" or a "narco state." Fox news has been spreading this message, along with a number of political commentators on the Sunday morning talk shows, and even Rolling Stone.

The violence in Mexico is worrying, and cause for concern, but the rhetoric seems to lead the uninformed to think Mexico is more like Somalia. It is definitely not.

Political Scientist Stephen Haber has an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal where he puts the violence in Mexico into perspective (in an article about the general state of Latin America). He writes:

The Mexican state is weak compared to the U.S., but incredibly strong when compared to places in Central Asia or Africa that are usually called failing states. There are no foreign troops on Mexican soil. There is no martial law. Garbage is picked up, streets are swept and children go to school. Middle-class couples take weekend getaways, and drive there on highways as good as those in the United States. After falling for a decade, Mexico's homicide rate increased in 2008, because the Calderón government courageously decided to take on the drug traffickers. If it keeps rising, it may soon be as high as that of...Louisiana.

I do have a lot of quibbles with what Haber writes, about Latin America in general, and in this particular paragraph about Mexico. With around 6,000 murders related to drugs last year in Mexico, comparing the rate of homicide from an entire country to the state of Louisiana does mask some of the horror going on in Mexico. Nearly half of the drug-related murders took place in the state of Chihuahua, a northern state in Mexico with a slightly smaller population than Louisiana. But the general gist of Haber's article is correct, even with allegations of corruption at all levels of government and in the police and military, and the gruesome ways in which people are being are being killed in Mexico, the state still works, and the overwhelming majority of people can still go about their daily lives as they did before Calderón came to office. 

For those that are interested, Patrick Corcoran over at the blog Gancho has been regularly addressing some of the more ridiculous claims about Mexico's supposed decent into anarchy.

Ah, progressive Utah.

Woke up this morning and matttbastard and Sylvia were already ahead of me on this one:

The Utah House of Representatives will hear a controversial proposal that could hold physicians responsible for homicide if they perform abortions deemed illegal by the state.

Under current state law, abortion is allowed only in cases of rape or incest, if the fetus cannot survive outside the womb or is unlikely to survive, or to save the mother's life or preserve her health.

Abortions that don't meet any of those standards can result in third-degree felony charges.

Under House Bill 90, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, physicians who perform illegal abortions could be charged with second-degree felony criminal homicide...

Ray's bill states that, to justify an abortion, two physicians would have to separately determine a fetus has a birth defect that would prevent it from surviving outside the womb, but Hodo said it may still force women to give birth to children who have no chance of long-term survival...

Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, cast the only vote against the measure. He said women should be allowed to make their own choices, and expressed frustration with the overall nature of the abortion debate in the Legislature.

"It's analogous to charging people with crimes because there are accidents at four-way intersections, when we have the technology and the knowledge to prevent those accidents by installing traffic lights," Riesen said.

Yeah. Um, Utah state leg? Fuck right off. You can tell 'em what you think here, at their website.

Note, also, that it's the doctors being charged. Not the women, because women clearly don't have enough agency to make their own choices. Doctors (obviously gendered male) must make the choices for them.

Like Sylvia said,

“Will women be accomplices, then? Or scenes of the crime?”

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Cult of Management?

I have been thinking a lot about the economic meltdown recently, especially since it has affected the overwhelming majority of my Midwestern-dwelling extended family, and the doom-and-gloom (seemingly weekly) meetings at work. At the same time, I find myself thinking about the colossal failure of the Bush administration, which is like a Matryoshka doll of monumental disasters. There is a similar thread running through a lot of this, in that people in charge of large entities seem to know very little about the entities that they run.

The biggest, most public domestic blunder was Katrina. In this case, we had Michael Brown, a Bush crony with little prior knowledge of or experience in disaster relief, emergency management, etc. Nothing in his allegedly padded resume rendered him even remotely an expert.

Remember Bush’s first EPA appointee? The woefully unqualified career politician Christine Todd-Whitman, whose environmental and scientific experience was non-existent. The list goes on and on; I needn’t belabor the point.

This happens in the business world as well, with equally disastrous results. What do you think the CEO’s of Chrysler and GM really know about making cars? An M.B.A. isn’t an industry-specific degree, yet many people flit from company to company and industry to industry in positions of considerable power. 7-11 to Blockbuster? Sure. A city prosecutor running a hospital? Why not (a quick Google search yields a great deal more). If you haven’t noticed it, the “promote-from-within” model is long dead in this country, because we have privileged this idea of strong executives. A business degree from Harvard means you are qualified to run anything from a cracker factory to the United States of America, and a large segment of the population considers any degree of “executive experience” to be superior to any kind of collaborative or deliberative work.

The bottom line is this: I think many of our businesses are failing because the wrong people are in power. How many times during the auto bailout discussion did the issue of how horribly the Big Three are managed come up? The flashy risk-takers, the schemers, the guys looking for the big bonuses, those that manipulate numbers and people—they know how to operate this fake game, but substantively know very little. I have no faith that they actually know how to run successful companies in their specific industries. There are, of course, many exceptions, but my concern remains—I have no faith in a business leadership that recycles the same greedy hacks that destroy American companies and imperil the financial stability of the working class. There is a huge CEO revolving-door policy. All the corporate-speak and flashy buzzwords in the worlds really don’t mean much when your company is imploding around you-- especially when you know that the game ensures you a multi-million dollar golden parachute as your worst case scenario.

Drive-by religious marketing

After several weeks of striking a more concillatory (or at least, apolitcal) tone on their readerboard, the little wingnut church that is on my way to work has this gem (in an earlier post, I talked about the same church posting 'An ounce of faith is worth a bushel of knowledge' and 'Rapture: the separation of church and state'). This time I have pictures!

Especially funny is the '5' substituted for the 's' in "newsflash". At least they didn't have to do "Je$u$".

Several onlookers seemed a little puzzled why I was standing on the sidewalk taking pictures of this.

The best monument in the world

A giant shoe built by Iraqi orphans to commemorate the journalist who threw his shoe at Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. If they let this journalist out of jail, maybe he can run for office?

Bolivia and Brazil Joining Forces in Combatting Drug Trade

This is a few weeks old (I apologize for the light blogging - I currently have two grant proposals, a conference paper, a dissertation chapter, and a part-time job on my plate, and things have actually calmed a bit from the first 4 weeks of the year), but I wanted to point out that Bolivia and Brazil have joined forces in combatting the cocaine trade along their border in the wake of the expulsion of the DEA. It's a fascinating agreement that serves both wonderfully - Brazil is making an effort to implement some national drug policy efforts rather than letting police blaze their way into favelas, and Bolivia is making a strong effort to make clear that while coca leaf production is non-offensive and important to its economy, it has little tolerance for the cocaine trade. Additionally, Bolivia gets more infrastructural agreement as part of the deal, and Brazil strengthens its role as a regional leader in lending and development projects for its neighbors. Boz reminds us also that combatting the drug trade behooves more nations than the U.S., and that fighting it doesn't always have to involve the U.S.

But there is another major aspect worth mentioning here, too. Although the U.S. under Bush constantly chastized Morales for Bolivia's coca production (leading to occasionally humorous interactions between the two countries), Morales has always made it clear that the coca leaf itself is not a drug, and that he's against the proliferation of cocaine production. The distinction is important and relatively easy to understand, but one that the United States has never bothered to grasp. This request to Brazil just further evidence both of that fact, and of fact that U.S. really has gone about in the "war on drugs" in the Andes in the totally wrong way.

Historical Image of the Day

The USS Cole after its bombing off the coast of Yemen, 2000

Claire McCaskill is my new favorite senator.

Claire McCaskill is awesome. I knew I liked her, but this is beyond amazing.

Post-Partisan Strategy: Doing it Right

I was just sitting downstairs in my campus building idly watching CNN while gulping down lunch, and this bit of news floated across the ticker:

"[Judd] Gregg considered for Commerce secretary"

I nearly choked. Because it's BRILLIANT.

It shows Obama once again willing to be nonpartisan and appoint Republicans to his cabinet, giving him the moral high ground against obstructionists.

