Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Era Ends, The Homoginization Rolls On

As I sit here at my old family home, I am greeted by this piece of news. After 107 years, Chicago's landmark Berghoff Restaurant is closing.

First, the personal. I have many fond personal memories of the Berghoff. As a kid, their Christmas decorations were always the highlight of a trip to the Loop. They still are some of the best in the city, rivalling those of Marshall Field's (another local name that disappears on the first of the year). We took high school field trips there with the German Club. I took a group from my undergraduate institution on a tour of Chicago Loop architecture and we ate there. On a more regular basis, I ate there when I worked and later went to graduate school in the city. It was probably the first German food I ever ate. Was it the best? I think that title goes to Karl Ratzsch's in Milwaukee. It sure was good, though.

On a more general level, this represents a further move away from local business and towards national, corporate sameness. Chicago used to seem...well...different. It did not have the same sights, businesses, cultural institutions that you could find anywhere else. This added to the unique neighborhood life made Chicago a special place to live. It was not New York or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Cleveland or Salt Lake City or anywhere else. Special places and people made Chicago what it was.

Now, as I walk around downtown, it is not the same place that it was when I was a kid. This may be because I changed, but I cannot help but notice that Chicago is starting to look like anywhere else. National chain businesses are doing away with local business. The distinct Chicago dialect is frowned upon and is slowly dying as the neighborhoods change, gentrify and lose their sense of place as a space with specific meaning. As people increasingly live in separate compartments in the sky, they are in a different spatial understanding that someone who is more connected to their environment.

Housing begins to look the same, businesses look the same, people sound the same. The only differences are where the [fill in the blank] is in [fill in the "place" name].

The separation is complete. Life in the urban landscape has become sterile, interchangable, replaceable, disposable and ultimately vapid and self-destructive. Place is replaced by indifferentiated space. Sure, it is separated by function and property ownership laws, but this is about it.

The innate meaning that people inscribe on the landscape become standardized and impotent. The city can be replicated and destroyed, rebuilt in a day and torn down without a trace. People play their roles, interact in predictable ways and days merge, blurring time.

Much ado about an old German restaurant? Perhaps. It cannot, however, be ignored that our lives are ever more standardized and dull. The Industrial Revolution did good things, but rarely in history is anything all good (or bad).

Remember, only you can help you change this.

NOTE: If the questions of space, place and meaning are of interest, these books are quite useful:
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. (His Topophilia is also quite good)
  • Italo Calvino, Imaginary Cities.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Jenks Response

One of the regular readers of this space, Matthew Gordon "The Beer Tsar" Jenks, has responded to some of my recent posts in rather copious fashion. First off thanks to all who read and respond here. You make doing this worthwhile. Secondly, I will respond/clairfy/expand on some of the aforementioned Beer Tsar's musings as of late (for the original texts, refer to the below referenced posts on this site and the comments therein):
  • "Blame Canada." - While I never expected an exodus of everyone from the "blue" states (that would involve my parents) moving to Canada, the results of the election did seem to land like a dull thud. The seeming coincidences of history, however, seem to be playing out. The Ol' Second Term Curse seems to be creeping in and one must wonder about the mid-term elections next year. Will the Democrats get their act together? They have an opportunity to really do something, but as of late, they seem to have trouble getting elected to much more than dog catcher or the joke jobs (Chicago building inspector, for example). As for Belgium, you make some good points. Germany ran over them twice and threatened a third time (during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War). I can see how the classic French rentier mentality survives; it has often been said that Frenchmen fly their flag on the left, but vote on the right. I think, moreover, that it must be said that Belgium, as we know it, has only existed since 1830 and they are in no way innocent of horrible atrocities in the past. Any time they want to deride the USA, remind them of King Leopold II and his "humanitarian" record in the Congo. That'll shut 'em up. Brussels may be a nice city and home of the EU, but it was built on the blood of millions of Africans. Let them choke on their Chimay with that.
  • "The 'Smoke-Filled Room' Commits Suicide." - Well put. As all of you know, I have long been an enemy of the nanny state. The state takes so much. We must fight tooth and nail for what we can salvage of our rights. It is sad, however, that we must concentrate on the mere dignities of life and not the "big" issues concerning our eroding rights. This news today, however, was a good sign. A good fight led in part by Russ Feingold, but if he thinks this is the basis for a presidential run, he's nuts. He will be a latter day Dennis Kucinich.
  • "Bucky Vs. A Dead Pope? Advantage Bucky!" - Football and polka? So, you were at the Essen Haus this fall? That describes a large part of my social life. Anyway, I never claimed that Wisconsin is claiming to be a b-ball powerhouse. Their gradual rise over the past years has raised us, I think, to the level of a "regional power." In traditional "Great Power" politics (thanks for the idea to my hero, A.J.P. Taylor), we have not gained Great Power status. Hockey is another issue. We are the best in the land, excepting that one upset against Michigan Tech last week (which was avenged the next day by a 7-0 drubbing). All of the Colorado college hockey teams like bitch-ass Colorado College and it's less hot sister the University of Denver can do various lewd things to certain regions of my anatomy. Namely the ballsack. Sorry for that...I really hate Colorado (with the exception of a few select people).
  • "Packers: Take Your Ball And Go Home." - I am a Chicago Bears fan, and you are telling me about teams needing time to rebuild? What the hell were the Dave Wannstead years? Well, and Dick Jauron...and Lovie Smith. The Bears have shown flashes of greatness lately, but are plagued by injury and fines. We must consider, after the embarassing loss to a desparate Pittsburgh team, that the world has not come to an end and that Atlanta is immenently beatable. As for the Packers, yes it is the time to rebuild and regain strength. Chicago teams are notorious for screwing up when it counts, so it could happen. Perhaps it is because I would have no other team as our rivals...we are the classic pairing. Still, it is a great moral victory for the Bears to beat the Packers, regardless of the condition/record of either franchise. It is like any classic can make a bad season good or a good one feel less glorious. I know here at Wisconsin, we had a decent season for King Barry's last, but the Minnesota game is always crucial. Being a Notre Dame fan, I needn't lecture you on classic football rivalries.

So there you go, Jenks. Thanks again and perhaps we shall gather on the ground of the Hoosier State once again.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Blame Canada

I felt that this post needed to happen.

I have had considerable feelings against Canadians (and Americans who would represent themselves as such) recently, and I felt the need to make everything clear.

Apart from the governing class in Canada (a story about which, as related to me be regular COTL reader Greg, will be discussed in turn), I felt the need to compile the...

List Of Canadians Will Shannon Does Not Hate

Gordon Lightfoot
Stephan Jackson and his dad, Gord.
Dr. David Mc Donald, Ph.D.
David Clayton Thomas
Kids in the Hall (Scott Thompson, David Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCullough and Kevin
John Candy
Eugene Levy
Dave Thomas
Joe Flaherty
Rick Moranis
Catherine O'Hara
Harold Ramis
Dan Ackroyd
Andrea Mitchell
Billy Bishop
The Band
Neil Young

See. just admit that you are a Canuck and we will be fine.

As for you Yankee Doodles who claim otherwise, I have one message. There are two crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution of the United States: treason and counterfeiting.

The punishment for both is hanging.

I am not kidding.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Christmas Time In The City, Mike Royko Style

I have been resisting saying or doing anything Christmas related this year. The seemingly forced festivity does not correlate with my general mood of stress and impending deadlines. I need another thing to worry about like I need a kick in the shorts.

I did, however, remember a piece by one of my all-time heros, Mike Royko, that always struck me at this time of year. It is reproduced below.

It is one of hundreds of Royko's columns that prove that he was one of the greatest newspaper columnists of all time. Nobody captured the mind, heart and soul of a city like Mike Royko did with Chicago. It's too bad he's gone.

If you get a chance, see the Mike Royko exhibit at the Newberry Library.

This column was originally published in the Chicago Daily News on December 19, 1967.

Mary and Joe, Chicago Style

Mary and Joe were flat broke when they got off the bus in Chicago.

They didn't know anybody and she was expecting a baby.

They went to a cheap hotel. But the clerk jerked his thumb at the door when they couldn't show a day's rent in advance.

They walked the streets until they saw a police station. The desk sergeant said they couldn't sleep in a cell, but he told them how to get to a welfare office.

A man there said they couldn't get regular assistance because they hadn't been Illinois residents long enough. But he gave them the address of the emergency welfare office on the West Side.

It was a two-mile walk up Madison Street. Someone gave them a card with a number on it and they sat down on a bench, stared at the peeling green paint and waited for their number to be called.

