Monday, August 31, 2009

Joe Maneri, RIP

I was sad to read of Joe Maneri's death. One of the godfathers of the improvisational jazz scene, Maneri has been pushing boundaries for 60 years. His influence is at least as much in his teaching as his music, as he mentored such greats as Marty Ehrlich, Eyvind Kang, John Medeski, and Matthew Shipp. He also fathered the great violinist Mat Maneri. A real loss.

Worst Argument Ever

UCLA economist Lee Ohanian blames Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression---because he was too generous to workers.

I develop a theory of labor market failure for the Great Depression based on Hoover’s industrial labor program that provided industry with protection from unions in return for keeping nominal wages fixed. I find that the theory accounts for much of the depth of the Depression and for the asymmetry of the depression across sectors. The theory also can reconcile why deflation and low levels of nominal spending apparently had such large real effects during the 1930s, but not during other periods of significant deflation.

Right, because workers making money and therefore buying things are irrelevant to the economy. Moreover, Ohanian completely ignores the social realities of 1930s America. Half of Europe was choosing totalitarian regimes and many people in the United States were looking at those options too. This argument, as are the arguments of economists way too often, is completely disconnected from historical context and actual life at the time. In addition, the lesson one might draw from this is that Ohanian also thinks the govenrment should do nothing for the unemployed or working-class in general today, which would be total political disaster, leading to social upheaval and who knows what result.

Absolutely asinine.

The Conservatism of Michael Pollan

I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan's books on food and nature. But there is a peculiar conservatism within the whole foods movement, particularly when it focuses on localism. While I think buying local is important, it can also easily slip into a reactionary antimodernism and myopic belief that your issue is all that matters.

Pollan deploys the worst of those tendencies here when he supports Whole Foods CEO John Mackey on a conservative website . Mackey, a libertarian tycoon, came out against health care reform. This has caused a boycott Whole Foods movement among his consumers, most of which do support health care reform. Mackey is also an anti-union fantatic and a supporter of any number of right-wing causes. But Pollan doesn't care. Pollan supports health reform but also says that Whole Foods does such great things for the world of food that it really doesn't matter.

Whole Foods is full of problems of course--from the industrialization of organic agriculture to the rollback of reforms for farm labor to weed organic produce without pesticides to the exorbitant cost of the food to the location of their stores in the most elite neighborhoods. While Pollan could be right that using a litmus test of CEO's political views might make it hard to eat anywhere, there's a big difference between what they think and one of them writing a prominent editorial about it.

Moreover, I'd like to think that Pollan and other local food proponents think other issues are at least as important than this. Personally, while I value good quality food and buying local, I'd argue that health care reform is far, far more important, as is climate change, card check legislation, foreign policy, and any number of other issues in the world. Rather than separating those issues like Pollan does, I'd like to see him follow what his consumers are doing. They realize that these issues are closely connected and refuse to support one at the cost of another.

Via Lindsay

Historical Image of the Day

Robert LaFollette, Senator from Wisconsin, 1906-25.

Fighting Bob LaFollette was perhaps the prototypical Progressive senator. Deeply concerned with the changes rapid industrialization and urbanization had caused the United States, no one worked harder to make life decent for Americans in the early twentieth century than LaFollette.

When LaFollette entered the Senate in 1906, he came into a body controlled by corporate interests. We often see 1901 as this hard line between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, but we all know how seniority works in the U.S. Senate--all the committee heads in 1906 had long tenures during the most corrupt era in American history, opposed many Progressive reforms, and liked the good old days of bribery that they profited off of. So when LaFollette entered, he was a nobody, exiled to marginal committees to limit his influence. But he wasn't a good boy--he was loud and toured around the nation exposing corruption within Congress and rallying for progressive causes. Because of this, he quickly became a leader of the Progressive movement in the Senate, giving him much more power than his lack of seniority normally would have allowed.

LaFollette worked for any number of issues, mostly surrounding improving conditions for the working class. He opposed child labor and supported women's suffrage. He was an early proponent of social security, laying the groundwork for Roosevelt to pass that legislation in the 1930s. He actively opposed U.S. imperialism in Latin America at a time when few cared. He believed in government ownership of utilities, assisting people like Nebraska senator George Norris on issues like government-owned power that would bring the 20th century to rural Americans, as well as pro-labor laws that workers would eventually see help them in the 1930s.

His steadfast opposition to World War I brought great scorn down upon him, with people such as Theodore Roosevelt calling him a traitor and others labeling him a German sympathizer. Nonetheless, he survived the war and the Red Scare, standing up for working people throughout the period, including vociferously opposing the imprisonment of socialist leader Eugene Debs for speaking out against the war.

A 1982 historians poll of the greatest senators ever ranked LaFollette tied for first with Henry Clay. That's a remarkable achievement given the people who have served in that body.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I'm absolutely fascinated that the father of Nikita Mikhalkov, who directed "Burnt by the Sun," a fantastic 1994 film about the horrors of Stalin's purges on a local scale, was the man who wrote the Soviet national anthem under Stalin's behest and remained a confirmed Stalinist until his death a couple of days ago at the age of 96.

Historical Image of the Day

Senator Robert Wagner, 1934

Wagner represented New York in the Senate between 1927 and 1949. An ardent New Dealer, he is most well known for sponsoring the National Labor Relations Act (popularly known as the Wagner Act). This landmark legislation put severe limits on anti-union activity by employers, forced employers to bargain in good faith with unionized workers, and created the National Labor Relations Board to oversee that bargaining.

For all intents and purposes, this was the federal government encouraging workers to take their lives in their own hands and form a union. I cannot stress strongly enough how revolutionary the Wagner Act was. The government had been an active, hostile agent against labor unions from at least the 1820s and 1830s. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both state and federal governments served as private strikebreaking forces for companies. Meanwhile, workers suffered and died trying to improve their lives. Wagner's shepherding of this act through Congress is not only a highlight of the New Deal, but one of the greatest single acts ever accomplished by a senator. The National Labor Relations Act materially improved the lives of millions of Americans, gave workers hope instead of forcing them to turn to revolution in desperation during the Great Depression, and helped pave the way for America's post-war prosperity.

He also sponsored other successful pro-worker legislation, as well as pioneering legislation for the disabled, such as the Wagner-O'Day Act, which provided for a variety of services for the blind.

Wagner's legacy extends much farther than one bill. He also sponsored anti-lynching legislation in the Senate; of course, Southerners never allowed this to pass. He sponsored pioneering public media legislation; an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 would have given 1/4 of all radio stations to non-profits. This did not pass either. Another unsuccessful piece of legislation he worked to pass was the Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939 which would have allowed Jewish children to become refugees in the United States. This was defeated by an anti-Semitic Congress.

One of the hallmarks of a successful senator is the ability to get legislation through the system. While Wagner was unsuccessful in many of his endeavors, the National Labor Relations Act alone makes him a truly great leader in the history of the Senate.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Alterdestiny Homework

OK, you slackers, time to start working for the semester!

On Monday, I am going to talk about some of the film I am showing as part of my US Civil War in History and Memory course. Film is a key way to get at ideas of memory. One of the bits I am showing the students is the South Park episode, "The Red Badge of Gayness," about Civil War reenactments. It's from season 3 and you can watch it here.

Watch it so we can have a good discussion of the value and challenges of teaching this kind of material to students.

Facial Hair of the Weekend

An Amish couple from near my old stomping grounds of Ohio, circa 1940. (Courtesy the Library of Congress).

New Orleans, Four Years Later

At Erik's request, I'm posting the intro to my Global Comment piece on New Orleans here. I did several interviews for this story, including one with James Perry, who's trying to replace Ray Nagin as mayor of New Orleans--and has my full support (if I lived there, I'd vote for the guy. If you do, you should.)

Four years. It’s a presidential term; it’s the length of a high school or college education.

It’s also the amount of time that has passed now since Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast and devastated the city of New Orleans, driving thousands of citizens from their homes. Many still have not been able to return.

I spent four years of my life in New Orleans. They were four years that shaped me into the person that I am today. I learned about racism and I learned about jazz. I learned about poverty and class divisions, and I learned about real friendship. I learned what it was like to really fear your home being wiped out by a hurricane, and I learned what it was like to struggle to pay rent. I haven’t been back, but the city remains in my heart.

