Thursday, August 28, 2008


Tulane just sent out the notice that the school will evacuate this weekend. There is no need to worry for my personal well-being; the school is really good at providing for it's students. Should you feel like worrying, you can follow my twitter stream here. Though this is my personal blog, this isn't a personal blog post per se. I'm not here to talk about how sucky it is to leave a campus less than a week after arriving.

What I am here to talk about is the fact that another hurricane threatens New Orleans, and that the city is nowhere near rebuilt enough to handle it. This is a tragedy, a failing of this government, and it is nothing shy of that. I joked earlier to a friend that this hurricane can't be as bad as Katrina, because the city hasn't been rebuilt enough for that level of damage to be possible. Read this list. Turns out, I'm not really joking - this is a true statement, and a terrifying one.

Rebuilding this city is a time-sensitive issue. It needs to be done quickly, done effectively, and done in such a way that the city can withstand multiple hurricanes in a given year. It will be tremendously expensive up front, but the alternative is a New Orleans that fades away, ceases to exist, and becomes a symbol of American failure to take care of it's own people. The stakes a high. Should Gustav miss New Orleans, the need will not go away. Should Gustav hit New Orleans, the city will need everything it possibly can to stand a second chance. Katrina hit New Orleans hard because people were ignorant. If Gustav hits hard, it will be because people knew the threat, and just didn't care.

Edit 8/29/2008: An acquaintance of mine summed up the feeling towards Gustav felt by many Katrina survivors:

For those of you who have no idea what this is like:

Imagine being in a horrifying car accident.

Now imagine that you think you're about to be in another one.

Now imagine the moment just before the potential impact.

Now imagine that moment lasting four or five days.

Edit 9/2/2008: Updating from a library in Arkansas. We survived, New Orleans survived, and and school starts again on Monday. I'll have more to say later from a better internet connection, but I'm fine and initial impressions of the aftermath are decent.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Yesterday I finished reading "The Crisis of Islam" by Bernard Lewis. While I recommend a lot of books, I don't make the recommendations lightly, and that is especially true for this book. "Crisis of Islam" reads and feels like the best history and context for understanding the actions of Usama bin Laden (or as we know him, Osama), and the conflict he sees with the west. The book is a scant 169 pages, and it goes quickly, which is why I'm inclined to recommend it over every other book of the sort a person can find. This is a book that can be read, read easily, and will have a profound effect on a person's understanding of the War on Terror. (This makes sense, given that the book is assigned reading for the "War on Terror" class I'm taking). The book, again, is great history.

The problem I have with it is that the book is poor political science, and it tries to be. In fact, the book was drawn in part from articles in Foreign Affairs (my favorite source of international relations political science), and the book was written with the intent of influencing major policy decisions. Checking the wikipedia on Bernard Lewis, it was kind of startling to read that he was one of the major intellectuals arguing in favor of the United States invasion of Iraq. The book itself doesn't overtly advocate the actions wikipedia attributes to Lewis's influence. But it's implied, and it's a strong undertone in the last chapter.

The book was written and published before the United States invaded Iraq. Lewis' plan, as it can be inferred, was for an externally imposed democracy to become a catalyst for more genuine democratic movements in the middle east, which would lead to prosperity, stability, and a positive outlet for moderate Islam to regain control of the debate from radical extremes. This is, as you've probably reasoned, absurd.

The logic behind it states that Islam, as nation-religion, no longer has adversaries to play off against each other. The rest of the West is out, Russia is out, and the United States stands as the only civilization opposing the glorious spread of Muhammad's nation and religion. Bernard Lewis does such a good job explaining the desire for the global religion-state as the objective of radical Islam, and he does such a good job showing the current regimes in the middle east as failed custodians of the faith and successors to the Caliph, that he can't figure out how a nativist movement could be anything but violently radical. In Lewis' view, the only hope for democracy in the middle east (excepting Turkey and Israel) is an external catalyst.

