Friday, April 28, 2006

The Draft

It has been a bizarre pre-draft period. We have seen the fortunes of the Big Three, Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Matt Leinart, rise and fall and rise, most often for dumb reasons. We have seen North Carolina State defensive lineman Mario Williams mysteriously become a player in the top choice sweepstakes, and into the top five has emerged a curiously named offensive tackle from Virginia, D'Brickshaw Ferguson. Any of them might be a star. Any might be a bust. We have no idea, and the more certitude someone presents before the draft, the more you know they are selling something. No one knows, and we all only look like geniuses after the fact.

I am still not fully sold on Reggie Bush. I certainly am not sold that he is a lock for Canton, or that he is destined to be a playmaker and superstar. Don't get me wrong -- he may well. We just do not know and won't know for years. But I do know that a guy who is used to 15-20 touches at most a game against the University of California at Berkeley has not, no matter what Sean Salisbury says, proven that he will star against the Patriots and Steelers on Sundays. Every year guys are touted as being can't-miss prosects, only to miss. I could be a fool, but were I Houston, I'd think seriously of trading down or of taking Mario Williams. And don't give me this nonsense about putting asses in the seats -- if you cannot sell out an NFL stadium eight weeks a year, you do not deserve to have an NFL team. Do not give me this nonsense about the Texans having to take Reggie Bush for the sake of the fans, fans who, by the way, want them to draft Vince Young anyway.

I am also a little perplexed when I hear people say things like "Matt Leinart may be as good as he is going to get right now." We have a young, smart, talented quarterback who led his team to a phenomenal record and a national championship, won the Heisman Trophy, and somehow he has peaked? I tend to doubt it. I can see Vince Young's upside. He is a tremendous athlete. But how much will offendsive coordinators and head coaches allow him to run in the NFL? And is the NFL really the league to be learning on the fly how to play under center? Vince Young will probably be a great player, maybe a phenom. But I would maintain that Leinart is going to be a potential star for years to come. Young is going to need the right offense and he is going to need to be in a position where he is not expected to play right away. As for the other quarterback in the draft who has been mentioned in the same breath as these guys, I find Cutler to be intriguing. People talk about his record in college, as he won only 11 games as a starter. But he was a starter at Vanderbilt, meaning he played an SEC schedule (and since Vandy is almost always the worst team in the SEC, he played the toughest possible SEC schedule) for his entire college career and this past season produced a better team than any in Vandy's recent memory. His receivers and running backs were subpar. Yet against SEC defenses he was the conference player of the year, and apparently he is the one guy of the three big quarterbacks who can make every throw on the field.

As for the Patriots, I have always loved Belichick's philosophy -- pick the best player, do not go for need, because if you draft for need and don't get it, you miss out on better players and you are back in the same boat next year. I am always astounded when other factors take precedent over what a guy did on the field in college. Pick the best football player. You'll find a spot for him. That said, if he is still available, I would love to see the Pats pick Ohio State's "other" linebacker, Bobby Carpenter, or else one of two running backs -- D'Angelo Williams or Lendale White, who has been (too) much maligned of late.

When Will We Learn?

During the Cold War we jumped into bed will all sorts of baddies under the presupposition that we were confronting a greater evil. This was dubious logic, but understandable in the context. Ronald Reagan famously called Mobutu Sese Seku "a voice of good sense and good will" when he was neither. He was a murderous tyrant who ruled by chaos and kleptocracy. he stood for everything the United States is supposed to oppose, but his putative anticommunism made him an ally. It was a noxious policy then. But those days are gone, and with them such crass opportunist reductionism, right?

Not so fast. Condoleeza Rice recently referred to Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang as a "good friend." The question is, a good friend of whom? because he certainly is not a good friend of his countrymen. In 1996 oil was discovered in what was then a nation in dire economic straits. Since then, the country has enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes on the continent, yet the people subsist in abject poverty. Obiang has siphoned off millions of the country's oil revenues in the familiar pattern of kleptocracy and patronage. Obiang is a ruthless dictator who steals from his hopelessly poor people, tolerates no dissent, imprisons and tortures his critics, and operates a skewed judicial system. Senator Carl Levin and the Washington Post have both spoken out about this shameful moment. It is time far more individuals and groups do. There is no excuse.

Bud Selig is a Craven Titwillow

So Bud Selig has decided that there will be no MLB celebration if and when Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth's home run total because ''We don't celebrate anybody the second or third time in."

Funny, I recall a few years ago that Selig was explicit in praising both Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, not to mention then-third-place Roger Maris during the great home run chase of 1998. Funny, baseball still celebrates that very second-place status of Babe Ruth almost daily. Funny, this smacks of an ad hoc decision based on innuendo and allegations and with nothing proven.

Every year, Major League Baseball presents trophies for second place teams. Makes sort of a big deal of it too. Now Babe Ruth is no great shakes? Suddenly, Bonds looks like he is going to settle in to second place in the history of the game's most hallowed record, and Selig becomes a stickler for primacy and primacy only? Bud Selig might be the most incompetent commissioner in the history of sports. I'll get to this at some point, but for the record, Fay Vincent may be the most underrated commissioner in history, and the owners drove him from the job. Selig, meanwhile, couldn't find his ass with a Global Positioning System, and he keeps right on rolling along. It baffles the imagination.

She Says What We All Think!

Michelle Cottle hits it on the mark when she writes that the much-ballyhooed appointment of Tony Snow to the position of White House Press Secretary is, well, too much ballyhooed. For one thing, while this move has been touted for the fact that Snow will supposedly have a role in formulating policy, I have two comments: 1) Bullshit. He might get to talk in meetings, but I do not for one minute believe that Tony Snow just became a player in policymaking circles. 2) This is a good thing? The press secretary is now going to be deciding policy, and then he is going to be a conduit to the press about that policy? So much for the idea of the honest broker.

Furthermore, in many circles, folks are making a big deal about Snow's alleged criticisms of this administration. I'll let Cottle field this one:

Let's not overstate the guy's credentials as an administration critic. With the possible exception of Fred Barnes, Karl Rove's personal Stepford scribe, it is increasingly hard to find even conservative journalists who haven't taken the occasional swipe at this bumbling administration. It's not as though Snow, prior to joining Team Bush, was ever talked about as a notable administration critic--and certainly not on hot-button issues such as Iraq or the administration's antiterror efforts. The White House's hiring George Will would have been ballsy. Snow? Big deal.

It seems to me that Republicans are so starved for anything approximating good news and the media is so caught up in their own onanism that they honestly believe that this is a big story. Meanwhile the four pillars of incompetence, corruption, chaos and carelessness continue to swirl around the White House and the GOP Congress. But at least the media has one of their own to spin lies and now, apparently, save the Bush administration from itself with his new role as an inside player. Harrrumph.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mosquito Nets

Rick Reilly's column in Sports Illustrated this week is among the most execrably written that he has produced (which is saying something -- there may not be a more overrated sportswriter alive today). It also happens to be perhaps his most important. For in it he pushes the idea of providing mosquito nets in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year in Africa from malaria, a largely preventable disease for which mosquito nets are a secure first line of defense. Please consider donating to the United Nations Foundation campaign against malaria. Say what you will about the UN -- I sure have -- this is their bread and butter. This is what they are generally good at. This justifies the organization's existence. This saves lives.

KC Johnson at TNR on the Anti-Israel Lobby

Friend of dcat KC Johnson has a piece on faculty unions and the anti-Israel lobby in The New Republic online. Basically, the unions are acting like fatuous ideologues. Read it.

George Allen's Race Problem

It would not be fair to say that Virginia Senator and almost certain GOP presidential primary candidate George Allen is a racist. But it would also be premature and disingenuous to slough off the possibility. This piece in the forthcoming issue of The New Republic at minimum raises questions, and at worst is pretty damning. His Confederate flag fetish and his willingness to jump into bed with neo-Confederades merely buttress his dubious past policies on matters of race. Now, to be fair, Allen appears to have worked hard to overcome his past. He says and does the right thing now more often than not. But there is a fine line between opportunism and core beliefs. Were I a Republican, I'd be more than a little wary of George Allen becoming my standard bearer. Then again, I am not a Republican.

Baseball's "Golden Age"

Timothy Gay, the author of 'Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend reminds us that baseball's "Golden Era" was never quite so golden.
As Bonds bids to surpass Babe Ruth's home run record, we (self-appointed) custodians of the game need to take a deep breath and remember two unshakable truths: The pastime will survive this latest mess; and Ruth's era, baseball's ballyhooed ''Golden Age," was seriously tarnished.