Two hours later, a caseworker motioned them forward, took out blank forms and asked questions: Any relatives? Any means of getting money? Any assets?

Joe said he owned a donkey. The caseworker told him not to get smart or he'dbe thrown out. Joe said he was sorry.

The caseworker finished the forms and said they were entitled to emergency CTA fare to County Hospital because of Mary's condition. And he told Joe to go to an Urban Progress Center for occupational guidance.

Joe thanked him and they took a bus to the hospital. A guard told them to wait on a bench. They waited two hours, and then Mary got pains and theytook her away. Someone told Joe to come back tomorrow.

He went outside and asked a stranger on the street for directions to an Urban Progress Center. The stranger hit Joe on the head and took his overcoat. Joe was still lying there when a paddy wagon came along so they pinched him for being drunk on the street.

Mary had a baby boy during the night. She didn't know it, but three foreign-looking men in strange, colorful robes came to the hospital asking about her and the baby. A guard took them for hippies and called the police. They found odd spices on the men so the narcotics detail took them downtown for further questioning.

The next day Mary awoke in a crowded ward. She asked for Joe. Instead, a representative of the Planned Parenthood Committee came by to give her a lecture on birth control.

Next, a social worker came for her case history. She asked Mary who the father was. Mary answered and the social worker ran for the nurse. The nurse questioned her and Mary answered. The nurse stared at her and ran for the doctor. The doctor wrote "postpartum delusion'' on her chart.

An ambulance took Mary to the Cook County Mental Health Clinic the next morning. A psychiatrist asked her questions and pursed his lips at theanswers.

A hearing was held and a magistrate committed her to the Chicago StateHospital.

Joe got out of the House of Corrections a couple of days later and went to the County Hospital for Mary. They told him she was at Chicago State and the baby had been placed in a foster home by the state Department of Children and Family Services.

When Joe got to Chicago State, a doctor told him what Mary had said about the baby's birth. Joe said Mary was telling the truth. They put Joe in a ward at the other end of the hospital.

Meanwhile, the three strangely dressed foreign-looking men were released after the narcotics detail could find no laws prohibiting the possession of myrrh and frankincense. They returned to the hospital and were taken for civil rights demonstrators. They were held in the County Jail on $100,000 bond.

By luck, Joe and Mary met on the hospital grounds. They decided to tell the doctors what they wanted to hear. The next day they were declared sane andwere released.

When they applied for custody of Mary's baby, however, they were told it was necessary for them to first establish a proper residence, earn a proper income and create a suitable environment.

They applied at the Urban Progress Center for training under the Manpower Development Program. Joe said he was good at working with wood. He was assigned to a computer data-processing class. Mary said she'd gladly do domestic work. She was assigned to a course in key-punch operating. Both got $20-a-week stipends.

Several months later, they finished the training. Joe got a job in a gas station and Mary went to work as a waitress.

They saved their money and hired a lawyer. Another custody hearing was held and several days later the baby was ordered returned to them.

Reunited finally, they got back to their two-room flat and met the landlord on the steps. He told them Urban Renewal had ordered the building torn down.The City Relocation Bureau would get them another place.

They packed, dressed the baby and hurried to the Greyhound bus station.

Joe asked the ticket man when the next bus was leaving.

"Where to?'' the ticket man asked.

"Anywhere,'' Joe said, "as long as it is right now.''

He gave Joe three tickets and in five minutes they were on a bus heading for southern Illinois--the area known as "Little Egypt.''

Just as the bus pulled out, the three strangely dressed men ran into the station. But they were too late. The bus was gone.

So they started hiking down U.S. 66. But at last report they were pinched on suspicion of being foreigners in illegal possession of gold.

[Copyright Chicago Tribune (c) 1997]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The "Smoke-Filled Room" Commits Suicide?

Read it and weep, Chicago smokers.

The regular readers of this space know what I think of this issue. There is no more need to kvetch about that part of the issue.

What struck me was a turn of phrase from the past, a term coined in Chicago that popped into my head upon reading this development.

The phrase "a smoke-filled room" was coined in Chicago on June 11, 1920 at the Blackstone Hotel during the Republican National Convention.

The power brokers of the party could not come to a consensus on a candidate. They recessed into a room at the Blackstone and made the decision that Warren G. Harding was their man. The Associated Press reported that the decision was made in a "smoke-filled room."

Ever since, the phrase has been used in political circles to denote a back-room compromise wherein the leaders make an unpopular decision without the input of the people.

The city that birthed the phrase, by textbook example of its eventual definition, made the conditions for its genesis impossible.

Put that in your pipe least sleep on it, Chicago.

Bucky Vs. A Dead Pope? Advantage Bucky!

This is the sort of story that makes me glad I slog through local news every day.

For those who are lazy or fingerless, it seems that the telecast of the UW-Madison vs. UW-Green Bay basketball game tomorrow trumps a made-for-TV biopic on the late Pope John Paul II. People are actually mad that they have to stay up until one in the morning to see Jon Voight play the late pope.

Read the damned story. I am not clever enough to make this up.

Bucky (who will most likely administer a thorough rogering to UW-GB), in a real sense, is of more concern than the pope. Well, not actually...

It is not REALLY the dead pope. If he were brought back to life, THEN I could see it trump a non-conference basketball game mid week. As it stands, however, it is just a made for TV movie with Jon Voight as the pope. Is this really the sort of programming that is so timely that one must stay up 'till all hours of the night to see the first time it is broadcast.

The pope is not going to be any less dead. Tivo it or tape it. I guarantee you that the ending will always be the same. Just like that movie Titanic. The boat sinks. Save yourself the trip.

We also are in an area of the country lousy with Scandie and German Lutherans who could not give a good god damn about a movie on the pope, or even Martin Luther for that matter. They want b-ball action from the Kohl Center and by jingo they'll get it. I cannot blame them. This is also the HOME OF THE UW-MADISON, where people care about all of the games, especially against other Wisconsin institutions. You should have seen the place when they played Marquette last weekend. Tickets were going for over $200.

You tell me that these people really care about a toss-off made for TV yawn festival on a story that interested parties already know well and uninterested don't care to learn about.

So, save your breath, set the recording device of your choice and go to bed. He'll still be dead in the morning.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Packers: Take Your Ball And Go Home

I try to keep the content of this blog fairly erudite. Discussing matters of importance and depth, I attempt to make people think and encourage them to respond in a dialogue that hopefully enriches everyone.

Sometimes, however, I must use this space for other reasons.

This post is one of them.

Since I moved to Wisconsin back in August, I have been waiting for this day. My first Bears/Packers game in Wisconsin. As a life-long Bears fan, I relished the notion of being that one jerk in the bar in Wisconsin pulling for the Bears. If they lost, I would have to shut up and go home.

This, thankfully, was not an issue.

Granted, the Packers are just about the shittiest team in the league right now (not to mention the rampant injuries and Favre being an old man), but the Bears are for real. Read the recap of the game and see what I mean.

I have been taking considerable joy this year hearing Packer fans whine and moan about their team. But the happiness that I feel today is worth it.

Now, I must face the prospect of a Bears playoff run in the same year that the White Sox won the World Series (believe me, that last one has still not completely sunk in).

These are the problems you don't mind having.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rights: A Distant Memory

Stop what you are doing right now and read Nat Hentoff's latest commentary in the Village Voice.

Yep, that's right. The U.S. Supreme Court has, in a big way, lost its jursidiction.

Now people who have suffered some of the most vile and horrid abuses at the hands of the state cannot even gain access to the highest court in the land.

But, frighteningly enough, that is not the worst part.

This even extends to violations of the writ of habeas corpus.

Yes, that most fundamental right that has been a standard in English common law since the thirteenth century, inherited into our common law since the time of the colonies. It is simple, basic and fundamental to the functioning of a free, just and open society.

And now, because of legislative doubletalk and desire for power-without-consequence, this right may be denied to those who should have it the most.

Hentoff makes a special case of the Gitmo detainees, who are doubtless the reason for this bit of legislative detritus.

Think, for a moment, about the implications of a decision like this.

In one fell swoop, one branch of government limited the access of the citizenry (supposedly the granter of power to any government) to another branch of government-the one that should redress grievances of abuse by private parties and the state alike. What is worse is that the limits were placed, voted on and approved BY THE BODY WE ELECT!

I have always been suspect of the Supreme Court, its unelected membership and their ability to affect long-term change without input from the people. One need only to look at the allegations being leveled at Samuel Alito and his now-famous memo to see that these people wield entirely too much power. Now the legislature, who are supposed to be accountable to the people on occasion, have done it. I have never respected many of the people mentioned in the Hentoff piece, and over the past few years, my respect for John McCain has been slipping significantly.

