October 2, 2007
Only in America?
I can't stop laughing long enough to draw any scholarly conclusions from this North Carolina tale, the gist of which is that a man stored his amputated leg inside a barbecue smoker which he then lost when he got behind on his storage locker payments. The buyer, who turned the leg over to police who then gave it to a funeral home, wants it back as his lawful property because he wants to charge people to see it during Halloween season. The leg's original "owner" (?!?!) says it should be returned to him because he wants to be buried a whole man. It would be more interesting if he could make an argument about the inalienability of body parts, but it looks like the fight will be carried out in the domain of property rights.
A BBC report on the case, remarkably straight-faced, is here.
May 5, 2007
Benchmarks versus timeline
"Benchmarks" mean points in time when we can blame the Iraqis for their hellish situation; "timeline" means a point in time when we can finally all agree the Bush strategy was a total disaster.
April 27, 2007
Speaking of Democrats...Setting Up the "Iraqi government" to take the blame.
As much as I like seeing the Bushies get kicked in teeth, the reigning rhetoric from the Democrats about the reasons for a withdrawal of troops is right in line with the idea that responsibility for fixing the mess has now been passed to a sovereign Iraqi government, and that a timetable is needed to pressure it into "stepping up" and those other ridiculous phrases. I happen to believe that the so-called Pottery Barn theory of you-broke-you-fix-it is essentially right and if the current strategy - even though it is the result of a totally illegal and immoral war for which our nation's leadership should be jailed - had a prayer of working, it should be continued until peace and stability are achieved. It's pretty obvious that the only route to this would be an internationally sanctioned and regionally comprised peace plan, with the US footing the bill. Since this is not happening, our presence is clearly only making things worse. I think the US rushed though Iraqi elections basically to have a fall guy for the inevitable failure, and I cannot forgive most mainstream Dems for falling right into this line of argument.
Cynical about the White House View of the Political Process
Yesterday's pronouncement from acting White House spokesperson Dana Perino was one of the more cynical things I've heard from this administration. The appropriate response should have been howls of derision, but so far the Democrats have been too polite for this kind of reaction. Perino suggested that since Congress knew Bush would veto a war spending bill with a timetable, they have an obligation to instead give him a bill he can sign. Say what? They have an obligation to vote their own consciences and the will of their constituents, in some ambiguous proportion. Letting Bush take the heat for a veto is not only permissible but exactly what I expect from my representatives.
April 23, 2007
Um, Dear Mr. President
George W. today said, "I strongly believe that politicians in Washington should not be telling generals how to do their jobs."
That would be civilian control of the military, and if you're strongly opposed to that, you should be impeached. Their words, anyway, suggest that if they knew then what they know now, Congress would never have voted to approve your illegal war in the first place, and this is as close as Congress can get to ending a war that was never officially declared. Besides, no one is telling generals how to do their job but rather whether to do their jobs. I.e., the power to declare war. Too bad you slept through your civics class.
March 14, 2006
AAUP issues a statement on the nasty FBI visit to Prof. Tinker-Salas...
...and it can be found here.
March 9, 2006
Venezuela, the US, terrorism
Just a brief concatenation of facts that, together, speak for themselves:
1) The US participates in a military coup attempt against a freely and fairly elected Latin American government ... Venezuela in 2002.
2) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez internationalizes his dangerous brand of ideology through the destabilizing act of...providing cheap fuel oil to poor people in cold parts of the US.
3) Local and federal officers from a joint task force on terrorism conduct an intimidating interview with Pomona College Latin American historian Miguel Tinker Salas about his contacts with Venezuelans.
And here I thought that the Task Force on Terrorism meant against terrorism. Silly me!
Here's Pomona President David Oxtoby's commendable statement about the latter event:
To the Pomona College community:
On Tuesday, March 7, Miguel Tinker Salas, Arango Professor of Latin American History and Chicano Studies, was visited in his Pearsons Hall office by two men from the Los Angeles County Sheriff/FBI Joint Task Force on Terrorism. To avoid rumors, I wanted the Pomona College community to be aware of the facts.
