Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

The poet and critic Adrienne Rich died a couple of days ago, one more casualty in my parents' generation. Her poetry, I confess, never mattered to me as much as it did to many other people, but I always read it anyway. I'm attached to a few of her poems, like "The Middle Aged," which describes the faults that underlie the seemingly stable marriage of an older couple from the viewpoint of a young married woman. The poems in Diving Into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language (1978) had their moments, especially the twenty-one love poems to another woman in the latter, though they weren't as unprecedented as some people now seem to want to remember: her younger contemporary Audre Lorde went there before, and had helped make Rich's effort possible. She wasn't even the first important white lesbian poet, or the first lesbian Yale Younger Poet -- I much prefer Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, who won that honor in 1935, to Rich's.

But this is all personal taste; I don't feel competent to make critical judgments of poetry. And I remember hearing Rich give a reading at IU in 1979, which I can date accurately because I brought with me a new copy of her first volume of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silences (1979), for her to autograph. She did, saying in mild surprise, "Oh -- it's out already." A friend got me into a faculty and graduate student reception / party afterward, and I took the opportunity to tell her how much I liked hearing her longer poems read aloud, that I thought they worked better that way than when I read them from the page. That comment seemed to please her, and I was happy to be there to make it because most of the men present, mainly faculty, were hostile and misogynist, and hardly anybody else present seemed to know her work. All too typical, especially in those days.

Rich's prose affected me much more deeply than her poetry. Of Woman Born (1976) had some serious flaws, but it was still a powerful and moving work. I'd already read her "Woman and Lying: Notes on Honor" when it was published as a chapbook, and liked it a great deal. Her other essays in On Lies, Secrets and Silences, especially those on Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson, influenced my reading and thinking forever after. I read all of Bronte, especially, as a result, and explored Dickinson's work more than I had before.

What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) is a great book on poetry, up there with Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry (1949); it sent me back to poetry as a reader at a time when I wasn't reading much. The examples and commentaries she provided gave me direction and ideas for more reading. (When I reread it a decade later, I still liked it but a little less; maybe I'll write more about that sometime, this isn't the place for it.) And I was struck by her insistence on the importance of poetry, her pointing out that in other societies poetry is taken much more seriously: it's hard to imagine a poet being jailed or murdered simply as a poet in the United States, as has happened in other countries.

I also honor her refusal of a National Medal for the Arts from Bill Clinton in 1997. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn't mistake Clinton for a liberal.

A commenter on her obituary at the New York Times wrote, "This kind of politicized verse, beloved of every ism-loving poetaster, is condemned to a quick and dusty death on the shelves. No one will read this kind of thing a century hence; nor 30 years hence." Most poetry, whether it's politicized or not, goes unread a century or even thirty years after it was published. But "Diving into the Wreck" is still being read, and still has meaning, for many people after almost forty years. No one can foresee the future of literary reputation, but I'd say Rich has a shot at being remembered for a good long time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Service Advisory

Out of town traveling for a few days. I may have opportunity to write, I may not. I'll be back at the keyboard when I can.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prophecies of Mass Destruction

I've been meaning for a while to write more about "end-times" stuff, but it's such a big subject; the last time I sat down to write about what should be a simple topic (homosexuality and Christianity), I ended up with 500 or so typewritten pages. I learned a lot by doing that, so it was worth it. And really, this is a much smaller topic, but it lends itself to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Still, I'm going to duck the main event for awhile longer. Today I'm reading Elaine Pagels's newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking Penguin, 2012). Pagels got her start as a student of the Nag Hammadi "library" of mostly Christian writings that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels established her as a popularizer of early Christianity, both orthodox and heterodox; it also made her a convenient target for reactionary Christians who wanted to stick with a medieval version of Christian history.

In the new book she tries to put the biblical Apocalypse of John (also known as the Book of Revelation; "apocalypse" means uncovering or revelation) into its historical context. I've written before about the Apocalypse and the way it makes many orthodox Christians uncomfortable even though it is in the canon; unlike the Nag Hammadi books and others, it's an official part of the Christian (though not the Jewish) Bible. Pagels isn't uncomfortable with the material, but I'm still not very happy with her account of it, though I admit that my displeasure comes down more to matters of interpretation than of major questions of fact.

For example, Pagels believes that Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:5) is authentic -- that is, the gospel writers didn't invent and put the prediction into his mouth, he actually made it himself. She summarizes her reasons for thinking so.
First, because other prophets had made similar predictions before its destruction, as did Jesus ben Ananias, in the early 60s; second, because Mark's account is contradictory, claiming that Jesus was accused of having threatened to destroy the temple -- an accusation Mark insists is entirely false (Mark 14:56-58); third, when Mark admits that Jesus did prophesy the temple's destruction (Mark 13:1-2), the account of his words does not accord with what had actually happened, as one would expect with retrojected prophecy (there are stones standing upon others -- quite a few of them, to this day) [184 note 31].
I don't find this persuasive. Her first point, about earlier predictions, could just as easily support an argument that Jesus' predictions were inauthentic, especially since the example she gives also is known only from a source written after the destruction of the Temple, namely Josephus' Jewish War. The story also contains some dubious details that I won't go into now; click through, read it and see what you think. (People are apt to invent after-the-fact omens; there are people, for instance, who believe that John Kennedy went to Dallas on November 22, 1963, knowing that he would be assassinated there.) Her second point is strange, though it's true that Mark's account is contradictory. Notice that Mark's 'admission' occurs before the accusation was made against Jesus; and that a prediction is not a threat, though people are prone to confuse the two. Numerous scholars have argued that someone might have overheard Jesus' prediction and mistaken it for a threat, but this is highly speculative, and the gospel writers seem to be as confused about the matter as Jesus' accusers would have been.

In her final point Pagels seems to shoot herself in the foot. If the prediction isn't accurate, then it's a false prediction, and we know what the Bible says about false prophets. But a lot of Christians, ranging from laypeople to scholars, have assumed that it was accurate: that the Temple was totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as Jesus foretold it. The authors of the gospels probably never saw the extent of the destruction -- Church tradition has all of them writing far from Jerusalem, so even the most orthodox Christian has no basis for assuming otherwise -- and Mark probably didn't know whether one stone was left standing upon another. And Mark put another false prediction into the same passage, namely that Jesus would return on clouds of glory at the right hand of Power before the generation of his original followers had died off. Was that one authentic, too?
Which brings me to the main reason why the presence of an accurate prediction in an apocalyptic discourse counts against its authenticity, and not in its favor: in a typical apocalypse, most of its predictions are "retrojected," because normally an apocalypse is written from the viewpoint of someone who lived long before -- centuries in the case of Daniel or Enoch, decades in the case of Jesus. The predictions begin from the past figure's own time, and are taken from history, not prediction, until the present time of the apocalyptic writer. Daniel, for example, is supposed to have lived during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE), but most scholars believe that the Book of Daniel was written in the mid-to-late 160s BCE. The "predictions" in the book stop being accurate at the time of its writing, so there's no reason to believe that Daniel accurately foresaw historical events from 538 to 165 BCE; the author of the book retrojected them. (The New Testament Revelation is an exception to this pattern; the writer who was granted the visions is avowedly writing not about the distant future but about recent events and events very soon to come. He was wrong too.) So, when you find accurate predictions in an apocalyptic work, the best presumption is that they were written after the fact. Even if Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple, he also evidently predicted his return immediately afterward; so either he got lucky, or Mark invented the prediction (or it was invented by someone Mark used as a source) and put it into Jesus' mouth.