What this proves conclusively, for those who have not yet noticed, is that the legislature and indeed the entire government does not care about the rights of the citizen-even rights as basic as being told why one is being put in prison.

To paraphrase William F. Buckley, I would rather live in a country governed by the first 535 people in the Washington D.C. phone book than by the U.S. Congress. How much worse could they do?

The Bill of Rights and the rights guaranteed by common law are slowly but surely dying in the United States. When we remove the scales from our collective eyes and realize this? We elect these people year after year without thinking of the larger implications of giving such people power. WE are the source of that power, the governed. We give the government power over our lives. They have taken too much and it is time to take it back.

To conclude, I am not sure what can be done. I do, however, take some inspiration in the words (not exactly literally) of Thomas Jefferson:

The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

From The Mundane To The Picayune

Just a few quick items and observations:
  1. This is quite disturbing but not at all surprising. Leave it to the government and the military to engage in a disinformation campaign in their quest for a "free Iraq."
  2. Way to keep Hillary honest, Breslin! You are almost as good as Mike Royko. Not quite, but close.
  3. Some might call this tasteless, but I think it's brilliant. Laughter heals and satire is needed in such a terrible situation. Those who think otherwise are the people who botched the whole thing in the first place.

Just a taste, as it is semester's end and I am buried under mounds of bound materials.

I am only kidding a little.

Friday, November 18, 2005

At Home With Booze And Tobacco: A Reflection From Madison

(This was originally a response to an email from Matt Jenks regarding the move in Chicago to ban forties. It is reproduced here with links inserted for several of the stories and facts mentioned therein).

Perhaps it is for the best that I moved to Wisconsin when I did. I am quite a fan of the fo'ty. I like to keep a few in the back of the fridge either to prime the pump at the start of the evening or as a nightcap. Nothing says "sweet dreams" like forty icy cold ounces of Camo, Big Bear, OE HG800 and the like.

Madison is a city with real identity problem when it comes to drinking. It is, undoubtedly, awash with booze every day of the week. There is, however, a constant battle between Mayor Dave (the closest thing to a socialist without waving a red book above your head) and the bar owners over power and control. First, about two years ago, the mayor forced campus-area bars to get rid of their drink specials. I hear from my compatriots who have lived here for a while that they were truly monumental (like buy one beer, get five free, 50 cent pitchers). Since that, there has been a scandal involving bars and price fixing of drinks to bilk students out of money. I think that these are just the stupid students who fail to realize that cases of Blatz can be had at area grocery stores for $6.99.

For my part, I don't do much of my drinking at bars. I have a corner tavern that I have started to haunt somewhat regularly, but this is usually at the beginning of the night to eat or to watch the Badger games on Saturdays. I like the fact that, at home, the booze is bought and paid for, I am in control of who is there, what is on the TV, what music is playing and what the temperature. Then there is the issue of smoking.

I am a fairly regular cigar and pipe smoker. Nothing spells relax-o-tation than a glass of bourbon and a cigar the size of a Pringles can. I must stay home to do these things in tandem because of the aforementioned mayor who would make a better prime minister of Sweden than mayor of a mid-sized American city.

For as of July 1, 2005, there is no smoking inside of bars and restaurants in the City of Madison. This, coupled with the pressure on drinks prices, has caused the bar owners around campus, and the Dane County Chapter of the Tavern League of Wisconsin to spearhead an effort to recall the mayor for being decidedly anti-business. I am proud to say that this, among other things, motivated me to register to vote here (I was going to anyway) so that I could sign the petition.
This new law, apart from depriving an already put-upon citizenry of what little joy remains in modern life, has basically signed the death warrant for several local establishements. The most profoundly effected by this have been the bars and restaurants that border on other municipalities in the Madison (except Shorewood Hills which has more stringent smoking regulations than even Madison does).

Also, and most ludicrously, is the fact that no exception was made for cigar bars. That's right, you cannot smoke in a cigar bar, nor can you enjoy a hookah of flavorful tobacco in a Middle Eastern restaurant (a most enjoyable experience, I must say). The city, in doing this, has basically handed these business their "Going-Out-Of-Business" papers. If there was ever any doubt that the mayor and his cadre on the city council and the county board are attempting behavior control and social engineering by legislation, this fact should make it clear.

Now, I understand the notion that the heatlh of employees is an issue in all of this. This issue must be looked at on a local level. There seems to be a plethora of employment opportunities at the same level of experience and pay as restaurant and bar workers in the Madison area. Even a cursory look at the UW jobs site and the local papers lists many jobs in environments that are smoke-free. I hate to use a trite trope, but nobody has a gun to your head, forcing you to work in a bar.

So, where does this leave us all? I think that we all need to take appropriate political action against people like Mayor Dave and declare our independence from laws that deprive us of freedom to act as we choose. In the meantime, however, perhaps speakeasies need to have a resurgance or people will have to follow my lead and say...

"When It Comes To Smokes and Liquor, There's No Place Like Home."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Paris Burning: Intellectual Laziness On My Part

(This is in response to the comment posted by my friend Aaron Cynic on the previous post. I felt I needed to retract a few things and clarify others. Hey, I am an imperfect human.)

Perhaps I made this comment in haste and didn't fully think it through.
I stand by the notion that the French government, like all governments, is ignorant of the concerns of the people that it holds power ocer. I also agree that coercion is never the answer to dealing with the population.

What I was concerned with, and perhaps "neutralize" was the wrong word, is the violence against people and property. Sometimes it becomes necessary to take drastic action to get the government to stand up and take notice. That was the source of my reminder to the French government of their past of such action, not only in 1789, but in 1830, 1848, 1870, 1968.
These people are disenfranchised and therefore do not have access to the system by which political change can be affected. Naturally, then, they must use other means to have their concerns heard.

I am sure that after the last two weeks, the French government has taken notice and possibly might make some changes. Frustration plus disenfranchisement plus poverty can equal disaster. This is clear.

So, to sum up, I retract my unfortunate choice of language and suggestion that people be put down mercilessly. This was an error in judgement made in haste.

As for religion and the French government, I think the record of history speaks for itself. The French government, since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, has actively sought to subordinate the will of the church to the will of the state. The majority of French people are nominally Catholic. This does not, however, translate into very strong feelings. Churches in France remain empty on most Sundays.

I think that the French identify more with their nationality than with religion and this strikes at the root of the problem at hand. This identity is being defined by different people in different ways and there is a lack of agreement so wide that it has caused violence and a strong-armed response.

I still stand behind the notion that dialogue is better than violence. I do understand, however, that sometimes talk won't work or is not an option. In this case, unconventional means must be taken to bring the issue to the fore.

I am, to reiterate, against government violence against citizens. This breaks the essential contract of democratic government.

I just always prefer peace to conflict. Sometimes, unfortunately, this is not an option.

Thanks, Aaron, for keeping my on my toes with this. I spoke in haste, didn't think things through, and you called me on it.

Also, thanks to Matt Jenks for agreeing with some of my flawed statement (a part that I did not retract above.)

Now, there are some true friends and intellectual fellow travellers.

Thanks again.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paris Burning and the "Clash of Civilizations"

I felt compelled (before engaging my responses to the last post) to offer a few observations concerning the sustained violence and rioting in France among certain populations that feel that the French government is not respecting their rights.

Click here for the story from the perspective of the larger Arab community.
Click here for the response of French ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Beyond the ancillary concerns raised by this issue (such as the growth of the right in post Cold War Western Europe and the crisis faced by the French government), the main issue at stake here is the idea of the clash of civilizations.

That term, in its modern form, comes from a 1992 Foreign Affairs article by Samuel Huntington in which he argues that the civilizations of the West and the Arab world are so fundamentally different that their clash in violent conflict is inevidable. This assertion is predicated on the notion that religious ideals run at the heart of every culture and governmental system.

While I would be an idiot to deny that religion is a crucial aspect of culture and society, I must believe that, for most of the world, these personal beliefs can be curtailed in a secular form of government. I believe that governments must, for a start, be completely devoid of religious pretension or the hopes of imparting religious principles and dogma on a population. Unless this can be, no further progress can be made.

Does this smack of Fukuyama and his notion that the end of history comes with the triumph of liberal democracy. Yes and no. Liberal democracy is, in my opinion, the best and fairest way to govern. I cannot, however, agree that this is the final stage of the process. There are still many places where people are mistreated, underrepresented and generally shoved aside by a state that does not have their best interests in mind. Now, I do agree that states usually DON'T have the best interests of their people in mind, but at least with a liberal democracy, your chances seem to historically improve.

