Sunday, December 31, 2006

Have a New New Year

A year of death and infamy limps to a whimpering close. A new one awakes tomorrow with a terrible hangover that will likely remain for years. We all know the story, so I won't attempt to provide a year-end wrap-up or another top ten list.

Personally, some very nice things happened this year and the coming year looks terrific. Life is good, work is good, play is good. There are lots of surprises, humor, temporary drawbacks, new openings and experiences, and a coming year that will be pivotal. Two books coming out this year, another on its way - this is the reason I've been lax about writing on the blog recently, and a bit perfunctory with my own comments. Hopeful changes in career, with a few giant occasions that will also affect the blog for the better, I hope. A new bicycle. New places to visit. Deeply beautiful and generous friends, new and old. The lovely and talented Helmette.

As for Phronesisaical, we'll continue along our way. Some history for those who don't know... This blog started in June 2005 on a whim. It was about 3am, I had been out for drinks with friends. I came home, checked the news and some blogs. I clicked the "Get Your Own Blog" icon just to see what it took to set up a blog. The process was quick and I ended up with a blog asking me what name I would choose. The Complete Works of Aristotle happened to be sitting on my desk (and I thought about that for the name). I had been doing some work on the Greek notion of phronesis, "practical wisdom," the intersection between practical lived experience and theory. I chose the term for the blog title. But it was, obviously, a pompous title for a blog, so I tried to dilute it and affix the suffix for "maniacal." But, being 3am and all, I misspelled the suffix as "-aical" and submitted the blog. I noticed the error and had a chance to change it, but I kind of liked the randomness of the whole process and decided to leave it, thus ensuring that no one would ever arrive at this blog through a Google search by blog title. I do politics, philosophy, and international affairs, so that was an easy choice for the theme. I like fruit and, at 3am, it sounded refreshing. I chose anonymity for career reasons - this might soon change. My first post said "blogging is hard." My second post called Lleyton Hewitt a "roo-penis." Such was Phronesisaical's humble - nay, ignominious - beginnings.

Today, we're bouncing along. I originally had some ambitious fantasy of being a more theoretical version of Atrios, but quickly figured out that blogdom was mostly saturated with the big folks already and that attempting this would be a fulltime job, which I can't do. I dumped the ads and ambitions and went with what you see here.

We've managed to gain a nice group of regular visitors. When you comment, you're smart, funny, entertaining, rabble-rousing, and informative. I mean this in all honesty: you are the reason I continue this blog. At moments of weak readership, it's not easy to be motivated to continue. Blogging and desiring readers are one and the same thing. At moments of heavy readership, however, it feels a bit like a supermall with most people passing through, slushies in hand, and the blog trying to advertise its wares. Over time, I've realized that we're very fortunate to have gained such a good, relatively small readership. Instead of a supermall, we've got a neighborhood record store, and I would much rather spend my time here. Quality over quantity. Even those who vehemently disagree with the content usually do so in civil tones. The worst I've been called is "retraded" [sic], which I will heartily accept. Helmut the Retraded. I don't know how you, dear reader, ever found us in the first place, but thanks for hanging out, and thanks for helping to make this a blog.

May the new year bring you good things, hilarity, new and surprising experiences, and whatever you need for your life to be rich.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Personal State of Iraq

Riverbend is back again, thankfully, and has a deeply moving post today on life in Iraq. Read the whole thing. Please do. But I'll excerpt a few passages here:
...The question now is, but why? I really have been asking myself that these last few days. What does America possibly gain by damaging Iraq to this extent? I'm certain only raving idiots still believe this war and occupation were about WMD or an actual fear of Saddam.

Al Qaeda? That's laughable. Bush has effectively created more terrorists in Iraq these last 4 years than Osama could have created in 10 different terrorist camps in the distant hills of Afghanistan. Our children now play games of 'sniper' and 'jihadi', pretending that one hit an American soldier between the eyes and this one overturned a Humvee...

What has me most puzzled right now is: why add fuel to the fire? Sunnis and moderate Shia are being chased out of the larger cities in the south and the capital. Baghdad is being torn apart with Shia leaving Sunni areas and Sunnis leaving Shia areas- some under threat and some in fear of attacks. People are being openly shot at check points or in drive by killings… Many colleges have stopped classes. Thousands of Iraqis no longer send their children to school- it's just not safe.

Why make things worse by insisting on Saddam's execution now? Who gains if they hang Saddam? Iran, naturally, but who else? There is a real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq. Some Sunni and Shia tribes have threatened to arm their members against the Americans if Saddam is executed. Iraqis in general are watching closely to see what happens next, and quietly preparing for the worst.

This is because now, Saddam no longer represents himself or his regime. Through the constant insistence of American war propaganda, Saddam is now representative of all Sunni Arabs (never mind most of his government were Shia). The Americans, through their speeches and news articles and Iraqi Puppets, have made it very clear that they consider him to personify Sunni Arab resistance to the occupation. Basically, with this execution, what the Americans are saying is "Look- Sunni Arabs- this is your man, we all know this. We're hanging him- he symbolizes you." And make no mistake about it, this trial and verdict and execution are 100% American. Some of the actors were Iraqi enough, but the production, direction and montage was pure Hollywood (though low-budget, if you ask me)...

My only conclusion is that the Americans want to withdraw from Iraq, but would like to leave behind a full-fledged civil war because it wouldn't look good if they withdraw and things actually begin to improve, would it?

Here we come to the end of 2006 and I am sad. Not simply sad for the state of the country, but for the state of our humanity, as Iraqis. We've all lost some of the compassion and civility that I felt made us special four years ago. I take myself as an example. Nearly four years ago, I cringed every time I heard about the death of an American soldier. They were occupiers, but they were humans also and the knowledge that they were being killed in my country gave me sleepless nights. Never mind they crossed oceans to attack the country, I actually felt for them.

Had I not chronicled those feelings of agitation in this very blog, I wouldn't believe them now. Today, they simply represent numbers. 3000 Americans dead over nearly four years? Really? That's the number of dead Iraqis in less than a month. The Americans had families? Too bad. So do we. So do the corpses in the streets and the ones waiting for identification in the morgue.

Is the American soldier that died today in Anbar more important than a cousin I have who was shot last month on the night of his engagement to a woman he's wanted to marry for the last six years? I don't think so.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Dead Tyrants, Dead Justice

Two dead tyrants: Saddam and Pinochet. Two tragedies: that neither death is justice, whether the death came naturally or as the result of a bogus, politicized trial and state execution. Apologists for Pinochet on the right ought to be ashamed. Apologists for Saddam from the left ought to be ashamed. To the extent that neither are ashamed, they're moral cretins. The point is tyranny and the prescription is to bring tyrants to justice, real justice, for their abuses. Killing someone for expediency's sake or political reasons itself sleeps on the side of tyranny and only makes space for future tyrants and future states of exception.

Execution

What Josh says...

"Bush administration officials" are telling CNN that Saddam Hussein will be hanged this weekend. Convention dictates that we precede any discussion of this execution with the obligatory nod to Saddam's treachery, bloodthirsty rule and tyranny. But enough of the cowardly chatter. This thing is a sham, of a piece with the whole corrupt, disastrous sham that the war and occupation has been. Bush administration officials are the ones who leak the news about the time of the execution. One key reason we know Saddam's about to be executed is that he's about to be transferred from US to Iraqi custody, which tells you a lot. And, of course, the verdict in his trial gets timed to coincide with the US elections.

