Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bush's Demagoguery

If the Democrats win in the November elections, the "terrorists win and America loses." So says President Bush. The right-wing blogosphere has decided that an aside from John Kerry, the precise meaning of which is certainly up in the air, is contemptible, yet nary a peep comes from them when the President tries the most loathsome scare tactics to dissuade you from casting your vote against his party of failure. This is demagoguery of the rankest sort from someone whose administration has utterly blown America's credibility in the war it declared against a tactic.

Nonsense from Thomas Sowell

What Cliff May calls, in this week's otherwise valuable FDD News & Notes, a "brief, incisive op-ed" is actually a half-baked cavalcade of nonsense and historical falsehoods in the service of passing off an irrelevant ideological hobbyhorse -- in this case smears against diversity.

The Thomas Sowell column in question appears at the WSJ's Opinion Journal. Let's parse:

Iraq is not the first war with ugly surprises and bloody setbacks. Even World War II, idealized in retrospect as it never was at the time--the war of "the greatest generation"--had a long series of disasters for Americans before victory was finally achieved.

The war began for Americans with the disaster at Pearl Harbor, followed by the tragic horror of the Bataan death march, the debacle at the Kasserine Pass and, even on the eve of victory, being caught completely by surprise by a devastating German counterattack that almost succeeded at the Battle of the Bulge.

Other wars--our own and other nations'--have likewise been full of nasty surprises and mistakes that led to bloodbaths. Nevertheless, the Iraq war has some special lessons for our time, lessons that both the left and the right need to acknowledge, whether or not they will.

This is not incisive. The word Cliff must have been looking for is "vacuous." Let me get this straight: Conservatives shrivel from the Vietnam analogy, but we are all supposed to nod our heads in agreement that the war in Iraq is akin to World War II? I'll let reasonable people decide which analogy is more apt, even though neither is in any meaningful way. (Hint: Reasonable people who are not complete retards will know that World War II is not the right answer. But you have to give him credit: if you're going to make a leap into the realm of the absurd, by all means, make it a big leap.)
What is it that has made Iraq so hard to pacify, even after a swift and decisive military victory? In one word: diversity.

Here we go. The difficulties in Iraq aren't the result of complexity. There aren't multiple causal factors involved. Sowell can reduce them to one word. And wouldn't you know it -- it is a word that happens to correspond to one of Sowell's favorite axes to grind. Isn't that convenient? Ain't reductionism grand?
That word has become a sacred mantra, endlessly repeated for years on end, without a speck of evidence being asked for or given to verify the wonderful benefits it is assumed to produce.

Note the pervasive use of the passive voice. There is a simple reason for this (and not simply the fact that journalists apparently are unaware of the fact that the passive voice makes for bad writing): It allows him to create false subjects and to do battle with strawmen. A sacred mantra to whom? Repeated endlessly by whom? We don't know, and the answer is that Sowell could not come up with someone who pictures diversity as a "sacred mantra" and repeats its virtues endlessly. So it is apparently better for him to create a fictive enemy than to engage with real people who, inconveniently enough, have provided vast amounts of evidence about some of diversity's benefits. Is diversity a debatable topic? Of course. But why engage in a debate with real people and acknowledge complexities when you can simply create a false argument?
Worse yet, Iraq is only the latest in a long series of catastrophes growing out of diversity. These include "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan, the million lives destroyed in intercommunal violence when India became independent in 1947 and the even larger number of Armenians slaughtered by Turks during World War I.

This is where this argument descends from the merely shoddily written and ethically dubious to the factually nonsensical. The genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan were about "diversity"? In what way? This makes no sense. The genocide in Rwanda had its roots in the colonial legacy in which first the Germans and then the Belgians privileged one group (Tutsi) over a sizable majority (Hutu). This privilege not surprisingly created resentment among the minority group which, when independence came, translated its numerical majority into political power. Over the decades, tensions rose, violence occurred. In the early 1990s, under external pressure, General Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda's Hutu leader, reluctantly began the process of power sharing, a process he never embraced prior to his death in a plane crash that served as the tipping point for fueling the genocide that followed in which Hutu militias (most prominent among them the interahamwe) slaughtered between 800,000 and 1.1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutu. How, in any meaningful way, is this about "diversity"? One could engage in the same discussion of all of the examples he cites. Unless Sowell honestly believes that rudimentary rights -- such as the right to be free from genocide, say, or the right to a role in the political process -- honestly have something to do with the culture wars over diversity that he caricatured earlier, there are only two conclusions one can draw from this: Sowell is manifestly dishonest or he truly has no understanding of events such as the genocide in Rwanda or the grim proceedings in the Sudan. Either way, from here how can anyone take Sowell seriously?
Despite much gushing about how we should "celebrate diversity," America's great achievement has not been in having diversity but in taming its dangers that have run amok in many other countries. Americans have by no means escaped diversity's oppressions and violence, but we have reined them in.

Never mind that we still have not identified these folks who are gushing. And we'll ignore the paragraph-ending preposition as well. "Diversity's oppressions and violence"? What does this mean? Is Sowell seriously going to deny, for example, that the Civil Rights Movement was fundamentally a struggle for diversity? And is taming these supposed dangers of diversity really America's "great achievement"? So have we now established that in addition to not understanding the rest of the world, Sowell also is clueless when it comes to American history? Because he is if this is what he places as America's greatest achievement.

We can skip ahead for awhile. Sowell makes various assertions about nation-building that we can all debate, but that are not especially objectionable, or at least that are not demonstrably false.

Political spin may say that Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror, but the terrorists themselves quite obviously believe otherwise, as they converge on that country with lethal and suicidal resolve.

Once again Sowell shows his lack of intellectual integrity. Iraq's role in the war on terrorism is a subject that fair people can debate fairly. Instead, for Sowell, those who assert that Iraq is not part of the war on terror (note the subject of his sentence -- I'm taking this guy seriously?) are engaged in political spin. Note also that Sowell has difficulties with the sort of rudimentary concept of tenses: The question is not whether Iraq is part of the war on terror, but rather whether it was when we invaded. This distinction is not a splitting of hairs -- there is the distinct possibility that we either created or lured terrorists to Iraq. And this too would be a debate worth having if Sowell was actually interested in any kind of quest for truth.

What makes Sowell's dishonest and ahistorical article so stunning is that in more capable hands, his conclusion would be spot-on:

Whether we want to or not, we cannot unilaterally end the war with international terrorists. Giving the terrorists an epoch-making victory in Iraq would only shift the location where we must face them or succumb to them.

Abandoning Iraqi allies to their fate would ensure that other nations would think twice before becoming or remaining our allies. With a nuclear Iran looming on the horizon, we are going to need all the allies we can get.

I agree with this entirely. But it has nothing to do with everything that preceded it. This flatulent op-ed piece is the exact opposite of incisive, and inasmuch as its brevity fuels its inanity, that brevity can hardly be considered a selling point. Sowell's obfuscations will not help us to win the conflicts we now face. People who lie and misrepresent those who disagree with them and abuse history are not allies we want in the war against Islamic terrorists. Allying with them for short-term gain does not make us any safer, though it might just make us dumber.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Is Their Long National Nightmare Over?

It is not in my nature to be optimistic about the Congo. From the decades when King Leopold II treated the vast expanses of that land as his own private fiefdom to strip and violate and exploit through the Cold war machinations that seemed to be to the benefit of everyone but the Congolese, through the atrocities of the Biggest of the Big Men, Congo has been the apodictic example of African misrule. In recent months Congo has fitfully taken steps toward democracy. (Which I have written about here and here and to which Tom and I alluded, inter alia [hey, you knew it was coming] here.)

After more than two months of wrangling and politicking and counting and violence and false starts, the Congolese went to the polls on Sunday in the runoff election pitting incumbent Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former warlord whose main areas of strength are in the most anarchic regions of the DRC. Kabila ought to win handily, as he claimed 45% of the tally in the multi-candidate first round of voting. Because of infrastructural and logistical issues (such as the fact that the DRC is the size of Western Europe but has about 320 kilometers of paved roads) results may not be known until mid-November. Which leaves plenty of time for shenanigans and violence, such as the mob rioting and violence that swept through the most volatile part of the country, the region's northeast, today. The long and tedious and potentially fraught process of counting the vote is now underway.

This election will not provide the panacea that the Congo and its people wish were on the way. But in Africa hope sometimes is all that remains. Perhaps these are the tentative first steps toward something good, toward stability and peace and opportunity and maybe a little bit of luck. I have a hard time being optimistic. But for now I'll hold on to hope in the face of long odds.

Great News Alert!

Tom has a new diary entry in which he tells us that his Global War on Terrorism Occasional Paper, Out of Bounds: Transnational Sanctuary in Irregular Warfare, is now available for purchase at Amazon. Even though he does not (currently) write for dcat, he is certainly part of the dcat family, and so he has duly been added to the nakedly self-promotional "Buy Our Books" links on the right. Between his book and mine, I would suggest that you can cover a lot of bases (ahem) this coming Christmas season.