It takes another Republican out of the Senate, and though he's one who could probably be pulled into a Democratic majority on some bills, having a Democrat appointed by New Hampshire's Democratic governor would be the magic 60--if they ever get around to seating Al Franken.

And Gregg should jump at it, since New Hampshire's trending Democratic and he's unlikely to be reelected. Plus, he's actually, y'know, qualified for the job.

My only question is: How quickly can we make this happen?

Gregg has confirmed, as well, that he is under consideration.

Once again:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Intro to Socioeconomics in Mexico

The other day, we went to the market for an activity in small groups.  We were supposed to buy certain items and price some others.  Then we did some calculations to figure out how many hours a person earning the Morelos minimum wage would have to work in order to be able to buy them.  Then we figured out the price U.S. consumers would have to pay if they had to work the same numbers of hours as a Mexican worker in order to purchase the same thing.  Here are the calculations from my group:

1 kilo of avocados = 25 pesos = $1.92 = 4 hours of work = $26.20
1/2 kilo of green chiles = 8 pesos = $0.62 = 1.3 hours of work = $8.52
Magazine "Uno más uno" = 10 pesos = $0.77 = 1.6 hours of work = $10.48
Kids school shoes = 120 pesos = $9.23 = 19.3 hours of work = $126.42
Shampoo = 50 pesos = $3.85 = 8 hours of work = $52.40
People think that the cost of living in Mexico is really low, but that is only because things are really cheap compared to what we earn in U.S. dollars.  In actually the cost of living here is really high if you are living off the wages paid here.  It is also estimated that 50% of Mexicans work in the informal sector, which means that they don't receive a paycheck or benefits.
The minimum wage in the state of Morelos is 49.5 pesos per day ($3.80/day), which is the highest minimum wage in Mexico.  So even if Mexican immigrants in the U.S. don't earn minimum wage (which many don't because they can't complain if they are undocumented), they can earn more money in an hour of work in the U.S. than for an entire day of work in Mexico.  And people wonder why they try to work in the states....

Population Control

Gregory Lamb's article on world population asks some very important questions.

Do we need a concerted effort to control the world's population? Should this be a government goal? Related to that, do we need to cut consumption of the world's resources?

I feel the answer to these questions is a definitive yes. While I'm not usually comfortable with the government in the bedroom, the planet simply has too many people. 9 billion by 2050 is just too many. Access to birth control helps. But it's not enough.

I believe it is simply an immoral choice to have more than 2 children. As Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 environmental classic The Population Bomb says, “You’ve got to get a president who’s got the guts to say, ‘Patriotic Americans stop at two. That if you care about your children and grandchildren, we should have a smaller population in the future, not larger.”

Yes. I am willing to go as far as saying that it is unpatrotic to have a lot of children. You are hurting the future of our society by doing so.

This is one reason why we need to support abortion rights. Too often, pro-choice people apologize for their position, saying that it is regrettable that we have to abortion and we should reduce the number, but... I don't actually agree with this. I don't see that abortion should be considered a bad thing at all. Certainly, birth control is a better thing but people should not be ashamed of having an abortion. And society should make it safe, cheap, and accessible.

Note that this previous paragraph has just killed any political career I might have wanted to have someday.

The economists will be in an uproar too. Because our capitalist economy is designed for constant growth rather than sustainability, business interests and economic planners will freak out, like they are doing right for Japan. But while a smaller population would be an economic adjustment, wouldn't it also be better for the world and humanity in the long run.

I actually admire China's one child policy. Certainly I don't quite approve of some of the harshest enforcement tactics they use, but I do think our government could give tax credits or some kind of benefits to families with 0-2 children. Or even punish with higher taxes families with too many children, though you'd want to ensure that the children didn't suffer as a result.

Of course, related to this issue is consumption. Since Americans consume like there is no tomorrow and the rest of the world wants to live like Americans, we have a real problem on our hand. There's no way around it--9 billion people can't live on the planet and consume like early 21st century Americans. It's a Malthusian crisis.

Given the pie in the sky ideas I have about this, you can imagine my pessimism that any of this will actually happen. Nonetheless, it's an issue that we need to talk about much more seriously than we do now.

Loomis 2012!

Today I turn 35. I am constitutionally eligible for the presidency. Thus, I am declaring my candidacy for the highest office in 2012. I have copied Sarah Palin, my political hero, and started ErikPAC. So give me money.

I have a great platform.

1. A taco stand in each neighborhood.
2. Torvald as official National Pet
3. Banning the Wave at all sporting events.
4. Forcing HBO to put Deadwood back on the air.
5. Banning reality TV.
6. Contracting the NFL to get rid of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders.
7. Giving Texas back to Mexico.
8. Giving Alaska back to Russia.
9. Requiring all schools to offer mandatory courses on cheese appreciation.
10. Celebrating January 29 as a national holiday.

Moreover, since January 29 has been scientifically proven (by the same scientists who gave you phrenology and eugenics) to be the most awesome day ever, we will have a January 29-centric administration.

My Vice-President? Oprah of course, who was born on this day in 1954.

Rahm Emanuel will stay on as chief of staff, being born on this day in 1959.

The music before my inauguration is going to be awesome. Everyone involved will be January 29 birthdays. On bass, we will have Eddie Jackson from Queensryche. Vocals will be Irlene Mandrell from the 70s pop-country act the Mandrell Sisters. Bill Kirchen from Commander Cody will be on guitar. Tommy Ramone will be on drums. Dick Manitoba will pop in for a couple of songs. I think you all can agree that this will be the greatest super-group of all time.

Heather Graham, born on this day in 1970, will be the new Secretary of Movies with a speciality in extreme hotness.

Tom Selleck, born on this day in 1945 will fill the new cabinet position of Secretary of Facial Hair.

Ed Burns, born on this day in 1968, will direct the inauguration festivities. I expect something akin to what Zhang Yimou did for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Vin Scully, born on this day in 1927 will be the announcer for the festivities.

In the Oval Office, I'll have paintings of such illustrious January 29 political figures as President William McKinley and former New York congressman and African-American leader Adam Clayton Powell.

There will be a performance of The Cherry Orchard at my inauguration in honor of January 29 playwright Anton Chekhov.

We will be moving the nation's capital to beautiful Topeka, as we celebrate Kansas, brought into this nation on this date in 1861.

Finally, I will be naming renaming some cabinet positions in honor of American heroes born on this great day. Thus Secretary of Defense will be the Harry "Lighthorse Lee" Secretary of Defense, named after the Revolutionary War officer born on this day in 1756. And we will now see the Albert Gallatin Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson's and Madison's choice for the office was born on this day in 1761.

Loomis/Winfrey '12! A vote for Kansas, tacos, and Heather Graham!

Historical Image of the Day

U.S. Army recruiting advertisement directed at women, early 1970s


Not that I think that providing a representative from each side of a false binary is any way to measure news objectivity, but this is pretty screwed up:

H/t matttbastard.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Compromise?

I'm just going to lift Stephen Suh's post.

The economic stimulus bill passed the US House today. Not one Republican voted for it.

They got what they wanted, from tax cuts to reduced infrastructure investment to the removal of the American One Child Act of 2009 to - and this is especially important - uncounted hours on TV and endless inches in newspapers and magazines decrying the Democrats' hedonistic, tax-and-spend ways.

And then they voted against it anyway.

Yes, indeed. So why even compromise with the Republicans? Why not say, we have the votes so fuck off and die. If none of them are going to vote for it anyway, why even consult them? It might be different in the Senate since pulling a vote or two is going to make a big difference but given the soon to be 59 Democratic senators only need 1 and Judd Gregg is running for his life for reelection in New Hampshire, he's going to be voting with the Democrats a lot.

So seriously, fuck the Republicans. There's no need to compromise with them on anything if they aren't going to vote for it regardless.

In a related issue, why do congressional Republicans understand politics so much better than congressional Democrats?

If Emperor Penguins Go Extinct, Will Evangelicals Think God Has Abandoned Them?

