Sunday, January 31, 2010

QDR and Climate Change

Rob has a series of excellent posts up about the Quadrennial Defense Review and why progressives should care. I highly recommend them. I'd like to build on his work for a brief discussion of climate change and the QDR. For the first time, the QDR includes a section on climate change and defense policy.

That the new QDR even discusses climate change is a big step. The 2006 version, written during the Rumsfeld years, couldn't care less. That edition was all about fighting the never ending war on terror and acquiring new toys. Thankfully, the Gates Department of Defense has moved to more serious policy analysis.

And what of the QDR's first foray into thinking about climate change? It's quite mixed. DoD rightfully recognizes the threat rising sea levels provide to their own facilities. The entire Navy infrastructure faces a serious threat. The United States has such a long coastline that rising sea levels will likely force the nation to spend trillions of dollars either relocating facilities or keeping the ocean out.

The QDR does a less effective job thinking about how climate change will affect U.S. military involvement around the world. The military seems inordinately concerned with climate change and the Arctic. The thawing north will open up unexploited resources to the nations with Arctic boundaries. Corporations and governments are salivating. Plus, open Arctic waters means the U.S. and Russian navies will frequently be in close quarters.

While I can see the potential for conflict in an ice-free Arctic, the DoD doesn't seem to grasp the far more profound ways that climate change will likely affect U.S. military operations. Maybe I am too optimistic in thinking the Russians and Americans will come to a mutually profitable way to split Arctic resources, along with the Canadians and Scandinavian nations. But I think the significantly bigger issue is the massive geopolitical stability climate change could create around the world. The QDR only notes that the military needs to help other militaries prepare for natural disasters and notes that climate change could exacerbate already existing instabilities.

That's all true, but one short paragraph in the QDR barely touches the surface of what the U.S. military may face. Take Bangladesh. This low-laying, overpopulated and impoverished nation sits on the Indian Ocean, laced by major rivers filled with melted snow from the Himalayas. Under the best of circumstances, floods are a fact of life here. But rising sea levels combined with the likelihood of extreme typhoons has led many people to project 50 million climate change refugees from this one nation alone. Where are they going to go? India probably, since it's unlikely Myanmar will be welcoming. If Bangladesh destabilizes, how will the subcontinent and Southeast Asia more broadly respond? How will 50 million Muslims affect already shaky Hindu-Muslim relations within India? What will Pakistan do? This seems like precisely the kind of thing for which DoD should plan.

Talking about climate change and resource scarcity in the abstract is fine, but how will the military deal with real problems. For example, what happens if the Middle East enters a prolonged drought, Turkey impounds most of the water in the Tigris and Euphrates, and Iraq and Syria go thirsty? What will happen to this already unstable region? The QDR might not be the place to explain the details of these situations, but it seems fairly clear from the document that the military is still considering climate change as an abstract problem of the future.

Finally, the QDR commits the military to saving energy. This is fine and all, but slightly better fuel efficiency is hardly going to eliminate the military's contribution to climate change. Plus, in the face of a country almost completely unwilling to take the radical steps necessary to stablilize the climate, these minor actions won't make any difference in the long run.  The military also talks a lot about energy security. That's certainly a worthy goal, particularly if that energy comes from renewable sources, but the U.S. is unlikely to achieve energy independence any time in our lifetimes.

In the end then, the QDR's approach to climate change is a good first step, but little more. Its focus on energy policy over thinking through the real international security problems climate change will cause reveals a continued lack of imagination on climate change. Still, the military, and particularly the Navy, has made important strides in the last four years; hopefully, the next QDR will build upon these early ideas and show that climate change is central to U.S. foreign policy rather than the afterthought it appears to be today.

Bad Days in American History: January 31, 1968

On this date in 1968, the United States suffered one of its most embarrassing military setbacks in history--the Tet Offensive.

Early January 1968 found both North Vietnam and the United States in a difficult position. The U.S. was struggling with a war that seemed to never end, supporting an unstable, corrupt government in South Vietnam that had no support from the people, and fearing the fall of South Vietnam to communism would mean the loss of all Asia.

Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were suffering greatly from the pounding American pilots were providing every day. They wondered how long they could hold out against this beastly assault. In addition, their great anti-colonialist leader Ho Chi Minh was weakening. The North Vietnamese leadership knew they needed a big victory before Ho's passed away. So they decided to take the war to the U.S.

On January 31, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong took a page out of the U.S. historical playbook, picking a major holiday to launch a surprise attack. They launched operations in all parts of South Vietnam, even infiltrating the U.S. embassy in Saigon for a brief time. From a military perspective, the Tet Offensive was a total failure. The North Vietnamese had way over-extended themselves and they could not hold the positions they took against superior firepower.

But despite the military losses and high casualty rates, the Tet Offensive succeeded beyond anything the Vietnamese could have expected. This was the turning point in the war.

The U.S. was in Vietnam for any number of reasons. Lyndon Johnson committed himself to the war effort because he was captured within Democrats' box of fear of being called soft on communism. Johnson was determined not to be the next Harry Truman, whose reputation was at a low point during these years. Republicans tainted Truman with "losing" China. This was utterly unfair since a) Chiang Kai-Shek was a terrible leader and not popular with his people and b) it's entirely unclear what more U.S. military support would have accomplished except for more dead Chinese and Americans. When the newly communist Chinese entered the Korean War, it was a great embarrassment for Truman and emboldened Republican shouts of a communist-infiltrated government.

Johnson wouldn't let this happen to him. But of course he didn't know what to do about Vietnam. No one did. Knowledge of Indochina in the State Department amounted to a hill of beans. Almost no one spoke these languages or specialized in the region. We backed up French recolonization efforts after World War II because we wanted to get the French back on their feet as an anti-communist ally. We fretted after Ho's forces kicked the French out in 1954 after their victory at Dien Bien Phu. We refused to allow Ho to take over the country, creating a puppet regime in Saigon known as South Vietnam. This was only supposed to last 2 years, leading to a 1956 election that would reunify the country. But fearing Ho's communism and afraid it would lead to more red advancement in an area where the U.S. had almost no economic or strategic investments before this, the Eisenhower Administration refused to allow the elections to be held. Eisenhower and Kennedy raised the stakes and when Johnson took over in 1963, he felt he had no choice but proceed.

Like any successful politician after World War II, he had to talk a big game about fighting communism. And when things started to go bad, he didn't think the American people were ready to hear it. So he began to lie about everything associated with Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive put the lie to the Johnson Administration's claims that the war was near victory. The ensuing "credibility gap," which had begun before the offensive grew. Johnson's ability to govern fell. He was hopelessly trapped in lies and with no good options. Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, Johnson, who had won the presidency in 1964 in one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history, withdrew his name from nomination for re-election in 1968.

From an American perspective, the most tragic thing about the Tet Offensive is that it provided the final nail in the coffin to the man who could have been the greatest president since Lincoln. While Johnson was hamstrung by Cold War imperatives, he also showed the greatest passion for the poor of any president in our history. His desire to end poverty, to create environmental legislation, to sign civil rights legislation--these were the hallmarks of a great leader. But in the end, fighting the Cold War took precedence, even if it meant tens of thousands of dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Vietnamese. Even if it meant throwing his presidency away on a country America knew nothing about.

From a Vietnamese perspective, obviously this day marks a enormously important point in their freedom struggle. I'm not sure how the Vietnamese mark the day today, but I imagine they see it as a great day of martyrdom for the cause of freedom. And we should probably see it that way as well.