The French state is, for all of its problems, a secular one, as are a growing majority of governments in the Islamic world (if there is one thing you could never accuse Saddam Hussein of it is of being an Islamic extremist). The more specific issue here is how this secular state treats religious minorities. Can they legally be denied access to jobs, aid and the benefits of French citizenship. No, but it happens anyway. Do they come from parts of the world where things are a lot worse than they are in France? You bet.

Citizenship is, anymore, a more difficult subject to grasp. With borders falling and linkages of all sorts in place, saying that I am an " " is getting harder and harder. What makes one "French?" The fact of being born there? Living there? What can help to integrate these people into what appears to be a more closed society than our own?

What is clear, however, is that violence and rioting will not make conditions better for the people who most certainly have problems with their current situation. Did it ever occur to them that rioting only makes the police and the state more mad and less likely to compromise with leadership? On the other side, does the French government realize that sticking disaffected immigrants with no hope or prospects in delapidated housing projects is a recepie for disaster?

In a country with a revolutionary tradition and mythology like France, such measures should strike a particular chord with the leadership. Torch bearing mobs of people who want a bigger slice of the pie? Ring a bell?

What is to be done? Neutralize the radicals like the head rioters and the likes of Le Pen. Sit down with people, individuals and hear their concerns with the honest intention of making an equitable solution for all people involved. Remember the individual? The basis of society? Treat people as such and not just as a group to be herded and ignored and you take a step to progress.

Monolithic solutions lead to totalitarianism.

Only individual rights lead to peace.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An Exercise In Community Commentary

Seeing as I often offer my views individually, I thought that I would do my next round of commentary in a somewhat different way.

Below you will find three pieces of opinion/commentary on issues of the day with larger implications. Pick one (or two or all of them), give it a think and respond via a comment to this post, making reference to the piece that you read. All of these struck me as "discussion-worthy," and I wanted to see what all of you think. Feel free also to post your response on your own site and link to it here.
  1. Maureen Dowd on the feminism, sex roles and images of gender.
  2. Anna Quindlen on correlating Iraq and Vietnam.
  3. George Will on the nomination of Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court.

I will post my responses as well.

Happy thinking (though, not necessarily happy thoughts).

Monday, October 31, 2005


Sorry I had to erase that post. Not because of content, but the large size would push all of these posts down and you would not get the news and comment as quickly as before.

Which you like, right?


P.S. The Cubs still blow goats.

The News: Scary (Like Halloween)

Let's give this some quick coverage and comment so that I can get home and ignore the doorbell:
  1. New Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr. Where do these people come from? Well, you can't say that the president didn't have a couple of backups. At least this guy WAS a judge at some point. He may not be a Scalia clone. Sloppy seconds?
  2. Good to see that some things never change in Russia. Can you give us a definite no, there, Vlad? As a European historian, I never like to hear a Russian leader talk like this.
  3. This never really changes either. To quote Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder in Blackadder III, "We don't like the French. We hate them. We fight wars against them!"

So there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What's On Will's Mind?

Well, lots. Here, for your perusal, are some scattered items that have crossed my mental plain recently.

The Origins of World War I. Was it really the end for the ancien regime in Europe as Arno Meyer would have us believe? I would tend to agree, but would also say that different countries have different systems and different developments. Can it be that simple?

Praxeology. This man's ideas are fascinating.

Postmodernism, relativism and the study of history. I agree with the ideas of Professor Winschuttle in principle, but he comes off as somewhat of a polemicist. How can we engage these brutalizers of the discipline and beat them at their own game? Or have they structured it so that they always win? Or was Henry Ford right when he said history "is just one goddamned thing after another?"

Immanuel Wallerstein. Over-simplistic or brilliant argument of synthesis?

Just lettin' you know what has got a hold of my brain banana.

How about you?

Winston Churchill, A Sox Fan?

Not really just for the recent baseball victory, but a good sentiment for all life. If we work hard and pay attention, we will all win well-deserved victories.

For this situation specifically, I think there are no more deserving group of fans that need a big win than us intrepid, maligned South Siders.

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill called...will you accept the charges?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Now It's Our Turn


Take that Cubs fans. Feel kinda sad? Well, you should. Nothing beats a loveable loser like, um, a winner.

Congrats guys! You earned it and the South Side is 100% behind you.

"Chicago White Sox, 2005 American League Champions."

Has a nice ring to it, eh?

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Iron Lady On Iraq

(Read my previous post. It's ranting is the main thought for the week. This is simply another interesting distraction).

I have tried to keep my views on the Iraq situation to a minimum on this site, it being the single most overanalyized happening since 9/11. In short, I believe that it is good that Saddam is gone, the military victory was a given, and it seems now that we were not really sure what we were getting into. Positive steps are being made, but a better plan would have naturally given better results.

That said, I read something in The Independent today that really caught my attention.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain (1979-1990), has expressed her doubts over Britain's involvement in the Iraq war.

She agrees that Saddam had to go but that the strategy was convoluted and that involvement has become problematic.

People need to pay attention to these words coming from this person.

Why, you ask?

Three words. The Falklands War.

Yes, folks, this is the PM that led Great Britain into a war with Argentina over a few barren islands with scrubby coastline and a few inhabitants. Broadly, it was Thatcher's belligerence that led to the confrontation.

When a person who started a war over useless islands criticizes your war...

Fine, Go To Canada. More Freedom For Us.

In talking to many of my colleagues here at this educational institution somewhere in the American Midwest (I won't say exactly, but the keener among you I am sure can hazard a guess), it seems that there is a love fest between young, liberal intellectuals and Canada.

It seems that they want to move there, become Canadian citizens and live happily ever after in such riveting places as Toronto (which is like Pittsburgh without a decent football team). They even go as far as to claim they are Canadians when asked about their identities abroad. They are ashamed to be Americans and want to get out of here as soon as possible.

I am, naturally, not new to this position. It seems that whenever things get tough in the US of A, the cowards and fatalists throw up their hands, strap on their skates and head north. They see Canada as the USA without problems, issues or difficulties. They point to the kind, socialist policies of the Canadian government that care for you from cradle to frozen grave. Incidentally, have you ever noticed that real Canadians (not these wannabes) all have a standard, ten minute speech on the benefits of socialized medicine? I think it is like their Pledge of Allegiance.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I am no blind, jingoistic patriot of the "America: Right or Wrong" stripe. We have our problems, societal hangups, economic challenges and political calcification just like any modern bureaurcatic nanny state. It is the nature of the modern state to suffer from such byzantine entanglements because the state becomes an entity unto itself: hard to change and impossible to get rid of.

What I do take considerable umbrage with is the attitude of these people that the idea of America is flawed, that the nation is beyond repair and that the best thing to do is run for the border and I ain't talkin' Taco Bell here.

By all means, get mad, get angry, but then get busy making change happen. Raise peoples awareness of issues, go to meetings of governmental bodies and let 'em know what you think. Exercise those rights that make this nation the great place that it is and can be.

I think that, along with this hatred of America, comes a doubting that the ideas that formed our nation are good, useful and viable, or ever desirable. As almost any schoolkid (at least fifteen years ago they probably could) can tell you, the "idea of America" comes out of the ideas of Enlightenment. From the words of the likes of John Locke, Baron Charles le Secondat de Montesquieu, the Marquis de Condorcet and many more, the vision of a rational, just and fair society migrated from Europe to the newly minted USA. These ideas, in my opinion, form the core of ideas for the most just, fair, equitable and humane society that mankind could ever hope to create.

Is it flawed? Sure is and the authors were the first to admit it, especially the framers of the Constitution. They allowed the thing to be amended, allowed for regular elections and generally put their trust (hesitant in the case of Alexander Hamilton) in the people to forge their own destiny as individuals gathered in a nation.

Now who could possibly have a problem with this? The intellectual of the sort who views the reason of the Enlightenment as stifling and, even worse, the hoary father and mother of the horrors that were inherent in the "short" twentieth century (1914-1991). The likes of Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectics of Enlightenment, place the combine of reason, technology and the growth of the state in both at the center of the development of conditions that would lead to Hitler, the Holocaust, Stalin and the terrors that would supposedly bring on this "postmodern" world in the first place.

What must be remembered of Adorno and Horkheimer is the times that they made their ideas were the immediate aftermath (and I mean immediate) of the terror of WWII. No one knew what to make of it; they were just trying to get over the daily fear of death, invasion and incarceration. I suspect that in want of an explanation for the absurd horror of war, they sought the cause in the intellectual heritage of the past centuries.

