Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Tragedy of the Hardin

Odds are, you've heard of the "tragedy of the commons." (If not: Let Google be your guide.) The (contemporary) source of the idea is an article written by ecologist Garret Hardin some time ago, laying out the seemingly logical proposition that (at base) -- people in a community will inevitably abuse a shared resource in order to try and maximize their personal use of it, such that the shared resource will eventually run out or be otherwise denuded.

Although in my own research, I've certainly read of cases where that did happen, it certainly is far from true that that always happens, or that the only ways to prevent it are: a) government coercion/restricted access, or b) complete privatization. He argues that one cannot rely on conscience or cooperation to regulate the wise use of a commons, as selfish people will inevitably exploit it.

We all know cases where such exploitation does happen, again, but it certainly isn't an "inevitable consequence" as Hardin implies. (A mentor of mine has re-phrased Hardin's proposition as "The tragedy of the privately owned sheep" -- based on the case Hardin used as an example, that of English peasants herding sheep with a commons providing forage for the sheep. Of course, if the sheep were raised in common for the village, it would again not be in their interest to denude the commons, theoretically bringing the system back in balance -- and certainly, it's easier to tell who is eating extra sheep and thus "conscience" and social pressure seem more likely to rule in that case. But I digress.)

Although the argument has grown considerably more complicated since Hardin (and I suspect before as well -- he was hardly the first to think of this), the raison d'etre of this blog post is this article here, pointing out that as written, Hardin's piece offered no actual proof, real-life context, or other essential elements of scientific reasoning, yet it has been hugely influential and widely quoted. The author implies that this is because it could be used to justify pre-existing prejudices, which it certainly did so for Hardin, who himself was something of a eugenicist and rather worried about the population growth of the poor masses (rather than the population growth of the huge, resource-chomping-like-it's-candy wealthy few). Anyway. Read. Tchau.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Palestine-Israel Peace prospects: Or not.

Perhaps Middle East Peace is farther away than ever -- due as much to past actions and "ground truths" ("For all intents and purposes, every Israeli under the age of 50 has grown up with the doctrine that the Green Line does not exist, that the West Bank is in fact Judea and Samaria... Currently, almost 10 per cent of Israel's Jewish population lives in settlements beyond the green line") as to present political figures and their attitudes:
The continued acceleration of Israeli settlement activity and the concomitant fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement have led many analysts and commentators to declare the impending demise of the two-state solution. Judging the point at which two states can no longer be carved out of the present reality is not an exact science, but it seems inconceivable that a realistic prospect for partition still exists... In this respect, it has become increasingly common to argue that a one-state solution (whether a binational entity or unitary democracy) is the logical alternative to the disappearing two-state paradigm. Yet this outcome - while admittedly the closest approximation of a just peace - is even less likely to materialise than a two-state settlement.

Unlike white South Africans, Jewish Israelis are not a small minority who can be expected to conclude that providing equal rights to the indigenous population within a democratic framework represents their only salvation...

The status quo is also increasingly untenable, and the more likely scenario for the coming decade, if not longer, is that Israel's determined efforts to perpetuate it will produce increasing - and increasingly existential, regionalised and bloody - conflict.

Read the whole article at Counterpunch.

More on Sotomayor

She's hardly a die-hard fan of the little guy.

In the linked Slate article by Emily Bazelon, Bazelon lays out how Sotomayor can be very convincing; in the cited case, she convinced a conservative and liberal judge, both of who started out opposed to her view, to switch sides and sign on to her decision in a case where "empathy" would lead you to believe one might side for the trucker in this case over the off-duty cop:
But what's striking, of course, is that she persuaded them to undo a verdict in a case that a jury saw as rife with police abuse of power. "You read this unanimous opinion, and it would seem to be the Republican judge who is driving this decision that she just signed on to. When in fact it was exactly the opposite," one observer said.

The other two judges had decided to rule to uphold a jury verdict and a $600,000 award for damages for a trucker who, whatever the merits of his suit (he was found not guilty of assault against the officer, who he got into an altercation with over a payphone, back in the 90s, where trucker Jocks claimed he explained he had an emergency with his truck broken down further up the highway and the cop refused to reliquish the payphone; fight ensues; the cop claims Jocks made no mention of an emergency and started a fight for the phone) seems to have been quite thoroughly punished for a crime it was ultimately determined he didn't commit:
fter his arrest, Jocks was held for 24 hours and ended up having to make 28 court appearances before he was found not guilty of felony assault. He spent $20,000 on legal fees, lost his truck driving job, and had to give up full custody of his daughter, who went to live with her mother, his ex-wife. That dire, black moment on the LIE truly cost him.

Frayster Joe_JP observes that this actually fits in with what we know of Obama, like his upholding of some Bush era atrocities:
Given the mixed feelings some have with recent actions by President Obama (e.g., preventive detention), this should not surprise. In fact, though he was specifically talking about his views on a "living Constitution," Obama in Audacity of Hope suggested his model is Justice Breyer. Someone Rachel Maddow recently suggested was more centrist than liberal (and at times tecnocrat), and various of his opinions can be used to back that up. But, the game has to be played, so she is tarred by the likely subjects when they should be quite happy she was chosen.

Dionne appears to have it quite right. And the last thing we need on the court in this J's opinion is another "law-and-order" type, inclined to "[use her] formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak". Where did you hear those words before? They were Obama's objection to the nomination of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Although O may have been talking about minorities and plaintiffs in cases against large commercial interests, it's worth remembering that the police very much are often the ones who are the strong (such as in the trucker case where, when the off-duty cop had enough, he pulled his gun and put it to Jocks' head), and Sotomayor appeared to have used her formidable skills on his behalf.

Dionne: "And even though they should support her confirmation, liberals would be foolish to embrace Sotomayor as one of their own because her record is clearly that of a moderate. It is highly unlikely that she will push the court to the left."

Zogby on Obama, Israel, Netanyahu, and Middle East Peace

A nice piece on Truthout here by James Zogby on, well, on Obama, Israel, Netanyahu, Middle East Peace, and the US Congress.

I'm out of the loop on recent events on this front, but Zogby writes:
At their White House press briefing last week, Netanyahu may have been stubborn, but Obama, too, held his ground. Addressing his remarks directly to the cameras, the US president lectured Netanyahu about the steps that must be taken: "all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations they previously agreed to"; "settlements have to be stopped"; "if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't even get clean water É if the border closures are so tight it is impossible for reconstruction or humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for [the] peace track to move forward," and much more.

A recent poll of American Jews commissioned by J Street, the Jewish pro-peace lobby, found that substantial majorities of American Jews (in the 70 percent range) support President Obama and support a two-state solution that includes a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and some limited "right to return." In addition, a strong majority opposes settlement construction and opinion is split down the middle on whether or not to cut aid to Israel if it becomes an obstacle to achieving peace!

