Friday, August 31, 2007

Tour de France Wraps Up

A funny from The Onion (via email from ES).
Non-Doping Cyclists Finish Tour De France

A small but enthusiastic crowd of several dozen was on hand at the Tour de France's finish line on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées Tuesday to applaud the efforts of the 28 cyclists who completed the grueling 20-stage, 2,208.3-mile race without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs...

"It became most difficult for us on the 7th stage, which was almost 200 kilometers and the first stage through the mountains," Kvistik said while accepting the non-doping victor's 100-franc check from his stretcher. "Not only did the excruciating pain and weakness in my legs make it difficult to walk my bike on the steeper stretches, it was mentally very hard to know that half the other clean riders were dead or dying. Also, the other 141 riders finished the Tour in Paris that morning, which made it all that much harder."

Button Mangosteen

Ships Passing in the Night of the War on Terror

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari demanded Thursday that Iran stop firing artillery and mortars at Kurdish villages in northern Iraq and warned that more attacks could damage relations between the countries...

For the past two weeks, Iran has been shelling Kurdish farming villages on the Iraqi side of the border to root out rebels who belong to the Kurdistan Free Life Party, which Tehran accuses of conducting terrorist attacks in Iran. It's a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which the United States has branded a terrorist organization.

Last week, Iranian troops raided at least 10 villages on the Iraqi side of the border in search of rebels, possibly in retaliation for the recent assassination of an Iranian intelligence official by Kurdish guerrillas. Since then at least 20 villages have been evacuated in the face of Iranian bombardment.

Maybe American and Iranian forces can at least shout out a friendly "hallo!" as they pass each other crossing the border, each invading new territory in their alternative versions of the War on Terror. We may as well get used to this anyway. When everyone's at least a potential terrorist, and "terrorist" is defined roughly as "a person or persons of suspicious epidermal pigmentation and cosmological bent behaving aggressively against one's own interests, aspirations, and perspective," then about the best we can do is curl up into a ball in the closet... or bake them cookies.

Cartoon Zone

This little article in the Washington Post is interesting mainly for the information control of visiting congresspersons in Baghdad's "Green Zone." But it's this part that diverted my attention.

But even such tight control [on information and movement in the "Green Zone"] could not always filter out the bizarre world inside the barricades. At one point, the three were trying to discuss the state of Iraqi security forces with Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, but the large, flat-panel television set facing the official proved to be a distraction. Rubaie was watching children's cartoons.

When [Rep. James P.] Moran asked him to turn it off, Rubaie protested with a laugh and said, "But this is my favorite television show," Moran recalled.

[Rep. Jon] Porter confirmed the incident, although he tried to paint the scene in the best light, noting that at least they had electricity.

"I don't disagree it was an odd moment, but I did take a deep breath and say, 'Wait a minute, at least they are using the latest technology, and they are monitoring the world,' " Porter said. "But, yes, it was pretty annoying."

Perhaps Moran and Porter were mistaken and Rubaie was in fact watching CNN or Fox News reporting on Iraq, the Green Zone, and what they themselves were doing in that place.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Torture Non-Accountability

With Col. Steven Jordan being acquitted, no officers have been found guilty for Abu Ghraib torture. Jordan was found guilty only of not following orders by discussing the case! The BBC comments.
The lack of convictions among the senior ranks leaves doubt as to whether the abuse was part of a wider policy of condoning or even encouraging the breaking of prisoners' morale in advance of interrogation.
Look, the non-convictions are symptomatic of the standard administration line that torture at Abu Ghraib was the misconduct of "a few bad apples." We know this well. Some of those involved have said there were no explicit commands from above in the ranks, but that they thought there were implicit directions to abuse prisoners. We also know this well.

What we also know is that the Bush Administration has argued legally for many of the techniques that were used at Abu Ghraib. We also know that these have been used systematically and with a consistency of method at least at Guantanamo and Bagram, and likely elsewhere.

What we have is an attempt to mitigate the public relations damage of the Abu Ghraib photos, which make Abu Ghraib seem the worst of the lot. If the events which the images record can be defined in terms of the information gained only from those images and nothing else - that particular event, that particular soldier - then, the thinking might go, the administration starts a domino effect of absolution, at least as far as absolution might go.

The problem is that the global public is not as easily tricked by imagery as the administration may think they are. The images themselves caused global PR damage, sure, and I think this damage will play out in complex and often indirect ways for the next 20 or 50 years. But the photos also exposed a logic to the conduct of the War on Terror - now with plenty of evidence in addition to the photos - that has become undeniable. Indeed, the administration's own justifications for the practices documented in the photos, while putting soldiers on trial, would be bizarre if it were not for the administration's own guilt.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


The semester began today and has me teaching three grad courses. I'm between seminars right now.

I like this time of year. Lots of new faces, some old. The sharing of ideas. The audience. Etc. But, man, I still need a vacation.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Moro Blood Orange

Soccer Ball Stupidity

I linked earlier this year to an article describing the US military handing out deflated soccer balls to kids in Iraq. This time they've handed out inflated soccer balls, but with Allah's name on them (the Saudi Arabian flag).

Any suggestions for what's next?

US Preparation for an Attack on Iran

I've been saying all along that I thought an attack on Iran so idiotic as to be impossible, even for the current administration. Here are today's links on the various facets of the ratcheting up of tensions.

Study: US preparing 'massive' military attack against Iran

US warns Iran over Iraq, nuclear program

U.S. troops reportedly detain Iranians

Iran says ready to fill vacuum in Iraq left by U.S.

Diplomats criticize Iran's deal with UN atom inspectors

Bush confronts Iran's 'murderous activities'

And, by the way, make sure you read Bernard Kouchner's piece on what France can do in Iraq.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Problems with Vervets and Baboons

Photo: Helmut

Lindsay linked (and see also Togolosh's comment) a couple of days ago to the story of vervet monkeys destroying crops and harassing women and children in Kenya. The women tried various strategies to ward off the vervets: dressing as men, for instance, since the vervets seemed to be afraid only of the men. The vervets, however, figured out the ruse, and mocked the women, pointing at their breasts.

I have also been harassed by vervets. The vervet in the photo above stole my bananas.

I was camping in a wooded area near Lake Nakuru, and preparing a small lunch. I had a bunch of bananas which would play no small role in my lunch, dinner, and breakfast. But I made the error of turning my back on my bananas for one brief moment. The vervet, apparently watching me from a hidden spot, made its move and snatched the bananas. I gave pursuit.

Smug though we may be in our comparative evolutionary status, a hungry man versus a vervet possesses no preordained outcome. An armed vervet military would be a mighty foe indeed. The vervet was quick and smart, I must grant him that. But he was also greedy. The bunch of bananas - about eight bananas - was too heavy for the vervet. He could therefore only drag them behind him, slowing him down considerably, and keeping him from the trees. My pursuit through woods and valleys was closing the gap. I was about to dive for the bananas - honest, actually dive for them - when the vervet cut his losses by plucking one banana from the bunch and scrambling up a tree. He chattered down at me sarcastically between bites of his purloined banana. I believe I shook my fist at him, as humans are known to do when provoked.