After the storm, many Americans opened their hearts (and in some cases, their homes) to New Orleans. We have a new president now, perhaps partly because Katrina exposed George W. Bush’s basic incompetence and lack of empathy. Those of us who have been paying attention have gotten quite an education from the government’s handling of Katrina, watching the initial fumble grow into four years of neglect.

According to James Perry, Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and candidate for mayor of New Orleans, the Obama administration has made an effort to do better by New Orleans. He notes, though, that, “The thing that’s difficult about that for Louisianans and New Orleanians is that four years out, we’re tired of waiting.”

Please read the whole thing over at GC--they support me and pay at least some of my bills. Thanks for your support as well. New Orleans needs you still.

Obama Season?

Aren't jokes about killing the president against the law? Out of Idaho:

Rex Rammell, a long-shot gubernatorial candidate seeking the Republican nomination, criticized Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on Wednesday for not making good on a promise to buy the first wolf tag. Tags for hunting the gray wolf went on sale Monday.

Rammell's remarks on Otter came in an interview Wednesday after the Times-News asked about comments Rammell made Tuesday night at a local Republican party event.

After an audience member shouted a question about "Obama tags" during a discussion on wolves, Rammell responded, "The Obama tags? We'd buy some of those."

Oh right, it's only against the law if you aren't a Republican politician. For them, it's just part of acceptable political discourse. Also, Idaho sucks.

Via Neiwert.

Historical Image of the Day + Bonus Meta-Senate Talk

George Norris, senator from Nebraska between 1913 and 1943.

Norris was a champion of progressive causes of all stripes. Although a Republican for most of his career (in 1936 he left that party and became an independent), he fought hard on the side of working people. He strongly believed that an activist government could solve many of the nation's intractable problems. He was largely responsible for the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932, outlawing yellow-dog contracts (agreeing to not join a union as a condition of employment). But Norris' great passion was public power. He was the single most passionate architect of Tennessee Valley Authority style programs to lift entire regions out of poverty. In fact, he once helped nix a Henry Ford program to build dams in the Tennesee Valley because he knew it was government's place, not private investors', to develop the country. When Franklin Roosevelt took the presidency, Norris' dreams were realized. The creation of TVA in 1933 owes a great deal to Norris' vision. Among the first dams built was Norris Dam, named after the great senator. Fittingly, TVA also created an experimental planned community near the dam for its workers and other locals, providing decent housing, tree-lined streets, schools, and other amenities virtually unknown in the deeply impoverished Tennesee Valley.

Actually, I am a huge critic of TVA and other high modernist dam projects. They have proven environmental disasters of the highest orders. They rarely provided the benefits promised to people and they often ran roughshod over local opposition. However, such ideas were completely unknown to political and intellectual communities in the 1930s. Dams seemed like a savior and political division over them revolved around whether they should be public or private. Norris and New Dealers at large believed public power would raise the standard of living for millions of Americans. Even if they were arguably wrong on the role of dams, they certainly were correct about activist government in general.

On a related note, Sandy Levinson examines the whole idea of great senators and pretty much agrees with me (or I with the much more famous Levinson) on what constitutes a "great" senator. He criticizes Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson's biographer, for romanticizing so-called "great" senators irregardless of their actual beliefs and the effect of their actions.

So that brings us to Calhoun, a thoroughly brilliant man who devoted his considerable talents, for most of his career, to nurturing and defending chattel slavery. It's really as simple as that. The United States would have been better off had Calhoun been thrown from a horse and killed in, say, 1827. Caro, whose books on Johnson and both great and flawed by a tendency to demonize at times a remarkably complex man, has an untenably romantic view of "great senators."

It is, indeed, like those say that both Churchill and Hitler were "great leaders" because, along some totally amoral metric, they were able to move their audiences to do remarkable things. Well, yes, but anyone who stops there is a moral idiot.

Precisely. That's why John C. Calhoun deserves our scorn as a moral scoundrel and a horrible man who did more than any single other person to justify and glorify slavery as a "positive good." Any discussion of Calhoun as a great senator comes from a person who doesn't believe morality matters in politics.

I Think You All Know Where I'll Be Today

Secessionist Saturday in Texas! Via Ian

Texans will converge on Austin to deliver a petition to Restore America by Demanding our Sovereignty or we will be forced to call a vote for Secession.

This is straight out of the Declaration of Independence and our right to “alter or abolish” our government if it has, “after a long train of abuses” refused to protect the rights of the people.

At present, the Texas Nationalist Movement has a petition with 1 Million signatures directly calling for a vote of secession.

We are calling for an orderly process that will allow our federal government to fall back in line with the Constitution. We are reclaiming our states rights and our individual rights. [...]

We must stand up and be counted or we will find ourselves in another government. Either we restore America, we will live in a Marxist dictatorship, or we will secede and start over again.

I'm actually tempted to go down there and see what these lunatics are up to. However, driving up in my Honda would probably tag me as a Marxist.

Remembering Ted Kennedy

Many moving tributes to Ted Kennedy have surfaced since his death this past week, honoring his commitment to soldiers' families, his fight for social justice, and his abilities as a political navigator in the Senate. Missing in all of these tributes, though, is teh acknowledgement of Kennedy's role as one of the leading voices against the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime.

Many are familiar with the United States' efforts to overthrow Salvador Allende between 1970 and the successful coup of 1973, ranging from economic sabotage to covert operations to trying to recruit other South American right-wing dictatorships to help overthrow Allende.

After the coup, Kennedy was one of the first American politicians to condemn the Pinochet regime. He immediately began lobbying for those who had been captured, tortured, or exiled in 1973. He also managed to pass the "Kennedy amendment," which banned the U.S. from selling weapons to the Pinochet regime; the weapons-sales ban remained in place until 1990, when Chile finally removed Pinochet through popular elections.

The importance and bravery of Kennedy's early stance against Pinochet cannot be overstated. At a time when many politicians were still deeply embedded in a Cold War mentality that saw Allende's democratically-elected left-wing coalition government as threat to "democracy" in the "free world," a right-wing dictatorship that was friendly with the U.S. was not only preferable, it was perversely being on the "right side" in the battle for "freedom" against Communism. Many politicians openly supported Pinochet and/or condemned Allende's government, and many more remained silent. Yet Kennedy was able to look beyond the simplistic and ridiculous Cold War "us v. them" syndrome to see the Pinochet regime for what it was: an authoritarian overthrow of a democratically elected government, a regime that was employing torture and murder to further its own ideological and economic agendas. And he acted accordingly, doing what he could to make sure the U.S. was not complicit in the violence that the regime established.

Sure, he couldn't end torture by himself, and the United States government continued to give aid and support to Pinochet. But Kennedy did what he could, and he did it throughout the 17 years that Chile was under a military dictatorship. Indeed, in 1986, he traveled to Chile, where he met with democracy leaders and the families and victims of torture and state-supported murders. Pinochet refused to meet with Kennedy, a clear sign that Kennedy had done something right. Sure, he was pelted with eggs by Pinochet supporters, and he was greeted with pictures of Mary Jo Koepechne in many places he went. But this did not deter him. As he himself observed, ''I am told that there are some people who regard me as an enemy of Chile. I am not an enemy of Chileans, I am an enemy of kidnapping, murder, and arbitrary arrests.'' In 1990, Kennedy returned to Chile as the country transitioned to a democracy.

Compare this to Jesse Helms, who, like Pinochet, arrived to his office in 1973. Helms was an unapologetic supporter of Pinochet, despite Helms' insistence that he was "neither pro-Pinochet nor anti-Pinochet". Helms also went to Chile in 1986, where he met with Pinochet and his supporters. While he was there, the Chilean military beat and set on fire two anti-Pinochet protestors, including 19-year-old Chile-born Maryland resident Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, who died from his injuries. In just one of the many examples of Helms' class, he called Rojas and another woman who survived being immolated by the military "communist terrorists," and when the U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes (who had tried to get Rojas to a hospital before he died, but was held up) attended Rojas's funeral, Helms vented that Barnes and the (Reagan administration's) State Department were "trying to appease a bunch of leftists and Communists."

