Monday, May 30, 2011

Decoration Day

I was going to write a longer post about the origins of Memorial Day, but I have no right to do so when David Blight does it instead:

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.

I will only say to you that rather than think of this holiday as a general "remember the soldiers" day, recall the valiant soldiers of the Union in the Civil War be they white or black and whether they fought to save the Union or to end the institution of slavery.

And if you feel like waving the bloody shirt a bit today, well, who could blame you. 

Historical Image of the Day

Government poster promoting Social Security, 1936

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act of 1935

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pollitt on French Sexism, Racism, and Hypocrisy

Katha Pollitt unloads on French hypocrisy over Strauss-Kahn's rape of the hotel maid, finding it shockingly depressing that French women are reacting just as awfully as French men.

Of course, the French (and a lot of Europeans at large) are complete hypocrites when they say bad things about America given their own history of racism, colonization, and inequality, not to mention excuses for rape. And it's when she moves beyond DSK that she delivers my favorite line:

A word about race: for decades, France, you've prided yourself on your lack of racism. But really what that means is you like African-American jazz musicians and writers. You're actually quite racist toward your own ex-colonized immigrants of color, most notably Muslims from North Africa. The way you talk about Muslim immigrant women, you would think France was a gender-egalitarian paradise for everyone else, and the biggest feminist issue was whether or not to ban the burqa.

Best thing I've read today. 

Environmental Causes to Lower Crime Rates

One of the recession's biggest surprises is the continued drop in violent crime. Via Drum, it seems likely that one major reason is that children no longer suffer from lead poisoning:

....There may also be a medical reason for the decline in crime. For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil companies to stop putting lead in gasoline....A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future.

While not the only reason suggested, it is quite telling. The larger lesson is that environmental regulations that supposedly cause business money almost always pay for themselves in the long run. And as Republicans want to tear down each and every one of these regulations to return to the Gilded Age, I for one expect this period of time to be a sort of high point in protecting our children from environmental hazards. Future generations of Americans may suffer from the hellish hazards of lead poisoning as workers do in China today (global capitalism--it's all benefits!!!) and as Chris Sellers has explored in his superb work on the rise of environmental health science and the suffering of white lead victims in the Progressive Era, Hazards of the Job.

Zelaya's Return

Much to my surprise, former Honduran president Jose Zelaya has returned to his nation, nearly 2 years after Latin America's first coup in 26 years. It seems that President Porfirio Lobo has worked to lessen tensions in his nation after his post-coup election, implementing the changes in the Constitution Zelaya hoped for and now letting him back in the nation. Given this has happened quietly, I'm sure the Honduran elites are on board with this and feel they control the process. Zelaya's return allows Honduras to return to full membership in the OAS and receive increased foreign aid, desperately needed in this very poor country.

Why Guestworker Programs Don't Work

A commonly stated solution for the problem of undocumented immigration is to implement a guestworker problem. Immigrant rights activists routinely note the fundamental problem with this--workers have no rights. The bracero program of the mid-twentieth century saw migrant workers suffer all sorts of abuse. Guestworker advocates say that such abuses couldn't take place today. That's just flat out not true. Mike Elk:

Last year, the leaders of the U.S.-based foreign labor and supply company Global Horizons were indicted in what the Department of Justice considered the biggest human trafficking case ever brought by the federal government. They were charged with holding 400 Thai guest farm workers in the United States against their will in conditions that essentially amounted to slavery.

The workers were given guest visas to work in the United States under the H-2A visa program. They were kept under brutal conditions under armed guard in Hawaii and forced to live in substandard conditions in hot shipping containers "with no carpet, beds, furniture, indoor plumbing, kitchen or air conditioning," according to federal investigators. They were under constant threat of violence from gun-toting guards, and on one occasion a guard told the workers they would be shot if they tried to escape.

Several company officials have already pleaded guilty in plea bargain deals and several others are expected to stand trial. In 2006, when the workers' maltreatment was discovered, the Department of Labor also debarred Global Horizons from participating in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program for the mandatory three years; it issued an additional three year debarment in 2009. Last week, a judge upheld the three year debarment after Global Horizons appealed it.

I don't know if you believe in the power of the modern government to regulate farms so that worker abuse doesn't happen. With our severely hampered and underfunded government, I absolutely do not. After all, what regulations in this country are properly followed? Food safety? Labor? Environmental? None of the above. Even under Democratic administrations, employers and polluters are in control of the regulatory process.

Moreover, our farms are in out of the way places. How many readers  have visited farms with migrant workers? Even among progressive groups, how many are active on these issues. There are some, such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the PCUN in Oregon (sadly, the UFW is basically defunct). But even these worker rights groups and unions are heavily underfunded, under reported in the press, and have virtually no power to stop farm employer abuses. 

Guestworker programs will lead to more abuses like this one in Hawaii. These must be opposed as part of any immigration legislation.

Historical Image of the Day

Head Start program, Queens, 1965

Friday, May 27, 2011

Short-sighted Fisheries Policy

NOAA has stated that while bluefin tuna populations are declining rapidly, there's no reason right now to place list the fish as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Perhaps NOAA policymakers are receiving pressure from the fishing industry and/or Obama Administration not to suggest protecting the bluefin. Or perhaps NOAA is just engaging in short-sighted policies, given that the bluefin is probably only a couple of years of needing that protection.If NOAA is engaging in number counting and won't list the bluefin before it reaches a certain point, it isn't doing a good job of thinking about long-term fishery management and the need to protect a species before it goes extinct.

Andrew Revkin suggests in the linked piece that if the goal is to sustain the fishery that the ESA is the wrong tool. I don't necessarily disagree with this. In my own work, I write about how the ESA was probably the wrong tool for protecting the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. However, I also argue that at the time, it was the only tool in environmentalists' tool box. Without court orders to stop old-growth logging in national forests, the rest of those forests would have all been logged by now (nearly all of them were planned for logging operations by 2000). Today, those forests are saved for the time being, even as the fate of the owl remains dicey.

Given the anti-environmental attitudes in Congress and among much of the public, do environmentalists have another tool in the toolbox other than using the ESA if they want to save the bluefin and other species from oblivion? I'm not so sure they do. So I'd like to see Revkin explain what other realistic possibilities are out there for people concerned with fish populations. He suggests some ideas here, but changing values are unlikely and just admitting that species are going to go extinct is not useful.

Dana Rohrabacher, Moron

I've said many times before that intelligence is absolutely not a requirement or even a desired trait to be in Congress. While there are some very smart people in Congress, there's little connection between intelligence and who gets leadership positions, nor is intelligence rewarded by voters, the media, donors, or one's colleagues.

See for instance California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who astounded everyone today by making the argument that cutting down the rainforest would help fight climate change:

“Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rain forests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?” the congressman asked Mr. Stern, according to Politico.

“Or would people be supportive of cutting down older trees in order to plant younger trees as a means to prevent this disaster from happening?” he continued.

Forestry experts were dumbfounded by Mr. Rohrabacher’s line of questioning, noting that the world’s forests currently absorb far more carbon dioxide than they emit — capturing roughly one-third of all man-made emissions and helping mitigate climate change.

“He’s seriously confused,” said Oliver Phillips, a professor of geography at the University of Leeds in Britain and an expert on terrestrial carbon storage. “He’s just got half of the equation. Natural things decay, of course, but they also grow.”

