Wednesday, August 31, 2005


The NFL regular season is fast approaching. Those beautiful words mean so much, not the least of which is that we can now look forward to our weekly fix of Tuesday Morning Quarterback.
Plan to kill twenty or so glorious minutes every Tuesday with Gregg Easterbrook's brilliance.

I Would Never Say "I Told You So" . . .

It should come as a shock to no one, but reports indicate that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are beginning to operate in southern Africa. Africa provides some of the most fertile ground anywhere for jihadists. Enormous instability, a huge and growing Muslim population, and western inattention and indifference make sub-Saharan Africa potentially the next great battle ground in the fight against violent extremists.

Back in November 2003, when History News Network still had its fastball, I published an article in which I tried to convey why we needed to pay more attention to Africa. The gist of it probably can be summed up in the following paragraphs:

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.

Unfortunately, we still have not done the work to create partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa. To his credit, President Bush has tried to do more than his predecessors, but that is an appallingly low standard when one considers that the previous leader in the clubhouse was Bill Clinton, who held the lead despite having turned his back on genocide in Rwanda. And now our lack of serious engagement in Africa has helped to allow the spread of al Qaeda and other radical fundamentalist Islamists. There is an old cliche about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, but this is advice we never heed when it comes to Africa.

Should education be democratic?

There has been a lot of attention paid to a recent poll showing that only 29% of Americans see the Democratic Party as “friendly to religion,” down from 40% only last year.

Fare less attention however, has focused on another part of the same poll, which found that nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that “creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.”

While “only” 42% of people could be called “strict creationists,” “64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.”

(For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that the poll is indeed accurate and representative)

The idea of “teaching the debate” has been endorsed by President Bush as well as several other prominent politicians and raises the question, regardless of how you feel about the whole debate, should a democracy teach its children what it wants, or should it let the so-called “experts” decide? In other words, should historians, scientists (both social and physical), mathematicians, economists, etc. teach based on the best evidence and structures of its own discipline suggest, or based on what parents want?

My contention is that once deciding on the subjects to be taught in public schools, parents should either allow the academic community determine specific material, or withdraw their children from public schools.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with whether or not creationism is correct (it very well may be. Since it is not falsifiable, we will likely never know… at least on this earth). The reasons education should not be democratic are the following:

1) Expertise: Though it may sound elitist, people simply do not have the expertise to determine what is appropriate and what is not. Evolution is simply not a serious debate within the scientific community, though many questions remain unanswered. In short, scientists in the field and in academia should make the call on what to teach just as surely as military commanders and not the public should determine military strategy.

2) Fairness: Even if we were to open up education to democracy, how would it work? The idea of each school district determining its own curriculum is not only unfair to students, but will make it exceedingly difficult to develop standardized tests that are so popular today. Making it state-wide suffers the problem that many states (such as Pennsylvania and Ohio to name just two) are extremely diverse. What if 99% of a community is outvoted in a state-wide vote?

3) Slippery-slope: Although biology is obviously a hot-topic right now, letting public pressure force creationism opens the door to other areas. Should history classes only teach about the “good” parts of American history so that students have an appreciation for our country? Perhaps they should only teach the “bad” parts so that students have an appreciation for our historical crimes?

4) Pragmatic: Earlier this year, Bill Gates noted that "If you look at the trend 10 years ago, the U.S. and China were not that different in terms of the number of engineers graduated. Now we have one-quarter the number of engineers, and the trend is continuing, with the U.S. number going down, and China going up quite a bit...We need to improve our own game, to make sure own slice of the pie stays very large." Declan McCullagh points out the details, “In 2002, China and India graduated five times as many engineers as did the United States, which ranks a dismal 19th in eighth-grade math skills. Japan, South Korea, Norway and the Czech Republic boast far higher high-school graduation rates.”

In other words, the US is not doing so hot educationally compared to some of our economic competitors. Will teaching creationism have any effect on this? Certainly not directly, but indirectly, it is a further erosion of teachers ability to prepare students for a marketplace in which science and technology, and a perspective that appreciates evidence and the scientific method are valued and rewarded.

In short, choosing whether or not to fund education and by how much should certainly be open to democratic debate. However, once public education is adopted, and the subjects to be taught decided upon, I do not believe that the democratic process should continue into the classroom, but rather should be decided by their own respective experts. This is not because those experts are always right or that average Americans are stupid. But perhaps rather than force biologists to teach creationism, we would be better off creating specific classes that could address the debate in a more appropriate forum.

Tough Situation. But Write Better About It.

Three things bug me about this article on TNR online. First off, I simply do not buy some of the arguments. What is happening in the Gulf Coast is tragic. That said, there is a level of self-indulgence in this piece that strikes me as being off. I cannot pinpoint it, but there are several lines that just rub me the wrong way. Secondly, how the hell can any self-respecting decades-long denizen of the Deep South call the University of Mississippi "Old Miss"? It's "Ole Miss," and yes, the difference is huge. Finally, and maybe most bothersome of all, how can a New Orleans resident who began his career in journalism as a reporter in the Big Easy and who apparently still lives there misspell "Mardi Gras"? And how can his editors not notice these rather glaring mistakes?

Well, We Want Them To Win This Year Too . . .

Dinah Miller has a little piece on the Globe's op-ed page in which she is still perplexed by her Red Sox-obsessed husband. While I cannot understand his underreaction to the World Series win last year, I absolutely understand his unabated passions this year. I am not certain why everyone expected that Sox fans would suddenly care less, when everything about being a Sox fan has been connected with caring so much.

The Quizmaster Weighs In (Despite His Perfidy)

Richard Huzzey, better known as Quizmaster Guy from The Gardener's Arms (and who by all accounts screwed The Shanks, who were going by another name, this past Sunday in the quiz) will be starting his PhD in history at Oxford this fall. Of even more geopolitical significance, he might be joining our merry little band here at dcat in the near future. On his own weblog, he has an interesting post about how China's equivalent of American Idol has authorities in a high speed wobble because of its democratic implications.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The ignorance of Christopher Hitchens

In a recent article in Slate, Christopher Hitchens decries the ritual practice of metzitzah b'peh, which is when, after removing the foreskin of the penis, some Orthodox mohels sucks the blood from the wound to clean it.

According to the New York Times, “It became a health issue after a boy in Staten Island and twins in Brooklyn, circumcised by the same mohel in 2003 and 2004, contracted Type-1 herpes. Most adults carry the disease, which causes the common cold sore, but it can be life-threatening for infants. One of the twins died.” The Times articles notes that many Orthodox and “nearly all non-Orthodox Jews have abandoned it.” Indeed, in my entire life, this is the first time that I have been made aware of this practice.

In his article, Hitchens refers to this as a “disgusting religious practice.” I happen to agree, and found the concept rather disturbing to think about. My agreement with Hitchens end there however. In the remainder of the article, he compares the practice to the following:

- “Female genital mutilation”
- “polygamy and forcible marriage”
- denying “urgent medical treatment to… children”
- “violent corporal punishment”
- Islamic “holy war”
- “rape and torture” of children
- denying the existence of AIDS

He also compares the biblical and traditional justification for the procedure to the same “defense that thousands of psychos have already made so familiar” and implies that continuing the practice is akin to refusing to vaccinate children against polio!

While reading though Hitchens’ rant, it is difficult to tell whether or not his article condemns only the practice of metzitzah b'peh, which is how it appears in the beginning, or the practice of circumcision in general, as it appears towards the end. Either way, his analysis is both ignorant and unfair in its characterizations and comparisons. Obviously, if there is a mental heath concern with ANY practice, no matter how traditional, it must be looked into and addressed as a matter of course. However, it is estimated that up to 98,000 people a year die from medical mistakes inside hospitals (most of which comes from medication), and yet I have never heard Hitchens arguing for their total dismantling!

The reality is that circumcision is, for Jews, a deeply spiritual and pivotal part of their religious heritage and identity, and has been since biblical times. Since then, science has continuously credited the practice to various health benefits (including most recently, reducing the risk of AIDS). Furthermore, as legal analyst Sherry F. Colb has noted, "Though the federal statute that prohibits female genital mutilation is limited to the protection of female anatomy, the extreme nature of FGM does not have a true analogue in male circumcision."