Certainly, Helms was one of the most rabid defenders of Pinochet from start to finish, and that does help throw into relief what Kennedy did, but it in no way overstates what Ted Kennedy did for Chile. Indeed, last year, Michele Bachelet came to the United States and awarded Kennedy Chile's Order of the Merit, one of the highest honors Chile bestows, and with his death, Bachelet honored him by saying that Chile was "eternally grateful" for his struggle against Pinochet and his defense of human rights in Chile.

As I said, there are many, many, many great things to remember Ted Kennedy by. And though he fought to help so many people, I will probably always respect the man for what he did in Chile, taking a stance that was unpopular abroad and in the U.S. against a regime that committed some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America in the 20th century. Chileans aren't the only ones who are grateful, Ted, and we will all miss you and your efforts.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Random Baseball Trivia

Rusty Torres' career is far from noteworthy, statistically - a .212 lifetime batting average and .635 career OPS across nine seasons. There would literally be nothing that would distinguish Torres's class.

Except for the fact that he was present for not one, not two, but three different games that were forfeited in the 1970s: the last Washington Senators game (when he played for the Yankees); Ten-Cent Beer Night (when he played for the Indians); and Disco Demolition Night (when he played for the White Sox).

A battle for High Commander of the Asshat Armada

Saw this on Taegan Goddard's Politcal Wire...

"I don't have to read it, or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways."

-- Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), on heath care reform

Whaa, a Republican that thinks he doesn't have to read? Surprising.

So, my question is this: Is Inhofe more worthy of the title "Worst Senator in America"? I had always penciled in John Cornyn for this, but I'll be damned if Inhofe's stock hasn't been rising lately.

I keep coming back to that scene in Mel Brooks' History of World where the Roman Senate votes against aiding the common folk by voting "Fuck the poor!"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On LBJ's Senate Career

In the comment thread of my discussion of greatest senators, as well as at LGM, a lot of people have brought up Lyndon Johnson as a legitimate candidate.

I think this is off-base. As Majority Leader, Johnson certainly was powerful. But we've had lots of powerful senators. The question is, did he provide unusual qualities of leadership that got difficult legislation through the body on repeated occasions? Did he change history as a senator? Were his characteristics so exceptional that he is above 99.9% of other senators in the history of the United States?

To me, the answer is clearly no. Johnson's senate career was notable for working with Eisenhower to ensure that nothing of interest happened. OK, I'm being flippant here, but Johnson was an architect of the consensus politics of the 1950s, which is hardly the most noble time in American political history. He did shepherd through the Civil Rights Act of 1957. But we need to look more deeply at that situation to analyze Johnson. This was a case where the American public was clearly demanding something be done about civil rights issues, particularly in the aftermath of Brown, Montgomery and Little Rock. Eisenhower didn't want to deal with it. Neither did Sam Rayburn. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. These were all centrist southern politicians who by all accounts weren't boat rockers when it came to race. So they crafted a weak bill. That doesn't mean that LBJ doesn't deserve some credit--he did have to overcome massive opposition from the fireeaters in the South like James Eastland, Richard Russell, and Strom Thurmond. But this is not the Missouri Compromise here. Fewer blacks were registered to vote in the South in 1960 than in 1956.

I think the support for Johnson comes for two reasons. First, the magisterial Robert Caro biographies. People know more about him than anyone else. But what those books show above all is that Johnson knew how to manage people. That's a pretty great skill for Majority Leader (and one that Harry Reid should learn). But being an effective Majority Leader, as LBJ certainly was, is different than being one of the best senators ever.

Second, and most important, people are projecting Johnson's stance on race during his presidency back upon his senate career. This is a mistake. When Kennedy died in November 1963, King and other civil rights leaders were devastated. Not so much because JFK had been a great leader for their cause; rather, the movement expressed great frustration at his reticence to get involved. They were upset because they thought Kennedy was coming around to their side and now there was a southerner who had shown absolutely no sympathy for civil rights. They had ZERO evidence that LBJ would do a damn thing to help them. And they were shocked to be wrong.

This is why Johnson is one of our greatest presidents. But that's an entirely different matter from his senate career. Here's an equivalent. Let's say that Obama died and Biden was out of the picture or something. Somehow Max Baucus becomes president. Everyone interested in health care reform would be devastated, figuring that any meaningful health care is out the window. Then, President Baucus (!) forces through an American version of the British National Health Plan. Wouldn't we all be absolutely shocked and delighted. That's something approximating how civil rights leaders felt when Johnson slammed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because he was absolutely not a leader on civil rights while in the Senate.

They're Stealin' Our Jobs.......

Man, the whole Buy American movement annoys me. Not that I don't support American jobs. But I think this movement has two major problems. First, it prioritizes American jobs and the welfare of Americans over that of the rest of the world. I don't think that's helpful, particularly when the jobs are already overseas. Second, it's unbelievably simplistic.

People are complaining because Cash for Clunkers gave consumers the option to buy non-American cars
. Not surprisingly, given the fuel requirements of the program, a majority of people chose foreign cars.

First, this is one case where environmental concerns should simply outweigh any others. We need to change our driving habits. Driving at all is unfortunate, but if we have to drive, we should drive fuel-efficient vehicles. Second, Americans talk all about pleasing the consumer. Regardless of the problems with this line of argument, this is one case where consumers had their choice and they chose what they wanted. Isn't that OK? If Detroit made better and more fuel efficient cars, they would have dominated the Japanese. But they have chose a different course for decades and are paying the price.

Finally, many of those Japanese vehicles are made in American plants, thus still supporting American workers. I mean, in the modern world, what does "Buy American" even mean? Is it really about the highest echelons of ownership? Even there, people from around the world own almost every company. Does buying that GM car built in Mexico make any more or less sense than that Toyota car built in Alabama? I don't see how. If this was really about union jobs versus non-union jobs, I could see a strong argument for buying the GM vehicle. But Detroit has been bailing on their unions for 40 years and buying American vehicles isn't going to make any difference. Does anyone doubt that if GM survives and again starts building cars like in 2006 that they aren't going reopen many of those unionized American factories? They are going to open new factories in the developing world. I'd like to see this halted by government action, but that just ain't going to happen.

Freeper Racism Toward Malia Obama

If Boortz was yesterday's racist asshole of the day, the Free Republic people collectively win today.

For the loony right, that Malia Obama wore a peace t-shirt (as if there is something wrong with promoting peace!!!!), opens her up to pure unadulterated racism of the most disgusting and reprehensible variety.

If you really want to read the whole thread, it's here. However, I don't recommend it.

The Official Greatest Senator List

In 2000, the Senate named their own Seven Greatest Senators. It's a weird list:

John C. Calhoun

Henry Clay

Robert LaFollette

Robert Taft

Arthur Vandenberg

Robert Wagner

Daniel Webster

OK, Clay, Webster, Wagner, and LaFollette I agree with. John C. Calhoun is certainly one of the most important senators ever. Calhoun's case depends on how you define greatness. If you define it as simply chamber shaping and driving American political life, then there's no way to keep Calhoun off the list. While those are necessary components to qualify, I have to argue for a moral side as well. The policies pushed by that senator cannot be loathsome. In particular, the single most important architect in the push to commit treason in defense of slavery cannot be on my list.

As for Vandenberg and Taft, what? They are both important senators for sure. But I feel like Senate Republicans were going to be good and damn sure that they got their favorite progenitors on that list. It seems that Taft's entire case rests upon the Taft-Hartley Act, which even if it wasn't evil, isn't enough to qualify him. I'd like to think it takes more than union busting to make a great senator. Vandenberg was a very important senator when it comes to foreign policy, but it seems that the list overstates that importance. I'm more comfortable with Vandenberg than Taft, but I'd probably argue for another 10 senators before he came into the picture.

Historical Image of the Day

Daniel Webster.

The second in the great senator series. I wrote about Webster extensively here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Neil Boortz, Racial Exterminationist

While Noon suggests Treason in Defense of Slavery Yankee as the worst person in the world for his disgusting talk about Ted Kennedy, I'd like to nominate Neil Boortz for the position.

As we reach the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is not rebuilt, people are still displaced, and parts of the city remain a disaster zone.

And that's OK with some conservatives. Boortz tweeted this today:

Obama wants to rebuild New Orleans. Why? Build it and they will come. They? The debris that Katrina chased out.
Gee, what does Boortz mean by "debris." I just don't know....