The idea that cutting down forests would result in a net reduction of emissions is “crazy,” Dr Phillips added. “The need is to reduce deforestation.”

Beverly Law, a professor of forest science at Oregon State University, found another hole in Mr. Rohrabacher’s logic. Roughly 75 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from the natural world come not from above-ground biomass, but from the soil, she said. “You don’t even want to give this guy another wacky idea, but he forgot about soil,” Dr. Law said.

Moron. Complete freaking moron. 

Historical Image of the Day

This next set of images will come from social programs of the 20th century welfare state.

The first food stamps, 1939

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner," Thomas Nast, 1869

Um, No.

To compare Lindsay Lohan to Liv Ullmann in Persona is the height of bullshit.

Andrew Cuomo: The Nation's Worst Democratic Governor In Decades


I think George Pataki might be more progressive than Cuomo.  To find a worse Democratic governor, one might have to go back to the segregationist governors of the 1960s.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Our Darkening Film Screens

Roger Ebert on the literal darkening of American movie theaters due to 3-D.

I know Ebert hates 3-D with deep passion, which I more or less agree with even though I could see theoretical artistic advantages to the technology. But the fact that these projectors simply don't project 2-D light effectively is an enormous problem. No doubt the public won't care, or if they do, it'll be to demand more 3-D. Will art theaters soon become known for showing films at full light?

Mexico Prison Bar

It's a real wonder the Mexican police force is a disaster and violence is at insane levels in much of the country.


Ed Schultz should be canned for calling Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut."

Why do the big name lefty media voices have to be as big of assholes as right-wing bullies? I'm thinking of Olbermann, Maher, now Schultz. Maybe it's the nature of the media. But that's unacceptable behavior for a MSNBC host.

Historical Image of the Day

"Emancipation," by Thomas Nast, 1865

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Civil War and Film

Kevin Levin is less than optimistic about the upcoming Ridley and Tony Scott film version of Gettysburg.

Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?”  Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart?  I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely.  Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.”  We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.
In a sense we have come a long way in our memory of the Civil War. We now center African-Americans in the experience. Historians almost all call slavery the primary reason for the war. Yet somehow this has not created space for new tales of the War to be told on screen. With the arguable exception of Glory, which still managed to tell a tale of heroic soldiers fighting for what they believed in, our Civil War films have not progressed too much in the last half century. Filmmakers are still as wary of offending Southerners as they were in 1926, when Buster Keaton switched the story of The General from a Union to a Confederate officer in order to appease southern sensibilities. The films aren't as openly racist as Birth of a Nation or even Shenandoah, but they tend to still tell tales of two armies fighting for their beliefs without judgment of their ideology. The message is the glory and valor of putting up a strong fight rather than treason in defense of slavery.

This version of Gettysburg is going to have 3 elements:

1. Gritty war scenes.
2. Manhood defined through war
3. Ideological vacuity

Can we not tell stories that move beyond 19th century battle reunions? I guess not, even when employing our most famous directors.


Really, why wouldn't Rudy throw his hat into the ring? Sure he's a total failure. But is he more of a total failure than Newt or Mittens? For any well-known Republican, why not give it a shot?


The U.S. terror watch list is clearly a flawless and objective ranking of the biggest threats to the nation.

Historical Image of the Day

The ruins of Charleston, South Carolina, epicenter of treason in defense of slavery, 1865

Monday, May 23, 2011

I Don't Matter in 2012

I already pretty much knew that, but this Los Angeles Times editorial essentially sums up why: President Obama has been a disaster on environmental issues. He also realizes that environmentalists have nowhere else to go. So he's completely marginalized us and is catering to polluters, hoping to pull in campaign donations.

But those are moral and financial reasons to regulate, not political ones. Here's an argument Obama and his political advisors might grasp: It's possible for a president to so alienate his base that it fails to show up on election day. Something to keep in mind before November 2012 rolls around. 

That's true, but Obama is clearly confident that the base is going to come out. I probably will, even begrudgingly. Of course, he also thinks that he's going to reignite the movement that got him elected, but that's not going to happen. So maybe he is miscalculating. 

We are a long ways from 40 or even 20 years ago, when being an environmentalist was a ticket to electoral success. On the environment, things are much, much worse now than they used to be.

My Thoughts About Nature and the Future, As Told By Someone Else

I just finished Brett Walker's excellent Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental history, pollution, and the intersection of nation and industry. I also want to present the second-to-last chapter in Walker's book because this better sums up my thoughts about the future than any single paragraph I've read.

Let me end on a hopeful note. No, I do not think that we, as a species, can remedy these problems immediately, perhaps not at all. No, I do not think that industrialized nations will adopt economic systems that adequately measure the social and environmental costs of capitalism. No, I do not think that Earth's carrying capacity can be doubled, let alone tripled, even with better forms of scientific agriculture. Who would want to live there anyway? No, I do not think that we will reverse global warming, nor do I think that we will find new, cleaner technologies that will allow industrialized nations to continue their wild consumer habits. No, I do not think that large carnivores such as tigers can be saved; neither can wolves. Majestic species such as these require naturally occurring space in which to hunt, roar and howl, and raise their young, which is disappearing from what David Quammen has called our "planet of weeds." Tigers and wolves are the "shy creatures that can't tolerate edges," but edges are all we will have left on engineered Earth: the edges between one engineered system and another. What will be left are black rats and house sparrows, those creatures that "play by our rules." This is a grim future, but I do think that, as we experience our environmental collapse, we will witness moments of sublime beauty, which gives me some consolation."

I can't disagree with much here. It's possible that wolves will survive to some extent, but not tigers. They are doomed, as are polar bears, emperor penguins, and so many other species. And I don't know that even I can call this a hopeful note. But it's about as hopeful as I can be--that as the world transforms around us, as it is doing right now with record droughts, floods, and tornadoes all happening at the same time, we humans can do and see wonderful things in our humanness. That's about as good as I can do. 

The Threat of Mittens and White Resentment

I have thought all along that Mitt Romney was dead in the water as the Republican nominee in 2012. His health care bill, his utter vacuity, and his flip-flopping should make him anathema to Republican primary voters. I still more or less believe this. But someone has to win, don't they? I simply cannot believe it will be Gingrich. Jon Huntsman has no chance because he is not insane and hasn't learned to pander well enough. All signs point to Pawlenty.

However, if Romney somehow manages to pull this out, I do believe he will be a formidable opponent for Obama, presuming there's no serious third party challenge by Ron Paul or some other teabagger that might draw 5% of the vote. Robert Reich suggests one reason why--Romney seems presidential. He has a moderate history, he has good hair, and importantly, according to Reich, he's white:

But I suspect something else is at work here, too. To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential, but he doesn't look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.

I don't know how persuaded I am by this given that Obama managed to sway a lot of white voters in 2008. But if enough of those voters in key states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, states where Obama has struggled and states with older, white working-class populations, identify with Romney based on race, this could be quite consequential. After all, in the American electoral system, it only takes a relatively small number of voters in the right states to decide an election. And would it really surprise anyone if whiteness was the issue that swayed 2012? Not me anyway.