The agents asked Professor Tinker Salas a number of personal questions as well as questions about the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan community in the U.S. During the meeting, they told him that he was not a subject of investigation. The tone and content of the questioning, however, troubled him deeply. He was also troubled by the fact that the agents reportedly questioned some of the students outside his office while waiting to see him.
Miguel, as all of you know, is a superb Wig Award winning teacher and a fine scholar on Latin American history, politics, and culture who is sometimes asked by the news media to comment on topics related to his research, including Venezuelan politics. The College supports him and his scholarly work without reservation. I am extremely concerned about the chilling effect this kind of
intrusive government interest could have on free scholarly and political discourse. I am also concerned about the negative message it sends to students who are considering the pursuit of important areas of international study, in which they may now feel exposed to unwarranted official scrutiny.
The College is currently consulting with legal advisors about the most effective way to register a strong official protest about this intrusion into our scholarly and educational activities, and we will take appropriate action as soon as their advice is received. We are also asking for their help in assuring that all members of the College community are fully informed about their rights and their options in such situations.
(It does leave me wondering a little bit what the level of support would be for someone not so "award winning" and about whose scholarship the College had some "reservations," simply because some such scholars have not been supported by their institutions elsewhere at moments like this.)
UPDATE (3-9-06, 22:19 PST): Pomona Professor John Seery has posted an entry on the Huffington Post about this incident.
UPDATE (3-12-06, 16:48 PST): Kathleen posted the FBI's sort-of apology on Planned Obsolescence.
March 2, 2006
The Right to be Ignorant
A survey (reported on today in the Chicago Tribune and to us angelinos in our little Tribune Co. subsisdiary called the Los Angeles Times) showed that only 1% of Americans can name all five rights enumerated in the First Amendment to the US Constiution, as opposed to the 20% who can name all five members of the Simpsons family. Let me say first that I am shocked and outraged at the low 20% figure. Secondly, while the 99% who can't name the rights of the First Amendment are "ignorant," as the article says, the 38% who said the right to "take the Fifth" is part of the First are just plain morons. The ones who don't know who's buried in Grant's Tomb, I'll bet. Forty percent is roughly the moron fraction I've been assuming for a few years now, and it's nice to see it confirmed in sound figures.
Columbia U law professor Michael Dorf was quoted in the article as suggesting a Simpsons episode on the Constitution. Capital idea, and it just may happen, too. 'Cause you know Lisa knows!
February 22, 2006
Hoping Dick Cheney never finds out about the Internet
Remember Internet hunting in Texas? It's not too different from the actual kind of hunting they were engaged in.
I couldn't confirm that this is true or find the source of this blog entry (it was emailed to me without context), although mainstream media ave reported on similar canned hunts Cheney has been on, such the Dallas Morning News.
I read that the quail on Ms. Armstrong's property were domesticated, fenced and grown for the specific purpose of providing canned sport shooting for guests. Prior to the hunt, the quail were taken from their cages to various locations on Armstrong's property and released for the shoot, confused and disoriented. One newspaper reports that the quail's wings were clipped and that Cheney's hunting party went out in vehicles (probably SUV's) until they spotted a group of the recently released and dazed quail. At that point, the intrepid "hunters" jumped out of their SUV's to "flush out" the disconcerted birds. The report stated that it would have been almost as easy simply to chase the clipped-wing quail, grab them by the feet, and shake them to death.
Today's Los Angeles Times has an op-ed piece by Jonathan Chait that tries to put the joyful glee over Cheney's accident in perspective, pointing out that the mainstream media are too cowed ever to go after real lies and corruption and scandal so they vent by building up fairly trivial little things like this.