This contradicts his own understanding of the importance of nativism to the nation-religion of Islam. The importance of bin-Laden and the threat that he represents is based on and enhanced by his success in driving Russia out of Afghanistan. Khomeini and al-Sadr both can be pointed to as having had meaningful action against the corrupt and the foreign, and without the legitimacy of the act they would be fringe elements. That Khomeini's state became more oppressive than the one it succeeded is a grave flaw, but the quasi-democracy it operates, the poor economic fortunes of many Iranians, the concentration of poor economic prospects in the younger half of a nation where the media age is 26, and the fading memory of revolution all provide the opportunity for a nativist change in government, and a move away from oppressive and radical Islam. The state bin-Laden supported has been reduced to the margins, and with luck will remain there. Meanwhile, a variety of ethnic parties have filled the void left by a religious government, and this too bodes well for nativst change. Perhaps the devolution of the state of Afghanistan, but certainly a trend towards nativist rule over outsider radicals.

And then we have Iraq. Iraq is my major sore point with Lewis, and it baffles me how he can write that history and assume an imposed democracy will work. The way Lewis sees it, the United States needs to just maintain a presence, outlast the terrorists, and it can claim victory. He points to the fact that the PLO repeatedly engaged in terrorist activity but never had Isreal give in as a sign of success, and treats the largely one-sided negotiations between Israel and Palestine as a positive sign. The trick, Lewis seems to be saying, is for the US to master brinkmanship - we stay right on the edge, we keep our opposition there, and we don't blink. If we can hold out, prove by our existence their futility, they will be forced to adopt other means, and the whole crisis of radical Islam will be over. This actually justifies making the Iraq the battleground for the war on terror, as it is an overt desire to create an actual battlefield on which terrorism can lose.

It's a bold statement, but it's fundamentally stupid. In all his reading of history, and in his undertanding of bin Laden's reading of history, Lewis makes the astute observation that the terrorists are motivated by percieved marks against the dignity of the nation-religion of Islam. Specific grievances cited are the crusades (which are much more of an after-the-fact grievance), the breakdown and destruction of the Ottoman empire, and US support for corrupt and weak leaders in the middle east. Again, the grievances are: 1- an invasion by infidels, 2-the destruction of an important and powerful muslim state, and 3-the support of government that otherwise shouldn't exist. Having made this claim, I cannot understand how he thinks the overthrow of the government of Iraq by the US with the express purpose of putting in place a new government is a good idea. That is two of the above indignities, and close to the third (Iraq was, in name, secular, but it has a muslim population and is a historic center of muslim government).

The problem with the crisis is that it is too big an issue to be tackled by one solution. Catalysts are nice, and sometimes essential, but that are very hard to create from the outside. And I think that is the fundamental frustration that Lewis is unable to address. The United States has suffered from terrorism, and the destruction of the United States is the stated objective of radical Islam. The United States, as the most power country in the world, should be able to do something about it. The wars is Iraq and Afghanistan were moves to do something about it. But the problem is that they don't work, and the thing that is absolutely terrifying about this conflcit is that the United States is powerless here. To end radical Islam, moderate Islam has to make real gains at home. That will require the end of oil money and the end of US interest in backing corrupt governments that provide oil, and then it will require American non-interference in the potentially revolutionary or democratizing moves that follow. The United States must let native movements take place, and let self-determination and human dignity be affirmed by these movements of their own will, even in the shape of religious parties or states. Without dignity, the terrorists will continue. With human dignity restored, with governments responsive to the needs of the populace (or at the very least vulnerable to the populace), then and only then will we have outlasted the War on Terror.

But we've created a battlefield on which it is impossible for us to win. Brinkmanship won the Cold War, but that was against a nation. The Nation of Islam that bin-Laden wants to establish doesn't exist in a present form, and as a transient quantity, it can't be destroyed. As an ideology, and as an ideology with at 1400 year legacy, it can be outlasted. That's an impossibility, and even turing Iraq into an accelerator of the movement, the lighting of match to burn out the gas leak, will not help. The problem cannot be changed in that way, and our continued actions only breed contempt.