Progress in the Palestine-Israel conflict always seems far away. But, as I feel silly saying but many people seem to forget, no conflict lasts forever. History shows us that sooner or later, this conflict will end -- though history also shows that it may end peacefully, but also may end by the dissolution of the present-day states in the area or brokering as the result of another World War (heaven forbid). But it will end, and this rhetoric and polling at least seems to point to the continued possibility of it being the first scenario (well, relatively close, it's already too late for it to be "peaceful" in the full sense of the word, but you know what I mean, a resolution without significant further violence or another change in the scale of violence).

Of course, my very informal recent research made it appear that our aid to Israel has already significantly decreased in real terms (~90%!) as well, of course, as a proportion of total aid, though my conjecture remains, as it was before, that perhaps our aid to Israel has shifted to less direct forms because it seems like a 90% scale-back of all aid to Israel would have elicited some kind of notice in the MSM. Of course, you never know just exactly what new low in competence the MSM will reach for, so... ??

Rebuffs for conservative attacks on Sotomayor: Liberal Talking Points for the day

If you're so inclined as to come to the defense of the "most conservative Supreme Court pick Obama could have made", HuffPo blogger-reporter Jason Linkins reviews how (arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has argued that "courts make law" (as conservatives are accusing Sotomayor of saying as a reference to "activist judging") and empathy and the racial background/history/experiences of a candidate were brought to bear in the nominations of Alito and Clarence Thomas:
This all comes courtesy of HuffPost reader Doug Schafer, who is of the opinion that journalists ought to avail themselves of this citation from Scalia whenever the "judges don't make law" canard arises. I agree!

Additionally, Sotomayor's critics are up in arms over the fact that she has admitted that her ethnic background has an affect on her decision making process. Who does she think she is? Well, as it turns out, she probably thinks she's being very similar to Justice Sam Alito:

ALITO: Senator, I tried to in my opening statement, I tried to provide a little picture of who I am as a human being and how my background and my experiences have shaped me and brought me to this point. ... And that's why I went into that in my opening statement. Because when a case comes before me involving, let's say, someone who is an immigrant -- and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases -- I can't help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn't that long ago when they were in that position. [...]

And that goes down the line. When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.


And, in a related way, the criticism over "empathy" fits the same "this-was-once-deemed-okay" mold. My experience teaches me that only robots lack empathy, and that most people value it. Yet, ever since President Barack Obama cited it as a focus of his, in his search for a replacement for Justice David Souter, the whole notion of "empathy" has been treated as an alien thing that threatens the sanctity of court decisions.

That's weird! In July of 1991, "empathy" was one of the major selling points presented at the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas...

And speaking of Supreme Court Joke Justice Joke Clarence Thomas, HuffPo's Trey Ellis writes:
When a middling black student from Holy Cross goes on to Yale Law School, graduates in the middle of his class and is rated by the American Bar Association between "qualified" and "not qualified," the right festoons him with laurels. Clarence Thomas, you see, reaffirmed the comforting notions many in the right have about the supremacy of white maleness. George the First nominated him clearly because any black jurist would do and there he stands today, a reassuring beacon of black inferiority.

(I'm not saying that the first George Bush wouldn't have picked a more qualified black arch conservative if there had been one laying around. In matters of race the first George Bush wasn't such a bad egg.)

Nevertheless, for the far right his nomination was a wet dream and the humiliating effect on competent black folks is the same.

Sotomayor's been dealing with this crap for years. The LA Times reports today that in law school she sued a white-shoe Washington law firm for the exact same kind of white-male- supremacist attitudes the right is regurgitating her way right now...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Hypocrisy's ok when I do it.

Circling the Center: Recommended readings

I hope to get to more commentary on yesterday's post at some point, but for the time being, the Continuum's recommended reading for today consists of two articles by the WaPo's E. J. Dionne, Jr:

Obama's Center-Left two-step

Obama's Anti-Roberts

In the first, Dionne (I keep wanting to add "Warwick") analyzes Obama's governing style, and finds it to (thus far) be an updating of Bill Clinton's triangulation (though I think Dionne implies, but does not say, that Obama's strategic compromises more authentically represent his political philosophy compared to what was widely seen as Clinton's more calculating political, well, triangulation). Obama is trying to tack to the Left, in Dionne's estimation, but only just:
He is out to build a new and enduring political establishment, located slightly to the left of center but including everyone except the far right.

The problem Dionne finds with this is that the ObamAdministration is trying to do this in part through only slightly sub rosa message control, pitching different messages to different audiences, but in a sort of blatant way that I think took Dionne slightly aback:
Last Thursday afternoon, for example, the White House invited in journalists, mostly opinion writers, to sell them on the substance of the president's big speech on Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees.

Unbeknown to the writers until afterward, they had been divided into two groups, one more centrist with a sprinkling of moderate conservatives, the other more liberal. (I was in the liberal group.) The president made an unscheduled appearance at each briefing. As is his way, he charmed both groups.

The idea, as far as I can determine, was to sell the liberal group on those aspects of Obama's plan that are a break from George W. Bush's policies, and to sell the centrist group on the toughness of the president's approach and the fact that it squares with Bush's more moderate moves later in his second term[...]

[...] The disturbing aspect of Obama's effort to create his new political alignment is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments.

Besides to playing to different audiences leading to potential awkwardness, there's the possibility of trying to please everyone and instead pleasing no one (apparently not yet the issue, at least in the meetings Dionne discusses), as well as the vague dishonesty of it. My concern, at the least, is that Obama isn't and never has been particularly left-liberal. He really has kept much more of the Bush Admin era extra-legal Constitution-busting executive apparatus than I'd like (or, you know, would argue is right, just, constitutional, or in keeping with his promises). In short, I'm afraid not just of his pitching his message to different audiences, but in his triangulating to towards the Right of not just where his critics claim he is (Far Left), from where he's perceived to be (Leftist Wing), but from where he actually is (Center Left); when you start your position in the middle, your only direction to compromise to farther towards the right (since the liberal-left can be taken for granted, usually).


Dionne (not Warwick)'s other article talks about how Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is the most conservative choice Obama could have made, pointing out that conservatives should be pleased instead of fighting, and liberals should be vigilant, and while they (we) shouldn't oppose her nomination, nor should we be glad for it:

News accounts from the 1990s consistently described her as a "centrist" in her politics. Her lead sponsor when she was first named as a judge, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was hardly a conventional liberal. Obama may have found himself an empathetic judge, but she practices her empathy from the middle of the road.

A careful analysis of her record by Business Week, for example, concluded that she is a "moderate on business issues" and would fit the court's current alignment on such questions.

She also upheld a ban on federal funds going to family planning groups that provided abortions overseas. Sotomayor wrote that "the Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds."