Hitchens is certainly entitled to his opinion, and as I have made clear in the beginning of this post, the very idea of the metzitzah b'peh is instinctively disturbing to me. However, from Kosher diets to circumcision, history and science have demonstrated the intrinsic value of many Jewish customs. If someone wants to convince me that Jews should be PROHIBITED from practicing metzitzah b'peh (which is one of the goals of the article), it is going to take a lot more than an isolated tragedy. It is also going to take more than comparing a legitimate religious custom whose effects are either beneficial or medically neutral to the child, to acts of genuine inhumanity.

Celebrating the Student Right

A liberal student at UMass-Boston celebrates her conservative fellow students in today's Boston Globe. I agree. though I might not be trumpeting the fact that "young conservatives even have young celebrity cohorts, like Adam Sandler, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Matt LeBlanc, and Britney Spears." That is not exactly a murderer's row of political savviness.

Death Cab's "Plans"

Death Cab For Cutie's new album, "Plans," arrives in stores today. DCFC signed with Atlantic last year, so they are making the move from indie to major label, with all of the expectations and burdens attendant with that transition. Of course loyal fans (count me in) will be watching for the dreaded sellout, which, if you've read my grand pontifications about pop music in the past, is a concept of which I am skeptical. We should want our favorite bands not only to continue to produce great music, but we should also wish them well. I read the other day that one of my favorite albums of the last decade, DCFC's "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes," sold something along the lines of 80,000 copies. That might make those of us who bought the album feel like members of a special club, it also pretty much ensures that the guys from the band weren't making squat for several years. So wish them well. "Major label" does not have to equal "sellout."

The Boston Globe has a review here.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The so-called "liberal media"

I really encourage you to watch this clip in which a very patient and polite Democrat named Coleen Rowley is basically ganged up on by MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell (who calls anyone who opposes the war "anti-war extremists") and some conservative pundit (who calls Rowley and Cindy Sheehan "pathetic creatures").

To her credit, Rowley maintains her composure througbout the ordeal, but where is the balance in this garbage?!?

The transcript is here, but to really get a sense of how bias and one-sided Norah O'Donnell is, and how vitriolic this pundit is, I really encourage you to watch it on video.

Here are some highlights:

O'DONNELL: You're a Democrat running for Congress. It was reported that Republican leaders in your state were just thrilled that you had decided to align yourself with anti-war extremists. Do you think that this could affect your race for Congress?

ROWLEY: Well, I will quickly correct the record, that they are not anti-war extremists. The majority of the people I saw down in Crawford were actually veterans groups.

O'DONNELL: But, Coleen, they do oppose the war in Iraq, do they not?

MARK WILLIAMS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, the pontifications of a self-serving Democrat political candidate notwithstanding, this tour is neither anti-Cindy Sheehan, nor is it pro-war.

I have not spoken with a single individual in the last three years who is pro-war, nor anybody who is anti-Cindy Sheehan. What we are against is the damage she is causing. I just got back from Iraq, talking with the troops, talking with the Iraqis. And I see the damage that's done by pathetic creatures like the woman I'm talking to and Cindy Sheehan.


WILLIAMS: She is aiding and abetting the enemies of this country and the people who killed her son. Right now, Casey Sheehan is spinning in his grave.


O'DONNELL: Coleen, you may respond, but, also, what is the alternative? The president saying again a policy of retreat and isolationism will not bring us safety. What is the policy of the Democratic Party? You're a Democrat. What is it? Cindy Sheehan seems to be advocating cut and run. Is that what you embrace?

Personally, I do not agree with the Sheehan position, but the level of discourse here is almost satirical in its absurdity.

Rappers Might Be Different From The Rest Of Us

T.A. Frank wrote something funny on TNR online's "&c." today.

The Two Friedmans

I have long thought that there are two Thomas Friedmans -- the astute, sometimes brilliant, always insightful middle-of-the-road Middle East correpondent/pundit/coumnist and the somewhat muddled, sometimes irritating, and occasionally trite "globalization" expert. This book review in The New Republic (registration, and maybe subscription, probably required) confirms that I am not alone in my beliefs.

Here is the money quotation, the summation of Ronald Steel's argument, from the concluding paragraph of his review:

Friedman seems to think that in the contemporary world being a foreign policy analyst is the same as being a business reporter. But the obligation of a foreign policy analyst is to help his readers see America's interaction with the world in multiple dimensions--political, cultural, military, economic, environmental, psychological--and not through a single lens. This means providing an insight into the complexities not only of money and technology, or the Middle East, but--as citizens of the world's most powerful nation--of just about everywhere. The task is a tough one, but it does not demand a genius. It requires rather a knowledgeable and thoughtful person who can help us understand what we are not getting from the headlines--someone who sees the world in its many aspects, and who is able to connect the present not only to the future but to the past. For this, readers do not need a glib enthusiast or a clever simplifier. And they certainly do not need a salesman for the Next Big Thing. What they need is a cool-headed skeptic who will stay away from airports and technology parks, and instead sit at his desk for a while and think.

That just about sums it up for me. Friedman's columns are still on my must-read list, but more and more if the introduction indicates that he is about to enter into one of his anecdotes-cum-lessons that indicates that he is going to tell us what we must do in the new flat world, I breeze through the piece. Friedman's heart was in the right place in focusing on globalization (whatever that means -- and I am not being facetious), and his sense of the important story is still almost unfailing, but because something is trendy does not make it essential. His work on the Middle East and foreign affairs-qua-foreign affairs has always been essential.

The Blogroll

I am continuing to expand the blogroll. You'll notice some new additions over there on the right. If you have a blog and I have not yet listed it, do not feel slighted -- progress is slow here at dcat. If I notice that you have linked me (and I establish that your blog is not a forum for the completely insane) the odds are pretty good that you'll make it onto the blogroll at some point soon.

Oh -- and I like the lime green, no matter how many emails of criticism I receive about it.

Be Gone, Ye Spam!

I hate creating another step in the comment process because I know it will just turn that many more people off from contributing, but our small and loyal group or regulars seems to agree that the spam comments are really annoying and distracting, and I am afraid that the spam will turn off more readers and potential commenters than any extra step in the commenting process ever could, so we are going with a word verification system. Please let me know how it works, and email me if you have difficulties.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Licensing Laws

Free Englishmen

In 1914, as Britain rolled into war on the Continent, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act to better prepare the nation for the times ahead. One of the problems addressed in the Act was best described by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who declared that Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink”. Measures were taken to increase the tax on alcohol and severely limit the opening hours of pubs (12:00-14:40, 18:30-21:30), so that Britain's booze hungry population could be better controlled, more productive and less likely to leave open lights that might attract German bombs. Unlike other measures that Britain has undertaken during war, such as ID papers, conscription and rationing, these draconian licensing laws still exist, essentially meaning that Britain is still at War with Drink. Of course, the restrictions have decreased over time. Opening hours now last until 11pm (half past ten on Sundays though!); as recently as 1988, the ban on selling alcohol in the afternoon was removed (though you can still find quaint pubs that will kick you out at two, and reopen at five); and, of course, night-clubs and bars with a cover-charge can stay open till 2:00 am. Unfortuately for misers like me, the No Treating Order, which prevented imbibers from buying drinks for other people, long ago disappeared.
So where are we now? Tony Blair's New Labour Party swept into power in 1997 with a manifesto pledge to reform the licensing laws. After a few cock-ups and false starts, we were presented with the Licensing Act 2003. Pubs can apply this year to their local councils for new licenses under more flexible laws allowing potential 24 hour drinking. Registration ends this month, with the new Act coming into force this October. So are we all happy? No. Unfortunately, the reforms are coinciding with a national moral panic about binge drinking. People in Britain drink too much, causing widespread crime, accidents, health problems and absenteeism, and this is apparently already on the increase - alcohol-related deaths have risen by 18% in the last five years. High level Policemen, Judges, Doctors, Church figures and Lords are warning of the dangers of the new Act. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (much to my chagrin) are calling for it to be postponed, or scrapped. 24-hour drinking will only exacerbate Britain's alcohol problem and its associated symptoms, they argue.
They may want to look north of the border to Scotland, where for some years now, pubs have been able to stay open till midnight or later. The streets there are not awash with blood, vomit and drunken yobs (or no more than they were beforehand), though this may be because Scotland is filled with dour teetotallers like Gordon Brown. Also, people seem to forget that late night drinking is already possible, but only in crowded, hot, loud, standing room only nightspots where tensions are more likely to mount than in quieter pubs and where people are more likely to stay out longer and drink more to get the most out of their £5 cover charge. Later licenses will mean that drinkers won't all spill out on the street at the same time to compete for taxis and kebabs, and police won't be confronted with such large crowds concentrating at 11pm and 2am. But the main point is that the current laws are archaic, patronising, illiberal and serve no purpose. So, here's to me this winter buying a pint at half past eleven, Cheers!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

This Week in Despotism

T.A. Frank's latest installment of "This Week in Despotism" is up over at The New Republic online. It'll make you laugh once you realize that crying will do you no good.