This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur -- phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.

Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it -- the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the 'secular arm'. Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbojumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.

The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.

These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that the whole thing's a mess and that they're going to be remembered for it -- defined by it -- for decades and centuries. But before we go, we can hang Saddam. Quite a bit of this was about the president's issues with his dad and the hang-ups he had about finishing Saddam off -- so before we go, we can hang the guy as some big cosmic 'So There!'

Marx might say that this was not tragedy but farce. But I think we need to get way beyond options one and two even to get close to this one -- claptrap justice meted out to the former dictator in some puffed-up act of self-justification as the country itself collapses in the hands of the occupying army.

Marty Peretz, with some sort of projection, calls any attempt to rain on this parade "prissy and finicky." Myself, I just find it embarrassing. This is what we're reduced to, what the president has reduced us to. This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right.

What do you figure this farce will look like 10, 30 or 50 years down the road? A signal of American power or weakness?

Old Lemon, Old Orange

Photo: Helmut

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ticking Bomb Unless Shopping

Those who attempt to justify one of the most heinous things human beings do - torture - as well as the "war on terror" (note that it is Phronesisaical Patriotic Policy to use scare quotes around the GWOT), usually resort to the bogus "ticking bomb" argument. It's a basic utilitarian claim designed to defeat absolutist opponents of torture: wouldn't you torture one person to find out where the bomb is and save one million people? If you say, "well, yes, in that case...," the torture justifiers pull out their slippery slope guns and say "aha!" The ticking bomb case is then used to go on to justify torture, "war on terror," and other sundry items on the proponent's shopping list.

WalMart has seen through this technique. The company has generously come to the defense of those who fall for the ticking bomb argument. The corollary principle - call it "The Walmart Retort" - is now: "unless shopping is involved."
Last Saturday afternoon, Eva Voorhees heard the clatter of feet on the roof of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Mitchell where she works in the photo department - but it wasn't the pitter-patter of reindeer.

It was the police looking for a bomb. Up front, police officers, the SWAT team and others were busy searching the store next to customers who were browsing for gifts. The police looked in jewelry counters, wrapping paper rolls, freezers, the back room where trucks unload and closets at Tire Lube Express.

During the nearly two-hour search, Wal-Mart officials opted not to evacuate the busy discount store even though police recommended they do so. Wal-Mart officials said the call was a hoax and not a threat...

Overweg said police recommended the store be evacuated to allow SWAT team and other officers to search the building. But Wal-Mart opted not to, he said.
Aha! Freedom Fighters!

These Words

These words are being taken out of context.

Holiday Environmental Damage

Researchers at the University of Washington say all that holiday baking and eating has an environmental impact — Puget Sound is being flavored by cinnamon and vanilla. "Even something as fun as baking for the holiday season has an environmental effect," said Rick Keil, an associate professor of chemical oceanography. "When we bake and change the way we eat, it has an impact on what the environment sees. To me it shows the connectedness."

Keil and UW researcher Jacquelyn Neibauer's weekly tests of treated sewage sent into the sound from the West Point treatment plant in Magnolia showed cinnamon, vanilla and artificial vanilla levels rose between Nov. 14 and Dec. 9, with the biggest spike right after Thanksgiving...

...other agencies have documented that antibiotics, contraceptives, perfumes, painkillers, antidepressants and other substances pass through the sewage system into waterways.

Disappeared Information

See TPM Muckraker's growing list of the Bush administration's disappeared information.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ford, Nixon, Bush, and the Surge...

Others will have clearer memories. I was a wee lad when Gerald Ford was president. I remember one thing - Ford and his wife, Betty, descending from a tour bus in La Mesa, California for a campaign stop. I was with my hardline Republican parents. There was a large crowd and I remember only a blurry, distant figure waving to the crowd, and then a thankfully brief, echoing-microphone speech. My family has always treated Republican presidents and presidential candidates as minor deities. I was apparently supposed to feel this moment as... momentous.

In retrospect, Ford was decent and the most respectable Republican president in my lifetime. Perhaps he was wrong in terms of policy, but much of what he had to do was cleanup after the Nixon administration. Perhaps he was wrong to pardon Nixon. Frankly, however, my own view is that Nixon was much less of a moral disaster in light of the current Bush administration.

The comparison is apt and ought to be discussed more publicly. I don't mean this solely in terms of comparing the Iraq War to the Vietnam War and the multiplying scandals of the Bush administration with Watergate. I mean this in terms of examining ourselves. I just mentioned that Nixon seems less of a disaster - a "long, national nightmare," as Ford put the events - than the current administration. But wasn't there much more of an outcry in the early 1970s compared to today? Are we the public inured to presidential and partisan scandal, high crimes, and disastrous policy?

Think about this. The Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese say [and, likely, Iraqis], "the American War") has had lingering effects. Although debatable, it is widely perceived as the only American military loss. The American right has always had a difficult time examining Vietnam as a case study in hubris and fallibility. They've told themselves the story of an American citizenry that doesn't know what's good for the country, while they do. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was based in ignorance, they think, just as is the Iraq War's unpopularity. The lesson they've learned from Vietnam, then, is not one about hubris. It is about how to quell discontent within a weak population when it comes to a war that they will carry out by nearly any means necessary. Loss is unacceptable, even if the planet goes down with their ship. The irony, of course, is that the loss becomes all the greater.

It was LBJ who carried out the policy of a "surge" in Vietnam. But wasn't the situation quite different? LBJ had no previous "Vietnam" with which to compare his own strained foreign policy. Bush does, of course. LBJ suffered not only politically, but personally, for a decision he eventually knew was the wrong one. Bush only knows suffering when others don't like him.

The lesson drawn by the current administration, however, is the wrong one. It says that the Vietnam War was lost because it didn't go far enough. Nixon, for all his faults, understood when the Vietnam War was lost. He attempted to save face for the US, and not for himself, at least in regard to the war.

Bush doesn't know what to do. He is about to make an LBJ decision. The difference is that he has the benefit of historical precedence in the Vietnam War itself. Some wars are simply lost. Vietnam was one; Iraq is another. What Bush doesn't have is a sense of what is good for the US and for the world, only himself. He reactively moves from one event to another with no logic except self-preservation and no plan. The "surge" itself may well be a response to coming Sunni unrest after the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Republican historians will say that Bush took the great risk of surging in Iraq. They will portray the act as a tragically flawed and unpopular but well-intentioned move to win a war. They will portray Bush as another LBJ - wracking his brains, examining his soul, falling into depression in the face of a huge and tragic moment in American history. That's already a false portrait, though. It's false because Bush has Vietnam, but has drawn the wrong lessons.

When we look back today at LBJ, Nixon, and Ford, we ought to be able to see that what we will now accept from our political leaders is wildly askew.

UPDATE:

Well, there is the little matter of 200,000 deaths in East Timor.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Paying for No Sex in South Korea

Clever:

The Ministry for Gender Equality is offering cash to companies whose male employees pledge not to pay for sex after office parties.

Men are being urged to register on the ministry's website. The companies with most pledges will receive a reward.

Officials say they want to put an end to a culture in which men get drunk at parties and go on to buy sex.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

MERRY CHRISTMAS from Phronesisaical

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Two Transatlantic Supernatural Polls

Majority of Americans believe in angels

An overwhelming majority, almost regardless of backgrounds and religious convictions, think angels are real, according to an AP-AOL News poll exploring attitudes about Santa Claus, angels and more.