When hundreds of people around the world are yelling "Allahu Akbar" and blowing themselves up in strategic locations, it is hardly reasonable not to expect some nervous humor linking, well, Allah with terrorism. But in the free speech rights furor in defense of the Danish cartoons, I've heard little discussion of what seems to be growing racial intolerance in countries generally thought immune to it. I remembered this really racist little online computer game that a Danish family show me a couple of years ago. They thought it was great fun and said they saw the racist elements as satire. The "Mujaffa" game is hosted on the National Danish Radio and Televsion website, and can be found here.
Here's a description of it that appeared in the American Prospect in 2002:
The national radio station's Web site offers a video game featuring a dark-skinned immigrant named Mujaffa, who earns points by collecting gold chains and condoms on the street, yelling hello to all of his cousins and soliciting big-breasted, blond Danish women who pass him on the sidewalk. Mujaffa can spend these points on new speakers, stereo systems and hydraulics for his car. Though the Board for Ethnic Equality's executive director, Mandana Zarrehvarpar, complained that a state institution was perpetuating negative stereotypes, she and her colleagues were quickly dismissed as excessively politically correct and unable to "understand Danish humor." They succeeded only in having the game's name changed from one that included a derogatory term for Arabs (roughly equivalent to "nigger") to the more palatable "Mujaffa game." For the Danes who find Mujaffa harmless and hilarious, Muslim intolerance remains unacceptable, but their own is quite all right.
February 3, 2006
Bucolic life, too much so
What happens in America when your desire for country living brings you to, well, the country? Where I live in Southern California it seems to mean that sprawling suburbs that encroach on the few remaining farms in places like Chino and Ontario have no trouble shutting them down as nuisances: the dust, the smells, the noice, the horror!
Not all land use conflicts are clear-cut cases of big developers and rich landowners pitted against small family farms. In lots of cases, the "public nuisance" concept has been used to shut down highly polluting operations.
But some cases do point right at the hypocrisy at the core desires feeding sprawl.
Charles Wolff, a friend of mine in upstate New York, has been representing a guy who moved to Stuyvesant, NY, a couple years ago and started raising some sheep and chickens in small, neat, well-run farm. His chickens would occasionally get loose and enter the yards of adjacent multi-million-dollar homes in this rural Hudson River area north of Manhattan. He met the complaints with an attempt to erect a better fence, which was blocked some confused and illegal moves by town zoning officials, at which point he just let his chickens wander where they would. The bumbling town backed down under threat of lawsuit, and he built his fence. Apparently his chickens have not escaped since.
The town government, however, pushed by a handful of residents who want the bucolic without worry of sighting a chicken on their estates, has now enacted a Dracononian (Drake-onian? argh) ordinance with rapidly escalating fines: up to $500 and fifteen days in jail for wandering livestock. Other area farmers expressed alarm and were calmed with the publicly given assurance that the law would only be applied to this "one chicken farmer on Eichybush Rd." Charles calls this a bill of attainder and has threatened a federal suit. Meanwhile, the farmer's supporters, apparently a majority in the town according to an online poll, have banded together to ridicule the town board's actions.:
The local newspaper has covered the controversy, and apparently outfits like the New York Times and NPR may soon do stories, based on interviews Charles has given recently.
(I've met this chicken farmer, by the way, and he has the most beautiful chickens I've ever seen.)
(Also a propos of nearly nothing, but maybe something, Charles is a former anthropology colleague of mine and earned an M.A. from Cornell.)
January 29, 2006
Bedstand reading this week: East of Eden
An ache was on the top of his stomach, an apprehension that was like a sick thought. It was a Weltschmerz - which we use to call "Welshrats" - the world sadness that rises into the soul like a gas and spreads despair so that you probe for the offending event and can find none.
Well, I found a few, actually.
January 27, 2006
An op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Canadian columnist Colby Cosh apparently intends to lampoon Canada's liberalism, suggesting that it's so intractable that many apparently absurd political facts are likely to survive Conservative Prime Minister-elect Harper's reign.