Robertson and the Republicans

This editorial from today’s Washington Post is one of the better treatments I have seen of Pat Robertson’s inanity about assassinating Chavez. It takes the appropriately dismissive tone. But it perpetuates one myth that has been predominantly (and rather self-servingly) spewed by conservatives, and is clearly entering mainstream liberalism, or at least the editorial desks of the Post: Pat Robertson’s supposed irrelevance.

Proclaiming the Robertson is a fringe figure is a useful canard for conservatives – after all, better to explain Robertson away than to admit that he represents a powerful wing of the GOP. And yet the truth remains – radical evangelicals are a significant force, maybe the single most influential, in today’s Republican Party, and among that crowd, Robertson is far from an outcast – he is one of their most prominent voices. If Republicans want to confront Robertson and his ilk, they ought to do so. But it is a self-serving falsehood to pretend that he is irrelevant to modern conservatism and thus to the Republican Party. Not having the guts to tell the far right to piss off is rather different from them being insignificant.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Junk Comments

It looks as if I have identified the problem -- it is my Mac interface. I love my Mac in general, but some websites are not especially Mac friendly, and to my consternation, Blogger is one of them. I can delete from a PC, but not from the Mac in my office for reasons that, even if explained to me, I would surely not understand. I find this a lot with my Mac and it really bugs me. In any case, I'll delete these comments as they come along, though sometimes you'll have to put up with comments that seem complimentary and yet want us all to go look at their own website about new shoes or whatever.

The iPod and the Rock Snob

Is the iPod destroying the rock snob? This is the question Michael Crowley poses in the latest New Republic. I tend to believe that for good and for ill, the rock snob will always have a niche, with presuppositions of taste outpacing the capacity of technology's wonders. But the iPod has already had a democratizing effect on music listening. At the same time, there has always been a facet of music snobbery that has been at heart luddite. Look at vinyl fetishists (that is, the sort who fetishize the old lp played on a turntable, not the other kind). I have always felt as if they scorned the cd not out of any rational sense of which medium was better, but rather because it made them part of a special club with their own handshake.

Whatever other sins of snobbery I commit, the luddite-as-cool-kid affectation is not one of them. I did not switch from cassettes to cds until 1994, and now I still buy cds, even though I own a Mac with iTunes and have slowly begun to join the year 2000 and download some cds onto my computer. The next step is the iPod, but to be honest, it sort of frightens me. I'm not ready yet.

That said, there is one solid reason to celebrate music snobbery: Some people's tastes in music really, really suck. I hate to admit as much, but with a few exceptions, my girlfriend's musical preferences fit comfortably into that category. (I've only had one girlfriend with really serious commitment to music -- maybe like making top five lists and overwhelming sports obsession, music snobbery tends to skew male?) I'd rather be annoyed by a rock snob (mostly because I think their snobbery is wrong -- as in: they are snobbish about the wrong things!) than perplexed by someone with an embarassingly bad or mall (usually both) cd collection.

Let me introduce myself

Hello! In return for introducing him to the finest pubs of Oxford, allowing him to watch my downloaded episodes of 'The Daily Show', and letting him win many drawn-out arguments about 'how I would be speaking German if it weren't for him', Derek has kindly invited me to contribute to his blog. My name is Roger Johnson, and am a 24-year old soon-to-be Phd student from the UK. I am a semi-reluctant Liberal Democrat (I joined the party after losing a bet over last year's Presidential election) with a healthy interest in Ronald Reagan; I am a smoker, a lifelong vegetarian and my star sign is Virgo.

Though I am the youngest and probably least informed contributer to dcat, I am from England and will thus bring some much needed cultural refinement to your lives, and of course, some proper spelling. Thanks again to Derek, and I hope that my future contributions will approach the value of his, and of Stephen's, Tom's and Marc's. The Special Relationship lives on!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"The Supreme Court and Judicial Activism" revisited

According to the Washington Post, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter plans to use the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts to criticize what he calls the high court's judicial activism, saying Tuesday that justices have started acting as a “super legislature.”

I have decided to re-post a blog entry that I submitted back on Rebunk last month because I think it bears repeating in light of Senator Specter’s comments (don’t worry, I do not intend on making a habit of simply repeating myself):

Bush has said many times that he wants to appoint a judge that will not “legislate from the bench,” a term that has been thrown around more often than the name of CIA operatives (couldn’t resist). I am about to say what everyone who understands how our government works already knows: judges make the law, they legislative from the bench, and they are inherently judicially active any time that they agree to hear a case.

There is a popular myth, probably originating in high school social studies classes, but continued through politicians and presidents of both parties, that the Judiciary “interprets” the law but only the legislature “makes” it, while the executive is a mere “enforcer.” While this is a pleasant ideal type, it is not reality. Although it would be enough to point out the inherent legislative decision of Marbury v. Madison (perhaps the most glaring example of judicial activism since judicial review is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution), Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessey v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of education, Miranda v. Arizona and other well known controversial cases that made law just as surely as any Congress, there is no need to go back that far to find cases that will generate laws just by virtue of being looked at and decided on by the court.

For example, in the recent case of Rasul v. Bush, the SC found that US courts have jurisdiction to consider legal appeals filed on behalf of foreign citizens held by the United States military in Guantanamo Bay, disagreeing with the administration’s contention that those held in Cuba have no right to challenge their detention since US courts have no jurisdiction there. Was this judicial activism? Why? Had the court ruled in favor of the administration, it would have closed the door on any challenge a prisoner at Guantanamo might have forever, a pretty sweeping judgment. In what way could the court have ruled that would NOT have “legislated from the bench”? How could the SC have used the Constitution itself as a guide?

Traditional conservatives tend to believe that any decision that overturns a legislative act or bill is judicial activism, but I do not accept this broad definition, since it precludes any substantive role in our democracy without being labeled an “activist.”

It is my opinion that only when a court refuses to hear a case at all can it rightly be called judicial restraint (although even that could be considered a legislative decision to support the status quo).

In the SC’s next session, they will have to answer the following questions:

- Does a prosecutor who speaks on a matter of public concern by reporting suspected police misconduct to his superiors lose his First Amendment protection against retaliation by his employer solely because he communicated his message while performing his job? (Garcetti v. Ceballos)

- Can the Attorney General permissibly construed the Controlled Substances Act to prohibit the distribution of federally controlled drugs for the purpose of facilitating an individual’s suicide, regardless of a state law purporting to authorize such distribution? (Gonzales v. Oregon)- Is time employees must spend walking to and from stations where required safety equipment is distributed compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as amended by the Portal-to-Portal Act? (IBP v. Alvarez)

- Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when parents of a disabled child and a local school district reach an impasse over the child’s individualized education program, either side has a right to bring the dispute to an administrative hearing officer for resolution. At the hearing, which side has the burden of proof--the parents or the school district? (Schaffer v. Weast)

Although not as “sexy” as abortion or file-sharing, these cases, and many others, will significantly shape national policy and directly effect millions of Americans. You may argue that the court should make decisions in favor of state governments over the federal government, or vice-versa; you may claim that they should rule in favor of individual rights over government regulation and interference, or vice-versa; you may certainly argue that private interests should be protected over corporate interests, or vice-versa, but let us stop arguing that the role of judges is merely to interpret the law not to make it and accept that judicial activism has only one political meaning: to rule in a way that I do not agree with.

(For an excellent in-depth argument in favor of our current democratic system over the utopian neutrality of judges consistently advocated by political leaders, I recommend the book, “In Defense of a Political Court” by Terri Jennings Peretti , a book that should be required reading in any Constitutional Law class.)

He's Back!

After my flight to New York, a glorious weekend in DC, and two 13 hour-plus days of driving, I made it back in time to polish off my syllabi for my first day of classes here in West Texas. Hopefully I'll be back and blogging in earnest soon. It seems as if you all, and especially Marc, have been holding down the fort. Keep up the good work.

And here's to you, Mr. Robertson

“If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it… It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war."