Photo: Helmut

The same region, as nearly all of Kenya, also has a large population of baboons. The baboons in the above photo are preparing for ambush of the rickety van I rented with four other people. We had hired a Kikuyu driver who suggested we roll up the windows. The baboons attacked regardless of our fortifications, baboon arms reaching wildly through the remaining cracks in the windows for anything they could grab, teeth flashing at us. Nasty creatures, baboons.

Later, further south in Kenya and Tanzania, in the great Masai Mara, I had made camp with friends in the middle of the savanna, protected from the elements and wildlife only by tents and a campfire (this was no hotel trip - I'll tell you some other time about suffering from malaria in a Nairobi bordello room furnished with a cot, one bare light bulb, a sink, and a nail in the wall with a metal coathanger).

The pure night was full of the beautiful, eerie sounds of animal and insect life. My friends and I sat around the campfire surrounded by utter blackness and heard the rare growl of a cat, the occasional bark of a hyena, and sounds we couldn't describe. We had been told in Nairobi from the man who rented us our camping gear that we should only worry about how we sleep in the tents. The animals would generally stay away. "Do not sleep with your head near the entrance. Hyenas sometimes push their heads into the tent and eat the side of your face."

That night an elephant walked through our camp while most of us were asleep. Hyenas sniffed around my tent all night, provoking a toe-curling reaction on my part. And, finally, shallow sleep for a few hours.

I was first to awaken in the morning after the driver (he slept in the van), who had the campfire going again and some coffee already made. He and I sat around the fire for warmth and chatted about the sounds during the night, sharing a laugh about the elephant roaming through camp (which he had chased off with a stick and yelling), and planning the day's activities.

Then he suddenly said, "uh oh," looking past me. I turned around. A baboon was sitting in front of my tent. He was facing us, looking straight at me, nearly immobile. One of the baboon's hands, however, was reaching behind his back slowly and quietly unzipping the door to my tent.

I grabbed a stick from the fire and gave pursuit....

Spending More Time With the Family News

Gonzales out. Chertoff in?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Some Clarity on Venezuela

This article by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in The Nation is one of the very best pieces on Venezuela that I've seen in the US media in years, whether major media or alternative media. Read the whole article - it's worth it. Its main drawback, however, is once again a lack of direct communications with the chavistas. But this gets much closer to the complexity of the Venezuelan scene than the tripe from the IHT that I wearily commented on the other day, and I suspect that that typically American view is not going to become less dense anytime soon. The key is the youth of Venezuela. The problem is the top leaders, whether Chávez or most of the opposition leaders (Petkoff being perhaps the most genuine and intelligent exception).

Here's a small distillation:
The students with whom I talked about Arendt's praise in On Violence for the American and European student movements of the 1960s--and her staunch critique of the worship of economic solutions and of the violence that marred the movement--were very interested in her views on how a protest movement could become a movement for lasting change. I portrayed Arendt as an advocate of genuine power- creating participatory democracy, which she thought fostered a kind of immunity to violence and to the confusion of power and violence, and this struck a chord. The students go out to demonstrate in black T-shirts with white handprints front and back, and they paint their palms white so they can hold them up to the police and the military, signifying "don't attack us, we're not attacking you." (Chávez certainly gets this, as he has among his aides a professional semiologist!) I met a young woman, an art student making her political debut as a T-shirt designer, who told me, tearfully, that she is so "hurt in my heart" because Chávez says the students are spoiled rich white kids who are "puppets of imperialism." "What do I do? I do not want my parents to think I cannot act for myself! And we want the Chavistas to believe us, to unite with us--because we want to help them, too. We are all socialists."


Saturday, August 25, 2007

We Have Cooties Too

Steve Benen at TPM:

The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill had a good piece the other day about the president's VFW speech, and included an anecdote in passing that caught my eye.

The speech was aimed primarily at what White House officials privately describe as the "defeatocrats", the Democratic Congressmen trying to push Mr Bush into an early withdrawal.

In private, presidential aides walk around the White House referring to "defeatocrats"? Seriously? West Wing conversations now resemble Free Republic threads?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

I keep seeing my book wandering through the halls. There the thing is, creeping feebly, if you can imagine a naked humped creature with filed-down genitals, only worse, because its head bulges at the top and there's a gargoylish tongue jutting at a corner of the mouth and truly terrible feet. It tries to cling to me, to touch and fasten. A cretin, a distort. Water-bloated, slobbering, incontinent. I'm speaking slowly to get it right....

- Don DeLillo, Mao II

Displacements 2

Despite some evidence that the troop buildup has improved security in certain areas, sectarian violence continues and American-led operations have brought new fighting, driving fearful Iraqis from their homes at much higher rates than before the tens of thousands of additional troops arrived, the studies show...

Statistics collected by one of the two humanitarian groups, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, indicate that the total number of internally displaced Iraqis has more than doubled, to 1.1 million from 499,000, since the buildup started in February...

The demographic shifts could favor those who would like to see Iraq partitioned into three semi-autonomous regions: a Shiite south and a Kurdish north sandwiching a Sunni territory.
Which makes one wonder whether this is a policy goal of the US, a method of partitioning. The creation of smaller, religiously and ethnically defined states is, after all, one idea floated by the people in downtown DC.


A new folk hero in Colombia marches across the country voicing dissent at the constant kidnappings by rebels and paramilitaries and at President Uribe's policies. An estimated 3000 people are held hostage in Colombia by rebel groups. An estimated 3 million people have been systematically displaced from their homes. Thousands have been tortured and killed under both the leftist rebel FARC's activities and the rightwing paramiltary's activities. Witnesses describe ongoing atrocities of the most terrible kinds. Uribe has been using the rightwing paramilitary to "cleanse" Colombia. But "Plan Colombia" is as much a system of atrocity as it is whatever you want to see.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

How Do People Look at Numbers All Day?

I surely can't, but I have today going over a budget where each little change ripples throughout the rest of the budget. Numbers! Now I go outside for little walks, a change of scenery from the computer screen, and end up considering the arrangements of cars parked on the street and the gaps between them in terms of asymmetrical, staggered time-frames, scalable quantities of space, and slight adjustments resulting in greater cost efficiency. Seemingly irrationally inefficient arrangements of automobiles require justification, sometimes drawn out of the humid air. I'm lying to myself. There is no justification for such arrangements - they are the result of infinite yet near-microscopic contingencies framed by certain times of the day when more reliable predictions of auto movement can be made. I'm making things up in the interstices. But it has to be done, weak though the justification may be. What do people see of their world when they look at reams of numbers all day?

That's about the best I can muster at 8.5% of uncompensated time given over to the blog today....