What is endemic in these ideas is that the Enlightenment saw its end, and thankfully, in the terror of the Second World War and we are now in a period of reaction where the evil forces of reason are in retreat. The postmodern condition allows, in my estimation, for an even more crass brutalization of humankind by the mere fact that it removes it as a prime actor in history.

Apart from atmospheric happenings, most of what goes on here is the doing of people and the "games people play," such as economics, military conquest, social formation, culture and so on. To remove people from the center of this dynamic is to render the whole enterprise on planet Earth meaningless. In this state, take their conclusions to the radical end. Since we are so unimportant and that history will roll on without us, why not some Jonestown-like mass suicides. With the prime actor removed, it shouldn't make a difference.

This is somewhat of a simplification, but the point should be made. Postmodern thinking in opposition to the Enlightentment is the sophistry of the worst order. I prefer to agree with the likes of Jurgen Habermas, Peter Gay and Roger Chartier in thinking that the Enlightenment is not complete and that we are still living in a distinctly modern world. The postmodern idea is simply a radical offshoot of the modernist project of eternal reason and progress. The Enlightenment will never end, but it can change.

It is the legacy of those years that are left to us to ponder, use and define. It is our world, but in a certain way, we play by their rules. We have been bequeathed this great idea of a reasonable and just society that can foster progressive change through the actions of its concerned and thoughtful citizens. THIS is America and it is the America that we should all strive to build.

Or we can be cowards, move to Montreal and bemoan the stupid, philistine Americans with their complete lack of ideas about progress, reason, fairness and true freedom.

Give me a fucking break.

Friday, October 07, 2005

What Ever Would Derrida Say?

Being a historian in this day and age, one gets bombarded with the language of postmodernism, poststructuralism, cultural studies, linguistics and all other such ideas and modalities.

While they are important and can offer the historian a valuable tool for considering sources (although the good historian is always critical of his/her sources and their nature as biased items), the lingo and pretention of the postmodern zealots gets old quick. One also gets the idea that they themselves are not sure what they are on about.

This is why this site, the Postmodernism Generator, is simply brilliant.

Click on the link and PRESTO! Your own postmodern critical essay, complete with references. Don't like it? Click the link at the bottom of the page and get another.

These brilliant folks use a random generator with discursive language to generate these things.

Also, read the wonderful story of Professor Alan Sokal of NYU. A physics professor, he wrote a postmodern critique of science as a parody (it was utterly meaningless) and it was published by a cultural criticism journal. The link takes you to dr. Sokal's site.

Or, since it's Friday, get drunk and pass out again.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Blowback Is Hardly The Word

Well, folks, our fearless leader has done it once more, but it is slightly worse. With the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court (you remember, the unelected branch of our government that serves lifetime terms and can change the way the nation works?), he seems to have done the opposite of what everyone thought he was going to do.

Remember that people, in general, thought that John Roberts was a nice, safe candidate with the complete lack of a past or any charisma? Well, this turned out to be true; what was certain, according to most, seemed to be that the next nomination would be a strong conservative with a record to match who would squeak by the Senate, but once there, would move the Court right for the forseeable future?

Not so much. What GWB actually did was reward an old crony with the most plum of sweet government jobs and managed to piss off exactly the people he was hoping to please. Maybe he figured that, what with the "person with no past" Roberts doing well, that a blank slate is the best move.

Not surprisingly, the Internet is simply awash with commentary, whining and general sturm und drang. Here is a fun sampling, but first, my take.

I think that Bush sprung a surprise on the GOP faithful with a crony patronage appointment. While this sort of thing CAN be overlooked at lower levels (hey, I am from Chicago), n0t really for the Supreme Court. She seems, and yes I knew who she was before today, to be somewhat unqualified for the job. She has never been a judge, for a start. Yes, she is a lawyer, but she is the president's personal attorney. Just cause your boss is famous dosen't make you a good lawyer. She may be yet another Trojan horse conservative who will sink the fangs in as soon as robe and gavel are proffered; on the other hand, she could turn into another David Souter.

All in all, I think that this was a smart play from the standpoint of the administration and its machinations. I am not sure if Karl Rove was involved in this, the boss might have just done this one by himself. How can you tell? Well, she has some problems and some strange inconsistencies in her past, but I don't think enough to scuttle her. Bush just has to keep those 55 guys in GOP lockstep and the miracle will happen again. Hell, maybe Scalia is sick...

Now that sampling:

Conservative Bitching and Moaning
Pat Buchanan
Rush Limbaugh
Bill Kristol
Shitload of Conservative Blogs
One conservative group that supports the decision

News, Rumors and Other Sniveling About The Whole Thing
Whoops! Looks like she supported banning abortion! Minus one for George!
She was the Lottery Commissioner of Texas. Jeez, not the first time GWB got her a job.
She gave money to Al 1988. Might not count, but BidenKennedyDurbin will make a mention.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Parliament Of Whores

(thanks to P.J. O'Rourke for the title of this post).

Well, well boys. Looks like some of the sleazy business of campaigning is coming home to roost for the Bush Administration's Congressional hatchet-man.

Tom DeLay (R-TX) was indicted for accepting illegal campaign donations in Texas.

Read the text of the indictment here.

With this, the ethical Martha Stewart-like problems plaguing Bill Frist (R-TN), it seems that the Republican majority in Congress, and indeed their leadership is having as many credibility problems as the President.

What does all of this mean in the long run? It seems that the Republicans, political capital long spent, have entered the "locust years" of their wave that started in 1994 with their seizure of the majority in Congress, topped out with the 2000 and 2004 elections of a Republican president, and came crashing down as the war lingers with no solution, the response to a national disaster was botched and the realization of their plight sets in.

This seems, for the GOP, to be the typical second term syndrome that hits all Presidents who serve twice. The second term is brutal, unforgiving and only made worse when problems hit concerning credibility.

Read this excellent piece by David Green. It really captures the hopeless position that the current ruling faction finds themselves in. You know it is serious when Bob Novak is wondering about the dedication of the GOP base.

Look out because the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections just got a whole lot more important. There could be a real change because of these lingering concerns.

Or people can go on being afraid and stupid and leave these morons at the switch.

Balls in your court. Wanna play?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Let's Make This Quick

Really, I want to go home and eat and read more British Foreign Office dispatches from WWI.

  • To paraphrase America, by John Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show, what is it about Americans and our ability to merchandise in the face of tragedy? Witness, therefore, Hurricane Katrina the Alcoholic Beverage. All I will say is the following: it's slogan is "Get Blown Away" and it was created by two lawyers. The only fitting punishment for this is to provide all stricken people with a lifetime supply. God knows, of anyone, they could use a drink.
  • The NYT cutting people? That is a pretty big cut. This can mean one of several things. Dwindling readership of print editions, redundancy or something bigger. Who actually reads the NYT? Is it the "paper of record" anymore? What about making up news? Can there ever be a paper of record? Are newspapers becoming more and more irrelevant?
  • Iraqi officials have embezzled billions from their own budget? Well, they certainly have the whole "robbing the budget blind" part of government down well enough. They learn fast and I am sure that Saddam was a good teacher. Things couldn't be going better.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Can You Answer? Yes, I Can.

Allright, Frema was good enough to provide me with some good questions. Let's hope I get 'em right...

1. What is the bravest thing you've ever done?
While I cannot say that I have ever done anything "brave" like in combat or life-or-death situations, I think that have participated in some personal bravery. I think it took considerable courage to completely change careers (Financial Services back to Academia), spend three years and too much money to get an M.A., and then uproot my entire life and move to a place where I know absolutely no-one. I guess you could say, in this sense, I am living my personal bravery moment as we speak.

In a broader sense, I have never been afraid to take unpopular positions or make unpopular decisions if I felt that they were the right thing to do. I also do not mind defending things that I believe in deeply even if it is dangerous or unpopular. It's what I think, deal with it.

2. What do you think is the most embarassing black mark on American history?
As a historian, I have many different feelings and opinions about this subject, but here is the overarching theme. The greatest injustice that American society does (and keeps on doing) is oppression and exclusion in the face of a "civil religion" that is based on individual liberty. Wether it be women, racial or ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians, the tune is all the same. The promise of America is denied in the face of such bright promise. The examples could (and do) fill the pages of our national consciousness. Often, we try to define America as who we are not. That is wrong and betrays the true goodness at the heart of the idea of America.