It's real disturbing to see the dehumanizing of working-class African Americans. And isn't it just fantastic that leading Republican commentators think of African-Americans as "debris." No doubt he'd use other words in private. If black people are "debris," would Boortz have a problem wiping them out of the nation? Somehow, I think he wouldn't be too upset.

Ethnic Tourism

Lisa has a great post slamming on ethnic tourism, or the visiting of strange and bizarre peoples by westerners for their consumption. In particular, she goes after this Washington Post article by Amit Paley who desperately wants to see the Paduang women who wear brass rings around their necks. The article is pretty bad. Paley talks about her quest to see these women in the context of moral complexity. But when it comes down to it, she, like so many other people, really enjoys a freak show and she's determined to see one regardless of what rules she has to break.

When I was 22, I traveled to Thailand. Then, as now, one of the big tourist attractions was to see the northern hill tribes. We trekked along, staying in these villages for a few days. Even to my stupid and uninformed mind at that age, I felt really bad at the time. It felt like we were turning these people into a zoo. At that point as well, a major attraction of these tours was opium and other drugs. At that time, the Thai government didn't have a great deal of control over the northern reaches of their country and it was tolerated. This has since ended through a vigorous crackdown but the tourism continues unabated.

While an interesting part of any trip is experiencing a bit of how other people live, treating ethnic minorities as a zoo exhibit is deeply immoral. I think the entire Thai hill tribe tour industry is unethical. Seeing the Paduang women may or may not be any worse than the average tour. Certainly their are quite complex moral issues with tourism in general and with the Paduang people in general (if it's their traditional culture, should we consider it a human rights violation to crack down on this? Perhaps it is another form of imperialism? Or perhaps the ends justify the means?), but I'll leave this for another time.

Bye-Bye Tigers

India may be bringing up the issue of Chinese poaching of their dwindling tiger populations in bilateral talks this week, but does anyone think the Chinese are going to do anything about it? With traditional Chinese medicine using rare cat products such as tiger penis soup for fertility, with rising prosperity in China leading to a huge surge in demand for such dubious products, and with high-ranking members of the Chinese government major consumers of them, I think we are seeing the last wild tigers roam the Earth. I don't know much about captive breeding programs for tigers, but I hope they work because otherwise we are going to lose the great cats.

Teaching, Part I: College Writing

I want to write about teaching quite a bit this fall, discussing various methods I use as well as larger questions of teaching.

A good place to start is Stanley Fish's latest piece on college writing and changes in college curriculum more broadly. I basically think Fish is a pompous blowhard who constantly reverts to "back in my day" whining, and this article doesn't change my mind. Hilariously, Fish finds his own propositions being endorsed by Lynne Cheney when it comes to teaching the standards and he doesn't quite know what to do with that fact.

Fish's complaints that students can't write anymore are not without merit. In fact, the writing level of 18 year old students probably has declined over time. Fish complains that writing classes are in fact covers for the teaching of race, gender, and sexuality when he thinks they should be about sentence structure and composition. The first part of his argument is not untrue though the second is quite debatable.

I want to defend the students here and also talk a bit about teaching writing more broadly.

First, while our students can't diagram sentences, they can do a lot of things that are really valuable in the modern world. Unlike Fish's generation, they are incredibly literate with computers and other technologies. They can analyze film and other visual media with surprising fluency, even at the start of their college careers. They are far more tolerant of diverse races and sexualities than students of 50 years ago. These are all really important things for today's world, arguably as or more important than sentence structure.

Second, I certainly found my experience in the two quarter college writing program during my freshman year at the University of Oregon to be a sort of indoctrination into University of Oregon ideology 101. At the time, I found this a little annoying, even as I agreed with most of my instructor's positions. However, what better way to inspire passions and to get students into writing than talking about these issues? What are you supposed to teach in these classes? First, a class just on grammar sounds more boring than dirt. That's not a strike against the class as such, but inspiring busy and distracted students to diagram sentences does not sound like a fun task for a teacher. Second, who is going to teach such a class? Fish can complain all he wants to about the quality of college writing, but part of the problem is that we have a huge number of students coming into colleges and a lack of qualified people to teach these classes. Not only are English graduate students forced to teach these courses, but many graduate students from around the university systems are recruited to fill the many sections schools have to offer. Not all of these people are particularly qualified to teach such courses.

The reality is that universities rely on cheap exploitable labor to teach freshmen. If Fish really wants to change how college writing is taught, dealing with this problem is the first step. But I suppose bitching about it is a lot easier.

This brings me to an important issue that I face. How do I teach writing? It wasn't until my Ph.D. program that anyone really sat me down to teach me to write. And from reading this blog, no doubt readers still wonder at my sentence structure. But the chair of my dissertation committee was not about to have one of her students writing poorly. So she beat all the bad habits out of me (almost literally). I found this depressing, though I appreciated it. No one had really dealt with my writing problems before, even in master's program. Sure, I could write complete sentences and get my thoughts across, but I also constantly reverted to the passive voice and wrote in a circular way that made me take forever to get my point across (why use 5 words when you can use 50!).

I became determined to not have this happen to my students. I was going to work with them on grammar and sentence structure and help them succeed. I was going to turn their lives around! This was an especially important task at the University of New Mexico, where you have a lot of Native American and Latino kids for whom English is not their first language.

Then reality set in. First, most kids just don't care. Yet we have to get them through college. Or maybe we don't, but if you set out to be a hard-ass by yourself, it doesn't help the situation. You'd need a school-wide or at least department-wide movement. So what are you going to do? You can spend an hour writing comments and line editing, but if the student is happy with a C, they aren't going to spend 30 seconds reading them.

Second, I have other responsibilities. I am trying for tenure-track jobs. I have to publish. I have to apply for jobs. I have to research my book. I have to do public history. I have to work with the environmental students. I have lots of responsibilites. So does everyone else. If it's our sole purpose to teach good writing, then I can spend my time honing this skill. But it's not. And it's not going to be. If I spend an hour per paper line editing, that's a lot of time I'm not spending doing the other things that advance my career. Again, what I am supposed to do about this? So I've pulled back on the number of writing assignments I give. I don't spend as much time as I did when I was teaching one class in graduate school on writing. Becuase I can't. The incentives just aren't there to make this my top priority.

Finally, there is the question of what skills I want to teach my students. Should my courses actually revolve around building writing skills exclusively? For instance, this semester I am teaching a course called "U.S. Civil War in History and Memory." I'll be talking a lot about this course throughout the semester. I want the students to think about the importance of the past to the present in a very explicit way. One way of doing this is to give them the choice of a final assignment. The first is to write a paper allowing them to explore an issue of interest to them. Standard stuff. The second allows them to create a mock museum exhibit using online sources, then interrogating their own Civil War memory and discussing why they chose these materials to create their particular exhibit. I want to allow students to build public history skills and to gain consciousness about their own subject position in interpreting history. This is not exclusive of writing; of course, they have a writing component to the assignment. But it's also not the primary goal of the class. I have a couple other short papers that I assign to evaluate students who have real and significant writing problems, but for the most part, if a student is a decent writer, I'm going to help them improve in small ways and that's probably about it.

I think one bit of reticence I have in teaching writing too much these days is that I don't really know what it means. We constantly hear about teaching writing in our courses. But we never receive much in the way of guidance. Certainly there is not a set of standards that we are required to push. Without some kind of standardization, I suspect we are all going to teach to issues we think are important. Whether or not the combined effort of all faculty members is somehow going to make better writers out of students remains quite an open question. In my case, it didn't really help until I got to the Ph.D. program.

Historical Image of the Day

In honor of Ted Kennedy's death, this week's historical images will focus on the greatest senators in U.S. history.

Henry Clay, 1849.

Clay represented Kentucky in the Senate on 4 different occasions between 1806 and 1852. During those years, he was notable for many things, including his unfulfilled ambition to become president. He's arguably the single most important senator in American history for two reasons. First, his visionary American System, which he hoped would bring the country into the modern age through a series of government investments in the public sector, particularly over the issue of roads that would connect the remote western half of the nation to the ports of the East. Second, his ability to broker compromises that kept the nation together when it seemed on the verge of collapse over slavery. The Missouri Compromise (although Clay was actually in the House at that time) and the Compromise of 1850 not only prevented the Civil War (or some other action of dissolution) from happening earlier in the nation's history, but also gave the North time to become more industrialized and ready to defeat the South and end slavery when war came. Of course, this was not Clay's intention; in fact, he was a slaveholder himself. But nonetheless, probably no one single senator has done as much to shape U.S. history as Henry Clay.

