Wednesday, April 27, 2005

SHAMELESS PLUG! Come Watch Me Read Something!

I hate to use this august forum for advertising, but this is of an academic nature.

I am presening a paper at the De Paul University Student History Conference. This paper, a distilled form of my Master's thesis, is entitled "In Their Own Image: The Ordinance Survey and the Imagining of Space in Pre-Famine Ireland." I think it is interesting (naturally). Maybe you will too. There are other topics of historical interest that will be presented on through the course of the day. Here are the specs:

Click here for the schedule at the De Paul History Department's website.
  • What: De Paul Student History Conference
  • When: This Friday, April 29, 2005. The conference itself begins at 9:00 AM. I present in the first sessions, which begin at 9:30AM.
  • Where: The John T. Richardson Memorial Library on the Lincoln Park Campus of De Paul University in Chicago, IL. The address of the Richardson Library is 2350 N. Kenmore Ave. Click here for a campus map (the Richardson Library is no. 11). I will be presenting in Study Room 309 on the third floor of the library.
  • Public Transport: Take either the Red, Brown or Purple Lines to Fullerton. Walk two blocks west on Fullerton. The library is right at the corner of Fullerton and Kenmore. You can also take the #74 Fullerton bus. Click here for the CTA's website for full options.

This is a free, open to the public, all-day event with a reception and awards at the end. I encourage you to come and hear, question and maybe even learn. I know I hope to.

Any further questions? Post a comment to this entry or email me at

Thank you. Aloha.

Ethics? On Television?

If there is anything that I watch on television regularly, it is public broadcasting. Their programming speaks to my nerdiness and there are some shining lights of excellent programming that no advertiser in their right mind would give a plug nickel to support.

There is an excellent example of this which is shown on WYCC TV-20 here in Chicago. It is called Ethics in America and is what I would almost call necessary viewing.

This is the website for the program at the Annenberg/CPB Project.
If you are in Chicago, here is the WYCC site for times (although I can tell you it is on Tuesdays at 3:00 in the morning. Might have to tape it).

Granted, these shows were taped in the last half of the 1980's. The issues discussed, however, are timeless. Medical ethics, the ethics of war, ethics in business. The form is also a joy to watch. The panel consists of many of the luminaries of the last half of the twentieth century in American politics. You will see everyone from C. Everett Koop to Antonin Scalia; from Rudy Guiliani (as a D.A.) to General William Westmoreland. The panel, naturally, is formed around the issue, but usually includes people from law, medicine, professional academia, government, media, military and religion. The moderator, usually a Harvard law professor, introduces the ethical problem in the form of a hypothetical situation and then serves as a devil's advocate/agent provocateur for the panel, changing the stipulations and situations.

The resulting discussion gets at the heart of ethical issues that will forever be at the center of American public and private life (and indeed often about where these intersect). It is high-minded intellectual blood-letting and argument at its finest. Rather rancor-free and reasoned, it is not free from provocation and leading questions. It is a joy to see the likes of Scalia squirm at the thought of a tough issue and then have to think out loud.

This is the sort of thing that should not be relegated to three in the morning on a PBS station. Oh well, I guess it dosen't paint things in black and white and it would have a tough time selling cars or shoes or beer or preppy shorts or auto insurance or whatever.

Watch it and thank me later. Or tape it, watch it later and thank me after that. Or ignore me and, well, that's about it.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Chicago Outfit: Out Of Style

News broke today in Chicago of the rounding-up of figures involved in organized crime in Chicago. Read the full story in the Chicago Tribune.

Organized crime in America, despite the popularity of The Sopranos and other "mobbed-up" entertainments, has been on a steady decline since 1970. It was in 1970 that the RICO (Racketeer Influenced Criminal Organizations) Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. It provided for the prosecution of entire criminal organizations and the individuals involved; this proved to be the beginning of the end for many of the "traditional" crime networks, mainly centered in cities like New York and Chicago.

Why the cultural currency of the mafia in the American psyche? Actually, I think that is fairly easy to trace. Combine the distrust of authority, the desire for personal justice, the role of the traditional family, the immigrant experience and our national love of violence and I think you have it. The reality of these people is that they were once a source of violence and corruption in our cities; now, they have become a rather curious dinosaur of days past. They did once fulfill a function in their communities (protection, mutual aid, etc). They have outlived this and have entered the mindset of many terrorist organizations like the IRA and Hezbollah. They are in the "we bomb/kill/extort/smuggle, therefore we are" stage of their organizational life cycle.

