Monday, December 18, 2006

Fun With Flems And Walloons

For a non-Belgian who loves political humor, this story was wonderful indeed.

To sum it up, a report was broadcast over Belgium's French-language radio and television stations (RTBF) last Tuesday that stated that the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium had voted to separate from the rest of the country. Television viewers were greeted with scenes of angry crowds in Antwerp, cars and busses being stopped at the Wallonia (French-speaking)/Flanders (Flemish-speaking) border, politicians discussing the developments and the royal family fleeing the country in a military airplane.

"Whoa," you are saying, "I don't read the news much, but I figure that I would have heard about a European country splitting in half!"

This report, however, was not all that it claimed to be. It was, well, made up. Completely.

This elaborate prank, apparently in the pipeline for two years, was a bit of fun that apparently several Belgian government officials signed on to do and that was engineered to make a point and get a rise out of average Belgians.

Did it work? According to the poll taken, and circumstantial evidence taken by RTBF, 89% of viewers seemed to believe it almost all of the way through the program. That is a lot of people, even for Belgium.

There were the requisite red-faced, indignant responses by other governmental officials and Belgian "talking heads," but it seems that the people, once they realized that it was a joke, laughed and carried on with their business.

Well, what is the bigger lesson to be learned here? In a sense, it is no more than the old admonition to not believe everything you hear. We are so completely dependent on the media, and in most cases far too unquestioning toward what it tells us, that this sort of thing seems plausible.

Add to this the things that people have seen develop live on T.V. (like 9/11), and anything seems possible. Perhaps this was a little shot by some people who work the controls of the media machine to remind people that even they, the masters of media, cannot always be taken at face value. People should know better, but often act as if they don't.

Does this, alternately, say anything about Belgium in particular? In one sense, no, just that Belgians are as dependent and trusting of media in all its forms as people elsewhere. In a less important sense, it is true that there is an active (and vociferous) Flemish separatist movement in Belgium and the relations between the two halves of the country have not always been without problems.

There might have been, therefore, some reason for people to believe that the two halves of the country had decided to separate. Some small reason, for there are considerable roadblocks to such a thing happening.

Just think about it for a moment. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with some devolved federalism to the two provinces of Flanders and Wallonia. Within the last five years, there have been even more autonomous powers devolved to the linguistic-ethnic groups, powers agreed to by the national assembly and voted upon. For more about the Belgian government (which I know you are dying to read), look here.

What this says is that it would take more than a minority separatist party in the government to effect a constitutional change of this magnitude. Will Belgium ever split into two separate countries? I highly doubt it. It would not be in the best interest of either side to have to establish the infrastructure and international presence to replace that of Belgium.

Historically, Belgium as we know it is really not that old. It was made independent of the Netherlands in 1830, gained a colonial empire through the bloody hands of King Leopold II, was occupied by Germany in both world wars, became a member of NATO and the EU, and has been giving more power to the provinces since the 1970's. For more about recent Belgian history (which you are more excited about than the government), look here.

If the two halves of the country were to split, the major issue would be, as in many breakups, who gets what stuff. In this case, the big question would be "who gets Brussels?" Apart from being the capital of the country, Brussels is the political seat of NATO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. It would, therefore, come down to what language EU commissioners and bureaucrats would not bother to learn: French or Flemish.

To sum up, it was a funny joke, no-one was hurt (that I know of) and things in Belgium can get back to normal. While there are people who don't want to be Belgian anymore, more still want to keep it all together. A split is not in anyone's interest and is not likely.

The Belgians need to calm down, drink a bunch of the great beer that they brew, and realize that most things on T.V. are just silly and that everyone in Europe is happy to keep balkanization in the Balkans.

Just ask the Serbs.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Claret, Your Grace?

No one really seems to care if celebrities of the entertainment type get drunk and do assinine things in public. It is, in many ways, part of the monkey dance that we expect of them; they are, after all, entertainers. We find drunks doing idiotic things in unlikely places in various states of injury or undress amusing, comical, entertainment gold.

What if, however, that the famous drunk acting stupidly in public is a celebrity of the religious type?

That is just what happened to Dr. Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark in England. Read the version of the story in the Times here. For a more tabloidy take on it, read the account in The Evening Standard here.

For those who don't want to read it (and just because it is so terribly amusing to recount), here's what happened. The bishop was at a Christmas party at (and all of the British news sources took great pains to emphasize this) the Irish Embassy in Belgravia in London. There, he was, ahem, filled with the spirit of Christmas.

Afterward, he left the party and was found inside the back seat of a car parked outside a pub near London Bridge Station. The owners of the car, noticing the intruder, came outside to find the bish throwing their child's stuffed animals around in the back seat. When the car owner opened the door, the bishop tumbled out of the car, already with a large injury on his forehead. He refused an ambulance and then wandered off into the night, eventually making it back to his home in Tooting Bec.

The next morning, at services, he claimed that he was mugged and his briefcase (later recovered among the stuffed animals) and cell phone (not yet recovered) were missing. He also claims to not remember the head wound, the car near London Bridge Station or how he got home. This story does not jazz, however, with witnesses that saw him before he left the embassy, when he was throwing plush toys around or when he staggered off into the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

On a personal level, I would be tempted to say "well, the guy drank too much, blacked out, acted like an idiot and now he must deal with the consequences." I also must point out that, to us in the drinking community, on a personal level, we can all relate.

On the other hand, Dr. Tom Butler is a public figure, a religious leader and apparently (according to the Times story) has a history of being tough on priests in his diocese who drink too much. If you are keeping score, the bish stands accused of lying, breaking an entering (the car), public drunkenness and hypocrisy.

Before proceeding to what I think should happen to this pickled prelate, I must return to the fact that the British press made such a deal about it having started with a party at the Irish Embassy. This is typical, British stereotyping of the Irish proclivity toward drunkenness. I would say "shame on them," but they don't care. It is part of their nature (see, I can use stereotypes too).

Things do not look good for Dr. Tom the Times points out, Lambeth Palace will most likely get involved. Archbishop of Canterbury (and Butler's boss) Rowan Williams. There will be inquiries and, seeing that Butler is sixty-six and intended to retire at seventy, he will most likely be leaned on to retire early. The only thing that can save him is other witnesses coming forth to clear him, evidence that he really was mugged or a Christmas miracle (hey, he is a man of the cloth after all).

What does this say about the Church of England? Not much more than it says about any organization who has members that make bad personal choices, really. Just because a board member is a drunk or beats his wife or anything else does not necessarily mean that the company is a sick organization. Unless there was a massive cover-up, or there was a pattern of such occurrences, or because of the former, we do not know about the latter, the C of E will continue on as it a somewhat irrelevant, poorly attended yet entrenched part of the British system and psyche.

More interesting, at least to me, is the reaction of the general public. How to gauge this? First, read the hilarious (and ultimately sympathetic) editorial by Brian O'Hagan in the Telegraph. Then, look at the reader responses below. They are a fascinating window on, well, the opinions on this matter by readers of the Telegraph. What they show are people who, in general, accept that the bish is human, made a mistake and seem willing to forgive. It does not seem to matter to them very much that this happened and they are willing to forgive Butler or to laugh him off.

This could mean one of two things. It could mean that the British are more generous with people like Butler when they make a mistake (which is what they consider it), and as long as he admits to it and apologizes for the attempts at deception, so what if the old fella had a few too many?

On the other hand, it could show just how irrelevant the C of E is to British society in general. It could show that people don't care because, well, the Church does not matter to them and who cares if some old guy in a cassock gets drunk, hurts himself and generally acts like a fool? In a country where only one in fifteen residents attend the C of E weekly and religious belief is in a tailspin, could one come to any other conclusion than that of public apathy mixed with mild amusement about a drunk bishop?

These questions will be (somewhat) answered if Lambeth Palace decides to investigate, but the larger questions about the C of E and British society linger on (as they have for years now).

Also interesting to consider is if this same incident happened in, say, Ireland to a Catholic bishop? Maybe if it happened in the United States to any religiously prominent person? What then? I suspect, at least in the American case, there would be much, MUCH more righteous indignation, howls about the horrors of alcoholism, accusations of clergy pedophilia and other such paroxysms typical of our increasingly therapy-based society.

All I can say for sure is this: this Christmas, if you see a commotion in the back seat of your car and a flume of stuff (possibly even stuffed animals) burbling up from the back seat, don't panic.

It's probably just a drunk Anglican bishop looking for his dignity.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Never Trust The Government With Your Kids

My dear friend, Lost A Sock, wrote a great piece on an absolutely preposterous (and typical) educational initative proposed by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Read her piece here. For my comments, well, read under "Comments" below the post.

For the original article from the Northwest Indiana Times, read here.