Belief in angels, however people define them, is highest — almost universal — among white evangelical Christians, 97 percent of whom trust in their existence, the poll indicates. But even among people with no religious affiliation, well more than half said angels are for real.

Religion does more harm than good - poll
More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It shows that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.

The poll also reveals that non-believers outnumber believers in Britain by almost two to one. It paints a picture of a sceptical nation with massive doubts about the effect religion has on society: 82% of those questioned say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree. The findings are at odds with attempts by some religious leaders to define the country as one made up of many faith communities.

Learning to Love Christmas

From Roxtar:
caga tió,

caga turró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
¡caga tió!"

French Go American in the Schools

L'école ferait-elle peur ? A peine connue la nouvelle du décès d'un élève au collège Albert-Camus de Meaux (Seine-et-Marne), l'hypothèse d'un nouveau drame de la violence scolaire était présentée comme certaine. Or le jeune Carl a bien été frappé, mais sa mort, a révélé l'autopsie, est due à une malformation cardiaque (lire ci-contre). Même si les chiffres de la violence scolaire ne bougent guère, l'école a désormais mauvaise réputation. «L'école a perdu son image de sanctuaire, c'est le grand changement, affirme Elizabeth Johnston, responsable sur le Net du Forum européen pour la sécurité urbaine. La violence du dehors, celle de la rue et des quartiers, est entrée dans les établissements, il y a de moins en moins de barrières. Du coup, l'école devient un lieu comme un autre. Et l'on y autorise la présence de policiers», allusion à la possibilité désormais pour les chefs d'établissement de les faire venir en cas d'infraction.

Angel Scum

You can fit four million of them on a period.

...Scientists found the microbes living in a remarkably inhospitable environment, drainage water as caustic as battery acid from a mine in Northern California. The microbes, members of an ancient family of organisms known as archaea, formed a pink scum on green pools of hot mine water laden with toxic metals, including arsenic.

“It was amazing,” said Jillian F. Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the discovery team. “These were totally new.” In their paper, the scientists call the microbes “smaller than any other known cellular life form.”

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending down miles whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.

Pay Raise for Dick

Via ThinkProgress, Cheney gets a raise from Bush. Nothing like oligarchy cum plutocracy. Congratulations, Feds and Cheney. Heckuva job.
President Bush signed an executive order Thursday to raise the pay of federal workers, members of Congress and Vice President Dick Cheney in the new year.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Christmas Curmudgeonism

Christmas is sick. You know the BMW advertisement that first shows a video of kids who open a gift and screech like little banshees, and the ad doesn't end for, like, twenty minutes? This advertisement makes me violent. I want to kill, to kill Christmas. Now I think I finally understand the war, the war on Christmas. It is true, true after all. Jingle bells, jingle bells.

The French Could Have Killed bin Laden? (But the US Didn't Let Them?)

Hmmm. Would it have been too much for the US to have the French "get" bin Laden? Is this another case of US incompetence? Is it a lie? Is it more deeply nefarious? From France24:
French special forces in Afghanistan had Osama Bin Laden in their line of fire on two occasions in 2003 and 2004, but waited in vain for orders to shoot, according to several sources in the French army. “We had our finger on the trigger, ready to shoot. We were waiting for an order from the US command that never came,” said one soldier who asked to remain anonymous.
The French Defense Ministry and the US both deny this.

Death by Food



Top photo: Death by Oreos, 2006
Bottom photo: Death by Nutella, 2001


Photos by Daniela Edburg at The Morning News.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Grading and Grapes

Grading papers... on and on... a whirl of white disorder whose center is a glowing screen. Fruit,... something, quiet, calm, pretty, yes....

Where We Goes, Nobody Knows

Rebecca Solnit has an entertaining piece in TomDispatch written from the year 2025. A snippet:
The World Court and related human rights, environmental rights, and criminal courts became more powerful presences as the sun set on the era of nation-state. Multiple changes often combined into scenarios impossible to foresee: for example, the belated U.S. recognition in 2011 that the International Criminal Court did indeed have war-crimes jurisdiction over Americans coincided with the worldwide anti-incarceration movement. This explains why, for example, former President Bush the Younger, extradited from Paraguay and found guilty in 2013, was never imprisoned, but sentenced to spend the rest of his life working in a Fallujah diaper laundry. (People who are still bitter about his reign are bitter too that the webcam there suggests, even at his advanced age, he still enjoys this work that accords so well with his skill-set.) His assets - along with those of his Vice President, and of Halliburton, Bechtel, Exxon, and other war profiteers - were famously awarded to the Vietnamese Buddhist Commission for the Iraqi Transition. After almost a decade of the bitterest bloodshed, Iraq, too, had broken into five nations, but by this time so many nation-states were being reorganized into more coherent units that the Iraqi transition, led by the Women's Alliance of Islamic Feminists (nicknamed the Islamofeminists), was surprisingly peaceful when it finally came.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Remember, This Is an Institution

... Not just one or two individual cases, but an institution. George Monbiot:

In early December, defense lawyers acting for Jose Padilla, a US citizen detained as an "enemy combatant," released a video showing a mission fraught with deadly risk -- taking him to the prison dentist. A group of masked guards in riot gear shackled his legs and hands, blindfolded him with black-out goggles and shut off his hearing with headphones, then marched him down the prison corridor.

Is Padilla really that dangerous? Far from it: his warders describe him as so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for "a piece of furniture." The purpose of these measures appeared to be to sustain the regime under which he had lived for over three years: total sensory deprivation. He had been kept in a blacked-out cell, unable to see or hear anything beyond it. Most importantly, he had no human contact, except for being bounced off the walls from time to time by his interrogators. As a result, he appears to have lost his mind. I don't mean this metaphorically. I mean that his mind is no longer there.

The forensic psychiatrist who examined him says that he "does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation." Jose Padilla appears to have been lobotomised: not medically, but socially....

We're All French Now

More than nine out of 10 Americans, men and women alike, have had premarital sex, according to a new study. The high rates extend even to women born in the 1940s, challenging perceptions that people were more chaste in the past.

"This is reality-check research," said the study's author, Lawrence Finer. "Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades."

Finer is a research director at the Guttmacher Institute, a private New York-based think tank that studies sexual and reproductive issues and which disagrees with government-funded programs that rely primarily on abstinence-only teachings. The study, released Tuesday, appears in the new issue of Public Health Reports.

The study, examining how sexual behavior before marriage has changed over time, was based on interviews conducted with more than 38,000 people -- about 33,000 of them women -- in 1982, 1988, 1995 and 2002 for the federal National Survey of Family Growth. According to Finer's analysis, 99 percent of the respondents had had sex by age 44, and 95 percent had done so before marriage.

Even among a subgroup of those who abstained from sex until at least age 20, four-fifths had had premarital sex by age 44, the study found.

Finer said the likelihood of Americans having sex before marriage has remained stable since the 1950s, though people now wait longer to get married and thus are sexually active as singles for extensive periods.

Why Won't Europe Save the US from Itself?

If you, WaPo, wish to retain some dignity, I would suggest getting rid of the Anne Applebaums in your midst and hiring my 20 policy grad students to write the occasional op-ed piece,... that is, if any of these students wish to free up time from their much more serious work.

Here's Applebaum (via SuperFrenchie) on how the French and Germans ought to be helping out more in Iraq rather than acting like uppity Europeans. And here are reader responses. Worth reading. Legitimacy, baby.