Dan Gilgoff, on his excellent "God and Country" blog, points out that Sotomayor also ruled in favor of a group of Connecticut antiabortion protesters who asserted that police "used excessive force against them at a demonstration." He concludes that her "thin record on abortion is most likely a relief" to pro-life groups. In picking her, Obama sent another signal that he is serious about seeking common ground on abortion.

On how we should see this nomination, he continues
Liberals should not take the bait of the right-wingers by allowing the debate over Sotomayor to be premised on the idea that she is a bold ideological choice. She's not. But if conservatives succeed in painting this moderate as a radical, they will skew future arguments over the court. In fact, liberals should press Sotomayor on her more conservative decisions on business issues, an area in which the current court already tilts too far right.

Go read the whole thing.

Conservatives -- particularly those who run direct-mail outfits and want a big court fight -- would love the decision over Sotomayor to hang on Obama's call for judges who show "empathy." They would cast her as a dangerous activist willing to bend the law to produce the results she wants.

They want to turn Obama's argument on its head and claim that Sotomayor would show bias in favor of those who share her background -- and never mind that they dismiss such assertions when they are raised with respect to white, conservative, male nominees.
(emphasis added)
Three words for that observation: AMEN and DAMN STRAIGHT.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Racial discrimination: Flip it and reverse it?

Excellent article by Richard Thompson Ford on Slate about the Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano. You may have heard of this case as "the case of the New Haven Firefighters" or "the case of discriminating against whites":
In 2003, the New Haven Fire Department decided to base promotions to the positions of captain and lieutenant primarily on a written exam. But the next year the city threw out the test results when all but one of the eligible candidates for promotion proved to be white. New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci, a high scorer on the test who is white, sued for reverse discrimination.

It really takes reading all of Ford's article to fully get the sweep of his argument, I would say, but it breaks down to: Ricci, who apparently took 6 months off work to prepare for the exam and spent $1,000 on tutoring, maintains that the city threw out the test after the Hispanic and Black firefighters taking it didn't do well in order to discriminate against the white firefighters who (like him) did better on the exam (though it's important to note that a number of black and Hispanic firefighters did also pass the test, but the way the evaluations were set up, only the top three scorers are eligible for promotion).

Ford makes the point that other legal experts have made, namely, that the way Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has commonly been interpreted is that what it calls "disparate impacts" on different racial groups are legally questionable in and of themselves. That is, it is quite possible that the black and Hispanic firefighters could have sued New Haven had it not thrown out the test, on the (precedent-abiding) rationale that the fact that no blacks and only one Hispanic qualified for promotion (out of over 40 blacks and Hispanics). (And yes, I know blacks can be Hispanics and Hispanics can be blacks, but let's not get into the complicated US parsing of race -- or the fact that USA'ers don't seem to realize that there are a lot of Black Hispanics/Latinos -- here) is evidence of disparate impacts and possible discrimination.

Where Ford makes an important addition to the discussion is where he discusses why this is not necessarily "reverse discrimination" against the whites, and exactly why the disparate impacts rationale holds up. That is, as we've talked about here on Anekantavada/the Continuum, institutional racism is a pernicious going concern in the US, and non-obvious. Title VII was designed to thwart not just purposeful discrimination ("No blacks or Hispanics") AND inadvertent discrimination. And when only 1 or so out of 40 minorities qualifies for a job, it's quite certainly possible if not likely that there was inadvertent discrimination.

But let me quote Ford, who says it better (if not any more succinctly):
Conservatives think the law against disparate impact discrimination does more harm than good. [John] McWhorter decries the "rhetorical contortions that excuse black people from challenging examinations." And Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom insist in the Wall Street Journal that even "sharp racial disparities" in testing results "are not an argument for racial quotas." Both McWhorter and the Thernstroms worry that a law that is premised on lower performance by racial minorities has become self-fulfilling: Such racial disparities, the Thernstroms admonish, "should not be regarded as a permanent fact of life."

But, properly applied, disparate impact law doesn't excuse poor performance, nor does it require quotas. Instead it smokes out hidden bigotry and requires employers to avoid unnecessary segregation of the work force. Suppose an employer wants to keep women out. Knowing that he can't just put a "women need not apply" sign in his window, he might use a proxy, such as a weightlifting test, knowing that women on average have less upper body strength than men. The law against disparate impact discrimination is designed to reveal such hidden bias. Now, suppose an employer has no desire to discriminate against women but uses a weightlifting test simply because he thinks, all other things equal, stronger employees are better than weaker ones. Disparate impact law also prohibits this: It requires the employer to reconsider job qualifications that favor one race or sex, unjustifiably.

Of course, there might be a good reason to prefer people who are physically stronger—or who score higher on a written exam. The law gives employers a chance to prove that the discriminatory criteria are job-related. The idea, then, isn't to make an employer hire less qualified women or minorities over more qualified men or whites. It's to make sure the employer is testing for job qualifications, not unrelated ones.

Race discrimination has locked minorities into poor neighborhoods with failing schools for generations: As a result, blacks, as a group, continue to perform less well on written exams than other races. Perhaps New Haven's black candidates could overcome these disadvantages by studying harder, like Frank Ricci did. But Ricci took extraordinary steps to ace the test—six months off work to prepare and $1,000 on tutoring. An equal-opportunity law that's premised on everyone taking such steps isn't likely to do much good in the real world of scarce time and money. And would encouraging the equivalent of intense cramming for the final really help employers select the best firefighter for the job?

One of the things those who side with Ricci in this case say is that if a test was thrown out because only minorities were promoted as a result, it would be "an open-and-shut case of discrimination." Assumedly, they mean against the black test takers. But quite certainly, if the situation were reversed, people all over would look askance at the results? I mean, there may be some or many blacks proud of the achievement, but it certainly would be weird, right? And I can only imagine the kind of commentary conservatives would put on such a result, where only blacks qualified for promotion. Indeed, they would almost certainly by calling that reverse racism. And it would seem to me that under Title VII, they would have an equally strong case as the City does in this case. It would be statistically unlikely for that to happen by chance. Now, I can't say I would see it this way for sure if it were reversed, but I think we also all know it would be a surprising result that many would decry as being somehow discriminatory expressly because we don't expect blacks to uniformly outperform whites. This puts the institutional racism into somewhat more relief: whites have scored on average higher than blacks in any number of areas for America immemorial, and whether you think this continues because of institutional racism and unequal legacies from history (as I do) or because of some sociocultural or biological flaw, either way it would be surprising to see only blacks and Hispanics get promoted, even if in a majority-minority example (assuming it's not the kind of 98% black & Hispanic type disparity but rather say 60 or 70%). So what I'm saying is, I think many in our society would be MUCH more comfortable assuming a test which produced those results were flawed than they would be with a test producing complete over-representation by white test takers. But because we're used to whites doing better, it seems all the more galling that what Ricci supporters seem to assume is self-evidently a fair and applicable test would be thrown out.