This also reminds me of the recent findings that a whole lot of whites believe that anti-white bias is a bigger problem in America than anti-black bias. This is, of course, absurd. It's not that hard out there for a cracker after all. But for a struggling white working-class, linking economic problems with white ideology is hardly unusual in American history. This helped seal white supremacy in the late 19th century South, despite some attempts for cross-racial solidarity. It helps us understand the appeal of George Wallace in the North in 1968 and the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. White Americans have often blamed non-whites or immigrants for their economic problems, opening space for racist politicians to take advantage. And while I'm not going to call Romney racist, I am happy to call the Republican Party racist. Republicans are salivating over playing the race card as strongly as they can in 2012; it may  not be 1952 anymore, but between veiled racism toward blacks and open racism toward immigrants, Republicans have gone all-in as the White Man's Party. Long-term, this is a disastrous strategy. Short-term, there are enough older whites in key Midwestern states that this strategy could work wonders.

Historical Image of the Day

Anti-carpet bagger cartoon, Harper's Weekly, 1872

Why Labor Needs To Push the Democratic Party Harder

It is a great post on what the Centrists are doing to fracture the Democratic Party.
And here is the post that sparked Digby's post...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

John Hyman, the first black member of Congress from North Carolina, served 1875-77.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Latin American Left

This is a very interesting piece on the state of the Latin American left, noting its extreme diversity but also its lack of central principles and its tendency to move toward the center.

My sense is that while a broadly conceived left is stronger in Latin America than anywhere else in the world at this point, and that it has made positive progress in many areas, like elsewhere it represents working people today less than ever before and essentially accepts global free market capitalism as a good thing. Exceptions such as Bolivia and Cuba are seen as outliers by the rest of the world, including other Latin American nations governed by an increasingly moderate "left."

Historical Image of the Day

The next set of images will be from Reconstruction.

White supremacist campaign poster, 1866

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Query

Having finished the dissertation, for the first time in nine years I find myself with a summer of reading whatever I want, history or otherwise. So....can anybody recommend a good and user-friendly book on the history of the earth and/or the universe? I'm basically looking for physics/geology-type stuff that simultaneously proves informative and intelligible to non-science people like myself. Any suggestions are welcome.

Oh, and uh......nerd alert.

Confederate Murderers in Texas

Good bit on how murderous and violent pro-Confederates were to Texas Unionists, including the wanton slaughter of Germans trying to escape Texas into Mexico. I'm half-surprised they allowed Sam Houston  to die peacefully.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Essence of Film

Roger Ebert, discussing Terence Malick's new film, gets at the essence of what distinguishes a great film from a bad one:

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

This might seem esoteric, but the greatness of film lies not in its escapism, though escapism is entirely legitimate, but in its ability to absorb us in new universes. And this is regardless of genre: whether we are in the spaceship in Solaris, bowling with the Dude and Walter, in the dressing room in All About Eve, or wandering through the tropical forest between battles in Malick's own The Thin Red Line.

Our Private Christian Army

Am I the only one who thinks that the government should refuse to do business with companies that openly discriminate? This is especially true when that company is one of our leading military contractor and both operates primarily in the Middle East and flat out refuses to hire Muslims.

The United Arab Emirates has confirmed hiring a company headed by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the military firm Blackwater. According to the New York Times, the UAE secretly signed a $529 million contract with Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign mercenaries. The troops could be deployed if foreign guest workers stage revolts in labor camps, or if the UAE regime were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world. Prince has one rule about the new force: no Muslims.

Well, that's just fantastic. I am particularly appreciative of the open embrace of ignorance. Rather than learn from our mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq, i.e., invading nations whose languages no one in the U.S. speaks, whose religions we do not understand, and whose cultures we lack any kind of knowledge, we are now going to use this as a point of pride.

Onward Christian soldiers!!!

Historical Image of the Day

I pulled this off a post at Whiskey Fire and it seemed a very appropriate image of the day. Barry Goldwater campaign ad, 1964.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shorter Catholic Church: The Summer of Love is to Blame for Our Massive Pedophilia Problem

Disgusting, but typical.

Best and Worst of Woody Allen

Jim Emerson thinks on Woody Allen and comes up with his 5 favorite and 5 worst Woody Allen films. It reminds me that I own Another Woman another viewing. I haven't seen a lot of Woody's recent work because it looks so grim, but here's my lists:


1. Annie Hall
2. Manhattan
3. Zelig
4. Husbands and Wives
5. Crimes and Misdemeanors

Outside of Zelig, that's a very standard list, but what can you do. Deconstructing Harry probably comes in 6th, which is much higher than most people seem to rate it.

1. Shadows and Fog
2. Scoop
3. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Actually, I'm going to stop there. There's not another movie of his that I've seen that I really dislike (though I'd be hard-pressed to call Love and Death good). But I have no doubt that the other 2 would come from his 2000s films. 

Cornel West

Wow has Cornel West's reputation declined over the last 3-5 years.


I have a piece up at Global Comment placing the Mississippi River floods within the context of the historical interactions between natural disasters and inequality. In part:

But why did people farm land that has historically flooded frequently? In the Midwest, people with a choice live above the flood plain. It is no coincidence that New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a largely African-American working class neighborhood; going all the way back to French and Spanish settlement of the city, wealthy people staked out higher ground to protect themselves from floodwaters. Those who can’t afford that protection are forced into the floodplains.

While some of the Missouri farmers who lost their land to the floods had worked it for generations, others had purchased farms more recently because they could afford this land. But that low cost came with significant long-term risk—the strong possibility of eventually losing your home to one of the great river’s periodic floods.

As the flood creeps into Louisiana, keep the relationship between landscape and power in mind. While we obviously need to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from destruction, with the flooding of the Morganza Spillway, poor, rural Louisianans again have to suffer as their homes and farms flood. Says Merinda Leger of Stephenville, Louisiana, “Baton Rouge and New Orleans should be sending us help because we’re saving their butts. Y’all pray for us. You can at least do that.” Of course, the government could do more than pray. It could rethink the human relationship with the river to create a more equitable system for dealing with natural disasters.

Secret Holds

I can't even tell you how shocked I am that the Republican agreement to give up secret holds in order to shut down the Merkley-Udall filibuster reforms has proven completely unenforceable and that Republicans are going right back to the practice while Democrats continue to abide by their end of the agreement.

Treason in Defense of Slavery License Plates

Farley on attempts to get Confederate soldier license plates in Kentucky, a Union state.

Let's make a deal--Kentucky can have their Confederate plates if we mandate that Georgians be forced to drive around with William Tecumseh Sherman plates. I could live with that.

Monday, May 16, 2011


This is really weird

So you can't access the whole article without a subscription, but researchers are developing the ultimate mystery-meat. From the abstract:

At one lecture, he was seized by an idea: “Why can’t we grow meat outside of the body? Make it in a laboratory, as we make so many other things.” In-vitro meat can be made by placing a few cells in a nutrient mixture that helps them proliferate. As the cells begin to grow together, forming muscle tissue, they are attached to a biodegradable scaffold. There the tissue can be stretched and molded into food, which could, in theory, be sold, cooked, and consumed like any processed meat.

This is actually happening. I don't know what I think of it really. On one hand, ewwww. On the other, most people don't care where their meat comes from. Meat production already an industrialized process. It's environmentally hazardous, has potential long-term implications for human bodies, and is more or less pretty awful in all ways. If they got the taste right, wouldn't this be an American consumers dream--low-cost meat that all tastes exactly the same? 