We need to find a solution other than this impossibility.

Edit 9/12/2008: It's well worth mentioning that Lewis is very orientalist in his perspective, and that he sees most of the past two centuries of development in the Muslim world as adapted or inspired by Western ideals. That said, the history is still good, and he even counters his own emphasis on the West by repeatedly referring to the necessity and importance of nativist trends.

Hillary's Democratic Convention Speech

I was never a strong Hillary supporter, and to be perfectly honest I was relieved that the Democratic Primary ended with victory for Obama. Obama struck me as the brilliant, pragmatic, and modern outside; my impression of Hillary was always one of the stuff establishment candidate, who played the game of 1990s pro-business democrat so well that she was indistinguishable from the party staples of a decade prior.

It's not the best sign of progress, but it's telling that Hillary Clinton played the political game so well as to become that which outsiders would rail against. Hillary Clinton, who in this nation of White Christian Male presidents challenged one of those criterion with at times a nonchalance that made it possible to forget how unprecedented she was.

My disagreements with Hillary Clinton stem not from her race, gender, or faith, but like all good political disagreements they originate from policy disagreements. Hillary's plan was not the soundest execution of democratic principles, in my opinion, and when she had real substantive differences with Obama I always favored Obama.

That all said, the two candidates (and almost all the other democrats running, with perhaps Gravel excepted) are operating in a way to address real problems within the United States today. Hillary's speech yesterday at the democratic convention is an incredibly well-written call to action.

The best part, in my opinion, excerpted below:

I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?

We need leaders once again who can tap into that special blend of American confidence and optimism that has enabled generations before us to meet our toughest challenges. Leaders who can help us show ourselves and the world that with our ingenuity, creativity, and innovative spirit, there are no limits to what is possible in America.

This won't be easy. Progress never is. But it will be impossible if we don't fight to put a Democrat in the White House.

Hillary is still a force in politics today. It is a blessing to have her supportive of Barack Obama.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Israel Question

Before I state anything, I'd like to direct you to this photo gallery of female Israeli soldiers, and ask you to both look through the gallery and read the authors statement with an open mind and in the spirit of respecting art.

After checking that out, feel free to form opinions of your own. If you want some pre-made opinions, many can be found here.

Israel is and has been the pressing issue of the middle east. It's a nation born in the aftermath of tragedy that finds itself in a perpetual state of alert. Public service, most commonly military service, is compulsory for Israelis when they turn 18. The photographer does, in my opinion, a really good job examining with minimal judgment the juxtaposition of adolescence with military service, and by using pictures of female soldiers she's allowed to open up a new avenue for understanding what military service does to young people. Soldiering is too often tied up in definitions of masculinity and male duty, so it is fascinating to see it in another context.

And then we have Israel itself, as discussions over anything related to Israel must return back to the state. My family has a small personal history with the nation; my grandfather, Alfred Leroy Atherton Jr (Roy), was ambassador to Egypt for the United States from 1978-1979. He was present during the assassination of Anwar Sadat. And he personally met with Yassar Arafat. This legacy, as a burgeoning student of history and politics, informed my understanding of the world and of international relations. At the center of this legacy is figuring out a right relationship with Isreal.

Israel is a state whose origins I will not dispute and whose right to exist is an anarchronistic question. The modern state of Israel is, and will be, a reality. There is no sense in arguing otherwise, and there is only ill will to be gained that way. Besides, saying Israel shouldn't exist is much the same as arguing that Global Warming isn't happening - both statements delay real, meaningful debate, and both fly in the face of obvious and accepted fact. So what is the debate I have in mind?

The classical debate over the US and Israel is what the relationship should be. Under the Carter presidency, and when Roy was ambassador to Egpyt, the US backed off from it's standard unwavering support for Israel and tried to create a meaningful dialogue with the parties in conflict. Since then, the attitude and tone have changed from administration to administration, but the general purpose has been the same: to secure a stable relationship between Isreal and its neighbors, with accomodation for Palestine that still leaves Isreal in a position of strength.