Government really needs to get out of the education business. Now.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Immediacy: Not Really Possible (For Now, At Least)

I realize that I have not posted in some time. It is crackerjack time in the semester and things are indeed (as ever) coming down to the wire.

I have the following to contend with:
  • 10-15 pages on Bertrand Russell, his meeting with Lenin in 1919 and his ultimate rejection of communism and why the hell this matters anyway.
  • 15-20 pages on the New Model Army and radicalism in the English Civil War and who did what when, why and why the hell this matters anyway.
  • Four pages of diplomatic documents to translate from French to English (and flawlessly, I might add).

How far am I on any of this you ask? I know a little about the first thing, a little more about the second thing and, as for thing number three, well, I know enough to know enough, let's say (an interestingly constructed sentence, I realize).

Plus, as if my bad academia habit was not enough, I am vaguely aware that there is some sort of Christian (or Jewish, perhaps...Hindu?) holiday approaching that I get the sneaking suspicion that I need to give somewhat of a shit about...

Pile on top of that developments in the world as we know it including but not limited to: resignations, civil wars, international Cold War-style intrigue and the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl on the first (screw Arkansas, by the way) followed by a family birthday on the second and doubtless TA training in that week as well leaves me with, oh, about thirty seconds in the next month and a half to think about anything other than school and this aformentioned mystery holiday (is it the commemoration of a forgotten war?...the War of Jenkins Ear, perhaps?)

Come to it, I really have precious little to do for the holiday season. I am only on the hook for five gifts (that I can remember, anyway), and three of these are to my immediate family. Apart from this, I have to send cards to people out of town, go and consume an entire shrimp ring and half-cooler of luke warm Miller Lite at the History Department Holiday reception, and make it onto a bus in two weeks. Not that bad, I know...if you don't count the intervening hours of intellectual horror as I argue, recant, rewrite, question my worth and ultimately "give up" in the process of writing (my version of giving up is like other people finishing, but with a lot more lamenting and gnashing of teeth).

I ask you, what would you rather have? Holiday madness or academic madness? Isn't it all just being fucking insane in the end? Does it matter how you got there? Will you even know it when you arrive?

No need to will only speed the aformentioned process of insanifying ( word).

Check back soon...there will be something here (Fates willing...)

Oh, and a Happy War of Jenkins Ear Day to you and yours (that's it, isn't it?)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Milton Friedman: 1912-2006

It is never an easy thing when someone that you admire dies. It gives rise to myriad different feelings: appreciation for their inspiration, sadness for the loss of their presence and reflection on their legacy, to name but a few.

These were my feelings in part when I learned of the death of Milton Friedman. Dr. Friedman died at the age of 94 at his home in San Fransisco. Here is the press release from the University of Chicago, with links to other news stories on Friedman's death.

It is easy with a person like Milton Friedman to chalk up all of the accolades. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics. Co-Founder of the Chicago School of Economics. Advisor to leaders around the world from Great Britain and the United States to China and the former Eastern Bloc. Author of tens of books and hundreds of articles on every topic from money supply to school choice, from narcotics policy to consumption, from taxes to military conscription.

It is also easy to point to the changes that a person like Milton Friedman caused in thinking and policy. Countering the Keynesians, Friedman asserted that aggregate demand in an economy does not indeed fall with rising economic fortunes. In other words, Friedman presents a convincing argument that people do not save more when they make more and that demand rises regardless of the overall fortunes of a given economic system. He also famously argued that inflation precedes, rather than follows, changes in the overall economy. This argument, if general trends in the economy are considered, turned out to be spot on. To remedy this, he proposed what became known as the monetarist theory of money supply, which calls for control of money supply which in turn controls large-scale economic factors. Again, this proved to be nothing short of prophetic in its simplicity.

It is also easy, in pursuing these aformentioned easy tasks, to forget the larger implications of Friedman's thought and concept of economics and society. Yet it is in this field where he has been, in my mind, the most profound.

Milton Friedman saw society not in terms of the collective, but in terms of individuals. These individuals are free actors, or they should be: there is often much that stands in their way. Road blocks to the free exercise of human desire and will are erected by the artificial states that claim power over the lives of people. In an attempt to secure their power, they play the role of parent, schoolmaster and policeman, trying to limit the ability of the individual to act as they deem best for their interests.

What arises from such socioeconomic limits? An inherently unfree society that holds the synthetic state in higher esteem than the natural rights of the individual. Governments can only exist if they hold coercive power over the mass of people that they govern; this power is rarely exercised with the best interests of the individual in mind because they run counter to the inherently paranoid nature of state power. In other words, most states as they are could not handle a society of individuals completely free to choose their destiny.

Yet this is perhaps the only societal arrangement where the full rights and dignity of human beings can be protected and exercised. Friedman was not an anarchist, nor am I. The only purpose of the state is to provide a deterrent for those who would infringe on the rights of others. This small enforcement power, excepting all else, is the only proper function for the state. It is not regulation, enforced morality, prohibition, coercion or intrusion. The state should be the servant of the individual, not the master.

Friedman was an unabashed optimist, and so am I. He believed that people are smarter, better informed and at their core more attuned to their desires than any state ever could be. He believed that a society of free people would be not only orderly but humane. I believe this too, and it is through no small contribution of Milton Friedman.

Can we ever live in the world that Friedman envisioned? I certainly hope so, because that is the world in which I want to live. Wouldn't you? We would all do well to understand Milton Friedman and his legacy, for he believed in us to build a more free (and therefore just) society.

Thanks, Dr. Friedman. You helped to show us the way.

Will we be brave enough to take it?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rumsfeld Out? No Big Shock Here.

This news, while doubtless important, was not really shocking in the least.

The pack has been baying for Rumsfeld's blood for quite some time now. Why, just two days ago, the various publications of the armed forces themselves called for Rumsfeld to go.

This added to the voices that had already been calling for the (for lack of a stronger word) embattled Secretary of Defense to go.

Will there be more shake-ups in the cabinet? Most likely yes, and some of them will not be at the president's behest. With a hostile Congress and time ticking down, many cabinet members will be looking to do some political "profit-taking," getting those cherry lobbying, lecturing, and consultant jobs that doubtlessly await departing cabinet members.

Just think about how many cabinet members left in the second terms of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

They don't want to go down with the ship when there is a golden life preserver waiting for them on K Street or a university political science department (or sometimes both).

Would you?

I Should Have Had Money On This

Well, I didn't do too bad at all at calling the elections last night. Let's see somewhat of a statistical shake-out...

Gubernatorial Races
Total Predictions Made: 33
Total Correct Predictions: 32
Incorrect Prediction: MN (Maybe Hatch's "Republican Whore" slip wasn't nothing...)
Percentage of Accuracy: 96.97%

Senate Races
Total Predictions Made: 32
Total Correct Predictions: 31
Incorrect Prediction: VA (This race is still close as of Wednesday afternoon...I smell recount...stupid "macaca" factor).
Percentage of Accuracy: 96.86%

We'll have to see about Virginia in the coming days. In a political climate where recounts are almost de rigeur, it is not far-fetched that this resuly may change.

Yes, it is perfectly normal to feel incredibly impressed.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Eve Special: U.S. House and Other Races

It would just be silly to predict all of the elections for the House, but I do offer this observation. If a rising tide lifts all boats, then a tidal wave lifts them across land masses.

Where did this "Democratic tide" come from, exactly? I suspect that it is a sentiment of "anyone but Bush" and people figure that voting for the other group of buffoons will make things better...right?

The truth is that I am not sure I believe all of this. It seems to me that our foci need to be elsewhere than picking someone we've never met to do a job we don't understand for money we don't control in a city far away. Sounds like trouble to me...

As for Wisconsin ballot measures: the marriage amendment will sadly pass. This, striking another blow against freedom of choice and the right of gays to be free is embarassing and I hope that I am wrong on this one. As for the death penalty thinggummy, it hardly matters as it is an advisory referendum, but expect it to pass.

Now, get beer, watch TV and see the monkeys dance tomorrow night...

Election Eve Special: Gubernatorial Races

Now, for the state houses...