We'll never know for certain because we don't know exactly when the gospels were written or what material their authors had to work with. Pagels agrees with many if not most other New Testament scholars that the gospels were written after the burning and desecration of the Temple in 70, which is another reason to conclude that Jesus' prediction was invented to fit the history.

A large part of the problem isn't Pagels's fault. Standard early Christian history is complicated by scholars' need to reconcile the confused and historically unreliable New Testament material with sound historical practice. So, for example, while discussing the Apocryphon (or Secret Book) of James from Nag Hammadi, she writes,
Here the author deliberately recalls -- and challenges -- what many Christians believe, having read the New Testament Book of Acts. For the Book of Acts says that after Jesus died, he appeared to his disciples in resurrected form and continued to speak with them for forty days, but that then he ascended bodily into heaven: "As they were watching ... a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going ... they were gazing upward toward heaven." Traditionally, Christians have taken this to mean that after that time, those seeking access to Jesus could find it only indirectly, through "apostolic tradition," as they called the oral and written accounts that the apostles were said to have handed down for the benefit of those born too late to ever speak directly with Jesus [87-88, italics and ellipsis in original].
Ay, what a mess. I'm not sure how much of this is Pagels's account of what "many Christians believe" and how much is what she thinks the New Testament actually says. Start with the Book of Acts, which was probably written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke. Although Acts does say that Jesus ascended to heaven after forty days, it also shows Jesus appearing to various people after that time. Not only did Jesus appear "in his resurrected form" to Paul (Acts 9:3ff), which is hardly obscure, but
10 ...there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
12And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
Even according to Acts, then, Jesus appeared to at least two people after he'd ascended into heaven, so what "many Christians believe, having read the New Testament Book of Acts" is not what the New Testament Book of Acts says. And that's only Acts. According to the gospel of Matthew, which doesn't mention an ascension into heaven, Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee, and told them, "... and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world" (28:20). If the author of Matthew had written his own Acts of the Apostles, it would probably have looked quite different from Luke's Acts. One reason Christians have been able to rely on Acts so much is that, unlike the gospels, it has no New Testament competitors for the period it covers. (Except for Paul's own writings, which are also inconsistent with Acts on numerous points.)

This is ironic, considering the wrath of orthodox Christians over scholarly and popular interest in non-canonical Christian writings like the Nag Hammadi material. They claim that they follow the New Testament writings, which are the only authoritative early Christian sources -- but in fact, much of what they believe is not what is written in the New Testament: they omit and add and reinterpret to suit their needs. Not that Pagels's account, or the non-canonical books she discusses, are authoritative either: they're just different.

(One minor, maybe technical point that keeps bugging me: strictly speaking, "revelation / apocalypse" isn't prophecy, and prophecy isn't apocalypse. Scholars usually distinguish between the two genres, and I'll try to write more about this before long. Maybe more important, as Pagels surely knows, prophecy doesn't necessarily involve prediction, especially not prediction of the far future. A prophet is a human being, not always male, through whom a god speaks. He or she may have visions, but his or her function is as a messenger from the god, and he or she usually makes threats and promises about the present or the immediate future. Jonah's announcement to Nineveh is typical: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Jeremiah's prediction that the exile in Babylon would end in seventy years is atypical, as well as arithmetically inaccurate. The Christian claim that Jesus' career was foretold by the prophets is based on some very wild misinterpretations of the prophets. Jesus himself was not a prophet, though the concept of what a prophet was had undergone some historical change since Isaiah and Jeremiah. And I concede, grumpily, that nowadays "predict" and "prophesy" are used interchangeably, even by scholars; but in a discussion of apocalyptic writings and beliefs, it seems to me that they should be distinguished.)

If You Chain a Dozen Right-Wing Writers to Typewriters ...

... how long will it take them to come up with Atlas Shrugged?

RWA1 just endorsed the Thanks to Starbucks campaign, an online petition supporting the Evil Scorched Caffeine Empire's support for same-sex marriage in the face of a campaign by the Christian Right. I added my name to the petition myself after a moment's equivocation, because it's a single-issue petition that doesn't do anything but give Starbucks a pat on the back for doing the right thing. It doesn't mean I like Starbucks, or would ever spend money in one; I don't drink coffee anyway, but if I did I would support independent cafes rather than an international corporate franchise. (I was about to add "with dubious ethics," but that would be a tautology.)

But here's why I mention RWA1: he commented "Thank Starbucks for resisting bigotry," but he was furious when the Susan Komen Foundation took heat for defunding Planned Parenthood, calling the reaction "the most brutal enforcement of liberal orthodoxy i have seen in fifty years." (No doubt because "I have queasy feelings about the subject of abortion".) Soon afterward he commented on the Catholic birth-control controversy that "Obama's message is that women's (and everyone's) bodies belong to the state, and there will never be an end to their intrusions on private decisions, if only to care for their "property" and to mitigate the costs of taking care of it." This indicates that he bought into the deranged right-wing meme that the contraception mandate would force women to use birth control whether they wanted to or not; of course the opposition came from ultra-conservative males whose message was that women's bodies belong to the Church. And not longer after that he commented on a state-level controversy that "The Girl Scouts have become a little PC, but this is outrageous. Bible-thumping zealots are getting too assertive in the legislature." But what about the Children, being brainwashed into Planned Parenthood Obamacare robots by the feminazis?

Oddly, though, RWA1 doesn't care about the brutal enforcement of liberal orthodoxy where same-sex marriage is concerned, even though it's exactly the same kind of issue: a virulent right-wing minority is claiming that this government action will force them to conform to liberal values. That's probably more true of same-sex marriage, in fact, than of the contraception mandate. No one will have to use birth control just because their insurance covers it, and no one will have to gay-marry if they don't want to. But it is true that the legalization of same-sex marriage will change the public face of civil marriage, and the churches will have to grapple with the issue even if they ultimately reject it. Bigots will have to explain to their kids why men are married to men and women are married to women. In principle this should be no more of a problem than explaining to them why not all Christians share their particular version of the faith, but it will be one more burden on their shoulders.

I'm not sure why RWA1 is willing to see gay marriage forced down the throats of the same people whose throats he wants to protect against birth control pills and recreational abortion. It looks like he wants there to be one issue he can appear to be liberal on (especially as he vibrates with the white racist background radiation that has been on the rise lately); this makes a person "unpredictable", which is widely considered a virtue in our debased political culture.

Monday, March 26, 2012

You Can Lead an Audience to the Theater, But You Can't Make It Think



I picked up a copy of Conversations with Edward Albee (Mississippi, 1988) at the library book sale the other day. I love reading collections of interviews, and Albee has been one of my favorite playwrights since I started reading him in my sophomore year of high school, almost fifty years ago. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is virtually burned into my brainpaths.

To be honest, though, I've neglected Albee's work for about the past decade. One happy result of reading this collection of conversations is that I checked out the third volume of his collected plays, most of which I haven't read yet.

The early interviews in the book, especially, took me back. I was greatly influenced for a while by Albee's pronouncements on critics and literature, though they seem simple-minded to me now. For example:
What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner -- that what was constituted then was a type of censorship ... You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it's about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention [60].
This sort of thing impressed me when I was seventeen. Now I think it's absurd, because I don't think the "manner" can be separated from the "matter" of a work of art. (I noticed too that on a couple of occasions Albee expressed extreme dislike for the popular comedies of Neil Simon, but because of their matter instead of their manner: he grants that Simon "writes the kind of play he writes very expertly indeed" [82]; by Albee's stated criteria, that should mean that Simon's art is valid, but he doesn't seem to think so.) The reason why criticism is so hard to do well is that the critic must deal with both subject and execution -- as must the artist. But what I also see now is that the "critics" (actually newspaper and newsmagazine reviewers) who bedeviled Albee and other writers were just really bad critics, neither very knowledgeable about drama or any other art nor very intelligent on any level. They were also gatekeepers of a kind, writing for a male audience they presumed to be much like themselves.