If the situations were reversed, it might very well be open-and-shut discrimination case -- discrimination against the white employees in that case.

Two more things: if Ricci took 6 mos. off and spent $1,000 on tutoring, it also seems obvious that either the job training for the firefighters is deficient (if it takes that much effort -- so much that you stop fire-fighting for 6 mos. -- in order to qualify for advancement as a firefighter, then it would apparently seem like you can't learn enough about firefighting by actually doing it to be promoted), or that the testing is off. I mean, you can't (or at least, shouldn't) have to go through such extreme measures to advance within such a job -- we certainly wouldn't have wanted all of Ricci's colleagues to all take 6 months off at the same time to study! (Though I do believe I read he's dyslexic, so that might explain some or even all of the extreme effort he put in, now that I think of it.) In any case, it would seem like the only fair way to have advancement in such a case would be to have low-cost additional training available for everyone, so that being promoted didn't require that you have so much job flexibility and money. Second thing, though, is that people talk about it as if the blacks and Hispanics would have been blatantly unqualified to receive promotions -- but a number of them passed the damned test. Whether or not it's significantly important to take the 3 highest scorers depends on the content of the test -- which weirdly I have seen ZERO discussion of, so the question of whether or not it's completely and fairly job-relevant is unresolved -- but getting the highest score may or may not be relevant based on the content of the test itself, and on the other scores. If they were 95, 94, 93.5, 92, 92, 91 etc. and 70 was passing, the difference between the top scorers and the next several could be not practically meaningful.

Sigh. In my head, I'm hearing and thinking about various counter-arguments that I would expect from various friends of mine, so I could keep going on and on -- I was kind of trying to anticipate all the counterarguments ahead of time -- but that would go on even lONGER and I think that's unwise. So, yeah. Read Ford's piece -- I would in fact recommend it over reading all of the above (hah, too late) -- and think about institutional racism, and then, comment. Let's talk.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Torture and the Lying Liars Who Lie

Of course, the lying liars who lie aren't just our own former adminsitrationistas like Dick "Dick" Cheney but also likely those we tortured with techniques taken from Cold War-era Soviet and Chinese tactics:

Seeing as how these tactics have been said to have been used to elicit false confessions and/or evaluated by a number of notable military professionals as not reliable, you'd think this conversation could be wrapped up in short order.

Let's review the two key points again:
a) We called these same tactics torture when our enemies did them.
b) Our enemies used them to extract confessions which were likely to be, known to be, or intentionally elicited as false confessions.

Do we really need to argue more beyond those two points?

Apparently we do as long as Dick Cheney's grip on the Dark Side stays as strong as it is. He's more Dick now, than man... twisted and evil.

Words that make it unlikely I will see a movie

Preview of the must-not-see-movie of 2009:

Bloody genital mutilation scene.

(No worries: the link is just to an article talking about it, no surprise pics.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

I do not think your Iran means what you think it means

(ok, yes, I know, I've used that gag before, but, um, luckily, I have very few regular readers, so who'm I hurting?)

Nice article in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria here briefly highlighting the political structure of Iran (in brief: complicated) and why it might indeed not be developing nuclear weapons. (I've discussed this topic here, here, and here.) As I've said before and am saying again, and Zakaria backs me up on this, think the Mullahs and Ahmedinejad are crazy all you want, but they're not MAD; that is, they're not immune to the salient guiding ideas of nuclear weapons, Mutually Assured Destruction. Zakaria elaborates on the plans and aspirations of some within the Iranian regime, as well as the declarations of the present-day Iranian regime's founding father and other, um, luminaries that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic:
The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini's statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes.

Happily, most of the rhetoric seeming to be on a path to war with Iran has ceased, though the conclusion that they are developing nuclear weapons seems to continue unabated (and disbelief of the last time our own intelligence said they weren't developing weapons anymore and were less determined to do so than before is so high that it doesn't warrant a mention, seemingly).

(Hmm, immediate postscript: naturally, the debate on Iran's nuclear weapons development is more complicated than it appears, though I still tend to agree with Zakaria. But from Foreign Policy:
"This is another reflection of the grossly mistaken reaction to the intelligence estimate on this subject in late 2007, a reaction that stemmed in large part from some infelicitous and misleading formulations in the estimate itself," says former senior CIA official Paul Pillar. "The only thing reportedly halted in 2003 was weapons design work. More important is what [the LAT] mentions in the latter half of his piece, the continuation of uranium enrichment -- which, as the Bush administration correctly pointed out, is the long pole in the tent that will determine when Iran would have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Of course, developing nuclear power is well within Iran's international rights, it scares everyone to think that they could get close to a weapon. Suffice it to say, I'm scared of ANYONE having nuclear weapons, as everyone should be:
Surely no sane person wants Iran (or any nation) to develop nuclear weapons. A reasonable resolution of the present crisis would permit Iran to develop nuclear energy, in accord with its rights under the Non- Proliferation Treaty, but not nuclear weapons. Is that outcome feasible? It would be, given one condition: that the U.S. and Iran were functioning democratic societies in which public opinion had a significant impact on public policy.

As it happens, this solution has overwhelming support among Iranians and Americans, who generally are in agreement on nuclear issues. The Iranian-American consensus includes the complete elimination of nuclear weapons everywhere (82% of Americans); if that cannot yet be achieved because of elite opposition, then at least a "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East that would include both Islamic countries and Israel" (71% of Americans). Seventy-five percent of Americans prefer building better relations with Iran to threats of force. In brief, if public opinion were to have a significant influence on state policy in the U.S. and Iran, resolution of the crisis might be at hand, along with much more far-reaching solutions to the global nuclear conundrum.
--(from a piece by Noam Chomsky, re-posted in part in the J Continuum here).

And as I said in "Iran: Can't get fooled again?":
been used by... us, the US. We had our reasons (whose conclusions I question, but that's a different story). But nonetheless, in the issue of the insanity of destroying millions of people, only we have enaged in that. In the insanity of mutually assured destruction, well -- no one has ever engaged on that with nukes, and need we say that WE had the same posture on that as the USSR? Dr. Strangelove notwithstanding, we've not proved we're necessarily saner than self-concerned despots with nukes who refuse to use them so as to save their own hides. SO -- I'm just sayin', while it's too early to assume Ahmadinejad doesn't mean us harm and indeed is not the "Jew-hating, Holocaust-denying Islamo-fascist who has threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'" he's been said to be, it's also way too early to determine he IS, barring the "truthiness" we feel of an Iranian head of state being antagonistic, messianic, anti-semitic, and dangerous. Just because we looked Iran up in our gut and found it under "danger" doesn't mean that we're on our path to not being fooled again...

So... can we get fooled again?


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ending anti-racism?