Ice Music

Voices and ice instruments by Terje Isungset. Two downloads available here at Podbop.
In 2003 Terje Isungset did an ice concert at the Ice Hotel in North Sweden. The quality of the ice that year harvested from Tårnelven was exceptional. Ice Hotel let us store a block of the river ice for possible future use. In 2004 Terje returned to record the second ice CD. Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi was naturally selected as the site. The block of ice from the previous winter was still there, safe and secure! In addition 32 igloos were left over from a wedding of a Polish rock star. They became the most amazing recording studio. Tor Magne Hallibakken used one igloo as his control room, placing Sidsel Endresen in another and Terje Isungset in a third. Stable weather at -10 to -20 degrees C was perfect for the project. The studio space was -4 - 6 and perfectly silent.

The Round City of the House of Wisdom

Top: US Military image via Subtopia
Bottom: 2003 NASA thermal emission satellite image found here
House of Wisdom

Looking for Solutions in Iraq

The Washington Post headlines today with this article on disagreement between the administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on what to do in Iraq. Bush seems to want, rather pointlessly, a McCainian increase in troops of a size that wouldn't make much impact on the ground. Others, of course, have suggested the "Darwin [sic] Option". The Joint Chiefs point out that Bush has no real plan. On and on we go while Bush supposedly deliberates.

What's most interesting about the article, however, comes at the end. Watch for a report being published today by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (but not yet as of the time of this post). The WaPo hints at the content of the report:

The new report calls the study group's recommendations "not nearly radical enough" and says that "its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis." It continues: "What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region."

The Iraqi government and military should not be treated as "privileged allies" because they are not partners in efforts to stem the violence but rather parties to the conflict, it says. Trying to strengthen the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not contribute to Iraq's stability, it adds. Iraq's escalating crisis cannot be resolved militarily, the report says, and can be solved only with a major political effort.

The International Crisis Group proposes three broad steps: First, it calls for creation of an international support group, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Iraq's six neighbors, to press Iraq's constituents to accept political compromise.

Second, it urges a conference of all Iraqi players, including militias and insurgent groups, with support from the international community, to forge a political compact on controversial issues such as federalism, distribution of oil revenue, an amnesty, the status of Baath Party members and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Finally, it suggests a new regional strategy that would include engagement with Syria and Iran and jump-starting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

I'm looking forward to the ICG report. But I seriously doubt Bush is after anything but saving face, and so will not pay much heed.

This is what we are facing, however. We simply have to engage in a radical overhaul of how the war has been conceptualized from the very beginning. I think this includes how "terrorism" has been used by the Bush administration as a device to sanction the circumvention of international and domestic constraints on their own now-directionless policies. This circumvention stems from how the war and terrorism have been framed to the American public since the very beginning.

To be blunt, it's long past time for Bush to stop sacrificing troops and any remaining international legitimacy in order to maintain appearances, and time for us to sacrifice Bush.

See more here from March 2006. Although I'm not sure I'd say the same things now, some of it still holds.

UPDATE (6am):

Here's the report: After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq
And here is the section on what the US should do immediately to stem violence. Note how much of this is a response to US mistakes (apart from being in Iraq in the first place).
18. Adopt a less aggressive military posture in Iraq by:

(a) redirecting resources to a program of embedding U.S. troops in Iraqi units; and

(b) moving away from fighting the insurgency to focusing on protecting the civilian population, and in particular halting blind sweeps that endanger civilians, antagonise the population and have had limited effect on the insurgency.

19. Redeploy troops along the frontlines of the unfolding civil war, notably by filling in the current security vacuum in Baghdad.

20. Focus on limiting the militias’ role to protecting civilians in places where government forces cannot, rather than seek to forcibly disband them, while taking strong action against political assassinations, sectarian attacks, or attempts to overrun government offices.

21. Avoid steps to engineer a cabinet reshuffle aimed at side-lining Muqtada al-Sadr, which would further inflame the situation.

22. Shelve plans to hurriedly expand the Iraqi security apparatus and focus instead on vetting, restructuring, and retraining existing units.

23. Free and compensate Iraqi prisoners detained by the U.S. without charge.

24. Compensate Iraqis who have suffered as a result of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.

25. Condition short-term financial support on the government reversing its policy of serving certain constituencies at the expense of others (most notably with regard to salary payment and basic service delivery).

26. Abandon the super-embassy project and move a reduced embassy to a more neutral location.

27. Publicly deny any intention of establishing long-term military bases or seeking to control Iraq’s oil.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pupunha

An Indolent Top 45

Here it is. The list that absolutely no one has been anticipating with any kind of excitement whatsoever.

Some of these artists have been around for a while, at least two died this year (the great Ali Farka Toure and Momo Wandel Soumah), some have quickly become well-known (Regina Spektor and Of Montreal), one has been sadly overlooked for decades (Darondo), and others were completely new to me (Barba turned me on to the hot but as-yet unknown Texas punk-ish band, Girl in a Coma, who will have their first album appear next year and should make a splash). This is basically a list of some music that caught my ear this year. This doesn't count other music I've gone back to. I've tried to keep the list contemporary.

Please listen. These people deserve the attention.

I present Helmut's top 45 of 2006 in no particular order:

1. Alice Smith
2. My Brightest Diamond
3. Herman Düne
4. Scala & Kolacny Brothers
5. Detektivbyrån
6. Juana Molina
7. Great Aunt Ida
8. The Dresden Dolls
9. Maurice El Medioni
10. Rodrigo y Gabriela
11. Momo Wandel Soumah
12. Kekele
13. Lobi Traore
14. Eglantine Gouzy
15. The Prototypes
16. Nouvelle Vague
17. Feist
18. Artisan
19. Tunng
20. Hot Chip
21. Jim Noir
22. Ramona Cordova
23. Lambchop
24. Kevin Johansen
25. Tinariwen
26. Darondo
27. Jose Kafala and Moises Kafala
28. Jorge Drexler
29. Regina Spektor
30. Johnossi
31. Dilon Djindji
32. Ali Farka Touré
33. Destroyer
34. Milburn
35. Of Montreal
36. Lily Allen
37. Girl in a Coma
38. Paulo Flores
39. Karl Blau
40. Tim Fite
41. Teitur
42. The Avett Brothers
43. Hanne Hukkelberg
44. The Hidden Cameras
45. Javiera Mena


P.S. I also need to thank four blogs in particular for turning me on to some nice music this year. Please give them a visit.

Benn loxo du taccu
Filles Sourires
Motel de Moka
Ternura Porno

Anti-anti-French

Merde alors! Here's an extremely rare sighting of an anti-anti-French column in a US paper (via SuperFrenchie).

Incidentally, some time ago I got into an increasingly heated email exchange with John Podhoretz about French anti-semitism. I've wanted to post it because it's hilarious, but haven't out of respect for the privacy of personal emails. After reading an article by Podhoretz bashing the French as raging anti-semites, I wrote to him mentioning data on hate crimes (from the FBI) that show that the rate of hate crimes is higher per capita in the US than in France (by a factor of something like 5 or 6 - I forget exactly). He immediately called me a "preposterous fool!" without bothering to take a look at the data. The exchange devolved from there with lots of name-calling by him. I avoided that, although I admit that I did at one point call him "Beavis."