Problem is, all but one sound pretty damn good to me, and even the questionable one (cheap but poor quality health care) wouldn't seem too bad to an uninsured American.
Let's see (quoting probably far too much for our unfair fair-use laws)...
Canada currently has no laws in force concerning abortion.And quite right, too! What's not to like about Canada? Ok, except maybe for the WW2 vets. It should be easy for them to get benefits, too.
The late Liberal government legalized same-sex marriage.
Gay Americans, recognized here as an oppressed class, can expect to be greeted with filial embraces. But they're still Americans, so we'll also be fumbling around in vain for the volume knob.
The courts...are dominated by buck-wild, porn-loving Liberal appointees.
In sum: Canada remains...a country where cigarettes are taxed 300% to 400% but heroin is free to addicts; where gay widowers have an easier time obtaining their pension entitlements than World War II veterans; and where a woman can go topless in public unles she has hate literature tattooed on her breast.
Sometimes I wish I could find our volume knobs as well.
Hamas, Bush, the Media
The White House position seems to be that we won't deal with a Palestinian government that doesn't recognize Israel's "right to exist."
I have reservations about all this talk in the media that Hamas will have to become less ideological, accept a two-state solution, and recognize this dubious "right to exist." Someone once told me that the phrase "right to exist" was coined by Henry Kissinger precisely to be something many Arab states and movements would never agree to. What does it mean? Does it mean accepting a state's self-definition: its histories and mythologies; its current, once, or future boundaries; its existing political formation? Should American Indians recognize the US "right to exist" if that's what it means?
It's hard to know how much Arab rhetoric about Israel is truly a denial of the right of Jews to live in Palestine and to self govern and how much is based on a well-founded fear that if the important unsolved issues in the establishment of the state of Israel are pragmatically and provisionally resolved, Palestinian Arabs will be locked into permanent apartheid in Israel, a permanent refugee status outside Palestine, and in insecure and nonviable enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza.
It's reasonable to expect Hamas to merge its fighters into a disciplined and legal Palestine security force and to stop terrorist acts. But a democratic one-state solution for Palestine is a serious position with respectable proponents, including within Israel. It seems that many pro-Hamas votes were votes against corruption, but many likely express sympathy for stronger bargaining positions. It would not be in the interests of democracy to force Hamas to radically change their political goals, now with a democratic mandate, out of fear of losing foreign aid.
January 21, 2006
Baseball and Cuba
The Treasury Department reversed its earlier ruling and agreed to allow the Cuban baseball team come to the US to play in the first World Classic tournament (story in the LA Times). This is, of course, good for baseball--I'm thinking of The Game, not necessarily the American baseball industry. Pressure in the US often took the usual "active engagement" form: that by allowing more interchange we will allow the Cubans to see the advantages of our "democracy" and "freedom." These days I'm usually too cynical about the state of American democracy to see that we have much positive to teach anyone. But seriously, just what would the lesson from the US be for a country whose aspirations for freedom from US domination have been attacked, embargoed, contained and isolated by us from day one? I suspect the lesson most have in mind is the standard fantasy of consumer acquisition through market capitalism that we sell everywhere. The difference in average wealth Cubans already know all too well. What do we expect?: "Oh, I get it now; if we just overthrow Castro we'll all be comfortably middle class and be able to buy tickets to as many baseball games as we want, or at least a big television."
December 13, 2005
Welcome to California, here's your execution.
I don't want this to sound like it's all about me, but I realized with a bit of a shock tonight that this is the first time a death penalty has been carried out in a state I was living in. (I've lived in six death penalty states, one non-death-penalty state.) Stanley Tookie Williams, as good a case for rehabilitation and clemency as any I can think of, was executed at 12:35 a.m. As a black man convicted on snitch testimony, he falls within the profiles of many of the exonerations from death row in recent years (not that he is likely to be innocent of other murders, but that's not the point). I'm listening to victims' relatives prattle on on Larry King, performing the personal catharis that seems to be the media's best friend and chief argument in favor of the death penalty. It's one more wearying reason to be embarrassed to be an American. Anyway...not in my name, and I'm looking forward to a chance to vote against the death penalty on one of my new state's gazillion ballot measures sometime soon.