Not much posting today. A big grant proposal due tomorrow and I'm regretting never having taken a course on budgets. I'll try to post a couple of things later in the day. For now, coffee...

Syzygium Versteegii

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Chávez, Democracy, and Power

We've seen this before, over and over. Hugo Chávez, strongman grabbing power for himself, buying off the poor by building clinics and schools and food programs. That bastard! It has become a mantra used in the American press by people who really have little understanding of Venezuela. The linked article says nothing terribly interesting and certainly not original. Its messages, however, are so widespread that we can use it as emblematic of the kind of non-thought going into much of the US media's Venezuela analysis. First, a play by play:

1. IHT: "Chávez's plan is just another step in the march to increase his government's control over Venezuela's politics and economy."
Helmut: True, in a vague and uninformative sort of way.

2. IHT: "Behind the Orwellian rhetorical tactics, his efforts to amass power and cling to it for as long as he can are undermining Venezuela's democracy."
Helmut: Which "Orwellian tactics"?
IHT: "Chávez portrayed planned constitutional amendments that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely as a step toward 'participatory democracy.'"
Helmut: I'm concerned about the constitutional amendments too. Careful, however, with the rhetoric there, pardner. It is indeed logically possible on the proposed amendment that Chávez could be re-elected indefinitely. But the proposal is for getting rid of term limits, not for indefinite re-election - that's a rhetorical twist used to make one's point without actually making it. The term limits debate is one we've been having in the US as well, at least regarding Congress. Anyway, I'm still not quite convinced one way or the other regarding term limits in the US. More on participatory democracy below.

3. IHT: "Chávez remains, at least technically, a democrat. He has repeatedly beaten Venezuela's dysfunctional opposition in elections deemed fair by international observers. He won a landslide victory last December, extending his mandate until 2012. His proposed constitutional reforms must be submitted to a vote in the National Assembly and to a referendum."
Helmut: True. Spooky.

4. IHT: "Every member of the National Assembly is an ally of Chávez. His allies also run the Supreme Court, all but two state governments and Petróleos de Venezuela the state oil company."
Helmut: Well, this is a fact. No dispute here. But how did this situation happen? Ah, the oil situation is a long story that requires some history lessons about foreign companies in Latin America. It also requires studying more closely the understanding the Chávez government has about the limited global time-frame for reaping wealth from its petroleum (heavy crude) resources - they want to control it before the resource and the market disappear, which is an eventuality. One way to view this - as chavistas usually do - is that the state has about a 50-year window at best for using petroleum funds for building social infrastructure.
As for the make-up of the government, talk to the opposition about that. They boycotted the last elections and this led to total elected chavista control of the government. They are responsible, in large measure, for the current existence of a one-party state. Why? Because the opposition generally takes a Cuban-exile-style approach with Chávez. They will do nothing to legitimize his government, including participating in elections. If the opposition could get its act together (it has been plagued by disunity and infighting), it could present a viable political opposition in a more vibrant democracy. Even in the loss of Manuel Rosales to Chávez in the last presidential election, there were hopeful signs. Rosales had roughly 37% of the vote to Chávez's 63% with a terrific 75% of the population voting. We can call that a landslide, but it was nonetheless a strong showing by Rosales and a relatively united opposition, and cause for optimism. It represented what we might say was the beginning of a true opposition party.

5. IHT: "After the government revoked the license of RCTV, an aggressive opposition television network, the government used it to create another pro-government mouthpiece."
Helmut: Sigh, do we have to deal with this again? They didn't "revoke the license." It expired after twenty years and the government declined to renew it. Why? Because its news programming was for years more slanted and outrageous than even Fox News, it publicly media-managed and supported the coup d'etat against Chávez in 2002, and it openly celebrated the (short-lived) feat on their station (as well as the authoritarian Carmona Decree dissolving the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, elected state and local governments, etc.). That is the political dimension, and not a revocation. The Chávez government did not shut down the station immediately after the 2002 coup failed. It waited five years (of virulently anti-Chávez programming) for its license to expire. RCTV can now broadcast on cable; it is their public license that was not renewed. In the meantime, while the public channel is now government-run, it is, I'm told, pretty incompetent in its programming thus far as a "pro-government mouthpiece." The government apparently had little plan what to do with the newly open public channel. Besides, the move was highly unpopular throughout Venezuela not because of some assault on free speech, as the station director Marcel Granier constantly puts it and the US media parrot; rather, it was unpopular because some of the most popular non-news, non-political programming, such as soap operas, went along with it. This has been a PR disaster for Chávez, and many Venezuelans refuse to watch the new channel. Of course, it also has put the public airwaves largely in chavista hands - that much is true. This is important because the poor usually don't have cable. The whole issue is one of media reach, not an assault on free speech.

6. IHT: "Buoyed by a public spending spree financed by high oil prices, Chávez has used his enormous popularity to extend his government's power over big chunks of the economy, including the telephone and electricity companies... His reform proposals would tighten the grip, nationalizing coal and gas, stripping the central bank of its independence and allowing the government to carry out expropriations of private property without obtaining judicial authority first."
: Perhaps. This is where there's a real and important debate. On one hand, much of the exploitation of Venezuela's natural resources was built upon unfair contracts signed with foreign companies. This is an age-old problem in developing countries - when foreign firms own most of your resources. It may mean wages for domestic labor and thus the provision of basic jobs. But it also often means that the key source of revenue for the state to reinvest in domestic projects is actually flowing out of the country, especially when corruption is rampant (as it was in Venezuela pre-Chávez as well as under Chávez). Combine this with foreign debt inherited from one government to the next, and you've got a recipe for perpetual poverty.
On the other hand, the growing justification for total control over the banking system is the ability to disperse funds - especially revenue from petroleum - in the new Bolivarian economy from the center. While I'm a fan of mixed economies, central planning of this sort is a throwback with plenty of empirical and historical data to suggest that it simply creates greater problems. Furthermore, Chávez has himself sent millions of dollars abroad for development projects for the poor and other causes not simply out of the goodness of his heart, but out of attempts to curry favor with other countries. The opposition has a point here, especially when the original chavista goal was to use the extra revenues coming into government coffers for domestic spending. One could thus see the foreign assistance as political bribery - I say, welcome to the world of international development. The US itself doesn't deliver sacks of grain to starving people (when it does) without large "USA" letters on each bag, to name but a minor case. One is hard-pressed to find the existence of any foreign aid from any country that is packaged without at least partially self-serving motives of some type. At least Chávez isn't arming the planet.