Boogiemen and Red Herrings

Jonathan Chait's newest TNR via LA Times article raises an important point: the GOP prefers to run against a boogieman rather than against the actual Democratic Party. Here is just a taste, from the article's conclusion:

we're not even getting a debate about a caricature of the Democratic position, let alone the actual one. Instead, we're getting things like this: GOP Representative John Hostettler of Indiana is running an ad warning that if Democrats take power and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi becomes House speaker, she "will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank, reprimanded by the House after paying for sex with a man who ran a gay brothel out of Congressman Frank's home."

What is the homosexual agenda? The ad does not say. (Apparently it involves raising the minimum wage and cutting the interest rate on government-backed student loans. I can just see it if the Democrats win--all those gay Wal-Mart employees, cackling with glee as they use their fat $7.25-an-hour salaries to pay off their suddenly puny college debts.)

Which is my point. Republicans don't want an actual choice election, they want to run against a mythological Democratic Party so frightening that the voters overlook all the GOP's failures.

Not all the Republican campaigns are as vicious and mindless as Hostettler's. But nearly all of those campaigns are trying to run against a boogeyman. They raise the specter of a radical Democratic agenda, but they refuse to say what they don't like about that agenda. And there's a good reason for that: It's popular.

I alluded to this idea last week, referring to Ted Kennedy. Noam Scheiber at The Plank has another example related to Hillary Clinton. According to a voter interviewed in the New York Times:
"There's going to be a moderate party for Joe Blow, and whether that party is the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, that's the battle we're seeing," Mr. Yelton [a lifelong North Carolina Democrat who recently switched parties] said. "I expect to see Hillary Clinton quoting Scripture before it's over with."

But as Scheiber points out:
Well, um, Hillary actually does quote Scripture. She has for years. A very crude nexis search reveals that she invoked the Bible while discussing immigration earlier this year, and two years ago in a speech about poverty. And, in case you're wondering whether she only trots out Jesus in the name of liberal causes, the answer is no. Her book Living History goes on at length about the importance of prayer in her personal life.

That the idea of Hillary quoting Scripture is so absurd it works as the punchline of a joke--and, for that matter, of a piece in The New York Times--strikes me as pretty troubling for Democrats, though it's not altogether surprising.

And the reason for this "trouble"? That GOP boogieman. Why argue against what someone actually believes in if you can simply lie about who they are and people believe it? Both parties do this, of course, but it seems to have become the GOP stock in trade, especially with the ascension of Karl Rove.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Red Auerbach, RIP

"Legend." It's one of those terms, like "hero" or "star" or "amazing" or "historic" that we toss around blithely, burying their meaning through overuse. And yet there are legends, just as there are heroes and stars, just as there are historic and amazing events. If ever the term "legend" applied to someone in the world of sports, it applied to Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the de facto paterfamilias of the Boston Celtics and arguably both the greatest coach and the greatest front office administrator in the history of sports. Red Auerbach died yesterday at his longtime home in Washington, DC. He was 89 years old.

One cannot grow up a Celtics fan without a heightened sense of awareness of the larger than life presence of Red Auerbach. The stories -- the unprecedented run of championships; his integration of the NBA and his willingness to be the first coach to field five black starters; the victory cigar that tickled Celtics fans and infuriated opponents; the ability to see three steps of the other guy on the court and in the front office; the competitive fire; the wins the wins the wins. The Boston Celtics are one of the historic and great franchises in all of sports, and Red Auerbach overwhelmingly represents the reason why. Bill Russell and Larry Bird marked just two of his innumerable coups (with Russell furthering Red's reputation on matters racial when Red hired Russell as the first black head coach in American professional sports after Auerbach stepped down at the end of his unprecedented run on the Celtics sidelines).

In today's Boston Globe two marvellous tributes from Dan Shaughnessy and Jackie MacMullen can at least begin to place this historic figure in his time and place. I'm sure many more are to come, and I especially await Bob Ryan's inevitable column (Update: And here it is.), as well as that of Sportsguy (see below) and others. Red was sui generis. In the last decade or so of his life, health restrictions kept him down to one of his beloved cigars a day. Light up all you want now, Red, for victory defined you, the ultimate winner. Go well.

Update: I am at home watching ESPN Classic's eight hour Red marathon and am reading Sportsguy's wonderful piece on Auerbach. It's a bit of a misty afternoon here at Casa de Catsam.
More: The Globe's Shira Springer has a piece on Celtic memories of Auerbach and on that page are lots of links.

An Arthur Schlesinger For Our Time

The New York Times has a feature on Philip Zelikow, public policy scholar and historian, former head of the University of Virginia's Miller center for Public Policy, and current advisor to Condoleeza Rice at State. For those of us who are scholars and who grate at the idea of acedemics being distant and tucked away in our Ivory Towers, it is a nice reminder how much government relies on the expertise and specialization of academics. I mention Arthur Schlesinger, the most prominent of the academics in the Kennedy White House who brought sexyback to academics in publis life, but he was also part of a long tradition stretching back most famously to the Brains Trust of Roosevelt and before that to the ideas of the Progressives and extending forward through to Condi Rice. Academics have earned status and even a moderate level of fame as the result of academic publications bringing the ideas that would serve the state -- think George Kennan or more infamously Chester Crocker. It is nice to know that Zelikow is part of this tradition and that he has the ear of someone like Rice, who of course herself was a scholar toiling away at Stanford before receiving the call.

Fifty Years Since Suez

The Suez Crisis occurred fifty years ago. In a vital piece in the New York Times David Fromknin, author of A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, provides a pretty good capsule outline of why Suez was such a vitally transformative moment. Not surprisingly for an article trying to boil such a monumentally complex geopolitical scuffle down to a usable essence, there is some overstatement and reductionism, but on the whole Fromkin shows why this easily misunderstood event was so crucial to the world that emerged from it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Pus Baggery

Over at TNR Online Michelle Cottle kicks the piss out of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk for the Michael J. Fox dustup. This is a pretty good litmus test for me: If you hold Limbaugh in anything but scorn over this issue you are a pus bag. (And Bradford Plumer doesn't pull any punches in taking on some of the less than critical media coverage of the slimy attacks against Fox.)

Midterm Madness

Are you a bit of a nerd? (Hint: Are you reading this blog?) If so, consider partaking in The Washington Post's Midterm Madness game.

Ted Kennedy: Fiction Versus Reality

One of the hoary Republican caricatures is the one they paint of Ted Kennedy. Politics is as much about trafficking in voter ignorance as it is about revealing truths, and so it is always useful to pull away the patina of misinformation to get back to reality. Today's Boston Globe issues its predictable but instructive endorsement of Kennedy. (Admit it -- you had no idea that Kennedy was up for reelection.) In so doing they hint at why the Republican demonization is a function more of cynicism than of reality.

Barney Frank and GOP Tactics

Barney Frank is one of my favorite Congressmen. He is courageous, always quotable, displays a great deal of integrity, and maintains his faith in liberalism. He also has consistently been on the receiving end of some of the most abject bigotry in modern political history because of his openly gay status.

The Boston Globe shows today how we can expect the gay baiting to rise even as Frank's status would under a Democratic House. It has already begun, with GOP leaders overtly and subtly casting aspersions on Frank's sexuality because that sort of thing too often works with the GOP base.

Across the country one can expect that the campaigning will only get uglier in the next two weeks as the Republicans see their grasp on power, so often wielded for power's sake, slip, and as Democrats see the chance to gain power, which many of them probably want for power's sake, within their reach. The GOP has ratcheted up the anti-gay and anti-immigrant (which too often floats into the territory of xenophobic and racist) bigotry, but it seems that these old saws will not be enough to overcome voter anger at a host of incompetencies.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Self Indulgence Alert

The shelf-life of the piece Tom and I wrote a while back has lasted almost as long as the time it took us to get anyone to read it. The good folks at Beyond Partisan have it up on their front page. It has also been picked up by the website Mixeye.

The Bledsoe-Romo Situation

First let me get it out of the way: I am a big fan of Drew Bledsoe as a player and as a man. I probably excuse away some of his shortcomings and inflate some of his strengths. That said, I think Bill Parcells is making a big mistake in elevating untested fourth-year quarterback Tony Romo over Bledsoe as the Cowboys' starter.

First off, Bledsoe's lack of mobility is not a secret. It did not just magically take place ovber the course of the last two months. Bledsoe is a big, strong, gunslinger of a quarterback who has little mobility (though enough to have scored a touchdown when he knew he would get crushed in the first half. So much for taking one for the team.) but lots of courage, and the team knew this entering the season. So if there is any blame to be handed out in this situation it really ought to go to the personnel folks, to the guys who are supposed to coach 'em up, and to the linemen who are not doing their jobs. Bledsoe's lack of mobility has become a crutch for bad line play -- of his four sacks in the first half against the Giants on Monday night, only one came as the result of him holding the ball for too long. The others happened so quickly that no quarterback could have reacted -- and on one, Bledsoe was declared to be in the grasp even though he was able to complete a pass to an outlet back that the referees called back.