This is the basic trait of the anti-French American. There's really no basis for it except for a bad experience with a waiter in Paris and a dislike of anyone who disagrees with one's own opinion. It is somehow circularly justified by then calling the French "losers" and making up stories about French attitudes regarding Americans while usually not understanding a word of what the French actually say. Another case of the unreality-based community making up stories to overcome its secret concerns about impotence.

The Myth of the German Christmas Pickle

Finally, the long nightmare is over.

...Here's the pickle “legend” from one Web site: “A very old Christmas eve tradition in Germany was to hide a pickle [ornament] deep in the branches of the family Christmas Tree. The parents hung the pickle last after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning they knew the most observant child would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas. The first adult who finds the pickle traditionally gets good luck for the whole year.” This Christmas pickle story, with a few minor variations, can be found all over the Web and in print inside the ornament package. It says that Germans hang a pickle-shaped glass ornament on the Christmas tree hidden away so it's difficult to find. The first child to find it on Christmas morning gets a special treat or an extra present.

Of course, anyone familiar with German Christmas customs can see the flaws in this “legend.” First of all, the German St. Nick doesn't show up on Christmas Eve. He arrives on the 5th or 6th of December. Nor do German children open their presents on Christmas morning. That happens on Christmas Eve in Germany. (See our German Christmas Guide for more about German Christmas customs.)

But the biggest problem with the German pickle (saure Gurke, Weihnachtsgurke) tradition is that no one in Germany seems to have ever heard of it....

"At This Rate"

Grades to Paper

I've been trying to come up with a post today, but all I could get was a story about attacks on a Swedish Christmas goat. The problem is that it's paper grading time. My classes tend to be small, being grad seminars and all. But this semester was a larger load than usual and I'm knee deep.

So, if you've got a blog post suggestion, please let me know. If it's something I can do half-assedly, even better.

The Gävle Christmas Goat Remains Standing Another Day

...According to news agency reports, since 1966 when the town first erected a 43-foot wood-and-straw goat, the seasonal sculpture has “been hit by flaming arrows, run over by a car and even had its legs cut off” and has made it intact past Christmas Day only 10 times.

A more detailed history from Wikipedia gives the Gävle Goat — apparently a version of the Yule Goat, a traditional Scandinavian Christmas symbol — a survival rate of 54 percent overall, with 13 of 31 goats surviving various assaults, including one last year by attackers dressed as Santa Claus and a gingerbread man.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Confederacy of Democracies

Here's further discussion of an interesting idea from Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay. The basic idea is the development of a "Concert of Democracies" as an eventual replacement, or at least side organization, to the UN and the UN's problem of universalism over effectiveness. By their count, the authors estimate that this would entail about 60 countries working together on trade, security issues, and so on.

No analysis here for now, but I'll raise what I think are two large problems:

First, as the authors point out, deciding who counts as a democracy and who doesn't would be a complex debate in itself. The authors suggest a few criteria for counting as one of the select few, based on free and fair elections, political and civil rights, and so on. But at a time when some countries and many scholars are rethinking the very notion of democracy, especially given its aggregative form's problems in hallmark countries such as the US itself, defining democracy from the standard Western norm is an act of perhaps unwarranted exclusion.

Second, how would the consortium function internally? The authors have little to say about this, except that it would be an alternative model to the UN in that it would contain a smaller number of countries. But this question matters. If, for instance, the US would have more power or votes or whatever than other members (which could very well be a condition of its entry into such an organization), would the Concert itself be a democracy? One would, I hope, seek an equitable deliberative democratic framework and deliberative processes internal to the organization in making policy decisions. This could lead to more reasonable and reflective global policies. And this could boost the organization's legitimacy. There are at least two corollary problems here however:

On one hand, the products of a set of processes and functions based on deliberation could look very different than the objectives citizens of the individual democratic countries may want the Concert to achieve. In other words, the individual representatives of member nations may not be representative of their own citizens' concerns. Of course, we could always say that the citizens are wrong. But then we return to the alleged paternalism of the UN system.

On the other hand, many of the large democracies are democratic at home but not when it comes to international affairs. The US often functions in this way. Daalder and Lindsay suggest that the Concert would temper powerful member states' tendencies to go it alone. But how? After all, is it really the case that non-democratic nations of the UN wield such power that they can determine the policy directions the UN takes? Isn't it, rather, that the powerful nations do so, including and perhaps especially the US? Then why would the US seek to enter into a Concert in which it no longer wields such power? After all, with the current president international law and international organizations have represented obstacles to American foreign policy objectives, and even, as Michael Cherthoff said recently, a "threat."

Peter Singer on Foreign Aid

In his influential 1972 essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Peter Singer asked whether we would agree with two simple premises:

1. That human suffering and death from lack of food, medicine, and shelter is bad.

2. That "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

Do you agree with these two assumptions?

Most people will answer yes. If so, Singer maintained, you ought to give to prevent hunger, disease, and other suffering until it becomes morally painful to give.

In his much later book, One World, Singer cited 1995 and 2000 studies conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Issues (PIPA). Americans were asked in both studies whether they thought too much of the federal budget went to foreign aid and whether such aid should be cut. The majority (64%) answered yes in the first study; 40% answered yes in the 2000 study.

In response to the question of how much of the US federal budget is spent on foreign aid, the median answer in 1995 was 15% and in the 2000 study, 20%.

When asked what percentage of the budget should go to foreign aid, the median answer was 5% in the 1995 survey and 10% in the 2000 survey.

The actual percentage of the US federal budget that goes to foreign aid is under 1% (somewhere around 0.7%).

Now, put these two elements together - the 1972 argument, and the later PIPA surveys. What does this suggest to you?

Now, what if we add this anecdote from today's NY Times Sunday Magazine article by Singer?
...A few years ago, an African-American cabdriver taking me to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington asked me if I worked at the bank. I told him I did not but was speaking at a conference on development and aid. He then assumed that I was an economist, but when I said no, my training was in philosophy, he asked me if I thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When I answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn’t tax people in order to give their money to others. That, he thought, was robbery. When I asked if he believed that the rich should voluntarily donate some of what they earn to the poor, he said that if someone had worked for his money, he wasn’t going to tell him what to do with it.

At that point we reached our destination. Had the journey continued, I might have tried to persuade him that people can earn large amounts only when they live under favorable social circumstances, and that they don’t create those circumstances by themselves. I could have quoted Warren Buffett’s acknowledgment that society is responsible for much of his wealth. “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work. “On moral grounds,” Simon added, “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent.” Simon was not, of course, advocating so steep a rate of tax, for he was well aware of disincentive effects. But his estimate does undermine the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work. If Simon is right, that is true of at most 10 percent of it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Naked Gaze

Carlos Rojas' terrific The Naked Gaze is back after a four-month hiatus. Welcome back, Carlos. Phronesisaical readers, please click on over.

Nutshell

Nice. From Sisyphus Shrugged:
Will: Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll give it a shot. Say I'm working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. So I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never had a problem with get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', "Send in the marines to secure the area" 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number was called, 'cause they were pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some guy from Southie takin' shrapnel in the ass. And he comes home to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile my buddy from Southie realizes the only reason he was over there was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the skirmish to scare up oil prices so they could turn a quick buck. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And naturally they're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So my buddy's out of work and he can't afford to drive, so he's got to walk to the job interviews, which sucks 'cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starvin' 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what do I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. Why not just shoot my buddy, take his job and give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

Fences...