“We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability… We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”

Yup, that was Pat Robertson, “Christian,” calling on the
US to murder Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Of course, this is not the first time Robertson’s remarks sounded a little… well… un-Christian. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Robertson made the following “analysis” of its cause:

“We have allowed rampant secularism and occult, et cetera, to be broadcast on television. We have permitted somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 million unborn babies to be slaughtered in our society. We have a Court that has essentially stuck its finger in God's eye and said, 'We're going to legislate you out of the schools, we're going to take your Commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states, we're not going to let little children read the Commandments of God, we're not going to let the Bible be read -- no prayer in our schools.' We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And, then we say 'why does this happen?' Well, why its happening is that God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.”

And last month, during an ABC interview, Robertson ignited a firestorm with his response to a question about whether activist judges were more of a threat to America than terrorists.
“If they look over the course of 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.”

Of course, his divinely inspired message of God’s wrath is not limited to foreign leaders and civilians, but also State Department officials. In October 2003, Robertson, criticizing the State Department during an interview on "The 700 Club," said "maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up," referring to the nickname for the department's headquarters in Washington.

Robertson also made waves among admirers when
he told CNN that during a meeting with President Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq, the president told him he did not believe there would be casualties. Bush, of course, denies this, and Robertson continues to insist on it, making either the President or Robertson a liar.

It would be tempting to look upon Robertson as someone on the “fringe,” one of those byproducts of living in a free society with Constitutional protections on speech (Robertson actually once said that he never read the Constitution, by the way). But this would be wrong. Robertson is perhaps the most recognized American evangelicals since Billy Graham, and widely respected in the evangelical and political community, appearing on magazine covers (such as Time) and meeting with presidents. Aside from receiving the an award in 2000 for being a “Yale University Most Distinguished Alumnus,” Robertson is also an honorary citizen of numerous of states (including Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana, where he is also an honorary council member in the city of New Orleans). Add to this his 1988 Republican presidential run and the success of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded and chairs, and it seems pretty clear that a lot of people really, really like this guy.

According to his own web-page, his mission plan is pretty simple: “I want to be part of God's plan of what He is doing on earth, and I want to bring Him glory.”

But Robertson’s message is not always consistent. In 2001, many
Christians were flabbergasted at his apparent justification of forced abortions in China, and his believe that the US should not interfere with it, even if he “disagrees” with the practice. “They've got 1.2 billion people,” he said, “and they don't know what to do. If every family over there was allowed to have three or four children, the population would be completely unsustainable… So, I think that right now they're doing what they have to do. I don't agree with the forced abortion, but I don't think the United States needs to interfere with what they're doing internally in this regard.”

Robertson’s immense popularity is a shame on this country, and gives Christians everywhere a bad name. I don’t doubt that he genuinely believes that God endorses his words and actions, but do people really believe that Jesus supports the murder of innocent civilians, or the association of political leaders? I don’t recall him making such proclamations when He was here on earth, living under the repressive boot of the Roman Empire. I am however reminded of something He DID say however, in Matthew 7:15-23 that is perhaps a bit more telling:

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

Monday, August 22, 2005

Why I will not be watching “Commander-in-Chief”

[WARNING: The following blog includes reviews of some television shows that I have never actually watched, but only seen bits and pieces of and combined with seeing previews have made a totally uninformed opinion. In fact, this blog entry is more of a rant than an editorial]

The new ABC show “Commander-in-Chief” starts this fall, so obviously I have not yet seen it. Based on the previews that I have seen however, I have no intention of watching it. The show centers on a female VP who becomes president after her boss (who only picked her to win female votes, according to the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” but played to death since, it involves a goodhearted political figure trying to make the world a better place while surrounded by manipulative and cynical politicians. NBC’s “Mister Sterling” looked the same way, which is why I never bothered to watch that either.

Why do I loath such plot lines? Because they are insulting to my intelligence in their overly-sanctimonious message. Most movies and TV shows operate the same way: The President is behind some dastardly dead (like in Clear and Present Danger, or Absolute Power) or the military decides to arbitrarily behave immorally or arbitrarily (like the end of Armageddon, or The Siege). It’s not that such films hurt my patriotic sensitivities, mind you, or that I don’t believe in crooked establishment-figures (anyone who knows me knows that I am as cynical as they come).

But the characters in these things who represent the government are nothing more than caricatures, one-dimensional political cartoons representing either pure unfettered idealism or power-hungry manipulation.

The sole exception to this pattern is the West Wing, a wonderfully written and brilliantly produced show that portrays political figures as human beings, not unlike the type of people you could find in any large organization in America. Some characters are idealists, some are simply looking out for the political payoff, but most are a combination of many qualities, trying to win but also trying to do the right thing.

Of course, in a case of life imitating art, politicians do not help this image with their own rhetoric, often aimed at casting themselves as the do-gooder and the rest of Washington as the monsters.

Remember who said the following:

“Frankly, I'm fed up with politicians in Washington lecturing the rest of us about family values. Our families have values. But our government doesn’t.”

“I was raised to believe the American Dream was built on rewarding hard work. But we have seen the folks of Washington turn the American ethic on its head.”

“Our people are pleading for change, but government is in the way. It's been hijacked by privileged private interests. It's forgotten who really pays the bills around here. It's taken more of your money and given you less in return. We have got to go beyond the brain-dead politics in Washington and give our people the kind of government they deserve, a government that works for them.

“The country is headed in the wrong direction fast, slipping behind, losing our way...and all we have out of Washington is status quo paralysis. No vision, no action. Just neglect, selfishness, and division.”

If you guessed Bill Clinton in 1992, you would be right, but it is also George W. Bush in 2000, and virtually any candidate for any federal race. Why should Americans have any confidence in their government when even their government has no confidence in itself and continues to lash out like it were Darth Vader (this is true even if the person running is currently a Congressman)?

Make no mistake, there are crooked politicians, people who will do anything and say anything in order to get and hold on to power. But the 99% of them you DON’T see on TV, who you DON’T read about in the papers, those politicians are often devoting a lot of their time and energy in hearings, investigations, and policymaking that may or may not affect them or benefit them. Shows like the upcoming Commander-in-Chief make their character look like a saint, but it comes at the expense of parodying everyone else as the personification of the “typical” Washington insider.

Even if the image is 100% accurate and true, it gets a little boring and unentertaining.

In a democracy, the people cannot be left off the hook

Well, Iraq does not seem to be going very smoothly. There are no easy answers, but the strategic importance of the country demands success, and this is still entirely possible.

Given what is happening over there, I suppose rehashing the same old arguments about how we got there seems irrelevant. Nevertheless, one day historians who write a comprehensive history of this time period might wonder who, if anyone, they can argue is ultimately responsible for this conflict. No doubt many will balk at this question, arguing that of course Saddam Hussein started it, but without any stockpiles of ANY WMD, no physical threat to the US or its allies, and the apparent realization that Saddam was, more or less, behaving himself (with added tougher inspections to boot) I don’t really think that the argument is very sustainable.

No, the war was initiated by the United States, a war of choice as they say, and thus the answer to the question of “blame” must fall there.

There is a lot of blame to go around. The President, who exaggerated and distorted the evidence; the intelligence community, whose leaders insisted that the case was a “slam dunk,” despite the lack of conclusive evidence; the Republican Party who blindly followed an adventure at odds with its historical antipathy towards nation-building and being the worlds police; the Democratic Party for failing to expose any concern or hesitation about the conflict for fear of electoral punishment; certainly the media who, despite the successful conservative campaign to brand as liberal, beat the war drums perhaps as much or more as the administration (one example of many, remember the MSNBC show ominously titled “Countdown Iraq?”).

Ultimately however, the United States is a democracy, and as such the real blame for the conflict in Iraq, for better or for worse, must be shared, if not monopolized, by the American people. Personally, I don’t blame people for supporting the war early on in the face of such misconception. Even after the war, according to PIPA, 60% of Americans believed that evidence of an Iraq-bin Laden was irrefutable, evidence of WMD had been found, or world opinion favored the conflict. Of the people who did not hold ANY of these misconceptions, only 23% actually favored going to war (note that watchers of Fox News were the MOST likely to hold these misconceptions).

In other words, if PIPA is correct, the implication is that had Americans had all of the facts, almost 80% of the public would not have supported the war. Other polls bear me out on this. In 2004, PIPA reported that only 35% of Americans disagreed with the argument that invasion was still justified without any WMD’s.