If you notice the ages of many of the people in the indictment, they are old men now. They should not be excused from justice for their crimes. Their ages, rather, serve as a reminder that the "mob" is not nearly as much a concern as once they were. They are history, now almost literally. American cities face different issues in a different time; the Chicago "round-up" is merely tying up loose ends and giving closure to the families of victims.

The sooner we put these killers and bullies behind us culturally, the better off we will be. They are powerless now and they need no encouragement to continue. Let them serve their time so that all can move on.

Non-Smoker on Smoker Violence? So, It's Come To This...

Let me begin by stipulating that I am fully aware that smoking is dangerous, bad for your health, expensive and something that people should not involve themselves in if they are smart or concerned with their health. There.

That being said, I think that your personal choices should be exactly that...personal. Others should keep their zealous and narrow agendas to themselves. There is coming to be few places that one can smoke in public. It is not like people smoke everywhere, and there are more who don't than those who do. Smokers are less of a "problem" than once they were, at least that is what the radical non-smokers should realize. They are winning bit by bit. I hate to admit it, but it seems true.

I was truly shocked when I read this "My Turn" piece in the recent edition of Newsweek. The author, Judy Law, presents a reasonable case to zealous non-smokers for allowing people their rights. She also relates a horrible story of a personal threat against her by one of these mentals.

As I discussed before in my entry concerning political discourse, I think the idea of merely being polite to people is slowly dying. Instead of asking nicely, people are content to surrender to the lower impulses of their being and act out without thinking about the consequences. If everyone made an effort to just be polite (like Mom and Dad SHOULD have told you when you were young), we would be on the road to better days. I know people laughed at then-New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani when he called for a similar thing in New York, but the gesture was well taken.

I am not asking people to be phony or not express their concerns. It could just be done in a more civil manner. If not, I guess we will come to do the opposite: be as rude as possible. Then, in time, that will become meaningless and maybe we will give being polite a chance again.

Oh, for the wheels of sociocultural change to move as fast as the whirling dervish of righteous anger!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Polite Discourse and American Politics: Irreconcilable Differences?

In my weekly screening of media pundits, wonks, hacks and other stooges who draw a salary for giving us their opinions, I often run across the same old tired partisan anger. It is truly refreshing to see someone addressing what I think is the beginning of true change in American politics (and possibly the reinvigoration of the American public for politics). I am speaking, naturally, of the lack of civility in debate on politics.

I was pleased to run across this great piece by columnist John Leo.

He doesn't argue that there should not be debate over issues of public interest. Far from it, Leo calls on both the left, right and otherwise to rise to the occasion and make their voices heard. What he (and I) takes issue with is the low manner in which much of this takes place. In many cases, ad hominem attack is hardly the word. It is much easier to spew violence against those with whom you disagree, wether public or in your own life. I know because I often feel like just swearing at people and hoping they take a swing at me. What is harder (and better) is to understand the arguments of others, consider them carefully and issue forth with a metered and well-versed argument. I, on somewhat of a different note, believe that this should be the cornerstone of education, but one issue at a time (clarity, always clarity!)

Informed and deep discussion of issues of import should be the great light and pride of a free people. If we do any less, we will not be true to the great legacy of free and open speech. It is unfortunate that just because speech is free does not mean that it is intelligent or well-informed. These are the factors we must confront as a by-product of living in a (relatively) free society. If we do not take full advantage of this right and put forth our best and highest faculties in its pursuit, we will deserve the repression and coercion that will surely follow.

Is this overly optimistic? Perhaps. I must believe in it, though. If I did not, I would surely become utterly hopeless and descend into the nihilistic funk that seems to permeate the postmodern condition. Yesterday, I spoke of faith and personal belief. This happens to be one of mine.

Duum spiro spero.

Meriting But A Mention...

Some small points of news (see above for the more pithy entries):

Santorum's Imus Weaselwords

I just ran across this in Don Imus's daily newsletter. This is a segment from the show this past Tuesday.

See how Santorum squirms when the I-Man won't let him out of answering:

Imus: "What are you doing now? Trying to get rid of the filibuster rule?"

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: "If you read the filibuster rule and I'm sure you have, it talks about the filibuster cloture being allowed on legislative business. We have two calendars in the Senate..a legislative calendar and an executive calendar. And the executives calendar is an executive session, a completely different thing and that's where we could do nominations. For 214 years no one has ever used a filibuster to block a nominee from coming to vote on the Senate floor until 2 years ago. We don't think that it's right and we think it should go back to the precedent."

Imus: "So you want to change the rules so you can ram through these crazy judges.."