Historical Image of the Day

Anti-Japanese poster, World War II

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Data Visualization on US Health Care Expenses and The People's Health Reform

Over at their blog, National Geographic has this graph up, comparing per capita health care expense (left side) to life expectancy (right side):

Note, as well, that the thickness of a line indicates the number of annual visits to a doctor, per capita. There are many systems that spend much less, where people have much greater access to health care, and out perform our system.

When one sees information like this, it's hard, if not impossible, to be utterly frustrated with the ridiculousness of the past six months of congressional wrangling over providing even the most minimal of public health care protections. And, unlike some, I don't see this as a failure of just the Democratic Party (though their part in this is huge), the White House, or even the Republicans whose job it is to represent the interests of Capital. It's also a total failure of the American people who lack the capacity, it seems, to institutionalize their supposed generosity of spirit. And that, I think, is because that generosity of spirit rarely reaches beyond clan, with noted exceptions of disparate individual acts of charity that have no capacity to remake deep, structural problems. That whole dynamic reminds me of the operation of politeness in Southern culture-- it masks a deep, dark violence.

This incapacity for social contractual generosity has long made me skeptical of "the People" as some sort of un-variegated mass standing in contradistinction to the halls of power. The People are too often dupes of those masters, or willing accomplices. In a comment on Howard Zinn's recent passing, Werner Herzog's Bear, on his blog I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused, remarked that,
Yet with his passing, we ought to confront a great fallacy in his writing which is being proven with every passing day. Namely, Zinn spoke of this amorphous "people" in his book that was always the victim, not perpetrator of America's crimes. This despite the "people's" historical enthusiasm for American imperialism, red baiting, and racist violence. When I see the tea bagger rallies with their hateful depictions of the president and insane talk of secession and conspiracy, I can't help but think, regardless of their "astro-turf" nature, that these people are indeed part of "the people" just as much as the massive crowds that turned out for president Obama's inauguration.

As we mourn Zinn's passing, we ought to admire his determination to gain a more critical and truthful picture of American history, but take that one step further and acknowledge that we have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.

it's easy to suggest that the battle for healthcare since the Clinton Administration has simply pitted insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital industries against the people, but I think that's too simplistic, because "the people," particularly those in the street, haven't been clamoring in a voice united for healthcare as a human right, and as a lynchpin of human dignity.

Then again, now that the SCOTUS has granted personhood to corporations, I guess a People's History of the healthcare debate would look much different, wouldn't it?

Facial Hair of the Weekend

This weekend, we'll be starting a series of Brazilian politicians with facial hair. Above is José Maria da Silva Paranhos (1819-1880), the Viscount of Rio Branco. Paranhos is more frequently referred to as the Visconde do Rio Branco, and is one of the earliest and most important diplomats in Brazilian history. He helped mediate boundary demarcations for Brazil in the mid-1800s, including defining the Uruguay-Brazil border, and many of his efforts finalized the boundaries of Brazil as they remain to this date, with some regional exceptions. He also organized the provisionary government that Brazil established in Paraguay in the wake of the devastating War of the Triple Alliance. Paranhos is also famous for playing a role in the slavery debate in Brazil. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (only in 1888). However, sentiment against slavery increased in the second half of the 1800s, and in 1871, Paranhos established the "free womb" law, which declared that any children born to slave women were automatically free. This was the first in a series of laws that led to the gradual and peaceful abolition of slavery (though complicated racial and social structures remained in place and are visible to this day). He played a major role in infrastructural development in Brazil, including developing railroads, creating taxes on imports in order to spur national development, overseeing the first telegraph line between Brazil and Europe, and launching Brazil's first national census in 1872. While perhaps not Brazil's most important diplomat and politician, he was a major figure in establishing the rich diplomatic history that Brazil has embodied from the 1830s to the 2010s.

Historical Image of the Day

From the excellent digital archive of the Archivo Fotográfico Courret:

The photo is from 1894, and of Julio C. Bernales del Real and his comrades at arms in the Peruvian Military. Bernales served throughout the country, and also as part of his country's legations to Greece and Bolivia in the late 19th century. I'm personally a fan of the uniform mustaches. And, what's with the one guy at the end of the row with his chair backwards?

Historical Image of the Day

Ku Klux Klan march, Ashland, Oregon, early 1920s.

On the West Coast, the rise of the KKK in the early 20s was heavily infused with anti-Asian feelings.

Making it official

A while ago, I wrote about the on-going investigation into research misconduct by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who published a now-infamous study that suggested (erroneously) a link between the MMR vaccination and autism.

Britain's General Medical Council has released their findings on the matter, stating that Wakefield had been “dishonest, irresponsibile and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain of children.” MMR vaccination rates plummeted in the years after he released his study, causing hundreds of children to get the diseases. Wakefield, because of the extreme controversy and pending charges from the GMC, left England several years ago for one of the best places for one who obfuscates the scientific process of inquiry on account of strongly held beliefs-- Texas. He runs an autism clinic in Austin.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Historical Image of the Day

1942 US Army booklet, "How to Spot a Jap," with the all-important tutorial on how to tell the difference between the Chinese and Japanese.

Good News for American Justice

Fortunately, walking into a church with a gun and shooting a man point-blank in the head is still considered murder.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is There Anything Bacon Can't Do?

Perhaps. But it helps your sex-life. At least, so says Cristina Kirchner. And hell - it's not like I needed another reason to eat bacon, but I'll always accept new justifications.

My Favorite Labor History Books

Reader Mark F has requested a list of labor history books.

I'm always happy to oblige. I'm not sure that this list is a greatest hits, but these are favorites of mine.

In general chronological order from past to present

1. Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860
Not a traditional labor history exactly, but a wonderful look at the intersection of sex and class in antebellum New York with some great chapters on women and the nascent labor movement, women's sexual labor, and the misogyny of early republicanism.

2. Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood
A wonderful memoir by one of the Lowell "mill girls."

3. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York
Great look at working class popular culture

4. Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930
Great look at immigrant workers in the turn of the century West. First-rate stuff.

5. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World
An oldie but goodie; still the best overview of the I.W.W.

6. Bruce Watson, Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream.
Fantastic look at the 1912 Lawrence textile strike

7. Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War
Andrews explores the labor violence in the southern Colorado mines in the 1910s, centering on the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. This book takes an environmental angle as well to labor history. A groundbreaking work and a winner of the Bancroft Prize, the highest honor in U.S. history. Since my work shares similarities, I have my own critique of it, but I'll leave that for now and give it a very high recommendation.

8. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939
A classic examination of how working-class people shaped their own lives, even in hard times.

9. Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression
It seems there were more than 4.

10. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
Why working-class whites abandoned Detroit

11. Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA's 70 Year Quest for Cheap Labor
A real favorite of mine that shows how corporations were looking to relocate for cheaper labor long before they went overseas.

12. Camille Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939
A fine look at the struggles of Latino labor in the early 20th century Southwest

13. Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968
Boyle examines Walter Reuther and the potential of labor to shape post-war America.

14. Phillip Vera Cruz, A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement.
Surprisingly, the only works on Cesar Chavez are hagiographies. Vera Cruz' memoir is a powerful discussion of the Filipinos who laid the groundwork for the UFW and how they were treated in the union. Chavez does not come out smelling like roses, which is a nice counter to his deification.

15. Ben Hamper, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line
Great look at deindustrialization at the GM plant in Flint, told from a first-person perspective and quite amusing too.

16. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
This book is not flawless, but is still an important examination of low-wage labor today.

17. Leon Fink, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South
A leading labor historian's look at the arrival of Latino labor in North Carolina.

Well, that'll do for now. This is kind of lacking in African-American labor history, which is bad. There are any number of great studies of both slavery and post-emancipation work. But the list is a good start of my favorites. I hope it's useful to people.

And any other recommendations are welcome!

Images of Modern Gold Mining

Sociological Images has a wonderful post up displaying images of modern gold mining. Here's a couple of examples.

RIP - J.D. Salinger

Apparently, J.D. Salinger has died. While sad, this isn't exactly a shock. I originally read through Salinger's work in my teens, but a few years ago, decided to go back to see if it would still appeal to me in my late-20s. Much to my surprise, I actually thought it was even better then than it had been in high school. I think Catcher in the Rye was the one that was most to my tastes in my teens; not surprisingly, while I didn't find it weak or bad, it didn't resonate in the same way the second time. That said, Nine Stories, Frannie and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction were even more impressive the second time around. Too often, so-called the production of "literary giants" doesn't really hold up, but Salinger, perhaps due to his minimal output, was absolutely deserving of that title. Salinger was a titan, and in that regard, his passing is sad (if inevitable); but with Seymour, Zooey, Holden, the Glass family, and others still commonly read, it's hard to be too upset.

Historical Image of the Day

By the last years of the 19th century, anti-Asian propaganda shifted gears to new threats. During and after the Spanish and then Philippine-American War of 1898-1902, there was a great deal of debate whether to take on colonies. Much of the anti-imperialist side relied on white supremacy to make their case, fearing the infection of tropical peoples into the white man's nation.

Here is a prime example, with the savage Filipino attacking Congress who is presenting them with civilization. Probably from 1898, but I don't have an exact date.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

Like everyone else on the left, I am very sad about Howard Zinn's passing. Two points I want to make.

First, A People's History of the United States is a book I have trouble endorsing in 2010. I think it's great for young people who are being exposed to alternative viewpoints for the first time. It's fine if you are 19 and need an overview of a different side to American history. But it absolutely does not stand up over time as a book of history. It's too anecdotal, kind of embarrassing in certain parts, and is no longer revolutionary in its historiography. Of course, that's fine. It's 30 years old. Most 3 decade old books don't hold up. The only problem here is that people still talk about how Zinn tells the stories others don't. That's absolutely absurd. 95% of history books published today deal with race, class, and gender, not to mention environmental issues, sexuality, and other topics Zinn couldn't have talked about in 1970. We all tell these stories. We know tons about traditionally underrepresented groups. Zinn was part of a wave of many historians telling these stories.

Michael Kazin really nails the problems with A People's History here. He's overly harsh, but it's a useful corrective for those who will tuck no criticism of the book.

My second point is personal. In 1999, I was helping put together a labor teach-in at the University of Tennessee, an event that helped spark a union movement that continues today. Playing a small role in this movement is one of the proudest moments of my life. Anyway, we were brainstorming about people to come speak at our event and of course we thought of Howard Zinn. So I e-mailed, asking him to come. He almost instantly replied, sending me a very nice message saying that he couldn't make it that weekend, but suggesting other people to ask. We acted upon his advice and in fact they did come and helped make the event a major success. I can only imagine how many unsolicited requests Zinn received. Yet, his kindness and courtesy to someone he didn't know is something I'll always remember fondly.

Howard Zinn was a fine historian, even if his readers today overstate his accomplishments. But he was certainly a wonderful man who did more than almost anyone alive for social justice.

Historical Image of the Day

Rock Springs Massacre, 1885. Even after the Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese ideology drove politics in the West. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, racism combined with labor activism, as the railroad was paying Chinese less than whites. White labor responding by destroying the Chinese community, killing at least 28 Chinese miners.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Joanna Newsom

Glad to hear a new Joanna Newsom is coming out next month.

And a mere triple album at that! Chances that one entire album consists of 1 track: 20%

Sample track here. Very solid.

The New Grover Cleveland, The New Gilded Age

Lots of great commentary out there on Obama embracing Hooverite policies to deal with the recession, particularly Noon decrying Obama following the advice of Hans Morganthau. But I really want to focus on Eric's comparison of Obama to Grover Cleveland, a comparison I also made in my long post on Brown's election last Tuesday night.

Eric uses this image and also quotes Richard Hofstadter on Cleveland
, who wrote

a taxpayer’s dream, the ideal bourgeois statesman for his time: out of heartfelt conviction he gave to the interests what many a lesser politician might have sold them for a price. He was the flower of American political culture in the Gilded Age.

Maybe Obama is the next Grover Cleveland. I increasingly believe it. Like in the 1880s, we have a Democratic party that has totally bought into Republican rhetoric and a president who is increasingly facilitating whatever corporations want. It's pretty bad when the person you thought might be the next Lyndon Johnson turns out to be the next Grover Cleveland.

During the Democratic primary, I was a mild Obama supporter (after Edwards fell away) and once told my students when they asked who I voted for that I went for Obama because I was ready to be disappointed by someone new. Indeed, that disappointment is setting in, particularly in the last week. At this point, I'm beginning to wish Hillary had won. If the Democrats are going to sell out, at least Hillary would be going about it competently.

In a related post, Steve asks whether the new 2 party system is the old Republican Party (now called the Democrats) and the Tea Party Party. I wonder. While the nation's political tendencies aren't really moving to the right (and the preferences of young people for libertarian social policies suggests a long-term shift to the left), both political parties continue their 35 year long move to the right. How long can this be sustainable? Progressives thought we had put a stop to this when we elected Obama, but we were clearly too optimistic. I'm not quite as pessimistic as Steve however, because you have a large and increasingly active base of the Democratic Party very angry about all of this. A continued Democratic rightward lean isn't tenable because they won't win elections this way.

Under different circumstances, with active labor unions able to provide the votes to make this happen, I almost wonder if now might have been a good time to do what England did when the Labor Party outflanked the Liberals as the 2nd major party in that country. Eventually, it seems the Democrats will move so far to the right that most of their members won't be willing to go with them. Of course, the long historical failure of 3rd party movements in this country make it very difficult to see any alternative except for dropping out of the system entirely.

Comments Bleg

So I guess Haloscan, which has run our comments since the blog's beginning, is going away in a couple of weeks. So I have to get a new comments system. Haloscan recommends paying $12 a year for JS-Kit, but that's a terrible system. For you bloggers out there, what are you doing about this? What system do you use?

If We Just Burned All the Books, We Wouldn't Have To Worry About Corrupting the Children

Menifee, California school district bans the Merrriam-Webster's College Dictionary because it contains a definition for oral sex.

Historical Image of the Day

One of my favorite images of anti-Asian racism, this less than subtle image from either the late 1870s or early 1880s lays it out there for all of us to see. The Workingman's Party was the dominate force in California politics during the years leading up to Chinese exclusion. Their entire platform consisted of saving California for the white man by ending Chinese immigration. That they became such a political threat to both parties helped lead to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

In this get out the vote image, you see the white man kicking the Chinese guy in the butt, with his queue extending all the way over the Pacific back to China, where he is fleeing.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Shifting demographics on campus

This trend has been percolating for years, and is widening. In 2005, women outnumbered men on college campuses 57%-43%. In 2009, the numbers approached something close to 60%-40%. This brings up some interesting questions, and some controversial practices. In an effort to balance gender representation at some schools, the acceptance rate for men is often much higher than for women (because there are far more female applicants; ergo, in order to achieve some balance, the rate of acceptance for men is higher). I don't quite know what the think about this-- the reasons for this marked shift over the last several decades, or the institutions' role in achieving gender balance.