So if Americans simply lacked correct information, how is it that they should be in any way accountable for the current conflict? The reason is that they chose not to hold accountable those who distributed this information even after the truth started making its way on TV (from print and on-line sources, the truth had always been there for anyone to see). The fact of the matter is that just as President Bush awarded the Pat Buchanan said in his endorcement of Bush for a second term despite his ideological disagreements with him. "No matter the quarrels inside the family, when the shooting starts, you come home to your own)

However, another part is psychological. In late 2003, 62% of Americans supported war with Iraq. The fact that so few does today means that many people who once supported the war no longer do. I give these people credit.

It’s hard to admit that you were wrong. A short review of my past debates on the HNN reveals that people who supported the war from the beginning have not changed their tunes one iota, despite the obviously changing reality. People do not want to admit that perhaps they were mistaken and so they refused to believe it. Far worse however, is that people did not want to admit that, especially in a post 9/11 world, the American government may have been wrong! If the war is wrong, than American troops have died needlessly (or worse, died to institute a major foreign policy failure). This is a troubling prospect. It is far easier to assume, as this administration does, that the “mistake” is the fault of someone else. The blame lies with Iraq, or some hidden, faceless thing called “intelligence.” Certainly however, it wasn’t the administration, or military leaders, or intelligence leaders. Hmmm, maybe we can just blame the media, that almost always works, right? I don’t think so.

I am not arguing that Americans should vote for Democrats in order to hold someone accountable (although in point of fact this is my own intent). I would not ask conservatives to support non-conservatives for revenge. I would ask, and expect however that Republican voters hold their leaders accountable by supporting some other candidate, perhaps in state and local primaries, which has been unsoiled by pro-war herd mentality.

In 2004, Americans by and large rewarded those who were most responsible for the conflict in Iraq and that is why they must share in any evaluation of what went wrong the process. The elections of 2006 are coming and I have no reason to be optimistic, but we shall see.

PS: I am trying to find some catchy nickname for this blog and have tentatively decided to go by Cram for the time being (I no, not very catchy, but I’m still thinking)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Armitage Shanks Have Left the Building

In just a couple of hours I’ll be leaving Oxford for Heathrow Airport and a transcontinental flight to JFK Airport. It has been a wonderful and fruitful summer and I hope to return often. The Rothermere American Institute has provided an unsurpassed work environment and I want to thank everyone here who has made my summer productive.

But at the end of the day, what I will most cherish about my time in Oxford is the friendships I have made with a group we call the Armitage Shanks for reasons you have to come to England to figure out. We are the greatest rock band that never lived. The core group, other than the American Guy, is Roger, Moose, Ben, Patrick, Chris and the two loveliest girls in all of Oxfordshire, Emma and Ginger. But of course like any great rock band, we had our share of groupies, such as Johnny, Dave, Sara, lots of dogs, and many, many others, including the obnoxious guy who liked to put women into headlocks.

The summer of 2005 will always carry with it some important edifying memories for anyone who was there, including:

The Great “Twat” pronunciation debate (Ongoing).

Our utterly brilliant midget reality show idea, “The Big House” (with a hat tip to someone who deserves mention with Emma and Ginger for her loveliness, Lucy, for introducing us to the great and earnest ontological question: “Are those little bastards midgets or just fat kids?”)

Utter dominance of Quiz Night at the Gardener’s Arms (and pretty substantial showings at the Turf as well; we shall never again mention the debacle at Bookbinders)despite the bias against us by the Quizmaster and honorary Shank, Richard. It’s "Lord Stanley’s Cup" and "Welsh Corgie," dammit.

And of course: “To the Manor Bar!”

When I was a kid my aunt had one of those treacly books of quotations about friendship. One stood out for me even then because it is both ironic and true, the greatest possible combination. A ten year old boy was alleged to have said “A friend is someone who knows you, but likes you.” That pretty well sums it up to me. I’ll miss you guys. But I’ll be back soon, and the Shanks will cash in on the inevitable reunion tour.

Red Sox Diary

Those of you who followed the Red Sox Diaries either on Ephblog or on Rebunk might be interested in knowing that it looks as if it will see the light of day as a book that should be out by the 2005 playoffs. I will have more details as the publication date comes closer, but it is being published by a subsidiary of a small academic press. This was a labor of love, and I expect to get very little attention or monetary compensation for it, but I do hope you will consider buying it when it finally is available. The title has changed slightly, and it will come out as Bleeding Red: A Red Sox Fan’s Diary of the 2004 Season.

Since anyone reading this now almost assuredly has seen excerpts of the diaries, I want to thank you all for your support, kind words, and advice last year. It is only because of Dave Kane at Ephblog and my readers at both blogs that I did not give up entirely on this project when it was clear that Stephen King’s and Stewart O’Nan’s seemingly similar book (and several others by folks with names almost as big) had made the market impossibly tight among the major presses. For a while I even had some big time nibbles, but in the end, the King name and the sheer oncoming glut of quickie Sox books scared off even the most intrepid editors. I never saw mine as either a quickie or as being similar to others I had read, so I forged onward.

The fact is that I would have been more than happy to have made some bound copies of it and distributed it to anyone who asked. That it should be available on Amazon and its competitors in two months or so is incredible. That my publisher and I are talking about signings and other appearances is beyond belief.

In the end, in the circles that will define my career, this book will not carry much weight. I will be judged by my scholarly work. But I am pretty certain that as a writer, I will always value this project, and the initial responses I got from the Rebunk and Ephblog crowds. It will probably be my favorite, even if many of my colleagues in the historical profession will see it as a trifle. Sometimes historians are narrow-minded gasbags.

Oh – and the Sox are in first place as I write this. They did not trade Manny Ramirez at the non-waiver deadline. They are getting it done right now despite some serious injuries. Sox fans have not lost our passion (or our occasional warped perspective). Who knows? Maybe they will even do it again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Shaken, not stirred

It’s a sad day in the world of British MI6 spy James Bond. Pierce Brosnan will no longer be playing agent 007 in the movies, having already made 4 films.
“It never felt real to me,” he said. “I never felt I had complete ownership over Bond. Because you'd have these stupid one-liners -- which I loathed -- and I always felt phony doing them.”

That may be, Mr. Brosnan, but it felt real to me. With the exception of Sean Connery, who will forever encapsulate the character of James Bond (as well as any other role he ever played), Brosnan was my favorite Bond. More human than George Lazenby, cooler than Roger Moore, and funnier than Timothy Dalton, Brosnan brought the Bond franchise back to life, with an updated array of gadgets and new 21st century threats (his latest villain was North Korean). I don’t know who will be the next bond (X-Men’s Hugh Jackman turned down a 3-movie contract, although Ewan McGregor’s name has been mentioned as a possible replacement).

In any event, Brosnan is a part of Bond history now, and a better part at that. We are going to miss him.

Sheehan v. Bush

Cindy Sheehan and George W. Bush have a lot in common right now. Both of them have massive image problems, and both of them are, in a way, doing the right thing. Sheehan has every right to petition her president for an audience, and protest outside of his ranch. Like all critics of president Bush over the past 5 years, she has seen TV and online pundits rip her character apart for exercising her 1st Amendment rights and wanting to talk to the man who is responsible for sending her son to his death in Iraq, but she is doing nothing wrong here.

Of course, Sheehan is not the only parent of a fallen soldier to become disillusioned for a president who once seemed to be the natural friend of the military. In Ohio, the state responsible for giving him a second-term, and has just recently lost 16 soldiers in Iraq, “parents of a fallen Marine urged President Bush to either send more reinforcements to Iraq or withdraw U.S. troops altogether.”

And Sheehan has been joined by numerous other parents of dead soldiers. Of course, Sheehan gets all the attention, partly because both the left and the right enjoy taking advantage of her relatively extreme positions (after all, if people focused on moderate, yet genuinely grieving parents, they might actually have to talk about the war in Iraq rather than the PR battle between them and Bush, and it would harder for conservatives to attack her character as they have repeatedly done to Sheehan).

Bush, for his part however, is also right. He should not be blamed for refusing to see her (both Christopher Hitchens offers pretty good reasons why). After all, he already met with her once, as he has many families of victims, and in our complex society, citizens simply cannot be expected to have a conversation with the president whenever they want. He is simply too busy running the country. Further, Bush knows that it is neither company nor sympathy that Sheehan wants, but actual policy reversal and Bush is not going to do that. Although he could have (and should have) met with her in the beginning for PR purposes only to defuse this early on, his decision to avoid her now is understandable and acceptable.