One of the most annoying events in film during this decade was how evangelicals interpreted the documentary March of the Penguins to say that evolution could never have created such monogamous and self-sacrificing creatures as emperor penguins. I like the documentary pretty well, even though it went way over the top in manipulating your emotions. But they wanted to make big money on a nature film, so I can forgive that to a certain extent. Less forgivable is taking a movie about penguins and distorting for political ends that have nothing to do with penguins.

Alas we find out that climate change could send emperor penguins to extinction. They rely on the ice at the edge of Antarctica. Without those ice shelves, they may not survive.

So if evangelicals see emperor penguins as clear evidence of intelligent design, how will they interpret their impending demise? That God has determined the penguins are too pure for the Earth? That God has abandoned them? That they are wrong?

Note that I'm not making fun of religion here, but simply how religious groups made a political point out of a penguin documentary.

Some (Very Premature) Pre-Spring Training Analysis (and a Prediction or Two)

Tim Kurkjian outlines why the AL Central will most likely be the most interesting and brutal division this year. Nobody's absolutely amazing, but at least right now, no other division in baseball looks like it has four extremely serious competitors for the division title, and even the Royals are poised to play much better and be a season-long spoiler in the Central (and if they win the title, well, stranger things have happened....the 2008 Rays, I'm looking in your direction).

Still, I have to say that I'm really excited at the Indians' prospects right now. Picking up a full-time, 100% legit closer who relies on his actual pitches, rather than will or a sketchy location (a la Wickman and Borowski) is hugely important. I don't see Lee being as good as he was in 2008, but I don't see Carmona being as bad, either, and they have an extremely deep bench and farm system both in terms of pitching and fielding. Pavano could be the dark-horse signing of the year ($1.5 million guaranteed, with incentives adding up to $5.3 million). Hafner and Martinez are looking and (at least saying they're) feeling healthier than they have in a couple of years. Sizemore is still stupid-good. And Shin-Soo Choo was an absolute beast once he became a full-time player last year (thanks Seattle!). It's going to be an absolute brawl for the division title, but I have to say, I'm actually as excited this year as I was at the beginning of last year (when, if Sabathia could have simply won one playoff game in Cleveland, the Indians most likely would have been World Champions for the first time in 60 years). And no matter who wins the division, I wouldn't be surprised if A) they had the "worst" record of any of the AL division champs, and B) if they made it to the World Series. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox are still there, as are the Rays, and the Angels are filthy good, but given the competition they'll have with their intra-division rivals, it wouldn't shock me in the slightest to see the AL Central finish with an 87-91 win team and go far in the playoffs.

Now we just have to wait another couple of weeks for pitchers and catchers to report, and our annual 4-month national nightmare will be over...

Historical Image of the Day

Image from William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc., 1791. This is arguably the most influential naturalist book of late 18th century America. Bartram truly is a forgotten American, though the Library of America put out some volumes of his several years ago, and is deserving of a post in that series of mine.

Another Reason to Bag on Slumdog

I am enjoying the backlash against the wildly overrated Slumdog Millionaire. This is a really good (if overly political reason) to feel even better about it.

Despite all the money the movie has made, the small children in it are still living in abject poverty.

Both children were found places in a local school and receive £20 a month for books and food. However, they continue to live in grinding poverty and their families say they have received no details of the trust funds set up in their names. Their parents said that they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums, and that its success had made them realise how little their children had been paid.

Ismail is in fact “worse off” now, as his “family’s illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a sheet of plastic tarpaulin.” Ali lives nearby — in a “hut.” A Fox Searchlight spokesperson said he is “proud” of their treatment and boasted, “For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary.”


Action, please, nao.

So on the "What Now" subject: The economic stimulus bill is up before Congress this week and it's going to have a rough time in the Senate. The House has the votes along party lines, but the Senate, well, you know the score.

If you're like me and you live in a state with a rational Republican senator, email/call/picket his or her office (I'm thinking Specter--my Senator--the two from Maine, know what I mean.) Harass the hell out of 'em. Flood their offices. We need this passed and we need it now.

I'd prefer if we could get this back in, but Obama had to at least look like he was willing to compromise. If the Republicans keep stonewalling, we need to remind 'em who won this election.

We all do a lot of talking and writing, some of it can certainly go in the direction of elected officials. If one of those people isn't your Senator, fake some sort of a connection and go for it. State you were born in? State where your grandma lives? State you slept in once on an all-night booty call? Whatever.

Let's do this.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Blago Interview

I had to watch Blago try to dig himself out of his hole on Rachel Maddow tonight.

This guy is slick. Really slick. Either that or he really believes his bullshit.

He came in with his talking points, for sure--"The fix is in..." "Saints and Mother Teresa," "I was just trying to help people!"

But Maddow sits back and lets him hang himself. (Metaphorically!) She even offers him a way out--though it's not really, because we've all heard the tapes, so he can't really deny it. Instead, he raided an Obama speech for his talking points, but he ends up tripping over his words.

Also, one more reference to breast and cervical cancer and I'm filing a sexual harassment suit.

The Future of Brazilian Race Relations: A Barack Obama Effect?

I stayed out of the original comments thread from Karthika's post because I had plenty to say, and I think between the comments there and Erik's post, a lot has already been said. Erik gets Brazil right for the most part, as do Randy and Venha Futuro; there, race is incredibly coded in terms of money, clothing, education, and capital-c "Culture." Thus, Sao Paulo residents call idiot drivers or the poor or anybody who pisses them off "baiano" (in Rio, it's "Paraiba," another poor northeastern state with a large number of Afro-descendants), and I've had conversations with my "whiter" Brazilian counterparts where they have point-blank said that there is no racism in Brazil, all while sitting and eating in a pricey restaurant where all of the poorly-paid staff is brown-to-black, or heard somebody explain to me how the funk of the favelas is not "culture," that "culture" means Beethoven and Monet. This is in no way to enter into a "whose racism is worse" debate by claiming Brazil's racism is worse than the U.S.'s- such a debate over things like racism or slavery is less than useful, and tends to obscure the fact that those institutions are appalling regardless of where they are or their particular structures. Each country has its own historically formed racist expressions and structures, and it should go without saying that they are both troubling.

I think a lot of what Erik is saying about the U.S. is fascinating (and frightening). I am a bit curious as to what role he, Karthika, or anybody else thinks identity politics might play in combatting or reifying racism in the U.S. And I am a bit bothered (though it's no fault of his own) that this talk of America being a post-racial society is a particularly white issue (at least it's seemed as such to me). As Erik alludes, it's easier for whites, and maybe even others, to say America is "post-racial" now, but given the implication that racism therefore is no problem seems risible, and I'm fairly certain if I were to walk into Harlem, Washington Heights, the California fields, etc., and suggested that racism was dead, I would be met with a justified amount of derision.

However, what I really want to address here is the flip-side of Erik's discussion; specifically, the effect Barack Obama has had on Brazil. In short, Obama has given hope to more people than just U.S. residents. For generations, Brazilian and American scholars have debated whose racism and/or slavery was worse, and it's not uncommon to hear from most Brazilians the statement that American racism is worse (and again, I don't endorse this view or its opposite; I think neither view is particularly helpful). However, Obama's victory has forced a bit of a re-evaluation and introspection in Brazilian society, especially among Afro-descendants. For example, declaring oneself to be "black" has become far more popular than it had been prior to the election, and while a majority of Afro-descendants still categorize themselves as "brown" (and certainly some politically active Afro-descendants called themselves "black" before the election), I think it's safe to say that self-identifying as "black" has become a much stronger claim to personal pride and ability than it had before Obama was even campaigning. In some ways, it's almost the opposite of what's happening in America: where we are now seeing a major discursive effort to hide race under the rug by pointing to Obama's victory, some in Brazil are forcing the issue of race into public discourse by radicalizing their identity within Brazil's social structure, drawing inspiration from Obama's victory.

