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).