7. IHT: "Chávez's claim that he is increasing "participatory democracy" by giving voice to Venezuela's disenfranchised poor rests on gestures like the proposal to create grass-roots governing councils with executive authority over a range of issues. In fact, they would further erode democratic checks and balances by stripping power from state and local governments, where opposition parties retain some vestigial power, and giving it to entities dependent on the central government."
Helmut: This is a matter of democratic political preference. The IHT editorialist apparently prefers and assumes nested, representative government (like the US?). The chavistas want a more participatory approach. Now, I think it's generally a good thing when people are vested with the power to determine the shape of the institutions that affect their lives at a local and national level. Grassroots movements - when they're not simply fronts for the major political parties - can do and have done good things in the US as well. There are various ways to take a more participatory approach, however, and I have my doubts about "participatory democracy," especially as the chavistas tend to use the expression as a slogan. It leaves open the strong possibility that what one is participating in has already been decided elsewhere, rather than the problems and potential solutions being defined collectively through the contesting give and take of dialogue. Venezuela is fertile ground for developing deliberative democratic projects (for a couple of explanations of DD, see here and here). This, however, requires some basis for dialogue among opposing factions in the country. That dialogue is nearly non-existent. Both sides are at fault, and both sides continue to view this dialogue as a matter of virulent rhetoric. This eats at even the possibility of opening dialogue, or of even sitting at the same table silently fuming. In fact, any overture to the other political side can be political suicide in Venezuela.


All that said, when was the last time you saw a piece in the major media that attempted to explain what the Chávez government is trying to do from their point of view, right or wrong? Maybe... never? But wouldn't it be a very good thing to have in making wise assessments of US (or any) policy towards Venezuela?

And that's the rub. Yes, it's complicated, and yes the US national media tend to avoid hard foreign affairs issues on the assumption that Americans aren't interested (i.e., that they're stupid too). And any visitor to Venezuela who speaks with people from diverse economic and political classes and backgrounds will end up with a collection of different, and often radically antagonistic, worldviews about the state of Venezuela. The story is thus difficult to tell for the mass media because it's not easily packaged. But repeatedly offering up the same Cliffs Notes version does no one any good except a handful of people with their own interests.

I should be clear. I don't care about convincing you to like Hugo Chávez. That's hardly my point at all. I don't care to convince myself. He's a political animal who has old-school socialist intellectual advisors (all from abroad - Spain, Hungary, etc.) and who regularly says and does some dumb things. I don't think the Chávez government is itself clear at all on what it means by "21st-Century Socialism," even to itself. Cronyism, corruption, and incompetence have continued through the Chávez government. We are also at a moment in which the government could take a drastic authoritarian turn - I'm not saying it will, but the conditions are ripe and therefore dangerous from the perspective of genuine democrats. There are plenty of reasons for concern on the part of those who would wish to see a truly democratic state with both a strong investment in public institutions and a diverse and vibrant economy. The latter, however, could be a wonderful thing not only for Venezuela but for all of Latin America and there is, in Venezuela's case, the money to do it. Better living through petroleum. Unfortunately, most oil states, except for Norway, tend to be uninterested in spreading the wealth.

What interests me in this present context, however, are basically three interconnected things that have plenty of offshoots I won't go into:

1. If nothing else, Chávez has convinced the greater population, the one living in poverty and politically disenfranchised for decades, that they have a real voice in government. Whether they actually do or not is another question which has yet to be played out fully. But the reality is that they believe it. Chávez does enough for the poor that many see life improving overall. The opposition sometimes claims that this is only in Chávez-supporting barrios, that those who don't support the president suffer from lack of government funds and so on. This could be figured out empirically (how levels of government funding correspond to how neighborhoods vote), but I haven't seen any data to back this claim (if it exists, and is reputable, send it to me).

2. Let's say Chávez is gone tomorrow or next year, or let's say he's voted out of office in the next round of elections. Let's say the opposition comes to power. What will they do? Many are strong democrats of the social democratic variety. The opposition is not a monolithic right wing. Yet, the situation is such that there is no return to an elite-run economy and government. They would only be able to do so by oppression we haven't come close to seeing by the Chávez government, but have seen with past Venezuelan governments. In other words, their policies and politics will have to appeal to the majority of the population, many of whom feel politically enfranchised for the first time in their lives. In this sense, the genuine, poverty-battling elements of the chavista program have already left a legacy. This will entail the necessity of quite different kinds of policy choices than many in the opposition are used to. While we would probably see moves towards decentralization and privatization at the national level again, such moves won't happen without public debate. Social, educational, and health programs may very well look quite chavista if for no other reason but political expediency. The opposition is going to have to develop more participatory and deliberative approaches of its own for the eventuality of governing the country again.

3. Let's say the constitution is amended to abolish term limits and Chávez is elected over and over. Is this even possible with an opposition growing in strength, unity, and political and economic diversity? If he runs the country into the ground, as many say he is already doing, then it will obviously be increasingly difficult to hold the presidency as long as the country continues to run fair elections. It doesn't matter how well local committees are doing at a grassroots and small-scale level if the economy as a whole tanks and if Chávez has to revert to oppressive measures to hold onto power. An oppressive chavista state would also lose many of its closest allies. One cannot survive on relations with Iran alone.

Where do we stand then? Who knows? But a genuine, deliberative discussion is crucial in avoiding the seductive traps of left-wing and right-wing authoritarianism.

Mess With Texas

Once again, they kill and kill.
"Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens," [Gov. Perry spokesman Robert Black] said.


Photo: Dave

The Vietnam Analogy

The administration is apparently preparing a new public tack on the Iraq War, one we've already heard echoed hear and there: leaving Iraq now would be equivalent to the tragedy of giving up on Vietnam. But, as usual, scratch off a bit of the patina and the analogy gets wacky.

As for the analogy, Josh Marshall:

Going forty years on, it is not too much to say that virtually none of the predicted negative repercussions of our departure from Vietnam ever came to pass.

Asia didn't go Communist. Our Asian allies didn't abandon us. Rather, the Vietnamese began to fall out with her Communist allies. With the Cold War over, in strategic terms at least, it's almost hard to remember what the whole fight was about. If anything, the clearest lesson of Vietnam would seem to be that there can be a vast hue and cry about the catastrophic effects of disengagement from a failed policy and it can turn out that none of them are true...

"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,' " the president will say.

The story of the 'boat people' is unquestionably tragic. And there's little doubt that there are many Iraqis who will pay either with their lives or nationality for aiding us in various ways during our occupation of the country. But to govern our policy on this basis is simply to buy into a classic sunk cost fallacy. A far better -- and really quite necessary -- policy would be to give asylum to a lot of these people rather than continuing to get more of them into the same position in advance of our inevitable departure.

More concretely though, didn't the killing fields happen in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge rather than Vietnam? So doesn't that complicate the analogy a bit? And didn't that genocide actually come to an end when the Communist Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime? The Vietnamese Communists may have been no great shakes. But can we get through one of these boneheaded historical analogies while keeping at least some of the facts intact?