Ted Kennedy, RIP

Henry Clay.

Daniel Webster.

George Norris.

Robert LaFollette.

Robert Wagner.

Edward Kennedy.

What do these men have in common? They are probably the six greatest senators in U.S. history.

It's a terrible thing to have lost Ted Kennedy. We weren't unprepared, but his light shone brighter than anyone else in the body. His knowledge of Senate rules went a long ways toward diluting the worst of Reagan's horrors. His passion for health care, for the poor, for civil rights, and for all that is good about America was undiminished through the years. No doubt certain segments of the right are crowing around now about his demise and his scandals, but those blemishes hardly overwhelm the majesty of the Kennedy legacy.

The nation is far poorer today for the loss of this great man.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Lou Holtz has predicted the college football National Title Game: Florida vs. Notre Dame. His logic is based on ND's schedule... but seriously? It's like someone microwaved Colonel Potter, then replaced his brain with Matt Millen's.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I'm beginning to like bizarre hats almost as much as Gilded Age beards. See this hat gospel singer Isaiah Owens is wearing on the cover photo for his album "You Without Sin Cast the First Stone"! You can order the album here, which I haven't heard but is acclaimed.

Question of the Day

How long will it take for one of these gun-toting right wing loons to try assassinating Obama at a town hall or some other public event? Or if not Obama, another leading Democrat. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi or a liberal senator. I'd guess before the end of the year. Let's hope the Secret Service lives up to its reputation.

Alvy and America

My friend sent me this as a metaphor for modern America. The Republican Party has become Christopher Walken in Annie Hall.

Good times

Historical Image of the Day

Guide book for the Overland Trail, 1858.

Republican Hypocrisy 101

Since I'm preparing for classes, my mind is on how to teach. If I were teaching a class on Republican Hypocrisy, which would have to be a multi-semester intensive seminar, I'd start with John Ensign on the first day.

Nevada Sen. John Ensign — who voted as a congressman to impeach President Clinton for lying under oath about his extramarital affair — said Wednesday he saw no reason to resign in light of his own affair, because he had not violated any laws.

The Republican senator told the Associated Press he realized some would take issue with his vote in light of the revelations about his own personal life, but defended his position, saying he believed Clinton had committed perjury.

"But if you look at the times … I was in the House of Representatives but basically was sitting in judgment of the president evaluating the case," he said. "I was basically a jurist at that point. I thought there was a violation of a felony."

Ensign said he had not "done anything legally wrong," while "President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people. You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury. That's why I voted for the articles of impeachment."

Sure John.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Excellent interactive map at the NYT

Boy, the New York Times Web site sure has come a long way from looking like a carbon copy of its print edition.

This excellent interactive map/infographic of Hillary Clinton's Africa visit not only tracks her route through the different countries, but also offers blurbs summarizing her message at each stop, links out to related NYT articles, and features embedded audio and video clips of significant events in the various destinations.

What they could add to this are links to noteworthy pieces on other Web sites, especially citizen blogs and independent news sites, hence allowing traffic back and forth.

And if they're going through all that trouble, they might as well allow me to embed it as well!

Must Read of the Day

Brockington on his personal experiences within the British health care system.

For those who don't read it, the piece makes me want to move to Britain. Link

The New Astroturf Movement

The oil companies, still wishing it was 1968, are organizing supposed "grassroots" protests against the emissions bill. Big oil moves with the subtlety of Stalinist architecture, so everyone can see who is organizing these protests, but nonetheless, it seems that massive, loud, and potentially violent right-wing rallies against any kind of reform is the order of the day. Centered in Texas, these protests are incredibly stupid because they are so short-sighted. Everyone is claiming that such a bill would undermine Houston's economy as a center of the energy industry. Other than the facts that people are still going to use energy, that oil is running out anyway, and that the future of the human race depends upon stringent restrictions on burning fossil fuels, what is really galling is that Texas still stands to be the center of American energy production because of wind. I drove through west Texas twice in the past two weeks on different routes. Both ways, west Texas has turned into a giant wind farm, one that will likely be greatly expanded in coming years. That is a limitless resource and will bring Texas a lot of money. Yet because it's different and because it's associated with hippies and Europe and other things un-American and certainly un-Texan, the oil companies see it as a giant threat. Meanwhile, if they were smart, they could simply invest in wind, diversify their companies, and continue to be huge corporate juggernauts in the next generation. Why they are so blind to these obvious possiblities is completely beyond me.


Joe Posnanski has an interesting piece claiming that Derek Jeter has moved from being vastly overrated to somewhat underrated. The reaction against Jeter and the hyperbole he receives (which really is no fault of his own) has been swift and severe in the past few years. It's become hard to respect someone who still talks of Jeter as if he is one of the best players in major league history. Tim McCarver, the worst offender of Jeter fellation, has become a national joke for it. His defense has been laughable for years, though Posnanski notes a marked improvement this year. With defense increasingly considered an important element in judging a player (and isn't it remarkable that it hasn't been rated as that important for 100 years), Jeter's value has been reconsidered.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that Jeter is a Hall of Fame caliber player who is having a really good year. Like many people, I thought Jeter was on a permanent downslide after last year's performance of .300/.363/.408. That's hardly terrible but it isn't much above league average. However, he has come back strong this year, hitting .330/.394/.471, his best performance since 2006. I'm not sure that this is a long-term thing; I could easily see this plummeting a good bit next year. He's not getting any younger at age 35. But he clearly should reach 3000 hits, making him a HOF player even if he played his whole career in Kansas City or Pittsburgh.

Perhaps we can best analyze Jeter through his comparative players at Baseball Reference.

They are:

  1. Barry Larkin (901)
  2. Alan Trammell (876)
  3. Ryne Sandberg (870) *
  4. Roberto Alomar (866)
  5. Ray Durham (855)
  6. Lou Whitaker (842)
  7. Julio Franco (838)
  8. Joe Torre (834)
  9. Johnny Damon (824)
  10. Bobby Doerr (818) *
Only 2 HOFs (the guys with asteriks). That's interesting because it suggests that Jeter, were he to retire today, probably wouldn't belong based upon numbers alone. On the other hand, Larkin and Alomar should gain entry into the HOF in the next few years while Trammell and Whitaker have been robbed by the voters. Most of those who don't belong in the Hall are lower on the list. The reality is that, as it stands, Jeter is a marginal Hall of Famer who will significantly strenghten his legitimacy in the next couple of years as he moves toward 3000 hits. I'd be surprised if his new top 10 comparative players didn't take a significant jump upwards with his good year this year.

So the reality is that Jeter is overrated by the legions of Yankee fans and people who still understand baseball like it was the 1960s but is in fact underrated by Yankee haters and stat heads. I hate to say that last part, but it's true.

Historical Image of the Day

Family resting on the Oregon Trail

DNA – no longer the fail-safe blueprint of crime scene investigations?

This is truly troubling. The fact that DNA evidence can be fabricated for crime scenes takes away the one guaranteed test we had in order to establish criminality (or non-criminality), however infrequently it may be used and followed through even in cases where DNA is available.

Researchers at Nucleix, a lifescience company based in Tel-Aviv, manufactured fake DNA that could potentially be planted at a crime scene. They extracted the DNA to be planted from a small sample tissue, such as a strand of hair or a drop of saliva. They then separated out DNA-free blood cells from donor blood by centrifugation to remove all traces of the donor’s original DNA, and added the "fake" DNA to it. By using DNA profiles from databases, they managed to replicate the double helix, which resembled the structure of DNA from the original hair/saliva sample.

Considering the number of people who are wrongly convicted and spend time behind bars for no reason---apparently there is no consensus on that number---but we can all agree that that number, no matter how small, is unjust and cruel when you are talking about an individual's wasted life. And this is not just in the case of life sentences or death row inmates, since even innocent people who find themselves exonerated after years in prison have a very hard time making a life for themselves in the real world once the stigma of a conviction is attached to them.

This has mostly to do with the lack of standardized compensation policies across the country, including no compensation statutes in 28 states.

To date, 241 innocent people have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project. The judicial system by itself is so unreliable that it does not naturally allow a convicted person rights to DNA testing even if he were to seek it.

However, this is not to say that DNA evidence is absolute, and as some would argue, it cannot---like any other type of evidence---stand alone in a criminal case. Questions have been raised about how unique genetic profiles really are. Moreover, DNA from years-old cases can be damaged, or contaminated.

But DNA evidence is still the most scientifically valid method we have to date to establish proof beyond doubt.

As if to reinforce this, and somewhat comfortingly, the Tel-Aviv lab was able to discern differences between natural and man-made DNA evidence based on the methyl groups that are added to DNA during the natural process of replication.

Thankfully, we haven’t beaten Nature yet. So, let's hope we can use it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kim Dae-Jung, RIP

The death of Kim Dae-Jung brings me back to my time in South Korea in 1996 and 1997. Kim took power in 1998, but he was of course already a major player in Korean politics at the time. It was an interesting time to be in South Korea. The economy was beginning to falter (I left about 4 weeks before the economic collapse), attitudes toward the North were beginning to soften, and the country's former dictators had been sentenced to death for their crimes (a sentence which of course was not carried out). The nation's youth were vibrantly expressing their country's modernism, yet women still often dressed in traditional outfits. The nation had rapidly modernized since hosting the Olympics 8 years before, but pockets of a pre-industrial society existed.

Kim epitmoized this period of Korean history. He was a great reformer and took great steps to cool tensions with the North. On the other hand, he was as deeply enmeshed in the culture of corruption that helped bring down the Asian Tigers in 1997. His administration became tarnished by this corruption but he also filled a deep psychic hole in the Korean heart. This nation was obsessed, and I mean OBSESSED, over the fact that no Korean had ever won a Nobel Prize. They talked about this all the time. In one of Seoul's largest bookstores, they had portraits of various Nobel Prize winners but left one spot open for that first Korean. This was a nation still insecure in its place in the pantheon of world power players. While I wasn't there when Kim won for his work on North Korea, I can imagine the outpouring of joy that took place.

Kim was a flawed leader for sure, but he's still arguably the best president South Korea has had. That's not a tough group of men to best, but nonetheless, he deserves to be remembered positively.

Concentrated Wealth

The always excellent Sociological Images presents this graph charting the amount of wealth held by the top 1% of American families, updated to include 2007. It is now significantly higher than any year in the past 94. I do wish the graph went back into the Gilded Age to see how today compares.

Coal and Clean Water

What's the coal industry been up to in the last weeks while I've been gone?

Pure evil it turns out!

In fact, their continued destruction of West Virginia water supplies by pouring coal slurry into underground mines has forced towns to find new sources of water. Luckily, the town of Prenter has secured the funding for a new water line.

Bob Novak Dead

Burn in hell motherfucker. Or "Douchebag of Liberty" as Jon Stewart once referred to him.

Lyrad notes in private conservation that Novak must have went outside in daylight.

Historical Image of the Day

I never did finish my overland trail image series, with a work trip to New Mexico and a wedding in Mexico to go to. So I'll finish it this week.

"Mormon Party in a Snow Storm," William Henry Jackson, 1866.


Question: Is there a professional athlete more loathsome than Brett Favre?

Answer: No.

Monday, August 17, 2009

This one is for Erik

It seems that Civil War reenactments just aren't enough anymore.

Who wants to be Charlie?

Has Labor Been Left Hanging?

At the risk of diving in here when I haven't been posting much to self-promote, my first story is up at the Nation's site. It's about the Philadelphia Museum of Art security guards and their struggles to unionize, and how they're a great example of the need for the Employee Free Choice Act.

There's kind of a dearth of interest in labor issues among the "netroots," as I noticed when Arlen Specter had to bring up EFCA himself while being questioned at Netroots Nation. I've always been proud that this blog tries to address these issues, and while I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable as Erik is when it comes to union history and organizing, I try to do my part. Anyway, here's the beginning and please read the whole piece over there.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a recognizable icon even to those who have never set foot in the city. Immortalized in the movie Rocky, when a sweatsuit-clad Sylvester Stallone bounded up the stairs while training for his big fight, the museum became a symbol of the working-class tenacity that Philadelphians are known for.

On September 6, those steps will host a different kind of blue-collar battle: the museum security guards will be holding a rally in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and their right to form a union.

Well, here's one problem...

The local paper here did a sampling of people's opinions about healthcare reform. Here is one:

"I heard that if this passes, then everyone is going to eventually be forced to get government health care and I don't want that. I don't have it right now, but that's by choice. I don't want anyone telling me that I have to get it and pay for it."

Except that when this person has even a minor problem-- say, a fracture or a really nasty cut-- where is he going to go? To the ER. If he can't pay for the ER visit, the hospital eats it and has to make the money up somewhere else (like by raising the prices for services to people with insurance and inflating the skyrocketing price of insurance for those who are lucky enough to have it and responsible enough to have it if they can get it). If this person has a catastrophic illness, well, the financial consequences for the system are dire.

Of course, most people that don't have healthcare lack it because they can't afford it; I'm taking issue specifically with people like the guy quoted above, because it brings to the fore one of the more important aspects of the healthcare debate: a mandate. Even the craziest teabagging Neanderthal should be able to realize that the current healthcare system deincentivizes an individual (especially a young, healthy person) from getting insurance. After all, younger people tend to be healthier, get sick less, and treat various injuries or mildly serious illnesses at the ER. This raises costs for everyone. Having the healthiest demographic in the insurance pool is essential to driving costs down.

Socialism! Big government telling me I have to buy something that I'm willing to chance living without! Big brother! Right? Well, think of the parallel. The government forces you to buy car insurance, doesn't it? Why? So that when you do something that costs other people money (like plowing into their car), you have the financial ability (through your insurance) to pay for it. I wish people like the guy in the paper would take three seconds and make this connection; one that a particularly sharp second grader would be able to make handily.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bill Cahir

Back before the Pennsylvania primaries, I interviewed Bill Cahir, then running in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania's 5th District Congressional seat. He was a thoughtful, eloquent candidate, sharing his positions on media consolidation and making a case for single-payer health care as well as elaborating on the best way for the US to get out of Iraq.

Bill Cahir was killed in Afghanistan on Thursday, according to the Washington Post.

Cahir had to get an age deferment to join up with the Marines after September 11, 2001, but he felt that it was the right thing to do. When we spoke, he was still trying to do the best thing for America, and he died still serving his country. He would have made an excellent congressman, and I truly had hoped that he would run for office again.

Before signing up with the Marines, Cahir was a journalist, and he returned to reporting after his tour of duty in Iraq, before deciding to run for Congress. I stumbled across the news story by accident today while fact-checking a piece for the Nation and it brought me up short: I have several friends who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no one (thank whatever you believe in) has yet been killed. I only spoke to Cahir once, but it brought the war back home to me.

Every death in Afghanistan and Iraq is tragic and unnecessary, and Cahir's is sadly not out of the ordinary. My interview with him is here, if you're interested.

Perhaps, a raucous town hall for Obama?

In the aftermath of the scream matches and slugfests that have peppered town hall meetings by Democratic senators around the country, what the president encountered at his health care town hall in Portsmouth on Tuesday seemed like a peaceful PTA meeting.

For one, he is the president (and even though it seems unlikely considering the brouhaha we’ve witnessed all around, the weight of the office might quell even the most angry, irrational protester just a tiny bit); two, there was a tightly controlled ticketing process; and three, it was New Hampshire.

The Montana town hall planned this afternoon will likely be quite different – it's less controlled since tickets are being handed out on a first come, first serve basis, and well, it’s Montana.

Hundreds have been waiting in lines since Wednesday afternoon for tickets. There are reports of organized protests around the Gallatin Field hangar in the town of Belgrade, where Obama will hold the town hall. The group planning the protests is connected to Americans for Prosperity, now infamous for its involvement in the “tea party” protests on Tax Day.

Obama plans to hold another town hall in Grand Junction, Colorado on Saturday, and tickets are being issued through an online lottery.