Some schools (especially elite ones) have come under fire for this balancing, because in effect, it makes it harder for a woman to go to an elite college, since the acceptance rate is lower. That isn't to say that less-qualified men are being selected-- at the most selective schools, the vast majority of rejected students are qualified, and the total number or women is higher.

Should this be something higher education should be worried about, or should we be celebrating? At what point does the gender gap matter-- 75/25? 80/20? Does this say something about K-12 education? How do we discuss this without resorting to dangerous gender stereotypes? What effect do unbalanced gender constituencies have on the creation of learning communities within higher education? Is there any way for an institution to address this without engaging in activity that would make most of us uncomfortable?

I am not sure what to make of all this, but if this trend continues, it will be something that we have to contend with in the years to come. What sayeth the blogosphere?

Weirdness on the Internet

You never know what you'll run into.

Such as this group organizing to ban horse-drawn carriages.

Uruguay's Juan Maria Bordaberry Facing Trial?

Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay have been good at going after political and military leaders from murderous dictatorships; even Brazil is setting up a truth commission. And now, Uruguay is joining its neighbors in seeking justice for past violations of human rights.

The Uruguayan district attorney´s office asked for a 30-year prison sentence to the ex-dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Blanco for having committed four homicides. [...] Both were considered "intellectual and institutional prosecutors", explained the source.
It's getting harder and harder for former leaders to plead ignorance or uninvolvement in the acts committed under their rule. The fact that Bordaberry remains one of the few living ex-"presidents" (a term often abused during dictatorships) to not have felt the full consequences of his acts in the name of "democracy," "order," and other catch-all legitimizing phrases from the Cold War, has been a mark against Uruguay. It is good to see Uruguay finally following the lead of its neighbors and going after such leaders for their acts. It not only offers victims' families a sense of closure and justice; it just may help deter future acts from political leaders.

Historical Image of the Day

This week's images will look at anti-Asian propaganda in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Handbill celebrating the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, becoming the first law to ban an entire nation's immigrants from our shores. However, I'm not convinced that this image dates from that year, despite its celebratory tone. That's because it proclaims a Democratic president signed it. But Chester Arthur, a Republican if there was one, was president in 1882. So I'm assuming this handbill celebrates some kind of extension or modification signed by Grover Cleveland during one on his two terms.

However, one great thing about this handbill is the celebration of the Democratic party as protecting the white man, a key element of white supremacist ideology during the Gilded Age.

Historical Image of the Day

Hat tip here and here. I'm not normally interested in posting things I find on boing boing, but this ad is just a bit too crazy. DDT in your kid's wall paper. What's next? Lead in the paint?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Film Review: The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

When does political violence turn into sheer criminality? This is the question at the center of the brilliant German film The Baader Meinhof Complex. Chronicling the history of the Red Army Faction, director Uli Edel creates a fast-paced political thriller that avoids cliche or moralizing. Edel keeps ideology to a minimum, making little attempt to explain the tangled mess of 60s revolutionary theory the German radicals spout. While modern-day radicals might cringe at this, in important ways it doesn't matter what ideology revolutionary movement espouse. Rather, in a post 9/11 world, the sheer ability of people, particularly the bourgeoisie of the world's richest nations, to turn to extremism is a riveting question.

My favorite scene in the film is when the RAF leaders go to Jordan to train in guerrilla tactics from Palestinian militants. It's a total disaster. While the Germans look up to the Middle Eastern radicals in similar ways that white radicals in the United States worshiped African-American revolutionaries, they also don't take their training very seriously. The Germans couldn't stand the gender segregation of Muslim societies while the Muslims were outraged at the nudity and open sexuality of the Germans. When accosted, Baader screams out, "Revolution and fucking are the same thing." I suppose in the minds of white 60s radicals this might have been true, but it also seems that maybe they weren't taking revolution seriously.

Of course, this isn't quite true. It's very hard to argue that the Red Army Faction didn't take their activities seriously. But it's also clear that revolution meant something very different to them than it did to the Vietnamese, Palestinians, Algerians, African-Americans, and other people of color whose revolution was heavily nationalistic. For them, revolution was the survival (or creation) of their imagined state. But for whites, revolution was less central to physical survival. Rather, their rebellion was much more cultural and spiritual. The RAF was disgusted by 50s conformity in much the same way as young people in France and the United States. Their radicalism was also tinged by the German state's forgetting of the Nazi past and the lingering fascism within their government. These were things worth rebelling against, but it also allowed for a sense of play that could not exist in South Africa or Laos. For these kids, fucking was part of the revolution, not because their parents didn't have sex, but because of the shame attached to it.

As we now know, free sex did not mean gender equality. The extreme misogyny of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements helped spawn the women's movement. To Edel's credit, he explores this side of the RAF as well, through the hyper-masculinity and sexism of Baader, a man known to fits of rage and the use of the most vulgar anti-woman epithets. Again, this gets to the brilliance of this film. Rather than engage in deification like the vastly inferior Che, promote the revolutionary movement itself like The Battle of Algiers, or romanticize the 60s like any number of films, Edel presents the RAF without judgment or moralizing. The action-movie oriented style of the film helps a lot because it doesn't allow time for pointless scenes laying everything out for the audience, allowing supposed "moral" voices to enter the dialogue, or other Hollywood tricks. I'm sure Edel disapproves of much of the RAF's history, but to the greatest extent possible, he produces a pseudo-documentary film tracing their history.

The RAF became infamous for their violence. What made them different from other leftist organizations of the time. In his wonderful book Bringing the War Home, Jeremy Varon notes that what made RAF hyper-violent and the American radicals known as the Weathermen less violent was nothing inherent in their nature, but the bomb-making explosion that killed a few Weathermen before they could launch their attacks. These extremist left groups romanticized violence and RAF radicals used it in spades.

But what were they using it for? One might argue that their early attacks had some semblance of social justice around them, though it's dubious. But after the 1st generation of RAF, including Baader and Meinhof, were jailed in the early 1970s, the group turned its energy to getting its members released. In the German Autumn of 1977, RAF members kidnapped a banker and demanded the prisoners release and then worked with Middle Eastern terrorist to hijack a plane. When the hijacking failed, 3 of the imprisoned RAF leaders died (probably by committing suicide, though this is disputed) and the banker was shot.

What good was any of this? At what point does revolutionary violence turn into pointless criminality? When the remnants of the Black Panthers and Weatherman robbed a Brinks armed truck in 1981, killing a guard, what were they trying to do? Particularly in 1981, when any claims to being the vanguard of a revolution were dubious at best. I've thought a lot about revolutionary violence over the years, trying to figure out what is appropriate and what is not. When does the Palestinian freedom movement turn to terrorism, or is that an appropriate tactic? Given the increased inability of the United States to govern itself and the slow collapse of the nation's political institutions, one wonders about the potential rise of political violence in the United States in coming years. Of course, violence has largely been rejected by the left, but certainly not by the right. What was the killing of George Tiller if not political terrorism? Or the killings of the Knoxville Unitarians by the lunatic who hated them for their pro-gay rights positions? How do progressives respond to this?