Incumbent Republican Governors WHO Will Be Re-Elected
Riley-AL (CM)
Schwarzenegger-CA (BB)
Rell-CT (LS)
Perdue-GA (CM)
Lingle-HI (LS)
Heineman-NE (LS)
Carcieri-RI (CM)
Sanford-SC (LS)
Rounds-SD (LS)
Perry-TX (BB...Perry is not popular and has faces serious independent Kinky Friedman - Go Kinkster!)
Douglas-VT (CM)

Incumbent Democratic Governors Who Will Be Re-Elected
Napolitano-AZ (LS)
Blagojevich-IL (CM...Blago is months away from trouble...just not now)
Sebellus-KS (CM)
Baldacci-ME (CM)
Granholm-MI (CM)
Lynch-NH (LS)
Richardson-NM (LS)
Henry-OK (LS)
Kulongoski-OR (CM)
Rendell-PA (LS)
Bredesen-TN (CM)
Doyle-WI (BB...I think it will be closer than Doyle would want, but...)
Freudenthal-WY (CM)

Incumbents Who Will Be Unseated (With Opponents)
Maryland- O'Malley (D) def. ERLICH (R) (BB)
Minnesota- Hatch (D) def. PAWLENTY (R) (RT)

Open Seats
Alaska- Palin (D) def. Knowles (R) (CM...maybe)
Arkansas- Beebe (D) def. Hutchinson (R) (BB)
Colorado- Ritter (D) def. Beauprez (R) (CM)
Florida- Crist (R) def. Davis (D) (CM)
Iowa- Culver (D) def. Nussle (CM...weak)
Massachusetts- Patrick (D) def. Healey (R) (CM)
Ohio- Strickland (D) def. Blackwell (R) (CM)

Election Eve Special: U.S. Senate

Here are my calls for the Senate races up for election tomorrow:

Incumbent Republican Senators Who Will Be Re-Elected
Lott-MS (LS)
Kyl-AZ (CM)
Lugar-IN (LS-He is running unopposed...yep.)
Snowe-ME (LS)
Ensign-NV (LS)
Hutchinson-TX (LS)
Hatch-UT (LS)
Allen-VA (RT...actually, razor thin is hardly the word for this call.)
Thomas-WY (LS)

Incumbent Democratic Senators Who Will Be Re-Elected
Feinstein-CA (LS)
Lieberman-CT (CM...I know that he is an independent technically, but, c'mon...)
Carper-DE (LS)
Nelson-FL (LS)
Akaka-HI (LS)
Kennnedy-MA (LS)
Stabenow-MI (CM)
Nelson-NE (LS)
Menendez-NJ (RT)
Bingaman-NM (LS)
Clinton-NY (LS)
Conrad-ND (LS)
Sanders-VT (LS)
Cantwell-WA (LS)
Byrd-WV (LS)
Kohl-WI (LS)

Incumbents That Will Be Unseated (With Opponents)
Missouri - McCaskill (D) def. TALENT (R) (RT...almost too close to call)
Ohio - Brown (D) def. DEWINE (R) (CM)
Pennsylvania - Casey (D) def. SANTORUM (R) (CM)
Rhode Island - Whitehouse (D) def. CHAFEE (R) (CM)

Open Seats
Maryland - Cardin (D) def. Steele (R) (RT)
Minnesota - Klobuchar (D) def. Kennedy (R) (CM)
Tennessee - Corker (R) def. Ford (D) (RT...again, almost too close to call)

Election Eve Special: A Note On Abbreviations

Just to let you know, here are the abbreviations and such that I will use in the above predictions:

STATES: States are denoted using their two letter postal code abbreviation.

PARTIES: "R" is for Republican, "D" is for Democrat...unfortunately, that's about it.


CONFIDENCE OF PICK: This is based somewhat on polls, somewhat on news and mostly on my prejudices and hunches in looking at races from the outside. LS=Land Slide (I am 50% confident in my choice or higher); CM=Comfortable Margin (I am between 49% and 25% confident); BB=Barn Burner (I am between 24% and 10% confident in my choice); RT=Razor Thin (I am between 9% and 1% sure on these).

I think that does it.

Ready to enter the depths of punditry hell? Let's ride...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Happenstance, I Know. Still...

I, for one, thought that this was great. It is a random generator to determine what the movie of one's life story would be called and the director.!

Take'>">Take this quiz at

I will have something real (or as real as elections get anymore) tomorrow.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Clank Your Chains and Count Your Change, Try And Walk The Line

On my best days, I like to believe in the ultimate ability of the human race to get it all right in the end. I like to side with the philosophy that people are inherently good, possessed of reason and the ability to govern themselves and their societies in a manner that, while not completely perfect, speaks to the "better angels of our nature." Abraham Lincoln said that last bit, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. It seems that Lincoln believed in the ability of people to aspire to their best not only in governance, but in society. He was, after all, the president that weathered the American Civil War and gave Americans their "new birth of freedom."

On my worse days, and an extended Lincoln analogy is useful here, I think of the other side of the man who coined the above famous seeming endorsements of the power of people to positively govern themselves. There is much that can be said to suggest that Lincoln is not as he is commonly remembered. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, had a rather checkered record when it came to "enemy combattants," and it is all but certain that the Northern States did not primarily enter the American Civil War to end slavery. Read more about the other side of Lincoln here.

Therein lies the problems I currently wrestle with concerning the nature of humankind and the issue of political organization. On one hand, I stand firmly with Locke, Montesquieu and Nozick in thinking that people, with their essential liberty, will naturally have their best interests (and therefore the best interests of others) in mind at all times. Self-interest leads to public benefits by encouraging enterprise and a healthy respect for the rights of others to do the same. It's too bad no-one reads Bernard de Mandeville anymore; he had a point with all his talk about bees.

This side of my thinking, therefore, believes that people (and the societies to which they belong) can, given an emphasis on the individual and their inherent rights, can be a force for good and that political systems can indeed be moral and ethical. From good people and their good actions should come good societies. Yay, Aristotle!

Then, there are those other days...

There are times when it seems like people will never get it right. Concerned with themselves and gain at the expense of the freedom and right of others, people seem inherently evil. The systems of which they are a part, moreover, seem to reveal this. Societal organizations from governments to corporations to interest groups seem bent on one thing: their agenda and damn all else. They are in the system for what they can get out of it and never mind the rights of others. It is a battle for survival and the normal state of affairs is a state of war and strife.

Who is my philosophical travelling partner on these days? Why, Thomas Hobbes, naturally. Hobbes argued that life is "nasty, brutish and short." He asserted that without a strong governing force that was not accountable to anyone, people would simply kill each other to get what they want or think they need. He also believed that politics, or at least most political systems, were inherently corrupt, immoral and fraught with bribery, duplicity and out-and-out violence. For Hobbes, politics was not a question of right and wrong, good and evil. It was a question of order and chaos and it is clear what side he came down upon.

It is not hard to see how Hobbes came to these ideas, given the times from which Leviathan emerged. His interpretation of English society in the years before the English Civil War, going back to the time of the early Tudors, exposes a world of corrupt court politics where favor and influence stand at the center of the system. Patronage was the order of the day and it is not hard to extend this, by way of Hobbes's ideas about governmental systems, through history to the present day.

Hobbes believed that, really, the system of government did not matter. Although an ardent Royalist himself, a government's form was unimportant; it was the fact that all subjected themselves to it utterly that mattered most.

In more recent times, an entire school of political history evolved around the notion that politics concerned influence-peddling to gain favor for political factions and members of parties and higher purposes be damned. This, the "Namierite" view of history (after Sir Lewis Namier and his landmark 1929 book The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III) is a stunning comment on political systems in general and one that it is not at all far-fetched to imagine operating in our very midst.

What stemmed all of this in me, you ask? Well, when one studies politics and society in the past, it is inevitable that connections be made between human behavior in the past and that with which one is surrounded on a daily basis. More specifically, in my extensive reading into Tudor and Stuart politics, it occurred to me that political operators like Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, John Russell, William Cecil, Robert Devereaux, Francis Walsingham and others would have been right at home in the Chicago of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

These courtly Tudor Englishmen of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would have fit right in with the ward-heelers and machine politicians of mid-twentieth century Chicago. They would have, come to think of it, fit right in in most eras of Chicago politics. I can see Wolsey and Cromwell getting along famously with John "Bathhouse" Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, the "Lords of the Levee." The boss? In one case it was Henry VIII, in the other it was (mostly) Chicago Mayors Carter Harrison, II and William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.

New wine in old bottles, indeed.

So, what do I think about politics and people? I guess one might say it depends, as I have shown above. I would like to think that people will always, by doing what is right for themselves, also look out for the interests of others. History, however, provides many examples of people doing the exact opposite.

So, whether we clank our chains or count our change, it still depends what line we choose to walk. Robert Hunter's words outline the dichotomy at play here.

In closing, I invoke the immortal words of Bertrand Russell:

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

If You Hate It That Much, Move.

Living in a middle-sized Middle American city is, on balance, a great thing. You have all of the modern convienences of the city and you are not more than a twenty minute drive from, in my case, the gently rolling hills of south central Wisconsin. If you get the itch for the big city, Chicago is a hop, skip and a tollway away and Milwaukee, Madison's bigger brother, is only an hour down the road.

The real draw, and the reason that I think the Midwest is the best, is us, the Midwesterners ourselves. It is hard for me to do this, for one of the traits of our sort is modesty, but here goes.

You will not find more friendly, open, honest and genuine people than in the Midwest. Period.

