Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Congratulations!

My friend Rhonda over at Itinerant Thinker is having a baby! Congratulations!

Gnat on an Elephant's Back

Let’s face it: There is more than a little self-aggrandizement attached to the whole blogging endeavor. But I am ok with this. After all, the same thing can be said for anyone who writes anything for an audience – publishing a book, for example, or writing an op-ed, carries with it an implication: “What I have to say is important, and you should read it. Better, you should pay to read it.”


But in the hierarchy of bloggers, most of us are pretty small potatoes. Every so often Instapundit, or the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web,” or one of the other big dogs will pick up something one of us writes here at dcat, and our numbers will soar for a day or so, and then we settle back into our comfortable, intimate (nice euphemism, that) regular crowd. Most of us have published things that have gotten a wide readership outside of dcat, but on the whole, no one is confusing our work here with that of Andrew Sullivan.


I try to remind myself of this every time I post something from a website with a whole lot more readership than we have here. After all, the odds that any of you read dcat before the Times or “Daily Dish,” or any of dozens of other sites is laughable, so when I link to another site with limited commentary, or without a whole lot to add to the conversation, it probably seems silly and solipsistic. I equate it with a gnat feverishly waving its arms to draw your attention to the elephant’s back on which it is perched.


So consider this entry the introduction to a new semi-regular feature, “Gnats on an Elephant’s back,” whereby I refer you to something you have inevitably already seen while adding just a few sketches of commentary, but without giving a full post. The general philosophy of dcat is that we provide mini-opinion pieces on a range of issues rather than simply lead you elsewhere. But we also know that elsewhere might be your preferred destination.


Over at the Daily Dish Andrew Sullivan discusses what does seem like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ demonstrable perjury during his confirmation hearings. The liberal and democrat in me wants to smirk and see justice done. But when I pull back a bit, I want to be more reasonable. What some of us tried to warn the right about during the 1990s was that by lowering the bar so much and prosecuting every perjury as if it was a high crime, and by introducing impeachment so easily, we were traversing dangerous terrain. The same can be said for redistricting and for executive branch kingmaking – it might seem like a damned good idea when the power pendulum is swinging your way. But in American politics nothing is permanent. And when the pendulum changes course, as it is wont to do, the law of unintended consequences is bound to kick in. So while half of me wants to see Gonzales face the full extent of the legal system he has gamed, the other half would love to see someone step back, look at the contemporary political situation, and stop the madness.


Meanwhile today’s Times has two stories of more than passing significance.


The first tells us of the passing of Coretta Scott King’s passing. Beyond the sadness and the reflection that inevitably occurs, and the fact that one cannot help but wonder how long her husband might have remained by her side had that bullet not torn through the sky on April 4, 1968, two thoughts spring to my mind. The first is a reminder that Mrs. King was herself a hero in the struggle for civil rights and not merely an appendage to her husband. The second was that I wish she had been more careful with her own legacy, not to mention that of her husband, in the last decade or so when the King Center in Atlanta, a place I have visited and worked in on several occasions, became little more than a political football and personal fiefdom for the King family. I tend to think that things won’t get much better in the near term.
The second story tells us what we long knew would happen: The Senate has confirmed Samuel Alito for the Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Supreme Court. I was sanguine about the nomination and confirmation of Justice Roberts. I am less so about Alito. I frankly think he lied his way through the confirmation hearings. Either that or he is less qualified than he appeared to be. How else can one explain his proclaimed lack of familiarity with the writings of John Yoo (whose work I have read, and I am not likely to be nominated for the Supreme Court any time soon) or anyone else who has written about the theory of a “unified executive”? I have other qualms with Alito as well, all of which were absolutely legitimate for Democratic Senators to address, but until we are willing to confront the repugnant duplicity that Supreme Court nominees are allowed to get away with in their hearings, the whole process will be a farce determined solely by the numbers game in the Senate. If I could make one humble proposal it would be this: If you say that you have not given any thought to an issue that has been before the Supreme Court and in the newspapers in the last ten years, that should scuttle your nomination immediately. The Senate, and by extension the engaged public, deserves an honest hearing in these circumstances, whether the nominee comes from a Democrat or a Republican president.


In any case, these are the stories that have caught the gnat’s attention today.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Two Trades

Within the past week, two professional Boston sports teams made two major trades. Here is my analysis:


Celtics Trade Davis & Assorted Chaff For Sczerbiak, Draft Choice, & Assorted Chaff:


Last week the Celtics traded gunner and unexpected good citizen Ricky Davis, contract dead weight Mark Blount, talented but increasingly marginalized Marcus Banks, "who-dat?" Justin Reed, and two conditional second-round picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves and old friend Kevin McHale for the gem of the players involved, Miami of Ohio's Wally Szczerbiak, former #1 draft pick and uber-bust Michael Olowokandi, Dwayne Jones of the development league, and a conditional first-round pick that the Celts are likely to be able to use in 2008. (See the Globe story here.)


Color me fully on board with this. I had come to like Ricky Davis. He had been a troublemaker elsewhere, but in Boston was a good citizen, could electrify a crowd at least once a game, and was a legit second scoring threat. Assessments of his defensive skills vary widely, but he has athletic ability and the capacity to get in the way. But the Celtics were not going anywhere as constituted last week, and they have managed to shed the disastrous contract of Blount (Ainge's single worst decision in his tenure as GM), to pick up a player in Sczerbiak who will complement Paul Pierce (quietly having an All-Star year that really ought to boost him right back into discussions of the top 10 players in the league), to grab an always-valuable first-round draft pick, and to make room under the salary cap for next year, when the Kandi-man's contract expires. I may be seeing this through rose-colored glasses, but the Celtics just got better for right now, and they got better for the future. I love Kevin McHale, but unless he is seeing steps down the road that I do not, I think we just fleeced our simian Hall of Fame forward.


Red Sox Trade Vaunted Prospect for Coco Crisp:


This rumor had the message boards over at Sons of Sam Horn burning up. In the space of just a few days, from when Tony Mazzarotti of the Boston Herald last Sunday night reported rumors of a trade involving highly touted prospect Andy Marte for Coco Crisp, SoSH had hundreds of posts and more than 500,000 viewers. Red Sox fans are obsessed and insane. The debate began to rage: Was a consensus top 5 prospect in baseball (and at times #1 prospect) worth the young and rising Coco Crisp? The debate has not yet been settled and probably will not for ten years when we know the full outcome. Some believe that by giving up Marte (whom we had acquired in the Renteria trade to Atlanta) we were sacrificing a potential superstar. Maybe a Hall of Famer. Others opined that Crisp not only filled a vital need, but that he is poised to become an All Star and will be a more than satisfactory replacement for Johnny Damon, who sold his soul for filthy lucre.


The particulars are key here: The Red Sox gave up not only Marte, but also another one of their other top 10 prospects, catcher Kelly Schoppach, as well as Guillermo Mota, whose health has been the source of much debate, and who failed a physical with the Indians last week (some speculate that Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro got cold feet and thus Mota's failure -- after all, if he failed the physical, why did Cleveland continue to want him?) a player to be named later, and cash. The Sox in return got Crisp, righthanded reliever David Riske and catcher Josh Bard.


The Red Sox obviously received the best current player in the deal by obtaining Crisp, who will become an instant folk hero in Boston by virtue of his cuddly name, the long-awaited replacement in that category for Pokey Reese, perhaps. He is just hitting his prime and as important, will not even be eligible for free agency until 2009. Riske is a good acquisition inasmuch as he may not offer Mota's upside, but he is likely not as much of an injury risk. Bard does not have Shoppach's upside, but with Jason Varitek signed for the next three seasons and ensconced as both starter and team captain, whoever plays the backup role needs to be able to fill a niche. Bard, who will not be assured the backup role this season, as the Sox acquired John Flaherty earlier this offseason, nonetheless is serviceable and is supposed to be a good defensive backstop, which may get him in games is he can handle the chores of being Tim Wakefield's knuckleball catching specialist, a role ably filled by Doug Mirabelli the last few years.


So this leaves the question of the future -- did we give up too much for Crisp and parts? My gut instinct is no. Maybe Marte will become a Hall of Famer. Maybe he is the next Mike Schmidt. If so, this trade may end up looking bad -- but how many Mike Schmidts have their been? And did Mike Schmidt barely hit above the Mendoza line in the Dominican Winter League (admittedly after tearing up Triple A) as Marte did this offseason? And why were two of the best run teams in baseball, the Sox and the Braves, willing to trade Marte in the same offseason (though the Indians belong in any discussion of the best run front offices these days)? And is it even important if Crisp ends up as a star and championship anchor as well?


My gut instinct is that this is the right thing. The Sox minor league system is full of potential superstars, and the fact is, some prospects are best used as trade bait, as they are not all going to pan out. Sox fans can go through the list -- Jeff Suppan, Frankie Rodriquez, Casey Fossum, Hanley Ramirez -- of untouchable guys. Some of them are still active. But your options with young players eventually reaches a critical point -- play 'em or trade 'em. They can be every bit as valuable as trade bait as they can be on the roster, especially if you have other guys to hold on to, as the Sox do with a host of young guys, especially pitchers such as Lester, Papelbon, DelCarmen, and Hanson.


What it comes down to for me is simply this: The Red Sox are one of the few organizations in baseball that does not have to choose between winning now and winning later. The Red Sox can plan for 2008 while still fielding a team that can contend for a title in 2006. It would have been great if we could have gotten a center fielder who could have helped us to contend this year and still keep Marte. But the front office (I think wisely) decided that of the options out there, Crisp was the best to help us win now while still being a potential star for years to come. The Indians did very well in this transaction. But for the Red Sox, this trade also works out very well. They enter 2006 with a team that should once again contend for the AL East, and as we have seen in recent years, if you contend for the AL East, the odds are at least pretty good that you'll have a shot at the ALCS and beyond.


Andy Marte, we hardly knew ye. Coco Crisp, welcome aboard. (And I'd strongly advise getting off to a hot start.)


Tom, Don -- I anxiously await the Cleveland perspective.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Osama's Warning, Acheson's Advice

My latest op-ed for History News Service is posted and has been distributed to some 300 newsapers across this great land of ours. The gist? Dean Acheson was a clever fellow and might have had something to tell us about this Osama dude. Look for it in a newspaper near you (and let me know, since I am usually the last to find out these things).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas and the Palestinian Elections

Hamas is a terrorist organization. There should be no doubt about that. No matter how many breakfast programs and clothes distribution centers -- undoubtedly good things -- Hamas operates, their first and primary function is terror, particularly terrorism aimed at Israel and those who will support Israel. Hamas supports the abduction of westerners who cross into Gaza. Hamas celebrated when the airplanes crashed and the Towers fell and thousands were murdered on 9/11. Hamas was planning to murder innocents yesterday and they are plotting murdering innocents today and those plans will go unabated tomorrow. We know these things to be true.


But I am not up in arms over Hamas participating in, and apparently winning the Palestinian elections. I am not happy with this result, and I wish the Palestinian electorate had chosen another course. But I am not going to fulminate and protest and wag my finger at their choice. I have a few reasons for this, some of which are admittedly still in the process of evolving:


1) I believe people have the right to choose their leaders. People have the right to make disastrous decisions. We sometimes lost sight of this during the Cold War -- imagine if we had simply allowed the South Vietnamese people to choose their own fate in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the flip side of that right is that the rest of the world gets to react accordingly. No one today can blame Israel for adjusting to the facts on the ground. The facts on the ground are that the Palestinian electorate has chosen an organization that may provide them bread, but that has also avowed the destruction of Israel. No one can hide behind Arafat's demogoguery or assert that the majority of Palestinians just want peace. They chose Hamas knowing full well what that organization represents. Perhaps Hamas can change. maybe they will (see #3). But until they do, Israel has a right to adjust to what it knows, not what some may hope.
2) Hamas now has a choice -- the organization can lead and build a Palestinian state. Or it can destroy and negate. Suddenly Hamas must be accountable. more to the point, Hamas can be held accountable. I am not optimistic that this will happen, but participation in democratic processes, even when the participants are by their very nature authoriatarian, carries with it certain burdens, burdens the Palestinian people can hold Hamas to or that the outside world can. In a sense, Hamas just moved out of the shadows, even if unwittingly. We can hope that sunlight is really the best disinfectant, or we can know that it is easier to shoot into light than into darkness if we must.


3) I find it as distasteful as anyone that we sometimes have to hold our nose, swallow hard, and deal with that which we find unpalatable. But rhetoric aside, we are not likely to wipe out everyone who was, is, or might be a terrorist. Sometimes our best hope is to co-opt them. No one sleeps well knowing that murderers sometimes not only walk free, but benefit from their crimes. But time and time again we have to settle for what is possible and not for what we would like. Three examples spring readily to mind: South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Russia. In each of these cases the perpetrators of evil, far from being wiped out, were brought to the table and sometimes rewarded. There is a reason for this -- in none of these examples was it possible to destroy completely the bad guys. Does anyone really think that Margaret Thatcher's (or Tony Blair's) ideal scenario would have had the IRA having a say in the peace process, sitting in negotiations, or having seats at Stormont? Did Mandela lie awake at night in Robben island and Pollsmoor hoping, did Govan Mbeki and Oliver Tambo dream, that one day they would negotiate with the National Party, the party of Verwoerd and Botha, the party behind Vlakplaas and the securocrats, rather than wipe the Nats and their apartheid system off the face of the earth? Would Harry S Truman or John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon have looked forward to a Russian ally that did little to punish the thugs and criminals who made the Soviet Union run? No, no, and no. Perhaps similarly Hamas being in the fold will be the option that breaks the logjam, that a combination of a place at the table and a chance to create a Palestinian state will lead Hamas to give up its dreams of destroying Israel and driving the Jews to the sea.


Make no mistake, this is not my preferred outcome. I would as soon see Hamas destroyed, wiped off the face of the planet for good, driven into the very sea they claimed was Israel's fate. But it is likely not going to happen. Instead the Palestinian people have made their choice (as Mr. Burns once said, "Look at those slack-jawed troglodytes, Smithers. And yet if I were to have them killed, I'd be the one to go to prison. That's democracy for you."); Israel can adjust accordingly and serious people cannot blame them if those preparations entail defensive and protective measures; and everyone can adjust to the realities on the ground. This might not be the ideal solution. But in the long run, it might be the only solution that will work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Conservative Hypocrisy Watch

The Nazi/Fascist invocation is either ok or it is not. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg's forthcoming book carries the title Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton. I am anxious to see if conservatives meet this book with the same outrage that they have met liberals who have misused such noxious terms in the past. DCAT is looking forward to seeing if such invocations are actually ok, sometimes, you know, depending on the situation. I'm afraid I think I know the answer, but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The African Union and Sudan

Entering this week's meeting of the African Union it looked like Africa's most important multi-national body was on a collision course with laughingstock status or worse, but according to today's Mail & Guardian online and New York Times, the continent's heads of state might have dodged the train wreck. Olusegun Obasanjo is scheduled to step down as chairman of the AU, and according to the rotation that the AU follows, Omas Hassan al-Bashir of the Sudan was to take his place. Suffice it to say that this would have been immensely embarrassing to the continent, and would likely have provided a death knell for the AU's global credibility (then again, given the nations that get to sit on the UN's Human Rights Commission, perhaps global credibility is a more elastic concept than I realize).


But it looks like backroom maneuvering and skilled politicking might have saved the day. Africa's leaders have instead established a committee to steer through the morass and recommend Obasanjo's successor. On Monday the Sudan offered to withdraw its bid to head the AU. "We don't want to make any cracks in the union. We don't want to make any divisions," Mustapha Osman Ismail, Sudan's presidential adviser, told reporters even as behind-the-scenes it appeared that Sudan's chairmanship was already a dead issue. "If that means Sudan should withdraw, we will withdraw."


There are several possibilities for what comes next. Obasanjo might be asked to stay on until the succession situation is cleared up. While this would be good for continuity, many African leaders might be wary both to give Nigeria's head of state such an extension and to seem to perpetuate the stereotype of Africans being unable or unwilling to give up power. Names that seem most prominent as contenders for AU chairmanship are President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo Republic (not to be confused with its neighbor across the Congo River, the perpetually chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former Zaire) and Gabon's Omar Bongo. Representatives from nations representing all of the continent's regions -- Algeria, Botswana (which along with Obasanjo and Nigeria were among the most vocal in opposing al-Bahir as the anointed successor to Obasanjo), Ethiopia, Gabon and Niger -- make up the committee that will hopefully settle this affair.


The question that most of you are probably asking is how things could have come to this. Yours is a reasonable query. The easiest answer is that whatever we think of it, Africans tend to circle the wagons for their own. Pan-Africanism may seem like a chimera to many of us who realize that such an immense continent cannot possibly rally around such an amorphous concept, but Africa tried to unite prescisely because it has been so beleaguered from without, especially in the last 125 years. As a consequence, African heads of state tend to be profoundly protective not only of their own sovereignty but also of the sovereignty of other African nations. This is one of the many problematic legacies of colonialism. Generally, national sovereignty is a good thing. But the question we have to ask, and that African heads of state must be more vigilant in pursuing, is "the sovereignty to do what?" because when sovereignty clashes with fundamental human rights, human rights as laid out, say, in South Africa's wonderful constitution, then it seems that human rights ought to win out over the sovereignty of nations abusing those rights. The rights of Africans, in other words, ought to win out over the rights of rapacious heads of states. Still, it would behoove the rest of the world to understand why Africans are so deeply protective of national sovereignty, because this cherished principle is at the heart of, for example, Mbeki's reticence to challenge Mugabe frontally. I am not here to justify (I certainly could not be more ardent in my opposition both to Sudan heading the AU or Mbeki's quiet diplomacy with regard to Mugabe), but just to explain, and perhaps to make the situation at least a bit more comprehensible. This question of sovereignty versus intervention is another area where the colonial legacy is used, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, but whichever the interpretation, it is something that the outside world needs to take seriously and try to understand.


And let there be no question about it, most Africans are appalled by the idea of Sudan heading up the African Union, which on the whole has performed both admirably and has far surpassed the efficacy and usefulness of the Organization of African unity, its predecessor body. This morning, Zapiro (a subscription might be required -- sorry) shows how South Africa's greatest political cartoonist, and many Africans, feels about the prospect of al-Bahir taking over this prestigious post. The AU's quiet diplomacy, skillful backroom operating, and calm public face are an example of African solutions to African problems and provide another glimmer of hope where too often we see none. Let us hope that this is a portent of things to come. I am rooting for the AU. You should be too.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Conference Championships

OK, so I wasn't really right in too many meaningful ways yesterday. Yes, the Seahawks were, as I suspected, the better team. No, Denver did not come to play and that game should have been a blowout. Yes, Roethlisburger showed me something. No, the NFC game was not a barn burner. No, neither game was especially interesting to watch.


But riddle me this -- Am I alone, or just because the AFC is the far superior conference, (I don't think any serious person doubts this) is anyone else dumbfounded by the fact that the Steelers, who came into the playoffs as a sixth seed, are favored by 5.5 over the #1 NFC seed Seahawks? Isn't the fact that the Steelers on consecutive weeks did their damndest to give big leads away at al disquieting to anyone? Isn't the fact that the Seahawks manhandled everyone's chic pick, the Panthers, at all germane? As you might guess, I will write much more about all of this in the coming two weeks. (I hate the two week layoff -- this game should be played next week; it is one thing to play a February game out of necessity; it is quite another thing to let the Super Bowl creep into February just because.) But my early line is that Seattle wins by a touchdown.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Championship Weekend Picks

This is often the best weekend in NFL games -- if history is any predictor, at least one of them will be a barnburner and if you are like me, you have some hunches but are not absolutely certain about any of these games. I am a lot more thrilled about today than I thought I would be in light of the Pat's flameout last weekend. This is probably because I have not seen football since early December. (Although that is not entirely true -- I was able to see the 4th quarter of the Rose Bowl last night, as we have friends who are huge Texas fans. What a game. Vince Young really was a man among boys that game. And I think Sportsguy is a bit harsh on Pete Carroll, who has been a great college coach. the fact is, one guy took that game over. And if you think that it was a mortal sin to take Bush out on that 4th and 2 then you have to say that the USC gameplan, which did the exact same thing every single time they faced such a situation this seaosn was wrong, despite how often it worked. I came around to this view last night when talking to Brian, the Texas fan.)


In any case, here is my take on these games:


AFC:


I do not like the Steelers. For the last few years the Pats have knocked them out of the playoffs and each time after the game Steelers players have insisted they were the better team. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in that timeframe. The Steelers have won fuckall since 1980. It seems p[atently stupid for them to have talked that noinsense, so I have developed a helthy dislike for them, which is actually too bad, because I do really like Jerome Bettis. Meanwhile the Broncos beat the Pats, albeit with help of the guys in stripes, and are at home. If the Pats were still alive, I would expect them to manhandle to Steelers. denver beat the Pats. They will manhandle the Steelers. Everyone waits for Jake Plummer to implode, but Big Ben's big game record is far from established, and with Manning and Brady out, none of these games will be won or lost solely as a result of the guy behind center. The Steelers will start off strong, but will discover that denver does not get ground down and they can play a similar style of smashmouth ball. Denver 31 Pittsburgh 23


NFC


Everyone loves Carolina. maybe I should too. After all, I saw what they did two years ago when they made their run and scared the crap out of New England until, ho hum, Brady and Vinatieri got to do their jobs. but even if they did so in the NFC, Seattle ran up the second best record in football this year, and they hade the best regular season of any of the remaining teams. They have the best player on the field in Shawn Alexander (yes, I think he is a better player than Steve Smith, though I am not adamant about that, but more importantly, Alexander's performance really is not going to be reliant on another player's as much as Smith's is) and they have a quarterback who, while not flashy, has been incredibly productive, more so than Delhomme. The Seahawks will have a rabid and hungry Seattle crowd behind them. Oh -- and the idea of the bandwagon umping fans of the Charlotte area having a team in the Super Bowl makes me queasy. Nonetheless, this will be the game to see, as there must be a reason why everyone in America outside of the SeaTac area is picking Carolina. Seattle 24 Carolina 23

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Shut Up!

Maybe I am just getting old. Maybe I am remembering things not the way they were, but the way that I wish they would be. But I swear, there was a time, not too long ago, when people did not talk during movies. Furthermore, there was a time when, if someone was talking, and another patron turned around and told them to shut up, the rest of the crowd would murmur in approval. I'm not so certain that would be the case now, when as many people seem to babbling in the movies as not.


I say all of this because we went to the movies last night. We went to see "Underworld: Evolution." Not my kind of movie, but let's just say that I was outvoted 1 to 1. From the minutes the lights went down and the previews came up, the entire row in back of us was talking, oftentimes across several people. They were not alone. And I know it is just the previews, but I am an ardent believer that the trailers set the tone for the movie. People who feel free to speak in full voice during the coming attractions usually do not become dormice when the feature starts.


Under ordinary circumstances, I'm the guy who turns around and in no uncertain terms tells the offenders to shut up. But last night I just got the sense that I would be a lone voice in the wilderness, as it seems as if every row had people talking. I think I may have reached the point where I will no longer go to a night showing of a particular kind of movie on a weekend.


Of course there is another option: You, the one talking while the film is playing -- will you please just shut the fuck up? Seriously.


Here is what I think the problem might be: Home entertainment options have become almost limitless. Where once VCR's were the sign of middle class pop culture hunger and access, today we have DVD's and DVD burners, internet, the iPod and TiVo. We are alkways entertained, so public mediums for entertainment no longer mark a special sphere. If we chat during a DVD or television show we can pause and rewind, or just watch the TiVo later. The space between movies at home and movies at the multiplex have become blurred -- after all, if you have a 45 inch plasma screen with surround sound, you may get just as good an experience at home, and you do it with your buddies or alone in your underwear. In short, we no longer know how to act out in public.


Tom (Friend of dcat, master of Big Tent, Rebunker at his core) and I were just talking about this, and he lamented the absence of something that really does not have to be long gone: The usher. In some cities, movies start around the clock. But here in Odessa at our multiplexes, there is a pretty clear pattern -- movies will start in bunches every couple of hours with a few exceptions. There are down times for the kid who takes your ticket or pours your popcorn or cleans the puke off the bathroom floor. Why can't those people wander the theater every few minutes, or even twice per theater each showing, with a flashlight and a mandate to finger, and if necessary, eject offenders? Who, other than people who talk in theaters, would oppose this idea?


There was a time not long ago when movies and McDonald's made for a pretty cheap date. Now movies are pricey -- we have it good here in Odessa, and it still cost $15 for two adults to get into the movies last night. In some places that might run you upwards of $22, never mind any refreshments, and never mind that adults on a date might not eat dinner at McDonald's any more. If I am spending $35 at the theater, don't the theater owner, manager, and its employees at least owe me a chance to watch the movies without spending two hours wondering how much trouble I would get into if I cracked the guy on the cell phone behind me in the jaw?


Furthermore, if the multiplex personnel won't police their theaters, the rest of us should do so. I am pretty convinced that if I had told the two guys last night that they should rather let the characters figure out their own solutions than try to shout advice at the screen, I just would have been asking for either an hour and a half of harassment or a night in jail. It should not be like this. If someone turns around and tells an offender to shut up, the entire rest of the theater population ought to be willing to raise pitchforks and torches in support of the vigilante enforcement of what was once, at least in my mind's eye, a sepia-toned world of movie theater courtesy.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Oh Yeah, Terrorism

I am reserving commentary on Osama because I have an op-ed that might be in distribution soon that I wrote this morning after doing a radio appearance on that situation. I'll keep you posted. I also am working on a piece on Africa and terrorism that I hope to have out in the next week or so and another on torture. I'll link if I can, and if I cannot, I'll post them here. In the meantime, Democratiya has published my review of Daniel Byman's Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism.


In its own words, the England-based Democratiya:

is a free bi-monthly online review of books. Our interests will range over war, peace, just war, and humanitarian interventionism; human rights, genocide, crimes against humanity and the responsibility to protect and rescue; the United Nations, international law and the doctrine of the international community; as well as democratisation, social and labour movements, 'global civil society', 'global social democracy', and Sennian development-as-freedom.

A piece of news that slipped under most people's radars (mine own included, but to be fair, on the day this happened I was in Johannesburg) occurred right next door to me in Midland. According to this ABC News report, suspicious mass purchases of cellular phones in California, here in Texas and other places has raised FBI suspicions. It is far too early to speculate what this all means, but the Midland police see a "terror cell" connection. It is too early to tell whether this is self-aggrandizing or not, but it ought to remind us that we are hardly out of the woods.


Which brings me to a question: Why has the terror alert level not budged since Osama's announcement? It seems suspicious that last year the terror level jumped constantly, for no apparent reason, and always when the President needed a boost in the polls. Now the one man who is most responsible for the wars we now fight threatens us, and there is not so much as a sympathy vibration? It is one thing to say that the terrorists will not change the way we live our lives. It is quite another to pretend that Osama is somehow irrelevant in all of this. Now don't get me wrong -- the one-size-fits-all, Washington-DC-is-at-the-same-alert-level as-Washington,-New-Hampshire system is irredeemably dumb. But if it must exist as is, am I to believe that we are just as safe today as yesterday, but that throughout the election cycle last year we were in a universal frenzy of intermittent danger punctuated by the calm brought about by the stewardship oif our brave and competent leaders? I guess this just confirms that this administration sees terror threat levels as just another tool in the political shed, to be wielded whenever it is most advantageous.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Things to Remember, Things to Forget (Special Filler Edition)

Things I'll remember:
Giant Mozambiquan king prawns as big as my fist.
The first view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from the front seat of the top row of a double decker bus.
The view of the sunset as we had sundowners at Melkbosstrand.
The archives and archivists (and the thrill of discovery) at Wits, UCT, the Cory Library, and the National Archives.
Two hours spent pulling in fish in Maputo.
New Year's Eve on the Indian Ocean beaches.
The views in Mpumalanga's escarpment. ("Mpumalanga's Escarpment" would be a great name for a rock band -- hey, the Kaiser Chiefs already stole from one of South Africa's icons.)
Good Old Grahamstown; A few minutes spent alone, reminiscing at the Great Field; less reflective moments at The Rat and Parrot.
Seeing the Inges.
Ten days with my brother, no one dead. Good times in Lesotho, Joburg and Mozambique (and thousands of kilometers in between).
The Proteas pulling out the one day match against Australia, some redemption for the first test loss (see below.)
Doug, Graham, Sheena, and the rest of the Cape Town gang.
Discovering that having mediocre Afrikaans facility means that I have bad but not nonexistent Dutch facility.
Braiis, beers, and summer sun.


Things I'd As Soon Forget:
Cramped overnight bus rides with passengers for whom hygiene was an option not much exercised.
The lines and smell and heat and chaos at the Mozambique border crossing.
Police road blocks for the express (and explicit) purpose of collecting a bribe.
Two hours spent pulling in fish in Maputo and seeing how resigned the people were to the sparse nets.
The slums of Maputo. The townships on Cape Town's fringes. Though I actually never want to forget these things either.
Getting screwed for two months rent by my roommate and having one of the checks I did get bounce, ruining my finances for the trip. (Thanks Cecelio.)
The Protea's blowing the shot at a draw in the first test in Australia.
Old white men at bars talking about the good old days in Africa.
40+ hours in planes and airports on the way back.


Yes, this is utter filler. When I can unbury myself, I'll be posting some substantive reflections on my trip, the state of South/southern Africa, and the reimmersion into dcat's usual anything-that-springs-to-mind coverage.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

James Frey and the Factual Lie

Just a quick word on the James Frey imbroglio. On the one hand, wasn't this inevitable? In an age of memoir, haven't we all read something that made us think "Nope. Sorry. Too perfect. I call bullshit."? On the other, should we care? Is memoir supposed to be perfect nonfiction? Do we hold memoirists to the same standard as journalists (who we usually hold to a far lesser standard than historians, by the way)?


These questions have been floating all over the web lately, and since I am still punchy and since if you don't know the Frey story by now you probably didn't come to dcat for your first exposure to it, I am going to leave those issues to others to decide. But one of the aspects of this case that has gotten me thinking and that I have not seen any reference to ties to one of the deified trends of the historical profession: Oral history.


Try writing a book on a contemporary historical event, an event or era from which people still survive. And try to do so without conducting interviews. The odds are pretty good that you'll get hammered by critics and readers and editors. "Why didn't you conduct interviews?" I know this because it has happened to me in the process of writing and revising my Freedom Rides book. Two aspects of this are vexing: The first is that I do, in fact, use dozens, hundreds, of oral histories. I just did not conduct the interviews myself. Given that over the past few decades groups, organizations and individuals have done the interviews, and that they conducted and transcribed their conversations in closer chronological proximity to the Freedom Rides than in the years after 2000, why should I not respect the work of those interviewers and the words of the interviewees? The second aspect of this supposed critique that is bothersome relates to a general problem I have with criticisms of sources -- if someone has written a book or an article, they should get the benefit of the doubt with their sources unless they have clearly misused them. The absence of interviews of particupants by the author is not itself a problem. If you think it is, you need to explain why. The burden of proof, in effect, is on the person asserting the problem of absence.


So what does this have to do with Frey? To my mind, a great deal. Not to put too fine a point on it, but lots of people are full of shit. Not intentionally so, maybe, and after 30, 40, 50 years, the memory does play tricks. But despite my lack of formal interviews I have talked to dozens of Freedom Riders informally. I have exchanged emails with many others. I have seen too many muddled memories, too many people telling stories that happened to other people, too many people who thought of themselves as the Zelig of the 1960s. Many of them have told the same stories so many times they they are honed as tales but cease to work as history. And of course many of them have simply told the stories before and I can find their tellings in a collewction or in one of a dozen relevant archives. Who am I to ignore those sources?


And beyond my current work, I have run into far too many people of a certain age who after hearing that I am a historian have patronizingly said things to me like "You want to know real history? I can tell you the real history." (This person is usually the most full of shit and self-aggrandizing of all). Almost every young historian deals with this.


(Side note -- having lived through something does not make you an expert on it. Just because I have fallen down and thus experienced the wonders of gravity doesn't make me a fucking physicist. Catching the clap doesn't make you a microbiologist. And being a carbon based life form in a particular era doesn't mean you have any particular expertise about it. Most people don't have a clue about current affairs, culture, or the world around them. Why would we assume that twenty years from now they become retroactive experts?)


James Frey wrote a book that people liked that was supposed to be based on his own experiences. Now we find that his pants are on fire and that they may well be hanging off the telephone wire. He manipulated his memories under the guise of fact to make his story more compelling. People lie all the time, and doing so after the fact about their involvement in an event seems like the most common form. That, coupled with the fact that memory is fallible and the passing of time makes it ever more so, is at the heart of why some of us are not as smitten with oral history as others are. Oral history can be a wonderful source. But it is a source best used for texture and used with a critical eye. And despite what some believe, it is not the best source in most cases, nor is it the end all and be all of writing good history with an eye toward finding truths.

He's Back . . .

As far as crazy schedules go, how is this one:


Wake up at about 10:00 Saturday morning in Cape Town (so that's about 2:00 am Texas time). Braii, during which Graham (I have been spelling at wrong throughout) brings out successively better bottles of wine. From the braii, run home to pack a bit, then out for one last night on the town pub crawl. A good time was had by all. I think. get home well after midnight, finish packing. Sleep beckons . . .


But then 3:00 rolls around, kickoff for the Pats' game back in the States, and Rob is texting every two minutes. Last text comes at 6:30 (Let's just say that I am in a sense happy that the Pats beat themselves with turnovers, as I would have been apoplectic if they had lost and we could have pinpointed those two wretchedly bad calls that went against the Patriots -- a phantom pass interference and then Bailey's showboating which should have given us the ball on the 20 after the touchback) and a half hour later Doug wakes me up to get ready to go to the airport.


Plane to Joburg leaves at 9:50. Then I have a mere 12 hours to kill in the international departures wing of the Joburg airport, six of which I have to spend on the pre-ticketing side, as Dutch-KLM does not even open for service until 6:30. The flight to Amsterdam is more than eleven hours, but at least I have an exit row seat. Next to a giant Canadian who looks a lot like my friend ken if ken had a thyroid problem. When we get to the Netherlands I have 50 minutes to catch my flight to Houston, and I get to wonder if my luggage will make it on to the plane. No exit row seats this time. Not good times. Ten hours of not good times.


Get to Houston, have five hours to kill. By this time I smell like walrus crotch. Fly through passport control and customs. Get to gate. Bored stiff. Finally board plane. Wait on runway for two-and-a-half hours. Mechanical problems. Then weather problems. then more mechanical problems. I get annoyed.


Get to Midland two-plus hours late. Trip lasted almost 48 hours, I had been awake for more than 60 hours straight (I cannot sleep sitting up, so I cannot sleep on planes). Luggage arrives. Life is good.


Finally crashed at midnight. By 6:50 I am wide awake. Am back on campus, swamped. Too tired to write anything coherent. Trip was great. Africa good.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

British Day?


Gordon Brown, speaking today at the Fabian Society's annual conference, calls for a renewal of British Patriotism. The future PM believes that the nation, in this time of apparent multicultural crisis, is in need of a "united shared sense of common purpose", gained through the promotion of national symbols and ritual patriotic celebration.

Making specific reference to the United States, with its Stars & Stripes and 4th of July, Mr Brown noted the lack of an equivalent habit in Britain of expressing and affirming our national identity, and called for Britons to fly the Union Jack with pride and for the establishment of a day of national celebration.

On the flag, I'm not quite sure what Brown is asking for - does he really wish it to be flown in every garden in Britain? The reference to the United States goes both ways; while the Stars & Stripes to many represents inclusiveness and liberty, I know that I (and I expect many other anti-nationalist Europeans) find the veneration and over-exhibition of the national symbol disturbing, and an aspect of America least worth emulating.
The idea here, though, is not just about Britons flourishing the flag, but about which particular Britons are doing it - and what their political persuasion is. "Instead of the BNP using it as a symbol of racial division, the flag should be a symbol of unity and part of a modern expression of patriotism too", said Mr Brown, "We should assert that the Union flag by definition is a flag for tolerance and inclusion". This is about 'reclaiming the flag from the far right', apparently, making it a symbol of progressivism rather than nationalism and xenophobia. Hogwash, Mr Brown. The Union Jack belongs to the far right as much as Jerusalem and Christianity do.
This is not a serious answer to the problems in British society emphasised on 7/7/2005, nor a serious challenge to British Nationalism, but a transparent attempt to outflank the Conservative Party's shiny new leader David Cameron, as he corners the market on progressive patriotism.

As for the idea of a British Fourth of July, or Bastille Day, does the idea of snatching some date out of the air to celebrate an abstract concept not seem faintly ridiculous? To invent a tradition in front of our eyes in the hope that in a few years time we will have forgotten it as an strategic political gesture, instead standing breathless and moist eyed as we consider how wonderfully tolerant and progressive we all are, is insulting, though depressingly quite astute.
Such a day would not commemorate any particular event, would not demand any true reflection or self knowledge - as Rememberance Day does, which he seems to suggest could be replaced or merged with this batty ritual - and would probably be quite popular. Brown has in the past declared Britain should not feel guilt for her imperial history, and no doubt 'British Day' would demand no mention of our darker side - something bound to please the descendants of our old subjects who Brown now wishes to embrace in the flag of inclusiveness.
Oh well, may our 'tradional' and self-conscious cynicism prevail!

Injury Time

Injury time is the phenomenon that happens in soccer and rugby whereby there is extra time that has been allotted as a result of stoppages in play over the course of the half. I am in injury time now. If all goes well, 24 hours from now I will be in Joburg airport with my luggage checked and my tickets for the flight to Amsterdam secured. I ama bit worried about Amsterdam -- Dutch KLM has me catching a flight that leaves just 50 minutes after my flight from Joburg lands. If you figure that we might be even ten minutes late, that it takes more than 10 minutes to debark, and that international flights close a half hour before takeoff, well, you can get a sense of why i am a bit anxious.


It has been a wonderful productive trip. I was able to immerse myself in Southern Africa again, not only in the archives, but in my favorite part of being here -- the day-to-day. As much as I have learned in my scholarship, coming here helps me understand what I read and research that much more. And as someone who buys into full immersion -- politics, pop culture, sports, food -- I can safely say that this was another brilliant experience.


Next week I will wrap up with little capsule analyses of where South Africa is in terms of politics, sport, music, and the like. For now, I have one last day in Cape Town. It is yet another unsurpassable day and we have a braii and a pub crawl planned. Somewhere in there I need to pack. All of those books and the music and gifts that I bought? My guess is that they will lead to luggage overage. I can safely say that it was worth it.


Tomorrow and Monday's 43 hours of travel will be extra gruelling because not only will today be the last gusto day, but also because the Pats game kicks off at 8:00 in the east, meaning at 3:00 here in South Africa, and just like last week, the Thunderstick will be texting me throughout the game. Go Pats!


Since I have 12 hours in the Joburg airport tomorrow, if I find an internet cafe, I'll give an update. Otherwise, when next you hear from me I'll be back in the USA.

Friday, January 13, 2006

"Cook That Meat! Cook That Meat!"

The braii was a resounding success last night. The company was sublime, the meat grilled to perfection, the wine of Cape Origin abundant. It was such a nivce night that it made how I felt this morning worthwhile.


Today Doug, Graeme, and presumably some others are going to skip out of work early for a late lunch/early dinner at one of Cape Town's restaurants. Rumor is, more grilled meat and libations are on the horizon.


Summer in Cape Town is baie lekker.

At Canaan's Edge

You know a book's release is a big deal when the Times gives Michiko Kakutani the assignment to review it. Kakutani might well be the most respected reviewer in America. Well, Kakutani has reviewed the third and final installment of Taylor Branch's epic treatment of Martin Luther King Jr's life and times, At Canaan's Edge in this week's Book Review. I hate to be provincial, or proprietary, but revered as Kakutani is, were there no historians available? A book this significant (and that is going to sell zillions irrespective of its reviews) deserves to be taken seriously by those who most know about the topic. There are dozens and dozens of good historians of the movement who could have tackled this landmark book. It strikes me as being dissonant that Kakutani gets the call. Yes, the release of this book is surely an event. But inadvertantly, the Times has made it MERELY an event, rather than using this opportunity to engage those who best know this material and can assess its significance. I'd be willing to bet that, had the Times come calling, David Garrow, Clayborne Carson, John Dittmer, Charles Payne, Adam Fairclough, Tony Badger, Mills Thornton, Ray Arsenault, Steven Lawson, Darlene Clark Hine, Kari Frederickson, Patricia Sullivan, Dan Carter, David Chappell, John Hope Franklin, George Frederickson, Jane Dailey, and a dozen other similarly situated historians would have listened.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

More Kaapstad

I'm rolling along here in Kaapstad, the Afrikaans name for Cape Town. I am sitting at what has come to be my preferred internet cafe-cum-bar. This morning I had to head back up to UCT to pick up photocopies of research that I did at the manuscripts and archives division, and the rest of the afternoon was spent dealing with the prosaic -- laundry, starting to think about packing, and my ongoing, and largely futile, efforts to teach myself Xhosa. I am not good with languages in the best of circumstances. Trying to pick it up in dribs and drabs from a book and without guidance is a Sisyphean task.


Otherwise I am just killing time until we head to a braii this evening.


Last night's sundowners took place at the Camps Bay squash club. Doug and his friend (and I guess my new friend) Graeme had just joined and we went to the Member's Only bar for dinner and drinks looking out over the multimillion rand (hell, multimillion dollar) houses and the ocean, where one of Cape Town's nicest beaches is located. After the sun went down, the sky produced a purple and ink-blue sheen that came over the palm trees and looked like a Corona commercial.


One addendum to my talk about Western Cape politics the other day -- it is clear that the Democratic Alliance (DA) is going to fight these municipal elections with everything that they have, and their themes will be dealing with crime and corruption, delivery of services, and integrity. They have posters everywhere on the lightposts, some in Afrikaans, some in English, none in any of the African languages, despite the claim on one of the most common posters that the party is "vir al die mense," ("for all the people."). The ANC's efforts have been slower to start, although last weekend they held a massive rally at Athlone Stadium in honor of the anniversary of the party's founding and to kick off their own election campaign. As of now, the DA posters outnumber those of the ANC by a factor of at least 10-1, and the other parties have a negligible presence.


I cannot help but wonder if the DA's approach to crime is not at least somewhat demogogic. You would never know it, but crime rates are down massively over what they were in the late 1990s, and Cape Town has far from the gated, walled, armored, under-siege feel that Joburg does. The DA thus is trying to instill fears of crime that are actually far worse than the crimes Cape Townians face on a regular basis. This is not to say that Cape Town does not face some of the same criminal issues that mush of the country faces, but it is to say that for me it is telling that a party clearly appealing first and foremost to as many whites as it can is using crime (as opposed to corruption, which seems like a more legitimate, if also overwrought, issue for them) as one of its main wedge issues.


In any case, for now, I am more concerned with our braii. Last night it seemed that we had lots of volunteers to bring salad, fewer to bring the meat and beer so essential to a successful braii. Hopefully this is all sorted by now. When a man wants boerewors, lettuce just does not get the job done. And while I like South Africa's juices as much as the next guy . . .


Hambla Kakuhle! (Is that right? Wait, what is it if you are addressing a group? Oh, damnation.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

From Moscow on the Hill With Love

According to legend, "Moscow on the Hill" was what many called the University of Cape Town during the apartheid years. The nickname was a bit of a double entendre, derived both from that apodictic red slate rooftops that characterize Cape Colonial architecture and that cover most of UCT's buildings, but also from the supposedly dangerous left-wing politics that emanated from campus.


The red rooftops remain, and the campus still occupies these stately grounds in the hills of Rondebosch, in the shadows of Table Mountain. UCT is one of South Africa's elite campuses, and like its peers (Wits, Rhodes, Stellenbosch, Natal-Durban) is breathtaking in its beauty. It sinmply feels like a great university. This morning the clouds enshrouded the mountains that overlook campus even as campus overlooks a large swath of Cape Town's surrounding areas.


I am taking a break from working in the African Studies Centre Library, which is no longer in the African Studies Centre proper, but instead has its own new facility in the main library. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the head librarian here is Sandy Rowoldt, who was in charge of Cory Library at Rhodes up until a couple of years ago, when she got the position at UCT. She has been tremendously helpful, as she always has been for me -- I am at that point on this trip where I am cherrypicking, as many archives have some redundancy, and in any case, my projects do not really focus on Cape Town politics -- maybe my next new project will, seeing as I'd love an excuse to have to come and spend a few weeks or months in Cape Town. This afternoon I will spend some hours at UCT's Manuscripts and Archives, which, oddly enough, IS in the buidling with the African Studies Centre, as the head archivist over there found 3-4 collections I need to see.


I am not certain if I can surpass last night's sundowners experience -- a friend of Doug's took us out to Melkbosch to a pub with a large patio and lawn that provides an unparallelled view of both the city and of Robben Island at its closest point to the coast. The sun set just to the west of the island where Mandela and hundreds of other prisoners spent time at the behest of the Apartheid state. I walked on the beach promenade and on the streets of Ses Point for hours yesterday, and got my first real serious sunburn of the trip. But it was well worth it. Today we are having sundowners elsewhere on the beach, and then perhaps a braii. But first, I have some more paper collections to investigate. My research is wrapping up. Soon it will be time to start filling blank pages.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Politics in the Western Cape

One of the quirks, if you will, of Western Cape and Cape Town politics is that this is the only part of the country in which the ANC is not dominant. This has been the case since the end of apartheid. For a while the ANC also faced minority status in KwaZulu-Natal, (odd that two former parts of the British South African empire have proved most difficult to the ANC) but with the passage of time the Inkatha Freedom Party went from ascendant to irrelevant, at least in part because at times Mangosotho Buthelezi has seemed a bit like Mugabe with an assegai. The demise of the National Party/New National Party has also played a role in the changing political landscape across the country.


In Cape Town and the Western Cape (Western Cape is one of nine provinces -- Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, North-West, Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Limpopo, Free State and Mpumalanga are the others) the ANC faces challenges from, most prominently, the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party in the country, headed by Tony Leon, and the Independent Democrats, a smaller party that is toying with putting up a full slate of candidates in March's nationwide municipal elections. As with "off-year" elections everywhere (see America, United States of) turnout will probably be low, and thus turning out party regulars will be the key to victory.


There are several reasons why the ANC is not quite as dominant as it is elsewhere -- though it should also be noted that the party of Mbeki still has decent odds of winning either a majority or a plurality here when the counting of votes is completed. The first of these is that there is a large, affluent, powerful white upper and upper-middle class in Cape Town, and that is a trend that has only accelerated in the last decade. There is also an independent and large "coloured" population (South Africans have an ambivalent relationship with the former racial terms of the apartheid regime -- most hate them, but still use them on a regular basis, seeing as how they serve a certain utilitarian function, descriptively if nothing else) that has often steered its own course, not seeing themselves automatically beholden to the ANC, whetever respect thay have for that organization's historical role. There is also a simple political answer -- opposition parties have gotten a foothold here, and as a consequence have focused on shoring their base in this part of the country. Of course there are myriad other answers -- a large Afrikaner base that is wary of the majority, ANC failings at the local level, and so forth. All of these factors mean that this is going to be one of the parts of the country to watch most closely when the dust settles in March.


I plan to write a series of articles and the like when I return on the current South African political situation, so I will keep the political discussion short, but as ever it is a fascinating political landscape. Many have called 2005 an annus horribilus for the ANC as the result of the dual crises facing deposed Vice President Jacob Zuma, who faces independent but re-enforcing corruption and rape charges all while maintaining a solid political base among ANC constituent groups such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) and ANC Youth League. This has led to a potential succession crisis in the party for both party leadership and presumed presidential succession. If Zuma is cleared of all charges, the ANC might fracture. The ANC coalition, with the SACP and Congress of SAfrican Trade Unions (COSATU) has for more than a decade been a tendentious one, and many observers, myself included, have asserted that the most likely challenge to ANC dominance in the ANC will not come from an outside party, certainly not from a largely-white outside party, but rather of a splintering of the SACP and COSATU from the ANC. The Zuma crisis might add a new element; I suspect instead that it will merely amplify the fissures within the governing coalition in which by a long way the ANC is first among putative equals.



Last night I had dinner and a couple of bottles of wonderful Cape wine (the best was a Graham Beck Pinotage) at a beachfront restaurant. Tonight we are going to drive around Cape Point, stopping wherever the mood strikes. Tomorrow will be a full day at the University of Cape Town. It is another glorious sunny day here in Africa's southwestern corner. The beach beckons . . .

Monday, January 09, 2006

Grahamstown to Cape Town

Cape Town may be the most spectacular city on earth. To be fair, there are lots and lots of cities that I have not seen, but I also would surmise that I have seen more than your average bloke, and none surpasses Cape Town. Wedged in between a mountain range, the focal point of which is the iconic Table Mountain, and the sea, Cape Town is unsurpassable on a sunny, summer day like today.


And I may have never been happier to see a familiar city skyline as I was this morning. By the time we pulled into the central bus terminal, we were more than three hours late. The bus had left a handful of us stranded (waiting outside, mind you) in rainy, raw Grahamstown last night for more than two hours before finally pulling up. Then it chugged along apparently unaware that buses traditionally have timelines. As usual it was packed, as usual my seatmate had some mysterious smells going on (he was redolent of wet crackers and dirty socks), and as usual, climate control was a mystery -- in the darkest minutes of the night, when there was a chill in the air, the bus was freezing. Sitting in the upper deck, front seat (awesome views coming into Cape Town), I thought I was going to parbroil. It must have been 100 degrees or more, and of course there was no relief from air conditioning. Last night, after the two-hours-late mark had come and gone, I had to admit that these are the sorts of frustrations I do not miss when I am away from Africa.


Cape Town provides a useful contrast with Joburg in more ways than one. Yes, the Mother City is like a year-round work of art where Joburg just sort of shabs along. But there is more to it than that. Where Joburg's geography lends itself to sprawl, Cape Town's makes it compact. Joburg is huge, and it feels that way; Cape Town is a big city, but it feels small once you have been here for a while. Despite its beauty, though, Cape Town's surrounding slums are more immediate. There is almost no way to approach Cape Town and avoid one of the sprawling, desperate former townships. Joburg may not be conventionally pretty, but with just a few exceptions, it is quite difficult to pass through the worst of Joburg's comparable areas without making the effort to do so. It is worth noting, however, that the seeds of the ANC's housebuilding program really has borne fruit -- where once the surrounding areas were awash with corrugated tin, cardboard, and plywood shacks, there are now a lot of the "Mandela Houses," austere, solid little boxes that while modest mark an exponential upgrade over what preceded them.


Afro-pessimists have a hard time reconciling anything good from the new South Africa, but the fact remains that after being absent from here for a few years, I have noticed innumerable little differnces that the naysayers gloss over in their hand wringing. The slums are still bad, dangerous, awful places and much more needs to be done on the house building and general service-delivery front. But things are much better than they were. Crime is still a serious problem. But things are much better than they were. The informal economic sector still has too many children begging in the streets. But things are much better than they were (I noticed this in particular in Grahamstown). Things are not what they can (and I think will) be, but in so many ways, things are much better than they were, And keep in mind that all of these improvements are happening among populations that the apartheid state kept intentionally invisible. Growth in the current South Africa outpaces that of most of the 1980s even though during those days statistics and analysis managed to ignore the vast majorities in the townships and especially the nominally independent and wretched "Bantustans."


I am staying with a good friend from Rhodes, Doug Sanyahumbi, a Zimbabwean who got his PhD in biochemistry (Science! A real PhD!). We have made it a point to cross paths (that is to say I cadge a place to stay for free) whenever I have come back and I also got to see him on one of my England trips, as he spent three years working up in Birmingham. He just took a job in Cape Town, and he is sharing a flat on one of the hills that, from the right angles, looks into the bay. I will be here for most of the remainder of my trip, save for the long return to Joburg. I am very much looking forward to finishing up my research -- at the University of Cape Town's African Studies Centre and the the University of the Western Cape's Mayibuye Center. More importantly, I am looking forward to a week of South Africa's Mother City, frolicking on the beaches and seeking respite in the shadows of Table Mountain.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Loyalty, Responsibility and My Leader

Yesterday morning, I wrote to Charles Kennedy and asked him to stay. I told him how proud and admiring I was of the way he dealt with his statement the previous evening. I suggested that there was still scope for a great Clinton-esque comeback. I genuinely hoped the public would react positively. I felt that Kennedy had done a great deal for the party, and was the best man to oversee the much-needed professionalisation and regeneration of the party. I wrote something similar here, on this blog, and it seems to have been the only piece of unequivocal support the Guardian could find for inclusion in their blog roundup.

Now, I'm e-mailing him to express my sympathies again, but to suggest he may have to stand aside. It is the opposition of the parliamentary party that makes it impossible for Charles to continue. I would have been proud to have defended him on the doorstep, but I realised late last night that to continue to encourage Charles to stay was irresponsibility on my part. I truly echoed Lembit Opik's feelings that Charles could have a second chance, but I accept that our MPs, who publicly represent our party, cannot be completely ignored in their own assessment.

I don't blame the MPs for their response. This whole episode has the character of a Greek tragedy. There are no real villains- except, perhaps, the trouble-strring Ben Ramm and the bitterness in Jenny Tonge's comments on Charles's statement. The MPs had a right to expect to be told about a problem when they asked him, and they are, almost exclusively, acting in the best interests of the Liberal Democrat party, as they call them. I would have hoped it could have been different, and I don't regret trying to make people see the positive opportunities of the situation when I wrote what I wrote on Friday morning.

At the end of the day, I asked whether there was a stage when a broader responsibility to the party trumped the loyalty I feel to a guy I admire and like, even though I've never actually spoken to him. It seems now that it was is a physical impossibility for Charles to come back from this. That is a real tragedy, as it would have made a profound point that politicians could be human and vulnerable and still play a leading role in the future of our country. We seem to have reached a stage where sustaining Charles's leadership would serve only to undermine the very principles and policies he's so successfully advanced. I am left wondering if my loyalty has become sycophancy because I want to be loyal, rather than because I actually believe I'm advising him wisely?

And so I'm about to send my e-mail to him. And I feel like shit. When it seems it's just Lembit Opik and I left defending him, it comes to a point when you admit that no amount of grassroots support can heal these wounds and allow Liberal Democracy to be advanced. I wanted him to succeed; I told him he could; and now I'm just another grassroots member walking away from the guy who's been my hero for the past 6 years. There are days when I feel confident about the choices I've made, but today I believe I'm making a cruel decision for the right reasons.

I am a Charles Kennedy supporter, not a Charles Kennedy sycophant. That's why I've just betrayed him. God help me.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Why I'm Backing Charles

Charles Kennedy's bold and unprecedented statement yesterday shows that he has confronted his own problems and now stands ready to lead the Liberal Democrats to even greater victories in the future. Criticism is loud from the usual suspects - the Murdoch press and other parties' supporters - but there seems to be an electrifyingly positive feeling in the country at large. People have always liked Charles, and they now like him even more. When Tom McNally declared that Kennedy was brilliant on his good days, but that we needed more good days, he identified the only problem. We now know why Charles has had non-good days, and we can know for certain- now this problem is out in the open -that he will have any support to ensure it doesn't happen again.

At the top levels of government around the world, alcoholics always have and always will serve with excellence and dignity. So do people with mental illness, personality disorders and a wide range of other conditions, mostly undivulged. Even with this problem, Charles Kennedy remains the best man to lead the Lib Dems to greater strength in the future. Any suggestions he should not have tried to keep this private, are questions of political tactics, not integrity. He retains the confidence of the overhwelming majority of the party and the British people. The fact The Sun and The Times disapprove of him is wholly unsurprising.

In next few days, any sordid glee from the Lib Dems' political opponents will turn to despair. We will see Britain's best politician performing at his peak, beyond even hos best in the past, with a confidence, vigour and energy we have never seen before. If you think you've seen Charles Kennedy at his best, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Old Friends

Grahamstown is drizzly and gray, but the rain is much needed as semi-drought conditions seem to have prevailed, and in any case, rainy days are the best ones to spend in an archive.


I was able to see a couple of old friends last night. When I was a Rotary Scholar here in 1997, John Inge was my Rotary host. A chartered accountant (equivalent to an American CPA), John is a respected member of the Grahamstown community and he served as a wonderful guide and gracious host (though I lived in on-campus digs) in my first year in South Africa. He helped me to organize a series of talks I gave at Rotary clubs across the country, he was always willing to help me make plans to get away or simply to make my life easier. Despite a staid initial facade, John has a wonderful, wry wit and whenever I return he is warm and inviting. He and his lovely wife, Heather, had me over to dinner last night. We had a braii with his two children, both right around my age. His daughter was also with her husband and their 13-month old son. John and Heather look just as they did when I first met them and just as they have when I have seen them since. Good South(-ern -- John is originally from what was then Southern Rhodesia, but he left to come to Rhodes many years ago) African genes, I guess.


Braiis, or barbecues to the uninitiated, are a hallmark of South African culture. I suppose they are most everywhere, but the braii is venerated here. South Africans know how to grill up meat. On any given summer night, entire communities will be overwhelmed with the scent of boerewors and steaks and sosaties and, pretty much anything that can be killed and grilled. Braiis go well with beer, which goes well with sports. There is a major rugby test match happening in Australia between South Africa and Australia, which would normally be cause for endless hours of braiis, but because they are being held in Australia, even South Africans are reluctant to fire up the braii pit at 1:00 in the morning. Some of my great memories of past trips involve braiis, beer, and sports, especially rugby.


I have been dealing with another old friend the last couple of days. The Cory Library for Historical Research has moved into a new, bigger, shinier, more comfortable and simply better place in a section of campus known as Eden Grove. The big new building is hideously ugly and does not fit into the Cape Colonial architecture of the rest of campus, but the library facility is a significant upgrade from the second floor of the main library, where it used to be housed. I worked here extensively in the past, and I still know some of the folks who work there. I am finding great stuff on the Alexandra bus boycotts, but I long ago exhausted the stock of things on the project I initiated in 1997. Nonetheless, my library time has been fruitful, and I look forward to two more days there.


The last major leg of the trip is taking shape as well. On Sunday I will jump on to another overnight bus, this one bound for Cape Town. I'll arrive at 9 in the morning and will meet my good friend Doug Sanyahumbi, a Zimbabwean who got his PhD from Rhodes. We are old friends from Oakdene House here at Rhodes, and I am very much looking forward to seeing him. We were able to get together a year and a half ago, when I went to London and he was still there for a postdoc in biochem. He now has a job doing sciencey stuff in Kaapstad. When I get to Cape Town I'll have a week left on this trip.


In any case, sorry for such a prosaic posting, but I wanted to convey a sense of comfort in Grahamstown in addition to my other tales of adventure and chaos.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bleeding Red Update

Bleeding Red is now being paired with Bill Simmons' book
over at Amazon. You can get the two together at a discounted rate. So what are you waiting for?

"Good Old Grahamstown"

As city slogans go, this one is as appropriate as any. "Good Old Grahamstown," timeless in its way, changes as everyplace doers, but the changes are largely cosmetic. Peppers, one of my old haunts, is no more, having been replaced by a burger joint and some other establishment. The Old Vic hotel was once the seedy late night, last chance dance club-cum-meat market. It now is actually a classy hotel and retaurant. But it is the same. The Rat and Parrot is still the best pub in town, a great place to get a drink and meal during the day, increasingly crowded and loutish as the night grows old, packed and tedious, the faces changing over the years, but the people remaining the same.


Grahamstown is a university town that also hosts the largest arts festival in Africa and purportedly the second largest in the world behind Edinburgh. I've been to two festivals, may come back for a third this year or next, and during those two weeks Grahamstown transforms itself -- cafes and new pubs and rock clubs and takeaways emerge out of nowhere and return there when all is said and done. But other than that tweo week eruption, and the attendant year-round planning, Grahamstown is virtually inseparable from Rhodes University.


I had almost forgotten what a wonderful place Rhodes is. I have been lucky enough to be affiliated with some pretty good universities -- Williams, of course, and Ohio, but also brief fellowship tenures at Virginia, Oxford, and the University of South Carolina. Rhodes easily belongs in these ranks. In 2004 Rhodes celebrated its centenary, and the university is thriving. Numbers are up, students continue to go on and do great things, the campus is gorgeously manicured, the buildings classic, staid, pleasing, creating small courtyards and an ambience that gently reminds one of a university's purpose. I had truly missed campus, and I am pleased to have several days for us to get reacquainted. I even went for a contemplative walk on the pitch of memories, sneaking onto the Great Field where I played rugby for Rhodes in 1997. I let those times flood back -- here is the patch of field where I made my best play, by these steps is where I suffered through my first team workout since college, over there at Tri-Varsity I took a boot to the face, suffering a gash that required several stitches but continuing to play and thus, in the eyes of my teammates, finally becoming a rugby player. And so on. memories, in the end, are what we are left with, and while there are inevitably regrets about any place and time we inhabit, I am happy to say that so many of my first recollections have been positive.


There are two Grahamstowns, though. There is the one I have tried to evoke here and there is the Grahamstown that developed along segregationist and then apartheid lines. There is elite, affluent Grahamstown. But then there is the majority -- poor, still segregated, street children begging, with the township buzzing and humming but sputtering as well. The townships loom on the fringes, bearing an ambivalent, sometimes hostile relationship to the town. The massive, ugly Settlers Monument sits astride a hill overlooking town, and the view shows the city and surrounding townships, the red slate rooftops of the university and the corrugated tin shacks on the outskirts, the majestic cathedrals of this city of churches and the squalor of the black masses still waiting for the fruits of the post-apartheid landscape to bloom.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Back to Grahamstown

Travelling overnight on a bus from Joburg to Grahamstown, leaving crowded Gauteng, passing through the Free State breadbasket, and culminating in the breathtaking Eastern Cape, all the while struggling with a wretchedly bad back and a fully booked coach is an adventure I would advise that you all undertake zero times in your life. Of course I cannot sleep sitting up, as I am not able to sleep on my back, and for the bulk of the trip I had a bulky travelling companion who had a tendency to fall asleep and encroach on my side. But at least the bathroom smelled foul -- of sicky sweet chemicals and bodily functions -- and I was seated just next to the door. So I had that going for me, which is nice.


That said, it is wonderful to be back in a familiar setting. My real introduction to South Africa (other than having my passport stolen in Joburg and arriving late in Port Elizabeth, where my ride had been waiting for two hours) in 1997 was Grahamsrtown. I lived here for a year as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Rhodes University, the great English university named after the imperialist swine colossus himself.


The eastern cape, and especially the Albany, or Frontier region, is to English South Africans what the Free State is to Afrikaners: It is the nexus of identity, culture and history. The English set up an outpost here, with Graham's Town as its capital, and drew a line at the Great Fish River across which the Xhosa natives were forbidden, which led to a series of bloody Frontier wars. The English settlers won, and the eastern Cape developed the dynamic that would pervade until today: an odd admixture of culture, education, civility, racial oppression, black poverty, and genteel (and not so) racial paternalism. The Eastern Cape is now its own province (it was, prior to the shifts after 1994, a sub-section of the vast Cape Colony) and despite the presence of Grahamstown and Port Alfred, port Elizabeth and east London, it is the poorest province in the country. The eastern Cape subsumed the former homeland/bantustans Transkei and Ciskei, the most geographically and ethically coherent, if any can be called that, of the former quasi-independent states that the apartheid government propped up in the 1970s to try to maintain apartheid but slap a kinder face on it.


We arrived outside of the Frontier Hotel this morning, so that is where I booked. I think I could have done better, but the hotel is right off of the High Street and is inexpensive, a factor that I have to consider as I enter my second month of this trip.


Grahamstown is fundamentally the same as it ever was. In some ways it feels as if I have never left. At the same times, with such familiarity comes a remarkable shock at even small changes. A new post office building (but the same queues)! That coffee shop was not here a few years ago. Hey, they changed the sturcture of the CNA. And so on. It is just like every time I go to my home town and even the slightest thing has changed -- it's the same town, but little differences stand out as a consequence.


My goal here, in addition to enjoying old stomping grounds and seeing old friends, is to get to both the Rhodes main library and more important, to the Cory Library of African Studies. After ten or so days of holiday I am having a tough time mustering up enthusiasm for work, but I am sure it will be nice to be working at Cory again, where I have in the past spent many hours. In the emantime, I have only made it 2/3 of the way up the High Street, so there is much more to see anew, including campus.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

More Mozambique

Happy New Year!


I am back in Melville after our big trip to Mozambique. Since last I wrote I was propositioned by prostitutes several times (at least I assume they were prostitutes) nearly set off a riot on 24 Julho Ave when I went looking for batiks, ate at least three fantastic meals involving Giant Mozambiquan King Prawns -- I cannot convey how amazing these enormous shrimp are. They are grilled fully intact, without the heads having been removed, they are big as plantains, and they just melt in your mouth. The beer flowed freely, and the fireworks on the beach to ring in 2006 were spectacular, though it seemed disjunctive to engage in such a martial display in a country so recently torn asunder by wars, civil and other.


The trip back was, mercifully, uneventful. We got through all of the border crossing folderol in well less than an hour and with zero hassles. It was insanely hot and humid today, though, the epitome of sweltering Africa. The drive across Mpumalanga and the Drakensburg Escarpment was breathtaking, and our Nando's lunch in Nelspruit could not have been more perfect. Nando's is South Africa's best fast food place, though to call it fast food really does it an injustice -- it sort of splits the difference between fast food, say KFC, and a serious restaurant. nando's chicken, with its many peri peri sauces, is legendary, the restaurants are always really nice, and with the sun shining it was a perfect way to decompress before the last long haul to Gauteng, Joburg, and Melville.


We are back at The Space, a great B&B on 7th street, where all the cool kids go to see and be seen. Tomorrow will mark my departure and separation from Marcus. We had a few touchy moments (ten days with a sibling? How could we not have) but barring an unforeseen disaster tonight, I'd say we survived and even had a great time. I am still coordinating things, but it looks as if I will travel overnight to Grahamstown tomorrow. I lived in Grahamstown as a Rotary Scholar at Rhodes in 1997 and I am looking forward to returning to the Eastern Cape. As ever, I'll touch in when I can.