3. Which TV or movie character--past or present--best embodies your "perfect match"?
This, for me, was the toughest question. Let's see...character, not actor. I always liked Suzanne Pleshette's character on "The Bob Newhart Show." She was smart, sarcastic, an equal match for her mate, sexy but not in-your-face, an unconventional sense of humor. Seems that would suit me just fine. Ahh, that lucky bastard Tom Poston.

Hope these insights are somewhat fruitful! Keep 'em coming!

Friday, September 16, 2005

What Could Be The Answer To The Answer Man?

My friend Frema did this on her site and I thought it might be an interesting exercise. Here goes...

1. Ask me three questions. Any three, no matter how personal, private or random.

2. I have to answer them honestly, and I have to answer them all.

3. In turn, post this message on your blog and answer all questions asked of you.

Think about that over the weekend, post your responses and I will answer them next week.

Until then, enjoy the weekend. The Badgers are out of town this weekend, and I still can't find anywhere to watch the Bears. With their performance, that might not be entirely bad.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Last Call? Hell No!

In an interesting piece of local news, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has called for bars on Madison's State Street to close 90 minutes early on the Saturday of Halloween weekend. The reason given is that the event has ended in violence in the past three years coupled with the fact that the time changes on that Sunday morning at 2:00. This means that, techincally, the bars are open an hour longer.

In the Wisconsin State Journal article, an understandibly flustered Dane County Tavern League says that this is the last straw. After being hit with fines, lawsuits and a ban on smoking, the DCTL is not about to let the mayor do this on what is a big sales night for them; they claim they are desparate for the business.

There are a few things at work here. I can see the mayor's point of wanting to avoid violence (and this is not an exaggeration; fires, fights and mayhem cost businesses and the city hundreds of thousands of dollars). Apart from this concern, I have trouble seeing how the mayor can do this with a clear head (no pun intended).

These tavern owners, and I have spoken personally to a few, say that their business is suffering from the smoking ban as well as a so-so local economy and a simple change in drinking habits. Read this article in The Capital Times for more information and background. They have laid people off and some are even talking about shutting their doors for good.

How should this problem be dealt with? It seems that there needs to be some coordination between the government and business owners so that all can benefit and the rioting can be averted. Step up police patrols; a few extra boots on the ground may seem like passing on the costs of the irresponsible to the tax payers, but it may be a good deal in the long term when violence is quelled.

For their part, the tavern owners must more stringently enforce I.D. laws. Unfortunately, there are no state laws regarding serving those who appear intoxicated nor are there dram shop laws in Wisconsin. While it is hard to turn away a paying customer, the owners of taverns and bars must work with the authorities and turn the already-overserved away. A simple, legal way is to invoke the right of any business owner to refuse service to anyone and if they refuse to leave, have them arrested for trespassing (kinda like they do it in Vegas).

Now, for more wishful thinking, it would be nice if college students could excercise some control or simply drink at home with friends (which is what I did). It seems that they cannot do this, and there may be deeper factors at play. It seems that these people, still young and full of fight, need control from elsewhere. Little do they know that if they minded their intake, none of this would be necessary.

As for me, I will stay at home, get some refreshing beverages and answer my door for the kiddies. A fun game for just such an occasion. Gather your friends on Halloween and have a good quantity of spirits on hand. Take turns answering the door and consume for each trick-or-treater that comes on your turn. Safe, fun, topical and no riots.

Or, if all else fails, stay home amateurs and leave the drinking to the professionals.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Katrina: From Shameless to Thoughtful

Two more things about our latest great national nightmare.

First, the bad news. At the beginning of the John Roberts hearings, two members of the Senate sickeningly used Hurricane Katrina and the destruction to point out that we need a more representative Supreme Court. Yep, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) played the "Katrina card" in a hearing for a supreme court nomination.

For shame.

Now, the good news. These are important words to ponder from CBS anchor and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. He closed the program with these on Sunday, September 4:

Finally, a personal thought. We have come through what may have been one of the worst weeks in America's history, a week in which government at every level failed the people it was created to serve. There is no purpose for government except to improve the lives of its citizens. Yet as scenes of horror that seemed to be coming from some Third World country flashed before us, official Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images, but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality.

As the floodwaters rose, local officials in New Orleans ordered the city evacuated. They might as well have told their citizens to fly to the moon. How do you evacuate when you don't have a car? No hint of intelligent design in any of this. This was just survival of the richest.

By midweek a parade of Washington officials rushed before the cameras to urge patience. What good is patience to a mother who can't find food and water for a dehydrated child? Washington was coming out of an August vacation stupor and seemed unable to refocus on business or even think straight. Why else would Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert question aloud whether New Orleans should even be rebuilt? And when he was unable to get to Washington in time to vote on emergency aid funds, Hastert had an excuse only Washington could understand: He had to attend a fund-raiser back home.

Since 9/11, Washington has spent years and untold billions reorganizing the government to deal with crises brought on by possible terrorist attacks. If this is the result, we had better start over.

Amen, Brother Schieffer. Amen.

Just Give Him The Robe And Gavel Already!

This guy John Roberts has been a dead-lock since day one, and his accession to the top spot on the Supreme Court came as a welcome surprise (or not) to the Bush administration. To quote John Tierney of The New York Times in quite an amusing article, "the guy has made a career out of not talking. Why should he start now?"

I am of course speaking of Roberts and his tightlippedness (sp?) during the Senate hearings. What surprises me is that there is not more rancor and more questioning. The C-SPAN cameras caught Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) doing a crossword puzzle and Sen. Charles Schumer talking to himself, as Dana Milbank points out in The Washington Post.

I guess that when it comes to Katrina or John Roberts, the court of public opinion and attention voted long ago.

Still, there was some signs of oppositional life. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) told Roberts to "go ahead and keep shutting up." C'mon, Biden, you know that this guy's got nothing. A certain amount of it, I am sure, is really because he cannot speak about matters that the court may rule on. If you remember, the same issue of not talking came up in 1993 with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For many issues, they REALLY can't say anything.

Although it seems weaselly to sneak a nomination hearing in during a national crisis, if not now, when? The nation must go on and function. Opposition forces must now concentrate on the other opening in the court that will have to be filled on the eventual departure of Sandra Day O'Connor. That could be much more important than Roberts as Chief Justice. Think of the possible block: Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, [NEW GUY/GAL].

It is equally as possible that Roberts will be another David Souter, so who knows?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Race Prejudice, Class Prejudice?

See what you think about this exchange between Don Imus and Newsweek's Johathan Alter from today:

Monday September 12, 2005

Imus: "The response to the plight of these people affected primarily in New Orleans was the result of what, in your.. Was it class? Was it race?"

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter: "I also spoke to Barak Obama this week and I thought that he was pretty sensible about it. The local response was tinged with racism. You had, there's an anecdote in the story that I wrote. A Newsweek reporter down there spent a couple of days with a water taxi operator and was helping get him around town to see what was going on, from St. Bernard's Parish. And over the course of two days, this guy did not pick up one black person. Every single person he rescued, dozens and dozens of people, was white and he was just full of racial epithets and the n-word and just wasn't going to do anything for anybody black. On the other hand, I think that Senator Obama is right that the ineptitude at the Federal level was color blind. It's not like Michael Brown and President Bush had what Obama called 'active malice' but there was a passive indifference. I think that was the Senator's expression which was quite clear. I think the real factor there may have been just that there was no election right around the corner. They would've been more on the case if it had been like last year. Remember the Florida hurricanes and the feds were down there immediately to make sure that nobody had any trouble there. So the pressure was off, no election, no real concern in the United States about poverty and the less fortunate among us."

Imus: "What if the majority people of the affected had been white, what would the response had been from the top down?"

Jonathan Alter: "I think, again, I think the factor was really that there was just no intense political pressure."

Imus: "It would have been the same you think?"

Jonathan Alter: "I think it would have."

Imus: "You're a naive fool."

Jonathan Alter: "We're talking about two different things here. Are you talking about the response from Washington, or the overall?"

Imus: "Both. From the Oval Office on the idiot Mayor of New Orleans."

Jonathan Alter: "Who is African American."

Imus: "Well whatever. There's more class prejudice.. there's as much class prejudice and racism within the black community as there is within the white community. Anybody knows that."

Jonathan Alter: "Clearly it's a slew of racial and class prejudice that we're talking about here. But I just think that you need to separate the larger problem, which is what we explored in Newsweek this week from saying that, you know they got down there on Friday instead of Thursday because the people were black. I'm not sure I would say that."