Consider the claim, which I've often encountered over the years, that Virginia Woolf was "really" about two gay couples rather than two heterosexual married couples. Even Leslie Fiedler, who really should have known better, bought into it. It turns up in Conversations in a 1966 Paris Review interview of Albee by his former "roommate," the composer William Flanagan. As Albee said, "Only the most callow or insecure or downright stupid critic would fault Proust's work, for example, for the transposition that he made of characters' sexes" [53].

What must have been running through their minds when they discussed this question? They knew very well that they were both queer, but such a fact couldn't be acknowledged in print at that time unless you were Robert Duncan or Allen Ginsberg. (And it was irrelevant anyhow.) But in this post-2000 conversation for PBS's In the Life between Albee and Kathleen Turner, who played Martha in the 2005 Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf?, Albee says simply what was surely the main factor: homophobic critics tried to smear the play by fag-baiting the playwright, and claiming that it was really about homosexuals and therefore lacked True Universality. (This sort of thing is still with us, often involving the same offenders. And nowadays some gay critics agree that Williams, Albee, and others wrote coded homosexual works that should be retroactively de-closeted; I don't think that's an improvement.)

In a couple of the interviews, Albee contrasts his work with socially conscious plays of the 1930s, and deploys the quip that if you want art to contain a message, send a telegram. At the same time, his work was avowedly a critique of modern American society; he insisted that an artist should make the audience uncomfortable, should make them think about their lives, and so on. While I admit that this is not quite the same thing as the overt preaching of Proletarian Art, I still think it's a message. I just don't think a message is a bad thing. As Joanna Russ argued,
it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value. Generally readers don't notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones as "Political". Hence arises the insistence (in itself a very vehement, political judgment) that art and politics have nothing to do with one another, that artists ought to be "above" politics, and that a critic making political comments about fiction is importing something foreign into an essentially neutral area. But if "politics" means the relations of power that obtain between groups of people, and the way these are concretely embodied in personal relations, social institutions, and received ideas (among which is the idea that art ought not to be political), then such neutrality simply doesn't exist. Fiction which isn't openly polemical or didactic is nonetheless chock-full of politics. If beauty in fiction bears any relations to truth (as Matthew Arnold thought) then the human (including social and political) truth of a piece of fiction matters for aesthetic reasons. To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political [originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979, 103; reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press, 2007), 165].
Even when I was younger I noticed that Albee was, if not preachy, at least grinding an ax. And now it looks as though he imported some of his beliefs into his work more overtly than I'd thought. George makes some remarks about "evolution" in Virginia Woolf that I naively took for the character's opinions, not his author's. (Just as I hoped George's equation of contraception with murder wasn't Albee's opinion.) But in a 1975 interview Albee says of his play Seascape, in which a suburban married couple encounter a lizard married couple from under the ocean:
... The play is about whether or not evolution has taken place. Sometimes I've got my doubts.

Jeanne Wolf: You're not sure if we're growing?

Edward Albee: I don't share the view that we're on the way up, anyway.

Jeanne Wolf: What would be the way up? Where should we go?

Edward Albee: I don't know, but the whole assumption that we're at the top of the pile just because we're the most recent animal strikes me as being a fallacious assumption. I thnk we're making sort of a mess of it. Maybe we'll stop being one of the two or three animals that kills its own kind, for example. We're the only animal that is polluting the atmosphere so that it can't survive anymore. No other animal does that. And this can't be high intelligence that creates global suicide.

Jeanne Wolf: Is it your intention then to call our attention to this predicament?

Edward Albee: In this play I'm certainly concerned with whether or not we shouldn't look to see whether as splendid as we think we are and if we don't have something to learn from our theoretical inferiors [117].
When Albee expresses "doubts" about whether "evolution has taken place," he doesn't seem to mean that he doubts that species change by natural selection, but that human beings have climbed higher on the Great Chain of Being -- which is not part of Darwin's theory. It's not easy to tell in this passage what are Albee's beliefs about evolution and what he's attributing to other people. Like many educated lay believers in Evolution, though, Albee was a Spencerian here, not a Darwinian. In any case, he definitely talks as though he meant Seascape to have a message, albeit more tastefully and subtly expressed than the vulgar Commercial Theater would dictate.

And oh yes, the Commercial Theater. Certainly Albee's right about the problem posed by Broadway's dominance, and about the way that huge production budgets adversely affect the quality of the shows. It seems obvious to me that, as with corporate media generally, the answer is to quit conceding that Broadway, or New York City, is American theater. Part of the problem is the nature of theater itself: a film can be distributed and shown widely, and every audience will see the same film. Theater is an inevitably local and transient phenomenon because of the very qualities Albee rightly stresses: every performance is unique, and it takes place in the presence of the audience, with the cast right in front of them instead of projected on a screen. (Performances can be recorded on video, of course, but that's not the same as live theater either.) The remedy is more theater everywhere, and that seems to be happening, if not enough. Albee himself has used his prominence to promote theater outside of the Broadway system, and he deserves great credit for that.

And my word, he's 83 now, still writing, still working. Which reminds me of something that I noticed while skimming over Virginia Woolf today. George and Martha often tease each other in the play about their respective ages -- George is 46, Martha 52 -- and at one point Martha refers to the 30s musical Chicago, "starring Little Miss Alice Faye." George says mockingly, "Well, that was before my time..." But think about it: the play was originally produced in 1962, so think of it as taking place in 1960. George would have been born around 1914, Martha in 1908. Both of them could easily have seen Chicago in its first run. The past is rushing away very fast.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Teacher, Educate Thyself!

There's a good post (or so it looks to me, I have no legal background) by bmaz at Emptywheel on the coming oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare." Among other things, consider the irony of the Right seeking an activist Supreme Court to overturn a law they don't like. As the post concludes, "One thing IS certain, when the dust has settled, one side will say the Supremes are beautiful minds, and the other will say they are craven activist tyrants."

There's one aside in the piece that stuck in my attention, though, and merits comment. (Also chastisement.) bmaz considers an analogy, posed by an opponent of ACA, between the individual mandate (requiring everyone to purchase health insurance) and a hypothetical federal mandate to keep everyone in school until the age of 18. What do you think of that, ya libs? asks the right-wing critic. "Anyone think the government should win?"

I'd say no, but I'm not a Supreme Court Justice. And maybe, in terms of law and precedents, they should. bmaz replies (emphasis added by moi):
Actually David, yeah I wouldn’t have a real problem with that. As a sage friend related to me this morning, there is a direct correlation between a nation’s ability to compete in a world market and the level of education provided to it’s citizens. Citizens with less, or poorer, education harm the entire nation – it’s welfare, it’s defense, its very liberties and it’s ability to defend itself against threats and enemies, foreign and domestic. I think that is exactly right; if you accept the individual mandate is constitutionally agreeable, it would be hard to see how you could disagree with an “education mandate”.
bmaz may know a lot about the law, but not about educational issues, or apparently economic competitiveness. (Notice, by the bye, how the apostrophes take over the next sentence, though that's trivial; it's just amusing.) Actually, there is no direct correlation between a nation's ability to compete in the world market and the level of education provided to its citizens. bmaz's sage friend's dictum set off alarm bells in my head, and I looked up some of the late Gerald Bracey's remarks on this subject -- it was what you might call a pet peeve of his.