Gay's piece deals with the longstanding tradition of gambling in baseball during Ruth's era, including allegations that games were tarnished even after the martinet Kennesaw Mountain Landis supposedly cleaned up the game in the wake of the "Black Sox" scandal. I have long argued that those who ring their hands over Bonds passing Ruth need to take a step back. Ruth's record is no cleaner or more virtuous than Bonds -- and in all likelihood it is less so. Keep in mind that steroids were not banned in baseball during the period when Bonds was alleged to have been taking performance enhancing drugs. So by baseball's own rules, Bonds did nothing wrong. Ruth, meanwhile, never had to play against black players. Never had a swift black outfielder rob him of a home run by leaping the fence. Never faced some of the great Negro League pitchers who while improving the overall Major League talent pool would have taken more than a few of the bums off of whom Ruth jacked home runs out of the league. The multiplier effect for this is baffling, and nearly limitless. (How many extra at bats did Ruth get a year that he might not have had better pitchers and fielders been able to cut innings short before he got another appearance?) And, as Gay reveals, baseball was not always on the up-and-up during Ruth's era. How many times did pitchers, on the take or with a bet on the game, groove a fastball to Ruth -- after all, who is going to suspect a guy for giving a home run to Ruth? Did Ruth ever bet on games in an era when betting was rampant?

"So," as Gay writes, "as Bonds rounds the bases after whacking number 715 -- and Selig and George Mitchell perhaps fail to touch every base in their steroids inquest -- don't despair. Our beloved pastime has been through worse."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The College Athletic Conference That Does It Right

With each passing year, I not only feel more connected to the larger sense of what my undergraduate alma mater, Williams College, represents, I also increasingly appreciate the idea of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). It's hard to imagine a comparable conference in all of college sports. Geographically (well, ok, Hamilton seems like something of an interloper), in size, scope, mission, philosophy, student body, and place in the academic hierarchy, NESCAC is a unique manifestation of places that, The Game of Life be damned, still try to do it right and succeed a lot more often than they fail.

As a former athlete at Williams, I feel an affinity with Middlebury and Bowdoin and Tufts, hell, even with Wesleyan and Amherst. (OK -- I admit, I feel somewhat dirty typing that last bit.) I am apparently not alone in my sentiments about the conference, and not merely Williams' (dominant) place within it. is, in its own words, "a community connecting NESCAC students, alumni, and fans." NESCACNation gives a pretty good feel for not only the vibrant goings-on in the conference, but also of the nature of NESCAC. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Williams features prominently on the site.

Anti Apartheid Movement

South African History Online has a fabulous new feature on the Anti Apartheid Movement (AAM). Historians are in the process of developing an important literature on the global dimensions of the anti-Apartheid struggle. This will only contribute to that process.

Sudan Spillover

Last week I wrote about the potential humanitarian and political disaster inherent in darfurians spilling across the border into Chad. Today Smith College professor Eric Reeves, who has been one of the strongest, smartest voices on Sudan in recent years, has an op-ed in the Boston Globe in which he discusses other potential calamaties that might befall Chad as a result of its unfortunate luck of geography.
Idriss Deby, the president of the central African country of Chad, may soon lose power to a group of variously motivated rebel movements. The deposing of Deby might not seem occasion for much regret: he is a cruel, tyrannical, and corrupt man who has squandered a great deal of Chad's new-found oil wealth. But the rebels who would replace him have the deeply troubling support of the genocidal regime in Khartoum, Sudan. In recent months, as Human Rights Watch has authoritatively reported, the National Islamic Front in Khartoum has supported the Chadian rebels, even as it has loosed its own murderous Arab militia allies on the non-Arab tribal populations of eastern Chad. Indeed, Human Rights Watch reports that ''the Janjaweed militias have carried out attacks inside Chad accompanied by Sudanese army troops with helicopter gunship support."

While the long-term goal of removing Deby from office would be a good and decent one, this is not how it ought to happen and these are not the people to do it. The crisis in Sudan is beginning to have a multiplier effect that is going to result in further chaos. Chad and Darfur are becoming inextricable, and there is no reason to believe that it has to stop there. Cross-border destabilization in Africa tends to find fertile ground. This is yet another reason for ardent action from the outside world.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Advice to the Indians

Here is my free advice to Eric Wedge, a former catcher in the Red Sox system and now the manager of the Indians: I do not care if first base is open. I do not care if you have to face David Ortiz. It does not matter how Manny has started the season: You do not intentionally walk anyone in order to face Manny Ramirez. That is never a favorable matchup. Manny makes silly men pay. Silly men paid big tonight.

See Abhinov Blog (Or At Least Read After He Does!)

Dcat friend Abhinav Aima has a blog. He is an old grad school colleague with whom I had lost touch, even though for a brief period we were just a few hours apart in the frigid upper Midwest. He blogs about a host of matters, including his bread and butter, Middle East politics. Aima is a journalist, and a good one. Read him.

The Nebraska Governor's Race

Winning the Republican primary for the governorship in Nebraska today is like winning a Democratic primary in the South in the century after the Civil War: It was the only competition that mattered even if a putatively bigger one follows. The race for the Cornhusker State's chief exacutive office is especially fascinating this year, pitting as it does incumbent Governor Dave Heineman against state icon and former Big Red football coach-turned Congressman Tom Osborne. For a year or so now, the presupposition has been that Osborne would wipe the floor with Heineman. But as Lee Corso might say in evaluating an event in Osborne's past career, "Not so fast, my friend." According to Chris Cilizza's Washington Post blog "The Fix," the race is now in a dead heat with two weeks to go before the primary.

There is lots of time, though I think people need to cease with the football metaphors, especially in assessing the last weeks of the race. If Osborne wins, it will not be, as one analyst says, because he had close calls in his former job and knows how to win. I'm as big a sports fan as they come, but let's not pretend that politicians need to learn any lessons about competition from football coaches. Osborne may win a popularity contest. He may win because the voters trust him more. He may win because of America's moronic attachment to celebrity. He may win because he is the best man for the job. He is not going to win because his competitive skills are more finely honed than the sitting Governor's.

On Sudan, Private Security Companies, and Osama

In Sunday's Boston Globe Rebecca Ulam Wiener, a fellow at the Kennedy School, has an article about the prospects of private security firms being the potential solution to the situation in the Sudan. In a situation that has been handled imperfectly, to say the least, perhaps an imperfect stopgap is what we must call for.

J. Cofer Black, vice president of Blackwater, a private security firm, believes that his company and others like it might be able to help aid and strengthen the African Union.:

A few weeks ago, at an international special forces conference in Jordan, Black announced that his company could deploy a small rapid-response force to conflicts like the one in Sudan. ''We're low cost and fast," Black said, ''the question is, who's going to let us play on their team?"

On the whole I am fairly ambivalent about private security and military firms. I worry about their potential lack of accountability. I worry in particular about what system of law and justice -- both domestic and international -- these companies are beholden. I wonder if our leaders, upon appointing such a group, would in turn pass the buck on their own accountability, wash their hands of matters if they go awry. I have seen private security firms in southern Africa run amok, showing up on the scene of alleged crimes and using the sort of force that police officers often do (and usually worse) but without the capacity to be held responsible, or at least not in the same way, and I have wondered what right they had to act that way. If you call yourself a security firm, does that give a license to do violence against other civilians? Furthermore, the responsibility of a military or a police force is quite different from that of a private company, the ultimate purpose of which presumably is to reap a profit.

At the same time, the administration, the world, continues to dither in the Sudan. Private military organizations have, under the ambit of the US military, worked reasonably well at times in Iraq, albeit with some glaring exceptions. If nothing else, such proposals are thought provoking. And under the right guidance, with the right mission, and given both a clear mandate but also made sternly aware of accountability (and repurcussions), such firms might be able to do some good. At this stage, the intermediate step of private security firms may not be perfect, but that imperfection should not be the enemy of the good. If governments are not going to act directly, why not do so indirectly through firms on a short leash and with a clearly spelled out mission?

On a different but related note, in today's New York Times Nicholas Kristof and in this week's Foundation for the Defense of Democracies "News & Comments," Cliff May help explain Osama bin Laden's support for atrocities in the Sudan. Could the unintended consequence of Osama's latest pronouncements be to provide a wedge for increased American action in the Sudan? It has been quite some time since the administration's cynicism with regard to invocation of Osama and 9/11 at every turn has actually resulted in improved policy. Could this not be one of those rare confluences?