We are always glad to see you, welcome all and are always ready to share whatever we have with friend and newcomer alike. We are proud of our cities, our towns and farmlands. Sure, there are differences between parts of the Midwest, and friendly rivalry between its component parts, but at the end of the day, it is no mistake why this is called "the heartland of America."

Take the Saturday afternoon I enjoyed last week. Breakfast with friends before heading to Camp Randall Stadium to watch the Badgers play Northwestern. An absolutely ideal fall afternoon with the leaves falling and the sun making one last hurrah even as the wind reminded all that the changing of the seasons was upon us. Afterward, pitchers of Blatz beer and conversation topped off with prime rib at the supper club and more good talk and friendliness. What could be better? Not much, if you ask me.

You see, we know that we are not the "coasts," and we like it that way. A lot of educated people sneer at the idea of coastal elitism, but it is a real thing and Midwesterners (and Southerners) feel it all the time. That is part of my reason for writing this.

As a graduate student at a large public university, I am constantly in contact with people from all over the country and all over the world. It is fascinating to see how different people, especially from "the coasts" react to moving to the Midwest. For other Midwesterners, it is like moving but not really. Not so for others, and this is where the elitism comes in.

These sorts of people cannot get it through their heads that things here will never be like they are in Boston or New York or Los Angeles. Ever. What's more, we are happy about this and will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way. Alas, the more we Midwesterners try and welcome these newcomers in our open and friendly manner, they refuse and push back and will not immerse themselves in the culture of their new home.

The accusations and stereotypes are easy enough to recount. All Midwesterners are: hicks, bigots, ignorant, small-minded, fat, crude, beer-soaked buffoons who just do not get it. We Midwesterners would be utterly lost in anything approaching REAL civilization and what we hold dear as the components of our way of life are but laughable shadows of a real culture. The food is terrible, the weather is worse and overall, if everything west of the Appalachians and east of Las Vegas were to vaporize tomorrow, that would be better off for the whole county.

Yep, I'm sure you have heard it all before.

With many of my colleagues, I am running out of answers or witty comebacks to defend my Midwestern home region. I am not sure what to say anymore. So, here is the ultimatum:

Either stop judging, open youself up to us and our ways and maybe, just mabye, allow yourself to be seduced by our charms or leave tomorrow. Simple as that.

If it is indeed so much better where you come from, don't let a measly job or academic appointment here in Dogpatch keep you here. You must have better schools where you come from, right? I mean, you can't take a piss in Boston without hitting a college or its students and UC-Santa Barbara is on the ocean. There must be something there for you, right?

Meanwhile, we will continue to enjoy football in the fall, bratwursts, small towns, manageable cities and most of all each other. The people are really, to again quote Lord Buckley, the flowers of life and we sure do enjoy our garden of life here.

If you cannot see us for the plain and honest people that we are, well, that's really a shame. We tried and tried. What more can we do?

Well, I would be glad to offer you bus fare to the airport. Make sure to just buy a one-way, O.K.?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Going From Worse To Catastrophic?

I had planned to post my big pre-election prognostications, but there may be some changes due to, surprise here, current events.

I am sure that, unless you have been in a coma or undersea or something, that you have heard of the sordid tale of former Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL).

Now, as in any politicomedia scandal, the fallout is spreading. There have been calls for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to resign because he may have known about the alleged abuse as long as a year ago. This touches other members of the Republican majority in the House, such as Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-NY), who may be implicated in a cover-up of Foley's alleged disgusting behavior. Others in "backpedal" mode because of alleged knowledge and a possible cover-up are Reps. John Boehner (R-OH), who is the House Majority Leader, and John Shimkus (R-IL), who oversaw the page program when Foley was, ahem, active with it.

Naturally, this is all made more interesting in an eletion year, especially one when there has been so much talk about the G.O.P. losing ground and the chance of them losing the twelve year hold they have had on the legislature.

What do I think of the whole thing? First off, no-one should ever make light of an adult making untoward advances on a minor. Ever. Secondly, Foley's hypocrisy exceeds even that of most pols with his record of legislation to protect children from predators. His claims, thirdly, made all at the same time that he is gay, was molested by a clergman and is an alcoholic seem like a whole bunch to admit at once.

Realizing that one is homosexual does not happen all at once, nor does it help to explain alleged sexual advances on children. Having been molested as a child is a grave tragedy, but one that seems to have been revealed at just the right time. Also, I don't buy for a second the "I was drunk" defense. I have tried it to get out of stuff that was, well, not a felony and it never works. Seems that some of Foley's colleagues think so too.

Should Dennis Hastert be forced/compelled to resign? I think not right now. Why, if he knew? First, nothing has been proven, no-one has been charged and the speculation is so deep you could fish for marlin in it. It has been clear for a while that the House G.O.P leadership needed a change after things like the Jack Abramoff ordeal and the bribery scandals of Bob Ney (R-OH) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA). Clearly, a change is needed.

Why not now? With the real possibility of the G.O.P. losing its hold on the House, the problem might just take care of itself. Different sorts of leadership are needed in oppositon than in majority and Hastert and Boehner (who himself took over for the disgraced Tom DeLay) might not be the guys for the job. My advice: wait until after the election is over and go from there.

Will the Foley ordeal be seen as the last nail in the G.O.P Congressional coffin? Things looked bad before and, in my opinion, this cannot be helping them get any better. This midterm election will be a headhunt against incumbents, as people seem to be losing confidence in their leadership. This effects the G.O.P. more because, well, there are more of them. Seeing as people are not willing to look beyond the two-party system and see that there are other options, they will vote for "the other guy."

Will this keep the so-called "values voters" (read Christian fundamentalists) away from the polls in November? Here again, Foley cannot be helping in any way garner the megachurch, creepy evangelical crowd. Voters are so flaky when it comes to turning out, though, so who can say? Foley is a sufficient condition of a G.O.P. downfall, not a necessary one.

Will a Democratic Congress make it all better? Now, let's not be silly.

Would you really feel any better in knowing that a different group of lunatics is running the asylum?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Old Farts Or New Pols? Your Choice.

Two entries today. One about new British politics, one about old British fart jokes.

What stinks more: farts or electoral politics (or my commentary on either)?

Maybe don't answer that last one.

Enjoy (I hope).

Blair's Swan Song And The Road Ahead

Before turning to elections over our way, I thought it may be interesting to dirty our collective hands on the electoral situation that is developing in the U.K. No, it is not yet time for a general election, but the waters are churning even before the end of the 2006 Labour Party Conference in Manchester.

Labour Party Conference '06: Blair Out: Brown In?

Everyone and their aunt knew that when Tony Blair and the Labour Party (LP) won the last general election last year, the leader of that party and Prime Minister (PM) since 1997 would step down before another election was called. You see, in the UK, elections are not necessarily held on the rigid, every-four (or two)-year schedule as here.

The PM decides when to call a general election based on the political mood of the party, the nation or (usually) for means of political expediency. By law, however, there must be a general election (meaning all 635 seats in the House of Commons) at least once every five years. Blair has been the PM for almost ten years and he wanted to give his successor a decent run-up to the next general election, which will most likely be in 2009 or 2010 (probably).

By means of a short explanation (for those of you who don't know), the British party system is also a bit different than ours in that the leader of the party carries a lot more weight over there than here. In fact, it is usually the leader of the party who becomes that parties incumbent (or candidate) for PM. All of this was in flux during the LP's Party Conference this year (a party conference is much like a political party convention in the U.S.)

Of course, there were the speeches by the now somewhat lame-duck Blair. You know the sort of thing: reflect on the legacy, forging a new and better Britain and world for the kids, regret differences with opponents. Read a summary of Blair's version in his farewell to the party here. If you don't want to read it, just think of the lyrics to the song "My Way," and you get the idea.

There was also a speech given by our very own ex-president Bill "I Really Tried To Get Osama" Clinton. Apparently, the Bill Clinton Admiration Society did not have a meeting this week and he was free to speak in Manchester. All joking aside, I agree with the commentary in the Manchester Guardian in that Clinton's liberal standing and manner, coupled with his image (on the rise, given the current president's woes), was just what the LP conference needed. Clinton reminded the crowd not to take their out-going leader for granted, to look to the future and keep policy at the forefront...

The Battle for LP Leadership: Phase One

...which is often hard in the personality-driven scramble for the party leadership which will last from now until Blair steps down and then until the next general election. The heir-apparent, for some time now, has been current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. He has been the Chancellor since 1997 and has received mixed reviews on his performance, seeing unemployment drop and the economy generally rise, but saddling the government with new debts. What has been the more contentious issue is a long-term personality clash between Blair and Brown.