To there benefit, Palestine and Isreal can rely on world media coverage, and the fact that many nations have a vested interest in the outcome of a peace process. To the detriment of most any cause elsewhere, Isreal takes media priority. This is a tricky balance - Isreal is a democracy of sorts, and Isreal is a western country. We (being the West) have high standards for Israeli conduct, and constant media attention helps keep things honest. And it is important to be aware of and acknowledge the Palestinian grievances as real and meaningful, and media attention helps with that as well.

The problem is that almost any government could use the same scrutinty in its actions, and that this media attention has been an objective of terrorist action. That helps no one, and while grievances need to be aired and addressed (and don't think that I am anything like in favor of letting Isreal off the hook for what has amounted to serious crimes ans flaws in conduct), terrorism undermines moves for stability, it undermines the potential for democracy, and it doesn't allow for any other option besides the destruction of Israel. It is, to put it mildly, unrealistic. And the media does a disservice to the public by continuing to focus so much on Isreal.

I have no answers for the Israel question. I have general notions, ideas of way more carrot and way less stick, and an emphasis on responsible diplomacy. Human dignity as a cornerstone of US policy would be a good plan, especially if the plan emphasized Palestinian and Israeli human dignity as equally important. But I don't think the solution for Isreal is high-profile and external, and I don't think that every slight development in Isreal needs the world media pouring over it. Again, grievances recorded and tragedies documented and protested, but the emphasis on covering Isreal over every other crisis in the world isn't beneficial. Israel is an important nation, but it is not the only important nation. And Israel has interesting and modern problems, but it is not alone in that.

My point is this: the Israel question is not as important as we make it, and the issue is too divisive, too complicated to really be dealt with well. I think that we, as a civilization, can collectively move on. I think we'll be better for it, and I think on the whole it will help the situation.

Youth and Play

Like many of my posts of late, this one is inspired by a link found on boingboing. The boingboing post concerns the fact that "go out and play" has become something lost to the American middle class, and that we are robbing children of childhood while depriving them of the rights of adults. In that post, commentor Cristovir says:
An interesting observation: in the history of the world, only recently have we had the phenomenon of adolescence -- everything we think of as "teenagerdom," particularly moodiness, rebellion, and impulsiveness. Some psychologists, albeit a minority, believe that adolescence is an artifact of having the rights of a child while expected to have the responsibility of an adult, and that if anyone, no matter what their age, had that mismatch in lower control and higher expectations, they would act more adolescent. I wonder if we will see adolescence creep at its borders, slowly expanding as we exert more control and less freedoms on both young children and young adults?
In many of my posts, I advocate both greater youth empowerment to go along with greater responsibilities. This flies in the face of previous impressions of what children are capable of, and I know it. The assumption that childhood and adolescence is nothing more than a sea of incompetence out of which and adult meges is a flawed perception, and I think that youth are more than capable of responsibly shouldering many adult tasks (holding a job, being actively engaged in politics), and that they should be rewarded with adult rights (the right to vote, the right to drink). I've a high opinion of youth, and seeing the great requirements already placed upon them (tight schedules, opppressive homework regimens, multiple extracurriculars, and in many cases jobs as well), I think youth are ready to rise to the challenge of being active and engaged citizens.

But maybe I've been wrong. The reason youth rights sounds absurd to many is because they remember childhoods full of play and self-development and independence, and they remember how yotuh and children experimented with these things. Yeah, youth did stupid things and made mistakes, and yeah, occasionally badthings happened. That is what happens with risk taking. There is risk involved. But the value gained from that, the degree of self-sufficiency and the learning involved are both essential components of civilization.

I've linked previously to Free Range Kids, and I'm going to do it again. It's a nice complement to philosophies of youth empowerment, and it hits the problem from the other direction. I see the imposition of adult responsibility and life on youth as needing a counter in the form of recognizing youth as competent and worthy of adult rights. But the problems of adolescence, "that mismatch in lower control and higher expectations", can be fought at in other ways. We can secure childhood by given kids more control over there lives, and letting them have that control within the context of being kids.