December 6, 2005
Chavez and the Venezuela election
US and British coverage of the Venezuela election has stressed the pall of illegitimacy its boycott by opposition candidates and voters has supposedly cast over it. This is to fall straight into the last-ditch effort by the middle- and upper-class opposition. I would certainly not endorse every move by the Chavez administration, but I am amazed and delighted to see a Latin American nation with a viable democratic political party that owes nothing to the traditional ruling classes. The desperate opposition is angling for precisely the kind of US intervention that has nipped off every other such success on the hemisphere. One of the more depressing outcomes of the coming meltdown of the Workers Party in Brazil (oh yes, that's coming; there's no way Lula will survive the current corruption scandal!) will be the loss of a powerful Chavez ally.
The BBC's inflammatory map and caption:
"How Latin America's political landscape could be redrawn."
I.e., here come the pinkos!
November 9, 2005
Frist/Hastert: misplaced anger
According to a Washington Post article today, Republicans want a probe to investigate the sources of the Washington Post's recent story about secret CIA prisons. Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert issued a statement saying "If accurate such an egregious disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences and will imperil our efforts to protect the American people and our homeland from terrorist attacks."(from today's New York Times, which I won't bother to link because it will be inaccessible in a week).
I'm sure that's a mistake and that what these two patriots really meant to say was "If accurate the egregious behavior described in the disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences and will imperil our efforts to protect the American people and our homeland from terrorist attacks."
Judith Miller could have stayed in jail forever as far as I'm concerned, but I hope the Post doesn't give a millimeter on this one. This is what freedom of the press is designed to protect, not strategic leaking à la Miller/NYT.
Intelligent Design Deemed Not in PA
Finding a few minutes away from the hospital where our son was born yesterday (see my personal blog) to cheer the defeat of eight anti-evolution school board members in Dover, PA, whose residents didn't want to be latest heirs to the Scopes jury!
October 7, 2005
Fans of "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment"
Nine US Senators couldn't sign on to an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act affirming the basic, internationally accepted prohibition on "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" as they hand over billions more dollars for an illegal and stupid war. The shameful nine are
I haven't heard nearly enough outrage over this vote. It's roused me, temporarily anyway, out of my general malaise of outrage out of which the only reasonable question seems to be Should I move to Scandanavia now or later? No, I think I want to stay here and fight the bastards who've hijacked my country.
The roll call is here
September 9, 2005
FEMA's New Orleans prediction
Here's a chilling National Geographic article from October of last year. I missed it, and I guess W did too.
June 2, 2005
Deep Throat, The End of an Era
With today's revelations, scooped in a Vanity Fair article, that Mark Felt was Deep Throat, the Watergate era seems to come to a close. (The New York Times covers the story of the story of the story.) Watergate was my initiation into politics. I was nine at the time of break-in. I had, and maybe still have...somewhere..., the Time magazine article from 1974 or so with a synopsis article and little headshots of all the main characters. I remember the resignation -- the drama, my naïve, moralistic elation that a big bad guy was getting his comeuppance. By the time I graduated from high school in 1981, I had read every Watergate book published up til then, at least every one that the Mount Airy, Maryland, library had, which was a lot. At the time, I thought Haldeman's was the best, Chuck Colson's the most informative but also the most nauseating. In the wake of everything since, it's hard to stay angry about Watergate, but I think it is the source of my eternal incredulity at the Republican-voting portion of the US populace: "How could you?!"