In 2007 Bracey discussed a World Economic Forum report on global competitiveness which covered twelve factors in ranking nations. The WEF ranked the US #1 at that time (admittedly before the worldwide collapse of 2008), though our rankings varied widely in the twelve factors. In number 4, Health and Primary Education, we ranked 34th in the world; in number 5, Higher Education and Training, we ranked 5th. Interestingly, given what I've been hearing lately, we ranked number 1 in both Labor Market Efficiency and Innovation. Even if we don't have a federal mandate on education, it's not hurting us much.

Bracey also pointed out:
First, though, we have to take a look at the concept of competitiveness. Many people take it as a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose. Not so. The computer chip was invented in the U.S. Many other nations benefited. If some young medical student in Nigeria invents a cure for AIDS, the world, not just Nigeria, will win.
Which is a reminder that harping on competitiveness, internationally or locally, is basically a dumb idea. (I've written about that before. See also this post by Bracey.) Bracey had other useful things to say on the subject five years earlier.
But there is a broader, more objective means of looking for any relationship. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides test scores for 41 nations, including the United States. Thirty-eight of those countries are ranked on the World Economic Forum’s CCI. It’s a simple statistical matter to correlate the test scores with the CCI.

There is little correlation. The United States is 29th in mathematics, but second in competitiveness. Korea is third in mathematics, but 27th in competitiveness. And so forth. If the two lists had matched, place for place, that would produce a perfect correlation of +1.0. But because some countries are high on competitiveness and low on test scores (and vice versa), the actual correlation is +.23. In the world of statistics, this is considered quite small.

So, direct correlation? It doesn't look like it. Sage Friend isn't so sage after all.

There are other reasons to doubt the wisdom of a federal educational mandate, apart from its legality or constitutionality. And it's not only the Right that opposes ACA's individual mandate for health insurance. As bmaz concedes,
This is about far more than Obama’s questionably cobbled together ACA law; the law is inane in how it soaks Americans to benefit craven insurance companies. Either way, sooner or later, healthcare as constructed and/or mandated by the ACA will die a painful death, but will continue to decimate American families for years, irrespective of the ruling by the Supreme Court on its nominal constitutionality. At some point, single payer, such as “Medicare For All” is inevitable.
So, while emptywheel is a very informative and intelligent blog, its writers do have their blind spots. I wish bmaz would ditch the schoolyard homophobia too.

Friday, March 23, 2012

R U Ready 2 Riot?

I can hear the yowling of the students across the street, so the IU-Kentucky game must have started. City authorities have been preparing for this one: there will be no parking on the main student avenue, to make it less likely that cars will be overturned by celebrants, as happened in December; and to make it easier for police to "control" the crowds. But don't worry, the police don't use billy clubs or tear gas or tasers on students who are high on Hoosier Hysteria. They don't even arrest a lot of them.
The front page of the local newspaper on the right (you can click on the picture to enlarge it) is dedicated to tonight's game, though an item below the fold describes the increased police presence arranged for the downtown area and campus. That includes the fountain in the photo below, because it's a campus tradition to steal the dolphins from it when IU wins an important game.
I'm not just venting because I'm a cranky old man who wants to deprive students of the only meaningful memories they'll have from their college days (though I wonder how much they'll actually remember anyway, given the level of alcohol consumption expected tonight). I live far enough from the free-property-damage zone that I probably won't hear the noise. As I wrote before, what bothers me is that the same people who denounce the Occupy movement for violence, disorder, and filth just smile benignly at the greater disorder that routinely accompanies college and professional athletics.

UPDATE: If you follow college basketball, you probably know that Kentucky defeated Indiana, 102-90. Last night around 1 a.m. I heard a bunch of young men screaming "Fuck this shit! Fuck this shit!" outside on the street. They were at a student-inhabited house across the street, and when I peeked out I saw that they were throwing trash-can lids down on the sidewalk to express their anguish at the loss. Unfortunately the lids were plastic, so they didn't make much noise, and one or two of them, bawling "Fuck them!" broke a couple of beer bottles. "Guys ... c'mon," one of them exhorted the others. After a couple of minutes they moved on. Poor babies, they didn't even get to overturn a car. Whatever happened to justice?

This reminded me that a week or so back I was awakened in the middle of the night by a chorus of male voices chanting rhythmically, "Fuck the Boilermakers, Fuck the Boilers!" as they walked home from the downtown bars. Too bad, it looks like Calipari creamed on Crean's face last night, har har har. It's the sort of thing that made America great. ... I am so relieved that IU is out of the competition; it could only have gotten worse as they moved to the finals.

UPDATE 2: I just found this post-loss lamentation on the student newspaper's website:
It just wasn’t the same.
The Bloomington Police Department cars were there, the crowds were there, the cream and crimson shirts were there, but it just wasn’t the same.

Four months ago, the last time IU Coach Tom Crean and his Hoosiers took on the Kentucky Wildcats, this street had to be closed to vehicular traffic because an army of Hoosiers had stormed the intersection of Kirkwood Avenue and Dunn Street.

Four months ago, cars were destroyed, music blared out of apartment windows and fans jumped and sang and danced and shouted.

But this time, after IU fell to Kentucky 90-102 Friday night, fans held their heads low and migrated from Nick’s English Hut and Kilroy’s on Kirkwood to go back home after a long, hard evening.
Let me hear ya say "Awwwwwww...." Poor babies.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Come Sit Here By Me

Democracy Now! reported this morning that President Obama has announced his support for "the southern leg" of TransCanada's Keystone pipeline, to run from Oklahoma to Texas:
President Obama: "There’s a bottleneck right here because we can’t get enough of the oil to our refineries fast enough. And if we could, then we would be able to increase our oil supplies at a time when they’re needed as much as possible. Now, right now, a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state-of-the-art refineries down on the Gulf Coast. And today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done."
I thought I'd done a cynical post when Obama rejected the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas pipeline, to predict that he'd back down very soon; but it seems I didn't. What I wonder now is how many liberal Democrats will attack him for pronouncing "oil" as "ole", the sort of thing he usually does when he wants to sound populist. (The video clip is accessible through the link above.)

What Obama didn't mention was that those "state-of-the-art refineries" are in what's called a foreign-trade zone in Port Arthur, Texas, and that the oil they refine will be shipped to Asia, not to retailers in the US.
At a congressional hearing in December, [Representative Ed] Markey asked the president of TransCanada if he would agree to allowing Keystone XL oil and its refined products to stay in the U.S. He said no. So Markey then proposed an amendment to that effect, and Republicans said no—that it couldn’t be done, because the market for oil is not just domestic; it’s global. What Canada wants to do, says Markey, “is create a connection between Alberta and Asia and use the United States as the place where the pipeline gets constructed. And so if that’s all we are is a middleman in this transaction, then the American people should know that.”
Either the President doesn't know this, in which case he's incompetent, or he does know, in which case he's lying about the benefits that the Pipeline will bring to Americans. (Of course, by "we" and "our" he might just mean "American oil companies and the politicians who get campaign donations from them." I wouldn't rule it out.)

There's another aspect of this issue that shouldn't be ignored: Obama's supporters and apologists have been arguing that the President doesn't control oil prices in the US. Even I, who am not an Obama supporter, have been saying this to people who attack Obama for not approving the pipeline. But what Obama is saying now is that he does have at least some influence, if not control, over oil prices, and that by taking this action he'll help to drive them down. FAIR did a segment on this week's Counterspin investigating this very point.) Considering how dishonest Obama's line on the pipeline is, I don't think anything he says about it should be believed: he's on the campaign trail, after all.