Via The Heretik:
A fence-building company in Southern California agrees to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring illegal immigrants. Two executives from the company may also serve jail time. The Golden State Fence Company’s work includes some of the border fence between San Diego and Mexico.

Posthumous Recognition

This is great for the family of Buck O'Neil. But why is it that this kind of recognition so often occurs posthumously?

WASHINGTON - Buck O'Neil, who spent a joyous lifetime ensuring that the Negro Leagues would always be remembered, was celebrated at the White House Friday as a baseball legend who made America a better place.

"A beautiful human being," said President Bush as he posthumously bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on O'Neil. Nine others also received the medals at a festive East Room ceremony.

O'Neil, who spent 16 years playing in the Negro Leagues, mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was Major League Baseball's first black coach, died in October at age 94. His brother Warren O'Neil - also a Negro Leagues veteran - accepted on his behalf.

The indomitable spirit that carried O'Neil on his journey from laborer in the celery fields of Florida to baseball icon filled the ornate room as Bush recounted O'Neil's athleticism and grace, saying, "He never did slow down" after his Negro Leagues playing career ended...

The medal capped a bittersweet year. A special election committee charged with naming key Negro Leagues figures to the Hall of Fame left out O'Neil when it voted in February.

If the snub hurt, he never showed it: O'Neil attended last summer's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in his accustomed role as a cheerful ambassador of the Negro Leagues.

The Insufficient "Chávez"

Hugo Chávez never had a chance with the U.S. press.
I've been saying, in various places (here's one, "The Man Who Wasn't There"), that we're better off understanding who Hugo Chávez actually is and what the chavista program is about, what it is doing and what it plans to do, rather than leaping to hasty conclusions fostered by the Bush administration, many in the Venezuelan opposition, and the Venezuelan and US media.

I often find in discussions about Chávez with Americans, that most people are more than willing to talk my ear off about what they think of Chávez. When I ask them about actual Chávez policies, they're often stumped. Curious, that. A few days ago, someone told me that Chávez is "anti-American." I responded that I knew a bit about Venezuela and that the "anti-American" trope is as much an American creation as anything else. Chávez is "anti-imperialist," and constantly makes the distinction between the two, as do almost all other Venezuelans. The ties between the US and Venezuela extend far back into history, and underneath the table where the rhetoric flies, there's a healthy, booming trade and exchange of goods, ideas, and people. The response I received in return? "No, I just believe they're anti-American."

Now, I don't know why the US mainstream media has not offered up better analyses of Chávez and chavista policies. There's a rich, detailed analysis waiting to be done (you hear me, NY Times Sunday Magazine?). It wouldn't be merely a study of the economics of oil, nor the typical Chávez-as-caudillo article. It would include the philosophical debates happening in Venezuela right now about what is the best future for the country.

I returned from Venezuela last year exhilarated by the high level of debate on the part of everyone - government officials, opposition leaders, the poor, the middle class, the upper class, students, professors, everyone. It's a debate of both reasoned intelligence and fiery passions where nearly everything is on the table. It makes our own so-called public debates, conducted largely by pundits orbiting around a constricted political center, look quite pale in comparison. Venezuelans are thinking about a new future and what it could and should be, and this will have ramifications for all developing nations. Chávez is, of course, a central figure in the discussion.

As for the US, lord knows we could use a lot more understanding of those we otherwise seem all too willing to portray as enemies.

Take a look at this piece in FAIR for more.

Fructus

From BibliOdyssey. This illustration comes from the 1616 Fasiculus Rariorum by the German botanist, Basilius Besler, illustrated by Petrus Iselburg.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Two Chinese Dolphin Stories

One's sad; the other's happy.

China's Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce

World's tallest man saves China dolphins

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

So the city became the material expression of a particular loss of innocence--not sexual or political innocence but somehow a shared dream of what a city might at its best prove to be--its inhabitants became, and have remained, an embittered and amnesiac race, wounded but unable to connect through memory to the moment of the injury, unable to summon the face of their violator.

Out of that night and day of unconditional wrath, folks would've expected to see any city, if it survived, all newly reborn, purified by flame, taken clear beyond greed, real-estate speculating, local politics--instead of which, here was this weeping widow, some one-woman grievance committee in black, who would go on to save up and lovingly record and mercilessly begrudge every goddamn single tear she ever had to cry, and over the years to come would make up for them all by developing into the meanest, cruelest bitch of a city, even among cities not notable for their kindness.
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Unripe Pepino

Photo: Dave

Michael Crichton, Nutjob

If you didn't think so before, you will now. See the carnage remaining from this guy's already scarred reputation.

Cypriot Dualism

An interesting, personal piece in the BBC on divided Cyprus.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Botswana Bushmen Get Their Land Back

This could turn out to be a very interesting ruling apart from its immediate benefits for Botswana's bushmen....
Bushmen from the Kalahari desert have won a court case in which they accused Botswana's government of illegally moving them from their land.

The court said the bushmen - or San people - were wrongly evicted from their ancestral homeland in 2002.

A panel of three judges ruled by two-to-one in their favour in the major issues in the case.

It is seen as a wider test of whether governments can legally move people from their tribal and ancestral lands....

25,000

25,000 US Troops Dead Or Wounded In Iraq...

But then, see also this.
"It threw me up over my vehicle, over the HET and about 50 feet into the field on the left," says Schneider. "When I landed, the next HET in line had locked up their brakes to keep from rear ending the one that we hit. And when he came to rest, the first set of tires on his trailer were parked on my pelvis. And the second set had my lower leg wedged in it to the axle. I've been told a rough estimate of approximately 120,000 to 140,000 pounds."

Today, Schneider walks with a limp, on his artificial leg. But even though he was injured while on a mission in a war zone – and even though he’ll receive the same benefits as a soldier who’d been shot - he is not included in the Pentagon’s casualty count. Their official tally shows only deaths and wounded in action. It doesn't include "non-combat" injured, those whose injuries were not the result of enemy fire.

Cinema as Development Aid

Photo by Marina Kovalyova/Special to the Express-News
...since he had neither family nor money, he came to live in the movie set. He looks after the place, the real roof of the fake house protects him from the sandstorms, and if a tourist throws him a small coin every once in a while, he can buy some more tea and some food. And he is hardly the only one living in the Lucas-built wonderland in the middle of the Sahara...

Sidi Driss used to be a real troglodyte house, and in the beginning of the '70s it was transformed into the hotel. When Lucas came to Tunisia to shoot the original "Star Wars," he came across the hotel and liked it so much, that not only did he sleep there; he also built additional "space" decorations inside the structure to shoot the necessary scenes....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bullet Lights

All across Beirut you can find walls covered with bullets holes. Reminders of past violence, conflict and war. Moving through the city they are an all too familiar backdrop for any urban scene. This proposal that I called ‘bullet lights’ is reversing the meaning and experience of the ‘bullet hole wallpaper’ at diverse locations in the city. Introducing unexpected poetic moments of beauty. Beauty, ambivalently mixed with the physical testimonies of violence. The project doesn’t want to make a point it just invites people to look at things differently. Seeing things from more than one perspective is the starting point for empathy.
From Unbuilt, via Subtopia.