Anyway, this all kind of blows my mind.

Your Oral History Can and Will Be Used Against You in a Court of Law

The British are demanding that the United States force Boston College to give up its trove of IRA oral histories to them in order to find prosecutable information.

British success in this endeavor would cast a pall upon the historical profession. Central to oral histories is that the person interviewed will not suffer from their story. In this case, the histories are sealed until the death of the interviewee. Government access to oral histories of sensitive topics would severely undermine historians' ability to collect vital stories about our past from the participants.

Deeply disturbing.

Historical Image of the Day

Mary Cassatt, "The Child's Bath," 1893

The images this week have come from CUNY's very useful women's history site Women's Leadership in American History. Check it out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Giant Vampire Squid Wrapped Around The Face Of Humanity

Goldman Sachs broke the law. And it was actually discussed on CNN.

Historical Image of the Day

Now Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney while she was a city councilor, at work with her daughter, 1991

Historical Image of the Day

A mother and her children at the Indian Independence Parade, New York City, 1990

Historical Image of the Day

Sharecropper educating her children in her home. Unfortunately, I have neither a date nor place for this. But it's a great image.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger Sucks

On behalf of all of us, I'd like to thank Blogger for somehow deleting the last 2 days' worth of post on all of its blogs.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Comments on Comments about Dilma Rousseff's Administration

With Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff having been in office for more than five months now, early evaluations have begun regarding her governing style. Certainly, the end of her first 100 days in early April brought a slew of the arbitrary articles about "what the first 100 days tell us" (as if things drastically changed from day 99 to 100, or that from day 100 onward, things would be the same).
Ituassu's essay in particular highlights why these articles are simultaneously interesting and problematic. Any discussion of a president that points out that "The substance of Dilma Rousseff's presidency has yet to be defined" clearly has its shortcomings, but Ituassu takes the hint by focusing not on policy, but "four ways [that] she seems different" from the three previous presidents of Fernando Collor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. [Ituassu goes back only to Collor, who was elected in 1989, because he was the first popularly elected president after Brazil's military dictatorship of 1964-1985; Congress indirectly elected Jose Sarney, who was the first civilian president from 1985-1989.]
Ituassu claims that there's a lack of "self-mythologizing" to Dilma that characterized her predecessors:
For the first time in two decades, the country has a president who does not seek the media glare or popular attention - and in particular appears to have no 'self-mythologising' ambitions. Collor, Cardoso and Lula alike wanted to change Brazil in so radical a way that the outcome would give them a shining place in Brazilian history.* Dilma is modest by comparison: suddenly, the country has a president who wakes up early, works very hard, is very demanding with her team and very serious with her duties.
This shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who paid attention to the actual substance of Rousseff's work, rather than the partisan rhetoric that tried to smear or praise her as a candidate. Early criticisms of Dilma were that she was unknown, that she "only" worked for Lula. It was never difficult to see that she worked hard behind the scenes rather than out front. It was these issues that led to inherently unfair criticisms of Dilma even before election that she would just be a parrot for Lula, devoid of her own character, voice, policies, etc. (And I say unfair because they were founded upon baseless forecasts that in no way considered her actual accomplishments or shortcomings as a member of Lula's cabinet; in short, there was no evidence for these predictions, while she had a solid work record that, whether one agreed with the policies or not, pointed to her actual abilities rather than relying on speculation.) That some are now shocked that she has been "discreet" and simply worked hard just shows that they paid no attention before.
Ituassu also points out that she seems free of the "campaigning" nature of Lula's government (and I'd suggest this criticism absolutely should apply to Cardoso as well, who spent much of his first term trying to get the constitution changed so he could run for re-election). I would agree that her administration has been much freer, as if she weren't serving as president while also trying to openly promote her party. But again, this shouldn't be remotely surprising when one considers the historical context here. Simply put, Cardoso was the founder of the PSDB, and Lula was the founder of the PT. By contrast, Dilma benefits from not being founder/figurehead of party. Within Brazilian politics since the return of democracy in 1985, parties have often had trouble overcoming the dynamism of their founders to become viable long-term parties in their own right. Collor's National Reconstruction Party (PRN) collapsed as Collor was forced to resign in 1992 amidst a massive corruption scandal; Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) has had a strong presence in Congress, but has had a hard time creating a truly national base. And Lula's administration marked the first time that the Workers Party (PT) had successfully gained office in national elections. No single party had ever been re-elected to the presidency.
Indeed, that's why the 2010 election was so fascinating, and historians and political scientists may end up seeing a turning point: it marked the first time that the PSDB and PT were squaring off without either party's founder as a candidate (Lula ran against FHC unsuccessfully in 94 and 98, ran and won in 02 and 06). In 2010, neither Lula nor FHC were candidates, and the election thus provided a unique opportunity to see which party would be the first to succeed in a "post-founder" context. Ultimately, the PT triumphed with Dilma (and while many have claimed that Lula's presence and campaigning helped her election, I think it had as much if not more to do with how the economy was doing; either way, I'd like to see more data and evidence before we start assigning the reasons why Dilma won). In the wake of last year's election, it's not clear how the PSDB can/will gain the type of leadership needed for a presidential candidate, as it is an increasingly old party that has failed to inject dynamic young leadership at the national level. Returning to the original point of Dilma's "discreet"/"non-campaigning" administration, though, it's a logical departure from Lula, and shouldn't be surprising: Lula had to govern in a way that would prove his party was viable beyond him; Dilma is that proof, and doesn't need to "campaign" daily to prove viability.
Ultimately, it is interesting to trace the differences between Dilma's style and others, but that's all it is - an exercise in fun thought, without much substance to it yet. After one, two, four years we'll be able to better grasp how Dilma resembles or differs from her predecessors in substantive matters of policy.
*This is also an extremely problematic and borderline-silly passage for another reason. While presidents are in the media and can seem to enjoy it, that doesn't seem to be their purpose in running for president; indeed, running for president seems like a terrible way to gain attention, as there's way too much work-related stress that would accompany the fame. Put simply (and snarkily), if Lula simply wanted fame, he could have tried to get on Big Brother Brasil. Additionally, the implication that other presidents didn't wake up early to work seems unfounded, and the historian in me would like to see some actual evidence behind such claims. Likewise, I'd like more than assertions that Collor, Cardoso, or Lula were in it for their role in history.
In short, I think scholars or journalists alike would be hard-pressed to prove that the presidents were not working in what they perceived to be the best interests of their country. Even Collor, who was doing quite well personally in his corrupt dealings, probably thought he was working for Brazil by implementing neo-liberal policies. The suggestion that only Dilma is not interested in herself but in her job and country seems flawed, to put it mildly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Pra Ingles Ver": Brazil, Favelas, and the Preparations for the World Cup