(Sidenote: In September, I will have a pulpit editorial delivered in some form at the UU church in Albuquerque, and it hits upon these themes. If I can get the audio to work, I'll upload it to this post before then. Edit 8/28/2008: this is the link to listen to the 7+ minute long pulpit editorial.)

Defining Hegemony

I often use the phrase Hegemony on this blog, especially when describing the United States, though not exclusively. In this post, for example, I refer to Russia re-establishing regional hegemony. Russia as regional hegemon has gained more weight in recent years. We've seen Russian involvement in Ukrainian politics (the other side in the "Orange Revolution"). We've seen Russia be overt about the potential for military action in Poland. And most strikingly, we've seen Russia wage war against neighboring Georgia and in return establish military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are all the actions of a regional hegemon - influence in bordering countries, a foreign policy that seeks to tie the fates of satellite states to a bigger patron, defiance of other nations when it comes to neighboring states, and a willingness to use military force to achieve these ends. Russia is no doubt a regional hegemon.

But the sense of hegemony I tend to use is that of the United States and it's hegemony over the world. The United States is, at present, the world's foremost military power, and the world's most influential military. The United States, a country located entirely in the Western Hemisphere, has priorities and specific territorial concerns on every continent. The United States has done this for over half a century.

There's more minute detail that one can put into defining a global hegemon, but I think this map will suffice. As pointed out on BoingBoing, the 1-100 category probably includes embassy guards (which are good, and represent sound diplomacy instead of overt military control), but that aside, the map is still a decent documentation of where the US military exercizes it's influence. And the short of that "where" is "everywhere".

Russia, Georgia, and the Stateless

The war on Georgia has turned out to be way more interesting than just "Gah Russia Evil", and even more complex than "Western geopolitical entanglement causes problems". It is, like almost every issue ever, brought about by numerous disparate conditions. Is some of this renewed Russian militarism? Under Putin, certainly. Does the influence of NATO and the West partially explain the precarious position Georgia has placed itself in? Certainly, but lets not forget that the Georgian government had to at least be complicit and was almost certainly deliberate in these plans. But those are factors that exacerbate the situation - they cannot act without a catalyst. In this war, as in so many others, the catalyst is native, and is a desire for self-determination.

Wars for self-determination are among the most complex in existence. In antiquity, the Greek city states fought together to remove an invading foreign force (Persia). As soon as that ended, the Greek city states that had done the most fighting for the independence of others began to form their own empires, becoming the new overlords. More recently, the United States was founded by provinces seeking self-determination enlisting the aid of a foreign ally. Frances motives were not so much about democracy and freedom but about spiting the British, and it is fair to say that Russia is not a big fan of self-determination, but has a major investment in being regional hegemon, and in keeping the West confined to the West.

The province seeking autonomy in this case is Abkahzia. The News Hour had a fascinating segment on the province/nation recently, and I highly recommend it. The people interviewed are well aware that they need Russia to make the split into an independent nation. They've had every other avenue into the international community cut off, and so working with the powerful neighbor to the north is worth it. At this point in time, it looks like the move will pay off, and that they will keep a sovereignty. Russia may even gain an ally. But that situation is only part of what I want to talk about here.

The other part, the big elephant in the room when Russia is supporting self-determination, is Chechnya. Chechnya has wanted to be indepenent and fought for that independence for a surprisingly long time (centuries, or really ever since it wasn't independent). The Olympics have broguht to light another stateless nation, that of "Chinese Taipei", or as they are actually called, Taiwan. China is of course also well-known and well-protested for its domination and control of Tibet. Ever-present in the media and the public consciousness is the fluctuating autonomy of Palestine under Israel. And Iraq has for many brought to light the existence of Kurdistan, which is a state that has parts in Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, and has yet to achieve real independent nationhood.