J-truly is not going to get into this right now, but all should go read this post by Guerrilla Mama (h/t Quin on PunkAssBlog h/t Field Negro h/t Daktari II) on how she's decided she's not teaching anti-racism workshops any more. Her basic point(s) seem to be that, from her point of view, "anti-racism" education isn't achieving its goals, because those who seek to take it are either seeking to avoid a pending racial lawsuit or to build radical/racial cred without changing, acknowledging, or challenging white privilege. That many in her experience learn the language of anti-racism and use the language more towards being hip than towards changing their way of being -- understandable because of how hard it is to challenge yourself on a deep level, but completely antithetical towards the actual content and message of anti-racism. The commenters are fantastic and explore a lot of expansions, variations, and critiques on her point, with a discussion of how/whether normative white culture encourages/allows for a separation of words and deeds, intent and action, such that it matters more that you say your consciousness is changed or raised to understand racial issues than whether or not you change your behavior and how you conduct yourself day-to-day to reflect such a thing. And beyond that, how, in the G-Mama's mind, those who do earnestly wish to learn and challenge have such a wealth of material written about race, racism, privilege, anti-racism, etc. that a workshop is not just unnecessary but a crutch to avoid doing the hard work it does and will require to make changes to oneself and the world, and how all that material anyway is secondary to what someone on there calls radical honesty, and the ability to be aware of and try to address other people's perspectives. The point is, she says, everyone gets it wrong, but so many (white) people with no "training" achieve a more or less radical understanding by learning and only making new mistakes. When you find out a certain term or tone or approach is alienating or preserving systematic racism, you try a new term, tone, or approach, and also, you talk to those affected, learning from them and with them, with an openness and desire for understanding and change that is an important pre-condition for effectively learning what she might teach in anti-racism, but is a prereq that is (apparently) only rarely met in her experiences for such training.

So apparently, I actually am going to comment on this.

My quick dois centavos is that during my brief time at a Fortune 500 company making consumer products, we had Diversity Training, and its been one of the single most useful things I've experienced. Prime among the important lessons is something referred to obliquely, and in a different manner, on G-Mama's comment board: The Golden Rule is wrong. That is, don't treat others as you want to be treated, because that assumes everyone is like you, and they aren't -- whether they share your race, gender, religion, culture, or not. (But it especially may be true if they don't.) Treat others, get this, as THEY want to be treated. And how do you know how that is? Only through dialogue, by asking and by understanding and learning, through trial and error, will you know how that is -- but it is more likely to work and generate a good and healthy relationship than assuming they want to be treated as you do. (I've found this IN.VAL.U.ABLE. in personal relationships.)

Speaking of healthy relationships, G-Mama has a rather good post highlighting and praising this excellent entry on IllDoctrine, the Hip-Hop video blog (which I believe in turn I found a while back via EpicFu, meant to start following, and never did). I have no idea who this "Aster Roth" kid is, but J Smooth's smoothly produced vlog is a fantastic commentary (Aster Roth apparently played at Rutgers and joked "ironically" that he was hanging with "nappy headed hos", apparently not with malice but as a joke that, um, didn't work.) J Smooth:
[This] illustrates where a lot of us are at right now with race in america. We're in a new place right now. We're not in The Promised Land, but we're a few steps further down that road than we've ever been before. And as we make progress, we get more comfortable. And as we get more comfortable some of us get a little... extra comfortable. We start acting as if coming closer together means not having to care how our words affect each other. We start assuming we can make any kinda joke or use any kind of epithet without any kind of second thought because now that we've made all this progress - everyone's always gonna know we don't mean it like that.


Nooooooooo! That is not how this thing is gonna work!

...In any healthy relationship, the closer you get, the more you care about how you affect each other...and yet, somehow, in our racial interactions, we tend to forget that. And start thinking coming closer together means we can care less about how we affect each other.

See the whole thing here.

J Smooth couldn't be more right about relationships, racial or otherwise. Something we've said in my family is that being close to someone doesn't mean you get to treat them however you want because they already know that you love them; it means taking *extra* care to treat them right. It does mean that they will see you at your best and worst, and sometimes, it's all you can do to behave decently, or even sub-decently. But all the more because those times are going to happen, whenever you can, you should put out the extra effort, not the lower or below-average one. You appreciate them because you love them, you don't love them so you can depreciate them. J-Smooth:
The whole process of getting closer is becoming more aware of [the] constantly evolving boundaries [in the relationship], and getting better at respecting them... In any healthy relationship, the closer you get the more you care about how you affect each other... somehow in our racial interactions we tend to forget that, and tend to think that as we get closer to together, we can care LESS about each other's boundaries... 'Respecting each other's humanity is such a PAIN in the ASS, do we really have to do this FOREVER? Can't you guys just lighten up so I don't have to respect you anymore? Isn't the whole process of Coming Together As One so that I don't have to care what YOU think?

Anyway. J Smooth's points are good ones, and echoes something I posted before by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
"I never thought the fact that there was a magazine called Heeb gave me the right to address my Jewish buddies as such. More to the point--I never wanted to. ...What's the big beef? ...I don't get white people who have a hard time with this--you call your mother "Mom," I call her Ms. Phillips--same deal here. Nigger means one thing when used amongst a group of people with similar experiences, and something else when used by people outside of that experience.

So yeah. Go read, learn, see this good shit that I found by going down the rabbit whole of following the damn links on people's damn blogs. (How DARE they be so good, make me spend all this time reading them? =p

D-Constructing-D (General goodness)

Quin on PunkAssBlog (wherein the author, a white male, decides he needs to reconsider and start to take seriously the issue of "white male privilege", including the privilege he previously exercised of avoiding all discussions of gender or race)

Field Negro

Guerrilla Mama Medicine

Ill Doctrine

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cuba: Feast or famine?

Okay, the title is expressly over-the-top, but the topic of this post is the situation regarding food security in Cuba. As I've written elsewhere, as have a number of others, Cuba has had some amazing successes, among them innovation with alternative agriculture and food security. One of the Averii (Dennis & Alex), "prominent" (by which I mean, often-quoted at the very least) critics of organic/alternative agriculture recently wrote a critique of Cuba's system, saying that over-eager leftists had willfully or credulously parroted stories of Cuba's successes, when in fact, Cuba is presently importing 84% of its food. Well, respected (by which I mean, I personally and a number of others in and out of academia respect their work) students of food security Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset, and Cuban Fernando Funes (who is the first author) responded, (with the full version pdf to be found here), finding (you know, with research, actual visits to Cuba, empiricism, all those pesky details) that Avery perhaps reversed his numbers, as 2003 FAO data show that Cuba imported 16% of its food, or the exact inverse of Avery's number (which came from a supposed quote from a Cuban minister, possibly true, the three note, but nonetheless uncited and uncheckable in Avery's article). The three do admit that Cuba has had recent setbacks:
To be fair to him, anecdotal evidence gleaned by the authors on recent trips to Cuba does reveal a probable deterioration of this situation. To the best of our knowledge, after being hit by three hurricanes last year, Cuba imported 55% of the total food that it consumes (unofficial figures). There is also the more insidious effect of food imports from the U.S. under the humanitarian food purchase loophole in the trade embargo. It seems that the Cuban government at some point made a political decision to try to enlist support in the U.S. against the trade embargo and against possible military actions toward the island, by purchasing increasingly large and expensive amounts of essentially unneeded food products from American corporations. These growing imports have in recent years depressed national production in Cuba, something which President Raul Castro has stated that he is determined to address.