Senator Santorum: "We want to go back to the precedent that it's held for 214 years that has served this country pretty well."

Imus: "It hasn't been a rule for 214 years, it was just never employed."

Senator Santorum: "Well it was a precedent of the Senate. As you know the Senate is run by a lot of things, one of them is precedent and that is how we've done things for years and that is how we have done things for 214 years. The Democrats the last time around changed the precedent and we are trying to get it back."

Imus: "..but not the rule."

Senator Santorum: "We are not going to change the rule either. The way it would work is not a rule change but simply a ruling by the chair that the precedent has been this and that we are going to return to that so it won't be a rule change."

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Quick and Painful

Short-term memory only here. For those who are bored with my longer pieces or wonder if I can do anything but whine about the news. Actually, this is the same ol' whining, but in a different form.

Not funny? Tough shit. Deal with it.

A Lapsed Catholic to the New Pope: You're Not Helping

Today, there is a new pope in the Vatican. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year old cardinal from Germany, was elected on the second day of the conclave.

Read the news article from the Associated Press.
Also, read this biography from the somwhat liberal National Catholic Reporter.
Lastly, read the official biography at the website of the Holy See.

Where does the choice of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, leave the church and the world? I must agree with some of the analysis in the media that is calling him a transitional figure. I mean, the man is 78 years old. He will be lucky to be around on the tenth anniversary of his accession. We must be careful in these assumptions, for Pope John XXIII was seen as a transitional figure and he called the Second Vatican Council, changing forever the relation of the laity to the larger hierarchy of the faith.

I don't really think that this will be a concern with the new pope. He is, without a doubt, a brilliant theologian and masterful politician in the Vatican. He also understands the pressing issues of the day, both those facing the church and otherwise. Unfortunately, he has taken a rather less-than-enlightened view of a lot of these issues. The church is ripe for a change and I fear that this is not the man to do it.

What are the implications for the office itself and the place of the church in the modern world? I see this as a move on the part of the church to continue to hide from the modern world and its problems. I could enumerate them here, but they are so well known. In the area of its greatest expansion, Africa, the church must become a positive force for social and political change. It cannot become a servant of the state. We saw the last pope, as Archbishop of Krakow, as a real rallying point for the Solidarity movement. This was, by the same token, the same pope who opposed liberation theology in Latin America.

The church, now more than ever, needs to speak to these social concerns and political realities. It must take an active part in the world and in the lives of the faithful. The world is ever changing, and this puts an institution such as an organized religion in a hard spot. Can doctrine be separated from social practice? Can the sine qua non of Catholicism be maintained while remaining responsive to the needs of a varied and needy congregation? These are questions that Catholics must answer as a community.

Oh, if it were that easy. For it is not the church as a community that makes these decisions. The Catholic Church, in case you missed it, is not a democracy and never will be. It pronounces on matters of faith, doctrine and morals. You can question this as an individual, but your soul may be in peril if you do. There is very little room for individual decision making or the local churches of the rules adapting to the needs of their constituencies. Granted, there are few organizations that succeed without some form of organization and, yes, even hierarchy. When the bases of this hierarchy are coercion, unwavering pronouncements and doctrine, it leads to a separated and disconnected leadership and a congregation who is increasingly alienated from the core of the faith.

Where does my opinion come from? I guess you could call me a "lapsed Catholic." I was raised Catholic, but by parents who were not really dedicated to the faith. They were occasional mass participants, but they both took issue with the petty nature of parish politics. I took up the faith a bit more when I was in high school and college for a number of reasons, some I don't fully understand. When I graduated from college (a small, Catholic college), I began to wonder about the place of religion in my life. I wondered what the purpose of religion was to humankind. It seemed to me that what I was doing was trying to make myself better while all the while, I felt worse and worse. I knew that I didn't agree with a lot of the social stances of the church, a fact that I ignored for years. I could do so no longer.

If there are those who choose to believe, fine. It just plain stopped making sense to me and I could no longer live a lie. Belief in a religion did nothing more for me than encourage me to not think for myself. Freedom of thought is the brightest star in the constellation of the human experience. No one should ignore it, much less give it away willingly. A complete picture of my views on religion? No, and I don't think there ever will be. Wanna label me for easy argument? I guess I could be called an "ethical humanist," for lack of a better term.

I close with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"I have dedicated my life to the destruction of all tyranny over the mind of man."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Absurdity Is As Absurdity Does

In the baffling and spiritually draining world of celebrity trials, it is wonderful to find a small island of sanity.