Blair, like his hero Bill Clinton, came on to a political nation in turmoil. In 1997, the Conservative Party (Tories) had been in control of the government since 1979. Under Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), the UK had generally done well economically and unemployment had gotten better than it had been under LP governments in the 1960's and 1970's (which is not saying much). Under Thatcher's successor, John Major, things got appreciably worse. Inflation spiked, unemployment reared its ugly head and problems continued (as ever) in Northern Ireland. Blair, when he seized the leadership of the LP in 1994, he aggressively set about reforming his party's image and game-plan.

The LP, in the Thatcher and Major years, had been pretty firmly in the control of what came to be known as "Old Labour," or less complimentarily the "Looney Left." These were a smattering of old leftists, socialists, communists and other bits and pieces of previous regimes whose fractiousness helped lead to Thatcher's initial victory in 1979. Blair sought to purge the party of these elements and remake the LP into a modern, social-democratic party. In that, and the birth of "New Labour," he was quite successful, winning the 1997 general election and two more after that.

Gordon Brown, who has been with Blair from the start, is really none of those things that made Blair so popular. He is not charismatic or even terribly at home in front of the press. He made his reputation as a tough policy man, working in the Treasury to implement the changes that made Britain prosper again in the late 1990's and into the 21st century. He has also been the heir-apparent since at least just before the 2003 general election if not more. One could see how the two could conflict and how Brown could have a different leadership style and policy agenda than Blair.

This, naturally, leads to speculation about...

Is Brown The Man?

Here is where my opinion comes into play. Gordon Brown, unless he makes really bad mistakes or decides to piss the boss off in his last months, will be the choice to succeed Blair as PM. That being said, one must account for the fact that the press and public in the UK don't necessarily like being presented with a political fait accompli.

This means BECAUSE Brown is the front-runner now, he might not get it. Counterintuitive? Yes, but this is, after all, the squalid politics of personality. In that light, read the excellent commentary in the Times by former Tory Opposition Leader Michael Portillo on the "death of policy" in British politics and the somewhat undue focus on personality (oh, if we could ever deal with this one...).

So, who, then? Could be any one of a half a dozen or more. Take a look at the possible list of challengers from Blair's Cabinet (and party at large) and their respective claims/chances. Challengers for the leadership of a British political party usually come from the ranks of the Cabinet (in the case of the Government party) and the Shadow Cabinet (in the case of the Opposition).

From what I have seen, the ones to keep and eye on are current Home Secretary John Reid, who has held top positions in government, has a no-nonsense approach to tough policy decisions and is often seen as one of Blair's closest confidants and hatchet men. Look to Reid to be a favorite among those who are ardent Blairites and the "anyone but Gordon Brown" choice. Also not to be ignored is current Education Secretary Alan Johnson, who's star has been on the rise for some time and his promotion to Education this summer made him a real challenger. Also among my three possibles is current Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who has made no bones about the fact that he wants to be in LP leadership and will stake his reputation (which is quite good) to get it.

Other less likely candidates can be seen in the aforementioned summary. For future watchers, keep an eye on Jon Cruddas and David Miliband - they are the next generation, as it were.

The Conservatives: Their Game Plan

The Tories with their (relatively) new leader David Cameron, MP (Witney) are, naturally, keeping an eye on the whole affair, most especially I imagine the rift in the leadership and a possible challenge. What they might even want more is for Brown to get the leadership, cause a rift in the LP and face the next general election against a split and rancorous LP. I am sure there is nothing they want more.

Until then, Cameron and the Tories will continue to press their agenda of change from the Blair orthodoxy, a possible reordering of foreign policy and maybe even different steps in the relationship of the Union and the U.K. to the European Union. This is all leading to their party conference next weekend (10/1-10/4) in Bournemouth. It will be interesting to see what emerges.

The Liberal-Democrats: The Tipping Point?

Lastly, one must consider Britain's "other" party, the Liberal-Democrats (Lib-Dems), in the equation. With the LP split and the Tories trying to capitalize, the Lib-Dems might be the hinge in the next general election. With their reconfirmed leader in the person of Sir Menzies Campbell and their "damn all" approach to the LP and the Tories, the party has a real chance...that is if they can woo middle class swing voters in London and the Home Counties to leave Labour or Conservatives and go their way. Here is a good piece of commentary by Matthew Parris in the Times about a possible winning strategy for "Ming" Campbell and the Lib Dems.

So What?

I know, a pretty long piece about the government of somewhere else. It interests me, though, and I think that as (for better or worse) our "special relationship" remains, what happens in the U.K. matters here.

Or not. Up to you, really.

Jacobean Fart Jokes

I, for one, find this poem hilarious.

Ben Franklin loved a good fart joke, too.

As I have always said, it never gets old.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Like A Ton Of Intellectual Bricks

Yes, I am fully aware that I have not posted in some time. The academic year, coupled with personal commitments, have drained my time to the last.

I know I promised reflections on my first year in Madison and "Swinging London," so here goes:
  • Madison feels more like home every day...and Oak Forest, apart from my family being there, feels ever less so. It is somewhere I am "from" not "of," if you follow me.
  • London, and all of England, was a mostly joyful and happy place in the early 1660's. Remember people in Afghanistan when the Taliban was deposed. Same deal. It didn't last.

Now, as to the future, we are in the midst of an election season and, as you all know, electoral politics is one of my drugs of choice. I will, naturally, offer my views. In fact, I will post tomorrow with some predictions.

If all goes according to plan. I hope. Probably.

Thanks for your continued support.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Case Of Blatz, A Block Of Cheddar And Thou

I have two more substantive posts in the pipeline for this week. One concerns my reflections on living in Madison, away from "home" for a year (the anniversary of which was yesterday). The other is focused on Swinging London in the '60s, but not what you expect; think more Drury Lane than Carnaby Street here.

In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful site recommended by NPR legend, host of Whad'ya Know? and Madison resident Michael Feldman (which was in turn recommended by my dad).

Hey, poetry is not just about, well, poetic things. It can be about anything. I published a series of poems about molluscs in my high school literary magazine. They were good, I was told.

Maybe I was just told that to get me to stop writing the likes of "Hey, Buddy Mollusc."

Hey, their loss, right?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prenuptual Rituals and Human Nature: A Personal Reflection

All things considered, I think that I have a decent grasp on many of the sociocultural dynamics that define and (some might say) plague our world today. How people interact with each other and their culture over time is a "broad-brush" generalization about what many historians (including me) do in their work.

There is one sociocultural dynamic, however, and its set of attendant rituals and practices that utterly eludes me: everything to do with getting married.

Now, there is a certain level on which I DO understand the whole thing. That would be the recognition of the importance of marriage in a particular society (as narrow as that definition might be), the public acknowledgement that two people are now linked officially as well as emotionally and the formalization of a partnership that will redefine the position of the couple vis-a-vis the rest of society.

I also understand that these things, which a society deems important, often become laden with ritual because they are, in many ways, inherently conservative acts. The people involved are saying, in effect, "we will play the part in this ritual to prove that, at the end of the day, we are not maverick. We are not radical. We agree with a certain amount of society's expectations."

Much of this understanding, incidentally, comes from the days where marriage was more a business deal than an emotional event. Before, oh, the eighteenth century, marriage was really just an arraingment for the continued inheritance of property. It was not until later that emotion even entered into it. That much I get.

Perhaps what I don't understand is the performative aspects of the rituals that come before a marriage in the modern United States. These would be the bachelor(ette) party. In particular, one particular aspect of each that has come to my attention through observation and, in the latter case, participation.

First, the bachelorette and her cadre. I view nothing with more horror than the arrival of a bachelorette party at any bar at which I am ensconced. "Why is this, Will," you may ask. Think of the group dynamic that just entered my space and you will understand. The group will, invariably, begin to draw all of the attention of the staff until getting a drink is slightly harder than distilling one for yourself in the bathroom.

Then their attentions will doubtless turn to the other patrons of the bar, in many cases, all men. There are two types here: those men who will egg the women on and participate in their escapades and those who would just as soon be left alone. No points for guessing which of those I am.

It is well and good if it ends there (which it often seems to): with the jagoff locals wrapped up in the "fun," and me (and the other sullen, angry sots) moving elsewhere. It can, however, turn into the worse case scenario: your participation is "requested" by the fiat of the group of women or expected by proxy due to the fact that you are a man. This situation is often precipitated by one's male friends, seeing the possibility of women with their inhibitions down, trying to knock one for six, as it were. Your participation is then expected.

This is where I draw the line. If the rest of your group wants to get involved, fine. Not me. In the great words of Eric Cartman, "screw you guys, I'm going home."

Oh, and to the women, no one actually thinks you are funny/cute/charming/more attractive when you behave like this. The men who play along are just in it for the, well, you know, and the ones who don't really DO just want to be left alone. Most of the women who read this space know this and this is not directed at you (hopefully). To the rest, seems a bit harsh? Seems, madam? Nay, it is.