As for its agroecological/organic/alternative ag programs, Altieri recently expressed to me concern that there is some conflict within Cuba as to whether to continue or expand the alternative programs, as some apparently viewed low-(synthetic)input agriculture as a necessity of the "Special Period" following the collapse of Cuban patron state, the USSR, a necessity now no longer, er, necessary. Nonetheless, much has been written on the Cuban system, which remains a singular and powerful example of the potentials of alternative agriculture:
Cuba’s achievements in urban agriculture have also grown and are truly remarkable: 383,000 urban farms, covering 50 thousand hectares of otherwise unused land and producing more than 1.5 million tons of vegetables (top urban farms reach a yield of 20 kgs per square meter of edible plant material using no synthetic chemicals) enough to supply 70% or more of all the fresh vegetables in cities such as Havana, Villa Clara and others. No other country in the world has achieved this level of success with a form of agriculture that reduces food miles, energy use, and effectively closes local production and consumption cycles.

In the general sense that all systems are vulnerable to valid critiques, and the specific critiques possible of Cuba more generally (which I won't review extensively here, except to say that I find the typical American critiques wildly overblown but still acknowledge, as do all Cubans, pro-Castro or not, that there remains much to improve about their democracy; Cubans acknowledge this and point out that that should always be the case and that viewing democracy as a static, achieved ideal as we do in the US is actually inimical to real democracy) Avery has a point. But in the specifics -- the lack of productivity of Cuba's system, the evidence from its imports that its experiment has failed (indeed, Funes et. al point out that even such countries as, say, ours, the US, has recently imported around half of its agricultural supply, going into an agricultural trade deficit in the months of June and August of 2008) -- the senior Averii remains incorrect, as he has often been.

(Nota bene on the last link: some have maintained that Avery is correctly quoting Tauxe; I did once find the original source, a letter to a journal that quoted epidemiologist Dr. Tauxe, but having read extensively on the incident, plus having seen Dr. Tauxe present personally at a recent conference, I can personally guaruntee you that he does not presently, at least, view organic agriculture as having any systematically differing epidemiological risks as compared to conventional ag, him having specifically answered this question at the con.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Feel-Good Feel-bad clips of the year

HuffPo links to Media Matter's examples of good journalism, including several outbreaks of sense at Fox News. A good watch, to see that some people occasionally do show some sense, even on cable news. I call it feel-good feel-bad clips, because even though it's kind of heart-warming, most of the clips are journos correcting distorted perceptions of reality that are likely attributable to their own rather egregious reporting in the first place, indeed, sometimes reporting by the self-same people who are flagrantly conducting decent journalism within the clips (a la Bill O'Reilly, correcting misconceptions about ACORN, even while re-raising the canard about their "dubious" operations and honesty).

Also, read this, an old post critiquing Richard Cohen's complaints about Stewart & Colbert, especially in regards to the financial media. A post with the rare distinction of having commenters who make good points as well.

Obama and Fools' Gold Environmentalism

Read today's CounterPunch story by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank on how the ObamAdministration is letting us down on the environment.

From quietly continuing Bush Administration policies to drill offshore, support nuclear energy, de-list wolves from the Endangered Species Act, continue flawed market-based policies towards pollution that haven't worked for sulfur and likely will not work for carbon/Global Climate Change, it's a sad, poor bag, not really compensated for by his rather more admirable stance on Guantanamo Bay.

Excerpts from St. Clair & Frank:
It’s not just the wolf that’s been hung out to dry. Shortly after Obama’s inauguration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced they were revoking an 11th hour Bush directive that weakened the ESA listing process. However, shortly thereafter the Dept. of the Interior refused to repeal a special rule that would have granted the polar bear protection from the impacts of global warming. Salazar said his agency does not believe the law was intended to address climate change, even though many policy analysts believe the ESA could be used to limit the issuing of permits for development projects that would potentially threaten the polar bear by emitting additional greenhouse gases. "The Endangered Species Act is not the proper tool to deal with a global issue - global warming," Salazar said... The Obama administration, under Salazar’s watch, is refusing to lead the way in protecting the bear’s dwindling populations. Of course the oil and gas cartels were unabashedly pleased with the decision. So much for thinking globally and acting locally.

'We welcome the administration's decision because we, like Secretary Ken Salazar, recognize that the Endangered Species Act is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation's carbon emissions,' said American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard...

Off-shore oil drilling and a new generation of nuclear power plants represented the sum total of the McCain/Palin energy plan. Though it seemed like political comedy at the time, this strategy has now been at least partially embraced by the Obama administration. As the clock approached midnight on the final eve of the Bush administration, his Interior Department put forward a rule opening 300 million acres of coastal waters to oil drilling. According to the hastily prepared decree, the leasing was to begin by March 23. Enter Salazar with a maneuver that is typical of the Obama approach to environmental politics. Instead of killing the drilling plan outright, Salazar merely extended the analysis period for an additional six months. The environmental lobby was given a procedural crumb, while the oil hounds still had its long-sought prize on the table for the taking... Ken Salazar, accompanied by a consort of oil lobbyists, held four town hall forums this spring on off-shore drilling and left that distinct impression that he was leaning toward what he called a “comprehensive approach” to energy development, in which the oceans will be mined for off-shore wind, wave power and, yes, oil. This is proving to be an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “no”...

Down in Appalachia things are not much better, where the coal extraction industry was recently given the green light to proceed with 42 of its 48 pending mountaintop removal permits. While Obama speaks out about the negative impact of the aptly named mountaintop removal, where whole mountains are blown apart to expose thin lines of coal, he is not willing to take on an industry that continually pollutes rivers and threatens public health. 'If you still have an Obama sticker on your car, maybe think about scraping it off and sending it to the White House with your objections,” says Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero, who is working hard to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia and elsewhere...

When it comes to CO2 emissions, the EPA has also been more bark than bite. While admitting that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, the agency will not necessarily move to regulate industry emissions. White House climate czar Carol Browner and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson initially said that such a declaration would 'indeed trigger the beginning of regulation of CO2,' but only weeks later Jackson reversed her belief that industry would be affected by the White House’s admission. Speaking before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Jackson said on May 12: 'The endangerment finding is a scientific finding mandated by law ... It does not mean regulation.'