The trial in question is the Michael Jackson trial and the island of sanity is provided by Keith Olbermann and his staff on the MSNBC program Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

It is the wonder, the majesty, the sheer riveting magnitude of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater (MJPT).

Click on this link to view episodes of MJPT on the MSNBC website.

The only way to deal with a disturbing train-wreck such as this trial is with popsicle stick puppets and a keen attention to the absurd stupidity that has become celebrity trials.

Sad, Really

These two items are almost too sad to be believed.
  1. Rosie O'Donnell's blog - Just when you thought that she was fading in to irrelevance, she is back in annoying blog form. Maybe this IS the sign that she is fading away...down to a blog on the same site where the likes of ME spew their opinions? The saddest part perhaps is the address - At least you can't hear that damned annoying voice.
  2. Margaret Thatcher Visits a Strip Club - No, this is not made up. I swear. Click on the link and be prepared to do a Danny Thomas-like spit take. I don't know what to be most scared of: Mrs. Thatcher amongst strippers (of either gender), the fact that the Conservatives were having a fund-raiser there or that the owner of this place is described as "mulleted." If the Tories wanted an image change, the image of Mrs. Thatcher in a strip club was the wrong first choice. Eeew.

The Great Wisconsin Cat Massacre

In 1984, the great cultural historian of early modern France Robert Darnton wrote a seminal book entitled The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. The title of this book refers to one of his chapters in which he examines an incident in a printer's shop in Paris in the 1730's. The apprentices massacred cats in riotous fashion, mocking their master and, as Darnton argues, using the symbols of the master (the cats) as a symbolic inversion of their place in society. Pets were an upper class notion in the eighteenth century and these workers, using their identification with their trade, were protesting the heavy-handed control of their master over their unique form of early worker culture (1).

We may see shades of Darnton's apprentices in modern day La Crosse County, Wisconsin. Read the story about feral cats becoming an unprotected species in La Crosse County in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are these situations similar? In other words, can Darnton's arguments inform an interpretation of these developments in Wisconsin. Yes and no. Yes in the fact that it does reflect on how a certain culture will use rather unorthodox means to solve problems and define their boundaries over encroachment from nature.

Mostly, no, however. It seems that the citizens of La Crosse County, Wisconsin are merely responding to a growing problem in their area by the most direct means necessary. Animal control a-la-government cannot be relied upon to deal with problems such as this on a large scale. It seems that the good people of La Crosse County have decided to leave the government out and take matters into their own hands. Sure, they could call for the state to do something. If Wisconsin is like most states (and I have no reason to believe that it isn't), it would get lost in the DNR, legislature or some horrid bureaucratic hell. So, people of La Crosse County, I envy you. Stray cats are a problem in my neighborhood, but such a direct solution would certainly raise the ire of the more sensitive types in the area. I just want to shoot those furry little bastards.

In any event, read Darnton's book. It is a real masterpiece of relating culture to popular protest and the imagining of culture in the "long" eighteenth century. Inventive use of evidence and an engaging writing style make it a delight.

1. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), 99-101.

The Wrong Man For The Right Job?

In following the Bolton hearings for U.N. ambassador and the beginning of confirmation hearings for John Negroponte, Arnaud de Borchgrave writes in the Washington Times concerning the historical perspective on the times and the impending restructuring of the Pentagon. Read the de Borchgrave's article here and notice the similar situations in the late 1940's and today.

As we contemplate the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, we must not forget the mistakes and problems of the past. In his piece, de Borchgrave correctly argues that a more nimble and responsive organization is needed at the Pentagon for the United States to pursue its objectives abroad. America was in a different place in the world system in 1947-1949. We faced a comparatively well-defined "enemy" in the nascent expansionism of Stalin's U.S.S.R. Our national intellegence and defense structures and postures were outdated long before 9/11.

We decided to hold out for the peace dividend after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was no such time. We staggered through the 1990's and were lucky to have competent commanders such as former Major General and SACEUR Wesley Clark at the helm during the problems in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999-2000). We need to change things to be agile against what military types call an "asymmetrical threat."

In proposing Negroponte and Bolton, we are showing our confusion on such matters. Negroponte is a fine choice, a career diplomat with a good record in difficult international situations. Bolton, however, is a political hack and party hanger-on who has made problematic remarks about the U.N. Is this the guy we want at the U.N. representing our interests.

These decisions and their after effects may not come soon, but if done wrong again, it will be at our peril. Let us pick agile structures and agile minds to match. We needn't burden the international communities with our bad patronage decisions.