Wouldn't you, Alter? If this sort of thing hit, say, Malibu California, you think the level of disaster, panic, disease and mayhem would be exactly the same.

For once, I do pretty much agree with the I-man.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

You Had To See THIS Coming...

You just knew that, upon hearing news of the greatest natural disaster in the U.S. since the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, that the discussion at the White House or Crawford or wherever that little weasel is/was went something like this:

Karl Rove: Mr. President, this would be a perfect time to sneak the Supreme Court nomination hearings onto the Congressional calendar.

GWB: Yeah, Karl, you're so damned smart. While the emergency systems of the nation break down and millions are possibly diseased, homeless or dead, let's "git-r-done" and get Roberts in there. Hell, none of those poor folks voted for me anyway. This will deal with the Sheehan thing to, if we're lucky.

Karl Rove: Exactly. We'll do like we did for 9/11. Form some bullshit committee to look into it, find someone at FEMA to blame, shuffle the bureaucracy a little, and watch the housing and building bubble re-inflate as an entire city must be built to doubltess expensive new safety standards. Remember, it's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

GWB: Y'know what'd be great? If Rehnquist were to kick off right about now. Then we could take care of two historically crucial nominations with one simple national tragedy.

Karl Rove: Yes (strokes chin evilly), that would be something. Will you excuse me for a minute? I need to make some phone calls.

Links of Interest
Roberts nomination.
Bullshit committee (GWB version).
Bullshit committee (Hillary Clinton version).
Shameless buck-passing.
A fair assessment (at last).
Another one.
Rehnquist bites it.

Government = Death

A horrible natural disaster in which thousands die, millions in property is destroyed and the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico (including the ninth largest city in the country) are laid to waste.

Isn't it in these times when some of us don't feel so bad about the government's powers? Shouldn't these be the times when their far reach and almost unlimited resources (as long as we all keep paying taxes) should swiftly be brought to bear in aid of the citizenry? Isn't in these times that that, for all the rights that they take and suppress, the government should ACTUALLY do something to help people?

Well, it seems that this didn't happen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Civil society and the rule of law crumbled, the government at all levels was "caught unawares" and the toll in lives and assets grows daily. Now inevidably come the questions. Who is to blame? Who dropped the ball? How come the response was quick and decisive on 9/11 but not now?

With the crumbling of order, the example of Rudy Guiliani on 9/11 must have been forgotten in New Orleans. What was needed was a decisive, hands on leader who will be among the people, telling them that the situation is under control and bringing the forces to bear to make this so. This was not done by the Mayor of New Orleans, the Governor of Louisiana, any of Louisiana's Congressional delegation or by anyone at the White House. This crucial first step frimly cements the rule of law (with the muscle to back it up, naturally) and helps to stem the tide of helplessness while aid can be mustered.

It seems to me that this is another case of the government not really caring about its citizens. When it comes time to force you to pay taxes, obey inane laws or fight in ill-concieved wars, they cannot do it quick enough. When, however, it comes to helping the victims of a natural disaster, they seem to run around like the proverbial lion with the thorn in its paw. They play dumb, pretend that they are as shocked as everyone else, and finally get things together a week later just in time for New Orleans to become a corpse recovery mission.

The people of Louisiana and Mississippi were betrayed by those who are supposedly charged with protecting them. No wonder they rioted, took to the streets, armed and desparate. They thought, and rightfully so, that they were being left to die. Seems to me that that innate death instinct, good old thanatos, is a powerful force and can lead normally rational people to do irrational things.

Still feel good about trusting these people with your rights, life and safety?

Can you sleep at night knowing that these people are at the helm?

When will we stop being so trusting of those with the power to tax and destroy?

How many more dead Americans is it going to take?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Not Much Point, Really

If you want to read some more about me just in a different form with more advertising...

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On Wisconsin!

Well, the move is complete and I am now living in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin. Seems like a great town. Met some good people, fried some salami and had my first of many cases of sweet, cheap Blatz Beer. spiritual home.

I will resume posting soon, because there is much to discuss. The breakdown of all civil order in Louisiana and Mississippi for a start.

I am sure that my graduate career will also provide ample fodder for entries. We went through an orientation and it was informative if riddled with scare tactics for the unprepared. I guess that some of these people are coming right off of undergrad and have had no graduate experience. I pity them. Or maybe they are lucky in that they have no old habits to change/overcome.

Well, as the state motto of Wisconsin instructs us, "Forward!"

Thursday, August 18, 2005

He's Gone

As those of you who know me are well aware (and those more casual readers will soon find out), I am leaving my family home for the first time in any permanent sense within a week. I have been busying myself with the requisite tasks that it takes to move, including cleaning the deep fryer, letting my creditors know where to send the past-due notices and packing the collections of twenty-eight years at the same address (I am not counting the four years at Saint Joseph's. That was just like an extended camping holiday).

The real weight of the affair has yet to hit me, which I am sure it will soon enough. I am overcome with an intense sense of parting never to return, although I know I will. Perhaps it is something engrained in my Irish soul that views parting as final and as something that we all must do. Believe me, I want to live on my own as sure as my parents would like to see me seek my life elsewhere for a change. I cannot, however, help these feelings of loss and finality. There is a going-away party for me on Saturday and I cannot help but view it as somewhat of a funeral for the Will Shannon that a lot of people know. I hope that I do not change much, but who knows?

As I sit here in my quiet house, where I have lived since October 15, 1983, all the past here washes over me in an incomprehensible river of memory. Remember a few weeks back when we discussed history and memory. I am overwhelmed by memory at current even on the brink of the last step in my preparation for a career as a professional historian. I guess things can look different without the distance of the past to protect you from the feelings of your own. This place, this spatial reality, will forever be a part of me, as will the temporal occurences that happened here. How could I ever forget? My family will still be mine but never in the same way again. I am sure that this is good in a way, but I cannot help but reflect on the situation with some trepidation.

I am sure that I will not lose contact with this reality, but who doesn't say that upon leaving? What immigrant didn't promise to return home? What group of friends upon graduating said that they would keep in touch forever? In a sense, we are all moving foreward with the constant burden of the past guiding and biasing us. I am, in a certain sense, my past and it has not always been pleasant. I went through some rough years and some rougher times of dizzying highs and disturbing lows. I have come through it all and stand now at the threshold, looking back not out of want but of necessity. I can never forget, nor would I completely want to.

So, as I forge on, I try to make sense of it all. The one thing that comes to me over and over are the words of the old Irish folk tune "The Parting Glass." It is with these words that I conclude for now:

Oh all the money that e'er I had, I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e'er I've done, alas, it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit to memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had, they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had, they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call good night and joy be with you all

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Your Life Sucks? Blame Science!

I have always been conflicted on the issues that emerged from the Enlightenment. Their defense of self-ownership, individual liberties and natural rights have always been a cornerstone of my thinking on politics, government, society and culture. I have always, however, sided with the Romantics in questioning the reach of science into our daily lives.

As a concession, I will admit that I enjoy many of the products of science. Who dosen't? They, for better or worse, helped to make the world what it is today with warts and all. I like my computer, my portable CD player (the MegaJam 3000) and all that happy crap.

It is many of the larger issues raised by the primacy of science that cause me trepidation. First off, the blind faith in science to produce all the answers that we need for any question. Science, said the brilliant Thomas Kuhn, is one of many ideologies with its prejudices and systems. In this summation, science becomes what it should be: one of many ways of looking at the world and solving problems. We should never trust anything that easily. It should have to stand up to questioning and doubt from the outside.

It was in the 19th century that we developed our faith in science and technology (which I believe are two very different things) and also the idea of progress as the goal of life. This was the birth of modern factories, government's interest in public health, science as a faith and a way of life. Since they could seemingly definitively explain everything, they seemed like gods. As I mentioned before, the Romantics were trying to react to this, but they were too busy chasing women around Italy high on opium and wearing a silly shirt. Science ruled the day with the help of the state and now it forms a two-pronged attack on our minds and society.

Science is seen as the benevolent bringer of gee-whiz goodies and also life-saving cures for killer diseases. While it is hard to argue with the use of curing disease, the technogoodies can take a hit and needs it badly. As I said, it is just the happy crap that keeps us too occupied and takes all our money and time. It is fun, but it (like all enjoyable things) can begin to have negative effects. This is part of the divide between science and technology. This is technology; science, in its pures form, is the deep, theoretical stuff that may never have a use. One never knows, but this sort of science seems more like philosophy than industrial production.