Read the whole thing here.

(And by the by: a big FUCK YOU to the numerous Senate Democrats who voted to block spending on closing Guantanamo Bay. Jason Linkins on the HuffPo says it nicely: is nonsensical to be told by the grown-ups who preside in the House and Senate, as well as those who pundit for a living on the teevee that American prisons -- sufficient to house all manner of depraved criminals -- were not up to the task of also housing the terrorists currently at Gitmo. Apparently, these grown-ups are unaware of America's awesome and terrifying ability to incarcerate people while simultaneously possessed by the belief that these detainees have MAGIC POWERS. Last week, the House GOP crafted a dumb bill called the Keep Terrorists Out Of America Act, sculpted from pure angel feces. And this week, the Senate Democrats caved in to the nonsense, removing the funding that President Barack Obama requested in the war spending bill to close the prison.
Read his takedown of this moronitude here, where he also links to Jon Stewart's excellent takedown, where, "in just six minutes time, delivered what should be considered the most comprehensive mocking of this cavalcade of poor reasoning, bad decisions and unadulterated stupidity.")

Friday, May 15, 2009

Blood From a Stone: The Compassion of a Conservative Heart

Read this Slate column by Doug Kendall and Dahlia Lithwick, discussing how the Republican outcry over the "empathy" Obama wants his Supreme Court Nominee to have is kind of fake, full of stickum, considering the way they too (not unfairly, if for underhanded purposes from a liberal perspective) play up empathy for those they consider to be "model plaintiffs" for Supreme Court cases they care about (i.e. "white 'victims' of affirmative action").

So despite this clever snippet from an earlier Slate article by Lithwick

And in a delicious Freudian slip, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama snorted: "I don't know what empathy means." You don't say.
apparently, they (conservatives) do. They just don't empathize with our Obama's desire for empathy because the empathy may not go the way they want it to. (And they'd likely be right, of course, in that an Obama nominee's sympathies wouldn't necessarily be with "victims" of affirmative action or those who want to keep handguns at home. Of course, you never know.)

Hypocrisy: It's ok when I do it.

Jim Cramer = Tim Russert = Bad Journalism?

Read this excellent Salon article by Glenn Greenwald comparing Jon Stewart's take-down of Jim Cramer a bit back to the general failures of (US?) journalism. Specifically using Tim Russert as an example, from when he interviewed Cheney on the "Saddam had aluminum tubes for centrifuges to make nukes" leak that had come from within the White House itself (which, this example in turn came from Bill Moyers):

BOB SIMON: Remarkable. You leak a story, and then you quote the story. I mean, that's a remarkable thing to do. . . .

TIM RUSSERT (MEET THE PRESS), TO CHENEY: What specifically has [Saddam] obtained that you believe will enhance his nuclear development program?

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know. The NEW YORK TIMES is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean-

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't have the-- This is, you know-- on MEET THE PRESS, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tubes story until I read it in the NEW YORK TIMES.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September Eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the Administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES. And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

My concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

BILL MOYERS: Bob Simon didn't wait for the phone to ring.

Point being, Russert didn't have to, or shouldn't, "wait for the phone to ring" to do research verifying or disputing his interviewees' stories:
I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.
What's interesting, among other things, is that Stewart never promotes himself as an arbiter of truth, he always says he's an entertainer and comedian, and I can't think of a single time when he implied, much less said, that getting information or informed comment from him was a good idea -- despite the fact that it is, especially in comparison to actual "journalists". Tucker Carlson, whose show Crossfire got canceled shortly after Jon Stewart made a mockery of it and Carlson (and Begala: "You guys are hurting America"), complained that Stewart "wanted to have it both ways", by having people take his concerns seriously, but also to say "he's just a comedian"; Carlson urged Stewart to stop criticizing them and just be funny, as if being a comedian means by default that he also can never say something serious. Here's the thing: even though Stewart is smarter than the average bear, his modesty, false or not, is the direct opposite of the Messianic or infallible impartial arbiters of news motifs of mainstream journalism. Stewart, in essence, ALWAYS implies, "check it out for yourself," because he never encourages the audience to take something on his authority (or, usually, his guest's either, since he usually asks -- *usually* asks -- questions that are intellectually critical focused on the author's work, and then of course, shills the book, but in Stewart's case, I feel like he himself actually read and processed the information in the book, so his shilling it rings much less hollow than, say, someone on The Today Show or Jay Leno would sound if he was hawking a book written by a think-tanker).

Intentional or not, Stewart's combination of intellectual analysis, critical thinking, and abject over-the-top "no, seriously, I am not that smart" comes close to the stance real journalists should have. And yet, it seems almost as if his protestations of not being a journalist in way is exactly what allows him the liberty to be as tough, intellectual, and thorough as he is... I mean, seriously, the world (or at least Sunday news) would be infinitely better with him as the interviewer on Meet the Press. With my admiration for him kept in mind, believe me when I say that I think that speaks much more negatively of the press than it speaks positively for him -- simply because the fact that he's doing a better job than they are is laudable, but the fact they do so poorly is simply inexcusable.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Daily Show: Fuck Yeah. (Coming again to save the motherfucking day, yeah.)

Satire is the only way!

I'm just reminded for the eleventieth time why Jon Stewart is so FUCKING awesome, and that those who've bemoaned the rise of The Daily Show as some kind of rise of political unawareness don't know their ass from a hat.

A) He is interviewing the ambassador from Pakistan, Husain Haqqani. He does this shit all the time -- he's had foreign dignitaries, like Bolivian president Evo Morales and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to Obama officials like Peter Orszag (director of the Office of Management and Budget) and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to important and (or?) thoughtful authors and thinkers, some with viewpoints he very much disagrees with, like Cliff May, and others like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Philip Alcabes. Don't recognize some or all of these names? Good. You see, that's called learning, baby. It feels real good, don't it?
B) He's fucking PREPARED for these interviews, asking Haqqani, for example, various detailed questions based in Stewart's studying of the issues and previous writings of his guest and others ("As you yourself has written sir..." is a phrase intimating research to a degree you don't often hear on late night shows like Leno or Letterman, or even to some extent on Lehrer, when the guest is neither promoting a book nor is a columnist.) He debated Cliff May on torture, and even though they disagreed on it (if I may grossly distort Cliff May's viewpoint, he's all for it), with May actually saying that it was probably the best discussion he'd had of the issue on TV. And I don't think he was bullshiting, either. All in all, Stewart's combination of thorough research, thoughtful analysis, and a (somewhat over-stated but, I think, genuinely felt) "everyperson" (aka "everyman") approach that keeps even hostile guests mostly open to continue the discussion.
C) Given his place (and Colbert's) as a cultural phenomenon in the space between late-nighters like Leno or Conan and earnest news magazines and interview segments on NewsHour, CNN, 60 Minutes, or what have you, his popularity with "the kids" is actually a fantastic thing. He not only invites thinkers, politicians, and authors (and also comedians, actors, musicians, and other people with less urgent effects on global politics), but he interviews them premised on a pretty high level of understanding from his audience. One might surmise that they're simply sitting through this but really there for the rest of the show, though I think one would miss about half the humor without a working knowledge of current events and politics (the other half the humor is a melange of puns, self-referential and self-mocking humor, and graphical puns). And in a way, that's the genius -- whatever the audience is "there for", the relatively high level of discourse in his political interviews might get some learnin' in for him and the audience, intended or not.

From the Colbert/Stewart approach, I feel you get a much more working understanding of global events and ideas than the drier approach of the Lehrer et. als (that tend to AVOID challenging guests on equivocation or directly contradicting them when they spin, and thus remain on a superficial level alarmingly akin to a typical late-night interview like Leno) and yet also keeps the fun of a Leno, Letterman-type interview with jokes, sarcasm, etc. while maintaining nuance and in-depth probing of ideas.

The only other person with comparable deftness and intellectual rigor as a pop figure is Bill Maher, who evinces a similar level of intellectual curiousity as Stewart. With both of them, you don't just get topical thinkers, but also challenging ones that you just don't see on any other channels or shows, news or entertainment, from authors and scientists that simply interest them or whom they find insightful to the dignitaries I mentioned earlier, who I haven't seen on any of the mainstream news shows -- but that could be because I don't typical watch them. (Still, I challenge you to show me an interview of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of similar length on TV -- which there may very well be, but I again doubt it had either the good-natured humor and non-forced light-heartedness of Stewart nor implied the depth of research he did.)

Ok, I'm done flogging TDS. I'm just saying -- at it's best, it's a TV show without parallel or competitor (well, except Bill Maher and sometimes Stewart's own protegé Colbert), and at its worst, it's probably a step or so ahead of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, the light-hearted NPR news quiz show focused on weird currents events to a greater extent than it is to any kind of education about the topics discussed.

Fuck yeah.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Killing Them (Minorities) Softly

Gotta call attention to this post at Feministing, which is in turn calling attention to this op-ed from NYT columnist Bob Herbert. F-ing makes additional great points on top of Herbert's -- that point being that the murders of minorities, especially non-white children, is wildly unequal, with a number of murders having taken place in Chicago this year, around 36 children apparently, a grim statistic pretty much unremarked upon in comparison to school and university shootings in majority-white schools. Feministing's Samhita says
"I actually think that Herbert is giving them an easy way out suggesting that it is just that mainstream media frequently overlooks the deaths and murders of people of color. When people of color are involved in the death or murder of a white person, that is definitely headline news..."
while Herbert is suggesting that the stories that cover the murder of women of color, poor people and other disenfranchised communities, it is not just that they are overlooked, it is that they are strategically woven into the narrative of good verse evil. White women are pitted against communities of color, contrasting innocent verses guilty.

Go and read both, and ask yourself how much you heard about this case, where in West Virginia a black woman's kidnappers
"forced her to eat rat droppings, choked her with a cable cord and stabbed her in the leg while calling her a racial slur, according to criminal complaints. They also poured hot water over her, made her drink from a toilet, and beat and sexually assaulted her during a span of about a week, the documents say."
I myself didn't know anything about this, that it had even ever occurred, until I listened to an old Democracy Now! podcast. Hopefully, I was just intensely in dissertation mode and it really was big news, hopefully I was in a bubble and missed the huge national attention turned to this horrific incident, the public questioning of ourselves as a country and what could be done to prevent this, and the deaths in Chicago, and the deaths and injustices heaped on everyone of every color, no less against blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays and lesbians or transgender or anyone else than against white heterosexuals, because riddle me this -- can you imagine a white woman being kidnapped by six black people, tortured by them, called racial epithets, and raped, and her story not becoming a lasting national memory? Certainly, part of it would be its memorability as "man bites dog" (or "black supremacists attack whites"), that is, because it is a less familiar story, but doesn't the familiarity of black-on-white crime, its quasi-quotidian quality, disturb one in and of itself?....

Iran: Not Crazy After All These Years

Not to overflog what ends up being a small, reluctant, and late-in-coming symbolic gesture, but Slate's TP notes today:
The NYT and LAT front, and everyone covers, news that the Iranian-American journalist who had been convicted of spying in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison was released yesterday. Roxana Saberi had been in jail since January, and the Obama administration had been speaking up to try to secure Saberi's release. Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a careful review of the case in what the NYT says might have been a bid to try to improve relations with the United States before the June elections. The LAT takes it a bit further and says that while the arrest shows the Iranian system remains unpredictable, it's at least "capable of flexibility, pragmatism and even damage control." Ahmadinejad's press adviser cryptically declared: "Maybe we want people to read into this." (emphasis added)

The reason this is significant is that one of the arguments for why Iran is an "existential threat" to US interests, Israel, and even the US homeland itself, is that as militant crazy-fuck religious extremists, it is proclaimed, assumed, declared, etc. that they can't be reasoned with, that engagement doesn't work, and that if they did get nukes, somehow the realpolitik of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) wouldn't work on them. (An alternative analysis of course is that Iran wants nukes to put it on par with Israel and as a safeguard against US or Israeli attack, especially as Israel is an undeclared nuclear power and therefore technically should NOT be eligible for "U.S. economic, and military assistance, and export credits", rather than historically being the single biggest recipient of US foreign aid, receiving more than all of Latin America and the Caribbean in 1998, or ~12% of total US foreign aid*.)

If Iran indeed is pliable to the normal carrots and sticks of international politics, it can hardly be viably referred to as an "existential threat", certainly not uncategorically so, especially in light of Israel's NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) intransigence on the one hand, and, say, Egypt's former and still status as one of the top five recipients of US foreign aid despite its continued, and largely unremarked-upon in the US, political repression of its own citizens. That is to say, if Iran, a state the US considers to be an antagonist, if not an enemy, is seemingly equally or more willing to release an injustly jailed reporter than Egypt, a nominal US ally, it would appear irrational to consider Iran an irrational state immune to normal negotiation, and therefore, only "solvable" militarily.

*For reasons unknown to J, foreign aid to Israel from the US appears to have declined 90% in the past decade, which I have not heard referenced in the news at all. Part of it is certainly shifts in aid to Afghanistan and Iraq, but Israel in 2007 was also surpassed by countries like Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many others. My guess is that aid to Israel has shifted to more "off-the-books" types, that is, not illegal aid, but indirect aid like discounted weapons sales, but I have no evidence for that. Still, it seems simply unlikely that US policy to Israel would have such a dramatic shift without remark in the US press or Israeli statements reported in the US. It seems more likely to me that aid was quietly changed than that it was quietly dropped to one of the lower rates among our major allies, client states, and poorer "Third World" countries.