I don't have any answers to these questions, but a group viewing and discussion of The Baader Meinhof Complex would be a good place to start.

Historical Image of the Day

Tobacco ships, Port Glasgow, Scotland, 1760s.

Facial Hair of the Weekend

This marks the last of the "Mexican Revolution Facial Hair" series (see here for others). Álvaro Obregón (1880-1928) was one of the leading generals in Venustiano Carranzo's Constitutionalist army. Obregón achieved many of the major military victories of Carranza's forces in the 1914-1915 period, and was rewarded with the position of Minister of War in 1915. However, by 1917, Obregón began to forge his own identity as a politician independent of Carranza, with the intent of running for president of Mexico in 1920. Obregón's campaign was successful, and he served as president of Mexico from 1920-1924. Many consider Obregón's administration to be the first of the "post-revolutionary" administrations, with conflict from the Revolution ending in 1920 (though, agian, the timeline and periodization of this varies from scholar to scholar). During his administration, Obregón launched major educational reform, land reform, and some labor laws (though the way such reforms and laws played out from state to state varied). Stepping aside for his hand-picked successor, Plutarco Elias Calles (whose mustache was already much less significant than Obregón's was), Obregón remained active in military and political life. In 1928, he decided to run for election once again, and won. Unfortunately for him, he was assassinated before being able to take office, marking simultaneously the last of the major political assassinations of the Mexican Revolution and the end of the major figures of the Mexican revolution serving as political leaders. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) would command the presidency of Mexico for the next 72 years, continuing to get further and further away from its "revolutionary" ideals, until Mexico had determined it had enough of the PRI, electing opposition candidate Vicente Fox in 2000.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Another Philip Dick Movie? Color Me Skeptical

It has come to my attention that yet another Philip K. Dick work is being turned into a film. This time, it's one of my three favorite Dick books, Radio Free Albemuth. I am less than certain that this is remotely a good idea.

It's not exactly that Dick's movies and stories are unfilmable - Minority Report wasn't terrible, Total Recall is actually fairly good for what it is, and Blade Runner is an absolute classic. But the latter two really diverge greatly from their original source material, and even Minority Report is a 2+hour telling of a short story, so there's a lot added on. (And I haven't seen A Scanner Darkly, but heard it was fairly good, too).

But I just don't see how Radio Free Albemuth will work as a movie. It's not just that my skepticism is based on a paranoia-filled Cold-War dystopia during a political administration that strongly represents Dick Nixon's and Joseph McCarthy's love-child (not exactly the same political-cultural climate we are in now). It's not even that Alanis Morisette will apparently play a major role in the film. It's also that I just don't see how you narrate the book in film format. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the book hinges in no small part on a major narrative shift that starts with "Philip Dick" (the character)'s internal point of view in the first third of the book, shifts to his friend Nicholas Brady's point of view in the second, and returns to Dick's in the third. And those shifts in POV are one of the most seamless, simple, and yet innovative ways to shift narrative voices in a book that I've ever read. It's actually kind of central to the way the story is told, and I just don't see how that works in film. If you're not looking "through" Dick's and Brady's eyes, then the story is going to be radically different.

Again, I'm not saying the film will be terrible. But I can't help but think that, if it's to succeed, it will have to take the Blade Runner path and basically very loosely follow the story it's based upon; in other words, it will have to use Dick's ideas as a launching point, but become it's own story separate from the book. And given that for every Blade Runner there has been a Paycheck, I'm not holding my breath.

And as a final comment, please - if you've never read any Philip Dick, go out and get something by him now. I'd recommend Radio Free Albemuth, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Dr. Bloodmoney, Confessions of a Crap Artist, The Man in the High Castle, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as good starting points, though honestly I could recommend another 8-12 beyond that. Suffice to say, there are lots of excellent books by him, in addition to his short stories.

UPDATE...Apparently, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is also becoming a film. That may be a bit easier than Radio Free Albemuth, but not by much. Either these screenwriters/directors are amazingly good and clever, or these are going to be some major film fiascos.

Historical Image of the Day

Ad for help getting off tobacco addiction, 1934

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stupidity: Now That's Filibuster Proof!

Centrist Democratic senators are fleeing to join their Republican colleagues in climate-change denying and cutting environmental agencies off at the knees. Since Tuesday, at least 3 Democrats have gone this route--Landrieu, Lincoln, and now, Ben Nelson. Maybe this explains why:

Ben Nelson's Dirty Money

Scott Brown's "Intellect"

Sounds like Jim Inhofe may have competition for America's Stupidest Senator:

[Brown's] prior visits to Washington, he explained, were mostly to watch his daughter Ayla, a college basketball player, play against American University, or to visit the monuments "as a tourist."

"I'm a history buff," he said. "I love the Museum of Natural History."

-- Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA), as quoted by the Washington Post.


Baseball, or God?

There may be a weirder story in baseball this year than this, but I can't imagine what it might be.

Oakland Athletics prospect Grant Desme is retiring from baseball to enter the priesthood.

Desme was recently selected the 2009 Arizona Fall League MVP and was considered one of the top prospects in Oakland's system.

This doesn't seem earth-shattering. The A's had hopes for Desme, but Rob Neyer is kind of down on him as a prospect. Either way, it's pretty strange. There's no reason not to which Desme anything but the best in his career shift. Still, this has to be one of those things that leaves scouts scratching their heads.

Disturbing Audio Link of the Day

In case you thought Lyndon Johnson discussing his testicles wasn't disturbing enough, here's Werner Herzog reading Curious George.

Via Helmut

roeder and roe

The opening statements in the prosecution of Scott Roeder for the murder of Dr. Tiller began this morning. Nice bit of irony that Roeder's trial opens on Roe Day. I just want to echo Sarah J's post below and say that it is a shame how quickly the Dems were willing to trade on reproductive rights in the abomination of health care reform they've produced. The historical memory of life before Roe has faded so, so much.

There is no true equality between the sexes without complete reproductive control. So, I pitch my hat in with free abortion on demand for all too.

For those interested, @rsylvester and @roeder_watch are live tweeting the trial.

Yet Another Reason Cleveland Indians Fans Can Be Hopeful

With just 27 days until pitchers and catchers report (thus ending America's annual national nightmare), I'm already getting geared up for the 2010 season. And while the Indians' 2010 title hopes are effectively dead on arrival, I'm looking forward to seeing how Manny Acta manages, and seeing how the potential of some of the young players like Matt LaPorta and Carlos Santana (not that one) plays out. A lot of the guys the Tribe will be calling up this year already makes me hopeful for the future. What else makes me hopeful for the future?

This list.

Sure, it's just one list, but I have to say, even with all of the heartbreaking trades, in spite of the fact that the Indians have not won a World Series in 61 (and this year will most certainly be 62) years, the fact that the Indians are coming off the loss of two Cy Young winners and the arguable heart of the team with one of the strongest farm systems makes me hopeful. If nothing else, I, unlike a Pittsburgh or Baltimore fan (sorry drip), can rest easy knowing that the Cleveland Indians are run intelligently. And maybe the experience of 2010 will get the youth movement ready for a 2011 playoff push....

Historical Image of the Day

Advertisement for Zippo lighter using the Vietnam War as a selling point, 1966

Free Abortion On Demand

It's Blog for Choice Day. And this year, a year many of us thought might actually be a good one for sexual and reproductive rights, has turned out to be a very lousy one indeed. We saw Democrats force the Stupak amendment into an otherwise fairly decent House health care reform bill, and do nearly the same thing in the Senate onto an already-pretty-crappy health care reform bill.