Of course, the similarities between the 2 end there. The biggest difference is that I sympathize with Cindy Sheehan and what she is trying to do, and I have no sympathy for Bush. This is not because she lost a child and he has not (although obviously it is hard for me to dismiss or insult anyone who loses a son in combat, even if Limbaugh, etc. have no moral qualms about it). No, the biggest reason why I cannot sympathize with Bush is simply because of his behavior as president. Although I have previously expressed my concern about how he governs in terms of policy, I am speaking here about image.

Bush should be too busy running the country to have an audience with someone who clearly will not be contented with anything that Bush could possibly have to say. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? He’s NOT too busy running the country, he is taking a Maureen Dowd says in this morning’s NY Times, “This president is in a truly scary place in Iraq. Americans can't get out, or they risk turning the country into a terrorist haven that will make the old Afghanistan look like Cipriani's. Yet his war, which has not accomplished any of its purposes, swallows ever more American lives and inflames ever more Muslim hearts as W. reads a book about the history of salt and looks forward to his biking date with Lance Armstrong on Saturday.”

This is nothing short of amazing. Numerous critics have noted how Bush asks sacrifices only from soldiers and not from either Americans or his special interest supporters. The image of Cindy Sheehan holding vigil while Bush rides his bike in the background, and telling reporters that he has to get on with his life is an appalling lack of sensitivity and shows tremendous detachment from what is going on. Obviously, Bush is finished running for office. I can only hope that a Democratic Congress, if elected, will force this administration into actually taking some form of positive action on almost any front rather than spend more time at his ranch while the nation suffers in silence.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Roberts is no Bork

According to the Washington Post, “Democrats have decided that unless there is an unexpected development in the weeks ahead, they will not launch a major fight to block the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr.”

This is a smart move politically, I think, and will give the Democrats much needed credibility should another vacancy prompt a far worse candidate. More importantly however, it is the right thing to do. So far (and I highly stress those words) there has been nothing in SC nominee Roberts’ past that has been made public that makes me shutter or question his appropriateness for the bench.

There has been a lot of media attention on the fact that SC nominee Roberts once wrote about an “abortion tragedy” and some have taken issue with the fact that he once argued “that the Constitution prohibits such a moment of silent reflection - or even silent 'prayer' - seems indefensible.”

However, in context, both of those things are perfectly legitimate positions, even if one disagrees with them. Far less widely reported was that he said Roe v. Wade was “settled law” when he was nominated for the US Court of Appeals.

After all, Roberts may be deeply pro-life, and pro-school prayer, but that does not necessarily mean that he will consistently uphold those positions against the Constitution and legal precedent. I for one, would not want someone rejected out of hand simply because he was personally against the death penalty or found no harm in medical marijuana.

Perhaps people’s initial skepticism has far less to do with Roberts and far more to do with Bush, who has consistently acted as Republican party leader FIRST and President of the United States only second. This president has appointed some of the most conservative judges in history (this is not hyperbole either) and I think many people were looking for his telltale hyper-partisanship when appointing Roberts.

Conservative are right to be concerned, however, for it seems that Bush has picked a genuinely intelligent choice, and although I look forward to learning more about his judicial philosophy and what he believed the role of the SC should be in the American system, I also look forward to a fair confirmation process that might serve as an example for the future.

Hung like a… South African: Penis news of the week

Now, I’m not one for perpetuating stereotypes or anything, but according to the BBC, large condoms are being manufactured for South African men whose… uh… well let’s just say that “A large number of South African men are bigger and complain about condoms being uncomfortable and too small," said Durex manager Stuart Roberts.

In totally unrelated news, the percentage of plane tickets to South Africa by female singles organizations has gone up 200% since the BBC story broke.

The Nazi Analogy (Again)

It's like an especially pernicious virus, but this time it is manifesting itself in a body that makes me disappointed as much as angry. I do not even need to link to any specific article -- go to any reputable source with a correpondent in Gaza right now and you'll see what I mean: settlers accusing their own government of being "Nazis" or acting like the "Gestapo" because of a removal policy carried out by the Likud government. If anyone ought to know better, it is Israel's far right. The analogy is repulsive, utterly invalid, and shows just how pernicious this ultimate evocation of evil is.

One of the most distressing aspects of all of this is that the removals of settlers is really the only way Israel can in the long term defend itself from another vacuous and wrongheaded analogy -- the apartheid myth. But if settlers and folks like Banjamin Netanyahu insist on remaining in areas where Jews are demographically overwhelmed, and if they plan to do so without giving Palestinians within their midst some access to the vote and full citizenship, they are guaranteeing one of two outcomes, and maybe both: Continued terrorist attacks (which provides the only justification for not giving full citizenship rights to the Palestinian masses) or a permanent Chaim Crow society that will completely undercut Israel's otherwise rock solid claims of moral superiority in the region. The irony, of course, is thet if the Palestinians truly disavowed violence and cracked down on terrorism, they would force Israel and the world to look at the territories and make withdrawal from as many settlements as possible and the drawing of new borders the only logical outcome.

Oh -- I'm also growing ever more annoyed with invocations of God's will as the supposed last word on political affairs. The Israeli right insists that the land is theirs because the Bible says as much, as if their Bible is the only or last word out there. My guess is that the Koran says something rather different. Unless we are going to have some sort of Allah v. Yahweh cage match anytime soon, this is simply not an acceptable justification for what are inherently political questions.

Surprise, surprise

According to a Hamas leader, the Gaza withdraw is the “the beginning of the end for Israel.” Whatever could be have meant by that? He later went on to say the following: “We, however, see the withdrawal as first step for full liberation and achieving all of our legitimate rights. Today Gaza and tomorrow the West Bank and later every inch of the land.”

But wait, that can’t be? American and European activists insist that if only Israel would end the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the terrorism would stop. Never mind the fact that when the international community talks about “occupation,” they are not referring to the same tract of land that many Palestinians are referring to. Never mind the fact that the official Palestinian Ministry For Parliamentary Affairs has a map of Israel with a Palestinian flag over it, as does the emblem of the PLO as well as the Ministry of Industry.

I have said it before and I will say it again: Withdrawal from Gaza and eventually the West Bank must occur… but have no illusions, this is not peace.

(NOTE: For some reason, my posts will not be published correctly when I insert hyperlinks, and I already lost a few accidentally so I may be forced to rely on posting the sites from now on)

Stupid Arguments Watch (A Potentially Recurring Feature)

Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe decided to tilt at false dichotomies about three weeks ago:

Which kind of intelligence failure is better — the kind that badly understates a threat, such as the one in London, or the kind that overstates a threat, such as the insistent warnings before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction?

Jacoby argues that the latter – which got us involved in a war that we are not exactly turning into our finest historical moment – is somehow better than the former. May I assert that neither is acceptable (Jacoby admits as much, kind of sort of) and that creating such false dichotomies is, for lack of a better and more accurate phrase, colossally stupid? If you are reduced to making a “my failure is, by my arbitrary and subjective terms, slightly less awful than your failure” sort of argument, I’d say that your case is pretty shoddy.

Credit for pointing my way to this one belongs to Cliff May at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, although I should point out that he would not agree with my conclusion here, so all blame or credit on that front is my own.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Lighter Side of a Serious Issue

I really don’t know why I found this headline so humorous, but I did:

"Japanese Leader Sorry for WWII Invasions"

The article, from the Associated Press, went on to somberly explain the Japanese reaction to the 60 year anniversary of the end of WWII, was touching, but the title looks simply… amusing to me (maybe because of the plurality of the word "invasion," maybe the seemingly nonchalant-ness of the headline, hard to say). Here are some others that I would generate a similar reaction from.

Top 10 equally humorous yet totally distasteful Headlines Commemorating end of WWII by “Japanese Leaders”:

1) (to pay homage to that first headline above): Went a bit too far with all those invasions, says Japanese Leader

2) No Hard Feelings about Genital Electrocutions, says Japanese Leader

3) Thanks for letting us keep the Emperor, says Japanese leader

4) Wow, 60 years later, and we sell more care than you, boasts Japanese Leader

5) Fact that “China now run by Commies now makes us even,” say Japanese Leader on 60th anniversary of WWII

6) Japanese Leader celebrate 60 year anniversary of Atom-bomb dropped on them “for no apparent reason”

7) “Ok, we lost, must you keep making WWII movies?” asks Japanese Leader

8) Japanese Leader acknowledge strange anniversary world remembers for some war Japan totally uninvolved with a long time ago

9) “Tora! Tora! Tora! Just Kidding, sorry for all the mess,” joked Japanese Leader

10) “Sorry, now let’s turn our attention back to the Nazis, k?” asks Japanese Leader

My Thoughts on Gaza

Let me first say what I think would be a fair and rational solution: the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank should be ignored, and the peace process should go on as if they never existed. If settlers should happen to find themselves living in a Palestinian state, under Palestinian law, then let them emigrate if they want, it’s their problem. Many Arabs live in Israel, why must a future Palestine be completely Judenrein to be viable? But of course, the conflict there is neither fair nor rational and the world knows that those people will be slaughtered if they stay, provoking a host issues for Israel, so they must go.