A spate of stories on Rio de Janeiro has recently emerged, focusing on the preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, focusing on the forced removal of people from favelas (shanty towns). The media has focused on Rio de Janeiro, historically the city most closely tied to favelas in the public imagination. The reports started in late-April, as The Guardian reported on the removal of favelas to prepare infrastructure (car parks, roads, etc.) for the tourists who will visit Rio in 2014 and 2016. More recently, Reuters has published a similar report, and even ESPN had the story as its main feature yesterday afternoon.
The story is fairly simple: favelas historically have sprung up on the hillsides and marginalized areas of Rio de Janeiro, often within eyeshot of some of Rio's wealthiest neighborhoods. As the city prepares for the massive tourist influx of the 2014 World Cup (where the final will be held) and the 2016 Olympics, it has begun to work on infrastructural improvements that center around tourism and "modernization" at the expense of the poor. As a result, favela residents are forced out of their homes and their homes are torn down so that streets can be widened, subway stations can be built, car parks can be constructed, etc. The city of Rio, in charge of these efforts, has promised the residents that new homes will be constructed for them elsewhere, but thus far, there is little evidence the city will actually follow through with these promises, prompting both Amnesty International and the United Nations to express concerns that the government of Rio (and other cities) is violating the basic rights of the Brazilian poor.
This criticism is more than valid and fair. It's not just that the poor are being marginalized, "removed" from places where they might serve as an uncomfortable reminder to the rest of the world of the terrible inequalities in income in Brazil. As the ESPN article points out, the poor are also being discursively rendered invisible:
This is Rio in the imagination of the 2016 Olympic planners: a 19-page brochure full of coloro photographs and grand statements outlining their bid. The opening spread shows children dancing on a beach beneath an enormous Brazilian flag, and, above a photo of wind surfers riding waves with a backdrop of Christ the Redeemer. The pages proclaim a new birth. "It is driven by sport, with athletes and the entire sports community looking forward to the lasting benefits the games will bring."
The brochure promises to change the economy, to educate children and even to protect the world's largest "urban forest." The obligatory quote from Pele is included. The document is full of maps and photos and plans, but there's no mention of the war on the hill that overlooks Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremonies will be held.
The word "favela" never appears.
Of course, the promoters of the projects deny that this is about class or the effort to marginalize the poor. The Reuters article cites a city official in Rio:
"The city is absolutely not trying to gentrify and push the poor away," said Jorge Bittar, Rio's housing secretary and a member of Rousseff's leftist Workers Party*. "These new routes are meeting a demand that's been there for decades in Rio...the people who will use the buses are the poor, not the rich."
[*This association between Bittar and Rousseff is more than problematic itself. City governments and the federal government have to collaborate, but they are also nearly completely independent of one another as outlined in Brazil's constitution. There is a good amount of political science scholarship out there that shows how the PT [the Workers Party] at the local level operates independently of the national party, and often has different approaches, policies, and even ideologies. What unites the two is a general concern for social programs and a more even distribution of wealth in Brazil; obviously, though, how that takes place in policy at the national level and the local level can be and is very different. For that reason, directly associating Bittar to Rousseff is problematic, because it makes ties between the president and local officials that simply don't exist. A comparative example would be to tie Obama directly to something that a Democratic official in the New York City government said. - CS]
Bittar's comment is problematic in and of itself: the fact that the subways and cars are costly enough that they are for the "rich;" the fact that subway lines don't even go to many the many areas of Rio that are poor/marginalized; the fact that the government failed to provide this infrastructure "for decades" and that it took the international events of the Olympics and World Cup to finally address the needs of the poor. Yet it also cuts at the heart of the issue: while the government of Rio feels it is adequately addressing the needs of the poor even as it prepares for a massive influx of tourists (even more than usual), it is also pretty clear that the rights of many of Brazil's poor are not only being ignored; the government is directly violating these rights and needs.
Certainly, this is depressing news, and it is good that the media is highlighting this story. It serves as yet another reminder that the outsiders' view of Brazil as a beach-haven of glamor and beauty has a very high cost. Yet the media reports this story as if it is a recent development, when in reality that could not be further from the truth.
The entire history of the favelas, from their creation in the late-1800s and early-1900s to the present, hinges on the forced removal, relocation, and marginalization of Rio's poor. Indeed, the original creation of the favelas took place in the early-1900s as the city of Rio "renovated" what is now down-town Rio de Janeiro by tearing down the Castelo mountain in order to build better roads and forcing many poor residents to the margins of the city. In the late-1910s, Brazil prepared for the visit of members of the Belgian royal family, Rio once again underwent a "beautification" project designed to show Europeans that Brazil was "civilized;" once again the poor were relocated, creating a ring of favelas around the newly-elite downtown areas. As the rates of urbanization rapidly increased in the twentieth century (in 1930, 70 percent of Brazil's population lived in rural areas, and only 30% in urban centers; by 1980, those numbers were reversed), favelas expanded along the margins of the city, not just in Rio but in places like Sao Paulo, Bahia, and elsewhere. Throughout the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first, the story of favelas has been one of creation, development, and relocation in the face of ongoing "modernization" efforts for the wealthier parts of Brazilian cities.
To be clear, this is not intended to defend the current forced removal of favela residents as just another phase in history. What they are going through is depressing not just for the process, but for its familiarity, as once again, Brazil's poor are forced aside "pra ingles ver" ("for the English to see," an old phrase that goes back over a century and captures the preoccupation to appear "civilized"/"modern"/"developed" to other countries). As Brazil prepares for the World Cup and the Olympics, the government of Rio is violating basic human rights. Saddest of all, however, is the fact that the story of what is happening in no way surprising or new.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


My recent obsession with bad American food takes on another dimension with the death of Louis Stumberg, a Texan who invented the Tex-Mex frozen TV dinner in the 1940s.

Tex-Mex occupies an interesting place in the history of American food. It's not good. On the other hand, it was an attempt to bring Latin American food into the United States and, in a small sense, giving legitimacy to a non-white culture in a white supremacist nation. For those of you not immediately familiar with Tex-Mex specifically, it's the root of the bad "Mexican" food you see throughout the country--enchiladas, burritos, and tacos, but covered with cheese, in huge portions with fatty beans and large piles of rice, usually topped with a bit of chopped lettuce and tomato. In Texas itself, this is pretty much what you get at these places; in places farther from the border, the cheese ratio actually increases and the limited spiciness of original Tex-Mex either disappears entirely or gets ramped up to ungodly levels as some way to prove authenticity. In general, it seems that Tex-Mex restaurants are declining, both because it is pretty unhealthy and because real Mexican food is becoming  more common with the rise of immigration.

The interesting comparisons to make with Tex-Mex are Italian and Chinese food. The latter became Americanized fairly quickly. As the first non-white group to immigrate voluntarily to the U.S. in large numbers, the Chinese quickly became marginalized within a labor market that equated race and work. Women's labor like cooking and cleaning became areas they could flourish in an American West that was almost all male. And given that the nation equated gender and work as much as race and work, the Chinese could take on feminized tasks. One of those was cooking. But of course, 19th century Americans were less than enamored of foreign foods they had never heard of. So the Chinese quickly transformed those foods into items palatable to the American palate. This has become so standardized that even today, good Chinese food is hard to find. Asian food has risen rapidly in the American consciousness, but Chinese food has been left behind Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and even Korean food.

On the other hand, Italian food was also seen as weird by early 20th century Americans. Yet it managed to become central to American culture. Why the difference? The key here I think is the expanding definition of whiteness in mid-20th century America. Foods like pizza and garlic moved from the margins of American food life to central places at the table at the same time that World War II broke down the old southern and eastern European ethnic barriers into a general whiteness. Pizza became a generational food among young people of all races by the mid 20th century (I've actually seen articles from the time about how to introduce pizza to your parents).