We saw the murder of Dr. George Tiller, abortion provider, in cold blood.

We like to talk about choice. We fight over terminology. But what have we really done, in the years since Roe v. Wade, other than hold the line and nervously try not to lose what we've won?

We criticize Democrats for not supporting us, we who put them in office. But what are we pushing for? When my Democrat Congresswoman from my quite Democratic district (BROOKLYN, people) sends me a form letter in response to my calls and emails about Stupak, reassuring ME that there won't be any federal money spent on abortion, what does that mean for us? Even the Democrats are more worried about antichoice arguments than they are about people like me bailing on them. Where are we going to go, after all, right?

Well, I'm tired of it. It's 2010. We need to be fighting for more gains, not hiding in a defensive crouch and praying we get to hold on to what we've got. Rights are not granted, they are taken.

Right after Stupak, I wrote:

Not enough. I want positives. I want to use this moment to affirm our right to a healthy, joyful sexuality and to talk about how we can achieve that. A messy, unruly sexuality—hell, part of the beauty of it is that it’s not clean and neat. It is like eating a peach, in the last lines of Prufrock, juices running down your chin, sweet and tangy. Those decisions that happen in a minute are sometimes wrong, and sometimes unplanned things come out of them, but we don’t need to be saved from it, we need to have resources and support to deal with it, from a relationship gone sour to unfortunate STIs or Plan B for a birth control failure—or, whether Congress likes it or not, safe, legal, insurance-covered abortion.

I want to come out of the closet and say yes, we like sex, and we have the right to have it. To say that if the government spends millions of dollars every year on technologies that are only good for killing people, it can include abortion in a health care plan.

We didn't get to the point of Roe v. Wade by having nice polite arguments. We got there by being angry, and demanding, and pushing. We got there by staking out a firm position: that our bodies are our own and we have the right to do what we want with them. We got there by calling for free abortion on demand.

So this year I don't want to hear any sugarcoating. I don't want any dancing around the words. Abortion. Sex. Pregnancy. There it is. "Choice" means a lot of things, it's true. But this year we should all remember at bottom what it is we fought for.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random Music Observations (XII)

-The world will be an instantly better place the moment the next Gillian Welch album comes out.

-I'm sure there's something in the contemporary music world that's stupider than John Mayer's sleeve tattoo, but I can't for the life of me think of what it is.

-Of all the big "grunge"/"alt-rock" bands of the early- to mid-90s, Pavement has aged the best.

-The early Funkadelic albums are better than any Parliament album, and it's not even close.

-I used to think any kind of musical production was worthwhile. Then reggaeton happened.

Lyndon's Balls

It turns out that Lyndon Johnson was very concerned about his pants riding up on his testicles, as he bluntly tells the Haggar pants company in this audiotape released from the National Archives.

A worthy listen.

Corporate Bought America

The Supreme Court's overturning of campaign finance restrictions by corporations and unions is terrible, if predictable, news. We can now expect the Chamber of Commerce, big pharma, insurance companies, and oil companies buying and selling elections in a style not seen in this country since the Gilded Age.

Speaking of the Gilded Age, I blame those years of the Supreme Court, far and away the worst courts in American history, for giving corporations the same rights as actual people under the 14th Amendment. We still live with the negative consequences of this today. I am planning to begin a new series examining different Gilded Age SCOTUS decisions. As a society we are largely unaware of how these decisions still affect us today; despite the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society, we have not undone the damage. That today's court has decided that corporations have the same speech rights as you and me is yet another example.

Banning Snake Imports

In a piece of smart environmental legislation, Bill Nelson and Kendrick Meek have introduced legislation to ban the importation of large tropical snakes. Supported by the White House, this bill should have a good chance of passing, unless the Republicans are also interested in halting all snake related legislation in the Senate.

Too many people buy these snakes, decide they can't take care of them, and release them into the wild. Without natural predators, they breed like crazy, eat everything around them, and severely degrade the ecosystem. This is one of the greatest invasive species threats the U.S. faces. It's probably too late to do too much about it, particularly in Florida and other areas around the Gulf Coast, where these snakes really thrive, but it's a common sense idea that we should enact. Plus, those snakes should stay in their home environments. It's a lovely aspect of environmental imperialism that we demand exotic pets without concern for how they are caught. This also affects the bird trade, as smugglers have decimated populations of macaws and other large birds to export to the United States.

Historical Image of the Day

Dorothea Lange photo of North Carolina tobacco sharecroppers, 1939.

I have a message from the ghost of Lyndon Johnson

To Democrats:


Seriously? At this time last year not only did we just have a new president that we were all excited about, we also had a brand-new super-exciting majority in the Senate. 58 votes! SO COOL!

Oh yeah, that's right. We've had 60 votes for a couple of months, after Arlen Specter switched and Franken finally got his seat. While Franken's made the most of that seat, the rest of the party has been mostly fucking spineless, undisciplined, and too busy worrying about the center.

The center didn't elect Scott Brown. The tea party crowd elected Scott Brown with the help of a depressed Democratic base (gee, let me think, a boring law & order prosecutor type who doesn't campaign and makes John Kerry look like a raging populist is gonna get them all fired up? Plus, um, Liebercare looks a lot like MassCare, which is not exactly popular with a lot of the Dem base either.)

Lesson we SHOULD learn from this shit? The teabaggers have the strategy right. Make a whole lot of noise, throw some money around, and bend the party to YOUR will instead of folding your hands and giving it the benefit of the doubt. (Also, candidates matter. A lot. Just ask that guy...what was his name again...Obama?)

But come the fuck on. With 60 votes we were going to get watered-down shitty health care reform that would mandate us giving our hard-earned cash to the people who've been fucking us for years. Can we stop pretending that we lost anything valuable Tuesday night? We lost the myth that any seats are safe. That's GOOD news. Let's have some real campaigns now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

the people vs. texaco/chevron I

This is the first in a series of posts on the legacy of the petroleum industry in the Oriente of Ecuador.

In the spring of 1994 I was a graduating senior at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and wrote an honors thesis ham-handedly entitled "Crude Destruction: Multinational Petroleum Corporations and the Desolation of Ecology and Indigenous People of Ecuador's Oriente." You can guess what it was about. My Spanish and research skills were limited at the time, but this experience did put me on the trail that eventually led to a PhD in Latin American History. I was excited at the time I was research to come across a news item detailing a lawsuit that a group of Ecuadoreans had filed in US District Court against Texaco, Inc. The lawsuit was being managed in the US by attorneys from the Kohn, Nast & Graf firm of Philadelphia, PA.