Monday, April 24, 2006

On Pedro Martinez and Midgets: Onion Sports Edition

What is there to say? The Onion (America's Favorite News Source) does it again.

This might be the best graf from the piece. But read the whole thing:

"Over the years, I've learned the secret to longevity in this game: Whenever your mechanics aren't working or your shoulder starts tightening up during starts, it's time to get a new lucky midget," said Martinez, whose midget friends have each "disappeared" following their dismissal, although Martinez's critics note that the drained corpses of midgets identified as his former good-luck charms have been found on ancient Egyptian holy sites at times coinciding with the start of spring training or immediately following prolonged slumps. "You can't rely on the same old midget for your whole career."

(A Hat Tip to friend, Colleague, and Reader, Dr. Brian B.)

Duke Lacrosse: Alumni Weekend Edition

The Duke lacrosse situation has settled into the realm of the ongoing scandal, as opposed to being constantly breaking news. With last week's indictments and arrests, the waiting game begins. The extremists on each side -- those comparing the alleged victim to Tawanna Brawley and those calling for the heads of all of the lacrosse players -- have been shown to be spewing gasbags of vitriol, and those who preached letting the process play itself out seem vindicated. The newest information is that the latest, more sophisticated round of DNA test results may not be available until May 15 or so.

Duke held alumni reunions the last few days, and the Thunderstick, loyal Blue Devil that he is, was there. Here are his impressions:

My first hand account of the lax thing--I thought it would be a bigger deal on campus--maybe it's just reaching that point where it's been hanging around for a while now and people are gearing up for finals and such and it's just starting to die as a daily story there. When I got to Duke on Friday afternoon, I picked up my registration packet and there was a one-page sheet in there about how to handle the media if you are asked. It wasn't a "this is what we want you to say sheet"--the major points were only that there would be media on campus, that you aren't required to talk to them if you are approached but that if you do talk, you should assume that your comments will be aired so make sure that you think about what you say before you say it and that it comes across as what you want to say--nothing like "this is what you should say--Duke is doing...", just a reminder that you don't have to talk if you don't want to and think before you talk because you never know where it will be picked up. Nothing about the school's position was included except that if you wanted info on it, they gave the web address. On campus, it wasn't really an issue. I didn't see any reporters (although a front page story on today about how alumni are reacting to the lax case illustrates they were there [The story to which he refers is here.]). My general feel from alumni and friends that I talked to down there was essentially that most alumni feel the same way--they are concerned about the school--most of them, me included, feel that the school has sent a strong message concerning the behavior of athletes by killing this lax season just for their behavior up to that point and for having a party with underage drinking and strippers and while a lot of people feel bad for those at the party that are innocent, but are none the less losing their season and the kids that didn't do anything that now will likely have to transfer to play again or worse the seniors who are innocent but are having their job offers rescinded. But what we all hope is that this message is communicated loudly, not only to athletes but all students that while you may not do anything illegal or immoral, you have to know that guilt by association is a very real thing and to make sure you stay out of situations where you can get nailed by this. I'm sure there were plenty of 21+ year olds at that party that said "I'm drinking, I'm not giving any alcohol to anyone and I'm going to watch a stripper which is fine since I am over 21" and they did just that, but the bottom line is that you go to a party with strippers, aggressive kids and drunkenness and there's the chance of bad things happening whether you take place in them or not and rather than say "it's too bad for these kids that didn't do anything wrong to lose their jobs" most people think that the message being sent is "yeah, it's too bad, but this is what happens when you don't remove yourself from potentially being a the wrong place at the wrong time." Bottom line is that I think the alumni are largely happy with the way school is handling things--some people don't like certain aspects, but there's no way to please everyone in a situation like this--they'd like to see the message about wrong place/wrong time being sent a little stronger and that most importantly everyone hopes that, despite how bad a situation this is, it's also an opportunity that doesn't come along very often--it's a chance to better relationships with the community and to lay down hard and fast policies as to how students and student-athletes will behave and everyone hopes the school doesn't let that pass them by.

This story won't be going anywhere soon, and now that it has settled down a bit, it seems likely that reason may prevail to some extent. That said, when the results come down, Duke and Durham may well be in the national limelight again for reasons far removed from the university's status as one of the elite intitutions of higher learning in the United States.

Tyranny in Africa

Several Africa-related items:

At the Washington Post's Sunday "Outloook," they have a list of overlooked autocrats listed under "Department of Moral Outrage." Basically, the Post surveyed folks in the know about overlooked baddies running amok on the planet. Of the eight dubious honorees, four come from Africa, including Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Nominated by Senator John McCain), Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch), Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (Chris Smith, Congressman from New Jersey), and the leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army Joseph Kony (Nina Shea, Director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom). Ruthlessness, autocracy, fueling anarchy to maintain power -- these are clearly not trends unique to African leaders, but they are trends too abundant in Africa. (Hat tip to Tootle, who posted this at Big Tent.

Presumably Robert Mugabe is too passe, or too obvious, or has retired his place at the table of the devilish and demented. The Mail & Guardian has yet another article on the sad plight of Zimbabwe. I am perplexed by the editors' choice of title, though: "Zimbabwe Starts to Fall Apart." Starts? Zimbabwe has been in the process of crumbling for at least a half dozen years, with warning signs extending back a decade or more. That quibble aside, though, this is a pretty good reminder of what Zimbabwe faces. Were there a viable way to remove Mugabe today, by force if necessary, I would fully advocate taking those steps.

Meanwhile in response to Darfur, Lwrence Kaplan has a piece over at TNR online that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times in which he provocatively, but wrongly, tries to claim that students who support intervention in Darfur have to take another look at Iraq. Kaplan apparently lumps all actions abroad as being findamentally the same. This is what most internationally cognizant folks would call "silly." It is wholly possible for one to oppose invading Iraq but to support action, including military action, in the Sudan. Kaplan seems to think that it is the nature of the action, not the reason for the action, that most matters. Kaplan is right that it may take some sort of unilateral action to prevent further destruction in Darfur. And he is equally right that many calling for action in the Sudan did oppose intervention in Iraq; a few may even be hypocrites. But at essence, it is fully justifiable to support the use of force in the Sudan and oppose it in Iraq, just as it is viable to support intervention in both places. The circumstances are different, and so should be our analysis of them. Kaplan unnecessarily muddies the water in trying to connect two phenomena that are not linked in any significant way. He blurs far more than he elucidates.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Comes the Deluge

The wave of Sudanese immigrants crossing from Darfur into Chad to excape the army and government-backed janjaweed militias has familiar contours. In 1994, for example, waves of Rwandans fled their genocide-besotted nation for Uganda and Zaire, destabilizing both of those countries and fueling regional tensions. When some of the overwhelmingly Tutsi refugees were able to mobilize with the exiled Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) they returned to Rwanda, engaged in massive (and largely overlooked) reprisal killings, which produced another wave of refugees, this one primarily Hutu, many of whom were deeply implicated in the earlier genocide.

At the risk of being reductionist, in Africa (and probably most places) if you scratch a refugee, not so deep below the surface you will find a victim of gross atrocities (though as in the Rwanda example, you also sometimes find perpetrators). Chad is in no way equipped to handle the onrushing thousands desperate to escape the situation in Darfur. But they will keep coming, a human caravan that serves as eloquent and tragic testament of both man's capacity for evil and the world's capacity to look the other way.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Ohio Politics Watch

Today's New York Times covers the fascinating gubernatorial race playing out in Ohio. Very much appearing like one of the "Purple States" that increasingly give the lie to the Red State-Blue State division supposedly tearing America in two, Ohioans appear set to face a choice between a black Republican (Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is the frontrunner in what has been a vitriolic Republican primary campaign) and Democratic frontrunner Ted Strickland, who has for six terms represented the Congressional district in which Ohio University is located. Ohio is very much in play for the Democrats, who could benefit from rife corruption by state Republicans, the rapid loss of manufacturing jobs, commensurate population and brain drain, disenchantment with the presidential administration, and Iraq fatigue. Already the campaign is shaping up to look like something from the Progressive era, with each candidate fighting to position himself as the more active proponent of reform. The Ohio race bears watching because it could signal just how much Americans desire change.