Secondly, if the argument is that Romo is better for the Cowboys than Bledsoe because of the fact that the Dallas line sucks, the Cowboys don't have a game plan. They have a survival plan. The two are not the same, and this comes back to what I said above -- the blame lies with coaches and front office staff and the linemen, not with Bledsoe. If the argument is that Romo is a better choice because he can make more out of a broken play, then I will promise you that the Cowboys' season is done.

Third, did anyone watch the second half of the game? On the first play of the half, Romo threw an interception. Some have tried to mitigate the interception by arguing that a defensive lineman tipped the ball. But throwing the ball into the maw of the defensive line is hardly something that usually redounds to a quarterback's benefit. Romo threw two more interceptions, including one that went back 96 yards for a score. When Bledoe left, it was a 12-7 game. From that point on the Giants dominated, in no small part because of Romo. Romo threw a late touchdown that made the score respectable, but by that point, the Giants were playing a different defense that made throwing a touchdown easier. I have no idea how this decision is supposed to make any serious fan blieve that the Cowboys have a better chance to win.

And what is going to happen when the Carolina defense comes in licking their chops over facing a guy who has not started in his four years in the league as an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois? What will happen when Romo is sacked three times, fumbles the ball deep in his own territory, and throws another couple of interceptions? I have no doubt that Bledsoe will be ready to play, that he will continue to show class and professonalism. But Parcells threw him under the bus in the most pulic way possible. That is not how a veteran coach is supposed to treat a veteran and team leader, and certainly not his starting quarterback. I hope that the Cowboys get mauled in every game that Romo starts. And I am very much looking forward to when Romo misses a wide open TO a couple of times. That should make for a fun clubhouse. The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town. As long as he is the backup. But in all but the rarest of circumstances there is a reason why the backup is the backup. I suspect that Cowboys fans will begin to understand this fact starting this Sunday in Charlotte.

Deny Iranian Visas?

Over at Deja Vu, Judith Klinghoffer has a provocative but ultimately shortsighted, solution to our Iran problem: "Stop Issuing Visas to Iranians."
Here is the lede:
I know of no sanction which would work as well. The Iranian regime survives because Iranians can escape them whenever they wish. Close the loophole and the pressure cooker would explode. Do remember 150,000-200,000 educated Iranians leave the their country every year. It is the largest brain drain in the world and, under normal circumstances, American benefits. But at this point the price is too high.

My problems with this solution are threefold:

1) Given that we have already declared Iran to be part of the "Axis of Evil," don't we then have a moral, and perhaps even a legal, responsibility to offer asylum from people who demonstrate that they want to escape what we apparently believe to be an apodictically evil regime? In other words, do we have the right to proclaim a regime not only evil, but among the most evil nations in the world, and then at the same time demand that people remain there and deny asylum to those who want to leave? Do we then say that ordinary folks who want to leave must instead wage revolution that will almost assuredly guarantee their deaths?
2) Klinghoffer presents the foundation of another problem: Educated Iranians want to leave, and their arrival in the United States is surely more of a boon than a bane to us. Isn't it cutting off our nose to spite our face to deny them entry into the United States?
3) If we do not help these people to leave, aren't we just fueling anti-American resentment among educated Iranians who, while they might not want to leave Iran, may also still be susceptible to movements that will fuel anti-Americanism of one stripe or another? And what of their children?

Denying people the option to leave a tyrannical state while at the same time expecting that they can simply forge a revolution is morally dubious, intellectually shortsighted, and potentially detrimental to US interests.

On Gay Rights and the New Jersey Supreme Court

The timing could have been better -- prepare for ample Republican demagoguery in the next two weeks -- but the New Jersey Supreme Court is the latest to establish that gay couples have a fundamental right to the legal protection of their unions. Wisely, the court sent the issue to the legislature, giving them 180 days to craft a suitable law.

By sending the case to the legislature with explicit instructions, it may have somewhat undercut the inevitable lambasting of them as "unelected judges" who are avoiding the popular will. Such critics sortof miss the whole point of the elected judiciary -- the point is that judges are not elected because some rights transcend the will of the majority. There are some rights that the masses, however overwhelming, do not have the right to supplant.

Were it not for unelected judges we quite literally might still have Jim Crow laws. Very, very few advances for minority rights have emerged without the courts intervening at some stage, even if the process never begins or ends with court decisions. And yet the fundamental triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement are among the most significant in allowing America to achieve some of its promise as a city on a hill. If like me you see gay equality as a fundamental issue of civil rights, you understand that at some point the courts were inevitably going to intervene and that these unelected judges are there to protect not only rights for someone not like you, but also rights that you hold dear. Unelected judges today protect what elected bodies too often will not. This is right and just and is why America's judicial system, for all of its flaws, is still a model for the rest of the world.

Update: The New Republic online has an article that explains "Why New Jersey's gay Marriage Ruling Won't Cause a Backlash" that addresses some of the issues I raise.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Election Stuff

Over at the Fix, Chris Cilizza parses the polls in several vital Senate races. Be sure to look at the comments as well. Meanwhile there are several inportant items over at The Plank, including updated polling data from Virginia (Webb with a slim lead), Arizona, (Democratic challenger Jim Pederson closing in) and Tennessee, where the Harold Ford wave may have crested early. Meanwhile things seem to be going awry for Chris Shays in Connecticut, leading Ryan Lizza to posit that the endangered species known as liberalus Republicanus might be approaching extinction.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Independent Dissatisfaction and Democratic Opportunity

By now we all know the limitations of polls. polling data can be flawed in a host of ways. Nonetheless, just as it would be folly to look at polls and think that they are unerring reflections of the body politic, so too would it be silly to dismiss them out of hand. If this news, which indicates that independent voters are leaning Democrat by a 2-1 margin, represents an accurate reflection of the views of independents, we could be looking at even more of a seismic shift in November than some are predicting.

Democrats need to avoid hubris, however. As with most dramatic shifts in Congress, this one will as much as anything represent anger and frustration with the ruling party. It will not in and of itself represent a mandate for Democratic policies. What this means is that in office, the Democrats face a tremendous opportunity if they do not overreach.

The Pope of Chili Town

Tom has a spectacular new diary entry in which he addresses possums, chili, whippersnappers and evil master plans.

As for chili: In two weeks down in Terlingua, they will hold the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship Cook-Off, which is the culmination of weeks and months of regional cook offs. I might try to be the pope of chili town this year, as Terlingua is just a ways down the road (by Texas standards) but it comes at a bad time. Still, I'm thinking about inviting a gathering down this way for 2007, so clear the schedule for the first week in November next year!


OK, I'll say it: I think Sportsguy's wife might be a better writer than he is. Every week he writes his always-entertaining NFL picks column. This year, he is giving his wife, who knows almost nothing about football, the chance to pick against him. She would only agree to do so if she got a mini-column to write about whatever she wants. She always writes about chick stuff, and her little pieces always make me chuckle. Oh -- and she's kicking her husband's ass in the picks competition, which is endlessly amusing, but also serves as a reminder of why people lose millions of dollars to the Vegas line every week.

Monday, October 23, 2006

NFL Stuff (With Whining About Reggie Bush)

A few NFL observations:

Ron Borges makes a good point about NFL defensive statistics: The NFL measures total defense by yards given up, which is a far less telling statistic than the one that matters: Points allowed. By the NFL's reckoning, the Patriots are the thirteenth ranked defense in the NFL. By points allowed, they rate as the fourth best defense.

In three of the next five weeks the Pats will face Minnesota, Indianapolis, and the Bears. The other two weeks will pit them against their division rival the New York Jets and against Green Bay in Lambeau. I suspect by that point much of the NFL picture will have clarified substantially.

My quick take on the Patriots at this point in the season? They are a very good team. Belichick and Brady have adjusted to their much-lamented lack of a go-to receiver by establishing the running game and developing plays and paterns that allow the receivers they have to get open and make catches. The defense is sterling. As the weather turns grim in New England they will only improve, and by the halfway point of the season they will be positioning themselves for bye weeks and home-field advantage.

As of right now, obviously any fair observer has to give the Colts an edge (but talk to me in two weeks when the suspect Colts run defense has to deal with the 1-2 punch of Maroney and Dillon). Denver beat the Patriots, so give them their props as well. Baltimore has a great defense but has difficulty scoring. San Diego is unpredictable and inconsistent, and until Marty gets it done I'm in the camp that says he cannot do it. Pittsburgh is looking increasingly like a one-hit wonder. Cincinnati is dangerous but still does not quite look ready to make the leap. I do not see any team in the league that the Patriots cannot beat. Except, of course, for those Super Bowl-bound Dolphins.

By virtue of its parity (English for "mediocrity") the NFC is more wide open. Chicago is undefeated, so they are doing exactly what they have to do, but they haven't exactly played a ruthless schedule, and while many have observed that their 20-point comeback against Arizona last week showed incredible character, I suppose it is up to me to point out that they were down by twenty to Arizona. Spin that however you want, but Arizona just got waxed by Oakland, and Oakland sucks. New Orleans represents the feel-good story of the year, and no one can begrudge them that, but I suspect that as the season unfolds their weaknesses will come to the fore. They still look like a team that will be playoff bound, however. There are a host of teams in that 4-2/4-3/3-2 range, most of them in the NFC East, which does not have a great team, and might have four pretty bad teams. Of the 4-3 teams, Carolina looks the most dangerous. Seattle has looked very good until they looked very bad yesterday.