Adding to this mix, the ever-reliable wikipedia has a list of stateless nations. I didn't count them all, but it looks like it's well over a hundred. There's even an organization of "Unrepresented Nations and Peoples". Unusual for me, I have no real point with this. I just think it is fascinating to know that this world order, this division into color-coded maps and broken sectioned-off territories is so hugely inadequate. It seems nationhood is so enticing that almost any nation has a smaller group inside wanting out, willing to dissolve the collective in favor of the specific.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Race is a Social Construct

Anti-racism is built on the premise that race is a distinction that people make, and that people make meaningful. If there was a scientific basis for races being genetically separate or significantly dissimilar, anti-racism would still be the right, moral, and meaningful thing to do, but it would run into serious problems and have to re-think a lot of it's literature and understanding. Fortunately, race is a social construct.

Let me say that again: Race is a Social Construct.

Here's the science backing that up. Note that the science doesn't itself says that race is a social construct. What it does say, however, is key:
One's ethnicity/race is, at best, a probabilistic guess at one's true genetic makeup.
If genetics doesn't straightforwardly match up with race, what can cause similar medical conditions occurring in people of similar racial identities?
For example, the higher incidence of hypertension in African Americans has been linked to darker skin color, but this may be due instead to socioeconomic status and higher levels of stress rather than to genetics... Knowing that socioeconomic status is related to hypertension allows us to identify individuals at risk regardless of race.
The paper itself doesn't say that race is a social construct, but it does an awful lot to put the idea of race as clear, genetic division to rest. And it shows that social effects of that genetic division can cause health problems in similarly-disenfranchised people. This isn't proof, but it's everything just shy of proof.

Edit 8/26/2008: In the comments, Juxatposer says this:
The American Anthropological Association's 1998 "Statement on 'Race'" says that DNA analysis shows that there is more variation within the groups than between them. This organization has developed a traveling exhibit and associated website called "RACE: Are We So Different?" Both allow the visitor to examine the history of the idea of race in the US, the nature of human variation associated with race, and lived experience of race, and support the idea that race is a social construct.
Firstly, that's a great comment (thanks Juxtaposer!). More relevantly, this is a good point. The statement cited is a decade old, and was made using genetic evidence.

Also relevant is this post found at Strange Maps. The map matches physical location of DNA samples taken with genetic markers, and shows interesting elements of overlap and separation. My favorite piece of it is that the genetic markers for Ireland and the United Kingdom overlap almost completely, making British and Irish an incredibly minimal genetic distinction. Of course, that contrasts with a long history of race distinction having been made important. And that's the point - race is made, not inherent.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Underestimating Voters

Recently I wrote a post where I expressed a rather risky point of view, and a view that deviates from previously expressed ideals of mine. There's some interesting discussion in the comments section, and I'm not entirely convinced I was wrong yet, but the interesting point is my assertion that:
yes, I'm advocating lying to one's constituency, or acting in a way that is tantamount to lying. It's excused here (far as I'm concerned, at least), by the fact that it isn't quite oath-breaking, that it's in the best interest of the nation, and that every other politician (excepting Kucinich) would be doing it too.
Democracy in any form is incredibly challenging, and representative model functions on the basis that citizens can chose lawmakers who will act on behalf of all society. Part of the trust placed in lawmakers is that they will act on our immediate desires, part of the trust is that they will act according to values we share, and part of that trust is that they will act in the absolute best interest of the nation, voter whims and values be damned.

Of course, since no one person has a monopoly on what is best for the nation, it's incredibly hard to figure out how to act in the best interest in a way that isn't opposed to your voter's whims and values. The wrong choice, of course, means a loss of the office, and people get an opportunity to select someone whose sense of national good is more closely aligned with the voters sense of national good. This is good, get-rid-of-the-crook and all that, but it leads to a short-sightedness in government that bothers me, and my love of technocracy. Below, my rough comparison of democracy and technocracy through the lens of the USA:

  • In a pure democracy, the citizens vote directly on the issues, write the legislation, and citizens as a whole act as legislators.
  • In a technocracy, people who are in positions of power exercise all the functions of state, including the ones the generate, modify, and execute laws, and do so with a mind toward the best interest of the state.
  • In representative democracy, technocrats are answerable to citizens at set periods, and technocrats have to act on a version of the national interest that fits in best with voters 2, 4, or 6 year time span.
And this leads in a roundabout way back to underestimating voters. In a pure democracy, the citizens themselves are deemed to be adequately qualified to perform the functions of state. In representative democracy, the citizens are assumed to be unable/unavailable/unnecessary to execute the functions of the state, and so they instead appoint technocrats. From this, it's easy to conclude that we, citizens in a representative democracy, do not deem ourselves fit to rule. But that's a false conclusion, and it's an elitist position.

Yesterday at church the sermon (which will eventually be on the site) concerned the 5th principle agreed to by UU congregations: "The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large". It makes sense in the midst of a list extolling human dignity and justice that democracy would be the only available method of governance. Flawed as it is, it's the only method that repeatedly asks for the consent of the governed in a meaningful way (plebiscites, popular in undemocratic regimes as a way of addressing the consent of the governed, are hardly meaningful). And I'm reminded of a conversation with Terry Arnold why, given the incredible power that facism can concentrate, that a good facists isn't desirable. Any government that derives its power from anything other than continual consent is a false government.

In the post that this is a response to, I left a comment where I said "I'm not sure we have a population that can legitimately offer informed consent on issues like this". That sentence is utterly false; any population can offer consent to government by simple virute of it being a population whose consent is asked for/required. My position on domestic drilling, that it is right to claim to act with the consent of some against the wishes of others, and then to switch it around in the process of drafting legislation, is a false position. It's a betrayal of everyone's trust, and it shows a haughty caluseness that I was hoping I wouldn't get until at least grad school. So, my revised stance:

Domestic drilling isn't worth it. It's one of many options, and while I'm on record in many places for saying that we should keep all options open, we should know when an option just isn't worth it. Domestic drilling has an incredibly small potential yield, and while the absolute supply of oil would increase, the relative supply would be hardly changed. That's at the price of environment we can't get back, of wilderness that can only be despoiled once, and it's an abuse of our government's role as stewards of the environment for present and future generations. Nice as it would be to support it, the only really gain is that it is one less source of flak in a campaign that has innumerable sources of flak. And the whole "hide your real actions in legislative functioning" is a move that helps no one.

The thign to do, and the thign which has been done since I wrote the piece, is to go to the American public and tell them why drilling is a dumb idea. Anything less is patronizing, and is as bad as the "hey, we have oil, but that man wants to keep away the oil so your family can't afford groceries" framing that made this an issue. Fearmongering needs to be consistently countered with reason, and it's to every politicians discredit when they underestimate voters and act without full disclosure.

And, not that my responsibility is huge here, but my previous statement, as wonderfully machiavellian as I wish it was, is a disservice. Here's my apology.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

War in Georgia

Right now a war is being waged in Georgia between the nation of Georgia, Ossetian separatists (I think), and Russia. This is the best account I've found so far. More analysis to come at a time that isn't 3 in the morning.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

UU Presidential Campaign

While I'm a strong advocate for the separation of church and state, that doesn't mean I feel morality and governance should be exclusive. And like most people, the morality system I am most comfortable with is the one adhered to by my religious denomination (qualifier: these are the principles of UU congregations, not of UUs themselves, though Unitarians tend to agree with them).

That out of the way, here would be the focus of a presidential campaign I would run, with policies sorted by the principle they fall under.
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
There would be no barriers for marriage between two consenting adults. Sexual orientation and gender identity would be added to the federal roster of hate crimes.

The drinking age would be lowered to 18 - legal adult status should confer all the benefits of being an adult. I would appoint only justices who would rule laws such as cell phone bans that target only teenagers and curfews as unconsitutional. I would endeavor to end the criminalization of youth.