Now, as far as bachelor parties go, most of the ones that I have attended seem to be more private, not out in public affairs. There is a public component, no doubt. A few bars, some food and then, inevitably, the strip club. Words cannot express how uncomfortable these places make me (strip clubs, that is).

Do I think that it is women being objectified? Yes, but the women there know this, exploit it to great profit and think nothing more of it. I have no problem with this. Sex is the best way to cajole a man out of his hard-earned cash and, if it can be done, more power to those who can do it.

So what is it that makes me uncomfortable? Hard to say, really. It may have something to do with seeing my friends, people I respect as human beings, in the throes of the lowest aspects of human nature. I try and find the best in all people, and no people more keenly than my friends. They are such a wonderfully diverse and deep group of people and I consider anyone fortunate to meet with us. It is truly an experience not soon forgotten.

Take these people that you respect and put something female and unclothed in front of them, and the whole scene changes. They begin to behave, for lack of a better word, like all of the worst characteristics of guys that you hate and do not associate with under any circumstances.

Is this part of the male nature? Some would say that it is and that my revulsion in the situation tells more about me than my friends. I, however, think that it is something else. It is tantamount to seeing any side of someone that you respect that causes you to re-evaluate that respect and attempt to rationalize it. Something like catching your dad with someone who isn't your mom.

Complete and coherent? Not really. It is, it must be admitted, a complex consideration and one that I am not sure I will settle any time soon. In the meantime, however, I will go with my rationalizations of the past, write this behavior off to momentary insanity brought on by base urges and alcohol and move on through the experience.

As before, I must give great credit to alcohol, which has gotten my through many an uncomfortable bachelor party moment. Many has been the time when I have sucked down countless overpriced Dewar's and waters at strip clubs waiting for everyone else to "get it out of their systems" so the real drinking can commence. Oh, booze; what would I do without you?

To wrap this up, perhaps I am completely off base with my observations and I have missed the mark completely. Perhaps my biases and personal shortcomings are being brought to bear on something that everyone else thinks is fun. Perhaps I am, as ever, making far too much of this.

Or maybe, just maybe, me and the Dewar's Highlander have a point.

What say you?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Let's Get Trashed

O.K. The title to this post is a bit of false advertising. Below are not my ruminations on the merits of a booze-up (though they are indeed many). There are instead two observations concerning garbage.

First, in the wake of the aforementioned "hippie Christmas" here in Madison, the streets are again clear of the garbage mounds...with a few exceptions. For you see, the city requires an additional payment to dispose of appliances. It seems that you must pay for anything larger than, say, a toaster. Instead of the garbage heaps, therefore, the streets are dotted with microwaves, fridges, air conditioning units, computer equipment and other electronic gee-gaws that have gone to Appliance Heaven. They all bear a bright green sticker as evidence of their un-pick-up-able nature.

It is quite a "catch-22" if you think about it. In fact, in the book Catch-22, the dead man in Yossarian's tent is somewhat of a metaphor for these appliances. In the case of the dead man, there were seemingly good administrative reasons why the man could not be moved; no one knew what they were, but they must have been frightfully good.

With the appliances, the people who threw them out have moved, possibly out of town, so they're out. The landlord won't touch it, much less pay for it, because he/she did not throw it out to begin with. Lastly, the city will not pick up any appliance that has not been paid for. See what I mean? The streets of Madison are dotted with little curbside monuments to governmental and systemic ineffeciency.

Observation number two comes in the form of something I noticed about myself. Through no extra effort on my part, I am actually quite environmentally friendly.

First, and this is the big one, I do not own a car and have not in three years. I go everywhere via public transportation. I'll bet that even Al Gore cannot say that. Second, I recycle/reuse almost everything possible. Madison's recycling program takes almost anything (except appliances, apparently) and being a swinging bachelor (ahem), I create very little trash. The bulk of the trash I do create is the recyclable kind (empty beer cans and the cases that they came in, mainly). Thirdly, I wash my clothes in a high-effeciency, double load commerical washer that uses less water and less soap, therefore creating less toxic (especially from my socks) run-off.

So there, Al Gore, your truths (if they indeed be that) are not inconvienent for me at all. Nice try at making me feel guilty, though.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Typonomy Blundering, Spatial Understanding

A short news item concerning misprinted Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) maps led me back to a pet subject of mine: the power of maps.

Granted, this seems like an accidental oversight, and one that will cost the already cash-strapped CTA quite a lot of money to correct.

Which led me to these thoughts: what would happen if they were not corrected? What would have happened if no-one noticed?

Maps have a certain air of authority to people in the modern world. It is thought that they are scientific documents, produced by professionals and they are therefore foolproof. Think about this. You look at a road atlas, transit map or whatever and you just figure that it is correct. Most people, moreover, consider that the makers of these maps have no motive other than providing correct geographical information to get you from here to there with the least amount of hassle.

On one level, this is what maps are: utilitarian documents that represent a three-dimensional reality in two dimensions for people who want more information about the territory depicted. They are, on another level, much more than this.

Think about the awesome conceptual leap that it takes to represent something on a scale and in a different dimensional framework than it is normally experienced and you'll see what I mean. A map cannot, obviously, represent territory on a 1:1 scale, so decisions must be made, items included and excluded. It is in these comissions and omissions that the deeper meaning of cartography begins to reveal itself.

In other words, what is left out of a map often tells as much about the maker and their society than what is included. Just as in music, you must listen for the silences as well as the notes.

As shown by the CTA blunder, place names also carry an awesome power behind them. While this case was just a mistake (most likely), it illustrates that typonomy is important and can be a very loaded concept. One need only look at maps of "colonized" areas to see the power of place names over the understanding of the landscape for conqueror and conquered alike.

Is the case of the CTA the same as the (as some have argued) cultural genocide of place re-naming. Hardly. What it does show, however, is that maps shape understandings of territory as much as territories lead to the creation of maps of all sorts.

Am I making too much of this? Consider how we do (or don't) "think cartographically," (to use David Buisseret's words. How do our minds experience and process space? From another angle, what is it in all human cultures that leads them to express space cartographically in one way or another?

For more visual learners (and because it's more interesting), are these images maps? Why or why not?

Oh, if your answer to "am I making too much of this" was yes, you may be on to something...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Madison Halloween 2006: The Death of Fun And/Or Freedom

As another school year here in Madison draws near, thoughts locally turn to all of the highs and lows that the influx of tens of thousands of people bring about every year. We are in the midst of the spate of moving trucks and monumental garbage piles of the "moving-in" period (and the garbage picking mecca that is refered to as "hippie Christmas.")

Doubtless, thoughts also turn to the hoary old chestnut that is Halloween in Madison, 2006. After last year, which was more subdued that previous years, Mayor Dave still seems worried about the revelers and their antics. So, what is his plan?

He intends to charge a five dollar admission charge, barracade every entrance to State Street and set an upper limit for the number of "tickets sold. Read the full story here.

This plan has the support of the Madison Common Council and other groups such as the Associated Students of Madison, the Interfraternity Council, Downtown Madison Inc., and the State Street Business Association.

It does not, however, have the support of the UW-Madison Student Government, who claim that it punishes the innocent and presumes guilt on the part of all attendees for the rowdy acts of a few troublemakers (most of which don't even live here). Check out their objections here.

What do I think, you ask? Let's look at this from a few different angles: the city government, the partygoers and the business owners on State Street. Then, having considered that, let's take a broader view.

The City of Madison
From the city's standpoint, it seems that this may be just another bandage on a gaping head wound. Sure, the money will be welcomed and, on paper, the plan does seem to stem the tide of, well, the tide of people that crowd State Street. On paper, that is. Actually, the enforcement of this policy seems more easily said than done. Take a look at a map of State Street, scan up and down and try and count all of the access points...sure are a lot, no?

Not to mention the fact that while State Street is a pedestrian mall, it is crossed by several streets that are not (Lake, Gorham, Johnson, Dayton, Fairchild). How will traffic be directed through these areas while limiting access on foot?

Another enforcement issue comes in the counting of the admissions charged. This will take a level of coordination that, while keeping the coercive presence to a maximum, might lead to miscommunincations and other issues of coordination. Perhaps not, but it could happen.

Halloween Partygoers
This is the proverbial "x-factor." This is the reason that there is a problem in the first place. From these people's view, they want to be in public, act stupid, drink and get in fights. No amount of coercive effort will change this. What will, you ask? Well get to that, but first, the lizard brain.

The lizard brain is the brain as functioning under the influence. It is well known that the first thing to go, cognitively, when drinking is judgement. This means that the irrational becomes necessary and that doing what one would normally not do seems like the best idea ever. Now, imagine 70,000 people in a similar condition and the enormity of the situation takes hold.

O.K., the first people there will not cause a stink. What about those who are turned away or those who pay, are admitted and then are unable to access drink because bars will not allow it (not likely, but who knows)? In other words, you wanna know how to make angry drunks even angrier? Antagonize them and put a barrier between them and their goal. This will, and has, presented problems.