Of course, thinking about Tex-Mex isn't the only factor in this equation. There's also TV dinners. Much has been said about this phenomenon. There's nothing to say for the genre. They are revolting. Thinking back to eating them at home in the 80s makes me retch. But I'm hardly going to blame Stumberg and the like for them. They were a cultural phenomenon that had lots of factors: fetishizing technology in the kitchen, the realities of women in the workplace, relief at avoiding the old time-consuming ways of cooking, clever marketing, etc. If anything, I'm glad Stumberg took this crappy food delivery form and offered something different. Opening a market for a different kind of food, even if it's a bastardized form of something much better, is laudable in the end.


David Brooks lies through his teeth today, claiming that not adopting Paul Ryan's plan to defund Medicare is depriving our young men of jobs. Using the false language of blind American optimism in service of the wealthy, as conservative interests have done since the late 19th century, Brooks of course completely ignores all the other ways we could fund both Medicare and job creation, including eliminating the Bush tax cuts.

I guess Brooks is further embracing the Republican vision of recreating the Gilded Age--give men terrible, pointless, and low-paying jobs and then abandon them to homelessness and early death after they are no longer productive to the plutocrats who rightfully rule the country.

Labor: The Lackey of the Democratic Party

Mike Elk has a fantastic piece criticizing AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for being the latest in a long line of labor leaders who talk a big game about challenging the Democratic Party but end up doing whatever it asks, even though labor receives almost nothing in return.

...the truth is that Trumka’s talk of political independence is shallow and weak. Most labor leaders make the same speech about political independence every two years in the off-year before a congressional election. Then, when the election comes around, labor leaders often twist arms to get mortgages signed on their headquarters so they can give even more money to the Democratic Party in the final days before the vote.

You can find nearly identical quotes from AFL-CIO President George Meany in the 1960s during Johnson’s Democratic administration, from President Lane Kirkland in the late 1970s under Jimmy Carter, and from President John Sweeney in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. In fact, you can even go back two years before the last election to see Trumka saying labor might sit out the election. He ended up urging all union members to go out and vote for Democrats.

Every single labor leader in the history of the labor movement has beat his chest about organized labor declaring its political independence the way Trumka is now, but never delivered on the declaration of political independence.

It's not of course that labor should eschew the Democratic Party. Rather, it should push its own agenda and support openly pro-labor candidates rather than going all-out for Democrats who will vote against labor when they are elected. 

In the progressive blogosphere, the rare times when labor is mentioned, it is almost always in terms of how it relates to Democratic policy politics--will labor be able to get out the vote? Labor is hardly ever discussed as an movement independent of a political party with its own goals, agenda, and priorities. And if it does have those things, it is perceived that it can only achieve those ends through the Democratic Party.

In no small part, this is the fault of labor leaders themselves. They see themselves as operating within respectable channels of the Democratic Party. They froze up during the Wisconsin protests because they were by and large far less comfortable with strikes and mass movements than with playing the political game. And thus they demobilized the street protests that so powerfully riveted the nation this winter. 

Again, this isn't to denigrate party politics. Obviously that's very important. But people rightfully don't think of the anti-abortion movement firmly within Republican Party politics. Or if they do, they should understand that this movement existed well outside the party until it could slowly take it over from the inside. And while Republicans absolutely have treated the anti-abortion movement as a get-out-the-vote mechanism over the years, the anti-abortionists have also increasingly demanded and received their payment in return. And today they own the party in a way labor can only dream of.

Labor shouldn't try to start a 3rd party movement or anything like that. But it should also not do Democrats' bidding. While Republicans are worse for labor than Democrats, the current crop of Democrats are not supporting labor's interests anyway. Is a slow death worse than a sudden death? I'd say it probably doesn't make much difference, especially now that Republicans like Scott Walker are looking to take labor off life support.

And in any case, as Elk points out, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Trumka is serious about promoting an independent course for labor until he actually does so.

Historical Image of the Day

Mother and children making fake flowers as piecework laborers in a New York City tenement house. I don't have a date on this, but it's almost certainly from the 1900s or early 1910s, when such conditions attracted the attention of muckrakers. They did as early as the 1890s, but at that early date, the lack of light in tenement housing meant that you couldn't take photographs. Technological innovation made photos possible after 1900, not improved housing.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

This week's images will be of motherhood in American history.

Hupa woman with child, 1923. The Hupa are a people of northern California. 

Poor Lanny Davis

Poor Lanny Davis. It's so hard out there for an amoral asshole who openly courts the services of the world's most despicable leaders. I mean, to have a comic strip last relevant 15 years ago call you out being a gigantic jerk who capitalizes on mass murderers and tyrants really makes me a shed a tear.

And as a Friend of Bill, isn't Davis immune to such attacks? He once worked for Ed Muskie for Christ's sake, he can't be evil!!! I just haven't been so disillusioned since I found out that the uber-progressive James Carville was advising right-wing Bolivian politicians on opening their country to the full forces of neoliberalism without regard for the needs of the Bolivian people.

Apocalyptic Preachers

I've always been fascinated by those who predict the specific date of the end of the world. They are always wrong. Yet, despite the fact that they are wrong, the very same charlatans continue to gain new followers. Take this group who claims the world is ending on May 21, 2011:

Camping is not the first person to fix a date for the end of the world. There have been dozens of such prophets, and so far, they've all been wrong.

Camping himself has had to do some recalculation. He first predicted the end would come Sept. 6, 1994. He now explains that he had not completed his biblical research.

"For example, I at that time had not gone through the Book of Jeremiah," he explains, "which is a big book in the Bible that has a whole lot to say about the end of the world."

So he's not planning for May 22?

"Absolutely not," Camping says. "It is going to happen. There is no Plan B."

Maybe if you are the kind of person inclined to believe the world is ending tomorrow, you will not take it as proof that your ideas are idiotic if it doesn't happen that day. Because it's sure to happen the next. Or something like that.

Climate Change Humor

An oldie but goodie from The Onion on the cancellation of 3 billion seasons of the series known as Fall.. I'm glad someone is making climate change jokes, a subject too depressing for me to find much to laugh about.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Color me shocked that NFL teams are openly violating their own lockout by illegally contacting undrafted free agents. I mean, the NFL has been so principled throughout this whole process!

World's Evil Enema

The world seems to be ridding itself of all sorts of right-wing pollution in recent days. One can only think the level of evil has reached such a high level that the world needs to shed some of it or die.

Most famously, we have the death of Osama bin Laden, a person for whom categories like "right-wing" don't really fit, but nonetheless.

But he's hardly all.

René Emilio Ponce, leading right-wing general in El Salvador's murderous and Reagan-supported government in the 1980s has passed. Ponce personally ordered the massacre of priests who worked with the poor.

The utterly loathsome Orlando Bosch is gone. Bosch was a right-wing Cuban exile terrorist who blew up a Cuban airliner, killing 73 people, in 1976. This is never a good reason to support a government, but I'm really glad Castro outlived Bosch, so that the latter could never see his beloved homeland again.

And now the incendiary Northern Ireland Protestant leader William Craig has died. Craig banned a 1968 civil rights march by Catholics that played no small role in leading to the violence of the 1970s and 80s. He later led a right-wing paramilitary organization umbrella organization.

Historical Image of the Day

Still from the film, Them, 1954

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Chicken of the Sea

I've been meaning to write for several days about Elisabeth Rosenthal's fine evisceration of tilapia in the Times.

To summarize, this African native is a fish that farms readily and tastes like nothing, making it perfect for the American palate. It's less healthy than almost any marketable fish. Although these are vegetarian fish (as opposed to farming salmon which necessitates the harvesting of smaller fish as fish food), these farms have widespread ecological problems.

Tilapia arrived in American markets almost overnight. Rosenthal visited Lake Yojoa in Honduras. To put it in context, in 2002 I traveled to Honduras where the person with whom I was in then in a relationship had gone on a school-related trip. She visited this very Taiwanese-run tilapia farm. I had never even heard of the fish before. Less than 10 years later, it's one of America's most consumed fish.

I'm going to leave behind the issues of how these factory fish farms pollute lakes with feces and destroy ecosystems to make two other points.

1. I am routinely amazed by Americans' desire for tasteless protein. I've never actually eaten tilapia so I can only speak to what others have said--it is bland. Like people who order well-done steaks or the boneless, skinless, white-meat chicken breast craze, tilapia represents some of the worst in American cuisine. While I suppose one can turn a chicken breast or tilapia into something tasty through the application of sauces, it's not like most people eating this stuff do that. They might add some ketchup. Moreover, why would you want to eat a meat that doesn't taste like anything. Of course, this is not much different from rice or pasta, but those are essentially nutritious grains that provide the base for regional cuisines that do amazing things. And some of the ways various cultures have made fried chicken their own suggests that you can apply the same principles to often tasteless meat (and I realize that chicken doesn't have to be tasteless and can often be good, but in the reality of most people's diets, it is bland and not tasty).

I just can't understand the desire to eat food that is a) bland without reason, b) cloyingly sweet, or c) artificial tasting. Yet Americans do that all the time. And the fact that we breed and kill animals with this very goal in mind is unconscionable. I am no longer really a vegetarian, though I don't eat meat at home. But there's some defense to eating an animal if you treat it with respect. Part of that respect is to care about how you cook and eat it. If you are going to treat tilapia or chicken like Cheetos, why eat it at all?

2. There simply is no excuse for eating fish in 2011 except (perhaps) in very small amounts. I don't want to sound all Cassandra-like here, but wild fish are going extinct in large numbers and farmed fish decimate ecosystems and cause other fish to go extinct. We treat the sea as a farm. Like other meat, we often don't see it as an animal, but something in a nice package at the store (see the disturbed feeling many have with fish served with the head on as an example). It's even worse with the sea though because we literally can't see the animals.

Our children are basically not going to eat most of the fish we eat today. Tilapia will probably be available--there's too much going for it, including an insatiable American appetite for that tasteless protein and the fact that corporations and poor governments are almost always going to choose to decimate that lake ecosystem over giving up on investments. Catfish and other common fish will be around as well.

But most wild fish will be gone, as likely will farmed salmon. What fish-based cultures are going to do is quite worrisome. Meanwhile, we eat away, not knowing or caring. The conditions of factory beef, pork, and poultry farms are very bad, it's true. But these area manageable in the long-term because they are common species. Fish are becoming less common by the day. It's the last wild meat we harvest commercially. The equivalent is not beef or pork, it's bison or passenger pigeon. Our descendants will see our consumption of fish like we see our ancestors destroying passenger pigeon flocks.

Regina Schrambling has more at Epicurious.

Update: A friend sent me this about the scientific debate over just how depleted fish stocks are. Even if the most optimistic (least pessimistic?) models are true, it's still looking bad in the long haul. 

Shorter David Brooks: This Nation Needs the Alien and Sedition Acts

David Brooks longs for the Federalist Party and closes with the same kind of elitist fear of the people that helped doom that party after 1800:

The breakthrough, if there is one, will come from the least directly democratic parts of the government, from the Senate or some commission of Establishment bigwigs. It will be enacted when voters realize we need to build arrangements to protect ourselves from our own weaknesses. It will all depend on reviving the republican virtues upon which the country was founded. 

I mean, if the Washington elite were all that mattered, David Brooks would even more Very Serious than he already is!

Book Review: Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean

Alex von Tunzelmann, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean , Henry Holt and Co, 2011.

Americans remain fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the fall of 1962, American planes photographed Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The situation quickly escalated with members of both the American and Soviet governments calling for nuclear war. Mercifully, both U.S. President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to their senses before blowing up the world.

At the heart of the conflict was Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose 1959 revolution threw American leaders into fits of fury. Alex von Tunzelmann’s new and very readable book, Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, certainly will appeal to readers fascinated by the intrigue between Castro and Kennedy. This relationship became implanted in popular memory both through the missile crisis and with the rumors that Castro was behind the plot to assassinate JFK.

We don’t know anything concrete about Castro’s involvement in that murder, but we do know that Kennedy did approve several plots to kill Castro. That’s just the start of von Tunzelmann’s detailing of American outrages committed in the Caribbean during the Cold War. Focusing on Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic she paints a deeply disturbing picture of the United States propping up brutal dictators, overthrowing democratically elected governments, and undermining social reform in the name of anti-communism.

Beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States dominated Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared it U.S. policy to act in the best interests of its irresponsible American neighbors. In practice, this meant supporting governments that protected American business interests and sending in the Marines when governments threatened those interests.

These interventions caused long-term resentment toward the United States. As the Cold War developed, Americans became obsessed with keeping its neighbors communist-free, even though, as von Tunzelmann points out, Stalin had no interest in world revolution. Equating social justice and economic rights with communism, the CIA gave almost unconditional support to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Batista’s corrupt government gave rise to many protest movements, but under amazingly long odds, Fidel Castro and his tiny group of guerillas in the Sierra Madre convinced the dictator to flee at the end of 1958. While Castro first avoided identifying with communism, the United States took his revolution personally, particularly as he looked to end American domination of Cuba. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Castro proved an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Moreover, it forced Castro into the arms of the Soviets, precipitating the missile crisis, solidifying his support among the Cuban people, and creating long-term hostilities between Cuba and the U.S.

Von Tunzelmann revisits the frequently asked question of when Fidel Castro became communist. I find this debate tiresome but she usefully points out that Castro had flexible ideological leanings in these years. She accurately refers to him as a pragmatist, unlike Che Guevara or Raul Castro, both of whom supported communism from the revolution’s start. Fidel’s primary goal was a nationalist Cuba free from U.S. Intervention, he might have avoided the Soviet alliance had he any alternative. Of course, once he committed to communism, he turned his attention to developing a centrally planned economy, but his relationship with the Soviets waxed and waned over time.

Von Tunzelmann shows that no head of state took advantage of Castro’s rise as effectively as the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. Ruling over his nation with an iron fist since 1930, Trujillo tortured, murdered, and raped opponents into submission. The United States supported him throughout his decades in power, seeing him as an unfortunate but necessary anti-communist leader. When a democratic government followed Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 and began instituting social reforms, the United States balked. Von Tunzelmann excoriates Lyndon Johnson for ordering the 1965 invasion that led to another three decades of right-wing dictatorship.