One of the strangest things about some of Obama's critics on this issue is that they've been hinting -- they refuse to say it outright when I challenge them -- that Obama secretly wants gas prices to rise, in the service of an undefined agenda. But it's the oil companies, and the speculators who deal in oil futures, that want oil and gasoline prices to go up: that's where their profits will come from. Obama's right-wing critics are oddly reluctant to admit that explicitly.

There's also reason to believe that oil prices will continue to rise no matter what the government does. There is still a lot of oil under the surface of this planet, but it's not as accessible as the oil we drilled before was. Offshore drilling requires expensive, high-tech equipment to get at the oil far beneath. Tar sands oil is also more expensive to get at and process. The costs of those technologies will be passed on to the consumer in high prices at the pump; that's what capitalism is all about.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ignorance Is Strength

Andrew Sullivan has struck again. According to FAIR, he told Chris Matthews a few nights ago:

SULLIVAN: Again, it just shows that America colonizes without any real colonial talent because this is a country built on escaping colonialism, not actually imposing it.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Well…

SULLIVAN: You're doing something against the DNA of the United States.

We've been here before, of course. FAIR points to a similar statement, "America was not born as a colonial power," by someone supposedly smarter than Andrew Sullivan, namely the Only President We've Got. But I, and FAIR, are being somewhat unfair to Obama: there should be an ellipsis in that quotation, which FAIR took from the historian Roxanne Ortiz-Dunbar's rebuttal. According to the transcript of Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya in early 2009, Obama said:
But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that.
"As you say" refers to the interviewer's remark about the US, "It was the only Western power with no colonial legacy." That the US has a colonial legacy is not esoteric knowledge, aside from the fact that the US was born as a settler-colonial nation which promptly set out to claim and colonize much of North America from sea to shining sea. Even when we didn't move settlers into other countries, we set ourselves up as their rulers with the Monroe Doctrine, and ultimately installed and supported dictatorships in most of the Western hemisphere. We also built our empire by taking our competitors' possessions from them, though of course we couldn't let them go free or have anything like democracy because they weren't ready for it.

When Obama mentioned "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world," he means not ordinary Muslims, but the dictatorships that ruled over them. That means not only the more obvious Arab tyrannies, but Indonesia's Suharto. "20 or 30 years ago" would have been the period of the Iranian revolution, which was notably lacking in respect for the country that overthrew Iran's elected government and installed a brutal dictatorship in its place; and US support for the settler state of Israel was winning us few friends outside of the palaces of the rulers. Obama inspired a brief wave of hope and optimism among the ordinary people of the world, it's true, until he showed his true colors by continuing and extending Bush's policies.

Sullivan is a notorious ignoramus; Obama really should know better. But I guess it's true what we hear about Americans' ignorance of history; the thing to notice is that this ignorance is shaped by American jingoist propaganda.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Inappropriately Touched by Class

I'm rereading Patricia J. Williams's short but powerful book Seeing a Color-Blind Future (Beacon, 1998), which as always offers up its rewards. For example, she wrote:
I was in England several years ago when a young Asian man was severely beaten in East London by a young white man. I was gratified to see the immediate renunciation of racism that ensued in the media. It was a somewhat more sophisticated and heartfelt collective self-examination than sometimes occurs in the United States in the wake of such incidents, where, I fear, we are much more jaded about all forms of violence. Nevertheless, what intrigued me most about the media coverage of this assault was the unfortunate way in which class bias became a tool for the denunciation of racism.

"Racial, Ethnic, or Religious Prejudice Is Repugnant," screamed the headlines.

Hooray, I thought.

And then the full text: "It is repugnant, particularly" -- and I'm embellishing here -- "when committed by a miserable low-class cockney whose bestial nature knows no plummeted depth, etc., etc."

Oh dear, I thought [32-3].
The assailant was a Chav, in other words.

And then Williams summed up exactly my objection to the denunciations I see of bigots as trailer trash, ignorant rednecks, inbred hillbillies, and so on; and to the use of the word "class" as praise, as in "Barack and Michelle have brought real class back to the White House, after eight years of that hilljack Bush."

I'm putting it in bold type because it's so important:
If race or ethnicity is not a synonym for either ignorance or foreignness, then neither should class be an explanatory trashbin for racial prejudice, domestic incivility, and a host of other ills [33].
Think of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party. (What is it with the Brits and fascinating fascism? And of course he apologized, just like Rush did.) Think of our high class private clubs that excluded blacks, Jews, and women from membership as long as they could -- even the Irish. Think of our best American universities keeping blacks, Jews and women out of their ivied halls for decades, and resorting to maximum quotas to keep their numbers down when they could no longer exclude them completely. Think of the fury of the putatively Anglo-Saxon old-guard faculty when the barriers came down after World War II, which they rationalized on coldly racist grounds. Think of our reality-based, educated Democratic liberals who determinedly support the murderous policies that their Democratic President took over from his Republican predecessor. (But he's so dreamy!)

That's what depresses me most of all: the self-appointed hope of our nation, indeed of our species, against the Orcs and Goblins, are not really any more rational or better-informed, or any more humane, than their Republican enemies. We're doomed. At least we're doomed if we depend on them. I'm not sure we have to; but then the question becomes, who's "we"?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A 24-Hour Party Person

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number 1 has been having trouble finding good news, I think. He liked the guy who resigned from Goldman Sachs with an op-ed in the New York Times, for example: "extraordinary admission from one who knows about a predatory outfit that should never have gotten off Scot free- and sent high officials to Obama's administration", he added to his link. Well, sure, it's fair to criticize Obama for his coziness with Wall Street, but RWA1 again shows convenient and partisan amnesia. Who was Dubya's Secretary of the Treasury, for example? A former Goldman Sachs CEO. Even allowing for the fact that he wasn't on Facebook during the Bush administration, RWA1 (like so many Republicans) seems to have dumped the years 2001 through January 2009 down the memory hole. A well-controlled memory is a necessity for party loyalists.

Today he linked to a Weekly Standard article by David Brooks about C-SPAN and Brian Lamb, the host of Booknotes, which RWA1 praised highly. I think he'd find that a lot of liberals and leftists would agree about that -- I see a lot of links to C-SPAN and to Booknotes on libby proggy sites too. The Standard is another one of those right-wing fringe publications that RWA1 likes because of their intellectual pretensions, which go well with his own.

Brooks begins the article by quoting this exchange from a 1991 program that featured the author of a biography of Winston Churchill:

GILBERT: When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and, you know, that's, you know, a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.

LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery and what is it?

GILBERT: You don't know what buggery is?

LAMB: Define it, please.

GILBERT: Oh dear. Well, I -- I'm sorry. I thought the word we -- buggery is what used to be called a -- the -- an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It's -- you don't know what buggery is?

I hope that Lamb asked for a definition of buggery as a service to his listeners, rather than because he really didn't know what it is. But then, I'm not sure that Brooks knows what it is.

Brooks praises Lamb, and C-SPAN, for focusing on "facts" instead of being all postmodernist. (I think it's a safe bet that Brooks doesn't know what "postmodernism" is either.)

In Edmund Morris's notorious biography Dutch, the facts of what Ronald Reagan did and knew are upstaged by the drama of the author's own quest to "understand" and "capture" his subject. And that is just the tip of the postmodern iceberg. Despite the efforts of E. D. Hirsch and other cheerleaders for fact-based "cultural literacy," school curricula no longer focus on the simple whats, wheres, and whens of history. University historians are even less interested in that stuff -- obsessed as they are with social forces and group consciousness. Even in a publicly funded showcase institution like the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the displays are concerned less with illuminating historical events or history-making individuals than with lionizing aggrieved groups.