Furthermore, on the "strategic" front:
The president will also make the argument that withdrawing from Vietnam emboldened today's terrorists by compromising U.S. credibility, citing a quote from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the American people would rise against the Iraq war the same way they rose against the war in Vietnam, according to the excerpts.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a better example of President Bush's comically inept strategic thinking. Actually, lack of strategic thinking. I'm sure you've noticed how, as the president's policies go further and further down the drain, he more and more often cites the authority of Osama bin Laden as the rationale for his policies. In this case, we must stay in Iraq forever wasting money and lives and destroying our position in the world because if we don't we'll have proved Osama bin Laden right.

Sigh, return to Exhibit A....

See also D at LGM for more.

The Sensitive President

The phrasing of these things always perplexes me... this is from the WaPo article on the White House "Presidential Advance Manual."
...that does not mean the White House is against dissent -- just so long as the president does not see it. In fact, the manual outlines a specific system for those who disagree with the president to voice their views. It directs the White House advance staff to ask local police "to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in the view of the event site or motorcade route."
Any 20th-21st-century presidential staff micromanages the media details of events in order to wring all possible PR or propaganda benefits out of them. Part of this is protecting against any counter-images or opposing messages. So, it's really unsurprising to me that the White House (and this Republican Party) has a how-to manual on managing or squelching dissenting voices at presidential events. Really, so what? Most of the cases resulting from this manual are not ones of outright suppression, although I have little doubt they'd do it if they could get away with it. I'm more concerned when the national media intentionally (or even unintentionally) censors itself, creates its own president-supporting reality, and generally fails at the task that is the only truly noble part of its calling (uh,... honest reporting, for starters). The latter started on Day One when diverse and numerous protestors lined the route of the presidential cavalcade here in DC and the media studiously avoided showing them, referring to protestors disdainfully as a few random punks (by Peter Jennings, no less).

No, what is perplexing to me is the degree to which such management is an effort to hide the reality of dissenting voices, now the majority, from the president. Packaging the message - "catapulting the propaganda" - is as much for him as it is for the public. It's an ongoing trope that this president has no clothes, but even his staff has to tell him he's wearing the finest royal purple silks as he parades naked among his subjects. This then reinforces a bizarre self-image of marginalization and suffering of which Tim at Balloon Juice provides a couple of examples:

George W. Bush, 8/20/07:

As he sat down with opposition leaders from authoritarian societies around the world, he gave voice to his exasperation. “You’re not the only dissident,” Bush told Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leader in the resistance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “I too am a dissident in Washington. Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change. It seems that Mubarak succeeded in brainwashing them.”

Laura Bush, 4/25/07:

Oh, I know that very much. And believe me, no one suffers more than their president and I do when we watch this, and certainly the commander in chief, who has asked our military to go into harm’s way.
George W. Bush as The Sensitive President, hiding from the reality that ill-advised actions and ideas have consequences. No wonder the US state of affairs at home and abroad is equally unstable and fragile.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No Depression

How is depression defined (and, thus, how should it be treated?)? Two nice pieces today worth your while.

Philosopher's Playground: "Matters of Semantics"
As I have learned from reading Aspazia's research over the years, the way that mental illnesses in the DSM (the psychiatrist's Chilton guide) are defined is not the clean neuro-anatomical sort of process you might think at the outset. For the most part, a group of psychiatrists chosen by a larger group of psychiatrists sit in a room and negotiate (a) whether the behavior pattern is outside the norm enough, debilitating or dangerous enough to the person or others with whom he may come in contact with, or in some other way sufficiently undesirable to warrant classification as a mental illness, (b) if so, which symptoms, thought patterns, emotions, or behaviors that tend to be associated with those diagnosed with the problem are the ones that ought to be the defining characteristics and which are mere accidental regularities. These are renegotiated every few years and change with advances in understanding of the causal mechanisms, advances in treatment, cultural norms, and "informational seminars" given by drug companies.
3 Quarks Daily: "Is Depression a Medical Condition?"
Why is the experience of antidepressants so variable? Medical anthropologists have known for a long time that medicines are not just taken by bodies; they are incorporated into cultures, that is to say into preexisting cosmologies that permit certain reponses to things ingested, encourage some, and exclude others. There may be a single, context-neutral fact about what St. John's Wort does in the body (as it happens, probably nothing); but there is no such fact about the role that said wort will play in a culture. In our bodies, it brings about its minor effects and passes through; in our culture's fantasies --and in our culture's economy-- it does a good deal more: it contributes to that nebulous condition we call 'wellness'; it cleanses its consumer of vaguely defined toxins; it purges 'free radicals', whatever the hell those might be; it signals 'consciousness' to other consumers. It is not to be mixed with gin or Diet Dr. Pepper. Now of course consumers of St. John's Wort are likely to be suspicious of chemical antidepressants, but many of the same considerations may be brought to bear in the one case as in the other. For both, success in our culture depends upon the substance's symbolic role in a system of oppositions. Better living through mere chemistry is never enough; the pharmaceutical companies understand that it is principally through marketing --that is, positioning some chemical or other in the desired social role-- that that chemical comes to be perceived as a means to better living.

A Check in the Obama Column

Barack Obama proposes an opening towards Cuba.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Old Lime

Photo: Helmut

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Padilla's End

I haven't been able to say much about Jose Padilla's conviction. It's complicated, and the consequences, in my view, will reach far into the depths of the American state and ultimately international policies.

Padilla was convicted for a crime that was manufactured all along the way. He was, of course, the original "dirty bomber." That claim by the Bush administration was a political claim and Padilla an instrument in the construction of a fear campaign. This is not to say that Padilla is not guilty of something. It is to say that the dirty bomber claim was bullshit, and this was known from the outset only by the administration. Despite this, Padilla was tortured in a classic bogus ticking time bomb ("dirty bomb") justification for the practice. Why?

Ultimately, as the US government went from court to court trying to find an accusation that would legally stick - they needed the conviction again for political reasons - they finally constructed the accusation for which Padilla was convicted: conspiracy to commit terrorist acts (he filled out an application form... literally). Conspiracy charges are often last resort claims that amount to "he was connected to bad things, but we're not exactly sure how beyond circumstantial evidence."

Okay, Padilla is probably a bad man. Nonetheless, at this point, we're far away from dirty bombs. We have a convict whose mind is now completely reshaped by American torture into an instrument by which the administration could construct the legal charges and achieve the political goal. In many ways, the Padilla case is a concrete instance of the reproduction of the enemy that I've warned about in the past, as well as Horton's point below about tyranny (see this earlier post and link). Our ability to distinguish between the real and artifice is again severely compromised.

Scott Horton at Harper's No Comment has one of the better posts I've seen on Padilla.

Reading accounts of the treatment of Padilla and the psychiatrist’s description of what remains today of the battered spirit of Jose Padilla, it is clear that the Bush Administration has fully availed itself of these concepts. The Jacoby Declaration makes clear that “breaking” the subject is in fact the object of the process. The psychiatrists’ report shows that Padilla was essentially brainwashed. He could not really even mount a defense to the charges against him because he loved George W. Bush and he found it physically impossible to oppose him.

And the charges brought against Padilla are “thought crimes.” He is accused of thinking bad thoughts about America and the Bush Administration.