May 22, 2005
"Any adult human being"
An article in today's NYT on the US proposal to the Organization of American States to monitor democracy and the exercise of power in Latin America is being openly laughed at. The Argentine ambassador's comment says it all:
"This explanation is going to be impossible to sell to any adult human being," said Rodolfo Hugo Gil, the Argentine ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Indeed. Unfortunately, our current administration is filled with people who fail that criterion in one or both possible ways. After the Supreme Appointment of 2000, Florida 2000, and Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and all the rest in 2004, the US view on democracy, even in the limited sense of "elections," is nearly irrelevant. In Brazil, for example, there are many ways to steal an election, of course, but most have to be slightly more sophisticated than the ham-fisted US Republican methods. They've had verifiable touch-screen voting for ages. And of course "our" support for the 2002 anti-Chavez coup (the OAS proposal is being universally understood as an attack on and an affront to Venezuela) disqualifies us from any pro-democracy scolding in this hemisphere for another decade or the end of neocon rule in Washington, whichever is longer.
May 8, 2005
Garrison Keillor, hopeful ethnographer
This Garrison Keillor essay in this week's Nation is the most hopeful and yet realistic thing about politics in America I've read in a long time. Just when I start to forget what an astute ethnographer Garrison Keillor is, put off by his quietism and peacefulness in these alarmist and alarming times where it hasn't really been a quiet week anywhere, he manages to remind me of something worthy of hope in our country.
April 23, 2005
The Dictatorship of Relativism
The speech that apparently put Cardinal Ratzinger over the top in the final rounds of papal politics does not bode well for the future (pdf version here).
Here is the now-famous quote in a Washington post article:
"We are moving," he declared, toward "a dictatorship of relativism . . . that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
The modern world, Ratzinger insisted, has jumped "from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, up to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and on and on."
I find this statement ludicrous on several levels: one, it's just a weird, unlikely turn of phrase; two, his world-historical examples of relativism are wrong; and three, it's hypocritical.
Like one of my other favorite tendentious and politically charged invention of recent years -- "illegal file sharing" -- it's nearly oxymoronic. How can relativism of any kind ground a dictatorship? His account of oscillation between authoritarian extremes is not relativism, but just that: alternation -- perhaps dialectical, perhaps not -- between non-relativisms. ("Syncretism" doesn't really belong in the list, but I can see why he would think it's like relativism.)
I know there are many adjectival forms of relativism (moral or ethical relativism, epistemological relativism, etc.), but our basic, consensual anthropological definition of "cultural relativism" is good enough to use here, I think, because it captures the core of the concept and is close enough to the thinking that drives conservatives everywhere crazy. The basic logic, however, is fundamentally an empirical one: people learn their values and modes of apprehending the world from their social context (language, religious & ethical systems, families, habits, etc.); values and modes of apprehension differ around the world. Point. Like, evolution, relativism, defined like this, is a fact and not a theory. The opposite is ethnocentrism, with which Pope Benedict has just aggressively aligned the Catholic Church. Now, how people act, armed with knowledge of the fact that values and worldviews differ, is another story, but some form of civic tolerance is one possible logical outcome.
This brings me to my third point, which is that the survival of the Catholic Church in many parts of the world and the current high esteem that seems to have been part of Pope John Paul's legacy owe a lot to relativism and forms of tolerance it engenders.
Relativistic thinking does pose a danger for the Catholic Church's market share (some form of relativism is what started me on the very slippery slope from adolescent Catholic piety to atheism), but it's not the world-historical threat he seems to suggest. Indeed, if it weren't for the "cafeteria Catholics" in the US and Europe, presumably major targets of the pontiff's comments, the Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging parishioners even faster than it already is in those countries.
In protest -- against the misuse of language, the poor understanding of the concept, and the dangerously absolutist implications of the Pope's mission -- I have re-subtitled my blog. If there's to be a "dictatorship of relativism," then sign me up.
Matthew Yglesias had an interesting entry on this topic on his blog, and links to several others who have commented on Ratzinger and Relativism.