Oh, dear. Facts clearly don't matter much to Brooks; does that make him postmodern too? Academic historians have always been interested in "social forces and group consciousness"; there's nothing postmodern about that. The historians Brooks mentions favorably seem generally to be academics, but he leaves out that fact when he gushes over them, like Clara Rising, who "had come to the conclusion that Taylor was poisoned with arsenic. His body was dug up and his fingernails and bones examined, but no sign of arsenic poisoning was found." I guess some conspiracy theories are permissible, if you're David Brooks.

It's no accident that on a recent C-SPAN program both Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald confessed they were frustrated novelists. Ellis went on to note that none of the reviewers of his Jefferson biography, American Sphinx, noted the literary device of which he was most proud. He wanted to convey a certain image of his subject, so in every chapter Jefferson is described entering the scene on horseback.

By contrast, turn to the Web site of the American Historical Review (indiana.edu/ahr) and look at the list of articles the prestigious academic review is publishing or about to publish: "Feminism, Social Science and the Meaning of Modernity"; "The Sensibility of Comfort"; "Culture, Power and Place: The New Landscape of East Asian Regionalism"; "Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike." The list goes on, a stifling progression of abstruse tedium. A few of the topics might sound interesting -- "The Sensibility of Comfort" strikes my fancy -- until you remember that most academic historians face professional pressures to write as turgidly as possible, and to excise or exile to the footnotes any of the interesting anecdotes they would use as dinner table conversation. The contrast between the C-SPAN historians and the academic establishment historians is breathtaking.

This is like complaining that if you read a musicological journal, it will be full of arcane theoretical discussion of counterpoint instead of pretty tunes. Writing a biography is a very different kind of project than writing a paper for a journal. Brooks is evidently aware that academic historians write for other historians rather than for the general public in those journals, which aren't meant to contain "dinner table conversation." Since many of "the C-SPAN historians" are "academic establishment historians," Brooks's observation is just plain stupid. He's also in no position to make fun of anyone's else's prose style, though his is gaseous punditry instead of "abstruse tedium." But he's not done yet.

And it's important to remember that the academics took this turn intentionally. The great postmodern hero Michel Foucault mocked what you might call the ethos of the C-SPAN historian: "To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth . . . to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can only answer with a philosophical laugh -- which means, to a certain extent, a silent one."

Not silent enough.

I feel pretty sure that David Brooks (and probably RWA1) has never read Foucault. If he had, he would know that Foucault did a great deal of archival research. He didn't simply spin theories about "social forces and group consciousness." The first volume of the History of Sexuality is also quite chatty, recounting anecdotes that might not be good dinner table conversation, but would be suitable for the gentlemen when they withdraw to smoke after the meal.

Brooks also likes the people who call in to the program, though he's a bit critical on one point:
For example, callers have continually forced the historians to deal with racial matters, so that race has become the major subtheme of the series. The presidents who owned slaves or who tolerated slavery are castigated, and the historians often struggle to suggest that viewers shouldn't rush to impose modern standards on earlier times -- with little success.
Ironically, the suggestion that we "shouldn't rush to impose modern standards on earlier times" is usually trotted out by conservatives as postmodernist relativism -- except where race is concerned. In general the Right would prefer not to remember the role of slavery, or racism, in American history, and if possible to minimize or eliminate it from history courses altogether. Even though they keep reminding us that slavery was abolished long ago, it's evidently too close for comfort where white reactionaries are concerned.

The trouble with complaining that castigating presidents who owned slaves constitutes "rush[ing] to impose modern standards on earlier times" is that at least some of those presidents paid lip service to the wrongness of slavery. Calling slavery immoral is not a modern standard. (We moderns should be circumspect in judging our forebears, though, considering how many of us condemn war, for example, but are still willing to let it happen, or even to cheer it on when it begins.)

One question that keeps coming up on Andrew Ti's tumblr Yo, Is This Racist? is how to deal with racist "old" people. When I see references to grandparents, I automatically think of my grandparents, who were probably born just before 1900, and then I realize that at least some of the time, these racist grandpas and grandmas are probably my age or a little older: people who grew up during the peak of the Civil Rights movement, people who have no excuse for being racist, people who can't claim that they never heard that it was wrong to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin. People of my own grandparents' generation shouldn't get a free pass either, though. I like to ask apologists for racism when white people discovered that black people were human beings, because it's certain that black people knew it all along.

But I digress. Once again it's informative to see what RWA1 considers good serious conservative punditry: it's badly written, anti-intellectual, and incoherent, though superficially less demented than your average Republican presidential candidate. That's the best, apparently, that the Right has to offer.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cavalcade of Sports Fans

I'm not sure which of these celebrations of college Basketball is more repulsive. (Tom Crean is Indiana's coach; John Calipari is Kentucky's. Just in case you were wondering if "Crean" was a spelling error.) But when I passed them on my way downtown today, I had to record them for posterity.

I just finished reading quite a good book, A Carnival for Science: Essays on Science, Technology and Development (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1997) by the Indian sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. (I gather from his writing that he was originally trained as a botanist.) There's a lot of good stuff in the book, but this aside is relevant here:
Have you ever listened to [Indian journalists’] commentaries on cricket or hockey? There is hysteria in every sentence as if there is a deathblow in every ball. Most of India lived the war through newspapers. Between the evening video thirst and morning tea, the audience went war mad. The media was to blame. They drove the Hindu need for the killer instinct from the sports page to the front page headlines. They wanted the [Mizo National Front] eliminated immediately. These journalists saw a Pol Pot in every educated peasant but did not realize that Pol Pot was actually closer to them. They wanted to eliminate populations on behalf of all the right words -- the Nation, Security, Development, Progress [209].
Visvanathan is talking about the war for secession of the state of Mizoram, in Northeastern India, though I'm having trouble reconciling his account, especially its dates, with versions I find online. That's not why I quoted this passage, though. It was that bit about "hysteria in every sentence as if there is a deathblow in every ball." I've often said that sports are of no importance whatever, though fans (which include media commentators) think otherwise: not only that, they think the outcome of a game is of virtually cosmic significance. When you add the confusion of sports with war -- the use of war metaphors in sports commentary and of sports metaphors in war commentary -- it becomes wholly obnoxious. (To say nothing of the patriotic displays that go along with, say, pro football games and halftime shows.) Some apologists claim that sports are a safety valve for human aggression that might otherwise turn into war fever; I think sports keep the us/them mentality under steam, ready to be released when a suitable enemy is found.

Stuff like these sheets just increases my contempt for the whole business. Obviously the boys who live in that house have been watching too much gay porn, hence the bukkakke reference on the sheet on the left. (And remember the "teabagging" of a passed-out LSU fan by Alabama fans in a clean, well-lit sports bar two months ago? The symbolism is similar.) And connecting Kentucky to the notorious Ugandan guerilla Joseph Kony is beyond stupid in its irrelevance and viciousness. On the one hand, it trivializes real-life atrocities by connecting them to a sports rivalry of no importance; on the other hand, it inflates the importance of that sports rivalry-- don't believe any fan who tells you It's Just a Game, because fans don't think so. It's the kind of mentality that thought that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was as important as the Superbowl, and the killing of Muammar Gaddafy was as much fun as coming all over a porn star's face.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Every Zygote is Sacred

Doonesbury has been in the news again, as various newspapers around the country refused to run a sequence on abortion -- specifically on legal requirements that a woman seeking an abortion must submit to a transvaginal ultrasound procedure.