Angry Tom

We like Angry Tom. We like Angry Tom when he has someone on which to focus his anger. Over at Cleveland '64 Tom focuses his glorious anger at Adam Schefter, a bloviating pus-bladder and NFL columnist who shows no real sign of actually liking, never mind knowing, football. Anger will set you free!

The Hick From French Lick and $80 Wine?

Larry Bird has lent his name to a high-priced wine label. Dan Shaughnessy has the scoop. This is just weird.

Diversity v. Dilettantism

Jonathan Malesic, in a clunkily titled piece ("The Subcategorical Imperative") in the Chronicle of Higher Education asks a question that hits close to home for dcat: "By saying that my scholarly interests are broad, will I run the risk of being labelled a surface-skimming dilettante?"

I have not been very good about narrowing my professional interests. If forced to answer the "what do you do?" question, a query for which we are all supposed to have developed a glib, rote answer by the time we are ABD, I say something like "race and politics in the US and Africa. Plus some stuff on global terrorism. Oh, and sports." And it is true. These are all areas in which I have written, published, researched, and taught. But in a profession that sometimes seems to want to narrow its practitioners beyond the bounds of relevance, that answer sometimes meets with askance glances.

But here is the thing: So what? At the end of the day, shouldn't my work speak for itself? If some people think that a young scholar cannot pursue a variety of interests without actually seeing the work that the person has produced, if they simply use their own framework based on their limitations to decide what is within the realm of the possible, isn't that their problem, not mine? Since when is being a generalist a bad thing? Since when did trying to be a renaissance man become reason for scorn?

Like Malesic, I take some solace in one of his key points:

I take some comfort in knowing that in their research, many of the big names in the humanities deal with a broad range of topics. If resisting easy categorization is good enough for Martha Nussbaum (she of the 25-page CV), then it's good enough for me.

Some of the historians I most admire have a diversity of interests. Furthermore, historians tend to think thematically. Yet my interests do have a coherence -- I am a contemporary historian. I deal with currents in the twentieth century that are not all tied to one geographic nexus point. I am working hard on being a comparativist. So in my rather narrow chronoloogical focus, I end up wearing lots of hats -- I am a southern historian, but I am probably not your man if you want to discuss 18th century settlement patterns in Virginia. I look at global terrorism in places as diverse as Northern ireland and Israel and the South and South Africa. But i may not be the guy to talk to to get a sense of Ireland before the potato famine, or the Middle east since antiquity. I am an African historian, but I'll be the first to admit that my focus on things before the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century is pretty episodic. I also acknowledge that in my breadth, there are blind spots. I know little about Asia, though for reasons I'll explain down the road, I may get the chance to go to China for a week or two this summer.

Is this so bad? Since when is the fact that I love and am conversant in sports and music and can talk across traditional scholarly boundaries a bad thing? And since when, short of looking at the work itself, is it even acceptable to dismiss someone's work because it crosses those boundaries? So what do I do? Lots of stuff. I cannot really answer it in one sentence. But do you want to grab lunch? We'll talk. I just got this great new album. I am worried about the Sox lineup when Bard catches for Wakefield. And I've been thinking a lot lately about the South African Treason Trials, the Baton Rouge bus boycott, and the Enniskillen bombing. Maybe it'll all make sense after a while. Or maybe not. It does to me.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bob Ryan on the Celtics

Bob Ryan has a great article on the promise and reality of the Celtics that reminds us of why basketball writing is his bread and butter and how no one is better than he is at it. The Celtics are young, exciting, and in five years may be dominant. They are also young, inconsistent, and endlessly frustrating when they play like they did this year, which is poorly enough that they could not make the playoffs in the NBA's paltry Eastern Conference. The sobering reality is this: It has been twenty years since the Big Three last brought a championship home to the most stories franchise in NBA history. If you came of age in the Larry-Magic years that revived the NBA, you probably are feeling pretty depressed right now. I know I am.

On Hamas and the Tel Aviv Bombing

It is a sad fact that Monday's bombing in Tel Aviv, the most deadly in Israel in nearly two years, should come as a surprise to no one. Though Islamic jihad, and not Hamas, carried out the bombing, Hamas and a host of Palestinian leaders have supported this wanton act of terrorism against dozens of civilians in a fast food restaurant on a holiday weekend as being "legitimate."

In January, I wrote a piece on the elections that brought Hamas to power in which I argued that while the knee-jerk response was to decry the election, that I was not ready to dismiss summarily the prospects that a Hamas leadership would transform itself.

The reasoning ran as follows:

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.

Hamas leads what could become a Palestinian state. In the light of last month's Israeli elections, they apparently have chosen to support terrorists whose goal it is to destroy Israel. No one should be shocked when Israel chooses to defend itself at least in part by cracking down on the governing body that has given its approval to the recent attacks against innocents in Tel Aviv.

On Evolution and Theory

It shocks me that the evolution issue is still with us. A few months ago Jon Stewart had a toss off line that encapsulates how I feel pretty brillantly. He was referring to creationism,and said closed off his point with: "it all depends on if you think the world is 6000 years old, or if you are right." Mike Anderson, an evolutionary scientist and philosopher, has a piece in the Mail and Guardian, "Evolution: Fact or Theory" that deserves wide attention.

Anderson writes:

On the street, theories are held to be -little better than airy-fairy conjectures, whereas statements of fact are held to be true. But -- and this is key in coming to understand the “evolution is a fact … evolution is a theory” issue -- theories are not necessarily less certain than facts as is popularly thought. Facts are confirmed observations, not truth.

Facts do one job, theories quite another. Theories explain facts. They are models or maps or abstractions that make sense of data. Alfred North Whitehead pointed out that the genius of science is its twin concern with the particular (the facts) and the general (theory). If science were merely concerned with statements of fact then reality would be the best model of itself. Such a model would be useless to humans and biology would be “merely stamp-collecting”, as Lord Rutherford famously claimed.

The Thunderstick is dcat's normal source on matters scientific, so hopefully he will weigh in to remind folks of the difference between the common conception and the scientific meaning of "theory."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

On (And On and On and On) Cleveland Sports

The NFL draft is just around the corner. For you Cleveland types, Tom has an insanely long but really good post over at Cleveland '64. Given that the Cavs are in the playoffs and the Indians are visiting his backyard in Kansas City, it's safe to say that things are giddy at Hacienda Bruscino.

Making the Rounds

First Family Shakeup?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The PhD Versus the MA: Community College (Sort of) Edition

Carlton Myers (a pseudonym) has written a fascinating piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education about controversies in his community college regarding promotion to full professor. The gist of the disagreement? Whether those without the PhD ought to be able to gain the rank of full professor at his college. He raises many good points -- for example, if someone is teaching truck driving, or industrial arts, areas that do not have PhDs, not allowing them to become full professors effectively ghettoizes them. By and large I have little to say about the community college experience specifically -- I did not even realize that one could be a full professor at community or junior colleges.

But "Myers" makes some general points that do merit response.

First off, it should be pointed out that it sounds as if Myers works with some world class jerks -- folks with the PhD who lord it over colleagues who don't. If I wanted to be snide I'd have Myers remind himself that his colleagues with PhD's almost inevitably slid through the sluice pit of academia and are at a community college precisely because among PhD's the majority of them (though I'm sure not all of them) were not competitive among their peers.
Myers writes:

The crux of the conflict was driven by a group of faculty members with Ph.D.'s and Ed.D.'s who tried very hard to convince the rest of us that people who don't hold a doctorate aren't worthy of the highest professorial rank. . . .
They argued that it takes far more work to achieve a doctorate than to get any other kind of qualification, and that it doesn't matter how long you've been a practicing nurse or welder; without a Ph.D., you're never going to have the same kind of academic experience -- and therefore the academic qualification -- to merit the title of full professor.

I'm a bit surprised that each discipline did not get some say in how one rises to the rank of full professor. At most four-year places, in any case, the first stage is for the disipline to establish what is expected in the field. For welders, of course there ought to be different standards than for historians. And for historians, the PhD is, as one of my advisors used to say, "the union card" in this profession. The status of "full professor" is not just an internal mnatter -- it is also a sign to the outside profession. This is why, at least in history, I am somewhat surprised that community colleges have a lot of full professors in liberal arts disciplines.


At one point it was proposed that we pick a general number of academic credit hours needed to earn a doctorate. Then, since nonacademic faculty members accrue education and experience by attending workshops, seminars, and conferences rather than academic courses, we tried to find a way to translate "continuing education units," "continuing professional education credits," and a host of other nonacademic but professionally valuable experiences into the equivalent of academic credit hours.