Basically what I'm saying is that the NFC stinks, and because of that I have to wonder if even the conference's good teams are not all that good.

One last thing: Could announcers and the so-called experts please stop asserting in their most outraged tones that the Houston Texans made an atrocious decision by choosing Mario Williams over Reggie Bush? It is far too early to draw such a conclusion, some of us are frankly tired of hearing about Reggie Bush's, let's say "whelming" (as in: neither under- nor over-) numbers, which always seem padded with (again "whelming") kickoff return numbers, and it is hardly certain that Bush is going to set the league on fire. Meanwhile, Mario Williams plays a position where it is difficult to make an immediate impact, and in case you have not noticed, Williams actually gets quite a few double teams because the interior defenders for Houston are not threats -- not exactly the treatment accorded to a bust. Maybe offensive coordinators around the league know something the headset-jocks don't. Here is my prediction: If anything, teams will regret not having taken Matt Leinart and Vince Young more than they will regret not taking Reggie Bush, and since Houston has David Carr, who lo and behold is better than anyone thought now that he is not viewing the game from his earhole while lying on his back, they were not really in the market for picking either of the quarterbacks. Enough is enough -- if Houston made the mistake, let's wait for the electrifying (it is mandated in Bush's contract that his slurpers use the word "electric" or some derivation thereof whenever they speak of him) Reggie Bush to have more than a couple of good third-down-back-type-games before we make that judgment. And if Mario Williams is in the league for ten years and Bush blows out his acl on Sunday against Baltimore after Ray Lewis uses him to show his Baltimore teammates how he learned origami in the offseason, let's not pretend that such things cannot be taken into account: Fast but small guys get hurt all the time, and these things can be predicted. Ten years of a speed rushing defensive end is better than three years of a show pony.

Obama '08?

According to the Washington Post Barack Obama will announce his intentions for 2008 sometime after the November elections. Pundits will parse his inexperience and try to guage what a defeat might do to his career, but here is the reality: The Democrats are going to win these midterm elections. They may not be able to wrestle the House or Senate from the GOP, but they could, and in any case, it may not matter. 2008 is going to represent a fantastic opportunity for the Democrats. It is hard to imagine that the administration is going to develop a sense of accountability or competence in its last two years, and at the presidential level it is hard to envision Bush bequeathing a strong party legacy. So if 2008 is going to represent a pickable plum, shouldn't most any viable Democrat want to head to the orchard? If the 2008 train passes, when is the next time one will be scheduled to arrive? If another Democrat wins in 2008, which seems a good possibility, Obama either has to tie his fortunes to the Vce presidency, always a risky gamble, or he has to wait four years (if things go awry, which makes another Democrat winning unfathomable) or 2016, a ten year period in which much can change.

In short, there are lots of reasons for Obama to run, and relatively few reasons why he should not. I would expect that announcement to come sometime in December. Then we all have some twenty-one months of Campaign '08 to relish. At least that will also correspond to twenty-one months of The Daily Show's "Indecision '08" coverage as well, which will surpass in quality anything we'll see in the 24-hour news cycle.

A Foodie's Delight

I love San Antonio, which is probably a good thing given that if actuarial tables are to be believed, I'll be down there for several weeks of the year for the next forty to fifty years and may end up there permanently someday. There are lots of reasons why I find it to be such a great place -- I'm a city afficianado to begin with, but also personal reasons play a big role. But if you love food, look at a bit of my my weekend eating schedule and you'll understand. If I do end up down there for good, I'll surpass two bills in about two weeks:

Friday Night: Arrive; within an hour have take out Bill Miller's barbecue. Bill Miller's is a chain, and is not the best bbq I have ever had, but it was good enough for me to eat two-and-a-half pulled bbq sandwiches, to scarf a sausage, and to drink about a gallon of sweet tea.

Saturday morning: Breakfast at BJ's Tacos. I had four tacos: Avocado; barbacoa; bean and cheese; egg and chorizo. It was fantastic -- the ideal San Antonio restaurant is an unobtrusive hole in the wall. This qualifies and then some.

Saturday afternoon: Ana's mom's birthday dinner at a steak buffet place. these tend not to be my favorite kind of eateries. So I only had four plates worth of Tex-Mex goodness.

Sunday morning: The traditional Sunday barbacoa and tamales. Mmmmmm.
Now I'm back, trying to catch up on work, and hoping to burn off the weekend's food, a plan interrupted by a between-classes breakfast burrito (egg, beans, cheese, and bacon) at Jumburrito here in Odessa.

Friday, October 20, 2006

San Antone Bound

Am off to San Antonio for the weekend. It's worth the five-hour drive just for the barbacoa and tamales on Sunday morning.

The Cardinal Sin

The Mail & Guardian recently ran an article about the alarming rise in apparent and alleged plagiarism cases among prominent writers. The names are among South Afica's leading literary and journalistic lights. But Charlene Smith's piece also hints at an issue we have to keep in mind: The accusation is easy to make. But it is also a very grave charge to levy. The reason articles such as this one are so alarming is precisely because the sin is so great: For writers, and anyone trafficking in ideas, plagiarism is the cardinal sin. One hopes that these kinds of stories serve as a warning and lesson to other writers, but they also do a pretty good job of instilling paranoia -- a false charge is still a charge, and a scrupulous writer can stay awake nights worried that a dropped footnote will lead to charges of intellectual dishonesty and outright theft. Let's also keep in mind that there is a large gap between plagiarism and sloppiness.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Dead Heat

OK -- which of these is sillier: Republicans trying to paint Maryland Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer as racist for using the word "slavishly" (GOP House candidate Michael Steele, is African American) or Republicans trying to claim Martin Luther King Jr. as a Republican? I see it as a dead heat, with the accusations from the Steele camp winning the idiot race by just a hair. Is this what the GOP in 2006 is reduced to, patent semantic foolishness and utterly ahistorical vacuity?

Edit: As Ralph Luker points out, Steele is not running against Steny Hoyer. Hoyer used the remarks in an introduction of Steele's opponent, Democratic Representative Ben Cardin. (Not Hardin, as I hastily typed earlier -- thanks again to Ralph. I'm clearly off my game.) Apologies for the error(s). The point, however, still stands even if I am almost enough of an idiot to run a Republican campaign.

Inaction in Sudan

Susan Rice (a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa during Clinton's second term), Anthony Lake (national security adviser from 1993 to 1997 and Rice's boss when she was at NSC during that time), and Donald Payne (D-NJ) ask a very good question in their Washington Post article "We Saved Europeans. Why Not Africans?" Noting that the Sudan appears willing to do everything within its power to keep foreign troops or peacekeepers out, and that we seem perfectly willing to acquiesce to their demands, they note, "Will world leaders continue to give the perpetrators of genocide a veto over international action to stop it? Unless something changes dramatically, the answer seems to be yes."

This is the unfortunate reality in the Sudan -- the powers in Khartoum know that they can ignore the powers of the west because we are unwilling to back our demands with action. We dither, Africans die. This has been the story in the Sudan as it has been the story elsewhere in Africa, such as in Rwanda. We need to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Unless we force Khartoum's hand, the carnage and dispossession in darfur will continue apace, the turmoil will spread into Chad, and ten years from now we'll get to hear about what we should have done, didn't do, and what we will for sure this time do in the future. As Rice, Lake and Payne argue:

Lost in the diplomatic bustle is reality: First, the U.S.-brokered peace deal for Darfur, fatally flawed from its signature, is dead. Second, Sudan has broken every pledge to every envoy to halt the killing in Darfur. Third, China is unlikely to compel Sudan to admit the United Nations -- 7 percent of its oil is at stake, and China may figure we value its help on Iran and North Korea more than on Sudan. Fourth, it's too late for sanctions; even if China miraculously relented, it would take months before their bite was felt. By then, Sudan will have completed its second wave of genocide in Darfur.

History demonstrates that there is one language Khartoum understands: the credible threat or use of force. After Sept. 11, 2001, when President Bush issued a warning to states that harbor terrorists, Sudan -- recalling the 1998 U.S. airstrike on Khartoum -- suddenly began cooperating on counterterrorism. It's time to get tough with Sudan again.

The question is, how credible would such a threat appear to be? If we are going to make the threat, we need to be able to back it up. We need to develop a coalition that will act in our name and with our backing and that will have the ability to use credible force to an extent that will make the Sudanese listen and take our promise to act seriously.

New Yorkers and Pressure

Maybe I just cannot help myself. Maybe I have New Republic blogger envy. But over at Deep in the Count I take on what I see as an incredibly silly and self absorbed argument in which Jill Greenberg and one or two readers in the comments assert that there is no pressure like the pressure of living in New York and that somehow that pressure is reflected in the Mets. Or something like that. As of the time I write this, more people seem to be agreeing with me than disagreeing. Go check it out.