Business Owners on State Street
It seems from the preliminary endorsements, the business that cater to the crowd on State Street are amenable to the city's plan. Given the recent incidents (although last year was a bit less intense) and the property damage, I guess I'll buy that.

Personally, if I were a business owner (more specifically, a tavern owner), I would take considerable exception to a government plan to limit access to my place of business in order to make the government's life easier. I want to earn as much as possible and, given the no smoking ordinance and the crackdown on drink specials, every little bit helps.

I would also want to know what exactly the city plans to do with the money. If you are limiting access to my business and charging for the right, I want a detailed expense accounting of the funds.

More Kerosene on the Fire
An additional factor that could, well, complicate things comes in the fact that Halloween always comes during football season. Halloween happens to fall on a home football Saturday here in Madison (wherein the Badgers will ride roughshod over the Cryin' Illini). This means more people, more booze for more of the day. I am sure that this has been considered in all its ramifications.

It has, right?

The Broader View
What is really at issue here, given all of the above considerations, is freedom of assembly. When did it become acceptable to charge citizens admission to walk down a public street? When did it become O.K. to limit people's right to assemble by charging a fee? These are the real issues and ones that the city has yet to answer. What say you, Mayor Dave?

Another issue to consider is the notion of "rebranding" Halloween. I agree that it may do the city well to welcome visitors and make them feel at home; in some strange way, this may influence their behavior. If they come and see "Welcome to Halloween in Madison" and "Enjoy Your Stay" rather than police on horseback and barracades, things might just be different. Maybe so, maybe not.

I have not, however, seen any moves in this direction and no rumblings that things will be much diffferent.

In closing, this event will never go away. It has taken on a life of its own and anything short of martial law will not completley stop people. The primary responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens lives and property. In doing so, however, it cannot trample other rights that the people hold no less dear. It is this balance that must be struck and the plan as it stands for Halloween 2006 does not do this.

Further Reading
Oh, you might be interested to read several blog posts by former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (yes, the serial mayor himself) about Halloween this year. Somewhat amazingly, Soglin is the voice of reason...not a usual role for him. I quite agree with him that constitutional issues are at stake and that the activities are, at their core, sophomoric and inane. Can't these kids drink in the woods on Halloween like normal people?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Gross Blog Negligence

Yeah, yeah. I know. I have not posted in ten days. Here's why:
  • I went on vacation. I went back to Oak Forest and then to Highland, IN and then back to Oak Forest to then depart for Lake Geneva, WI from whence I left for Arlington Heights, IL by way of Richmond, Spring Green, Volo, Wauconda, Fox Lake, Lake Zurich (all in Illinois) and returning to Lake Geneva, WI via Wonder Lake, Woodstock and Hebron (also in Illinois. We returned to Oak Forest via Kenosha, WI (where I ate a bratwurst).
  • I had a lovely time.
  • I am trying to get ahead for the fall semester. My results have been mixed.

I will return to Madison and more regular posts in a few days. My travels have proved (as they always do) great fodder for reflection. Here's some of the things you can expect (with a certain generosity of spirit):

  • Why the arrival of a batchelorette party at the bar you are inhabiting is a sure sign of trouble.
  • The interesting blending and bleeding of borders between rural, suburban and rural.
  • Other curmudgeonly observations, no doubt.

Aren't you lucky?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Promising Noises From The Buckeye State

(For more background on this issue, read these posts that I wrote last year concerning eminent domain.)

In the arena of eminient domain abuse, 2005 was a low point. The Supreme Court, in the decision of Kelo v. New London basically decided that the right of eminient domain given to governments in the Constitution is almost endlessly vast. Under this decision, it looked as if the rights of property owners would be under increasing attack by governments and other bodies that sought to "condemn" their land and use it for their own purposes.

A recent decision by the Ohio Supreme Court shows that this may not be the case. In the case of Norwood v. Horney, the Ohio Supreme court sided with local homeowners against the village of Norwood (in suburban Cincinnati) and land developers in saying that their projects were not valid reasons for the seizure of property.

Read more about the decision here and here.

More encouraging even than the decision itself is the fact that the high court of Ohio declared a large portion of Ohio's eminent domain law unconstitutional, stating that it gave governmental officials too much power over private property (you can read about this at the first "here" link above which takes you to the summary of the decision).

In a time when it seems that individual rights are on the run and government for the people and by consent are quaint notions from the past, it is enheartening to learn of people taking their government to task for violating their rights.

Let this be a lesson to us all.

Non-Coercion And Cost-Benefit Analysis In The Face Of Desire

(This is in partial response to the questions I posed here.)

All human relationships (couples, families, tribes, states, supranational organizations) should be viewed from the standpoint of cost/benefit analysis. In other words, the relationship can only be good or useful if it is beneficial to both parties, or at least moreso than it is harmful.

Naturally, this suggests that either party should be free to end the relationship or restructure it drastically if is becomes less beneficial than harmful.

Human relationships, however, should not be viewed merely from the standpoint of the collective as a whole. I believe that the proper perspective is that of a free association of individuals where the individuals are the atomic subject of the society, whatever form it takes.

Individuals naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain and, in this search, seek to maximize their pleasure through their efforts. This search necessarily descends from the concept of individual freedom and free will. People are not determined; they are free actors who should be free to pursue their indivudual wants, free from outside coercion.

Coercion is the most damaging action taken against a free individual and its excess leads to unfree association and slavery (in one way or another).

If, therefore, an individual in any social relationship uses coercion to seek their ends, and this decreases the freedom of the other, this denies the very humanity of the other person or persons involved in this relationship. This should not (but does) happen.

This naturally leads to questions. Can relationships ever "work" in the long run? Be it a couple or a society, can it ever be said that conditions are met for the benefit of all at the expense of none?

At some level, it would seem so. If entered into freely, with the understanding that it may be broken without fault at any time, then the "system" works, right? Well, sort of...

This notion of human interaction (influenced by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill) is predicated on the notion that people are, at their core, rational and seek to act in rational ways. Any person can tell you, however, that it is not always (or perhaps never is) the case. Bertrand Russell famously said that "it has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

How does the irrational human mind come in contango with the above mentioned notions of free association and societal structure. Well, there are any number of explanations ranging from Hegel's notions of the "search for recognition" and Plato's (or Socrates's) ideas concerning thymos in The Republic to psychologists like, well, everyone from Sigmund Freud to B.F. Skinner to Carl Jung to Abraham Maslow to Rollo May.

Where does this lead? Who can say, really. It is one of those issues that will always be with us: how can irrational being live in a rationally structured society. It seems to me, though, that Hegel's notions about recognition go a long way in explaining that human dignity is only recognized through contact, often hostile, with other people. This may help bridge the gap between the "state of nature" and "civil society" predicted in the distant past (or maybe not at all) by damned near every Western philosophical tradition.

We have to learn to live with each other, we are always told. Is this the nub of the problem or a fact to be dealt with? Is man/woman really a social animal? Political? Rational?

The Two That Got Away

Thanks for the response on the band names. I have no recognizable musical talent...apart from naming bands.

Anyway, there were two that I forgot:
  • Jesus Chrysler (Road Savior)
  • Hill Music

Friday, July 21, 2006

More Honored In The Breech Than In The Observance

Yeah, yeah, I know. I know that I said I would have something substantial for the end of the week. Truth is, I do.

I really don't want to type it right now, and as it is not of pressing concern, it can wait.

You can look forward to:
  • My response to the questions I posed here.
  • A bit more about Lebanon, perhaps.
  • Why I am a philistine and why this does not bother me.

In the meantime, read this from the latest issue of MDM; my favorites are nos. 13, 28 and 29. What the heck, read the whole issue.

If you really want fun, then don't read the post below. It involves me making stuff up...

...and that's funny because I never do that, right?

Don't answer that.

Take care all and thanks for the continued support.

Music Is The Best

As I said before, this is not a real post, as such. I just wanted to post something silly for the weekend. I present here band names that I made up, on and off, over the past week (and then some classics with credit given where it's due).

  • Hammer of the North
  • Forlorn Driftwood
  • Tip In (Pervcore)
  • Meathenge
  • Screwin' Pants (with help from Otto von Bozzi)
  • Windswept Promontory
  • Blowjob Panacea
  • Neoprene Jesus
  • Vanilla Hitler
  • Majestic Bilge Pump of Love
  • Reverie en Charcuterie
  • Osama bin Rockin'
  • Windy Canyon
  • Voerwaard!
  • Gratuitous Umlaut (with help from Andrew Erickson)

Now, for the classics. With a tip of the hat and a strum of the pick to my brother Pat and Tom Swan, my spiritual advisor.