Her connection between Cuba and the Dominican Republic is clear. But at first, the reader wonders why she spends so much time on the non-ideological regime of the murderous Francois Duvalier’s Haiti. Americans thought of him as a mad man and plotted his overthrow. But Duvalier masterfully played Trujillo, Castro, and successive American presidents. Although he had no particular ideological agenda, he created enough “communists” to convince Americans of his importance. By promoting order, he established alliances of convenience with the Dominicans. This point may be von Tunzelmann’s greatest contribution: the United States would and did actively promote any type of human rights violations to support short-term goals on fighting communism.

While I liked the book, von Tunzelmann sometimes panders to American sensibilities. I find her suggestion that Kennedy had learned from Cuba and might not have invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 highly dubious and ahistorical (p.316). This is a prime example of perpetuating what I call the “Evolving Kennedy myth” in popular history: Kennedy about to become a champion of civil rights, Kennedy pulling out of Vietnam, Kennedy rejecting American domination of Latin America. Maybe this would happened. Who knows.

All we can do as historians is judge a president on what he actually did. Kennedy did not press hard for civil rights. He expanded American involvement in Vietnam. He approved any number of questionable and illegal activities in the Caribbean. Americans want to think the best of Kennedy, but his actual actions don’t support this interpretation. While Lyndon Johnson pursued a disastrous foreign policy, it’s hard to believe that Kennedy would have done anything much differently. And Johnson is the presidential hero of civil rights, not Kennedy.

Moreover, while von Tunzelmann points out that Castro is not a mass murderer on the scale of Duvalier and Trujillo, for narrative’s sake she frequently lumps the three dictators together. Many Americans may think of Castro as the devil, but it’s worth noting that Cuban health care, education, and life expectancy far surpass almost any other nation in the developing world. I’m not apologizing for Castro’s lack of democratic values. But to compare Castro with Duvalier and Trujillo simply doesn’t make sense except to note that all three were dictators, which is hardly a revelation.

Overall, Red Heat is a useful and readable primer for U.S. Cold War activities in the Caribbean. Americans as a whole lack knowledge of how its government tolerated, trained, and encouraged some of the world’s most notorious dictators. The American government found Fidel Castro so shocking that it nearly plunged the world into a nuclear war. It accepted a homicidal maniac in Haiti because he was non-communist. It overthrew a democratically elected government in the Dominican Republic because it feared a new Castro. The people of these nations still feel the effects of American foreign policy today in their nations’ poverty, violence, and shaky to nonexistent democratic institutions.

Historical Image of the Day

Cover of "Is This Tomorrow," probably the first anti-Soviet Cold War scare comic book, published 1947

Friday, May 06, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

Advertisement, Good Housekeeping, 1950s. I can't quite read the date at the bottom of the page. July of some year in the 50s.

Green Manhattan

Bryan Walsh usefully reminds us, building on David Owen's influential New Yorker article, that the greenest place in the United States is Manhattan.

It's that density — the sheer number of people living in such a small area, often literally on top of each other — that makes Manhattan, and New York City as a whole, so green. Manhattan's population density is 800 times the national average. Density comes with negatives, certainly — small living spaces, air pollution, lots and lots of concrete — but it also enables amazing efficiencies. More than 80% of Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, by bike or on foot — compared to an average of about 8% everywhere else in the country. The vertical apartment buildings that Manhattanites live in are far more energy-efficient than single-dwelling housing in the suburbs. "Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams," wrote David Owen in his 2009 book Green Metropolis. "But in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility."

Density is the key to sustainability. While there are a lot of people who don't want to live in dense cities, at the very least, it would be nice if the government would incentivize density rather than sprawl. Of course, dense cities create public health hazards and those are important. But these problems are easier to deal with than our sprawl and the massive environmental disasters this causes.

The Cats of War

This is excellent.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Overheated outrage abounds about low civics scores on standardized tests.

In response, let me give you a civics lesson. You have a very wealthy nation, though one with significant problems with income distribution and racial inequality. But this nation has chosen not to allocate sufficient resources to its schools, both because one of its political parties has demagogued taxation to the point that raising taxes has become a political impossibility and because its state governments and national representatives find it more useful to batter around teachers than to fund education. This nation also places significant social value upon personal income and consumerism, meaning that its smartest and most motivated young people are going into more lucrative professions than teaching.

Although not willing to fund education or pay teachers a high enough salary to attract the best young minds to the profession, the nation frets about falling behind to intensively-educated Asian kids in math and reading. How will they compete with the Chinese?!? So that nation passes an unfortunate law called "No Child Left Behind," which forces kids to take pointless standardized tests, exacerbates the underfunding of poor schools by tying their existence to improved test scores, convinces schools and teachers to fix the test answers in order to save their jobs, and encourages teachers to not ply their wares at poor schools since they will be fired if they don't improve test scores, a near impossibility given the massive problems of social inequality that children in these schools face.

With math, science, and reading being valued over other subjects, subjects like history and, yes, civics become less important. If students need extra time to prepare for the standardized tests, it comes at the expense of those classes. If outside speakers come to the school, kids are pulled out of these classes. Because everything is about the standardized test to comply with No Child Left Behind. Students then don't learn about their government or their collective past, not to mention literature, art, or physical education.

And then this nation freaks out when students don't know the fundamentals about their government. I wonder if there's an easy solution that will cost no money. I suggest more standardized testing and rote memory.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sports and American Militiarism

Dave Zirin has written a wonderful article on sports and the militarization of American society:

The eruption of patriotic emotion at the park should surprise no one. Since 9/11, the sports arena has been an organizer of patriotism, a recruiter for the US armed forces, and at times a funhouse mirror, reflecting the principles of freedom in a manner so misshapen and distorted as to rise to the level of farce.

That's for damn sure--I hate, hate, hate the playing of "God Bless America" at baseball games. The rapid increase in connections between right-wing militarism and sports, and the massive peer pressure that goes along with it, is the single worst thing about going to a sporting event.

Knowing Osama bin Laden

At BoingBoing is this:

OK, this makes people look bad. But as Yahoo notes, 2/3 of people looking up who Osama bin Laden is on the internet are teenagers.

Likely interpretation of this information from most people who hear it: "Oh, our children are so uneducated! Our schools are failing us!!!"

But is this true? After all, why should they know about Osama bin Laden? Of course, there are obvious answers to that question. But a few notes here in defense of our ignorant kids:

1. It's not like Osama bin Laden has been a major feature in our national narrative since about 2002. Bush said he didn't care about catching him. We focused on Iraq and then finally Afghanistan, but how often has the media mentioned bin Laden in the past 9 years? Not a whole lot.

2. A 16 year old today was quite possibly 6 years old on September 11, 2001. How much do you remember from when you were 6? Some 6 year olds are going to remember 9/11, others not. Another 3-4 years and none of our college freshmen will remember 9/11. Time passes and it passes fast. We shouldn't blame our kids for not knowing the recent past because most of us didn't when we were 16 either.

3. And that leads to my final point--this is a conversation that older people have had in one way or another back to probably the beginning of human history. Our kids don't know about (the Kennedy assassination) (the Vietnam War) (Pearl Harbor), etc., etc. The horror!!!! We need to relax and realize take it easy on our kids. They'll have the same conversation in 20 years about this or that. It happens.

That the Yahoo post linked to above notes that the leading states for these searches are the rural states of the American West is a phenomenon of some interest, but I have nothing to offer about it.