This morning I looked at some of the entries in the "Blowback" department, where readers comment. This one, from a guy in El Dorado, Arkansas, caught my eye:
A woman who aborts is going against the evolutionary imperative of millions of years. But she is improving the human gene pool, in a Darwinian sense. It is not the government's business one way or another, unless you believe that life begins at some arbitrary point, after which it would be manslaughter. I suspect there will be no end to this controversy.
Ah, pop Darwinism; he might as well have said that abortion goes against the will of God. The closest this comes to reality is that Darwin himself opposed birth control (as well as the English poor-relief laws), but since Darwin wasn't God or the Voice of Nature, that's unimportant. Not that it would matter if he were.

The notion that abortion (or anything else) is in conflict with an "evolutionary imperative of millions of years" (which has an intriguing formal resemblance to claims about "the five thousand year old definition of marriage") is ridiculous, however often people say such things. Natural selection has no more moral authority than, say, the Bible.

It's especially curious that people should talk as though preserving every individual life is an evolutionary necessity, given the popularity of self-congratulatory memes like The Darwin Awards, which eke comedy from the notion that some people are too dumb to reproduce, or even to live. Half of the theory of natural selection is that some individuals are removed from the playing field. (Notice too the commenter's claim that a woman who gets an abortion is "improving the human gene pool, in the Darwinian sense", presumably forgetting that women who get abortions are usually mothers and already have done their Darwinian duty. Those who aren't already mothers will have children in the future.)

In "Nature," infanticide is far from unknown. And this may be a good time to quote again an excerpt from Marlene Zuk's Sexual Selections (California, 2002) about the results of forced copulation among zebra finches:
These matings never resulted in any offspring, which is interesting by itself. Even more interesting, though, was that 28 percent of chicks in the aviaries were from the remaining 20 percent of EPCs that were not forced, an astounding success rate. What were the females doing to influence the fate of sperm from different males? No one knows. The cloaca of female birds is clearly capable of some sophisticated maneuvering; in several species, females have been observed ejecting sperm after a copulation. The organ’s structure and function has, however, been relatively little studied by scientists [84-5]
Females in any species are not obligated by evolution or nature to accept insemination, carry offspring to term, or allow their offspring to survive infancy. Their refusal to do any of these things is part of the "evolutionary imperative," not defiance of it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

No One Expects a Model Democracy



Last Sunday's massacre of sixteen Afghan civilians by a disgruntled American soldier has been handled about as I'd have expected. The American corporate media think it's all about us and our mission. FAIR did much of the legwork, citing an NPR story headlined "Afghan Killings Could Complicate U.S. Mission", among others. Says "Rajan Menon, an international relations professor at Lehigh University":
Just about every commander we've had there has said this is fundamentally about winning the confidence of the Afghan people ... When you have incident after incident, you can do that only so many times without wearing out the Afghan public's goodwill.
The same story has a section devoted to "U.S. Public Opinion."
"This is not worth one more American life," says Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been one of the most persistent critics of the war. "This is not worth one more American dollar, to support one of the most corrupt regimes in the world."
American public opinion about the war has been slowly souring for some years now. Public support in the U.S. could go further south if there are reprisals — particularly if Afghan security forces seek revenge against American troops, Menon says.
"Members of Afghan security forces have murdered far more of their American mentors than the number of Afghan civilians this guy killed," says Ann Marlow, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.
But even if most Americans oppose the continuing war, they have mostly been quiet about it. If you ask people their opinion, they'll say we should leave, Biddle says, but they're quiet about acting on such beliefs, in terms of public protests.
I suppose it wouldn't work if Ann Marlow had compared the number of American "mentors" killed by Afghan security forces to the total number of Afghan civilians killed by their mentors, instead of just the victims of this one atrocity. (Alexander Cockburn provided a helpful summary today.)

About Representative McGovern's remarks, I'd like to know where he gets his ranking of the most corrupt regimes in the world. After all, Hamid Karzai is our creature, so the U.S. can't be totally innocent. I'd be surprised if an honest accounting wouldn't find us in the top ten at least. But as I said, for McGovern, it's all about us, and whether this war is worth American money and lives. Whether it's worth Afghan lives is of no concern.

You can tell how advanced American corruption is by the way the U.S. has to keep changing its account of Why We Can't Leave as expediency (or the phase of the moon, I dunno) requires. First we were there in self-defense, because we were attacked, and the masterminds of that attack were (maybe, who knows or cares?) in Afghanistan. The attackers were mostly Saudi, and the planning was done in Germany among other places, but Shut Up! Shut Up! Then we were there because the Taliban oppressed women, something that had never bothered the US government before; and the Northern Alliance, our allies against the Taliban, were also Islamofascists who oppressed women no less harshly, but since they were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers, and the enemy of our Enemy is our friend, we can overlook such details. Or we have to help the Afghan government become more stable, and the Afghan security forces more capable of defending themselves against ... who, exactly? Big scary Al-Qaeda, presumably. More realistically, other Afghans. Oh, and Iran! Don't forget Iran! Which is just waiting to overrun Afghanistan and turn it into a Muslim state, which it is already, but you know the United States, we won't tolerate foreign armies overrunning other countries; that's why our foreign army has to keep overrunning them.

Listening to Obama and his henchmen tell it, you'd think the US was in Afghanistan purely out of the goodness of our hearts, as if the Afghans had asked us to come over and help them, but our resources of blood and treasure won't endure forever. No, don't cling to our ankles and beg us to stay, our mind is made up ... The Iraqis implored us to stay past December 2011, but we stood firm. That's just how we are. Well, maybe a little longer. If you insist. If you're sure.

Besides, as the New York Times put it memorably (via), "Many observers say, the Americans have had a lot of practice at apologizing for carnage, accidental and otherwise, and have gotten better at doing it quickly and convincingly." It would be a shame to let all that expertise go to waste. As Bill Clinton's Secretary of State might have put it, what's the point of having all this beautiful expertise in apologizing for carnage, if you're not going to use it?

We've been told that the soldier who committed the killings had been deployed repeatedly, and badly injured, in Iraq and Afghanistan. His new defense lawyer "also said the accused had witnessed his friend's leg blown off the day before the killings." His neighbors back home just couldn't believe it, he was just such a nice quiet guy who'd never done anything like this before. Meanwhile, "The US has stressed it remained committed to Afghan reconciliation." And if Afghans don't reconcile, we'll just have to keep killing them.

I sympathize with American soldiers who've been abused by their own government and military. But this soldier went after Afghan women and children. (That's accepting the US claim that he was a lone nut who did it alone, over the villagers' report that there other soldiers involved. I believe the villagers, and I wonder how long it will take for the American story to spring leaks and fall apart, as most of our coverups do.)

More intriguing, but also disturbing, was a segment on Democracy Now! this morning, interviewing Neil Shea, an American journalist who's been covering Afghanistan for years. Shea said, correctly enough, that
When we cycle our soldiers and marines through these wars that don’t really have a clear purpose over years and years...we expect light-switch control over their aggression ... We expect to be able to turn them into killers and then turn them back into winners of hearts and minds. And when you do that to a man or a woman over many years, that light-switch control begins to fray.
That bit about "wars that don't really have a clear purpose" bothered me a bit, though. Aggressive wars like Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and the like probably fall into that category, because the actual purpose can't be admitted, so the invader state has to keep cycling through a list of high-sounding but false reasons. Fighting a defensive war probably produces just as many atrocities. And I think Shea is overlooking the psychological damage done to soldiers even in "good" wars like World War II.