What is more, Obama's victory has forced some more uncomfortable self-evalutaions in Brazilian society. If America was supposed to have a worse racism than Brazil, and we've now elected an Afro-descendant to the office of the presidency, why hasn't Brazil done so? And not just to the presidency; the number of "brown" to "black" people in office at the national, state, and even local level is miniscule, and may be poorer than in the U.S. Certainly, Rio has never had a David Dinkins or a Ray Nagin. In short, the fact that we've been able to not only nominate but an elect an Obama has forced some Brazilians to quietly ask why they haven't been able to do so yet. Some progressives in Brazil have countered Obama has a Brazilian counterpart in Lula, who rose up from being a metal worker with no college education to become president of Brazil. While this is true (who's the last labor union leader we've elected? Oh, right....), the class-based nature of this argument in Brazil in some ways just reifies the racist structures of Brazil; by suggesting that Obama is to Lula what race is to class again denies the race-components of class in Brazil (as well as the class-components of race in the U.S.). In other words, they claim that Brazil only has class issues to overcome, and made great strides by electing Lula, thereby ignoring the racial problems still present in Brazil.

I think that Obama's victory and this self-imposed introspection in Brazil may actually lead to some small but important shifts, though. Just this past election year, international news agencies ran stories on 10 candidates who ran for public office in Brazil as "Barack Obama" (in Brazil, you can have virtually any name you want appear for your candidacy on the ballots). Just recently, Frontline ran an excellent report on one of the first of Brazil's "Baracks," as it followed Claudio Henrique's campaign to become the first black mayor of Belford Roxo, one of Rio's poor suburbs (and, in a great epilogue, his journey to the U.S. to attend the inauguration). The 10-minute story (which I highly encourage you to take time to watch) really gets at the key issues of how Obama has affected racial identities, society, and the political landscape in Brazil. Henrique didn't run as "Barack Obama" as some sort of gimmick; he ran because he had genuine hope and admiration for the man he felt had made his own candidacy possible. As one of the people interviewed put it, Obama has become a symbol for uniting, for overcoming society's racial obstacles, and this symbology has taken on major importance in Brazil.

This isn't to say that Obama's candidacy and now victory will lead to a "post-racial" society in Brazil anymore than it will lead to a "post-racial" society here, and many people in Brazil are dismayed and fearful that Obama's victory will lead to Brazil's own racially marginalized only getting "uppity" and making demands that rock the boat of denying racism. Nonetheless, the importance of Obama's victory to racial politics in Brazil cannot be denied, and it seems, at least right now, that there could be some subtle but important shifts in how Brazil deals with its own racial problems and legacies in the next several years.

The Future of U.S. Race Relations: Are We Starting to Think Like Brazilians?

Karthika's post has engendered a lot of conversation about the future of race relations in the United States. What strikes me about the way that young people especially, but also society at large, are talking about race relations is an increasing denial that race really matters. People, and you really see this among students, simply don't believe that race is a major barrier to success in modern America. Their obvious point of evidence is the election of Barack Obama.

Certainly race is changing. The legal structures of racism have largely broken down. The more intractable issue of individual racial prejudice is also declining. We have made real progress as a society.

However, I worry that the Obama election may actually lead to less discussion of race in this country. For the most part, I and others I have talked to find that young people are generally reticent to talk about race. They love talking about gender and sexuality. They are by and large great on GLBT issues. But race makes them uncomfortable. It seems that they believe we are forcing this non-issue down their throats.

But of course race still matters in this country. A lot. The rise in people denying this seemingly obvious fact begs the question: Are we beginning to copy the Brazilian model of race? I really think the answer might be a qualified yes.

First, let me set out in very general terms the Brazilian racial paradigm. Naturally, my small school doesn't have any of the major books on race in Brazil in its library and it has been a few years since I've read the relevant literature that I hoped to review. So if I am missing any key points in this discussion, please let me know.

Basically, most Brazilians deny that racism exists in their society. They point to never having a system of legalized segregation, as opposed to the United States; the ability of individual people of African descent to rise to positions of power, and the interracial mixing of the population as reasons none of this matters. While all these points have merit, it serves to obscure the severe racial problems in Brazil that extend back to slavery. The darker you are, the higher the chance that you are poor, live in a favela, experience police brutality, have limited opportunities for education, economic advancement, and access to health care.

Brazilians think about race in a very different way than Americans. The United States has long been defined by the "one drop" rule, where even people of only 1/8 African descent were legally defined as slaves. That Barack Obama is defined as black in our society is a sign of how powerful these ideas remain. The man is 50% black and 50% white, but he is black to most of us. In Brazil on the other hand, your behavior, social class, and way of carrying yourself, as well as your skin color, define your whiteness. Thus, you might see a very dark skinned individual, clearly of almost all African descent, refer to themself as "white," an assertion that would be accepted by much of society. Rather than focus on a blood quantum, it is behavior that matters.

Of course, all the positive attributes a person can have are considered "white." Skin tone, wealth, education, employment, neighborhood of residence, marrying a light skinned person, etc. Thus, all the negative attributes are "black." Living in a favela, gang membership, begging, unemployment, poverty, etc. Moreover, as people have pointed out in comments to Karthika's post, Brazilians will throw around racial epithets left and right, all the time denying that they are in fact epithets or negative in any way.

Essentially, Brazil is a society with massive racial problems and a total unwillingness to admit that any of those problems have anything to do with race at all.

Now, the United States is obviously a different nation, with a distinct history and race relations. Certainly there are a lot of Americans who are confronting race all the time, i.e., the African-American community. We have a long history of dealing with race fairly directly, whether that be through slavery, lynching, or fighting racism. But I really think that is changing. The promotion of Martin Luther King as the great American national hero with little black children and little white children playing together as the key construction of his dream has made a big difference over the last 30 years. Today, you have white kids throughout the nation who have grown up with black kids. They did play with them. They are friends with them today. They date and marry them. Because those old racial taboos have fallen, because their sanitized understanding of King's dream has been fulfilled, and because we have elected a black man to the highest office in the land, haven't we entered a post-racial society? Those old demons of race belong to the dustbin of history, just like Al Sharpton, Bull Connor, Jesse Helms, and Martin Luther King. What's particularly remarkable is that I've even heard this kind of talk from children of mixed-race relationships.

Here's the problem and here's what I think could ultimately lead us down a Brazilian path of racial denial in the face of massive racial inequality. Americans, both young and old, are largely unwilling to deal with issues of class seriously. We are still the descendants of Horatio Alger. Ragged Dick pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made himself a leading member of Gilded Age society. Barack Obama had a peripatetic childhood without a lot of inherent advantages and he grew up to become president. Why can't everyone be Ragged Barack? If they try hard enough, they can make it too. Like in Brazil, this can now happen on a case by case basis. This is particularly true because of the huge growth in the black middle and upper class since 1970. Today, lots of African-American children have significant advantages that the poor do not. Latinos also share in some of these advantages, though that is incredibly complicated and has a lot to do with ancestral nationality, time in America, where you grew up, and what social class your parents or grandparents were in before they came to the U.S.

But also like in Brazil, the poor in America are disproportionally people of color. There are an almost endless number of structural barriers to the poor reaching financial and political success--bad schools, lack of health care, parents having the ability to spend time with their kids, exposure to drug abuse at home, police brutality, and perhaps most importantly, a general sense of hopelessness and lack of expectations that life can get better. This isn't all that much different in the hills of West Virginia, the ghettos of Detroit, the reservations of South Dakota or the fields of California. But there is one important exception. Those white Appalachian kids are going to be accepted into a wealthy white society with greater ease than Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley, Pueblo Indians from New Mexico, or African-Americans from Compton. The ability to overcome class is greater if you are white.

When you combine the significant class biases and barriers that are already exacerbated by racism with the racial stereotypes and expectations that still inhabit the souls of too many Americans, you can see the incredible difficulty of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. To give one of hundreds of possible examples, tomorrow my class is reading Gregg Mitman's excellent history of allergies, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. One chapter is dedicated to the asthma epidemic in inner cities. Mitman shows how racism and structural inequality combines with terrible housing conditions to create conditions that lead to high rates of asthma among inner city children, again largely children of color. Dilapidated public housing provides perfect cockroach habitat, a frequent cause of allergies. For decades, allergists ignored inner-city neighborhoods in their research. The pharmaceutical industry has little interest in getting drugs to poor families and the for-profit medical system does not serve these children well. Thus, they get sick at higher rates, miss more school, and fall behind. This is on top of the already significant disadvantages they have when competing with privileged white kids (or privileged black kids for that matter) for college, jobs, and career advancement.