My thoughts? It’s about time! I sympathize with settlers who are forced to leave their homes, their communities, etc., but I also sympathize with the millions of Palestinians who have undergone far worse hardships because of this conflict. Aside from the checkpoints and random acts of humiliation, Palestinians too have lost homes and been cut off from their communities. Much of the reason for this has been justifiable given the sheer savagery of suicide murderers and the only viable response from Israel. Just as many innocent Palestinians have unfortunately been made the victims of greater political forces, so too must the settlers realize that they must be evicted, regardless of the fact that many of them are there out of religious devotion, and regardless of the fact that they would live there even if it eventually became a part of a Palestinian state (although they are mistaken if they believe that they would survive to enjoy it). The reality is that 9,000 people cannot be allowed to control the security and potential peace process of several million.

Gaza is just the first step. The West Bank will be the real struggle. Of course, there was no reason for this to be so. In 2000, PM Barak offered to evacuate all of Gaza. Had Arafat agreed, this could have been coordinated rather than unilateral. His offer regarding the West Bank too, was reasonable. Barak proposed dismantling 63 isolated settlements in the West Bank, and annex several of the larger blocs of settlements, which would have constituted 5% of the West Bank. In exchange for this property, Israel would have ceded off part of its own territory to Gaza, increasing its size by approximately 1/3 (this, of course, was in addition to concessions that will likely never come again, such as East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and monetary compensation for refugees).

I bring this up, not to rehash the 2000 peace deal, the refusal of which I maintain was the greatest crime Arafat ever committed against his people, but to point out that the 5% solution is still viable. As did after Oslo, with Hamas using their newfound freedom only to build arms and plan new attacks against Israel, the view of the Right will be vindicated, and the West Bank will be viewed as an Israeli problem to solve unilaterally and primarily for demographic reasons, rather than a mutual issue for negotiation.

On the Bedside Table/In the Backpack

In the time since last I wrote about my bedside table reading, I have been all over the map here in England, traipsing to Cambridge, back to Oxford, out to a friend’s birthday in Headington, then to London for a weekend, and finally back to Oxford, where my time wanes. Soon I’ll be back in the US with the nose of my car pointed toward the Lone Star State. All of this traveling had had a deleterious effect on my ability to read a whole lot, but I have had a bit of turnover.

I am still plugging away at these books that I am reviewing and need to get more serious about those efforts. I have always had the most bizarre tendency when it comes to the written page – if a book has been assigned to me, I tend to dilly-dally, putting it off and reading anything else that falls under my nose, even if in other circumstances I would have read the assigned project anyway. Thus in the last few days I have devoted myself to finishing a novel and a work of reportage while hoisting around these review books like some sort of burden.

The novel and the reporter’s accounts are books I mentioned in the last installment – Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Michael Dorman’s We Shall Overcome. I very much enjoyed both, albeit for different reasons.

I finally picked up Lucky Jim on the advice of my undergraduate advisor, Charles Dew, who recommended it as the greatest satirical work on the academic world that has been written. Still being pretty new to the profession, and not wanting to miss out on any anthropological insights, I found a dog-eared copy at a used bookstore, but it took me several months to work it into my rotation, and as so often happens, several fits and starts before gathering momentum in the past week.

Lucky Jim’s protagonist is James Dixon, a history lecturer of modest talents with marginal interest at an unnamed British university. He is insecure in his standing at the university, finds most of his colleagues and superiors distasteful, and has made enemies with at least one truly loathsome sort. His love life is not exactly in proper order either. Amis makes much of the pettiness of academics and the world they inhabit. The book is entertaining and enjoyable. There are moments when it is quite funny. But I am not certain that it is quite as uproariously funny as its supporters rave. Nonetheless, as incisive social/cultural criticism, it hits more than it misses, and it has aged rather well. It is a very British novel, which gives it a specific context, but one that nonetheless speaks to a certain universality of a side of academia that is all to easy to mock.

Michael Dorman’s book is far more serious. It is an account of a year on the frontlines reporting the Civil Rights Movement in the South. At its heart sits Oxford, Mississippi and the struggle to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss. His main chapter on the riots takes a whopping 130 pages, and he revisits the beautiful, racially torn campus in two other chapters. He also spends ample time in Clemson, South Carolina, where the university had a quiet and dignified integration when Harvey Gantt registered, and Tuscaloosa, where George Wallace, the pugnacious Governor, made his famous stand in the schoolhouse door. He takes us inside a bizarre story about the killing of a white man marching for justice in Mississippi, is present for the Birmingham Campaign and the Jackson Movement, and has an interlude with the Attorney General. We Shall Overcome provides a remarkably enduring look at the movement as it played out through the eyes of a scrupulous journalist. It is also a useful primary source for historians, chock full of anecdotes that have not since been repeated often (or as well).

Finishing these two books allowed me to add a few new ones to the rotation, and I am looking forward to getting through as much of them as possible before I fly out. They are Richard Ben Cramer’s slight What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? that stems from an article he wrote in Esquire some years back. Cramer’s What It Takes is in my opinion the finest book on American elections, he has won the Pulitzer prize, and he has given us the best unflinching biography of Joe DiMaggio.

I am sitting down with Christopher Nicholson’s Permanent Removal: Who Killed the Cradock Four? both out of interest but also professional necessity. I have a project in the works on South Africa during the 1980s and one of my main case studies was a long account on the killing of the Cradock Four. This new book from Wits University Press will be useful but, fortunately, does not make my own work redundant. Nicholson will fill in some gaps, however.

Finally, and in a similar vein, I am re-reading William Doyle’s An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 for a project upon which I have been working for most of the summer. The work has not gone along as quickly as the ambition behind it, but I hope to finish a chapter before I leave, and I wanted to give Doyle a thorough rereading as I do.

So that’s what is in my backpack and on my bedside table in the guest bedroom of my friend Roger, alongside that same issue of Men’s Health that I had just begun last week, the latest Atlantic Monthly that I have here, and a World Report on South Africa that is a supplement from a newspaper. What are you reading now?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Crouching Superpower, Hidden China

Newsweek has a wonderful, if sobering, editorial by Fareed Zakaria about the differences between how China has been positioning itself as the dominant player in Asia in contrast to how the US has made far more enemies than friends lately. In other words, what China is doing right and the US is doing wrong.

What ever happened to China anyway? In the 1990’s, many pundits (particularly conservatives) saw China as the greatest threat to the US, their economic AND military power becoming far more powerful than we would like.

Now that terrorism and the Missle East have become our great concerns, should we be worried about China? The short answer is yes. While many Americans may take comfort in the knowledge that they need us as much as we need them, in fact they do not. The US needs China far more than China needs us. As Joseph Stiglitz writes in the Financial Times, “China could easily make up for the loss of exports to America – and the wellbeing of its citizens could even be improved – if some of the money it lends to the US was diverted to its own development… But the US could not so easily make up for the gap in funding without large increases in interest rates, and these could play havoc with the economy.”

Stiglitz also points out that China’s economy is growing far faster than the US, with higher net savings. China is also producing far more engineers and scientists "that are necessary to compete in the global economy than the US, while America is cutting its expenditures on basic research as it increases military spending. Meanwhile, as America’s debt continues to balloon, its president wants to make tax cuts for the richest people permanent.”

The problem, of course, is not just economic (as if that alone were not enough to reconsider certain policies). Americans have no reason to fear that China’s growing military will ever be used against them, but they should be bit concerned that such strength makes China increasingly less immune from the standard US diplomatic tactic (that is, “do as we say or we will bomb you senseless"). Furthermore, a strong China could decide to start doing in Asia and the Pacific what the US does for Europe: act as the chief defender and protector of the peace and stability of the region. Thus far, as North Korea demonstrates, China seems to have no interest in becoming the Asian version of America, but one day it might and it could. What would be the implication of all this? Well, for one thing, the current Euro-American centered international order in which the US, Britain and other European government pretty much decide what gets done, could be replaced with a more Asian-centered international policy. Why not drop out of the UN and invite Japan and South Korea to form a new multinational body, the UAN? Unlikely any time soon, but certainly not impossible, especially if Japan continues to be rejected a SC seat.