Note this perspective from Lokywoky, writing at Jesus' General:
The thing I found most disturbing was this: ...that Mr. Padilla still maintained that if he could just let the Commander in Chief know what had been happening to him that the CIC would understand and get him out of there...

Mr. Padilla is a US Citizen, and regardless of his past, he still believes in the basic fairness of the OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT, and that if his situation could be heard, fairness would release him from this captivity. Even in the face of the treatment he has been subjected to, he still believes in the fairness of our institutions including the executive branch - and the occupant thereof.

We must not forget, although all the rest of us have been listening and been inundated with the daily list of scandals, cover-ups, whopping mistakes, lies, obfuscations, deceptions, manipulations, gaffes, spin and distortions coming out of this executive branch by and on behalf of George Bush and Dick Cheney, Mr. Padilla is probably been one of the few adults on the planet who knows nothing of all of this. Mr. Padilla has been kept in solitary confinement - absolutely no contact with the outside world - since he was arrested. He has not seen a TV, heard a radio, read a newspaper or book, or been able to talk with anyone other than his jailors and tormenters.

So the part that almost makes me cry is that this man, who has been treated so abominably, still believes in the integrity of the Office of the President. And that the person sitting in the White House MUST be a person of fairness and justice, and that somehow he must not know what is happening to Mr. Padilla because surely if he did, it would not continue to happen.

The Scroll vs. The Book: On the Road

NY Times Book Review:
Writing is not usually thought of as excessively physical, which is why some writers feel the need to compensate by racing bulls or whatever, but feeding that 120-foot roll through the typewriter seems like a feat of strength. Most writers merely produce effete works on paper, you might say, but Kerouac went and wrestled with the tree itself...

Besides changing all the names (arguably necessary for legal reasons) and cutting or veiling the depictions of sex (very necessary in 1957), Kerouac altered the scroll to make it a novel mostly by garnishing it with sprigs and drizzles of literature. One of the most famous passages in the novel appears here — the ellipses are Kerouac’s — as “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing ... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” In the novel he inserts “mad to be saved,” while the roman candles become “fabulous” and they are “exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ” Concerned that he might not have sufficiently overegged the pudding, Kerouac then adds, “What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?” None of this sort of eager-beaver poeticizing litters the scroll, which just keeps its head down and runs, and is all the more authentically literary thereby.

Surveillance Acquisition and Transfer

I've been watching Subtopia, keeping an eye on its daily movements, waiting for the moment to take advantage of any sign of weakness. The day shall yet arrive on cat's feet, the product of patient surveillance. Today, surveillance snatches the fruit of subtopian labor, the labor of compiling links to the fruit of others' labor who have linked to yet others' labor. Under the standard labor theory of value, throwing in a dash of Nozick's entitlement theory of justice in acquisition, we are herewith creating reams - or fruit trees - of virtual value.

And yet, the question nags: have I acquired fairly? (And, for that matter, has Subtopia transferred fairly?). If not, if I have acquired unfairly the fruits of subtopian labor, if I have exploited labor, rectification is in order on the Nozickean account over a long chain of link acquisitions, perhaps with no known originator of value-producing labor (how could this be so?).

How does one rectify unfair linkage acquisition and transfer in the blogosphere? The only known answer is the reverse link. Otherwise known as surveillance.

New York Plans Surveillance Veil for Downtown (Schneier) // Newark Unveils New Surveillance Program // S.F. public housing cameras no help in homicide arrests // Watching cities in 4D // Global Biometric Border Checks // Pentagon Plots Digital "Crystal Ball" to "See the Future" in Battle // Dual Use // °Morale // Five Ways Bush's Era of Repression Has Stolen Your Liberties Since 9/11 // Camera Silens // Security firms working on devices to spot would-be terrorists in crowd // Interest in Post-9/11 Security Technology Diminishes // DARPA Vision: "Unblinking" Spy Drones, Veggie-Powered Killer Bots // Radar Bankshots for All-City Surveillance // Can you catch a killer before they commit a crime? // In China, a high-tech plan to track people // US Spy Agencies See Bloggers as Journalists // How Bush Gained the Power to Spy on You without Security Justifications // Privatized Panopticon

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Vacation I Almost Took Is in There Somewhere

Hooray for no vacation!

It looks this morning (now August 19th) like Jamaica is going be plastered by Hurricane Dean, with the category 5 storm reinforcing as it moves across warm, open Caribbean waters towards Belize and the Yucatan. I was too cavalier about the vacation (to Nicaragua, actually) and apologize. This storm is going to be a disaster.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

“America is not its government.”

- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; cited in “Interview With Under Secretary For Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and Special Sports Envoy Cal Ripken, Jr.; Secretary Condoleezza Rice; Interview by the Department of State's Heath Kern, Director, Digital Media (U.S. State Department, August 13) Here. Via John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach Dies

Max Roach died yesterday at the age of 83. In the pantheon of jazz legends, he was near the very top for me. It's not often that drummers can attain the Valhalla of music history. They're often the utility players in music, ever-present but mostly just keeping things going in the background. Now and then, they get a solo. Of course, there are the great ones in jazz. And of course there are great drummers who cut across genres.

Max Roach, however, was special. On one hand, he did keep things going right on through to the invention of bebop and the creation of the sound of all post-bop jazz.

Mr. Roach's most significant innovations came in the 1940s, when he and another jazz drummer, Kenny Clarke, devised a new concept of musical time. By playing the beat-by-beat pulse of standard 4/4 time on the "ride" cymbal instead of on the thudding bass drum, Roach and Clarke developed a flexible, flowing rhythmic pattern that allowed soloists to play freely. The new approach also left space for the drummer to insert dramatic accents on the snare drum, "crash" cymbal and other components of the trap set.

By matching his rhythmic attack with a tune's melody, Mr. Roach brought a newfound subtlety of expression to his instrument. He often shifted the dynamic emphasis from one part of his drum kit to another within a single phrase, creating a sense of tonal color and rhythmic surprise.

Virtually every jazz drummer plays in that manner today, but when Clarke and Mr. Roach introduced the new style in the 1940s, it was a revolutionary musical advance.

"When Max Roach's first records with Charlie Parker were released by Savoy in 1945," jazz historian Burt Korall wrote in the "Oxford Companion to Jazz," "drummers experienced awe and puzzlement and even fear."

One of those awed drummers, Stan Levey, summed up Mr. Roach's importance: "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."

He played with everyone: Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Mingus, Kenny Dorham, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, etc., etc. Everyone. He was not only a technically gifted and brilliant percussionist, he bent genres, created his own, paid attention to new strains in music (he was an early enthusiast of hip hop), and composed some of the most brilliant contemporary jazz around. It is challenging and often sublime.