Until this inequitable public housing is taken care, we do not live in a post-racial society. Until racial discrepancies in asthma rates are eliminated, we do not live in a post-racial society. And until hundreds if not thousands of other racial and class differences are resolved, we do not live in a post-racial society. I believe the post-racial myth to be one of the most threatening ideologies we face as a nation today. That I see it so prominently in young people is alarming. Moving to a Brazilian race system of individual advancement masking overwhelming signs of racial inequality combined with an unwillingness to discuss race would be a disaster. Certainly it would happen differently here than in Brazil, but any move in that direction is not healthy. I see it as my duty as a teacher of U.S. history to point out the severe problems with this idea and to give students an understanding of our racial past and present that demonstrates the intractability of structural racism that continues to shape our lives today.

Aaron Sorking and The Flaming Lips

Apparently, Aaron Sorkin is working on a musical version of The Flaming Lips' album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

This has been floating around for a couple of years now, but I just heard about it. At least according to the Seattle indie station KEXP, this is still happening.

I really like The Flaming Lips. But this also sounds like arguably the worst idea I've ever heard.

RIP John Updike

John Updike dead at 76. I haven't read an abundance of his stuff, but what I've read, I've really enjoyed. Rabbit Runs has what is quite probably one of my two favorite endings both in terms of ways to end a book and in terms of linguistic structuring (the other being Portnoy's Complaint), and the collection of short stories that came out a few years ago offers a great argument that Updike is one of the greatest short story writers ever in any language. Certainly, his New England regionalism may not be everybody's cup of tea, and I've heard that his longer novels could be hit or miss. Still, his passing marks the loss of one of the greater literary talents of the 20th century.

Economic Stimulus

This is the email I sent to my Republican senator, Arlen Specter, today.

Feel free to use it and email your own senators to support the stimulus bill.

I am writing to urge you to support President Obama's economic stimulus bill. This election was nothing if not a referendum on the economy and whose economic policy Americans wanted to move forward. Barack Obama won, including a decisive victory here in Pennsylvania.

We support a package that includes public works, benefits for low-income families (including contraception for low-income families that can ill afford another child in this time of economic stress), and job creation. This is what we voted for in November and what we urge you to support now.

Historical Image of the Day

Pile of horse and human bones, aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka, "Custer's Last Stand," 1876

Monday, January 26, 2009

John Conyers is Win

"Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it," ... "After two years of stonewalling, it's time for him to talk"

John Conyers, mah hero.

Re-subpoenaing Karl Rove, Conyers laid down the effing LAW. And it's hot.

Let's see what happens now, eh?

My Year of Opera (III): Philip Glass, "Akhnaten"

I first got into Philip Glass's music around 14 years ago, and one of the first compositions I fell in love with were selected scenes from his opera, Akhnaten. Though I only got my hands on a full recording of the opera around 10 years ago, it has probably been my favorite Glass composition since I heard his music. For well over a decade, I'd hoped to catch a live performance of the opera, but the challenge was significant; prior to this January, Akhnaten has been performed only 7 times globally. Fortunately, the Atlanta Opera was putting on a performance this year; even more fortunately, I had a place to stay in Atlanta; and most fortunately of all, I knew somebody who was involved in the production of Atlanta's performance, and was able to get a ticket. So this past weekend, I flew down to Atlanta to catch what was the eighth performance of Akhnaten.

The opera is part three of Glass's trilogy of "biographical" operas (the other two being Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, about Gandhi in South Africa). Aknaten narrates the ascension of the titular pharoah and his decision to abolish all other Egyptian deities and worship only the "aten," or sun-disc, thereby creating what many have argued was the world's first monotheistic religion. Glass's opera focuses on Akhnaten's epiphany, his relationship with Nefertiti (his wife), his creation of a city devoted only to the Aten, and his subsequent downfall as he alienated his subjects and the priests of the old gods. The opera closes with tourists walking around the remains of Akhetaten, the city the pharoah built for his new religion, while the ghosts of Akhnaten, Nefertiti, and Queen Tye (his mother) wander about.

Although the story is simple, it is incredibly dependent on stage directions, moreso than any other opera I'm aware of (which, admittedly, is limited). Several of the scenes are composed only of wordless singing (most notably, the scene in which Akhnaten and Tye order the Temple of Amon be destroyed). Thus, the stage directions have a lot of action that they must convey that the recorded version of the opera couldn't possibly convey, and a lot hinges on the body language and facial expressions of the actors, as well as the broader directions given.

Fortunately, the stage direction was outstanding. Richard Kagey's directions and decisions were remarkable. The tension and violence of the destruction of Amon's temple, non-verbally acted out on the stage, was remarkable and perfect; likewise, the budding love of Nefertiti and Akhnaten in Act II, Scene 2 gave an even greater emotional heft to the music. While these two portions were highlights, the entire opera was outstanding in terms of acting. There were virtually no setpieces due to space restrictions (the only "sets" were a chair and table that served as the throne of the pharoah, and some veils that were taken on and off the stage repeatedly and that functioned as curtains, religious symbols, and royal opulence). However, the sparseness on stage was unimportant, Kagey's stage design and the acting performances and nuances he brought out of his singers gave the performance an emotional depth and heft that one could never conceive the opera had just listening to a recording.

The other highlight of the opera (aside from finally hearing and seeing something live that you've wanted to see for close to 15 years) was the Atlanta Opera Chorus. They sat on the stage in all black, functioning almost like a Greek chorus, overseeing all. The sheer power of the ensemble, though, was breathtaking to the point where words almost fail. In comparison to the Met's chorus, Atlanta's was far and away much better in every sense, from nuance to power, from emotion to accuracy. They could take your breath away with sheer volume (as in Act I, at the end of the Funeral of Amenhotep III) or with sheer, huanting, devastatingly beautiful quiet (as they sang Psalm 104 at the end of Act II).

I did have a few minor complaints about the performance. The bass was unable to really make his voice heard over the chorus in the funeral scene for Amenhotep III; I suppose you could blame the chorus for this, but they are supposed to be loud, and he just couldn't keep up. Also, I've listened to the recorded version of the opera enough to pick up some subtle musical shifts that very well may have been in the score but not on the recording (most notably, the addition of cymbals in "The Window of Appearances" at the end of Act I). Additionally, the orchestra (composed only of woodwinds and percussion, and a violin-free string section composed only of violas, cellos, and basses) seemed rather muted; it may have been I simply couldn't hear them as well from my seat (which was only about 6 rows back from the stage and pit), but perhaps not. I felt occasionally that the orchestra may have been a bit off, too, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I was simply going on memory of a recording, while they had the score in front of them. The conductor himself seemed to do a fine job, though, and aside from these minor quibbles, I had no complaints.

Indeed, after almost 15 years of waiting to see a live performance of Akhnaten, I was actually kind of anxious going into it, fearing that I would have built it up so much in my hopes and expectations that it couldn't possibly match them. Mercifully and gloriously, it was even better than I'd hoped and proved to be as triumphant, if in radically different ways, as any live performance of any style of music I've ever seen. And while I couldn't find any other reviews of the Atlanta performance online for anybody interested to read, I did find a highly amusing comparison of Obama and Akhnaten (and even a completely unsubstantiated claim that Obama is Akhnaten reincarnate! They even look alike! Color me convinced!)

[And an apology for reposting this - those who know me are aware of my technical struggles, which in this case manifested themselves in the accidental deleting of the previous posting.]

Misogynist Pig of the Decade

Silvio Berlusconi.

Relations between Brazil and Ecuador Normalize

Last month, I wrote about Ecuador defaulting on its loans to Brazil. At the time, I commented that the defaulting, combined with tensions between Brazil and Ecuador over dams Brazilian companies constructed in Ecuador, had created a lose-lose situation for both Brazil and Ecuador; the former was paying financially and had strained relations with one of its "leftist" allies on the continent, while the latter was isolating itself and creating a situation that would cause problems both presently and in the future both in terms of diplomacy and in terms of Ecuador's on infrastructural development.

Apparently, cooler heads have prevailed, though, as a couple of weeks ago (I haven't really had time to get around to this until now) Ecuador has paid back Brazil's BNDES for the funds to build the dams, and, in response, Brazil has sent its ambassador back to Ecuador, thereby reopening normalized relations between the two countries. While Brazil does gain a bit here diplomatically, it's really Ecuador that wins out in resolving this problem. Brazil was one of the few friends and willing foreign creditors able to help out Ecuador as the global economies deal with crisis; had Ecuador continued to alienate itself from Brazil, it would have faced real obstacles in infrastructural development, financial aid, and diplomatic relations in the region. I completely agree with Boz that Ecuador blinked first because it really couldn't afford not to, and this does help Brazil strengthen its position in the region even further. Overall, I think it's a satisfying end to what was a point of contention between the two countries that could have been increasingly damaging (particularly for Ecuador) had it been drawn out further.

Bolivian Constitution Passes

Bolivian voters ratified the new constitution yesterday with 56% of the vote, the latest step in Evo Morales' democratic revolution. The indigenous majority again flexed their political muscle, taking control of the nation from the eastern whites who had oppressed them for the last 450 years. One can certainly quibble with the expanded executive authority the constitution gives Morales, including the ability to dissolve Congress. It's far from perfect, as is Morales. But one cannot question the democratic nature of these changes. The document is designed to give the indigenous people actual power for the first time in the nation's history, including autonomous judicial systems and mineral rights, as well as limiting individual land ownership. Whether Morales will actually be able to go into the eastern ranches and take people's farms away is a whole other question. Personally, I doubt it and believe that this is more symbolic than real. As it stands, the law is not retroactive, but I have trouble seeing people in eastern Bolivia even thinking about adhering to this law, particularly given their lack of respect for the government's legitimacy.

What I find amusing is how the eastern white economic elite is whining about the undemocratic nature of the Morales government. First, they did not care one whit for democracy while they were in power. The indigenous people simply did not matter to them except as a source of cheap labor. Second, Morales is democratic. One might question the appropriateness of democracy when the people decide to give almost all the power to one individual, but nonetheless, welcome to a democratic world. But most annoyingly, the economic elite has learned nothing from this episode. Once they return to power, which someday they no doubt will, is there any question that they will again pursue policies that line their own pockets at the expense of the nation's people?

John Crabtree has more.

Tightening Emissions Standards

I usually find the decentralized, state-dominated aspect of American government annoying. As a fan of a big centralized national government directing policy, it's easy to see the states as obstructionists dominated by petty local concerns and lobbyists. But sometimes the progressive states can lead the way on issues. In these cases, the federal government can use the states to its advantage, creating change without burning political capital.

Such is the case with Obama allowing California and other states to create their own, stricter, auto emissions standards
. The reality is that Detroit is not going to make different cars with different emissions rates. It is in their interest to make only one car. They hate the California law because it forces them to adopt far tougher standards, but if 13 states, representing nearly 1/2 the auto market in the U.S., are going to adapt lower emissions, it means Detroit is going to make all their cars this way. This is a huge environmental victory that the Bush administration opposed, and Obama is able to do this without spending one bit of political capital.

Historical Image of the Day

General George Thomas. Thomas was a non-treasonous Virginian who fought with the Union during the Civil War.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

There’s a new color in town: beige

If you thought the question of race in America wasn’t complicated enough, Hua Hsu writes in this month’s Atlantic that we now have a new race: beige is the color of the new post-racial America, he argues, one in which race will no longer be a factor. Pointing to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau Hsu assesses that by 2042, all groups that qualify as racial minorities will account for a combined majority of the population. Hence, any child born hereon will belong to the first post-racial generation. This beiging of America, of course, was proposed in the late nineties by Michael Lind who predicted that intermarriage among the races would lead to a mixed-race majority.

Hsu is not talking merely about the color of skin though. What he is suggesting is that in a landscape that allows a child born of Indian immigrants to become the governor of Louisiana, and a man with a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father to hold the highest office in the nation, the mainstream in America might finally be reaching a post-racial state. Citing examples such as hip-hop, which gradually entered the realm of pop culture, and Tiger Woods, who defied the stereotype of golfers as white country-club elite, Hsu makes the case that multi-cultural is now mainstream.

That’s not new. When we look at Broadway shows celebrating the dazzling colors of the Punjabi sharara and clubs devoted to Latin American dances we know that diversity is already embraced in America, or at least in some parts of it. As my half-white, half-Indian friend puts it, “it’s good to be the ‘other.’” But could “other” ever become the norm, merely owing to increasing numbers, and equal opportunities?

As this embrace of diversity and ethnic cultures pervades America, Hsu argues, interracial marriages will make white or black or brown obsolete, and render everyone beige. It has been predicted previously that by 2050, five percent of Americans will describe themselves as multiracial.

Hsu uses the increasing popularity of mocking the so-called white-person stereotype as a testament to his proposition. “Flight from whiteness” is the best defense for white people in a country that is growing increasingly resentful of the privileged white man, according to Hsu. White kids, born of white parents are plagued with identity crisis according to him, a problem hitherto restricted to immigrant and inter-racial children.

But the question is, if America does turn beige, will white soon become a “socioeconomic class” as opposed to a color? Granted, it is sort of a class right now, but one that is filled with white people. Then again, what is “white” other than the color of skin? Sure, it is a culture, it is a stereotype, as Christian Lander wittily and entertainingly continues to illustrate, and it is most often a privilege. But as Samhita Mukhopadhyay describes in the Prospect, culturally, intellectually and economically, wealthier people of color are about as white as white people, and hence, white is as much about class as about race. You need a good amount of disposable income to appreciate or relate to it, she says. Is it just a circle that you belong to then, a status that you attain, and once you reach it, you’re white? For instance, Italians and Jews did not assimilate into the white community for many many years after their arrival.

Or disconcertingly, as Lind observed, might black people be excluded from this broad community, while other races – including Hispanics and Asians – continue to make inroads?

One of the more profound points Hsu makes is the role of the Internet in shaping multiculturalism. There’s no question that blogs that focus on esoteric subjects, and Facebook groups, which cater to people with similar interests straddle racial and ethnic divides more than any offline group could. But even if all these factors – the popularity of ethnic lifestyles, the influence of online networking, and generation Y carrying less of a racial baggage – may cause a cultural and demographic shift, there is no saying that it will end racial divisiveness.

Being post racial does not have to necessarily mean that we are beyond racial divisions, it is just that race is becoming less relevant in the way we identify ourselves or relate to one another.

As Richard Benjamin writes in the Huffington Post, we haven’t reached a post-racial moment, we have merely reached a multi-racial moment because the increasing numbers of Asians, Hispanics and blacks is turning minorities into majorities. In so celebrating lone heroes (such as Martin Luther King and Obama), we tend to obscure the larger issues that still need to be resolved.

From Colony to Superpower, Part IX

This is the ninth 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. As you may have noticed, it's been several weeks since the last entry. This is because Rob lost his book. Amazingly, someone found it and shipped it back to him. This begs further explanation. Does he put his address in all of his books? I hope he tells us.

This week covers the period from 1901-13, or the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. This is a period of great importance in the history of American foreign relations. Having gained colonies in 1898, America had to figure out what to do with them. Was the nation comfortable as a hard colonialist power or did it prefer a softer colonial relationship without constant physical occupation (and the expenses that incurred)? Moreover, the United States all of a sudden found themselves a fully realized power and began to think about how to use that power and prestige on the world stage.

The central figure in this interesting chapter is Theodore Roosevelt. To no small extent, Herring buys into the Roosevelt mythology, calling him "a genuine American hero." (347). What does that even mean? Whatever, I personally loathe Roosevelt, but there's no question that he is the dominant figure of the era and that he represented the thoughts of many Americans when it came to both foreign and domestic policy. He represented both the worst and best (well, mostly the worst) of American beliefs toward the world in the early 20th century. He held all the racial stereotypes of the day (few know that he was close friends with Madison Grant, writer of The Passing of the Great Race, the most important American eugenic tract and a big influence on the young Adolf Hitler), believed that American civilization was a model for the world to follow, and had no problem deploying American power against weaker nations to get his way.

On the other hand, he was geninuely interested in promoting peace around the world, especially when it served American interests. I was newly impressed by Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese war and to force the expansionistic Germans to lay off the French in Morocco. This was also the period when the Red Cross began. Meanwhile, Progressive men and women (and Herring explicitly mentions women) were working toward peace around the world. All of this had limitations--America ultimately could not permanently check Japanese and German expansion and non-governmental attempts at peace ended in failure. Moreover, virtually all American activities with other nations, even the powerful Japanese and European Russians, were dominated by ideas of American superiority. Nonetheless, the root of good existed in American foreign policy of this period, even it it so often took a back seat to darker impulses.

The worst of these impulses involved Latin America. Herring spends a decent amount of space on Latin America, but certainly doesn't center it as the key to understanding American foreign policy during these years. I do see US-Latin American relations as the single most important issue. For it was during these years, even more so than the Spanish-American War, that policy makers and business leaders created the neo-colonialist relationship that marked relations between the two regions during the twentieth century. The roots of Nixon and Kissinger supporting Pinochet and Reagan supporting the Contras are in this period. The most obvious example is Roosevelt breaking off Panama from Colombia to build the Panama Canal. Not even Herring can defend TR here, writing that "even by the low standards of his day, his insensitive and impulsive behavior toward Colombia is hard to defend" (368-69).

But it was so much more than Panama. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine provided the ideological groundwork for U.S. domination of the region, even if it had the side benefit of telling the Europeans to step back in the Americas. United Fruit and other fruit companies completely dominated Central America during these years--this is the root of the term "banana republic." When things got hot in these countries, the fruit companies would just call in U.S. troops to put things right. We were happy to erect dictatorships in Cuba that were unresponsive to the people's needs, laying the groundwork for Fidel Castro. We dominated the Dominican Republic and turned Puerto Rico into a true colony. Particularly after William Howard Taft became president in 1909, the nation happily sent the Marines to occupy any one of these Caribbean and Central American nations when our economic interests were at stake.

None of this is excusable, and certainly Herring doesn't try to do so . I just wish he had stressed more how foundational this period was to our relations not only with Latin America, but the entire developing world during the 20th century.

Finally, the one benefit of American colonialism was the spread of baseball. Herring mentions that Filipinos picked up the game in the early 20th century. I demand to know what happened with that? Why don't we see Filipino major leaguers today? I feel that we are missing out on some serious talent.

There's a lot more to talk about, particularly concerning Asia, but I'll pass it over to Rob for his response.

Historical Image of the Day

Spillway construction at Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, 1937

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Historical Image of the Day

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in the Hollywood movie of the same name, adapted from Herman Melville's story, 1962.

Levee Money in Stimulus Bill

After a long conversation with one of my favorite bloggers, I realized that I should spend less time feeling guilty about not being back in New Orleans, and more time actually following what's going on down there.

As the fight heats up over Obama's promised stimulus package, Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter have requested funding for "more than $6 billion in coastal restoration and levee construction projects in an economic stimulus bill now moving through Congress."

It's about friggin' time. This fall will mark four years since Katrina, and according to the article, "[Army corps of enginieers] officials have said there's a backlog of projects ready for construction that totals more than $65 billion."

Let's get on it, shall we? Let your Senator know you support funds for rebuilding the Gulf, as well as many other infrastructure-related projects.

Is the airport in Mexico City...composting?

I flew into Mexico City yesterday, and almost nothing made me happy about that airport.  After waiting in line for 45 minutes at the immigration line, I finally got my luggage, which I had a feeling was about to go into the unclaimed luggage pile.  Going through customs was actually really easy, but when I got out of there, I was bombarded by guys asking me if I needed a taxi.  They were probably right in asking because I'm sure I looked pretty damn lost...and as a tall girl with red hair, I stood out pretty well, too.  The restaurant where I was supposed to meet someone had apparently changed names, so I walked up and down the same corridor 4 times where the same guys asked me if I finally needed a taxi.  I finally asked information, and she confirmed that the restaurant had changed names, and I was actually standing right next to it.

Ok I'm getting off track, but the one thing that made me really happy about the airport was that I noticed all the trash cans had two compartments, labeled "inorgánico" and "orgánico."  That's right, the airport in Mexico city actually composts!  Apparently Mexico City is behind this effort, which isn't going that well so far, but at least they're trying.  Also interesting: there was a noticeable lack of "advertising" for their composting program.  Certainly, if a U.S. airport started composting, there would be some cheezy signs around saying something like "We're going green!  Help us compost!"  But there was none of that, for better or for worse...

I've never seen composting in any city in the U.S., but maybe it's out there somewhere.  Southwest airlines started including recycling bins at their gates, so I guess they're trying too, but I don't know how much success they're having.  It seems like composting would be a lot easier to control and implement, but maybe I'm wrong.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Passes

And you know Obama's going to sign that shit. Hell, he even had Ledbetter herself on his whistle-stop tour.

The vote was 61-36 in the Senate, which is a disgusting margin if you ask me. 36 votes against? What year is it, again?

The House of Representatives approved a similar measure on January 9, three days after the 111th Congress convened. Because the Senate made modest changes in the House version, the House must pass it again. Once it does, as is assured, this will be one of the first bills that President Barack Obama signs into law.

This culminates a two-year effort, mostly by Democrats, that made onetime tire plant supervisor Lilly Ledbetter a civil rights icon and a political star.

The legislation overrides a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee in Gadsden, Ala., couldn't sue her employer for pay discrimination because she didn't file suit within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.

It's a good day to be a feminist.

David Berman

For you Silver Jews fans out there, you know that David Berman is a really weird dude. I was shocked that they toured this fall and was lucky enough to attend the Austin show. It was pretty good. I'm glad I did so, because Berman is retiring from singing.

What really amused me was the punch in the gut Berman gave to his father, the Republican, business lobbyist, anti-regulation hack Richard Berman (I didn't know they were related):

"My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molestor. An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma)"

Of course, knowing Berman he could just be making this all up. Who knows. He's really freaking weird. But the Silver Jews are such a good band.

Elections Have Consequences: Saving Women's Lives Edition

In Obama's first two full days in office, he righted America's overturned moral ship, closing Guantanamo, ending torture, speaking to State Department staff about a return to negotiation, and naming special envoys to deal with the trickiest foreign policy challenges on the planet.

Today, Day 3, he overturned the global gag rule on abortion, allowing agencies who get family planning money from the United States to talk about abortion.

More good things have happened this week than in the previous 8 years combined.

Nashville Rejects Hate

Yesterday, Nashville rejected a ballot measure that would have made English the official language of business in the city and outlawed the city paying for translation services. The proposal only won 43% of the vote.

This is a really big deal. It may mark the turning of the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country. Nashville is far from the most progressive city in the nation, though if you included the suburbs, I wouldn't be surprised if it passed. The blatant hypocrisy of the measure's proponents certainly helped--they claimed this was about saving taxpayer money and then forced the city to spend $350,000 on the election. Nonetheless, it is a very good sign. Given the large proportion of Nashville that is African-American, it also suggests that the supposed tensions between Latinos and African-Americans is overrated.

Incidentally, reading about this measure taught me that Nashville has the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Who knew?

Historical Image of the Day

Civil War reenactment near Luray, Virginia, 2000s

Have I ever mentioned how much contempt I have for Civil War reenactments?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bush's Parting Gifts.

The absolute piece of shit pardons that Bush snuck in at the end.

It's only fitting that in the closing moments of the most lawless administration in our nation's history, President Bush chose as his final act, to grant clemency to two rogue Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed man in the back, then attempted to cover up their crime. From its inception, this administration has always been based on the assumption that those in positions of authority are beyond the constraints law and that cover-ups, secrecy, and lies are acceptable means to an end.

Disgusting. Thank goodness it's over.

"Dr. King's Dream Doesn't Have a Finish Line"

This. This is how I feel, and it's amazing.

h/t matttbastard and belledame.