Again, I can only speak to disciplines in which the PhD is offered. I should note that this proposal went nowhere at "Myers'" school, which is a good thing. Anyone who has both an MA and a PhD knows the vast difference between the two. This is one fact that people with MA's seem to forget -- that most of us with PhD's have MA's as well -- we are not merely people who chose to pursue a different route, we chose the same route, succeeded, and then went a whole lot farther. The gap between my PhD and my MA is much, much wider than that between my BA and MA in terms of qality, the amount of work that went into it, and the "expertise" that came from it. In fact at a good many places the MA is a lot easier to get than a good BA. And I know this not based on some abstract dismissal of the MA, but rather because I have an MA. I know precisely the level of attainment that the one degree represents as opposed to the other. It might be a useful rhetorical tool to pretend that MA's and PhD's inhabit different worlds. We don't. To use a baseball analogy, having the PhD is like making the majors. Getting the MA places you somewhere in the minors, and not necessarily in Triple A -- a wonderful accomplishment and one relatively few people attain, but still along way from Fenway Park.

And so this idea that one could simply accumulate credit hours equivalent to a PhD is hopelessly silly -- which Myers more or less acknowledges, kind of, sort of. In my mind there is a three tiered process to receiving a PhD. That differential in credits is merely the first. Yes, the average PhD requires another couple of years of coursework, but unlike the patchwork approach that many of Myers' colleagues seem to have advocated, that coursework is fairly well organized and structured. More importantly, it is geared toward the second stage of the PhD, and the one that truly separates an MA from a PhD in terms of expertise, awareness of the field, and so forth, and that is the process of studying for, taking, and passing the comprehensive or general exams.

The exams are the process that advances one to candidacy, the one that creates the "ABD," or "All But Dissertation." Every school structures their process differently, but effectively the exam process requires candidates to pass three or four four-to-eight hour written exams in the space of a month, followed by an oral exam that tends to run toward the antagonistic. The exam process is a weeding process, and weed it does. Once you have passed your exams, if they are all anything like they were at Ohio and other places I have heard of, the gap between you and an MA student, even the brightest, is best measured in light years. The synthesis of literally hundreds of books into four make or break exams, plus the historical content as well as analysis contained therein, followed by the cat and mouse game that is the oral exam is an immense process, and it is one that no one would go through, however much of an autodidact they are, without the compulsion of the comprehensive exam process.

Then of course there is the dissertation, the production of a piece of original scholarship that in this day and age usually requires two to three years or more, and that in most cases today is the draft for what will become a book. This immersion, this establishment of mastery over a topic, establishes the often insurmountable gap between the ABD and the PhD, a gap that I have already maintained is leagues removed from even the most rigorous MA.

And don't forget that in this day and age, during all of these steps most PhD students are presenting at conferences, beginning to publish, pursuing fellowship support, working as teaching or research assistants and, let's not forget, by the end teaching their own classes.

I guess this is my roundabout way of saying no, allowing one to take a mishmash of continuing education credits does not at some point equal a PhD.

Myers continues with what will to some be the heart of his argument but for me is a giant red herring:

We can all agree that earning a Ph.D. makes someone an acknowledged expert in their discipline. I've heard it said that on the day of your doctoral defense, you know more about your research topic than anyone else in academe. That's probably true. . . .But we are a teaching institution, and you'll never convince me that having a doctorate makes you a better teacher. It may make you a better scholar, but it does not automatically confer excellence in the classroom.

There are several problems with this argument. For one, while no one may be able to "Convince" Mr. Myers that "having a doctorate makes you a better teacher," he also does nothing to prove the converse. And since teaching at the postsecondary level is a knowledge-based profession, since the coin of our realm is knowledge and ideas, I know I am going to take the expert. And that's the one with the PhD in favor of the one with the MA. I am going to assume -- because it is true -- that the PhD knows incalculably more about his topic than someone with the MA in the same field, and that the gap in knowledge almost inevitably is going to mean that from a content-perspective, which is what we deal with, the PhD likely is the better teacher. It is a fallacy from the education departments that teaching is somehow separate and distinct from what is being taught.

I also love the silly usage of the grandiloquent, self-aggrandizing, but ultimately meaningless phrase "we are a teaching institution." Every college and university in the country is a teaching institution. Some also happen to be a whole lot more. Mr. Myers can pretend, if it makes him sleep better at night, that at his institution teaching is valued but at Harvard it is not, but I would surmise that he is wrong. Every institution with which I have ever been affiliated was a "teaching institution" even if none of them were only teaching institutions. And in all of them, some teachers were better than others. While I'm sure that everyone at Mr. Myers' community college is a star teacher, sparkling, erudite, and chock full o' commitment to the classroom, I would suspect that his school has as many marginal classroom instructors as any four year institution. Or is Mr. Myers arguing that those thousands of students clamoring to get into Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Williams and Swarthmore would really get better educations at his institution than at the places I just mentioned or a couple of hundred others?

Which brings us back to Mr. Myers' own situation, which is telling:

So how will the new policy affect me? I'm not a nonacademic faculty member or a Ph.D. I'm in a third group of people who got lost in the debate -- faculty members who teach in the arts and sciences but only have a master's. I have a modest record of peer-reviewed research publications and, by all accounts, I'm a good teacher. . . .The new policy benefits me: I was not eligible for full professorship before the change, and I am now. I'm happy about that. . . However, I'm more conflicted now about my place in the college, and about my standing among my peers. The Ph.D.'s will tell me, to my face, that they think I do a good job and that they respect me. But what do they really think? . . . I suspect I know the answer, at least in part. After the vote, I told one of my colleagues that I thought the faculty senate had done the right thing and mentioned how glad I was that I would have the chance to advance to the highest professorial rank some day. My colleague looked startled and asked in an incredulous tone, "So now you think you're eligible?"

At first Mr. Myers' collegue seems like an absolute prick. But look a bit more deeply. Mr. Myers is not the welder whose cause he purports to champion. He is not someone who happens to be in a field in which there is no PhD, and so if some snooty colleagues had their druthers he could never get to full professor through no fault of his own. He teaches in a field in which the PhD is offered and in which several of his colleagues clearly have attained this not-modest step. Why on earth should he be eligible for what is, at most places, a relatively rare and honored position? Being a good teacher is a necessary but not sufficient condition for any sort of promotion in higher education. In a world trading in knowledge, Mr. Myers has not done all that he could do to develop the mastery that others have. He couches his sense of entitlement in a sort of "woe is me, I'm underappreciated" solipsism:
And I'm keeping an eye out for other job openings. I like academe. I like my subject matter. I love the freedom to think about things, and, most of all, I love teaching college students. I genuinely like and respect most of my colleagues. . . .I'm just not so sure they feel the same way about me.

And yet at the end of the day, why should he have ever expected to be able to take the shortcut into a community college full professorship? Universities are littered with folks who never attain the rank of full professor. Are we supposed to feel that Mr. Myers has somehow been done wrong because he has found out that some of his community college colleagues don't buy into the concept of skipping steps on the path to career advancement? Perhaps from a professional vantage point Mr. Myers' colleagues feel just about exactly as they should.


Black business owners on rise

Try Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone

In yesterday's New York Times John Leigh, former ambassador to Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002 calls for Charles taylor's war crimes trial to be kept in Sierra leone, and not farmed out to the Hague. There are reasons to move the case -- the Hague is better equippped to deal with such a trial; The criminal proceedings could provoke unsavory elements (Taylor loyalists in particular) to act up in violent ways, destabilizing a country still reeling from catastrophes. Nonetheless, as Leigh argues:
Such a transfer would defeat a principal purpose behind the establishment of the special court in Sierra Leone — namely, to teach Africans, firsthand and in their own countries, the fundamentals of justice and to drive home the democratic principle that no one is above the law. The special court has the potential to help raise West Africa's standards for accountability, transparency, fairness and the humane treatment of defendants.

Taylor's crimes in Sierra Leone add up to but a small fraction of his transgressions. Within his own country he was dictator and tyrant, one in a long string. It is unlikely that he will ever be called to account for his crimes against humanity. But a trial in Sierra Leone, if handled properly, could provide a model for future proceedings that we can only hope will happen across the continent in the years to come. The emergence of stable, liberal institutions such as courts are vital to African progress. And sending a message to Africa's Big Men that they can and will be forced to face accusers in Africa might provide yet another spur toward good, responsible governance on a continent that has so often lacked even a modicum of accountability on the part of heads of state and their hangers-on.

Oooooh, That's Gotta Sting

Over at the New York Post chameleon (sleazeball?) extraordinaire Dick Morris brings the hammer down on the administration. According to Morris, "Bush has truly become the Republican equivalent of President Jimmy Carter, out of control, dropping in popularity, unable to resume command."

Since I got this tidbit from Michael Crowley over at The Plank I may as well echo his sentiment: "Ouch." Bush has had a historically awful second term. All but his most blinkered cheerleaders admit as much. And as of right now, things do not look poised to improve. The problem, of course, is that we should want things to improve irrespectiove of who occupies the seats of power in government. At the same time, we can wish in one hand and spit in the other and we all know which will fill up faster, so while many of us would like to see some improvement in the whole host of areas that Bush seems incapable of improving, it is not untoward to hope that the result of this will be a fairly dramatic shift in American politics.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fantasy Baseball Ruins The Real Thing?

Well, that is what Amy Sullivan argues in the latest Washington Monthly. I'll admit that I play fantasy baseball, but that it has become nowhere near an obsession for me. In fact, I cannot help but think that the obsessives run into an element of diminishing returns. If you know a lot about baseball and draft a decent team and don't let your pitching rotation lie dormant for weeks on end, you'll do ok. Make a key move here or there, don't let an injured guy languish in the starting lineup, talk trash when your team does well, lay low when it does not: These are the keys to enjoying but not stressing when it comes to fantasy baseball (or football -- or presumably any other fantasy league, though these are the only two sports that I have ever played).

I would say that if I spend more than five minutes in any given day looking at my fantasy team, it is because I am planning on leaving town and want to make sure my lineup is set for the next few days. Furthermore, I refuse to let my allegiance to my fantasy team, which is not all that great, get in the way of my allegiances in real life, which are. This is to say, I bench players on the team playing the Red Sox for the duration of that series, and I refuse to have Yankees on my team. See? I am a healthy fantasy player. (Plus I have the sense of perspective of a guy who won his league last year.)

Democratic Immigration Ad Suggestions

Michael Sean Winters has suggestions on TNR online about ads Democrats ought to be running with regard to immigration. Effectively what he calls for is famous immigrants (athletes, entertainers) reciting bible passages supportive of ideas of brotherhood and embracing outsiders. I agree -- I'm shocked and appalled by the xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric, especially when all of it comes from people who, at one point or another in their family history, were immigrants. I don't precisely advocate an open door policy, though given a choice between a fully open door and a sealed one, I'll take the open doors and trust America's ability to adapt.

One of the most shocking aspects of this whole debate is that the very people most inclined to play the jingoism card also want to close off opportunities to those who might be listening. That is, when people get up and bombastically proclaim America's greatness, how can they be appalled that people want to share in that greatness? (Also, I'm curious: Tancredo -- what tribe is that? Sioux? Cherokee? Because there is no way he could actually be Italian-American and yet say the things he says about immigrants. Is there? And I'm pretty certain that "Dobbs" isn't an old Seminole name.) One of the great embarassments of America's long history with immigration is that groups always tend to want to lock the door behind them as soon as their wave of immigration crests.

While I've always generally supported open borders, living in Texas has made me more ardent about these issues. My girlfriend is Mexican-American, albeit at least a few generations removed from the immigrant experience. One of my colleagues is the son of "illegals" who worked hard to provide for his family in California by picking grapes. Many of my students are first- or second-generation immigrants. Furthermore, the racism inherent in the politics of anti-immigration are such that American citizens, people who have been here for decades, in many cases longer than almost any immigrant group in the US, have to hear the same old racist bromides from people incalculably stupid and cruel. Immigration is the very source of American greatness. Perhaps Mr. Tancredo never learned this at tribal pow-wows.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter

Happy Easter, everyone. Whether you solemnly honor and celebrate Christ's eternal life and love for you, or you simply like chocolate bunnies, have a wonderful holiday. I turn 35 today, meaning that by some measures, I enter a new demographic. But the older I get, the more I like the idea of a 25-50-year-old group that is desired by whoever measures demographic groups.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Greetings From the River City!

I'm in San Antonio for the Southwest Social Science Association's annual meeting, where I am giving a paper, chairing a panel, and serving as discussant for another. I know San Antonio well, and have come to love it, because my girlfriend is a proud native of the River City. The best Mexican food in America can be found in little holes in the wall right here. In any case, this is all my circuitous way of saying that blogging will be light. Have a happy and reflective Good Friday and Easter.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The "New" Hispanic Civil Rights Movement?

Juan Williams asked a rather shocking question in yesterday's Washington Post. Reflecting on the recent protests by Hispanics across the United States in response to potential immigration legislation, and, more importantly, a new wave of xenophobia aimed directly at Mexican Americans, Williams wonders, "Is this in fact a major new civil rights movement?"

The answer, of course, is "no," and Williams, who has been an astute observer of black civil rights throughout his career, ought to have known better than to have asked. There has been a Hispanic Civil Rights Movement in the United States for decades in places like Texas and California and Arizona and New Mexico. In places where the racial dynamic has not always been black-white, or at least not merely black-white, Mexican Americans and Mexicans have waged a ferocious fight for justice. School access, opportunities in employment, fair treatment at public facilities -- these have been issues at the forefront for generations of Mexican Americans. I think he is correct when he discusses the diffusive conception of "Hispanics" in the United States, but this does not change the fact that in vast portions of the nation the Civil Rights Movement he identifies is not new and to pretend that it is does an injustice to generations of people who have kept their eyes on their own prize.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Duke Fiasco, Cont'd.

A couple of weeks back I wrote about The Duke Lacrosse Fiasco in a post that has made its way around the blogosphere. The comments are instructive. (Especially useful are Thunderstick's latest as well as some perspectives clearly from Dukies and Durham folk.)

The situation continues to be volatile. Yesterday the DNA results came back and the defense attorneys for the players have announced that every test came back negative. This would seem to be damning for the prosecution, but the DA (who is up for re-election and epitomizes the concept of "camera whore;" I thus see no need to feed the beast by naming him) has drawn his line on the lacrosse field -- he still believes that assault happened at the infamous lacrosse house at Duke.

At this point it is all idle speculation, but to my mind there are three situations that are most likely:

(1) The DA has decided that this is his fast track to re-election. District Attrorney is one of those positions in which name recognition means everything. He has found his horse -- now he is going to ride it as far as it will take him. Justice thus is secondary on the agenda. (By the way, let me reiterate what a bad idea it is to elect judges, DAs and the like. certain aspects of society really ought to be beyond the scope of electoral politics).
(2) Despite the seemingly exculpatory DNA evidence, there still remains evidence of serious crimes at that house. Sexual assault is not the only possible assault that the players could have committed.
(3) The DA wants to hang the more serious charges over the players' heads like a Domocles sword while pursuing lesser charges. There is a pretty big gap between guilty of rape and guilty of nothing. Perhaps the DA is trying to split this gap.

There may well be practical reasons for the DA to be careful about simply dropping charges. All signs point to a Durham community, and especially a black community, that is prepared for outrage. Now if the Duke players did nothing illegal, it is not the job of the DA's office to make an example of them. But at the same time, this is not a time for the DA to use kid gloves on these young men.

What I hope, what most of us hope, is that when this all plays out, the Duke and Durham communities handle it responsibly. This case has been on the razor's edge for two weeks now, and it combines a combustible mixture -- race, class, sex, priviledge, elitism. There is still plenty of room for this to get ugly.

Let's also be clear what the recent DNA tests do not do: They do not in any way, shape, or form absolve the players of collossal bad judgment, serious misbehavior, and maybe worse. Independent of allegations of sexual assault, Duke lacrosse players existed within a little bubble of priviledge and self indulgence, and almost surely sexism, classism, and racism. The situation in Durham is rife with losers. There are no winners.

Big Pappy!

dcat has an enormous man-crush on rookie Jonathan Papelbon, who is now 4-for-4 in save opportunities for the Sox.

Tsotsi v. Tsotsi

The Mail and Guardian's John Matshikiza provides a useful comparison between Athol Fugard's novel Tsotsi and Gavin Hood's recent Oscar winning film of the same name. Matshikiza (whose regular column, "With the Lid Off" is an M&G staple) sides with Fugard's version.

Saudi Arabia's Apartheid Wall?

According to a story in The Times (London), Saudi Arabia intends to build a wall along the entirety of its 560-mile border with Iraq. While on the one hand this cannot be seen as a ringing endorsement on the part of the Saudis that Americans are bringing security to the region, there is another significant point: I echo Cliff May (from his latest Foundation for the Defense of Democracies newsletter, from which I found this story) when I assume that we will start seeing protests in the Muslim world, on college campuses, and the like.

Or is it just possible that every time someone builds a border wall we actually ought to take it on its merits, argue pro and con, and leave out the mindless Apartheid and Berlin Wall analogies? Some walls are bad. Some walls are good. Some walls are necessary evils. Many are none of the above. Inane analogies tend not to be points for discussion, but rather points of accusation, intended to chill, not further, debate.

Saving the Presidency

Over at TNR online, Ryan Lizza has a piece, "Problem Solved," which is subtitled "How Bush can save himself." Lizza is well aware that Bush would never implement his suggestions, but they certainly provide food for thought. In a nutshell, he advocates firing Cheney and replacing him with McCain; pushing reform; a too amorphous call for the President to "get [his] hands dirty on Iraq; Pursuing a bipartisan Iran policy.

Acknowledging that his vision is a pipe dream, Lizza concludes his piece:

There you have it, my five-point plan for Bush renewal. Next week I'll be explaining how unicorns can solve the energy crisis.

I'd add in firing Rumsfeld who has been an utter disaster. I also think that at this point, championing reform would be revealed for what it is: a craven ass-saving measure. Lizza also does not carry his advocacy of firing Cheney and replacing him with McCain to its logical conclusion -- suddenly McCain becomes the logical, even anointed, successor, something the GOP has lacked. Of course in light of the course of this administration, I would assume that most Republicans are relieved that there is no one ordained to carry on conducting the train wreck.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Almost Famous

Steve Morse covered rock music for the Boston Globe for three decades, retiring from full-time duty just last year. In yesterday's Boston Globe Magazine Morse reminisces. Even if he seems a little bit too caught up in a fairly narrowly conceived world of classic rock, it is hard to deny that he had an unassailably cool job. He estimates attending about 250 rock shows a year during his tenure as a rock critic. That, my friends, is a pretty sweet gig.

The Incredible Lightness of Blogging . . .

. . . of late has been the consequence of my being on the road for the past week. I drove overnight from Arlington after the third game of the Sox-Rangers series, and had less than an hour-and-a-half of turnaround time to get to the airport for a trip to the Washington, DC, area, where I had a conference.

The Sox have begun nicely -- they are now 5-1 after sweeping the Orioles and taking two of three from the Rangers. The pitching staff has been fine, and while the lineup is srtill getting a feel for things, they are putting up enough runs to win. I do not for one second think that the Yankees 2-4 start is anything other than a brief hiccup that we will all soon forget (I would suspect that most teams in baseball this year will be lucky to take two of six in Anaheim and Oakland this year) as the American League East race heats up. Meanwhile, starting tomorrow, we will get our first glimpse at the re-tooled Blue Jays.

Seeing the Sox live in Sellout Field at Arlington was extraordinary. For the last two games I had spectacular seats (as soon as I learn how to download pictures from my new digital camera I will post some) and was able to assess the Sox from up-close. Obviously Schilling has started out spectacularly, and Beckett has provided a hint of what is yet to come. For the time being wunderkinder Jonathan Papelbon (We'll call him "Big Pappy" to go with David Ortiz's "Big Papi") is our closer, and he has gone three for three in closing opportunities. Coco (who is now injured and may miss up to a month) is a sparkplug, and we will miss him, but this will give Adam Stern (he of Canadian heroics in the World Baseball Classic) and Wily Mo Pena a chance to get some at-bats and show that they can contribute. This is a differently constructed team from the Dirt Dogs -Idiots of the last three seasons, but is one that will continue to gel and that will compete well into the fall.

A few other baseball observations: One of Detroit or Milwaukee will compete this year. I would suspect that it will be Milwaukee, which plays in a weaker division in a weaker league. Obviously a 5-0 start in baseball means little, though I would bet that teams that begin the season with an undefeated streak tend on the whole to end up doing rather well. Last year at this time, who would have envisioned the White Sox as a serious contender? Someone will be a dark horse this year. I can think of no reason why it won't be the Brew Crew.

Travis Haffner is a force. A physically unattractive force, but a force nonetheless. His hot start has gotten the Indians off on the right foot in a division that will likely come down to the last day. They have already named a candy bar after him in Cleveland, a concoction called "Pronk," after Haffner's nicknbame, which blends "Project" and "Donkey."

Much like the Yankees, the White Sox will sraighten things out, but it is never a good idea to fgall behind by 3-4 games in the first week of the season. They all count the same, and losses in April can be as damning as losses in October.

I hate off days.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Live From Arlington, Texas

As if we needed more evidence that I am insane: Tonight I am going to the Sox game here in Arlington to see Josh Beckett make his Sox debut. Meanwhile, I have a 6:20 am flight tomorrow from Midland-Odessa that will take me to BWI and a Virginia conference. As soon as the game ends, I am driving overnight to Odessa, unpacking and repacking, kissing the girlfriend on the cheek, and heading to the airport. But it must be done -- this is the only Sox appearance in Texas this year and if I don't stay, that will be when Beckett flirts with a no hitter, Ortiz hits a 600 foot home run, or Manny runs the bases backward.

So far it has been a great trip, despite the fact that my hotel did not have cable (no Sportscenter!) and the awful performance by the Sox last night. Fortunately they won the Opener, and so tonight will be a rubber game. The Ballpark at Ameriquest, or whatever it is called, is a wonderful facility. It is vast, maybe a bit too much so -- I was part of a record crowd of over 51,000 on Opening Day, but most games will draw 30,000 or fewer fans, meaning that it will appear cavernous and empty even when it is not. And I get the feeling that once the Sox, and their legions of fans, leave town, that cavernous feel will become status quo. On Opening Day there were thousands of Red Sox fans, bedecked in jerseys and hats and t-shirts and whatever else. Last night, I'd say a third or more of the fans were for the viisitng team -- and even in a 10-4 loss, the "Let's Go Red Sox!" chants drowned out anything the puzzled Texas fans could muster. I got a lot of good natured ribbing from locals sitting near me, but it was all in good fan. I would not say that Rangers fans are the most passionate bunch, but they are great hosts.

Time running low here in this branch of the Arlington Public Library -- if all goes well, I'll catch my plane tomorrow with time to spare (after celebrating a Sox win in Beckett's first go-round.) Go Sox!!!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack . . .

. . . I won't care if I never get back. Because tomorrow morning at 6:00 I will get up and as quickly as possible be on the road, bound for Arlington, Texas and The Ballpark at Arlington (though I believe it is now called Ameriquest Field -- an obtrusively loathsome name where what it replaced was merely benignly pretentious). The Ballpark is home to the Texas Rangers, but the purpose tomorrow will not be to root for the home team, but rather to get an up-close view of the visitors, my 2006 Boston Red Sox, who open with three straight games in the Edge City that is Arlington. I probably will not sleep well tonight.

The Sox come into this season with somewhat less of a sheen than in recent years, at least if you believe the bulk of media opinion. Everyone thinks that the Yankees have re-tooled by virtue of the fact that they overpaid for the right to get Johnny Damon to shear his locks. Johnny Damon is a fine player, one of the 25, and will be a substantial upgrade over Bernie Williams, but I am unclear why his addition is seen as either such a huge blow to the Sox, who managed to pick up a much younger and cheaper Coco Crisp who will start his crest just as Damon descends. Meanwhile the Yankees' postseason hopes hinge largely on the arms and backs of Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Not thet the Sox initial outloook is that much better in the pitching health department, with Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, and David Wells leading the charge into their 40s, but the Sox picked up Josh Beckett, an ornery Texas fireballer, and have several young guys ready to blossom (Lester, Papelbon, Hansen, Delcarmen). Meanwhile people love the Blue Jays for reasons even more mysterious to me than the support for the Yankees. AJ Burnett is a nice pitcher. Who is starting the year on the disabled list. BJ Ryan has not yet shown that he can consistently close games out, and in any case, they Jays have to be in a position to have a closer matter at the end of games. Carlos Delgado will put up some nice numbers. But I do not see the Blue Jays stepping in between the Red Sox and Yankees, never mind above both. Forget about the Orioles (you alreday did, I'm sure) and chuckle morosely at the plight of the poor, pitiful Tampa Devil Rays.