More Dead Tyrant Discussion

Max Sawicky:
We have a vile editorial [in the Washington Post] essentially endorsing Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror -- featuring an assassination on the streets of Washington, D.C. -- on (spurious) economic grounds. I recall comments from Milton Friedman to the effect that Chilean socialist Allende was preparing something horrendous that justified the bloody coup that removed him. It would follow that in principle Friedman and other such apologists are no more a libertarian than Henry Kissinger. Preemptive denial of liberty on such grounds is the oldest chestnut in the book of tyranny.
Max also points us to this interesting essay on the bogus Chilean "economic miracle" that supposedly justifies the reign of terror. I've said it many times before, but I'll say it again: economic growth as normative priority is the claim of idiots and tyrants.

See, also, Glenn Greenwald's post today.

Also, take a look at Ariel Dorfman's piece in the NY Times (Dorfman, by the way, is a contributor to my forthcoming book on torture).

A Brief Uneducated History of Contemporary Dance, Featuring Pina Bausch

I was in NYC over the weekend. On Saturday evening, we went to BAM to see Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal and her piece "Nefés" (here's the NY Times review).

It was a lovely piece, but, as the review points out, much less theatrical than Pina Bausch's earlier choreography and more focused on the dance itself. It struck me as a move away from the kind of contemporary dance that "Pina" pioneered.

One way to view the history of Western dance is as a history of placement of the human body's axis. It's an unflattering analogy for contemporary dance, but think of that image of human evolution in which homo sapiens develops from primates and australopithecus through gradually rising hominoid ancestors, with the final image being the man, upright, impaled on the vertical axis. The history of Western dance, at least from ballet to contemporary dance, involves the converse evolution.

Ballet is almost entirely vertical. The body stretches this verticality as far as possible. Thus, the height and length of the dancers, the pointe, the pirouette, the entrechat, the notion of ballon, even the arabesque, all movements in ballet that extend the body upon its vertical axis or hold it aloft. Ballon is weightlessness in the execution of a jump, a vertical perceptual extension beyond the limitation of gravity. The beauty of ballet is a function of the gracefulness and power with which this vertical rigidity is maintained. There remains a tension between the constraints of the rigid vertical axis and movements that suggest an aesthetic of symmetry and transcendence.

Modern dance - perhaps especially the free dance of Ruth Saint-Denis - asked why this verticality should be considered the essence of beauty in the movement of the body. The modern experiment became one of rotating the axis, creating diagonal forms and movements. The vertical axis remained, but was supplemented with other movements. The tension around ballet's axis was relaxed. Martha Graham, for instance, was known for the principle of contraction and release where the body "breathed" inward in order to "exhale," or open beyond the simple line of the spine. The movement was one of a slow unfolding of the body from its living, breathing center. Movement was liberated from ballet's rigidity and the result neatly paralleled developments in modern painting. Graham's choreography had a close relationship with abstract expressionism as well as with other artwork that critiqued orthodox notions of beauty and form, such as Isamu Noguchi's sculpture (and set designs for Martha Graham). Merce Cunningham, a Graham prodigy, relied on chance to choreograph movements, working with John Cage's musical experiments.

Contemporary dance, however, found formal constraints of modern dance perplexing and generally moved further towards improvisation. Modern dance had not gone far enough in reconceptualizing the body's axis. In ballet, the axis was vertical. With modern dance, the axis rotated. But what if the entire notion of axis was reconceptualized? Modern dance had already imported elements from theater and elsewhere, but contemporary dance, especially in the very different versions developed by Pina Bausch and Japanese butoh, redefined the axis altogether.

Pina brought in theater, choosing dancers as much for their comedic skills as their ability to move. She brought humor to the performances. There was no need to remain dour and austere about the movement of the body. Now the axis became not only the very limits of bodily movement, but also the intellectual and emotional life of the body of each dancer. Whereas in ballet, dancers were largely disposable except for those with the most perfected technique, now, in contemporary dance, the imperfections and variety of human bodies, emotions, intellectual life became the axis itself. Dance became embedded in actual experience, rather than attempting to transcend experience through the heaven-seeking vertical axis. This also meant, given the international background of her dancers, that their own contexts came to the fore in performances.

Abstraction, linear stories, folk songs, jokes, music, seductions, acts of violence, movements imported from daily life and from the history of dance, and the bombast of cabaret were all resources for contemporary dance. In Tanztheater, these might be strung together with a kind of story or not. Pina's works do have consistent themes, one of them being the intricacies and comedic theatricality of romance and seduction between human beings. There's quite a bit of the primate in such human rituals.

These themes remain in "Nefés" (2003). But her work has also moved away from theater and more towards expressive movement. In this sense, the personalities of the dancers are internalized. Their histories are performed by movement more than through the more explicit means of storytelling we're usually accustomed to. Oddly, this pushes the work back in the direction of modern dance by returning to the rotating axis of the body. But it also, very subtly, gives the axis a complex and rich history of Pina herself and of her dancers as those histories ripple through the movements.

Top photo by Stephanie Berger, NY Times

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Fanaticism"

Check out this brief history of fanaticism from Eurozine.

Friends 4 Ever

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has expressed her sorrow following the death of brutal Chilean dictator Agusto Pinochet, a friend until the end. Victims of Pinochet’s atrocities have also expressed sadness, now that the tyrant will escape trial for years of abuses against his people, including torture and the disappearance of some 3,000 individuals.

Dead Pond

Rodger has a "conservative dead pool" at Duck of Minerva.

More dead people news:

Clashes Break Out After Pinochet's Death

US bugged Diana's phone on night of death crash


The President Talks to a Dog

Gary Webb's Death: American Tragedy

Thanks

Thanks to Barba and Ned for posting a few things over the weekend in my absence. Many of you know Ned's place, but if not head over and leave a few comments in appreciation.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pinochet Pulls a Lay

A Ken Lay, I mean, the slipp'ry bastard.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What the Thinking Man Is Thinking

(Cross-posted at my place.)

The Buzzcocks were the thinking man's Clash. The Clash were the thinking man's Sex Pistols, and the Pistols were the thinking man's New York Dolls. The Dolls were the thinking man's Gary Glitter, and Gary Glitter was the thinking man's brother-in-law -- a fact that he's still trying to live down.

Audi is the thinking man's Volvo; however, unexpectedly, Volvo is also the thinking man's Audi. The Committee is working on that one. Airstream is the thinking man's Winnebago, when he can afford the gas. The alto saxophone is the thinking man's Stratocaster, but only when wielded by Ornette Coleman; in the hands of Charlie Parker, it becomes the thinking man's Les Paul.

Ontogeny recapitulates the thinking man's phylogeny, existence precedes the thinking man's essence, the personal is the thinking man's political, the Medium is the thinking man's Message, and a mighty fortress is the thinking man's Lord.

Women are the thinking man's chicks. The delectable skin of the throat is the thinking man's bodacious ta-ta, the graceful thigh the thinking man's Brazilian wax, the demure cleavage the thinking man's low-rider love-handles. Asses are the thinking man's tits.

The Epson Stylus CX5800F Inkjet Printer, Copier, Scanner, and Fax: Inkjet Printer (20 ppm Black, 19 ppm Color, 5760 x 1440 optimized dpi, 4" x 6" Photo in 48 seconds) -- $119.99 -- is the thinking man's Epson Stylus CX4200 Inkjet Printer, Copier, and Scanner: Inkjet Printer (20 ppm Black, 19 ppm Color, 4" x 6" Photo in 48 seconds, 5760 x 1440 optimized dpi) -- $125.99 with rebate.

George Clooney is the thinking man's puking little bitch.

Mmmm. Sustenance.

Not much in the US Press about this. Maybe it's a time lag? Maybe few outside of Europe actually read reports by the the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization?

Maybe it just isn't news to people who see lifestyle salvation (or absolution) in petro-powered-corn-powered cars.
7 December 2006, Rome – Cereal prices, particularly for wheat and maize, have reached levels not seen for a decade, according to FAO’s latest Food Outlook report.

Poor harvests in key producing countries and a fast-growing demand for biofuel production have driven up grain prices, while supply constraints have also dominated the rice economy, the report said.
But don't forget about the demand for "Swheat Scoop." Thanks to "its natural wheat enzymes" that eliminate odor and allow cat-lovers simply to flush Fluffy's poop, this is a cat litter that aims to keep our landfills from being usurped by conventional "clay-based" (boo! boo to you, clay!) litters. This wheat, incidentally, is non-food grade.

The report fails to mention the farm subsidies in wealthy countries like ours. You know, the "invisible hand."

Phronesisaical's official response to the report? Eat more photogenic fruit.

Sniffle, Snap, or: It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To

It's nice to be reminded once in a while what counts for "leadership."
Taking questions Friday at an hourlong farewell to Pentagon employees, Rumsfeld became emotional and wiped his nose as he reviewed his tenure and accomplishments.

[ . . .]

There also were moments of vintage Rumsfeld, when he was not the battered figure who has become a symbol of a strategy gone wrong in Iraq, but the jaunty defense secretary whose verbal sparring once made his news conferences Washington's most entertaining show.

When a young military aide interrupted to say there was time for one more question, Rumsfeld shot back: "I'll decide if it's the last question."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Travelin' Shoes

I'll be gone for the weekend, but the blog will remain open for business. I'm hoping Barba will show up to man the front desk. Flaco has disappeared. There may even be a special guest, who I'll allow to introduce himself should he have some precious weekend time to post.

Surinam Cherry

Quote of the Day

When future generations, should they exist, look back upon our epoch, they will remember these soaring words to have defined our present historical moment:

"That's what great leaders do -- act on reality."

- Colin Powell

IEG Sez Bank Programs Not Very Helpful in Tackling Poverty

Despite an intensified campaign against poverty, World Bank programs have failed to lift incomes in many poor countries over the past decade, leaving tens of millions of people suffering stagnating or declining living standards, according to a report released Thursday by the bank's autonomous assessment arm.

Among 25 poor countries probed in detail by the bank's Independent Evaluation Group, only 11 experienced reductions in poverty from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, while 14 had the same or worsening rates over that term. The group said the sample was representative of the global picture.

"Achievement of sustained increases in per capita income, essential for poverty reduction, continues to elude a considerable number of countries," the report declared, singling out programs aimed at the rural poor as particularly ineffective. Roughly half of such efforts from 2001 to 2005 "did not lead to satisfactory results."...

The study emphasized that economic growth is, by itself, no fix: How the gains are distributed is just as important.

Overall, from 1990 to 2002, the percentage of the world's people who subsist on less than $1 per day declined from 28 to 19, according to World Bank research. But officials with the evaluation group noted that much of the advance was registered in China, which has rejected many of the tenets of the development model advocated by the West and barely relied on the largesse of the World Bank....

Doo doo dee la la la.... Living in DC, I happen to know that plenty of individual's incomes have risen dramatically through their work with the World Bank and the other large development organizations, thank you very much. The World Bank and IMF should fund education programs that train the poor to become economists.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Underreporting Iraq Violence

New Patriot (via Norwegianity):
It was easy to see this coming. Still, it stings.

WASHINGTON - U.S. military and intelligence officials have systematically underreported the violence in
Iraq in order to suit the Bush administration's policy goals, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group said...

...The panel pointed to one day last July when U.S. officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. "Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence," it said.

Proud Comedist Jew

That would be SteveG, at least today. Makes me proud to know Jews.
So the central body of Conservative Judaism has moved to allow for gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies. Sure, reform and reconstructionist congregations have been on the morally right side of the line for years, but this bold move by the middle is a major development because it shows that the mainstream of the Jewish community is there too.

After the debacle with the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, it is times like this that make me very proud to be a Jew.

Funniest lines of the day: In the story about this in the New York Times, Rabbi Jerome Epstein is quoted as saying, "Most of our congregations will not be of one mind." A large group of Jews not of one mind, who could ever imagine such a thing? And Rabbi Kassel Abelson said, "We recognized from the very beginnings of the movement that no single position could speak for all members." Reb Abelson, my friend, these are JEWS, no single position could speak for any single member.

Immune Building Project

Bryan Finoki of the terrific Subtopia explains,
DARPA's Immune Building Dedication is a research effort to develop, integrate, and demonstrate a system to protect buildings against chemical and biological warfare agent attack. This is the first-ever demonstration of an integrated system for building protection in an occupied building under real-world operating conditions.

Habeas Corpus Returnicus

President Bush's victory in getting the rules he wanted to try suspected terrorists could be diminished.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled this week that he'll join prominent Democrats in seeking to restore legal rights to hundreds of suspected terrorists confined at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

While the measure to restore the right of habeas corpus has almost no chance of passing before Congress adjourns later this week, the message is clear: When Democrats take over in early January, the issue could resurface.

The Military Commissions Act of 2006, which Bush signed into law in October, prevents detainees who aren't U.S. citizens from challenging their detentions in civilian courts. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who voted for the legislation despite his opposition to stripping such rights from detainees, on Tuesday reintroduced legislation to restore those rights. A similar measure sponsored by Specter failed by three votes in October.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Specter said he was reintroducing the issue to prevent federal courts from striking down the legislation, which some of the detainees' attorneys have challenged.

But some lawmakers privately speculated that Specter may have decided to reintroduce the legislation after a recent article in the New Yorker magazine suggested that his desire to retain his powerful committee chairmanship led him to go along with the administration's wishes.

Specter on Tuesday repeated his contention that the act violates the Constitution.

"The Constitution of the United States is explicit that habeas corpus may be suspended only in time of rebellion or invasion," Specter said on the floor. "We are suffering neither of those alternatives at the present time. We have not been invaded, and there has not been a rebellion. That much is conceded."

You know what, though, on a side note...? News outlets don't need to report only on what Republicans are up to any more, as if when the Republican acts, then a policy takes on meaning. Okay, okay, Specter is an important figure here as the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But wouldn't it be interesting to explore how the new majority is going about judicial reform?

UPDATE:

See, also, Glenn Greenwald. And here's incoming Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy's statement. Greenwald suggests,
...the only type of bill which would seem to have any chance of passing would be a habeas restoration bill along the lines of Specter's limited amendment -- one which negates the truly inane objection that habeas rights will somehow "flood" our court system and which allows the compromise-fetishists in Washington and in the Senate to vigorously support it. There is obviously no good reason to limit habeas rights in this fashion, but if that is the only way to at least allow detainees some access to a court, it is imperative that this be pursued.

The difference between a limited, one-time-only habeas challenge and unlimited habeas rights is significant. But the difference between a one-time-only habeas right and no habeas rights at all (i.e., lifetime imprisonment with no opportunity to contest the validity of one's detention or treatment) is an entire universe. Being able to access a federal court -- as opposed to rotting in Guantanamo with no tribunal to hear your complaints -- can change everything for a detainee. Once in federal court, all sorts of abuses and injustices can come to light, which is precisely why the Bush administration and its Congressional servants are so eager to extinguish that right in full.