Wow, do I feel about bad for those Republicans claiming that Obama's inaugural speech was an unnecessary and uncivil slap in the face to the Bush Administration.

Yeah, you know the Republicans were real paragons of class for the last 8 years. Dick Cheney telling Pat Leahy to go fuck himself on the Senate floor, Tom DeLay destroying all tradition and honor in redistricting Texas to keep Republicans in power, Karl Rove's bag of dirty tricks including against John McCain in 2000, torture, etc., etc.

You either need a lot of chutzpah to say something like this or just be a really practiced bald-faced liar. Given that we are talking about the Bush Administration, you know damn well it's the latter.

The Fireeaters

I love watching the Republican party implode.

And implode they are doing. They have no idea how to deal with defeat. They have no agenda. The best responses come from what I will call the Fireeater Republicans. The original Fireeaters were the extremist pro-slavery secessionists in South Carolina and other southern states in the years before the Civil War. Not surprisingly then, the leader of the new Fireeaters is South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who has decided that actual ideas or civility is not the answer. No, the Republcians must retreat into the most batshit of their ideas and scream about them VERY LOUDLY. DeMint spews:

“We have to have a remnant of the Republican Party who are recognizable as freedom fighters,” Mr. DeMint said. “What I’m looking to do as a conservative leader in the Senate is to identify those Republicans, and even some Democrats, and put together a consensus of people who can help stop this slide toward socialism.”
OK then. Who is DeMint's strongest supporter in the august body? None other than Diaper Dave Vitter, who is salvaging his post-prostitute reputation by challenging DeMint for the most right-wing senator. Together, these men and their allies (Sarah Palin likely included) will make the Republican Party relevant again by a) talking about how much they love Ronald Reagan, a man who has not been in public office in 20 years; b) talking about how much they love their guns; c) supporting torture; and d) promoting the white man.

Why am I not scared about a return to Republcian domination in the near future?

Interestingly, the first person I thought of when I read this was the Pope, who has said similar things. With the Catholic Church too open to liberal ideology and people who exist in the modern world, he has openly hoped for a leaner, meaner Catholic Church, with a return to principles and members who believe in strict, conservative Catholic dogma. Like the future of that declining church, I don't think the Republican Party has a lot of hope in coming years.

To some extent, this is reminiscent of the Democrats after 1972. After McGovern's crushing defeat, the party was in the wilderness for a very long time. Yes, Jimmy Carter won in 1976, but he was a quite conservative Democrat who repudiated many of the policies of the McGovernites and who lost to an even more conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980. The difference I think between the Democrats of the 1970s and 80s and the Republicans of today is essentially a moral one. Ultimately, the Democrats wanted to help people and give them things. That it was black people and counterculture types is what cost them in the end. The Republican Fireeaters maintain deep-seated anger and hatred.

The way for the Republicans back to electoral success in the medium term is to move the party to the left, where the American public has moved. This is how Bill Clinton won two elections. But I see absolutely no movement that way yet, and think that the Republicans are going to have to lose more elections to come to this conclusion. Either way, it's good for America.

The Bailout

As a progressive, I guess I am supposed to be against giving Obama the second half of the bailout money. That is certainly the message being pushed by the lights of the progressive blogosphere.

Here's David Sirota lauding the House for a symbolic vote against giving Obama the money. And here's Nate Silver calling Tom Coburn a "closet progressive" for voting against the funds.

But I don't know. While certainly the Bush administration provided absolutely no oversight of the first $350 billion, that's no guarantee that an Obama administration won't be more responsible. Also, I don't really want the economy to collaspe. I really feel that we are on the verge of total breakdown. Will the second half of the bailout make a big difference? I don't know. Maybe not. But I do feel that doing nothing, or maybe even worse, posturing and doing nothing, will not lead to anything positive.

Historical Image of the Day

Civil rights protest. Los Angeles, 1963

Morning in America

For real this time.

*Closing Gitmo and foreign prisons.

*Pay freeze for staffers making over $100,000 a year. (It's not quite a maximum wage, but it's a significant symbolic move.)

*Same article, new rules for administration officials becoming lobbyists.

*Open government and presumption in favor of Freedom of Information Acts.

And that's the first day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Better Days

I've returned, and while I'm organizing and composing my thoughts, this is the song I'm listening to.

I'll have thoughts for you all later. Much love and hope for the future.

Obama's inauguration, an inspiring pain in the ass

"Well, at least getting there. Having a standing room ticket to the inauguration didn't seem to help a whole lot of people get into the national mall. I arrived with my purple ticket at the closest open metro station, Chinatown, around 9am. The station was so full people didn't have enough room to get off the train. The escalator I was on got too full and broke. Two blocks form the purple ticket holders' gate a mass of people was inexplicably stuck at the intersection of First and D. Two concrete barriers that you could easily walk around were keeping thousands of people in a very tight space. I stood there like a sardine for almost two hours...some people passed out, others vomited. Somehow they managed to drive an ambulance through the middle of the crowd, squeezing us even tighter. Jesse Jackson and his entourage squeezed through...I only got a picture of the back of his head. I have it on good authority that Al Sharpton also made an appearance in our mob just before I got there.

Just as inexplicable as the mob itself, I got pushed five feet and everything opened up. I was greeted by another mob, apparently waiting in line for the purple gate. Funny thing is, the gate was locked and wasn't letting anyone in. People were pissed. There were people who had been waiting there since 5 and 6 in the morning, and they were standing in the same place I was. They randomly chanted "let us in!" and, for some reason, "Purple! Purple!" Finally, at 11:30, just as the ceremony was beginning, an entrance about 100 feet from where everyone was lined up opened and something like three thousand people tried to squeeze through an entrance about ten feet wide, awesome. Apparently I was lucky. Word is, a whole lot of purple ticket holders never got in. Some people claimed they were turned away, but my hunch is that that's bullshit. Mostly, people were sick of being sardines and once 11 o'clock rolled around, people gave up and tried to find a nearby bar to watch the inauguration on tv. But, then again, Facebook tells another story. The day after, already a dozen groups popped up, some of my favorites: "Purple Inaugural Ticket Holders for Truth;" "Purple Ticket Holder Conspiracy Group;" and "Purple Ticket Holders: No We Didn't."

Security was mostly a joke, but at least there were metal detectors. I'm told some Silver ticket holders rushed their gate and hopped over the fence without being screened. I ran from the security check to the ticketed area and caught the tail end of Biden's swearing-in. I had a good ticket on the Capitol lawn inside the wall, but it was impossible to see anything. The two jumbotron screens were strategically placed behind trees and Obama looked like an ant. None of that really mattered though, being there was cool enough. There was a lot of nodding heads and "yeah, that's right!" during Obama's speech. People seemed to really like it when he talked about not compromising ideals for expediency's sake, or something along those lines (ouch, Mr. Bush). And while I recognize that my continued belief that Obama is going to save the world is naïve, being hunkered down next to a whole bunch of Kenyans somehow convinced me that he could pull it off (something to do with international support, I dunno).

The sound for Obama's inaugural address was good, but everything else was impossible to hear from where I was standing. I ended up watching it all over again on C-Span (that is, YouTube) after I got home. Funny thing, on tv, when Obama thanked Bush for his service to the country, all you hear is applause. On the Capitol lawn, and certainly what Bush heard, was more a mix of applause and booing...mostly booing. Come on now, really? I felt it cheapened the moment.

With all that said, it was awesome. More or less having come to political maturity during the Bush administration, it was really exhilarating to be around so many people that were actually excited about a president. My friend Jason, also a purple ticket holder, cried at the swearing-in. My friend Sandy, wandering around the Washington Monument, partook in random stranger hugging (apparently, booing Bush was louder back there too). And 7th St from Chinatown to the mall practically turned into an independent economy of poorly made Obama kitsch almost over night, and people are actually buying this crap! Fantastic, I say." - Abel Kerevel.

Since I managed to score a few tickets to the inauguration for my brother, I asked him to write up a little piece on his experience for the blog. I'll be in DC on Friday, maybe I'll be able to score some discounted Obama merch?