The case, at that point, was far from court, and had only just been filed. So, I decided to contact the firm as ask for a copy of the complaint (long before the days of services like this one to track cases online). So, when I called I told the reception that I was working on a thesis (note-- did not say senior honors thesis) on oil contamination and its effects on the Oriente, and she patched me through to Joseph C. Kohn, the partner handling the case, and Kohn spoke to me on the phone for a good 45 minutes before agreeing to mail the filing to me that afternoon. The summary of claims included the following:
  1. In 1964, Texaco acquired rights to explore and drill for oil in the Oriente. From approximately 1972 through 1992, Texaco drilled more than 400 oil wells in the region and extracted approximately 220,000 barrels of oil per day.
  2. ...Texaco did not use reasonable industry standards of oil extraction in the Oriente, or comply with accepted American local or international standards of environmental safety and protection. Rather, purely for its own economic gain, Texaco deliberately ignored reasonable and safe practices and treated the pristine Amazon rain forests of the Oriente and its people as a toxic waste dump.
  3. Texaco failed to pump unprocessable crude oil and toxic residues back into the wells as is the reasonable and prudent industry practice. Instead, Texaco disposed of these toxic substances by dumping them in open pits, into the streams, rivers and wetlands, burning them in open pits without any temperature or air pollution controls, and spreading oil on the roads. Texaco designed and constructed oil pipelines without adequate safety features resulting in spills of millions of gallons of crude oil.
  4. Texaco's practices of disposing of untreated crude and waste by-products into the environment has contaminated the drinking water, rivers, streams, ground water and air with dangerously high levels of such known toxins as benzene, toluene, xylene, mercury, lead and hydrocarbons, among others. Texaco's acts and omissions have resulted in the discharge of oil into the plaintiff's environment at a rate in excess of 3,000 gallons per day for 20 years. Many times more oil has been spilled in the Oriente than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
  5. Plaintiffs and the class they seek to represent have suffered sever personal injuries and are at an incresaed risk of suffering other diseases, including cancers. Their sources of potable water have been contaminated, their properties polluted, their livestock killed or made ill, and their very existence as a people jeopardized.
  6. Plaintiffs and the class have no means to redress these wrongs other than through this action in this Honorable Court. Texaco's activities in Ecuador were at all relevant times designed, controlled and directed by defendant Texaco Inc. through its operations in the United States. Texaco no longer does business in Ecuador.
The list of ailments suffered by members of the class is harrowing-- ranging from constant respiratory infections, body growths, chemical poisonings, fish kills, dietary changes, skin rashes from bathing in contaminated water, evidence that even the rain water was contaminated with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, the destruction of traditional lifeways, spontaneous abortions by both people and livestock, fevers, corporal pains, migraine headaches, etc. The defendants were largely Quichua and Secoya Indians, but also included some "colonists" who settled in the Oriente as the petroleum industry cut roads into the forest, and as land reforms pursued by successive military governments in the 1960s and 1970s sought to move landless peasants from the highlands into the Amazon basin.

Texaco replied to the suit by claiming that US courts had no jurisdiction over the case, given that the alleged acts and effects were totally restricted to Ecuador. They claimed that Ecuador's own courts would be the appropriate venue, and that the plaintiffs were not pursuing them there because, in fact, not of the alleged actions were illegal in Ecuador. They also, of course, denied they had contaminated the Oriente and shifted blame to any of a number of other petroleum companies operating in the region after Texaco's departure. The response was disingenuous at best.

The case languished in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, until it was finally dismissed in May 2001 citing jurisdictional issues. The plaintiffs appealed, and a little more than a year later the appellate court upheld the judge's dismissal. In the meantime, Chevron had acquired Texaco and took on the burden of Texaco's litigation- a burden that was extended back to Ecuador in 2003 when a new class action suit was filed in the Ecuadorean courts intended to hold Chevron accountable for the human and environmental devastation.

This case is now close ruling in Ecuador, and Chevron is engaging in every tactic it can to put off the findings. Two weeks ago, the company filed to have the case moved to international binding arbitration, a maneuver the plaintiffs and Ecuadorean government oppose. More on that, and on the back story next time.

Smart Talk about Yesterday's Failure

Everyone's chiming in on Coakley's failure, what it means for health care, whether or not Obama is at fault, and the future. Here's a few good pieces:

Tim Fernholz blames Democrats' failure at framing the issues. I totally agree; they've bickered amongst themselves, allowed blowhards like Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman to create an image of health care as a problem, and dickered away the opportunity to pass meaningful reform. Rather than fold to every Republican desire, as Bayh evidently intends, it's far more useful, both politically and on the merits, to reframe Democratic programs as the way to help the American people.

Reg at Beautiful Horizons notes:

My own hope is that it serves as a wake-up call to Democrats for 2010. And a "wake-up" call doesn't mean a signal to retreat more and take on the country's problems less. It means more clarity, more consistency, more fight, more principled proposals that ordinary people can see as serving their interests. It means organizing and energizing the base to organize and energize Democrats and independents in the fall elections. It means fielding effective, attractive candidates who can reach out and speak to traditional Democrats and independents. It means pushing forward on health care, not evading or watering-down the issue.

Couldn't say it better myself.

And Sadly, No hits it on the head:

Here’s the rub — even if Obama does this and manages to convince the House to pass Liebercare and then fix it through reconciliation, is there any evidence that the Dems will try to do this? The key to successful health care reform is that people have to like the reform. That means it must have something for them in it. People will like a Medicare buy-in, for instance (because Medicare apparently isn’t government, y’know) and they would have liked cheap prescription drugs.

If Liebercare becomes law without significant changes, people will hate it and it will wreck the Democratic brand basically forever. So if you can be sure that Congress will fix it right’n'good during reconciliation, then I say go for it. Otherwise, well, we’ll let the health care situation get even worse and try again in another 15 years.

Yep. New Deal programs made sure people received benefits almost immediately, that the programs were popular, and that the people knew which party provided these benefits. The popularity of these programs covered for a huge expansion in the federal government, a need for more tax revenue, and other changes Americans have traditionally been uncomfortable with. If the Democrats don't understand that people have to want the changes being made, then they are finished.

Historical Image of the Day

"Getting a Tobacco Hogshead Ready for Market," image from Edward King and James Wells Champney,The Great South; A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, 1875.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


One more thing--since we've lost 60 votes anyway, can we just go ahead and kick Joe Lieberman out of the party? What does he possibly offer the Democrats at this point?

There's Lots Of Blame To Go Around, But Obama Deserves Plenty

I am one angry Democrat tonight.

As I said in the post title, there's plenty of blame to go around for Martha Coakley's loss. Let's start with Coakley herself. She ran one of the most pathetic campaigns in recent times. Starting out with an overconfidence Ted Kennedy never would have allowed himself, Coakley did virtually no campaigning after the primary. Assuming the primary was a coronation, she never let the voters know her. And when Scott Brown came out of nowhere to challenge her, she proved utterly tone deaf to Massachusetts voters, calling Red Sox legend Curt Schilling a YANKEE fan of all things. She may be a good public servant but is utterly uninspiring. Almost any Democrat could have won this race and she totally blew it.

And then there's Harry Reid. His incompetent Senate leadership made this election matter far more than it should. If the Democrats needed a simple majority to pass legislation, the loss of one vote is dispiriting, but hardly nightmarish. But since he lacks the skill to challenge Republican stalling tactics that are bringing the government to a standstill, tactics which I believe to be the most serious threat to democracy the country has faced in generations, Democrats need sixty votes to pass anything. In addition, his unwillingness to impose even a modicum of party discipline means moderates like Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman control the party caucus, threatening to veto any legislation by withholding their 60th vote. Reid is operating under difficult conditions with the decline of the Senate as a functional organization, but he has also proven one of the most ineffectual Majority Leaders in American history.

But let's go to someone who deserves an awful lot of blame--Barack Obama. Now, I am not one of those progressives who has turned on Obama and sees him as an enemy because the health care bill isn't as comprehensive as I'd like or because he didn't come down as harshly on the Honduran coup as I'd like. I think his heart is in the right place. But Obama has consistently chosen weak tactics in dealing with Congress, the media, and the public at large. I will deal with all three aspects of this problem.