Leo Saves Africa (?)

Hollywood stars. Is there anything they can't do? This seems to be the subtext of an article in the Mail & Guardian with the perhaps slightly overwrought title "Can DeBeers Survive DiCaprio"." The answer is almost assuredly yes, but the company's response is nonetheless an illuminating one:
Pundits have delighted in predicting the death of De Beers. For most of last century, De Beers headed up a world diamond cartel that regulated rough diamond supply and kept prices high. It sold between 80% and 90% of the world’s diamonds. Then things changed. The cartel broke up, the group sold its shares in Anglo American and de-listed, announcing a new strategy. Now De Beers is adapting to being just another company in the luxury goods industry, even though it is still the dominant player in diamonds.

[. . .]

Edward Zwick’s film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a South African mercenary and set in war-torn 1990s Sierra Leone, is only set to open internationally on December 15. But the publicity war has already begun. Diamond advocates are taking out full-page adverts in American newspapers and a website, www.diamondfacts.org, has been launched.

“We welcome the opportunity this film presents to talk about the steps the diamond industry has taken to prevent the trade in conflict diamonds. De Beers finds it unacceptable that revenue from the sale of rough diamonds has been used in the past to fund the activities of rebels and believes that one conflict diamond is one too many; 100% of diamonds from De Beers Group are from conflict-free sources,” said company spokesperson Tom Tweedy.

“It [the film] is absolutely a concern for us,” Guy Leymarie, CEO of De Beers LV, told CNN Money. He added that it was difficult to forecast the impact the film would have on sales.

I am pleased to see so many movies, all still waiting release or at least wide national release, focusing seriously on Africa, including not only Blood Diamond, but also Catch a Fire, about South Africa during the height of the antiapartheid struggle, and the widely acclaimed Last King of Scotland. If the films provoke uncomfortable reactions from come corporations, governments, groups, or individuals, all to the better. Many probably ought to be discomfitted.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gorby in the Basin

Former Soviet Premiere, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Pizza Hut spokesman Mikhail Gorbachev was in the Permian Basin last night as part of UTPB's John Ben Shepperd Distinguished Lecture Series. He covered a gamut of issues. Most prevalent, of course, was his role in the ending of the Cold War, his relationship with American presidents, especially Reagan and George H. W. Bush (who Gorby seems to hold in especially high esteem), current global politics, the situation in Russia today, and even the building of a wall on the Mexico border, an idea he opposes.

There was little especially memorable about anything Gorbechev had to say. I found it especially instructive to hear his views on the various presidents he has known. He seemed to feel ambivalently at best about Clinton, but the subtext was one that probably won't come as good news to Clinton's many detractors: Gorby made it fairly clear that Clinton was probably the most difficult for Russians to deal with because he was the most skeptical of just how much Russia had changed.

CNBC's senior economics reporter Steve Liesman led the evening. He and Gorbachev sat on a stage at Midland College's Chaparral Center (in both a sop to local political tensions and the realities of UTPB having no venue big enough to host such an event) alongwith Gorbachev's translator and the exchange was a simple Q&A format. Gorbachev was witty and confident and you could easily understand how he was such an important global figure. Liesman was sometimes a bit hamhanded in his questioning, such as when he tried to get Gorbachev to participate in a sort of gameshow in which Liesman would say a president's name and Gorbachev would have to sum that president up in one sentence of less. Gorbachev won in that as soon as Reagan's name came up, Gorbachev spoke for about ten minutes on his old sparring partner, wholly abandoning a conceit that he made clear he did not think worthwhile.

Above all last night was a great one for the region. Despite the fact that Gorbachev was frank in his condemnation of much current American policy, he received rousing applause almost every time he finished answering a question (revealing, I thought, that a lot of people were a bit starstruck). The event was a feather in UTPB's expanding cap and the entire experience was perhaps best for our students, as well as those at the two local community colleges and the area high schools.

One Fall Day

In a wonderful multimedia display the Boston Globe explores the pageantry and wonder of college football in a feature called "One Fall Day." The highlight, of course, is a slideshow with narration of undefeated Williams' thrashing of Middlebury this past weekend. But they also cover the country, hitting games at all levels of play -- junior college in California, Division II at Abilene Christian here in Texas, Division IAA at Howard in Washington, DC, and the big boys in Athens, Georgia. This brought me back to crisp fall days in gorgeous Williamstown: the tailgates, the food, the glorious Williams victories.

Update: Here is the accompanying article.

76 Trombones

I played trombone in high school and for a year in college, so naturally this story warmed my soul.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Noxious Elitism at TNR

In an otherwise negligible post over at The Plank, Jason Zengerle betrays the sort of blithe and vacuous elitism that drives those of us who don't have our heads up our gilded asses absolutely batty:
Hence, in most social and economic measures North Carolina--which boasts an excellent state university--is way ahead of Alabama--which doesn't. (Before any U of A grads or profs get all bent out of shape, they could read this piece, which goes a long way toward explaining my somewhat dim view of the school in Tuscaloosa, or simply check out this year's U.S. News rankings of public universities.)

Where to begin . . .?

Zengerle takes a "dim view" of Alabama for a host of reasons both legitimate and illegitimate. But some of the legitimate ones -- the sorority culture, for example -- could be applied to hundreds of universities in the United States, including some that fulfill Zengerle's criteria for excellence. If Zengerle does not think that daft behavior happens in Chapel Hill, he is sadly mistaken. Yes, there is racism that pervades the culture at 'Bama, just as there is -- again -- at an abundance of universities in the United States. But here si the thing -- if race is your barometer (and Zengerle has decided that it is) then UNC only looks acceptable by comparison to schools such as Alabama; it does not, alas, come across as being especially "excellent."

But fine. Zengerle wrote a negative article about Alabama, wanted to cite it again, and so decides to slur the university in toto based largely on anecdote simply because it sort of kind of serves his argument, if you bother to figure out what that argument might be.

But more significant, to me, is that Zengerle has decided that Alabama's status as one of the top 40 public universities in the United States does not confer upon it the status of "excellence." Keep in mind, now, that the lines that separate schools in this ranking are both insignificant and fungible. Among the schools within five in the rankings of "Bama include the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri at Columbia. These are schools that might not quite reach the rarefied air of North Carolina, but they also are hardly slouches. This list is of the top fifty public universities according to the U. S. News methodology. it is not a list that goes from great to bad, or from excellent to mediocre. It is, instead, a list that goes from a very high level of excellence to a fairly high level of excellence.

If you were a history major at Alabama in the 2006-2007 academic year you could take classes with superstar historians Kari Frederickson, George Rable, Howard Jones, David Beito or countless others. Alabama produces world class scholarship across a host of disciplines while producing students that, as at North Carolina, run the gamut from the stellar (According to this story, more Alabama undergraduates have been named to this year’s USA Today All-USA College Academic Team than students of any other school in the nation - that would be more even than the excellent UNC) to the marginal -- witness Zengerle's episodic and selective article. Most Carnegie Research I universities will experience this dynamic.

Zengerle has a parochial and silly view of what constitutes excellence, but more importantly, his parochial silliness is utterly gratuitous. There is no need to weigh the various merits of the state universities in Alabama and North Carolina. But to make matters worse, his arbitrary pronouncement actrually flies directly in the face of his larger point, the very point for which he invokes Alabama. To wit, from the very next paragraph after that I have already excerpted:

And I have another (again possibly dubious) theory that one of the reasons North Carolina has been able to maintain such an excellent state university is because the success of (Dean) Smith's basketball teams made it palatable for North Carolina legislators to continue appropriating so much money to higher education--since so many of their constituents, even if they themselves didn't attend UNC, had such loyalty to the school because of its basketball team.

I hope that when Zengerle gets home his mom immediately makes him don oven mits so as to prevent him from hurting himself by playing with sharp objects. Like, say, a Google search. Because the very school that Zengerle chooses to serve as a counterpoint to UNC's basketball excellence under Dean Smith is the University of Alabama. UNC has a nice little history in college basketball. It has been to 16 Final Fours, which is tied for the most all time. UNC has won four national championships, which puts them among the all-time great programs to be sure. So far, Zengerle's article seems to hold some weight.

But here is the problem -- and remember, I am only using the very same school that he evokes as the ideal example to serve as a foil for the vaunted UNC basketball program -- Alabama football, especially under someone who was far more of an icon in Alabama than Dean Smith is in North Carolina, has won a dozen college football national championships. That's twelve, as in thrice the amount of UNC's basketball championships, and only four fewer than UNC's total number of Final Four appearances. And in 1966 Alabama was the only undefeated and untied team in college football, yet somehow did not win the championship in the polls.

Are you kidding me with this? And this guy gets to ply his theories at The New Republic?

Update: Zengerle has responded in the comments, and I have fired back.