  • Washcloth
  • Turdburglar
  • Nature's Starch
  • Lucifer's Luau
  • HellTiki
  • CarbHut
  • Satan's Bedstains
  • Belleek Breeze
  • Meat Spew
  • The Haggard Old Gaelickers

Did you have any respect left for me. Well, that should have taken care of that.

Anyway, whadd'ya think?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Well, O.K. But, Still...

(I have some bigger things to post, but it seems that Blogger is moving omniously slow. I don't want to launch into something big just to see it lost. Expect those things tomorrow, Friday or whenever Blogger gets their act together...)

All right. It seems as if I was a bit hasty in condeming the U.S. evacuation efforts. Seems that today the removal of Americans from Lebanon began in earnest.

While this individual situation may blow over, my essential question remains: if a government cannot protect those it governs, what good is it?

How might this issue inform this question for us today?

Considering that, how far does the government's responsibility to protect (or to allow free research and inquiry to better people's lives) go? Do the two overlap? Should they?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Protecting Americans In Lebanon? Pants Around Ankles, I'm Afraid.

Considering the situation between Israel and Hizbullah (with a shaky, new Lebanese government caught in the middle), an appraisal of the situation could go many ways. It could focus on the roots of the conflict, the current goings-on or what will happen in the end.

I will offer a bit of that at the end, but I wanted to approach what I think is one of the most irresponsible parts of the situation at hand.

I think that the slow U.S. response to protect its citizens in Lebanon is nothing short of appalling.

As the situation in the region has developed over the past week or so, other nations with interests in the region (and more importantly people) have scrambled resources and manpower to get their people out of harm's way. To take one example, the Royal Navy has docked in Beirut to begin what is planned to be the largest evacuation of British nationals from a war-torn area since Dunkirk.

What is the U.S. government doing to protect its estimated 25,000 passport holders in Lebanon? Well, it seems more today than yesterday or over the weekend. With the help of the Marines and the U.S. Navy, 320 Americans have left Lebanon today. According to the plans publicized by Condoleeza Rice over the weekend, all Americans in Lebanon who want to leave will eventually be afforded the chance, as this is considered not an evacuation but a voluntary move on the part of the Americans in Lebanon.

Now, I understand that moving 25,000 people (or at least providing them adequate opportunity to move) is tough even in during peaceful conditions. Anyone who has tried to leave a large sporting event/concert will know what I mean. I also understand that people should be free to choose whether they stay or go (unless you are on embassy staff or otherwise engaged with the U.S. government; in that case, you are not calling the shots anymore. Hey, it's the life you chose).

I also understand that this is not a situation like Iran in 1979 where U.S. embassy staff was taken hostage and used as bargaining chips by a new, revolutionary regime. In that same vein, I also am fully aware of the fact that the overall beef is not with the Lebanese governmenty per se, but with Hizbullah. This would mean that we will not close the embassy, run down the flag and escape from the roof in a helicopter, a la Saigon in 1975.

What DOES disturb me, however, is how the government seems to be getting caught with its pants down so much recently. One only need look at the response to Hurricane Katrina/Rita to see that when the government says they have "contingency plans," don't put too much stock in this. With the recent track record of the U.S. government, we would do better to have Wal-Mart coordinate the planning of disaster relief than FEMA.

This is another case of the U.S. being caught with aformentioned trousers around ankles. As I conceded, this is not an easy thing to do, but we should have put the wheels in motion as soon as things began to heat up.

But Will, you say, you believe in limited government almost to the point of being an anarchist. What gives with you calling for government response? The answer is quite simple, really. One of the few things that I believe government SHOULD do is protect the lives of the people that it governs. That is a basic tenet of the social contract, no matter how you care to define it. Protection of life, liberty and property - that is the only proper functionl for government.

It is clear from the case of Lebanon (and others, no doubt) that the government seems monumentally bad at doing this. When a government cannot even protect its citizens in harm's way (no matter where they are in the world), something is greviously wrong with that government. What can be done? Just read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence...

But Will, you might also say, if these people choose to go to possibly dangerous areas, while it is their choice, why is it the government's responsibility to protect them? All I need say here is think about the alternate restrictions on U.S. citizens. The government telling them where they can and cannot go, saying that the protection of the government is contingent on factors other than those agreed upon in the Constitution? Do we want that? I think you know the answer to that one.

To conclude, two speculations about the wider effects/impact of this brand spanking new chapter in the ongoing shitstorm in the Middle East. First, Iran must be loving this. A free (apart from the aid given sub rosa, you understand) proxy war against Israel. Ahmadinejad, I think, could not care who wins or loses. If Israel wins, well, another brick in the wall of Israeli mistreatment and hatred of Muslims. If Hizbullah wins (which it most likely won't. You can never underestimate the Israeli military. Ever.), his ally in the region is buoyed and could possibly take over an already unstable new regime in Beirut.

Secondly, in many of the news stories I read, Turkey comes across as a clearing house for the evacuation efforts and a point man in the region, especially for the EU countries. Could this help to tip the scales for Turkey's admission into the EU. I suspect not directly, but it certainly cannot hurt.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Relationships, Art Fairs, Coercion and Compromise: A View From The Bus

These observations are the result of a bit of street-level social observation by an interested non-professional social scientist (or "people-watching" to normal people). My observations, flawed as they doubtless are, led me to some broader considerations. See what you think...

This past weekend, Madison played host to a two-day art fair that took up a good portion of the downtown area around the state capitol building. It was this that led me to begin my observations as the busses were diverted and took forever to get anywhere. So, in the midst of traffic and interminable waiting, I began to watch the people.

What struck me, and it seemed so obvious as to be embarassing that I had not noticed before, was that most of the attendees were couples, male-female couples. Some had children with them, but most did not. When I noticed the prevalence of couples, what really hit me was the expressions, body language and snippets of conversation that I saw/heard from these people.

From these observations, I came to some conclusions related to the nature of such public events and the nature of relations between people, however provisional because of my lack of background information.

It seemed to me that all of the women in these couples looked absolutely overjoyed to be there, while the men looked annoyed, angry or looking for the nearest route of escape. Time after time, regardless of age or race, the couples involved displayed some or all of these traits. Needless to say, this dynamic caused me to think a great deal about how these people got there and why they were acting in this manner.

It seemed on further reflection, that this is not just an "art fair" phenomenon. If you think about it, men and women act like this at most outdoor events that do not involve sports, music or beer (or all in some combination). So-called "cultural events" in the outdoors in summer are grand displays of this type of behavior. Yes, but why?

I was left with two conflicting notions of these behaviors. One comes from a cynical view of human relationships, one more compromise based.

First, the cynical. These people act and behave this way because, at the root of every human relationship, is a certain level of coercion. People will seek what makes them happy and avoid that which makes them unhappy. This is human nature. When this dynamic is disrupted (i.e. when someone pursues something that seems to make them unhappy or avoids that which is pleasureable), one must consider why.

That is where coercion come into the picture. For someone to not seek pleasure over discomfort, they must be forced to do so. This force can come in the guise of actual threat of physical or mental violence. I doubt that this was the case with the people that I observed. In other words, I think it is rather unlikely that a wife/girlfriend would tell their husband/boyfriend "we are doing this, or I will kill you."

No, this is more of a soft-pedal coercion. More to the point, it delves into the ideas of punishment and reinforcement (behavioral conditioning). It is hard to pin this particular situation down because of lack of background knowledge, but I suspect it can be thought of as a dynamic combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement involves the presentation of a reward that is designed to increase a certain behavior. Negative punishment involves the withholding of reward in order to decrease a certain behavior. These are basic ideas of operant conditioning, developed in its fullest form by B.F. Skinner.

In this situation, the coercion by operant conditioning is apparent. If something that the male likes is presented when he goes along with the female's plan, the "art fair" experience is positively reinforced. On the other side, if something the male does not like is taken away, it negatively punishes and decreases the behavior.

What is the "carrot and stick" in this situation? It could be anything the male enjoys. In particular, think Lysistrata here.

Yes, that is a particularly cynical view of human nature. It assumes that people react reliably to certain things in certain ways and also that coercion is the only method of effecting human behavior.

Now, the more compromise based view. Perhaps it is true that the males do not want to go to these events. Why are they there? Compromise. Both men and women realize that they will not always get along or find the same things enjoyable. What is needed, then, is a trade-off, some creative diplomacy. When a deal is struck, and the two sides (here, a wife/girlfirend or husband/boyfriend) agree and follow through, it builds the depth of the relationship and shows a remarkable level of interpersonal flexibility. If each side agrees to a minimal amount of a negative experience, it will lead to understanding and the promise of better things to come. Both sides get what they want and there are no regrets.

Much more positive, don't you think?

I close with three questions:
  1. Am I making too much of a simple situation?
  2. Which one of these paradigms to I actually believe to be true?
  3. Which do you believe and why?