I am pleased that the Sox are not coming into this season as favorites. The White Sox story effectively ended a three-year run where the rest of the country was beginning to overload on Sox-Yanks, and now the target is on their backs. Nonetheless, the matchups in the Fens and the South Bronx will continue to provide baseball's Athens versus Sparta, its most compelling storyline. All it will take is one knockdown pitch, one brawl, one thirteen-inning game, and the rest of the country will be riveted despite themselves.

As always, I see the Red Sox coming out on top (love is blind and all that). Schilling is better right now than the Big Unit, Beckett will prove better than anyone the Yanks can throw out, Crisp will be a more than adequate replacement for Johhny Damon, who is already suffering shoulder issues even before the season starts, not that it will have much effect one way or the other on his popgun of an arm. The Red Sox still have Big Papi and Manny, who may or may not know that it is baseball season yet. They still have Varitek behind the plate. Tomorrow at 1:05 I'll be in Arlington and will be one of thousands (I will guarantee it now) of Red Sox fans who, by the fifth inning, will be drowning out the fickle and hapless locals. And no, I won't care if I ever get back, though I must by Thursday morning at 6:20 when I fly from Midland to DC for a conference. Oh well.

A troika of other baseball-observations:

Even though they are getting waxed by the defending champs right now (10-4 ChiSox in the 8th) I see the Indians as having a really fun team, making Jacobs Field once again a place to be on northeast Ohio summer days. The signing of Grady Sizemore is a brillaitn way to assure that the future is good in Clevelend. The biggest issue will simply be learning how to win. Once they do that, I think the Mistake on the Lake will have a renaissance akin to those teams from the mid-1990s.

Opening Day is truly one of the great days of the year, and in many ways it is a celebration of fans. And once tomorrow and Tuesday are over, day games during the week will be as rare as cheap ballpark beer. Major League Baseball teams get 81 home dates. Must they really maximize every earnable dollar? Will it kill them to have a few during the day when kids can get there, during times more family friendly than the witching hours, and when kids will not fall asleep halfway through a giant pretzel in the seventh inning? I know I sound like Bob Costas here, but seriously, how will baseball ever cultivate a new generation of fans if those fans never see what a ninth inning looks like?

Finally, I am willing to bet that attendance figures in these opening days will give the lie to the obsession over steroids. Real fans care about the steroids situation, but to nowhere near the all encompassing degree that sportswriters would have you believe. The game is still the thing, and I can assure you that on the field, the game is going to be as good as ever. So good that Ernie Banks might suggest, "let's play two."

GO SOX!!!!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Steroids, Again

Today Dan Shaughnessy has a column in the Boston Globe in which he introduces nothing new to the steroids-in-baseball debate. Shaughnessy continues what is one of the more bothersome tendencies of those who nash their teeth in outrage over the explosion of performance enhancing drugs in the national pastime. At least twice he uses variations of the word "cheaters."

I should not have to remind a journalist, whose ply in trade is words, that words have meanings. The postmodernists might remind us that the meanings of words are not and cannot be fixed, and while this is true, words nonetheless have meanings that if not fixed are at least recognizable. By any standard, a cheater must have broken some sort of rule, violated some sort of law within the realm in which the cheating is alleged to have occurred.

It is stunning that some people have to continue to be reminded that however we might lament the fact, steroids were not banned in baseball until very recently. Should they have been? Absolutely. But they were not. So all of those people who are calling for heads to roll should answer this question: Do you really believe in the establishment of post-facto rules? The Constitution doesn't. Now it is debatable whether or not we are dealing with a Constitutional issue if baseball decides to punish folks after the fact, but remember that pesky special status that baseball has always had in Congress, status that always kept owners from scrutiny for their business tactics? Well, now that status suddenly makes baseball's ability to subvert the Constitution problematic to say the least. Furthermore, even if we find that baseball is not beholden to Constitutional mandates, it is my firm belief that anything laid out in the Constitution as one of those pesky inalienable rights is there for a reason. I'm not sure that baseball ought to decide that it can make rules and then punish people for violating those rules before such a rule existed.

Some have begun to argue that while steroids were not banned in baseball, they were illegal. This is true. But such arguments do not carry much weight. If someone breaks the law and baseball finds out later and decides to punish that person, that is acceptable. If the legal system establishes that Barry Bonds is guilty of something, anything, then Bud Selig can surely suspend Bonds. But to retroactively use a decision from one realm -- the leagal arena -- and apply it to another -- records in baseball -- is silly and unjustifiable. The legal system in such a case would be determining if Bonds broke the law, not if he was cheating in baseball. If we are going to start culling the record books of lawbreakers, we are going to have to go back to the founding of the game and pretty much close the books and start anew. Scofflaws have been as much a part of the game as extra base hits, and to start picking and choosing between which violators warrants having their records erased and which we do not is a fool's gambit. The 1986 New York Mets broke more laws than the Soprano family. If simple illegality has become our standard for transforming the facts of the game's past, I look forward to celebrating, post facto, the 1986 Boston Red Sox World Series championship.

Shaughnessy's article, and countless others like it are a sign of a tendency in journalism, and not just on the sports pages. A writer picks a topic about which most people are outraged and then tries to be more outraged, to show that he is on the side of justice and righteousness. It grows tedious in every realm, but in this case especially so when people refuse to acknowledge that within the confines of the game, which is the only foundation for any discussion or argument, Barry Bonds and innumerable others did not even violate any rule within the sport. This is a sad fact of history. Trying to rewrite that history will do no one any good.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Replacements Reunite?

My favorite band ever is the Replacements, the quintessential postpunk indie underground 80s rock band who broke up in a miasma of recriminations and anger almost fifteen years ago. Now there are rumors of a reunion. This looks to be a one-off for the purpose of adding a couple of new songs to a compilation, and possibly to a long awaited box set, but it will also stir hopes of a concert tour. They will never be the Replacements of old. Bob Stinson has gone to become a regular at a drinking establishment in the sky and the guys are long past the drunken hit or miss live show days of the 1980s.

Here is a picture of the three original Mats plus new addition, Josh Freese (The heart and soul of the Mats and the greatest lyricist ever to walk the planet is Paul Westerburg who has gone on to a great but quiet solo career that can never match his output with the Replacements. He is the one on the right with the sunglasses, mouth agape.)

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In Which DCAT References Poop and Bill Simmons

Probably because I am immature, I found the following funny, as in beer bubbling out the nose funny. I don't know why, and I don't know if I want to know, but an email from Sportsguy's latest Mailbag made me laugh for about five minutes:
Q: In your previous mailbag, Bob from Atlanta states that your book is 189 poops long. I have to call BS on this. First of all, who keeps track of such a stat? But beyond that, your book hit stores Oct. 1, 2005. That's only like 150 odd days. And I doubt he read at every stop. Plus there's no way he double dipped on enough days to cover the difference. This guy is the James Frey of poop stories. Take your 189 poops and go home Bob.
-- Kris, Franklin, Mass.

If you are not laughing out loud right now, I do not want to know you. A well crafted poop story is always worth the price of admission, especially when it is a story in which the very legitimacy of someone else's poop is in question.

(By the way, why is it that we all have something to say about the regional variances in how someone refers to carbonated beverages -- "coke," "pop" "soda" [the last being the only acceptable usage -- ED.] -- and yet I am always a bit shocked when my girlfriend says "doodies"? I grew up in a doodie-free zone. The prevalent word for me as a kid was always "caca" which stems from some Romanian derivation -- my Papa had a scatological streak in him, as one of our dogs on the farm, my little brother's nickname, and of course any of his responses to one or another dubious assertion any of us ever made resulted in one of an apparent cornucopia of Romanian words for "s#!%")

I am pretty certain that no one in the blogosphere has been as big a Simmons advocate as I. But I also have to admit that I think that he is losing his fastball a little bit. The very writing style that can make me giggle like a school girl also can grow tedious. Bill Simmons is an entertaining writer. But the more of him that I read, I'm not convinced that he is a GOOD writer. He has a discernible style, yet he is not a great stylist. His pop culture references have not only grown to feel perfunctory, but he has spawned a generation of followers who think that immitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I nudge because I love -- when he is on, Simmons is as good as there is. But in the last two years, we have seen a lot less of the good Sportsguy and a lot more of the one who thinks that a well-timed Shawshank allusion substitutes for substantial content.