Most people look to his bop work with Bird, Diz, Miles, et al., or his collaborations with Clifford Brown or his work with Kenny Dorham or with Sonny Rollins. Jazz history is like this - the creators of a movement (in this case the all-important bebop) become identified with that movement for all time. The rest of an oeuvre radiates from that center, the energy petering out at the edges until a musician can only muster something soft for the culturally moribund elites of the Kennedy Center, where the past matters more than the music of the present. Roach's star faded over time - it was tough to top the sensationalism of bebop - especially after the 1960s and free jazz, even if he had a gentle hand in its creation too. But not the quality and derring-do of his music. I think some of his most beautiful and deceptively complex work was done in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of it is overlooked precisely because of Roach's identification with past, and rightly legendary, moments in music history.

I recall, sometime in the early 1990s, driving through rolling hills of sunlit snow in a relatively remote part of eastern Colorado, and hearing something brilliant on the radio. It was a jazz program playing some new stuff, some old. I had already come to the conclusion years earlier that jazz had ended in a flourish with free-jazz, maybe a dab of fusion (which began and ended, in my view, with Bitches Brew). The rest was, even if technically accomplished and even lovely, a regurgitation of jazz history. Jazz had been about a constant pushing of the boundaries of music in constant conversation with one's fellows - collective transgression and creation (see here for a very small story on what I mean - the part on Steve Potts). I listened to Steve Lacy, Peter Brötzmann, and a couple others, but generally thought jazz was dead. Then there was a piece on the radio in that winter landscape that truly stunned me. It turned out to be a recent piece by Max Roach from 1991. Just a few years ago I came across a journal entry I had made later that day. It was one sentence written to myself in bold letters, as if an epiphanic answer to some torturous metaphysical conundrum, that read: "More Max Roach!"

What a giant loss for music today.

A few music blogs have posted some downloadable Max Roach tunes where he plays mostly in the groups of other great musicians. The first two have posted some classic tracks of Max playing with Hawk, Bird, Diz, Miles, Brownie, and others...
Locust St.
...and for the same spirit for which I loved Max - his own devastating creativity and modest brilliance - see Destination Out, which will be updating over the next day or two.

For a comprehensive discography, see the ever helpful Jazz Discography Project.

The best collection of tributes and links out there is at Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.

Apology Day

Danes say sorry for Viking raids on Ireland

PNG apologises for eating Fiji missionaries

For my part, I would like to apologize to Ricky Ackerman for biting him on the leg when we were four years old.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Whoa... Virtual Oxford Dude....

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I Guess the War on Terror Is Indeed Eternal

The United States has decided to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's 125,000-strong elite military branch, as a "specially designated global terrorist," according to U.S. officials, a move that allows Washington to target the group's business operations and finances.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Subterranean Citizens

Photo: From Beneath the Neon; photo by Danny Mollohan

At the great BLDBLOG, a brief discussion of the tunnels of Las Vegas and its denizens, detailed in a new book by Danny Mollohan.
Exploring a wet drain under McCarran International Airport one night, I discovered a man named Lawrence sleeping on an elevated bed. The bed, which was about four and a half feet from the floor, was made of couch cushions, a steel frame and a door that provided additional support. Baling wire looped around the head and foot of the bed, angled tightly through the manhole, and wrapped around the rungs. Backpacks hung from the side on hooks.
I squatted and swept the beam of my flashlight under the bed. It was legless. No steel poles, no wooden beams, no milk crates – nothing. A square-shaped wire dangled from the side, serving as a stepladder. Except for his bikes, the whole camp was at least three feet above the stream of urban runoff.
Lawrence told me he designed the bed after reading about mountain climbers at a local library. "This is how they sleep when they stop and rest in the middle of a climb," he explained.
Yes, ingenious, although ingeniousness endogenous to a world within concentric social worlds that functions according to its own inner logic of self-reliance, a function of rejection of and by the immediate larger concentric social sphere. In this case, the larger context is the great geographical "simulacrum" (pardon the rather trite Baudrillardism; or potentially liberating Deleuzianism?) of our time, Las Vegas. Are such people - those in the forgotten worlds within a world - lost, as in marginalized beyond even the manageable margins of society? I honestly don't know.

When Thoreau famously wrote that the "mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he juxtaposed the life of Walden, the experience - such as it was - of wilderness, as a kind of dialectical method of contrasting the institutionally ingrained banality of much of social life. Thoreau was not, as commonly believed, arguing for an entirely individualistic wilderness philosophy. He was arguing for the importance of a life that could find the space to critique its own stultifying habits and liberate itself into new thoughts and ideas and experiences. The experience of "wilderness" was the creative and critical contrast with "society," but this was no incoherent rugged individualism, as he's often taught in schools. Thoreau knew well there was no escaping his social self. And he considered whether his trips to Walden were self-delusional in the end because Walden itself, its very conceptualization as wilderness, was to a large degree a social product. Culture and nature were inseparable. It would be ridiculous to call society in general bad. The question is what we can find in its necessary existence that is worth building and rebuilding and what most needs rejecting, and "wilderness" represented a critical position as much as a thing of aesthetic beauty.

But what of a world in which the experience of wild nature becomes more of a myth than ever? What spaces do we find to stimulate that dialectic between the unreflective and destructive elements of living in society and our ability to critically examine our place in it? Must we go literally underground?

p.s. Regular readers of Phronesisaical know that I've long had great respect for the work of blogger Geoff Manaugh, linking to his work on occasion and having the honor of being linked to in return on occasion. Geoff has recently moved to San Francisco from L.A. to take a senior editorial position at the very fine magazine, Dwell. My heartfelt congratulations to Geoff. Please pay his blog a visit and do check out Dwell.

Training the Youth of America

Universe 1:

Universe 2:
Why do we need civic engagement? Why can’t we leave governing to the government, and expect public institutions (such as schools) to provide public services? Why must many citizens participate?

First, institutions work better when participation is widespread.

For example, Robert Putnam has shown that schools work better in “states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust [one another].” Putnam finds that such engagement is “by far” a bigger correlate of educational outcomes than is spending on education, teachers’ salaries, class size, or demographics.[ii]

Second, social outcomes are more likely to be just when participation is equitable.

We know that people who are better off participate more. Americans with family incomes under $15,000 voted at half the rate of those with family incomes over $75,000.

And they get results proportionate to their participation. Larry Bartels has found that wealthy constituents have three times more influence than poor ones on U.S. Senators. In fact, Bartels could find no impact—zero impact—of people in the bottom third of the income scale on their own “senators’ roll call votes.”[iii]

Third, some crucial public problems can only be addressed by people’s direct “public work”--not by legislation.[iv]

Effective governments are capable of redistributing money and defining and punishing crimes. But rarely can governments reduce prejudice, change public attitudes toward nature, or deliver personalized care. Even when the state funds healthcare and higher education, the actual work is usually conducted by associations that can be more diverse, participatory, and sensitive than the state.

Finally, broad civic engagement is necessary to support a healthy, democratic culture.