But anyway. Shea seemed a bit uneasy in the interview.
I found that during one of my last trips to Afghanistan, I met up with a group of soldiers who were the first I had ever come across who made me feel pretty nervous about what I was going to see while I was with them. And I spent a few days with them and came to just really understand that they had gotten to the edge of violence, as we understand it, in Afghanistan, and they seemed ready and capable of doing some pretty bad things. I didn’t actually witness them do anything too terrible, but the way that they talked and the way that they acted toward Afghan civilians and animals and property in the country was sort of stunning to me. And that’s what I describe in the article. It’s talking about these—this group of soldiers and sort of their mental state during a multi-day mission in a central part of Afghanistan that was supposed to be a Taliban stronghold. Many of these guys seemed like they had reached the end of their rope in terms of stability and controlling their aggression.

... They’ll insult Iraqis or Afghans behind their backs, and that’s sort of the very mild beginning of it. And then they sort of move up the chain, if we can call it that, into more serious acts of aggression, where they’ll kill animals or they’ll beat somebody or treat them roughly, and it sort of builds up from there.
What I saw with these guys in Afghanistan when I was with them was that several of them had already been through multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had reached a point where they hated Afghans, they hated the country, and they were really not interested in doing any of the hearts and minds stuff anymore that’s a crucial part of the mission. So by the time I reached these guys, they had already been sort of—they had been building up anger and aggression in strange ways for a number of years. And when I saw them, they had just shot a dog that had been a pet in an Afghan home that they had confiscated during the mission, and they treated Afghan civilians fairly roughly, and they took a few prisoners and treated them very roughly, as well. Nothing that would rise to necessarily the—sort of a crime at that time, but the way that they talked about things and the way that they sort of handled themselves was really aggressive. And it was only—it seemed to me only to be barely kept in check.
Now, imagine that Afghan forces invaded the US and occupied us for a decade. Imagine that the invading soldiers treated American civilians fairly roughly, and took a few prisoners and treated them very roughly as well. Imagine that they shot animals, including pets but also farm animals needed for part of our food supply. Imagine that this sort of thing only rarely rose to "crimes" in the sense Shea means, presumably massacres like the one in Kandahar last week, and that when it did, the Afghan government and military brass issued prompt apologies and monetary compensation. Would Americans under occupation feel friendly toward the Afghan forces that had come over to help us achieve stability, to keep us from threatening our neighbors, and to defend Afghanistan itself against further attacks from the evil terrorist masterminds based in the swamps of Washington, D.C.?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Will Ease Me Of Mine Adversaries

The reason I'm trying to veer away from writing about politics is that it's depressing. The reason I keep doing it anyway is that it's easy: just play Ain't It Awful.

Glenn Greenwald has a depressing post today, about a journalist languishing in a Yemeni prison because he exposed US, and specifically President Obama's, responsibility for a missile and cluster bomb attack that killed 35 people -- 14 women and 21 children.
... At the time, the Yemeni government outright lied about the attack, falsely claiming that it was Yemen’s air force which was responsible.

The Pentagon helped bolster this misleading claim of responsibility by issuing a statement that “Yemen should be congratulated for actions against al-Qaeda.” Meanwhile, leading American media outlets, such as The New York Times, reported — falsely — that “Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected Qaeda hide-outs last week with what American officials described as ‘intelligence and firepower’ supplied by the United States.” Those U.S. media reports vaguely mentioned civilian deaths only in passing or not at all, opting instead for ledes such as: “Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda on Thursday, killing at least 34 militants in the broadest attack on the terrorist group here in years, Yemeni officials said.” While it is certain that dozens of civilians were killed, [Jeremy] Scahill notes that “whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.”

There is one reason that the world knows the truth about what really happened in al Majala that day: because the Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, traveled there and, as Scahill writes, “photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label ‘Made in the USA,’ and distributed the photos to international media outlets.” He also documented the remnants of the Tomahawks and cluster bombs, neither of which is in Yemen’s arsenal.
And what happened to this brave truth-teller?
For the past two years, Shaye has been arrested, beaten, and held in solitary confinement by the security forces of Saleh, America’s obedient tyrant. In January, 2011, he was convicted in a Yemeni court of terrorism-related charges — alleging that he was not a reporter covering Al Qaeda but a mouthpiece for it — in a proceeding widely condemned by human rights groups around the world. “There are strong indications that the charges against [Shaye] are trumped up and that he has been jailed solely for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack which took place in Yemen,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told Scahill. The Yemen expert, Johnsen, added: “There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that Abdulelah was anything other than a journalist attempting to do his job.”

Shaye’s real crime is that he reported facts that the U.S. government and its Yemeni client regime wanted suppressed. But while the imprisonment of this journalist was ignored in the U.S, it became a significant controversy in Yemen. Numerous Yemeni tribal leaders, sheiks and activist groups agitated for his release, and in response, President Saleh, as the Yemeni press reported, had a pardon drawn up for him and was ready to sign it. That came to a halt when President Obama intervened. According to the White House’s own summary of Obama’s February 3, 2011, call with Saleh, “President Obama expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai.” The administration has repeatedly refused to present any evidence that Shaye is anything other than a reporter ... .

I posted a link to Greenwald's piece on my Facebook wall, with a taunting comment that I hoped to see my right-wing friends pick it up to denounce Obama's tyrannical disregard for justice and freedom -- but that of course, most of my right-wing friends support atrocities and crimes perpetrated against Muslims. So far no one seems to have taken me up on it.

Anyway, a comment posted under Greenwald's article added to my malaise. I felt so enervated, I had to stretch out on my divan.
I also wish liberals would place more pressure on Obama to stop his random killing & disregard for international rule of law.

But when in the states Republicans are passing laws to thrust dildos up the viginas of women seeking medical attention ("vaginal probes" in right wing parlance), it's hard to multitask & concurrently wag a finger at Obama for being a war criminal.

This is one of those times it would be nice if America had an adversarial media.

But America doesn't have an adversarial media, hence this is where we find ourselves.

How hard can it be to "multitask" that much? And how would having an "adversarial media" make it easier to do so? It's very convenient to blame all our problems on the media, I must say.

But what plunged me into the Slough of Despond was the commenter's ability to lament America's lack of an adversarial media while reading an adversarial media figure, namely Glenn Greenwald. We already have adversarial media in the US, and did long before there was an Internet. The Internet has, if anything, multiplied journalistic alternatives and made them more accessible. You can even read foreign publications online.

I think that what the commenter wants is that the corporate media should be both adversarial and unbiased, an oft-repeated wish that isn't likely to be fulfilled. The corporate media are big corporations, and it's reasonable for them to present the world from the point of view of the investor class. Of course the investor class isn't perfectly unanimous in its views, there are disagreements and factions, but if you use the corporate media you should be aware of where it's coming from.

And you should read other media as critically as (ideally) you read the corporate media. There's a weekly program on our community radio station, culled from shortwave radio broadcasts around the world. I've learned a lot from it. The compiler and host calls it "unfiltered," though, which isn't true even if you discount him as a filter: many of his sources are national, government-run stations broadcasting in English. They should no more be considered unbiased than any other news source, but that doesn't mean they aren't useful.

What baffles me is why, despite all the complaining I hear about the media, more people don't seek out and use the alternatives that exist. The most successful exception appears to be Fox News. MSNBC, with its liberal progressive stars, is as close to an alternative as most liberals are willing to try. Any farther might be going too far, you know. As Noam Chomsky says, the corporate media really are "liberal," in the sense that they mark the most liberal extreme that right-thinking citizens are supposed to recognize; beyond that is a murky darkness of who knows what. I've also found that when I suggest that there's little point in trying to get the corporate media to change their spots, it's just better to turn to alternatives, some liberals get upset. Possibly they believe that any sinner can be brought to salvation; possibly they aren't really all that dissatisfied with the corporate media, and only want a tweak here or there. I'm inclined to go with the second alternative.