Monday, April 11, 2005

You Are Entitled To Their Opinions...

...and my opinions about their opinions. Here goes...
  • Pat Buchanan and Sid Blumenthal - These articles and authors form a nice layout of several of the debates surrounding the Pope's death and the state of the Roman Catholic Church in America. I tend to agree more with Blumenthal in reminding that there was (and is) a great tradition of progressive thought in the American church, represented best by former Archbishop of Chicago Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Cardinal Bernardin is gone in person and as a representative of these traditions of progress with deliberation. Buchanan seems to mourn the passing of a Catholic reality in America that will never exist again. American Catholics are not and will never be the same as they were in the 1950's. The face of the church is changing and the old guard cannot hold. In my estimation, American Catholics have trouble with defining who they are and where they stand in regards to the Vatican. The Vatican stonewalled the American Church for years...will it be any different now?
  • Eleanor Clift in Newsweek/MSNBC - You want to see a Chief Justice that will make William Rhenquist look like a progressive? Wait for George Bush to appoint Antonin Scalia to the job, most likely later this year. I think Clift is a bit off in claiming that this dosen't change the lib/con balance (even Rhenquist could think independently on occasion). She is dead on that the real change will happen when these justices age and retire. That is our next chance for real change. Until then, hold on.
  • Christopher Hitchens - An excellent requiem for Saul Bellow. Bellow captured all that makes urban life in America valuable and meaningful. Chicago, for him and many others, represent the real expression of urban life in 20th century America. Or at least it did. Chicago seems to be slowly changing to become another just someplace else. A lot of that character seems to be slipping. We need to read the works of Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko and others and recapture that old spark.
  • Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post - Kinsley is a real sap for that dog-and-pony show/tourist attraction that is the British royal family. A scion of an irrelevant monarchy marries an old lady. Big deal. Kinsley (and a lot of other Americans) get all moony-eyed over the mention of the romance and pagentry of the British royals (all invented in the 19th century, but who ever checks?) I guess they are hamstringed by a system that dosen't allow you to marry who you want, but so are people in other parts of the world who have much less money and power. If you must have a monarchy in this day and age, take the examples of the Spainsh or Dutch royal families. They are given a decent salary, knock around in old buildings and pose for coins and postage stamps while real people try and run things. They are an amusing side show not an international embarrassment. Check out this site about King Juan Carlos I and his family. They seem like nice people.

So there.

Drilling and Pumping...In Our Own Backyard!

These solutions are the kind of things that seem so practical and obvious that it is no wonder the powers-that-be take years to notice them.

Read this story in the Christian Science Monitor about the rebirth of the American oil industry in the West.

Seems to me that when the problem of "where do we get cheaper oil" crops up, the first reaction should be "let's see what we have sitting around" and not "let's deal with corrupt and repressive governments and pay out the nose." During the great Texas oil boom of the last century, the reason that it all ended was not that supplies ran out. It was because prices fell off sharply and it became a joke to invest in the petroleum industry.

It seems as plain as day that in these days of unstable geopolitics in oil producing regions and rising prices that these old operations would be reexamined.

I realize that we do actually get most of our crude oil from the Gulf of Mexico. There are also huge untapped oil reserves in the north of Canada. Why don't we look more into these issues? This feeds the possibility that we don't actually fight wars over oil. That is just a red herring. There are other reasons...scarier than any oil deal could ever be.

In any event, I don't own a car. The funniest side effect to all of this is those people who bought huge SUV's with their profits from trading Enron and WorldCom.

Ahh, for the good old times of 1999!

Raising the Next Generation of Paranoid Do-Gooders

As just another sign of the use of suspicion, subterfuge and minor financial reward to turn people against each other comes this story from Rome, Georgia. Read the short text and try to control the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

What ever happened to the old idea of "no one likes a tattletale?" I remember teachers and parents saying this all the time. Now these people want to encourage spying on fellow students?

I think that it is a combination of a paranoid need for control by school officials (who already have a tendency toward this), laziness on the part of these people and a desire to turn students against each other. They are easier to control that way.

You can see where this will lead. You know how teenagers are. It will be just another weapon in the teen's arsenal of personal attack and retribution against the people that they don't like. It will truly be a case of the inmates running the asylum.

Let's hope that this is a fluke or there are parents with brains in their heads that will take issue with using their children as moles against each other. This teaches the wrong message.

Then again, when have schools ever cared about that?

Shambling Toward Productivity

The combination of nicer weather, grad school campus visits and a lax attitude toward writing are to blame for my lack of posts.

Let's try and change that right now!