Why Africa Matters

In this week's San Francisco Chronicle, G. Pascal Zachary has a generally worthwhile article, "Why Africa Matters." Although I could do without a few of the more self-indulgent parts of the piece, Zachary makes a few good points, including the gist of his argument:
Yet humanitarian motives rarely produce lasting connections between peoples, probably because ties are predicated on an inequality: Africans lack something (food, health care, organization, money) that well-meaning Americans can provide. When Americans give, however, they can create a dependency relationship for Africans. We should not be surprised, then, to learn from many successful Africans about the perverse effects of humanitarian aid -- and not only for reasons of national pride, or the perverse effects of dependency, but also, as William Easterly methodically shows in his new book, "White Man's Burden," because most aid to Africa and other parts of the world fails to lift the poor out of poverty.

The Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent report, "More Than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach Toward Africa," argues that sympathy for Africans is a weak foundation for a lasting relationship between prosperous Americans and Africa's masses. The influential think tank insists, fortunately, that there exist "strategic" reasons for caring about impoverished Africans. These four reasons cut at the core of central American concerns:

-- The need for secure supplies of foreign oil.

-- Security against terrorism.

-- Freedom from pandemics.

-- The need for talented, energetic immigrants to refresh the American workforce.

Over time, these "strategic" reasons will persuade Americans that poverty reduction in Africa will do more than enhance our moral authority but also directly benefit the United States.

Add to these that we will benefit tremendously from forging diplomatic ties with African nations that we might in the future call upon for support in peacetime and war.

In 2003 I argued something rather similar at History News Network in "Why Africa Is Finally Getting Attention"
A taste of what I felt then and still feel now:

Curtailing future acts of terrorism. Expanding our access to available oil. Protecting human rights. These are goals that cross the ideological spectrum. And there is one continent where we can do all of these things. That continent is Africa, perhaps the part of the globe that Americans most overlook, except to catch a glimpse of the latest disaster coming from its shores, like rubberneckers straining to see the gore after a highway accident.

The time is ripe for Americans to start getting to know Africa as more than the sum of its grisly events. Many experts believe that the United States will get 15-20 percent of its oil exports from West Africa in the next decade. Large parts of the continent are vulnerable to exploitation by radical fundamentalist terrorists, some of which already have a foothold on the continent. Whether we like it or not, American attention will focus increasingly on what many still patronizingly see as the Dark Continent, a seemingly mysterious and dangerous land of poverty and violence and malarial infestations. But America must act now. We cannot afford to sit aside and wait for Africa to open its doors to us, nor can we assume that those doors will open simply because we are the United States.

To my mind, Africa provides a confluence of opportunity and necessity -- not only should we engage with Africa, but with each passing year we must engage with Africa. no longer can we ignore Africa and its people simply by arguing that we have no self interest there. Our self-interest is clear, but so too are African needs and desires. We may never be fully equal partners with Africans, but we need to work toward something resembling a legitimate partnership with as many heads of state and NGO's as possible. For them, yes, but increasingly for all of us.

Abolish the Electoral College

Jonathan Chait argues what so many of us have long felt: we've got to abolish the Electoral College. Liek Chait, I cannot think of a single good reason for the EC's existence. Not one. I'll entertain arguments, but my suspicion is that I won't hear any good ones. And while the failings of the Electoral College were part of the nightmare that was 2000 let me be clear -- it will not be fair or just or smart or justifiable when a Democrat wins the EC but loses the popular vote either.

Tom: Diarist

Over at his diary blog Tom writes about pictures that look like stuff, swatting down conspiracy idiots, and his brutish, big-headed kids.

Make it Last

By a resounding vote, the member states of the UN have voted South Africa a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, to begin in january and to last for two years. Isn't it time that an African nation be granted a permanent seat on the Security Council? And if so, is there any logical choice other than South Africa when one takes into account status, economic and political stability, regional diplomatic and military strength and general common sense? If one assumes that the changing world will demand at least some expansion of the Security Council's permanent membership, South Africa seems like an ideal choice and now seems like an ideal time.

South Africans and Bicycles

In this week's Mail & Guardian John Matshikiza laments the state of public transportation in South Africa. In so doing he also raises a question I have asked often: Whither the bicycle in the Rainbow Nation?
Matshikiza does not really answer the question to anyone's satisfaction (including, presumably, his own) but here is a start:
[. . .] The fact is, when you come to think about it, the only time you see somone on a bike in South Africa is on Sundays, when you have to avoid all those well-toned whities -- helmets on their heads and brightly coloured lycra shorts clinging to their hairy thighs -- preparing for the 94.7 Cycle Challenge or the Cape Argus Cycle Tour, or possibly just getting into shape for the next ethnic war that certain senior politicians have been predicting in recent days. The population as a whole generally regards the bicycle as a shameful and demeaning object of loathing and degradation.

This is something that I have been curious about for a long while. In other African countries the cheap and practical bicycle creaks about everywhere, in town and countryside equally. Husbands ferry wives and children on crossbars and on the buttock-flaying carriers at the back. Farmers ride down rutted tracks with the week’s produce swaying dangerously behind them, and market traders vie with each other as they weave in and out of motorised traffic, their wares on their heads, strapped to the sides or tied anywhere else to the two-wheeled, muscle-powered machine that inventiveness permits people in the struggle to get around and earn a living.

South Africans generally wouldn’t be seen dead on a bicycle. It’s just not the done thing. Rather risk life and limb in a rudely crammed combi than let the neighbours see you with your skirt tucked into your underpants, pedalling off to town. A bicycle would make you look like any other old African moegoe.

I remember in 1997 travelling all across South Africa with my dear friend David and asking why someone had not really worked to get bicycles to people in both townships and rural areas, and Dave's response was simply that Africans look at the bicycle as being a bit degrading, and indeed maybe men even saw them as effeminate. But this answer, like Matshikiza's, is unsatisfying. If someone brought them, would Africans ride? It's an important question the answers to which could have far-reaching social implications.

Clinton's Star Wattage

As Republicans run headlong from any association with President Bush, a number of smart Democrats, such as Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, are turning to the most talented politician of this (or any?) generation, Bill Clinton. Reading and hearing Clinton's words one cannot deny what an impressive speaker and mesmerizing force he can be. But Democrats should also never forget that had Al Gore embraced his President in a few select states in the weeks and days leading up to the 2004 election, and especially in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida, national politics and global relations would look a lot different, and I daresay, a lot better, today.

Bridging Divides in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party are as close to mortal enemies as politicians can be. Or at least that has been their relationship in the past, which makes it all the more significant that they will be meeting as the heads of their respective delegations today to discuss the implementation of changes to the 1998 Good Friday accords that were worked out between the British and Irish governments and the various parties to the agreement in Northern ireland last week. If accepted, Paisley would become Northern Ireland's First Minister. More shockingly, perhaps, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness would serve as Paisley's deputy.

All peace agreements in Northern Ireland are tenuous, and this one has been in a constant state of doubt for a host of reasons, not the least of which has been the IRA's reluctance to support fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland (which changed its name and some of its structures in recent years from the days when it was the Northern Ireland Constabulary and its very existence was an affront to vast numbers of Irish Catholics) and to disavow completely violence -- both of the sectarian stripe and also internecine, retaliatory violence against those seen as apostates within the Republican fold.

The peace in Northern Ireland is one of the truly great stories in recent decades, and it came about in no small part through the work of Bill Clinton and his appointed emissary, George Mitchell. Helping to broker the peace deal in Northern Ireland stands as Clinton's greatest foreign policy accomplishment -- maybe his greatest accomplishment period -- and also might have something to tell us about how to address other supposedly immutable and intractable conflicts across the globe.

For today's Boston Globe editorial on these historic meetings, see here.

Back From Cali

I'm back from my little California adventure. I was in Oakland for the weekend for the American Studies Association meeting, where I gave a paper on comparative race relations in the US and South Africa and met with the publisher of a journal for which I am on the editorial board, among other things. It was a productive meeting, though I would have thought that the American Studies Association would have been much bigger, akin to the American Historical Association or African Studies Association meetings. Instead it was, or felt, smaller than the Southern.

I feel like a walking cliche every time I am in the Bay Area. Every time I am there I am in awe of it, and spend the next week or so thinking, "you know, I really could live there." This time it was especially eye-opening, because I had not spent much time in Oakland before, and I have to admit, it was a lot nicer than I expected. I stayed in Alameda, which is just a few minutes from downtown Oakland. Of course I could never afford to own a house in anything resembling close proximity to any of the universities in the Bay Area, and while my quality of life might arguably rise in NoCal, my standard of living would almost inevitably drop.

Nonetheless, if the history chairs from Stanford or Cal-Berkeley are reading this, I'd certainly be willing to entertain recruiting calls.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Goin' Back to Cali

I'm in Oakland for a conference, digging the Bay Area and California. Eat your heart out, Tootle and Jaime!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Memories of Thurman Munson

In the summer of 1979 I was eight years old and I cried.

I cried because I was a little kid and I loved baseball and even then I knew, in the ways that little kids know, that some things transcended baseball. (And could anything transcend baseball?) So no matter what I heard, some things could not be true. I was riding in my Dad's Blazer and we were on the way to New York and I heard the news -- and I cried and I cried.