Privatized Panopticon

The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a "surveillance society" in which the sense of freedom that stems from being anonymous in public will be lost, privacy rights advocates warn...

In the last month, cities that have moved forward on plans for surveillance networks financed by the Homeland Security Department include St. Paul, which got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for downtown; Madison, Wis., which is buying a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh, which is adding 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.

Small towns are also getting their share of the federal money for surveillance to thwart crime and terrorism.

Recent examples include Liberty, Kan. (population 95), which accepted a federal grant to install a $5,000 G2 Sentinel camera in its park, and Scottsbluff, Neb. (population 14,000), where police used a $180,000 Homeland Security Department grant to purchase four closed-circuit digital cameras and two monitors, a system originally designed for Times Square in New York City...

Other large cities and small towns have also joined in since 2003. Federal money is helping New York, Baltimore, and Chicago build massive surveillance systems that may also link thousands of privately owned security cameras....

So much for the macho-jingo society. We're now full-steam ahead on creating the society of fear through our surveillance society insanity. Note also that final point above.

Rove Is Leaving

More following, of course, but for now from the NY Times frontpage:
Breaking News 4:47 AM ET: Karl Rove Resigns White House Post, Effective Aug. 31, He Tells Wall Street Journal

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday Strumming

Some nice, soft Brazilian guitars to help you through your Sunday night, courtesy of Motel de Moka.

Sunday Reading Assignment

Photo: Tom Strattman for the NY Times

How the Fight for Vast New Spying Powers Was Won (Washington Post) - political shenanigans and the eyes on you

In the Current Foreclosure Crisis, Echoes of the Past
(NY Times) - the road to real estate perdition

The Myth, the Math, the Sex (NY Times) - it's not logically possible that men on average have more sex partners than women

How a 'good war' in Afghanistan went bad (International Herald Tribune) - the tragic diversion of funds from Afghanistan to Iraq

On Petraeus and Westhusing (No Quarter) - a colonel's suicide in Iraq, contractor "corruption," and a self-serving general

Chile’s Aggressive Military Arm Purchases Are Ruffling the Region, Alarming in Particular Bolivia, Peru and Argentina (Council on Hemispheric Affairs) - unusually large arms purchases in Chile, most of the weapons coming from the US (who expresses concern about Venezuelan arms purchases), and what this means for the Bachelet government

Iraq Contractors Accused in Shootings (The Guardian) - the privatization of the Iraq War and its crimes

World's birds on death row: Race against time to save 189 species from extinction (The Independent)

Audio Architecture (BLDGBLOG)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Surveillance Society

If you're an adulterer, be careful. And you might also consider riding a bicycle to your trysts. Your E-ZPass could give you away.

"E-ZPass is an E-ZPass to go directly to divorce court, because it's an easy way to show you took the off-ramp to adultery," said Jacalyn Barnett, a New York divorce lawyer who has used E-ZPass records a few times.

Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, said E-ZPass helped prove a client's husband was being unfaithful: "He claimed he was in a business meeting in Pennsylvania. And I had records to show he went to New Jersey that night."

The point of this post, however, is a larger one. As with many technological conveniences, we don't know the full consequences of their use until this use is embedded into society and its institutions. It's easy to see this in the case of nuclear technology; irrelevant in the case of a toaster. But I wonder about the extent to which not only surveillance technologies explicitly intended for surveillance but also seemingly simple conveniences begin to reorder human behavior. In a society that fetishizes security despite its strain of civil libertarianism, one can imagine not only computers, cameras, IDs, credit cards, and E-ZPasses as at least potential and possibly actual sources of surveillance, and thus further paranoia, but also other bits and pieces of behavioral habits intertwined with the technologies of daily life. One can imagine the creation of virtual persons. Not the virtual persons of Second Life, which are more or less freely chosen, but virtual persons created out of the accumulation of information about our real selves. Businesses have done this for years. But what if the information is more complex and vast and continually updated? It's not difficult to imagine our cumulative daily behavior reassembled into virtual identities, alter-egos in the databases of Homeland Security or the NSA, ultimately creating individual biographies premised on the assumption that we are all potentially a threat to the state.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Our Candidates: Rudolph Giuliani

Continuing our series of glimpses into the yodeling styles of today's presidential candidates, we today examine the ego excrescence of Rudolph Giuliani:

The former New York mayor upset some firefighters and police officers when he said Thursday in Cincinnati that he was at ground zero "as often, if not more, than most of the workers."

"I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them," he told reporters at a Los Angeles Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds baseball game.

Fire and police officials responded angrily, saying Giuliani did not do the same work as those involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup from the 2001 terrorist attacks, which left many workers sick and injured.

On Friday, Giuliani said he was trying to show his concern for the workers' health.

Previous installments include Mitt Romney and Tom Tancredo. Stay tuned for more!


What is the University For?

Officials (full disclosure: the people who cut my check) at the local institution of higher education here in Laredo – Texas A&M International is a part of the Texas A&M System that wouldn’t exist but for a 1987 MALDEF lawsuit that sought to rectify the disparity between higher education funding in South Texas and the rest of the state -- have decided to axe our Social Work program because more students are interested in business degrees and marching bands.

Citing financial losses and student apathy, TAMIU closed its seven-year-old, nationally-accredited social work program. Its phase-out will be complete in 2010.The university's decision sparked an outcry among department members and students, as well as community social workers.

"It's very hard to believe that this university, given the tremendous need for social work in the community, will not support this program," said Elaine Davila, a former instructor. She is now employed with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The program has about 42 student majors and 12 minors, a number that department officials say is comparable to other universities. But Texas A&M International University officials say enrollment is too low.

"If we had 80 majors, we wouldn't be having this discussion," said Ray Keck III, TAMIU president. "We thought that the great, great, great need for social work in Laredo would translate into a great interest for pursuing it. That didn't happen. (The program) has been in trouble for a number of years."

At this point, Keck said, TAMIU has two areas needing more funding: business and health sciences.

[ . . . ]

TAMIU Provost Dan Jones said, however, that few Laredoans are interested in social work to begin with.

"We live in an area that has a high poverty rate, but social work is not a career path that many students choose," Jones said.

[ . . . ]

"Our recruiters who go out to the high schools will market and respond to what students ask about," Keck said. "I've asked them, and they said they have never had a student ask about social work."

Setting aside, for the moment, the Provost's strange choice of conjunctions, above (sadly, I don't think he even meant to say "We live in an area that has a high poverty rate, so social work is not a career path that many students choose"): what kind of high-school student -- particularly one talking to a recruiter from a regional state university -- says he is considering social work as a major? How many high school students in a historically ignored and underfunded part of the country even know what social work is?

Still more from Keck:

Furthermore, the role of a university is not to provide programs that meet the needs of a community, Keck said.

"We're not funded to provide what the community needs. We're funded to provide the education that students want to pursue," he said.

For the record, I'm really just asking: is this what we want from higher education?

Maybe we could build a drive-through lane . . .