The final nail in the coffin for a strong China is that the rising power has been met with rising international prestige, or at the very least a rising regional prestige. The US has come to look like a big billy at best (and an international pariah at worst- a PEW research center, China is more popular than the US in both Europe and Asia. Although the poll shows that few want China to be able to rival the US, majorities do want SOMEONE to rival us.

Of course, I don’t mean to sound paranoid. Although foolish fiscal policies and an explosive trade deficit make the economic situation with China outright dangerous, the military power of the Communist state and its international reputation remain only potentialities for now. Nor am I suggesting that a world with a dominant China need necessarily be all bad or cannot be taken advantage of (although personally, I do not look forward to that day for other reasons). I bring all this up only because China is yet another area almost entirely ignored both by the media and by this administration, and I thought I would point out why this ought not be the case.

Hornby on Adams

Nick Hornby gets it right, (and you all know how I feel about Nick Hornby) give or take, about Ryan Adams' album "Heartbreaker." It should, however, be pointed out that Adams was at his heartrendingly brilliant peak with the late and much-missed band "Whiskeytown," easily one of my top three bands of thre last ten years. A shot and a beer to Sportsguy's intern, even if he clearly missed the Whiskeytown boat.


I would imagine that we all have a list of our great regrets. One of my top three was brought home to me this week when I went up to Cambridge for a couple of days to give a talk for a seminar that one of my favorite people in the profession, Tony Badger, was holding at Clare College. When I was first on the job market some three years ago, I was one of two finalists for a one-year position at Cambridge. Just the day before I had accepted a tenure track job elsewhere, and upon consulting with my advisor and some Italian-American clown named Bruscino, I decided that it was best to turn down the Cambridge opportunity and do the smart thing. The smart thing turned out to be a disaster of epic proportions, and my chance to have had a job, however fleeting, at a place like Cambridge, was gone.

Cambridge is stunning. It will seem like apostasy given my current affiliation, but on first glance, Cambridge is more impressive than Oxford. The colleges are more open and visible, unlike at Oxford, where most of them are hidden behind walls. The Cambridge colleges are also grouped more closely together. The classic cliche about Oxford is that people show up and ask "where is the campus," only to get derisive looks from the locals. At Cambridge there is something approximating the more traditional university campus, and it is stunning.

My talk went very well, and Tony gave the sort of introduction that made me blush. In fact, if Cambridge has a history opening this year, I'd like for the search chair to go and get a copy of that introduction, because it made a case for me that I never could have made.

I'm in London now visiting my cousin. The next week is full of meandering, but I'll post as I can and will trust that you are in good hands with the other guys.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Race, Murder and Liberal Blind Spots

One of my professors, advisors, mentors, golf partners, and friends, Jeffrey Herf, who now teaches at the University of Maryland, has published a provocative and bold article in The New Republic online. Although his scholarly work is focused on Modern Europe, Jeff is an exemplary public intellectual with a range of interests and a seriousness of purpose that should be a model to anyone who wants to engage in questions beyond the narrow range to which most academics limit themselves. This piece looks at the horrific homicide rates among African Americans in the last four decades and asks important and brave questions. I saw an early draft of the piece and gave some minor suggestons, but it is clear that Professor Herf has been thinking about this question for a long time. Read the article.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Time to end partisan gerrymandering

There isn’t much that I ever liked about Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected Governor of California. It seemed a perfect illustration of what is wrong with American politics, namely voting for pandering individuals rather than policies or ideology.

However, there is something Schwarzenegger was trying to do that actually had a great deal of merit, a plan I am sad to say, will no longer be on the ballot in the state (a state appeals court refused to allow it on a technicality). The ballot initiative Schwarzenegger wanted would, if passed by the citizens of California, take away state lawmakers' power to draw congressional and legislative boundaries in California and instead shift that responsibility to a panel of retired judges.

The proposal is an intelligent one and something I would enjoy seeing duplicated across the country. Gerrymandering, of course, is nothing new (the word itself dates back to 1811 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry drew districts so intricate and “salamander-like,” one cartoonist described it as a “Gerrymander”). For much of the 20th century, the major concern over redistricting has been racial gerrymandering, or drawing district lines to make it almost impossible for minorities to win elections. Of course, whenever one party holds power, there has always been the subtle attempt to draw the lines most favorable to particular parties. Recently however, these partisan gerrymandering tricks have become a lot less subtle and a lot more blatant.

Perhaps the most famous recent example of this was Texas Republicans, who successfully re-drew congressional districts to eliminate Democratic seats and ensure Republican domination of the state. States must redraw boundaries every 10 years to reflect population shifts found during the census, but what Texas (and other Republican states) have tried to do is force district drawing more frequently than once a decade, to make more seats winnable for members of their party.

However, Texas is the exception precisely because of its boldness. Other partisans are a bit slyer about it. Take Pennsylvania, for example. As a whole, PA is pretty much split between both parties (Gore and Kerry both carried the state and now has a Democratic Governor) and yet both houses of the legislature and the statehouse were in Republican hands when these bodies set about redistricting after the 2000 census. As a result, these bodies were able to create relatively safe seats for Republicans in nearly two thirds of the state's federal districts. Thus, a state that is actually about one-half Republican is represented as if it were about two-thirds Republican. The following legal commentary has more to say on this issue, including the following: “If Pennsylvanians' party preferences were truly taken into account, the State should have 9 or 10 Republican representatives. Now, however, they are virtually certain to have 12 or more. That's not democracy; it's an outrage.”

Schwarzenegger is not alone in trying to change this undemocratic power-grab. In Ohio, numerous groups are trying to do the same thing, and for good reason. The current system of drawing district lines are too partisan and too corrupt. The only possible solution would be to put the process in the hands of people who are the closest to we may justifiably call “neutral” as we can get in our modern society: judges. Of course, this is no guarantee that the process will be fair, but I will take a Republican-appointed judge over a Republican legislator whose job and success are on the line any day.

Another Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, once said that “No congressional district should be safe because of the way it is drawn. It should be safe because the congressman represents the interests of the people in that district.” For too long, this problem has been immune from scrutiny. It is time to put legislatures in the hands of the people rather than the hands of current office-holders.

Here’s Your Tip!

In today’s New York Times, Steven A. Shaw writes that restaurants should move away from tipping and towards a system that provides an automatic “service charge” as they do in Europe.

According to one web-site, “A recent web survey shows that Americans most frequently tip 15%, followed by 20%”

As someone who serves at a restaurant part-time (full-time over the summers), I thought I would weigh in. Before I give my opinion though, I would like to post a few generalizations that I have observed in the serving world (at least in my particular taste of it):

  1. Tipping is, by my observation, culturally and ethnically slanted. That is to say, without going into any details, certain ethnic and demographic groups tip at a significantly lower rate than others (with the very old and the very young typically leaving a fixed dollar amount regardless of the bill).
  2. Most experiences servers are pretty good at pre-judging whether or not a guest will tip well or not. This practice is never 100% accurate (I have had more than one pleasant surprise waiting for me on a table) and is always discouraged by management, but it is in many ways unavoidable.
  3. Almost all of the servers that I have come into contact with will serve consistently regardless of how they pre-judge a table. Bad servers will be bad whether the guest is a wealthy businessman or a couple of elderly women ordering soup and good servers will be good regardless. This is more a function of their individual personalities than of how much they are expecting for a tip. I, for example, consider myself a pretty amiable waiter, and will smile, joke, and otherwise treat guests respectfully even if I am certain to be under-tipped.
  4. Far more frustrating WHILE serving (though not in the long-run) than bad tips, or at least as frustrating, are guests who are rude, run you around, and ungrateful for your service.

So, is automatic gratuity the answer to the problem of poor-tippers? I am certainly open to the possibility. Where I work, parties over a certain number are automatically charges a gratuity and most people LOVE the relief of a guaranteed amount. I am certain that an automatic tip would NOT hamper service as some people suspect. However, I do not believe that such a measure is necessary.

It is my observation that tipping has for more to do with the guest than the server. Many people come from backgrounds and environments that simply do not tip well, while other people believe that servers make a decent hourly wage and anything extra is just a “bonus.” My recommended solution: the back of every menu should have a small section dedicating to listing the appropriate amount of gratuity given the quality of service. This would at least inform people as to what is actually a good tip since most poor tips are more the result of background rather than malice.