First, while Obama has presented big ideas to the public, he has shown little leadership in shaping their agenda or forcing Congress to do his bidding. In this, Obama has demonstrated party leadership so incompetent, you have to go back to Grover Cleveland to find a Democratic president worse at it. Obama and his advisers thought the lesson of Clinton's failed health care bill was to let Congress take the lead on shaping legislation and then step in and see the bill through in the end. They were partially wrong. While Clinton clearly erred in not consulting Congressional leaders in 1993, taking a 180 degree turn in congressional dealings has worked no better. Obama failed to recognize the very different makeup of Congress in 2009, not noting the regional shifts that contributed to the 1994 disaster, nor that he commanded a massive majority.

Even before he took office, Washington insiders like David Broder and David Brooks were recycling tired old Republican narratives that Democrats can't govern. But rather than promote his agenda with a consistent media blitz, Obama and Congress proved conventional wisdom true. Democratic infighting helped undermine Obama's agenda right away. Obama addressed the nation a couple of times, but this good idea wasn't followed by any consistent narrative. Obama could have used his own media to make this happen--sympathetic reporters, the blogosphere, and the same new media that helped elect him president. He failed to openly attack Republicans in the media, relying on ineffectual notions of bipartisanship that Republicans obviously did not share rather than tainting them with the failures of the previous eight years. When bipartisanship failed, Obama found himself unable to recapture momentum in the media, leaving him increasingly frustrated.

Finally, Obama's lack of leadership and inability to control the media narrative has undermined the public's confidence in him. Obama's was elected by a popular electoral movement not seen in this country since the 1930s. Millions of Americans were ready to die for him. But upon taking the Oval Office, Obama disbanded his organization in order to govern from the center. This mystifying decision will permanently haunt him. Had Obama asked for public health care rallies, thousands would have attended in cities throughout the nation. It would have been the first step in implementing a popularly approved progressive agenda. Or at least, it would have shown the media and the Republicans that health care had massive support. Instead, Obama allowed his public support to slip through his fingers. Instead, the tiny astroturf movement known as the Tea Parties became the most public popular expression of political beliefs in the country. Voters like leadership. Obama showed it during the campaign. But by the summer of 2009, only the tea parties and their allies in corporate media provided the leadership the public demands. And it caught Obama, his advisers, and Democratic leadership completely unawares. Republicans now control the political momentum, the media narrative, and the popular impression of standing for change, despite the fact that they plunged the country into this mess barely over a year ago.

Overall, Obama does not seem to understand the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. These great Democratic leaders knew that an effective presidency required strong leadership of the party from the Oval Office, forcefully pushing their agenda, and engaging the public and media in an aggressive manner to gain their support. Obama has some nice looking New Deal style posters promoting the stimulus package and that's about it. He must learn to take commanding control over his party and his agenda. Otherwise, he will endure a failed presidency and a blown rare opportunity in this nation for progressive causes.

What's especially galling is that Republicans have learned these lessons. They've learned them well. They engage in iron party discipline. They control the Senate for their purposes whether in the majority or minority. They have fantastic propaganda agencies, beginning with FOX News. They sell their agenda to the public. Their presidents dominate the agenda. It doesn't always work, but that's the nature of politics. Even when things don't go their way, Republicans recognize the soundness of the strategy and stick to the game plan. While I'm not suggesting the Democrats mimic the intellectual dishonesty and cynicism of the Republican Party, I am suggesting they apply the rules of effective governance their own ancestors created.

In the end, Scott Brown is not long for the Senate. I would be shocked if he ever wins election to a full term. He is far out of touch with Massachusetts voters, which they will quickly find out when he votes against everything they believe in. Once the economy turns around, people will think more positively about the Democrats. Despite early polls suggesting the public would give Obama time to fix the economy, there's no evidence in American history that voters ever have done this, except for Roosevelt and the New Deal. The Roosevelt exception happened because he implemented far reaching programs that immediately put people to work and tainted Republicans for a decade with economic greed and incompetence. Obama has failed to do this and now pays the price.

How Obama leads from this, the lowest point of his presidency, will determine his success in office. He could be Lyndon Johnson or he could be Jimmy Carter. To no small extent, the choice is his.

Centrist Democratic Senators Suck

Yglesias argues that Martha Coakley's defeat and the loss of the 60 seat Democratic majority in the Senate doesn't matter that much. And I tend to think he's right, given the tepid support of Obama's agenda by a sizable group of centrist Democrtats. He uncovers this vomit-inducing bit from Indiana's Evan Bayh:

Even before the votes are counted, Senator Evan Bayh is warning fellow Democrats that ignoring the lessons of the Massachusetts Senate race will “lead to even further catastrophe” for their party. [...] “It’s why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren’t buying our message,” he said. “They just don’t believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems. That’s something that has to be corrected.” [...] “ The only we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates,” Bayh said. “Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Dem party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country — that’s not going to work too well.”

Right, because that's exactly what happened with health care. Far left elements simply imposed their will in the Senate...

One major problem with Senate Democrats is that centrists have the power to enact their agenda on the party as a whole. In both parties, right-wing elements have the most leverage, meaning that the body continues to move to the right. While Ben Nelson may just be a conservative man, senators like Bayh and Lieberman know the power they hold and they want to extend it. That power means more to Bayh than climate change legislation, a national health care plan, or anything else. This cynical power grab inherent in this quote suggests that so long as the Democratic Senate caucus remains as presently constructed, little progressive legislation will get passed, even with 59 Democratic seats.

Kate McGarrigle, RIP

Sad to read of Kate McGarrigle's departure from us. Along with her sister Anna, Kate McGarrigle created some of the best folk music of the last 40 years. In particular, Matapedia and the early 70s album Dancer with Bruised Knees (long out of print for some inexcuable reason; I have it on an old cassette) are remarkable pieces of work. She's most known for mothering Rufus and Martha Wainwright with her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright. But beyond that crazy family drama, Kate and Anna McGarrigle produced wonderful harmonies with first-rate and often quite touching songwriting.

Kate McGarrigle will definitely be missed.

Historical Image of the Day

Marlboro ad, 1950s.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tim Tebow, Right-Wing Extremist

And I thought Tim Tebow was a sanctimonious prick before.

The former Florida quarterback and his mother will appear in a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl next month. The Christian group Focus on the Family says the Tebows will share a personal story centering on the theme “Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life.”

The group isn’t releasing details, but the commercial is likely to be an anti-abortion message chronicling Pam Tebow’s 1987 pregnancy. After getting sick during a mission trip to the Philippines, she ignored a recommendation by doctors to abort her fifth child and gave birth to Tim.

Doctors later told Pam that her placenta had detached from the uterine wall, a condition known as placental abruption, which can deprive the fetus of oxygen and nutrients. Doctors expected a stillbirth, Pam said, and they encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy.

“They thought I should have an abortion to save my life from the beginning all the way through the seventh month,” she recalled.

Pam said her decision to sustain the pregnancy was a simple one - because of her faith.

“We were grieved,” she said. “And so my husband just prayed that if the Lord would give us a son, that he would let us raise him.”

In her seventh month of pregnancy, Pam traveled to the country’s capital, Manila, where she received around-the-clock care from an American-trained physician.

For the next two months, Pam - steadfastly praying for a healthy child - remained on bed rest.

I am going to root for an end to Tebow's career like I have rooted for no other NFL player, well, ever. Though no doubt, he'll embark on a political career centering on the worst of the American character.