Thurmon Munson died in a a plane crash. It came over the news and they kept repeating the story and I cried and I cried because -- and I hated the Yankees even then -- I knew that this was more important than what was the most important debate that ever happened -- Carlton versus Thurman -- because baseball players don't die. They can't die. They do not fucking die. They are Gods and they are what I want to be and this cannot be true it cannot be true it cannot be true and even if it is true I won't, can't, won't, believe it.

I'm older now. I have to believe it if it is true.

Today a young man, Corey Lidle, a Yankees pitcher, died in a plane crash. Like Thurman Munson, he was flying. He was the pilot. He was the boss. Today, and I cannot explain it -- no one can -- he died. We'll hear a lot about paens to an athlete dying young,and I guess for those of us who are or once were athletes we'll be reminded of our own mortality. After all, for reasons we don't know we survived -- we lived. We did not die young. He did. It was caprice or circumstance or just damned bad luck. But Corey Lidle is dead. And I'll be damned if this makes any more sense than the death of Thurman Munson. I'll be damned if it makes any sense at all.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Son of Southie on The Departed

Michael Patrick MacDonald, who wrote All Souls, the fabulous memoir of growing up in South Boston (and whose new book, Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under appears to mine some of the same terrain) writes in the Boston Globe that The Departed rings true:
From the first scene to the last, refusing to recline in the midst of the corrupt, strangulating, and deadly culture depicted, I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to flee. And so did everyone else in the theater. Which means that director Martin Scorsese got it exactly right. I was brought right back to my childhood home, reminded of everything that did make me flee as often as I could from the streets that took two of my brothers, at the ages of 21 and 23, as well as leaving a sister severely brain damaged and partially paralyzed at 18.

See The Departed. Trust me.

Gaddis on Acheson

The estimable John Lewis Gaddis, doyen of Cold War historians, has a tour de force review essay in the forthcoming issue of The New Republic. Tackling Robert L. Beisner's new biography, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, Gaddis makes a point that I mhave been arguing for a while: That much of the Bush doctrine essentially hearkens back to the fundamental premises of Cold War liberalism. The problem is in the execution (and perhaps in the messenger).

Soon enough, one hopes, we can expect to see Gaddis' long-awaited biography of George Kennan. But until then, this essay can stand as pretty good testimony for why Gaddis and his work matter so much.

Tom's Diary

Tom has another diary post with lots of great stuff, including a hilarious way of dealing with a prank call.

Save Friday Night Lights

Sorry for the radio silence -- big deadlines hit this week.

Page 2 has story and series of interviews with the cast of Friday Night Lights, NBC's great high school football drama that looks destined for the rubbish bin given its lackluster ratings last week. If this show is cancelled it really will be a shame, as it is more compelling than most of the crap on television. In any case, the article manages to mention both Odessa and Williams College. If FNL survives another week, please watch this show -- it deserves an audience.

Hat tip to the Thunderstick.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has produced the most incisive review of The Departed, certainly in terms of Scorsese's latest vehicle as a Boston movie. We went and caught the first matinee showing on Friday. It is a very, very fine movie. From a local vantage point, it does a good job of evoking a seemly underbelly of Boston -- Southie especially, but any of the peripheral suburbs as well -- Somerville (aka Slumerville, where I lived in 1993), Charlestown, Dorchester, and so forth. They get the accents right, which is stunningly rare in movies centered in Massachusetts. The first mistake most actors, directors, and producers make is to assume that there is one New England accent, and that is is based on that stupid trope of pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd. The fact is, there are many Boston accents, many New England accents, and by not playing up any one in particular, and by avoiding the "Nomahhhh!" cliche, Scorsese and his cast carry out this most basic -- but when mishandled, most jarring -- element nicely.

The acting, by a sterling cast, is stunning. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon remind us of why not so long ago both were accliamed as setting the bar for a new generation of actors. Mark Wahlberg (always good, usually underrated), Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen play discernible characters with panache. Jack Nicholson is actually the most inconsistent -- when he is on he steals the show, but the problem with a Nicholson show-stealer is that at times he chews the scenery. There are a couple of scenes where he overacts so hard you almost expect him to blurt out "heeeeeeere's Johnny . . you can't handle the truth!" just out of instinct. Nonetheless, Nicholson dives into the role, and provides the film's gravitational center.

The plot centers around various arms of the policing agencies in Massachusetts, notably the cooperative but wary linkages between the Staties (the colloquial name for the Massachusetts State Police, but really that we use for any state police in New England) and the FBI. Even as the sides cooperate they keep secrets, and it is because of these interstices that individuals are able to maintain dual loyalties, with Matt damon and leonardo DiCaprio as opposite sides of the same coin, police officers bound to the state they have sworn to protect but with other agendas as well. To give away much more might needlessly complicate, but to give away more than that, and thus enough to explicate will give away central plotlines. Suffice it to say that no one is clean, everyone is tainted, the mix is combustible, the violence gritty. This is not the Boston of MIT and Harvard, of boat houses and ducklings.

There are a few jarring glitches in editing, and Scorsese could have left about fifteen minutes on the cutting room floor and added by subtraction, but The Departed marks a return to his grittier and more sure-footed form and should rank with movies such as Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas, and Casino as a classic of the organized crime genre, and with Mystic River and Good Will Hunting as great recent Boston movies. If asked, I'd give it an A-. Once the dvd comes out there might be the possibility of upward revision after a few re-watchings.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rosa Parks For $ale

This long article in the New York Times business section on the commodification of Rosa Parks image and legacy bothers me. It's not that I'm naive -- we'll commodify anything; it's one of the more unseemly aspects of American culture. But the problem is the way in which it is being carried out -- it seems so crass. Rosa Parks dog tags? Her family has tried to minimize her exposure, but alas run up against the fact that to stop proliferation of the sale of her image requires resources they do not have, but they jhave also decided to take an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach.

The Road to Hell . . .

The New York Times today has a story revealing another example of Title IX gone awry. The failure, which I have confronted before, is based on a fallacy: That women want to play sports as much as men want to play sports and thus there must be representative numbers of women's athletes proportionate to the student body as a whole lest a university be out of compliance. This is a standard that simply does not exist for any other extracurricular activity outside of sports, no matter the letter of Title IX. By no measure do women pursue sports at the same volume or intensity as men on the aggregate. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging as much, nor does this imply that those women who are passionate about sports are not both as passionate as men and that they ought not to have every opportunity to play sports at the college level, which they can much more easily than ever before.

This time the victims are male athletes at James Madison, and the headline tells the tale: "At James Madison, Title IX Is Satisfied, but the Students Are Not."

I have said it before and I will say it again -- the principles behind Title IX were the right ones, and not so long ago women who wanted to play sports were woefully underrepresented. But no longer. It is insane and unjust to deny men opportunities to play sports out of a misguided sense of equity. Were women being denied opportunities, the issue would be rather different. Instaed, however, what we are seeing is bad results flowing from bad policy with none benefitting. It is time to revisit the letter and spirit of Title IX which was supposed to be about fairness and now simply stands as an anachronistic arbiter of unfairness across the land.

"Genocide and Indiscriminate Killing"

Given the subject matter, I cannot exactly call "The Delaying Game," an animated short about the Sudan, funny or cute, but it is fairly trenchant. And it rings true, such as the tagline from one of the fake sponsors, the United Nations: "When it absolutely, positively has to be done in a few years (give or take)."

Where The Hart Is

Apologies for being such a poor regular contributor here; life's busy!

But I did want to pop up with some speculation on the election that's been temporarily forgotten in favour of the Foley-ridden mid-terms. I've previously taken pelasure in having tipped Gore for 2008 before it became fashionable to do so. Following a strong performance on the Daily Show last month, I began to wonder... what about Gary Hart?

Reagan was 70 when he came to office. Hart is 70 this year.

Hart's marital problems will be little impediment these days. He still has a strong military record and cannot be dismissed as weak on national security. Unlike Kerry, he can use that strength to move the debate onto other topics.

I haven't yet read The Courage of Our Convictions, but there must be some strength in a run by him.

Like Gore, he probably won't win, but his presence the race would at least be good.

Anyone up for drafthart.com?

Manny for A-Rod (dcat Idle Speculation Edition)

The following perhaps unexpected question or series of questions derives from an email I just wrote to the Thunderstick. Basically I've just cleaned it up and added a link:

Here's a question that just popped into my head: Would you trade Manny straight up for A-Rod? I hate A-Rod, but if we are going to trade Manny, isn't he really the only equal value we are going to get? I doubt this management crowd wants to be on the hook for the salary and the baggage A-Rod brings, but is it that absurd? Shaughnessy in the Globe this morning echoes a lot of the chatter (with more than a hint of schadenfreude) -- that A-Rod has to go. So too, we are hearing, does Manny. We disagree with this, but Manny does seem like a headache the Sox want to rid themselves of. Could this work? Would it be smart? Would either team make such a blockbuster with the other?

Now let me be clear -- I have not heard so much as a whiff of a rumor about this. It is completely idle speculation on my part or only my part. But who else could provide anything even approximating fair value to either team? I'm curious to hear what my readers who are baseball fans think of this idea.
Update: And if the ESPN story is true, it looks like Steinbrenner has made the Sonny Corleone seemingly strong but really wholly reactive move and fired Torre. As much as I hate the Yankees, and not to put too fine a point on it, but Joe Torre is not only one of the finest managers of his generation, he is one of the finest managers of all time. And if you must fire him, why Lou Piniella? How can you now go with Joe Girardi? Hell, at least Sonny would have done that. Choosing Piniella is pure Fredo.

A Week With Belichick

The Sunday Boston Globe has a long, fascinating feature on "A week inside the mind of the Patriots."

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sudan's Big Lie and International Accountability

In keeping with the principle of the "Big Lie," tyrannies always seem to manage to muster the greatest outrage over responses to their very tyranny even as the events they perpetrate warrant extreme outrage. The latest ongoing example of this comes in the Sudan, where that murderous rogue regime continues to cry foul over objections to the placement of troops or even formal rebukes of the ongoing crisis in Darfur (which follows on the heels of the long-standing crisis in the South, which itself was part of a larger trend of ruthless warmongering from Khartoum).

But this time even the autocrats in Khartoum seem to realize they have gone too far, as they are backpedalling from a sternly worded letter to the UN, which the Mail & Guardian describes thusly:

On Thursday the Security Council held a special meeting to discuss a Sudanese letter sent to African and Arab countries on Tuesday warning them that providing troops for the UN force would be seen by Khartoum as a "hostile act" and "a prelude to an invasion of a member country of the UN."

The letter restated Khartoum's "total rejection" of a Security Council resolution passed in August mandating the deployment of up to 20 000 UN peacekeepers to Darfur to shore up the fragile peace accord.

But finally a few member states in the UN decided to call Sudan on its ruthlessness and perfidy, and the Sudanese representatives to the United Nations now insist that all along they have wanted cooperation and dialogue with the international community.

One would hope that the UN and the rest of the world would see Khartoum's transparent gambit for what it is: A tactic of delay intended to forestall both the extent and efficacy of international engagement in Darfur. One suspects that the world will instead fall victim to Khartoum's capacity to weave big lies and present absurd untruths as reality.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Buck O'Neill, 1911-2006

Rest in Peace. Baseball never had a better ambassador. Now the Hall of Fame needs to rectify a grievous wrong and honor him with the posthumous enshrinement he so richly deserved in life.

A Reckoning for Imperialists

This semester in my Modern Africa class we are reading Carolyn Elkins' masterful Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, a harrowing tale of brutality and inhumanity and, yes, torture, in colonial Africa. Imperial reckoning ought to be required reading for American apologists of torture (or whetever they want to call it) today.

Kenyan independence fighters who are veterans of Britain's loathsome colonial regime are now pressing England to apologize for the brutality its leaders carried out, countenanced, and covered up. They are also asking for reparations. This is not a case of ancient grievances being carried out, but rather of survivors asking for penance from perpetrators. The Kenyan case is a strong one. Reparations might be tough to extract (though a promise of broad humanitarian aid to Kenya surely seems to be a minimal expectation); an apology ought not to be.

The November Race

Chris Cilizza has another compelling edition of The Line posted. he features ten tight races for the Senate, but the lines between houses and even branches right now are clearly blurry if they exist at all in the popular mind: the Foley Fantasy of Fondling Funboys Fiasco is Fungible -- it is not a House concern or even a Congressional concern. Right now it is a Republican concern. If things were otherwise going well for the Grand Old Party, this might be controllable, but I cannot help but think that the Republicans are tainted with too many crises on all sides.

At the same time, it is only October 6. A decade or more ago, it would have been more difficult to turn the tide, but the pace of communications today accelerates the news cycle. An October Surprise in a volatile political environment had better be a Halloween Surprise, and truth be told, probably an early November Surprise. look out for old reliable -- I will place a bet right now that we get a cryptic announcement about terrorism -- the capture of an al Qaeda operative, perhaps, or intelligence reports of an imminent attack -- followed by a raising of the alert level right around the first of November. president Bush is pavlov. It remains to be seen if that old dog will still drool. The Republicans are counting on it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Dire Prediction

Mark my words -- we will see more stories like this one in the future. Five Exxon mobile employees have been kidnapped in a volatile region of the Niger River Delta in Nigeria. We do now know who is responsible, which in its way is even more worrisome than knowing.

The logical first conclusion is that the kidnappings are linked to global jihadism. But I would place bets that, while radical Islamism is a serious concern in parts of Africa and Nigeria is a possible flashpoint, this is a crime driven by economic and political concerns independent of islam, even if Muslims prove to be involved. The kidnappings more than likely represent a desperate attempt to send a message to multinationals, and to the government that sponsors them, who extract oil riches, little of which makes it back to the local community.

Certainly nothing can justify this sort of crime, but in our zeal to extract a precious resource, perhaps we should take seriously accusations of neo-colonialism. We -- and by "we" I mean western corporations, politicians, and states -- need to find a way to partner not only with foreign front companies and government elites, but with the people who sit to the side and watch millions of dollars in cash and commodities change hands while people suffer in the streets.

Happy Birthday Desmond Tutu!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom the Mail & Guardian describes as a "Rabble-rouser for peace" is turning 75 and is as feisty as ever. Tutu's outspokenness has earned him occasional opprobrium, but on the whole, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has always been a voice of conscience. In my work on South Africa in the 1980s I have seen the remarkable ways in which Tutu stood up against the state while at the same time proved willing to step into dangerous situations to promote peace among Africans who saw no hope in peaceful resolutions. By the middle of that tumultuous decade even Tutu understood that sometimes violence might be necessary, but he always pushed for other options to be exhausted. He was the public face of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chaired, and was one of the most vocal advocates of South Africa's spirit of ubuntu,, a difficult-to-define word that essentially means "humanness."

Tutu still speaks out against moral decay and what he sees as the failings of many who once stood at the forefront of the liberation struggle in South Africa, despite the fact that he long ago earned the right to settle into a peaceful retirement. Happy birthday, Archbishop Tutu, one of the Founding fathers of the new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation of God. Long may you prosper.

Dumb Elites

Over at his Diary Blog, Tom has a pretty trenchant critique of Sports Illustrated's imbecilic marketing campaign and at least one article's bloviating elitism in The New Yorker. This dovetails nicely with some of my recent complaints about some snotty journalists not knowing that much about that which they write. Heads up, eastern elites: When you start alienating your natural constituency (I'm an eastern elite manquee, and Tom is from Ohio, which is a lot more eastern than it lets on) one has to wonder for whom you see yourselves writing.

China and Africa: An Amoral and Asymmetrical Relationship

Over at TNR online Joshua Kurlantzick has a fascinating and important article on "How China Controls African Politics." When I was in Beijing this past summer one of my concerns was that China couched any behavior, however dispicable, in terms of national sovereignty. It is a remarkably resilient and amoral argument: China can do wahetevr it likes and no one can judge them because of their unabiding belief in the principles of national sovereignty. The issue that most vexed me was China's involvement in the Sudan, which I referred to in one meeting with a Chinese official as "countenancing genocide." But China needs and wants oil, and they simply do not care about Sudan's internal affairs. Khartoum is more than happy to work with the Chinese, and so, based on their principles, voila! the outside world has no right to judge either the Sudan or the Chinese. This is a very convenient way to promote atrocity while simultaneously not caring about gross violations of human rights, all the while benefiting handsomely.

Kurlantzick's article focuses on Zambia and the recent elections. Here are some key excerpts:

[M]uch of the Zambian debate centered on a completely different topic: China. Opposition candidate Michael Sata accused Chinese companies, which have invested heavily in Zambian copper mining, of exploiting Zambian workers and undercutting Zambian goods. "Chinese investment has not added any value to the people of Zambia," Sata told a Zambian radio station, also threatening to toss Chinese companies out of the country. In response, China's embassy in Zambia became directly involved in the election, very unusual for foreign diplomats in any country, warning that Beijing might sever ties to Zambia if Sata won. The incumbent president, Sata's opponent in the election, reportedly apologized to Beijing for Sata's comments. [. . .]
Zambia, in fact, offers a window into a phenomenon American policy makers have only just begun to discover. In a short period of time, China has become a major donor and investor in Africa, and it has begun to play a major role in domestic African politics--not only in Zambia but also across the continent. In fact, China has so quickly amassed power in Africa that it now rivals the United States, France, and international financial institutions for influence--and potentially damages Africa's economic and political renaissance.

This is where China can be a profoundly destabilizing force -- in pursuing a grand strategy that amounts to geopolitical passive-aggressivism couched in very realpolitik western terms. They are not about to mount an attack on the United States or any of our interests. In military terms, China poses little danger, and almost never has -- though potentially it could. But where China can be massively destabilizing is by joining forces with states that either do not much care about its people (ie -- Big Men love Bigger Partners) or with those states so desperate for anything resembling development that they will sell out the safety and security of their people for short-term gain that holds immense appeal even as the repurcussions hang like Domocles' Sword over the heads of the teetering state.