It might actually work in favor of the administration if Obama were to be confronted with tough absurd questions. He certainly seemed to be itching for some form of contention at the almost-subdued town hall on Tuesday. Outrageous questions from protesters might give him a chance to better quell these ridiculous assertions on national TV, if the protesters give him a chance to actually answer them, that is. Obama also seems to do really well with the dry wit he often uses to tackle obviously preposterous claims. But then again, those who see the obvious preposterousness, don't necessarily need a refutation.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

RIP - Rashied Ali

This death affects me way more than Les Paul's death, which is garnering all the press. Ali was drummer for my favorite Coltrane albums, as well as doing two of my favorite albums ever, duets with Coltrane (Interstellar Space) and violinist the Leroy Jones Duo (Swift Are the Winds of Life). So while the world mourns Les Paul today (and righlty so), hopefully it will give due respect to the loss not of just another jazz musician, but one of the greatest jazz drummers ever.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I'm totally rooting for Harvard this year in the Yale-Harvard football game

Here's why.

It seems the venerable Yale University Press has made an editorial decision to censor the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohamed that caused the big brouhaha in 2006 in a forthcoming book. Bad, yes. What's worse? The book, by Jytte Klausen, is about those same cartoons. The book is entitled The Cartoons that Shook the World. Except you don't actually get to see the cartoons-- taking it a step further, not only did Yale UP ban the inflammatory cartoons from 2006, but all depictions of Mohamed in the entire book. I hadn't realized that sharia law was in effect in New Haven.

Fear was the only reason, it seems. A Yale UP official is quoted in the linked article saying that "when it came between that [printing the cartoons] and blood on my hands, there was no question”. Thus, one of the world's great academic presses has been bullied by a bunch of unabashed idiots who hurt people and destroy things over mean-spirited drawings of their magical being. Giving into fears of extremist reprisal makes for really bad policy. Remember, say, most of this decade? Still, the argument went as such: the cartoons are available on the 'Tubes and can be described in words, thus including them would be an unnecessary affront (or, "gratuitous"). This seems fairly shallow to me; after all, the author of the book, an expert on the controversy, wanted them included. Putting them on the cover might have been gratuitous; omitting them completely is cowardice of the worst kind. I would wager that one would be hard pressed to find a single academic book about political cartoons that didn't reprint cartoons.

Go Harvard*! Boo Yale!

* pending my becoming aware of some objectionable act of cowardice and supplication of stupid people on the part of Harvard

Fifteen Years Ago...

The 1994 baseball strike began this exact day, 15 years ago. On that day, I was devastated (even though people saw it coming) - for the first time in my life the Indians were in the running, just one game behind Chicago. Of course, my heartbreak is nothing to the former (and continuing) fans of the Montreal Expos, who were baseball's best team that year and who never recovered from the strike.

It's been a weird 15 years - the Indians' heartbreaks in 1995 and 1997, the agony of Yankee hegemony returning, a recent spate of unlikely World Series Champions (Boston and the Chisox back-to-back, with more than 80 years of championship drought; the Marlins [ugh], twice [UGH]), and of course, the steroids era's rise and fall, for better (it did help bring fans back) and worse (look where we are now, with all the talk of "asterisks" and the shadow over those years). It all certainly makes one look back and wonder what the future of baseball holds. Hopefully, strikes or lockouts are not a part of that future....

Switching from the Newer Version of York to the Newer Version of Mexico

As I mentioned before, I'm relocating from New York to New Mexico, starting the 2000 mile drive tomorrow. I will miss New York some, but not as much as I thought I would - if the gross inequalities between cost of living and money I earned weren't a frustration big enough to help me say goodbye to NYC, then the movers charging almost 3 times what they said it would cost and letting me know this only after the truck was loaded definitely made the departure from New York less bittersweet. I expect my second go-round in New Mexico to not be as love-hate (though they may be false expectations). At any rate, I don't have internet up in my new place yet, either, so blogging will be light from me for the next couple weeks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rove's role in the firing of Iglesias - certainly more than a "conduit"

After having dodged legal and political processes all along, Karl Rove has finally been implicated (sort of) directly in the firing of David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney of New Mexico.

The House Judiciary Committee released over 5000 pages of White House and RNC correspondence, along with transcripts of testimonies by both Rove and Harriet Miers that happened behind closed doors.

Documents show that an email from Rove’s Aide Scott Jennings specifically broached the subject of firing Iglesias. “I would really like to move forward with getting rid of NM US ATTY,” it said. If that isn’t explicit, I don’t know what is.

While Miers mentioned in her testimony that Rove had complaints against the former U.S. Attorney, including indicating that he thought he was a "serious problem" and would have liked to have something done about it, she refused to specifically state what role Rove had played in his dismissal.

In addition, there was abundant proof in the documents that the subject was being elaborately discussed by Rove’s office. Another of Jennings’ emails stated that Iglesias was hesitant about the “job on Madrid,” an obvious indication that the former U.S. Attorney had refused to press voter fraud claims against Democrat Patricia Madrid to help propel Congresswoman Heather Wilson in her re-election race.

Finally, there was also a Miers’ email stating that the White House had made a decision to fire the attorney.

This is as clear a sequence of events of how things transpired as we can get.

We all recall how Rove repeatedly maintained his innocence (after defying a subpoena, being found in contempt of Congress, and finally agreeing to closed-door hearings). Last month, he insisted that he was merely a “conduit” of complaints and grievances from lawmakers in a controversial joint interview to the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This is no simple conduit, that's for sure.

Eric Mangini Thinks He's More Important than the Browns

Eric Mangini is apparently dissatisfied with the Browns' continued survival, and is trying to run them into the ground once and for all with his egoism and his stupid decisions. Have I mentioned I hate Scamgini, er, Mangini? Even if he wins a title with the Browns (which he won't), I will never support this style of coaching.

Go Cavs/Tribe!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Could the crowd design a better car than Detroit?

Would it be possible for all the wannabe car designers in the world – many of whom, perhaps, don’t have a job because of the flailing auto industry – help resurrect, well, the flailing auto industry?

That’s part of what Jay Rogers, co-founder of Boston start-up Local Motors is hoping. Using a form of distributed innovation approach – crowdsourcing as happens at businesses like Innocentive – Rogers has set up a Web site to attract a vast online community, which now comprises of 2000 ambitious, creative designers from 121 countries. The first car design happened in less than 3 months, a task that typically takes Detroit 2 years.

This is not surprising considering the crowd at Innocentive solves complex R&D problems at a rate 30% better than that accomplished by in-house approaches at scientific companies.

Local Motors' plan is also to tap into consumers’ own interests – it would be sort of like customers giving ideas for a personalized car. Online design competitions help fuel this project. In the true crowdsourcing model of Threadless, the t-shirt designing company, users vote on the best designs submitted by hobbyists, amateurs and experts alike. The winners are motivated by huge cash prizes in the range of a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

“I realized that the car industry needed to create totally new designs and do it a more honest way, where we learn from the community out there: what do you want to buy?”

James Surowiecki’s wisdom of the crowds, of course, thrives on the idea that a divergent crowd is required for a collective brain to be smart and innovative. Harvard researcher Karim Lakhani (who serves as an adviser for Local Motors) has shown that Innocentive’s success rests on ideas and solutions coming from people outside the immediate field of expertise.

As crowdosurcing guru Jeff Howe once told me, the problem is that people in a given field often operate within their own psilos; those who are not restrained by that can think outside the box. So it's not surprising that Rogers believes the crowd will help solve problems inherent in the auto industry – from the restraint to explore modern technology to the insistence on using expensive material to build cars.

His company, which is now in the idea stage, will take the most promising propositions from the Web site to various factories that Rogers plans to set up all around the US. To add to the personalized car concept, the first set of vehicles produced by Local Motors – whose design and engineering is now being crowdsourced – will actually allow customers to be part of production as well – buyers will be invited to come and help put their cars together themselves.

It works for t-shirts, it works for complex scientific problems. Perhaps, it will work for cars as well.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Facial Hair of the Weekend

Hippolyte Aucuturier, a participant in the earliest Tours de France, which, apparently, were nothing short of insane.

Approval ratings in context...

Honestly, I don't know why I care, but the bloviating asshat wingnut megaphones that have been celebrating Obama's approval rating slide have been really getting under my skin. It seems that this week Obama's numbers have rebounded a bit; Gallup reports a nudge up to 57% from an Administration low of 52% in the previous week.