Where does this leave us? We need to view science (especially anything that the state has a hand in) with a critical eye and remember that this faith in science came about in a time when most people would be awed by canned food and the lack of killer epidemics. Always be critical, and don't let them off with confusing explanations. It can be explained so that anyone can understand.

If they truly want to help, they have nothing to fear, right?

Never let them go easy. Expect answers and get them.

They are not gods. Let's remind them of this.

Fighting With Yourself

Here are some thoughts about some acts of brazen punditry that I ran across recently:
  • Thomas Oliphant in the Boston Globe - The always perceptive and interesting Tom Oliphant has an good take on some of the growing noise on the 2006 midterm elections. Basically, he points out (and rightly so) that it is interesting that the GOP is pushing for a lot of outsider candidates, rather than their tried-and-trues. This, for me, shows that the GOP has no political capital left (thank President Bush for that), and their decisions in some of these races is questionable. Katherine Harris in Florida? I mean, come on. After the 2000 recount fiasco, no one should even take her seriously. The GOP would do well to find someone else. He also mirrors something that I have thought all along, that being that there could be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Senate seat in New York (while I don't think it is Jeanine Pirro). It is such a state of contrasts: two Democratic Senators, a Republican governor and a two consecutive Republican mayors of NYC. With all of these people from New York wrapped up in possible national aspirations, there could be a more interesting race than anticipated.
  • Frank Rich in the New York Times - Rich is more opposition to President Bush than the Democrats have ever been, and he continues to prove it. He has an excellent point about the shifting of public opinion against the war and the fact that Bush has lost any capital that he earned with his re-election. Americans are unhappy about the lies and lack of strategy, or that is at least how it seems. I don't agree, however, with his use of analogies of LBJ and Vietnam. As a historian, I could not disagree more with the notion that history repeats itself. History can never really repeat itself; things that are similar happen because we are human and predictable and our systems are set up to react in certain ways. Vietnam was in a different time with different circumstances and different leaders. You cannot base your arguments on the fact that GWB and LBJ were both from Texas and they were president during wars that became unpopular. It ends there and Rich overstepped his rhetorical bounds in suggesting otherwise.
  • Jonah Goldberg in National Review - Ever think that the pundits on the left were the only ones who insult and deride regular people and tell them that they don't matter? Well, here is contrary proof to that. It is just this sort of talk that proves two things. Firstly, people don't care about the world around them and the bozos at the helm because people like Goldberg tell them that they don't matter. Secondly, and more importantly, it should anger people enough to make themselves matter. Share your opinions (after doing your homework, naturally). Start to take moves to make change happen. Some good old fashioned conciousness raising couldn't hurt. Don't let the haughty editors of National Review tell you that you don't matter and that your opinions are not important. Shout so loud that you CANNOT be ignored!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Let's Get Kinky (Elected, That Is)

In my endless trolling of the political landscape of Dick Cheney's America, I occasionally come across a person with different ideas. An innovator with real plans for change and a genuine concern for the citizens. In this one and a half party system that we have, it is good to find free thinking individuals who value people and want to make real change happen.

That is why it is crucial that Kinky Friedman be elected as Governor of Texas in 2006.

Read Kinky's contributions to Texas Monthly for even more information.

He has new and different ideas that will make the people proud of their state and involve them in the government in more ways than as taxpayers, cannon fodder and automatons turned out by government schools.

Unfortunately, I don't live in Texas. But if I did, I would be behind Kinky 100%.

In "red state" Texas, Kinky is throwing the red/blue (a further insulting simplification of the right/left, conservative/liberal divide) by the wayside and putting the people of Texas first.

Bravo, Kinky. Why The Hell Not, indeed.

Don't Want To Get Gas?

As a life-long supporter and rider of public transportation, and a person who has been car-free for the last three years, I watch the higher fuel prices with some amusement. I think that it is further proof that we need to develop more systems of public transportation, especially in suburban areas and smaller, regional urban centers.

Living in the suburbs is almost as bad as living in a rural area. You almost need a car. In the Chicago suburbs, the state of affairs is better than it is elsewhere with the PACE bus service. The schedules are, however, limited and they are worse on the weekends. To go long distances involves many transfers and the schedules are somewhat flexible.

I believe that it should be possible for people in urban, suburban and exurban areas to move around, attend to their obligations and live life without a car or the burdens therein. People work to support the cars that take them there. This is a waste of resources and time.

How can it be done? There are two cities of moderate size that have come up with an innovative solution from the past. The cities in question are Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin; the solution is streetcar systems.

Check out Portland's system here.
Check out Kenosha's system here.
Also, check out the website of Light Rail Now.

These systems operate in the same neighborhoods as busses, but at lower cost and with better utilization of energy through the use of alternative fuels or electricity which stretches all of the fuel budgets, providing safe, reliable transportation at a cost savings to the user.

Also, it would not be a bad idea to offer people incentives on taxes for regular use of public transportation (like they do with alternative fuel automobiles). It would give people reason to ride and not drive and pass on an incentive to the people.

This is not even accounting for cities with "legacy systems" that changed routes or equipment from old, pre-WW II systems. You see, my friends, most cities of any size had a streetcar system that served and was used by millions in the years before the Second World War. Some of these systems lasted until after World War II, but they slowly died until Pittsburgh ran its last line in 1999. That leaves only San Fransisco and Boston's Green Line (or portions of it anyway).

For more of this history, check out Jon Bell's wonderful page on light rail and transit systems, their history and future.

Leave the car at home. Take the train, bus, streetar, ferry or whatever. You can be confident that you are making a decision to help the earth, save some money, really get to know your hometown and encounter your fellow citizens in a meaningful and real way. Some of the most interesting experiences that I have had involve riding public transportation.

So, to quote the late great big rock star Wesley Willis, "Get on the city bus."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Things Aren't What They Used To Be

I knew that it would come, but it came as somewhat of a shock when the news broke of the death of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings.

Check out the official tribute site at ABC News.

Much of my observations I have already mentioned, as least as the future of the network news is concerned.

All three networks lost their evening news anchors this year: Tom Brokaw (NBC-retired), Dan Rather (CBS-said he retired, but probably asked to resign), and Peter Jennings (ABC-died).

Where are the networks going with their news divisions. As I have mentioned before, we all need to review Paddy Chaevsky's classic 1974 film Network. In this film, one of the central points is the conversion of the news division from the cornerstone and pride of the network into another arm of the entertainment division. In the earlier days of television, no matter how insipid the entertainment programming was, the networks always prized their news divisions as the jewel of the company. More than this, they saw that they were doing a service and serving a public trust to inform people and spread good news and reporting to every viewer. These were the days of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, days when you could actually count on television news to be accurate, reasonably well-written and possibly thought provoking.

Beyond this, the networks understood that the news did not have to be entertaining, and the viewers realized this too. It is an annoying tendency amongst Americans that they always want to be entertained and think that everything should be fun and easy. The news is neither of these things (if you care and you should). News is serious and can have global implications. Keeping yourself well-informed through conventional and alternative media is your responsibility as a citizen and a human being. If you don't, you don't have the right to complain when the unreality of your created world becomes invaded by the cold, keening sting of life on planet Earth.

What will happen? Well, there are two versions: what I want to happen and what will actually happen. First, my plan. Separate the job of reporter and anchor. Anchors should sit there in a nice suit and read the news. Reporters should be out in the field taking the pulse of the issues of the day. While they are at it, try being a little more critical in your reporting. Make politicos and other powerful forces afraid of you. Strike fear in the hearts of the likes of Scott McClelland who will dissemble and ignore your questions. Check your facts and never settle for easy answers. This will lend credibility and provide viewers with much food for thought and this, coupled with their other reading and consideration, should help people to think criticaly about the news content and the act of broadcasting it.

Now, what will really happen. This is simple because in a way, it is already happening. There will be no news on network television (FOX has never had national news), thus cutting those who cannot afford cable off from another source of information. The cable news networks will continue their attempt at a 24 hour news cycle, FOX leading the pack because people don't want to think too hard. It will become indistinguishable from the likes of Court TV in its sensationalism, talking heads of ineptitude, endless partisan shouting and the perversion of stories to fit their concurrent philosophies.

The worst part of all of this is that people will not care or not notice. People like things to be done to them rather than with their active participation. This is why no-one cares anymore. If it can't be pre-packaged, black-and-white with no ambiguity, then it will not sell ad time and should be eliminated.

We all need to shut up, do our homework and speak with a more informed voice with civility and reason for all.

If not, we are no different from these braying asses that call themselves journalists.

For shame.

Flotsam And Jetsam From The News Cycle

A few short items and observations before moving on to bigger issues: