On a related note, the publicity flyer for my Sox book came my way today. If all goes well, Bleeding Red will be available next week. If all goes even better, the Sox will still be alive. I'd give up the book for the Sox to make the playoffs. Then again, I am insane.
Friday, September 30, 2005
Those who have read my previous thoughts on the current conflict in Iraq know that I have opposed this conflict from the beginning, arguing that it was counter-to our national interests, and justified on the misleading/false/deceitful/exaggerated claims by the Bush administration in the lead-up.
All of that being said however, I do not support withdrawing the troops, but rather believe that we must stay the course in Iraq until the bitter end, and that it would be preferable to commit troops to that nation indefinitely rather than see the nation descend into a civil war that could become the next Lebanon, or worse. Although such an outcome may be inevitable, thanks to the utter incompetence in our reconstruction efforts, now is not the time to quit.
This is obviously an important issue and debate in the nation today and while I try to avoid posting antire articles that someone else wrote, I believe the following short editorial in the Lebanon paper, The Daily Star, really articulates me own frustration over the nature of the current debate:
"We in the Arab world are shocked by the ease with which so many American journalists and commentators are calling for the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. After cajoling the international community into accepting this war and then transforming Iraq into a horrific scene of terrorist violence and sectarian strife, Americans are starting to realize that creating a stable and democratic Iraq will entail much more work than they had bargained for. And as citizens of the world's sole superpower, they have the luxury of being fickle, while Iraqis are left to suffer in the wake of their invasion, occupation and withdrawal.
Even those who were beating the war drums prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have now joined the chorus of calls for American forces to leave. Thomas Friedman, a supporter of the war, wrote yesterday in an op-ed that perhaps "America is wasting its time" in Iraq and should "arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind" because "we must not throw more good American lives after good American lives for people who hate others more than they love their own children." Such statements are not only insensitive, they reflect a broader American perspective - a privileged people's utter disregard or outright contempt for "others."
While Iraqis are dying on a daily basis, Americans are discussing the idea of a U.S. withdrawal in columns and on talk shows and in coffee shops with an alarming sense of detachment. And although it was the Americans who brought this war to the Iraqi people, they now discuss the mission as if it were an experiment that can be abandoned at any time. It is a tragedy that so many lives are being affected by the whims of a superpower.
As the unpopularity of the Iraq war gains momentum in the United States, more and more American journalists and commentators who participated in the rallying calls for war have become critical of the U.S. mission in Iraq. While it is a welcome development that so many are acknowledging the mistakes that the United States has made and are bringing the Bush administration to task for these errors, one wonders where was their criticism of U.S. President George W. Bush prior to the invasion? Why did so few intellectuals counter the war-mongering arguments then?
Unable to maintain electoral pressure through lobbyists or special interest groups, the Arab world is left to accept whatever fate America may decide to impose. And the interests of Americans can change as they see fit. Americans have the luxury of deciding whether to "stay the course" or to leave Iraq in ruins. But it is the Arab and Iraqi people whose lives are at stake when America meanders in and out of their presence at will.
There is no doubt that building a peaceful and stable Iraq will be costly, time consuming and not at all easy. But the leadership in Washington has made a promise on behalf of the American people that they will see this adventure through to that end. The Americans have made a vow of friendship to the Iraqi people that ought not be broken. While we in the Arab world welcome efforts to promote peace and democracy, we are not in need of fair weather friends."
Indeed, Democrats are wise to keep their expectations sober. Despite the polls, the indictments, the blunders and the foreign conflicts, I predict that the Republicans will once again carry the day in 2006, retaining control of House and Senate (and obviously the Presidency and the Supreme Court).
The reasons for this are partly technical: Thanks to Republican redistricting, the House is now so gerrymandered that not many seats are genuinely competitive. However, much of the problem with the Democrats are self-inflicted: no leader, no message, no unity.
According to Political Wire "a new Winston Group (R) poll that shows Americans turning away from the Republican party... Those surveyed had less confidence in Republicans to handle a wide range of issues, including education, Social Security, health care, jobs and energy prices. Democrats beat Republicans by at least 9 percentage points in each category. In addition, Democrats were also viewed as better able to handle war in Iraq and the economy. "
“On almost every front, Republicans see trouble. Bush is at the low point of his presidency, with Iraq, hurricane relief, rising gasoline prices and another Supreme Court vacancy all problems to be solved. Congressional Republicans have seen their approval ratings slide throughout the spring and summer; a Washington Post-ABC News poll in August found that just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is doing its job, the lowest rating in eight years.
On the ethics front, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under investigation for selling stock in his family's medical business just before the price fell sharply. The probe of well-connected lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former close associate of DeLay, threatens to create even more troubles for Republicans. Finally, the special counsel investigation into whether White House senior adviser Karl Rove or others in the administration broke the law by leaking the name of the CIA's Valerie Plame is nearing a conclusion.”
Sounds like the country is ready for a change, doesn’t it? The problem is that the country (and thus the people responding to all these polls) doesn’t elect the Congress: individual congressional districts do, and individual states. If the majority of people who dislike Republicans happen to live in REALLY Blue states anyway, who cares?
So, let’s look at why the Democrats are ice skating up-hill:
According to Stewart Rothenberg of Roll Call, "Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take control of the House of Representatives” (taken from Political Wire).
“At this point, most of the macropolitical indicators favor the Democrats...However, "if the overall environment seems to favor Democrats in House races, a race-by-race assessment of the party’s prospects is not nearly as upbeat. The party has a number of good opportunities, and it is poised to make gains. It’s just that those gains, while possibly considerable, are likely to leave the Democrats as the minority party after the midterms.""For now, Democrats can count on gains in the low to middle single digits — probably from four to eight seats. That would be a good step toward possibly taking control in 2008, but it would keep the House in Republican hands for Bush’s final two years."
And that's just the House!
Larry Sabato looks at the Democratic chances for taking over the Senate after next year's elections, noting that "Katrina, Iraq, gas prices, growing national debt, President Bush's unpopularity, and other factors might conspire to produce Democratic gains or even a takeover."How to do it? Assuming Democrats can hold all open seats (MD, MN, and possibly NJ) and win the close Democratic seats (WV, FL, WA, ND), they would need six seats to take control.Two Republican senators -- Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) -- "are in deep trouble, and may be ripe for the plucking." To get the other four seats, "there appear to be only five possibilities in the nation: the Tennessee open seat of retiring Senator Bill Frist (R), plus defeats of incumbent GOP senators Conrad Burns (MT), Mike DeWine (OH), Jon Kyl (AZ), and Jim Talent (MO). All of these are possible, none at the moment is likely."
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, John Dickerson in Slate offers additional reasons to be pessimistic, including the total lack of leadership in the Democratic party, and the fact that the Republicans have plenty of time between now and the election to turn their reputations around.
Of course, a Democratic Revolution is not an impossibility, and they too have plenty of time to refine/create a national message. Furthermore, the Democrats look much stronger to capture several state-houses in the upcoming election. Nevertheless, although it is way too early to be placing bets now, Republicans at the national level really need not worry TOO much. While this tells us very litte about the policies of the Republican or Democratic parties, it does tell us much about the current structure of American government.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
If only there were more of them. (Particularly in Ohio, Florida etc.)
For American readers unfamiliar with British party conferences, they're somewhat different to US party conventions. They're aren't just a finely organised media event, although they seem to be heading that way. Grassroots activists vote on a series of policy motions, and frequently defeat or amend the plans of the party leadership. Ordinary grassroots members are called upon to speak on either side of the motion, and there is a real power in the hands of the party membership- if only for that one week of the year.
The supreme irony that Mr. Wolfgang was protesting at a passage of Jack Straw's speech concerning democracy in Iraq. After refusing to allow their grassroots to debate a motion on Iraq, it now appears that there is no role for delegates at Labour conference other than to applaud on cue for the waiting television cameras. Labour party members looking for a democratic political party which opposed the invasion of Iraq have an obvious place to go.
The best word of the day was from Alex Salmond: 'Labour can censor their own delegates, but they can't gag the people.'
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
I am a big fan of the twisted brilliance of Family Guy. Back this year by popular demand (and strong showings on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim”) after Fox dumped it a few years back, the Griffin family continues to push the envelope in a Simpsons-meetsSouth Park sort of way. In recent weeks, Fox has been advertising a straight-to-dvd movie, Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin: the Untold Story and I was counting down the days until yesterday’s release.
Consider the mystery behind why this was issued straight-to-dvd solved. I would not say that Family Guy Presents sucks, but it is simply not that funny. Piecing together a few references to the revival of the show throughout the hour-and-a-half on screen, it appears that this may have been a project that was going to appear before the show was revived, and there is evidence that creator Seth McFarland and his writing team was trying way too hard to push the envelope. This occasionally happens in a half hour episode, but that is a forgivable sin. They don't ask you to pony up cash for that.
The gist of the plot is that there is a Family Guy movie (very meta!) and in that movie, the evil genius matricidal toddler Stewie has a brush with death that eventually leads to him meeting his future self, which leaves him intolerable of his thirty-something self. It’s is a plot with promise, and I chuckled a few times, but it simply did not sustain. There are too many flat periods, too many over-the-top moments that are not even remotely amusing, too many points where the clunky writing gets in the way.
Continue to love and cherish Family Guy. But do not be reeled in by this cynical ploy to rake in cash from your loyalty. They got $17 of mine (thank Best Buy for clipping $6 off the regular price on release day). And if you do not trust my judgment, ask yourself this – why is there an hour-and-a-half Family Guy movie out there that went straight to dvd? Straight-to video is for three phenomena: Movies that suck, porn, and cynical attempts to score a windfall from an inferior product. Put it this way: This ain’t porn. Any other differentiation is not worth making.
According to Media Matters, “In recent weeks, several prominent journalists have publicly acknowledged that the U.S. media accorded President Bush too much deference following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams both noted that it was only in observing government failures in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort that journalists began seriously to challenge the administration. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell conceded that reporters have been "less challenging" since the attacks. Friedman wrote that the 9-11 attacks created in the media a "deference" towards the administration. Williams described the press corps as "settling in to too comfortable a journalistic pattern," a phenomenon he described as the "9/11 syndrome."
This, of course is nothing new. Back in 2003, “CNN's top war correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, says that the press muzzled itself during the Iraq war. And, she says CNN "was intimidated" by the Bush administration and Fox News, which "put a climate of fear and self-censorship."
Anecdotally, people I know who worked for or interned at various media outlets such as CNN tell me that since FoxNews dominates the ratings, they are the station most emulated and watched by producers of other networks, and of course anyone who has seen Michael Moore’s controversial film, Fahrenheit 9/11 cannot deny the overt bias he documented in the media in the lead-up to the war.
As the Guardian pointed out in 2003, “views that offer an informed critical analysis of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East, are not part of the national conversation in the United States. And until Americans can have that conversation with themselves they will not be equipped to converse with the rest of the world about the relative legitimacy or otherwise of their government's actions but will instead continue to retreat into a combination of belligerence, bemusement, defensiveness and demagogy.”
Also in 2003 was MSNBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield's statement that “so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason."
What makes this information “news” at all rather than a statement of the obvious is the disparity between the media’s recent coverage of hurricane Katrina and their coverage of the Iraq war. Although government officials lament what they call the “blame game” (or what others might call “accountability”), the media has been tremendously critical of government response to the hurricanes. Although knee-jerk outrage is certainly no better than knee-jerk acquiescence, critical analysis is almost always preferable than blind (and inevitably bias) reporting.
Again, nothing you didn’t already know, but still thought I would point it out.
Monday, September 26, 2005
Judis makes a good case for why we should be wary of John Roberts. I have argued since the summer that the Democrats should not waste a lot of ammunition on Roberts, and it is clear that he is going to pass confirmation overwhelmingly. This does not mean Democrats (or Republicans) who care about civil rights should vote for him. It is one thing to say that in the 1980s Roberts was simply carrying the administration's water, and thus we cannot hold the things he did against him. It is quite another to point out that in internal memoes, Roberts often was doing far more than this, making his own case against civil rights independent of the administration's ultimate positions. Roberts is going to be confirmed. Democrats (and many Republicans) should keep an eye out to make sure that the next appointee does not have similar views on race. But if that nominee does, we will know what side of the GOP divide on civil rights this administration falls.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Alistair Cooke, Letter from America: Alistair Cooke was the legendary British born-and-raised expatriate who became famous for his columns and radio shows in which attempted to capture for his British audience what this huge endeavor known as America is. This book collects the texts of a small sample of his radio addresses from the 1940s to the 21st century. Most striking for me has been how salient even the observations made in the 1940s are. Cooke knew America, he loved this country, and he saw things that even most natives might never have noticed, or at least he saw them in ways that were, if not uniquely British, whatever that means, at least reveal a cross-cultural vantage point. I picked this one up in oxford and do not even know if it is available in the US, but I would suggest that the British dcat contingent make its way down to Borders or Waterstones or Blackwells and pick up Cooke’s delightful collection of essays.
The staff of The Boston Globe, Finally! The Red Sox Are Champions After 86 years: Hey, look, if you're going to be reading dcat, you’re going to be reading about the Red Sox indefinitely. This is akin to a coffee table book, and captures in vivid pictures the glory of the Sox 2005 season by the newspaper staff that knows them best. This will at least tide you over until Bleeding Red hits the shelves in a matter of days.
John McWhorter, Losing the Race: Black Self-Sabotage in America: McWhorter is always smart, usually provocative, and occasionally infuriating. His books are challenging because he takes stances on issues facing black America that are not afraid to challenge the orthodoxy among most who purport to speak for black Americans. Sometimes I think he is just plain wrong, but McWhorter is such a fluid stylist and his arguments are important. He is often dismissed as being a conservative, as if there is something inherently wrong with that, but for me, this simply makes him more essential. In the past I have used one of McWhorter’s books in my civil rights classes just to ensure that my students receive a different perspective on the issues facing black America, indeed all of America.
Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991: Much of the music I love can be traced to this subgenre during these years. The Replacements, Husker Du, the Pixies, Sonic Youth – although I came late to most of these bands, not really discovering them, or at least not discovering them in earnest, until college, they have provided the foundation for a goodly percentage of my music listening in the last two decades. Azerrad’s essays are informative, colorful, insightful, and help augment music that has provided much of the soundtrack to my life.
Richard Ben Cramer, Best American Sportswriting, 2004:Most years it errs too far on the side of the treacly and the obscure. But if you want nearly perfect bedtime reading, the “Best American” series will do the job. I especially like the sports writing, travel writing, essays, and “nonrequired reading” collections each year.
Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract:: Categorical assertions, including this one, are always dangerous. That said, I can almost assert that one cannot be a real baseball fan without gaining an appreciation for this enormous undertaking. For the first time I am trying to read this mammoth tome from cover to cover. Among the highlights, and the part I have spent several weeks making my way through, is the top 100 players listing for each position, which includes anything from a few sentences to entire essays about every player, with both statistical and impressionistic rationales. It is remarkable how players whom we all probably thought of as pretty marginal easily crack the top 70 or so at most positions. If you love baseball and you do not own this book, go get it. Now. What are you waiting for?
"Tony Blair -- perhaps I shouldn't repeat this conversation -- told me yesterday that he was in Delhi last week. And he turned on the BBC world service to see what was happening in New Orleans, and he said it was just full of hate of America and gloating about our troubles. And that was his government. Well, his government-owned thing."
Presumably Blair and Murdoch feel that the majority of the US media, when criticising the President over his response to the hurricane, is also driven by an innate anti-americanism.
Tony is not the only world leader who feels that the BBC is riddled with bias and ulterior motives - the government of Islam Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, torturer extraordonaire, and ally in the war on terror has spoken out against the BBC's collusion with jihadists (ie. any Uzbeki openly dissatisfied with his regime). I'm sure that Mr Blair is very disappointed that the beeb's institutional bias against Uzbekistan has allowed them to issue such hateful, gloating reports of its domestic affairs.
The blogroll also is slowly growing. We only add blogs that we read and we think will be of direct interest to our readers. I added one today and will continue to do so as seems appropriate.
Tom Woods, a top African affairs official at the United States State Department, said the grim prospect for Zimbabweans is that Mugabe will remain in power until his term ends in 2008.
Under Mugabe's rule, Woods said, the Southern African country has suffered an economic decline of 40% in recent years and a brain drain that is probably irreversible.
Zimbabwe could become "a failed state or a failing state," Woods said, speaking to a gathering at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
He said the world should support growing pressures for change in Zimbabwe and act to save the people of Zimbabwe from the "worst aspects" of Mugabe's rule.
Two things stand out from these few lines. The first is the part about "the grim prospects for Zimbabweans" being that Mugabe is likely to continue his reign. What is it that we used to say in elementary school to someone who stated the obvious?
This is about as inanely obvious as a statement can be. Let's see, Mugabe has consolidated his hold on power in recent years. His dictatorship is substantially worse than it was a decade ago. His neighbors in South Africa, the most powerful nation on the continent, have done virtually nothing to arrest Zim's freefall. The United States and its allies have barely feigned interest in what Mugabe has done to his people, as we have barely feigned interest in African affairs for, well, forever. And from all of this, Tom Woods makes the stunning conclusion that Mugabe will maintain power? It is almost breathtaking in its obliviousness.
The second phrase that stands out is Woods' assertion that Zimbabwe could become a "failed state or a failing state." Oh, could it? Whatever might bring about this bold assertion? Don't step too far out on that limb. Zimbabwe has gone in two decades from one of the great hopes of subsaharan Africa to one of its worst autocracies. Zimbabwe could once proudly claim to feed its people and be one of the major exporters of food in the region. Now people run the risk of starving and Zimbabwe gorges aid like a supermodel at a laxative buffet table. So you really think it is possible that Zimbabwe "could" become a failed state?
Does the State Department's entire Zimbabwe program really hinge on Mugabe's successor being someone we can deal with and who will lead his people from darkness into light? A culture of controlled anarchy has emerged in Zim that will not disappear when the head dies. Mugabe's successor will be anxious to consolidate his control and put his own stamp on the country. Witness what happened in the former Zaire when Laurent Kabila took over in a successful coup against our Cold War glory boy, the almost unfathomably kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko. It is impossible to imagine Mugabe's successor undertaking liberal democratic reforms.
The answer is not force. At least not right now. For one thing, the application of such force would be a near impossibility. It would plunge the region into chaos. Again. But the solution does come through the application of pressure -- to Zimbabwe, to be sure, but also to South Africa in the form of carrots as much as sticks. Mbeki's calculus thus far has been that ignoring Zim, or using constructive engagement with Mugabe, is better for South Africa's interests than a more forceful approach. We need to convince Mbeki that his approach, while understandable, has failed, and that we will help him find a more assertive course. And we need to do so by following up on the promise of development that followed the transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994 but that has somewhat fizzled. Would such promises constitute austerity? No -- South Africa has the region's most developed economy, whatever its shortcomings, and such investment would be in everyone's self interest. But how can America and Americans invest when South Africa's neighbor is in such tumult, especially in a region known for its volatility? South Africa can and should be our partner in Africa. Let the Zim issue be the one that brings us back and helps us realize the partnership.
But for now, we appear to be wringing our hands, suddenly aware that Mugabe is not going anywhere, worrying far too late about what might be while denying what already is.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Monday, September 19, 2005
Friday, September 16, 2005
By the way, and apropos of nothing, in my survey class my students are reading a book about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. One of the subplots is about a mass murderer whose surname is "Holmes." Yesterday in our discussion of the book I referred to him as "Holmesy," one of the names that Rich's buddies will call him. One of my students asked, puzzled, "Did you just call him 'Holmsesy?', and I explained that I did so in honor of my friend Rich Holmes. My students think I am strange.
Never before has a president spoken so well and acted so ineptly.
Great speeches take place at momentous times. This one has taken place weeks too late. It is a well written speech tantamount to nothing more than damage control. And not even the damage that the Administration ought to be controlling, but rather control of the damage to his presidency. His words last night were the equivalent of giving his first sound and reassuring speech after 9/11 on October 2nd. It just does not resonate. His true believers will line right up behind him again. The rest of us have a right to be more skeptical.
(On the other hand, Spencer Ackerman makes a sound case for why the knee-jerk response to the administration should not be that Katrina proves that we have paid too much attention to terrorism. If anything, it may reveal the opposite. Criticizing the President now is absolutely appropriate. But the President's opponents should at least avoid blaming him for the wrong things. Perhaps he has handled the threat of terrorism poorly -- I would make this case -- but the problem is not the emphasis on terrorism qua emphasis on terrorism.)
(Finally, in my apparent desire to get you to spend as much time as possible reading TNR today, I want to point out yet another article, this one by one of the truly great Southern historians writing today, James Cobb. He posits a possible explanation based on Southern culture for why so many people refused to flee their homes and neighborhoods in the wake of Katrina's devastation.)
Thursday, September 15, 2005
This morning I was a guest on KCRS Talk Radio at the request of their morning show hosts. The station is very conservative, the listeners perhaps moreso, but this was the second time I had been invited, and despite our political differences, they have treated me well. Today the callers to the show ran 10-1 or more against the decision, which did not surprise me. I kept my stance fairly moderate -- I did not explicitly support or attack the decision. My main point was simply that yesterday's decision is just a step, and that this is probably the case that will compel the Supreme Court to take a stance on this contentious but, I would argue, ultimately fairly insignificant issue.
The interesting aspect of the argument of those who called in outraged over the judge's decision is how many of them asked a question without being willing to entertain its converse: Why do they care so much about these two little words? Well, yes -- why indeed do YOU care so much about these two little words? If one side of an argument is important to a group of people, it should be a fairly reasonable assumption that the other side is just as important to those who advocate it.
I am glad that the pledge is said in schools for patriotic reasons. I would just as soon remove "Under God" from the pledge for a host of reasons. not the least of these is that in the Pledge as Francis Bellamy, editor of Youth's Companion, originally wrote it in 1892 did not include those words. Bellamy thought that it would be a nice gesture for American schoolchildren to offer something to their nation in unison in conjunction with the dedication day ceremonies for the forthcoming Chicago World's Fair. (Students in my survey are reading Erik Larson's spellbinding The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness and the Fair That Changed America, which is where I learned the details behind the Pledge). "Under God" was only added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War. Apparently the invocation of the higher power did not have the desired effect, as our victory in that conflict would still be nearly four decades in the making.
Callers also seemed to believe that somehow by "Under God" not being included in what by any account is a pretty perfunctory undertaking their rights were being denied, but of course no one is being told that they cannot worship how they would like. They are simply being told that they cannot worship when and where they like, especially if the "when" is during public school hours and the "where" is on school grounds. Public school is an apt, perhaps ideal, place to teach civics and even to teach the values that will then promote patriotism. It is not time for demogoguery over your kids' right to worship, which is not being denied. (Interestingly, lots of people try to claim that "Under God" is not a form of enforced worship while at the same time claiming that by not being allowed to say those same words, their right to worship was being denied, an argument so ludicrous and impossible to grasp that somewhere a theology professor's head just exploded.)
In any case, it now appears that the Supreme Court will have to address this vexing but ultimately not especially consequential issue. For the record, I do not see this court, in which I will include Roberts, as he will be confirmed by a comfortable margin, striking down the Pledge as it stands. It may not even be that close of a vote.
“Among adults age 25 to 34, the U.S. is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree.”
But before anyone calls the methodology into question (which is perfectly fair) it should be noted that the US was rated first (#1) just 20 years ago.
The CNN article that reported these findings went on to note that the issue is not just money: “In all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That's the second highest amount, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland.”
Of course, the above statistic means nothing if that money is not being equally distributed, as it is not. In fact, I would speculate the state of education in America is probably artificially inflated by virtue of the minority of elite schools which produce extremely bright and talented children and drag our national average up.
Education is perhaps the most difficult problem in our nation to solve because the most important variables are so out of government control. We all know how government can do better: smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers to attract quality people into the profession, are certainly among them. I would also add that we need an national education policy, a system of funding that does not rely on the unequal property-tax method, and standards of licensing that are uniform and common-sense rather than varied from state to state and mind-bogglingly complex.
As economist Michael Podgursky notes:
“As opposed to licensing boards in other professions such as medicine, dentistry, and law, which issue only one license, states boards typically issue from 75 to over 150 certificates. Schools districts are expected to match these many licenses to the hundreds of courses that are taught in any school year. Since it is nearly impossible for a school district to be continuously in compliance in this system, virtually all states allow some sort of emergency or provisional licensing. It is widely reported that many urban districts are hiring large numbers of teachers with such licenses.”
All of that aside however, a specialist in the field of education has assured me that the real difference between student performances is not so much economic as it is how much help and reinforcement the student is getting at home and in his or her community (the specialist, by the way, is my wife, a 1st grade teacher in a school whose students are 99.1% poor- that is, living at or below the poverty line). But how do you make parents more interested in education and their child’s future? That is what makes the education crisis so vexing. There is no single law that will help, no amount of money will do the trick. Furthermore, education is so intimately related to so many other social and political woes, it is difficult to imagine much success in many other areas so long as our education continues to deteriorate.
As Hillary Clinton says in her book, It Takes a Village,
“Children are not rugged individualists. They depend on adults they know and on thousands more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our children are raised in a nation that doesn't just espouse family values but values families and children.”
I didn’t write this post to propose an answer to the problem, although I have a couple of ideas, but I did want to bring this study to everyone’s attention as one more reminder of what everyone already knows: that our education system in the US is woefully inadequate to compete in a global economy.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
I am not being flip. I think I've established my antiterrorism credentials these last few years and I certainly know that terrorism exists and we must do our damndest to stamp it out. I am working on a book on global terrorism, and the very first chapter confronts establishing a definition. The scholar and writer Boaz Ganor's article "Terrorism: No Prohibition Without Definition" has been particularly important in my thinking on this issue. If we want to stop terrorism, if we are to develop a coherent program to deal with those who engage in it, we must decide what it is -- to define terrorism is to establish a universal desire to prevent it and to punish those who engage in it.
And yet there are still days when I want to throw my hands up and adhere to Justice Potter Stewart's approach to dealing with pornography -- I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it. Unfortunately, that is not good enough. Because if we leave terrorism to be in the eye of the beholder, the terrorists will simply define themselves away. We do not want that. The DMN piece reveals the difficulty in establishing a universally recognized definition. Nonetheless, even if it seems like we are trying to nail jelly to a wall, we need to continue to pound away.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Top five countries subject to UN human rights criticism in 2004:
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Tied for Fourth place:
Cote d'Ivoire and United States of America
Now granted, given that any nation can speak at the UN some imbalance was inavitable, but how seriously can we take a body with a ranking like this? The United States tied with the Ivory Coast and ranked worse than, say, Liberia, Zimbabwe, or Congo-Brazzaville? Israel is really worse than Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen? This is absurd.
At the same time, strip away these absurdities, and there are still a lot of duties that the UN seems well suited to fill. The problem is that the body's limitations outstrip its strengths.
The idea of a UN still appeals to me, but part of me wants to start from scratch. I've advocated it before, and I will do so again -- I would like to see a body of liberal democratic nations with perhaps a bicameral structure that consists also of a lower house for aspiring liberal democracies. And the upper body should legitimately encourage nations to aspire both to gain membership in the uper circle and also to get into that lower house. think of it as a Premier league style relegation system. Sure, it sets apart a haves and have-nots kind of structure, but at least it is honest about it -- the UN does so as well, but the difference is that it does so while suckling at the teat of liberal democracies that it then condemns with no real regard for issues of justice or human rights, and worse yet, with an increasingly ineffectual presence in the world. And unlike the current UN, where Zimbabwe gets to judge the merits of other nations' human rights performance, the structure of this new global body would be based on merit, with the final arbiter being liberalization, openness, democratic values, and the like. And imagine if the body's largesse used political standards for providing development aid -- it would surely be a better approach than the World Bank and IMF often take, and would encourage nations to aspire toward democracy.
Saturday, September 10, 2005
Stranger things have happened than a return from the grave for Vice-President Gore. It always strikes me as very bad for American politics that, these days, losers are so tainted that they cannot run again. Only the most naive person believes that democracy always makes the right choices. It is merely a mechanism for avoiding the very worst. The idea that one top politician is destined to obscurity and shame in every election is, at the least, wasteful of talent.
In Britain, we've had a shift to a similar style. The Conservatives have lost their leader after their 1997, 2001 and 2005 election defeats, in all cases immediately after the results were announced. I don't think it's good for parties and in a Presidential system such as the United States, it certainly seems a shame for the country. Without any obvious equivalent of our Leader of the Opposition shadowing a Prime Minister, non-incumbent parties in the US have difficulties holding a President to account. While www.johnkerry.com clearly tries to provide some sort of coordinated leadership for the Democrats, the political will doesn't seem to exist to take it very seriously.
But what does this have to do with Al Gore? Well, I think the speculation that he could make a come-back is pretty fantastic. But it's a shame that it is so silly. Perhaps I say this as someone who could never understand criticism of Gore's charisma or style, and perhaps such percieved failings were due to Anglo-American cultural differences. One thing's for sure: the idea of "Al Gore the liar" was a cynical media image completely manufactured against reality. To take one example, his credit for funding projects that led to the development of our internet, is now immortalised in the misleading claim "Al Gore's internet".
A Gore-Edwards ticket would probably look a little liberal to many Americans, but the strength of personalities is still there. Until Barrack Obama is old enough, the Democrats could do much worse than look for a President from those who have come so close to winning in the past two elections: Gore, Kerry and Edwards. In Gore's case he got more votes than Bush.
I realise this probably seems non-sensical, but it is puzzling why the attitude persists that a defeated US Presidential candidate is an untouchable loser.
Oh, and before anyone else points out... I realise the best example of candidates coming back from election defeat to fight again is Richard Nixon... ;)
Friday, September 09, 2005
I hope Steve Heise was there to bear witness.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
By the way -- Sports Guy's and my Red Sox books will be coming out at the same time. I'm sure he feels threatened by this.
It has come to be expected that when Islamic fundamentalism gains power, such as in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, the ruling clerics act upon their emnity of ancient idolatry and set about destroying the remnants of previous heretical eras. Apparently, not so the Iranians. Despite the strict cultural limits defined by modern theocracy, there remains in Iran a distinct pride in the country's unique and expansive history. Ancient sites, such as Persepolis, are cherished and protected (in general) and now, after two years of negotiation between the British Museum and Iran's National museum, this vast collection of artefacts from the age of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes has been exported for the first time. Intitially permitted by Khatami, the new Presidency has also, after renewed opposition, given its blessing to this attempt to share Iran's heritage with the West. This is apparently an attempt to counter prejudices and broaden understanding of Iran - not just the villain of the today's world stage, but also the much demonised enemy of our cultural and political ancestors, Greece and Rome.
The exhibition may well prompt some reevaluation of a significant but often overlooked period of history, and even fill out some people's understanding of widely discussed but still obscure country. It would be an exaggeration to say that it represents a substantial step in improving Anglo-Iranian relations, but it is hard not to see it as a good sign. Amongst the objects on loan from Iran, Persian artefacts from the British Museum's own collection will be displayed, including the highly prized Cyrus Cylinder, which will, in turn, be loaned to Iran and displayed there in the near future. The cuneiform-inscribed cylinder was made following Cyrus the Great's conquest of Babylon and is a declaration of the King's good intentions, promising freedom, reconstruction, security and religious tolerance - though sceptics may regard this with the same amount of salt that garnishes an inaugaration speech. Cyrus also gets a favourable mention in the Bible
Here are some choice extracts:
" My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon. I did not allow anyone to terrorise the land of Sumer and Akkad. I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. The citizens of Babylon ................. I lifted their unbecoming yoke. Their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes."
"Now that I put the crown of kingdom of Iran, Babylon, and the nations of the four directions on the head with the help of (Ahura) Mazda, I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them until I am alive. From now on, till (Ahura) Mazda grants me the kingdom favor, I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it , and if any one of them rejects it , I never resolve on war to reign."
Some, including Simon Tisdall of the Guardian, will draw comparisons with current US policy (after all, we all know where Babylon is), but it might be better to hope that Iranians themselves are taking heed of their ancient hero's advice on how to run a country.
Oh, and a message to George and any other potential US Presidents:
In any possible future war with Iran, please take more care to protect and preserve your enemy's cultural heritage than was taken in Iraq.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
It's difficult to know how to respond to criticism of President Bush's response. On the one hand, I always worry that there really is a secular blame game, in an age where we do not believe natural disasters represent the wrath of God. In a completely different context, the abolition of bad luck is the biggest danger to liberty in Western society. It leaves societies with bizarre litigation, always hoping to find someone responsible because "where there's blame, there's a claim". The simple vagaries of our life are swept away, in a belief that there could be a happy utopia for us, if it wasn't for the incompetence or greed of particular other people. Most importantly, it leads us to adopt responses to dangers that make minimising risk more important than maximising opportunities. Thus, oppressive anti-terrorism legislation, often with negligible actual powers in impeding terrorists, mortgage the very liberties on which Western liberal democracies are based. Equally, here in Britain, children don't almost never go on school trips now, because teachers are at too much risk of litigation if a child is injured.
In those cases, there seems to be a complete blindness to the quality of life being sacrificed in the pursuit of reducing percieved risk, and thus reducing the risk of blame for not doing enough. The number of children injured or killed on school trips was never concerning in comparison to the same trips undertaken with parents, and one wonders if the risks of injury on such trips are much worse than those faced by bored and unstimulated under-18s roaming streets all over Britain.
Now, the disaster in New Orleans is clearly on a much more horrific scale than the case study I just outlined. However, there has to be a dose of reason in any criticism made against Mr. Bush. While it is perfectly reasonable to criticise his actions since assuming the Presidency, I do wonder if it is fair to completely blame him for the long-term poverty of the over-whelmingly black families stranded in New Orleans. There is an extent to which that is a question of balme which stretches way beyond any agency George W. Bush has ever commanded.
And yet, with those words of caution, there do seem to be two profound errors in Bush's conduct. Firstly, it seems clear that New Orleans would have been far better prepared for the disaster if the funding of disaster preparations had not been slashed in favour of anti-terrorist operations. Secondly, the President's slow response to the initial disaster was politically and morally appalling. By immediately visiting Louisiana from Texas, President Bush could have provided vital reassurance and comfort, helping maintain order and the rule of law.
When Jesse Jackson comments on the resemblance of survivors to the cargo in the belly of a slave ship, he makes an important point against the continuing social injustices in communities such as New Orleans. But beyond that, and excluding the fact that this was clearly a natural disaster which would have caused broadly comparable destruction under Presidents Gore or Kerry, Bush almost certainly does deserve censure for his response to the hurricane. It is probably evident that he is aware of this, given growing attempts to shift the blame onto Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco.
Ultimately, if America really wants to examine the response to Katrina, it needs an inquiry to be headed by someone other than Mr. Bush himself. Bill Clinton's call for a full congressional commission have much more credibility. Until we allow defendents to act as their own judge, Bush's commission will be as hollow and meaningless as justifications for his war in Iraq.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
This past August, when Senate Democrats began questioning why they should support an energy bill that doles out billions of dollars to special interests and pork-barrel projects but does embarrassingly little to actually addresses the energy crisis, the administration accused them of “playing politics at the pump instead of passing the President's plan.”
And when Democrats tried to compromise with the administration on judges (pull the most extreme conservatives in exchange for passage of the rest of them), they were accused of “playing politics” with judicial nominees.
The John Bolton nomination? Yup! “Playing politics” again.
How about questions on why we invaded a country based on intelligence that turned out to be completely and utterly wrong? What does the administration think about asking who is responsible? You guessed it, they are all “playing politics.”
Given this brief (and rest assured, a comprehensive list would have to include virtually any policy for which there is even the hint of disagreement) history of how this administration accepts responsibility for its actions, it should come as no surprise that the colossal blunders of our government during the recent tragedy has similarly been dismissed, or at least indefinitely postponed, when Scott McClellan called questions about the administration’s actions partisan sniping, and insisted that “This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics.”
I will not rehash exactly how this administration has failed this country, particularly since so many already have (Paul Krugman’s columns here and here is a nice start, as is Bob Herbert’s editorial and this touching look at Fox News journalists actually reacting with anger, tears, and even cursing at the degree of ineptitude they have witnessed).
I will say however, that what makes this administration such a failure in my eyes has not been its colossal mistakes, with the cost in lives and money astronomical, nor is it just their inability to admit doing anything wrong, a callous and arrogant attitude that is as much an insult to the American people as an insight into their blame-avoidance mentality. No, what truly bothers me and so many others is the almost continuous “attack” mode. We saw it full force first against Gore, then against Democrats, and even against members of his own administration that dared to tell the truth. It is this policy of character assassination and straw-man argumentation that has facilitated (though not created) the massive partisan divide in this country. Whereas President Clinton chose compromise and reconciliation with Republicans (which many mistakenly interpreted as a lack of conviction), Bush has chosen again and again a policy of deflecting blame and accusing anyone who does not agree as merely “playing politics.”
It is a cheap excuse to dodge the issue and rely on ad hominem attacks to put critics on the defensive. Judging by Bush’s sinking poll numbers, it appears to be loosing some of its edge. In the coming months and years, as the nation starts to reap the massive economic and military blunders that this administration has sown, it will not be so easy to accuse everyone else of petty partisanship. The latest disaster is only the beginning.
“New Orleans” has become shorthand for the havoc Katrina has wreaked, a below-sea-level city that embodies America’s decadent side leveled by nature’s might and practically abandoned except for a few either hardy or foolish souls. Although some of our lesser angels have emerged – according to some, it seems that black people loot while white people use their ingenuity to find stuff that they did not have before – overwhelmingly, the magnanimousness of the American spirit is ringing through loud and clear, even if our national government has reached levels of incompetence I never would have thought possible. Relief efforts are everywhere. Universities across Texas are offering their facilities for college sports teams from the affected areas, and we are opening our doors to students to take classes without facing the regular bureaucratic hurdles. My little university hundreds of miles away from the carnage has opened its doors to a handful of afflicted students and all over campus ad hoc relief efforts have emerged. New Orleans, one of my favorite cities, will never be the same. But all of the pessimism aside, we will find a way to rebuild it, to make it safer and gaudier and more debauched than ever.
My response to Rehnquist’s passing was an audible gasp. I’ll let others argue about Rehnquist’s place in the judicial firmament -- conservatives will overrate him, liberals will underrate him, and the truth will lie somewhere therein. It always struck me that the Chief Justice cared very deeply about the court as an institution, and that in his decades on the court he worked hard to ensure that it maintained a distance to provide it the prestige that the Supreme Court warrants. Sometimes his vision was bizarre – such as when he added the stripes to his robe after he attended a musical that showed a judge in similar finery – but usually it was intended to protect the court’s gravitas. In recent years the court has taken its share of slings and arrows, but I still hold it in higher esteem than any other institution in Washington. Now the succession battle will begin, and the stakes are now far higher than they were just a few days ago. Democrats and liberals in the Senate are certainly fully entitled to any documentation that the administration is, for whatever reason, trying to hide. Judicial politics will be grand spectacle in the next few months.
The Iraq War continues onward, teetering along with no sense of clarity or mission. The insurgents are increasingly brazen, and we seem ineffectual in response. The administration’s incompetence there is masked by its incompetence here these days, which would have seemed impossible only two weeks ago. And in the interim, many of us who have been arguing about the vulnerability of our ports seem to have gotten macabre vindication. If you live in Houston or Boston or New York or San Francisco, ask yourself the following question: How safe do you feel now? Yes, Katrina was a natural disaster and thus different from a terrorist attack, but do you wonder if the bad guys are not watching and rubbing their hands together as a result the events of the last week, and as importantly, after witnessing the response of our leaders? They are.
Friday, September 02, 2005
The first is a story with familiar contours – we may have or should have known more about the whereabouts and actions of Mohammed Atta before that fateful day. This is a recurring theme, we’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again, and essentially, I am not certain how much it tells us, other than that we were woefully prepared on September 11th, which we all already knew. The inclination of too many is to use this for partisan gain – the question of WHO failed on 9/11 is, bizarrely, more important to some people than finding out the answers that matter – HOW did we fail, and short of Superman coming to the rescue and turning back time by flying really fast around the globe (I was always skeptical of that one), how can we address future attacks that we can be assured are even now in the planning stages?
The second story seems more definitively to tie al Qaeda to the July attacks in London. This comes as no surprise, and yet in the wake of the July 7th bombings, and the far less effective attempts two weeks later, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether al Qaeda could be effective in mounting such campaigns as the ones that led to such carnage in London. The evidence is still tentative, but the warning attached to the video in question is clear on one point: The British should expect more attacks. Al Qaeda have not shown themselves to be either bluffers or kidders, so we should take them at their word.