To put all of this into perspective, here are the ranges of Gallup approval ratings from January to August of the previous eight presidents' first terms:


Interesting to note that Obama, who is dealing with a deeper economic crisis than anyone on the above chart, isn't faring any worse than previous presidents. Yesterday's unemployment surprise seems to be another item pointing to a recovery coming on the horizon, which will only help Obama's numbers.

Friday, August 07, 2009

For the Record....

I remember numbers 8, 7, and 5 through 1, and each one still stings. But when I get to number one, it's still a pain you can't even begin to describe - I still fill with a wistful, morose perspective, pondering what could have been if Fernandez hadn't committed that error...(which speaks to how much I love baseball, how much an Indians championship would mean to me, and how pathetic my life actually is).


Trading Carl Pavano Is Obvious, but....Why Now?

Well, this trade is the most obvious and simultaneously the most perplexing. A pitcher about to reach a bunch of his incentive bonuses in a one-year contract on a team that's losing money? That's a no-brainer. But why didn't the Indians try to trade Pavano sooner and maybe try to get more than just a "player to be named later"? He's been more than functional and could have added to a number of teams' starting rotations (Boston, I'm looking in your direction.....). Putting him on the waiver wire on the Monday immediately after the trade deadline really doesn't make sense to me. Of course, Mark Shapiro knows more about what was going on than I do, so maybe he quietly was mentioning Pavano to teams, and nobody was willing to part with a couple of minor leaguers for him. But maybe he wasn't, and this was one of Shapiro's poorer decisions. Whatever the case, it's long-term impact isn't too great, as we weren't keeping Pavano beyond this year (and both Cleveland and Pavano knew it), and who knows - maybe that PTNL will be lights out by some fluke that often happens in baseball. Still, I wish we'd at least traded Pavano for a couple of prospects, instead of just getting the PTNL after a waivers claim. Oh well....2011!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

10 Observations from the Rust Belt

I just returned from a week-long trip to rural Indiana. Some observations:

1) Everyone is unemployed and getting (understandably) impatient. Now that the economy is starting to turn the corner, announcing another unemployment benefit extension would be a smart gesture on the part of the Obama administration. There was, however, much celebrating over the success of the Cash-for-Clunkers program.

The reports from the media about Obama's numbers slipping makes sense with what I was hearing from people I talked to-- nearly all of whom voted for him. What the media doesn't report, however, is that as much as people are getting frustrated with Obama, they really, really fucking hate the Republicans. The Congressional speeches that the Southern Republicans like Mitch McConnell made about the domestic auto industry will make it a hard climb for Republicans in the Rust Belt.

2) Places that are green are really awesome. Amazing what water can do.

3) I didn't see a single non-Big Three car once I got outside of Marion County.

4) I saw the funniest use of scare quotes in Zionsville, IN-- a sign was nailed to a telephone pole that said:
"JESUS" is Coming!

5) Fried pork tenderloin sandwiches are outstanding.

6) My parents don't have any internet connection whatsoever; they live way out in the sticks and can't get it. It was nice and strange to be away.

7) An iPod full of NPR podcasts and episodes of Bill Maher's HBO show are great for flying.

8) I had the best Italian-American (or, more aptly, American-Italian) meal in Marion, IN at Rosie's Little Italy. The place has been there for over 50 years and not a damn thing has changed in the interior.

9) The small town of Royal Center has a weekly newspaper called the Royal Center Record. Each week, they publish little bits from editions past. Apparently, about a 100 years ago, some local townsfolk loaded up all the Italians and sent them away on a train. I would love to know more about this incident.

10) It is awesome to fly from California to Indiana through Colorado, knowing that I was in Blue States the whole time.

Your 2009 NBA Finals Champions - The Cleveland Cavaliers!

Clearly, Orlando's 4-2 series win over Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals was tainted. The only solution is to declare Cleveland the victor, the NBA Finals void, and give the NBA title to the Cavaliers.

After all, it seems that's the only way the city of Cleveland will ever get a championship....

The Honduran Military's Defensive Apperance on Television

More than a month after their coup, the Honduran military finally went on television Tuesday to explain itself.

The five generals at the head of the Honduran armed forces made a rare appearance on national television to explain their role in the ouster in late June of President Manuel Zelaya, and to respond to charges that they acted in defense of the country’s elite.

In language that often veered into confessional, they repeated that they did not act to take sides in the political fight that had polarized the country, but out of obedience to the law. And they said they were confident that history would judge them as patriots for their actions.

The more they spoke, however, the more they showed how concerned they were that their image had been damaged by their actions, and the clearer it became that they continued to play a leading role in Honduran politics, nearly three decades since the end of military rule.

There's a lot to comment on in this story. First, there's the absolutely risible defense that the military offered, claiming the coup that overthrew Zelaya was done to protect not just Honduras, but to save the United States itself! Seriously:

As if taking a page from a cold war playbook, Gen. Miguel Ángel Garcia Padget said the military had disrupted Mr. Chávez’s plans to spread socialism across the region. “Central America was not the objective of this communism disguised as democracy,” he said. “This socialism, communism, Chávismo, we could call it, was headed to the heart of the United States.” [my emphasis]

In spite of continuous whining not just from the fringe sectors of the wingnuts, but from Republican Senators and Congressional Representatives themselves, Chavez and socialism are in no way a "threat" to America, and this seems about as plausible as the belief that the Russians, Chinese, and "Islamo-fascists" are joining forces to take over America via submarines.

Beyond that, though, this television appearance was an interesting play on the part of the military. Many have observed that the Honduran military's support is what will keep a president afloat through this crisis, be it Micheletti's government or the return of Zelaya. Bloggers have generally agreed that the military's strength and support is central to the outcome of this crisis. However, coming on television and trying to defend yourself as an institution with any and every explanation and defense you can hurl and hope will stick ("We were just obeying the constitution!" "We don't want to hurt the poor!" "We're saving the world from Chavez!" "It wasn't a coup - if it were, we would have arrested and killed a lot more people!") isn't exactly the sign of a powerful institution that has the final say. This isn't to say the military isn't important in the way these events have played out and will play out; certainly, the military will be important, for, as they've already demonstrated, they have the power, legitimate or not, to remove a president if they disagree with his actions. Still, in the past, you would see militaries pull this kind of move and not seem nearly as panicked in defending themselves (see: Chile in 1973; Brazil in 1964; Argentina multiple times; El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s; etc.). This television appearance had a far greater defensive attitude than any I remember historically seeing, and I think it indicates that, while the military is indeed still a major actor in these events, its power as an institution is dulled somewhat.

This leads into a second point. While the Cold War analogy in reference to the "save the world from socialism/communism" rhetoric is straight out of the Cold War (and out of more basic "our good vs. their evil" rhetoric since time immemorial), we have to be careful not to stretch that analogy too far. One anonymous, high-ranking member of the Honduran defense ministry commented that “In the end, there is a chance that the civilians will all kiss and make up, and the military is going to be held as the bad guys. [...] These guys are worried. They are worried about going to jail.”

If this were the Cold War, these guys wouldn't be remotely worried about going to jail; they'd be celebrating their acts, flaunting it in front of the world, and rounding up thousands of "subversives." The only way jail would possibly cross their minds is if there was a tendency within the military for a counter-coup to install even more hard-line leaders. They wouldn't be nearly pleading their case on television in an effort to not come off looking like the perpetrators of a crime; they would be defiantly and aggressively stating why they did what was essential for the "good of the nation." This not only shows how tenuous the military's position is in this whole situation (even as it remains a central actor); it shows how much things have changed since the Cold War.

Again, none of this is to say that the Honduran military is an ineffective force in the way events from here on out play out, nor to suggest that the military was clumsily lucky in the coup; it knew what it was doing, and did so efficiently. However, it would be equally wrong to suggest that the military will be the final arbiter of how things work out from this point onward. Whoever ends up leading Honduras will probably need to at least know that he/she has not antagonized the military to the point that it would just repeat with him/her what it did with Zelaya. But the fact that neither Zelaya nor Micheletti is working closely with the military, despite the latter coming to power thanks to the military and the former's return being accepted by the military when the Honduran armed forces accepted the (failed) Arias accords' term, seems to indicate that the military is nowhere near as monolithically-powerful as some would portray it. The recent appearance on television has just served to reinforce the fact that, while the military will continue to be involved either tacitly or explicitly in the politics of Honduras through the rest of this crisis, it is far from the final arbiter on the fate of Honduras.