I would veto any proposed resurrection of the PATRIOT ACT, and I would do my best to end the one already in place. Civil Liberties would be guaranteed and fought for.
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Justice domestically would be re-thought. 1% of the US adult population is in prison. There is no way to justify this - even dangerous deviancy can't be all that deviant if it affects 1-in-a-100. That makes it almost normal. The big focus in rethinking the US criminal Justice system would be an emphasis away from jail time for victimless crimes (to either fines for committing the act or decriminalization of the act), a lack of disparity between state and federal sentencing laws (an emphasis away from federal drug laws here), and moves towards a system that rehabilitates.

Welfare needs to be moved away from a system of shame, and I think that looking at it as a vital task of the government, of society, to provide for the people most screwed by capitalism. Not that we should do away with capitalism; it's a great system, provided government steps in to pick up where it leaves people destroyed. The changes I'm thinking of are "free health care to everyone on welfare (and eventually universal health care. Hey, if post-WWII Britain can do it, why not the richest country in the world?), government-subsidized child care, etc. And all this could be funded by, get this, a windfall tax on oil revenues". (qaulifier: I'm following the advice of a current Foliage Commandant here)

There would be more tax forgiveness for charitable donations.

Affirmative action would be changed so that race or life below a certain economic threshold allowed eligibility.

While it wouldn't be possible in the space of even a couple of presidencies, a shift of the justice system away from one that punishes for the benefit of the state to one that facilitates recompense so that parties in conflict end in right relation would be pursued.
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
This one, good though it is, is denomination-specific. It would just affirm Supreme Court Justice appointments to those who respect a diversity of religious opinion.
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
No Child Left Behind: Local 'burque blogger and perennial favorite of Duke City cynics, Scot Key has a good run-down of why the law has failed everyone. Under the UU-informed administration, this law would be done away with.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is impossible without qualified teachers. I think a national initiative to make public school teaching positions both high-paying and prestigious would create greater demand for teachers, and supply would adjust accordingly. Debt forgiveness programs for commitments to teach for 2-5 years in inner-city schools would be extended. The "responsible" search would be accommodated by a change to longitudinal testing, where each grade would be tested against their performance from the previous year; the tests would be a valuable metric to see what teachers were successful, what students were independently failing and in need of different practices, and this metric would be used to create a more reliable way for performance based hirings and firings. It's a hint of the free market, but that brings freedom and the potential for systems to self-perfect.
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
I'm an ardent supporter of Lessig and his Change Congress initiative. I realize that elected officials can take the pledge and act accordingly, but that this reform focuses on citizens being able to take public information, call politicians on it, and hold them accountable. As such, measures to ensure and create greater, moire useful transparency would be proposed, as would laws protecting citizen activists who hold politicians accountable.

Internet freedoms fall as easily under here as they do anywhere else, so I here is where I say support Net Neutrality, where I believe that individual freedom and privacy are fundamentals that most be adhered to at all costs online, and that warrants are needed for the government to access information online. While telecom immunity was recently passed, I believe that there shall be no protection for companies who act against their great moral and constitutional obligations to protect citizens privacy; acting under orders is not a sound defense, especially when the orders come from government but contradict founding tenets of government.
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
We need a new foreign policy. One that respects the rule of law, one that respects international standards, and one that treats terrorists as enemy nationals and not as stateless actors; the risk and the damage caused to innocents outweighs all the benefit done by the detention of terrorists, and has long since eroded any ideas of the United States as a moral bastion and an exemplar of conduct.

The US would negotiate a withdraw from Iraq at the UN, with elected Iraqi leaders taking part and with an eye towards stability in the region as paramount. Under UN authorization the US would be allowed to continue its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Th US, under a UU-informed administration, would support multinationalism, and would abide by international restrictions when it comes to the unilateral use of force. But the US would also use soft power to advocate for freedoms abroad, freedoms that it would no longer be denying to citizens, or to foreign nationals detained within the US. The US would go back to being a signatory and supporter for the International Criminal Court, and would allow for the trials of US leaders accused of war crimes.
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The federal government is the trustee of public lands, and no land that is currently held in common would be privatized. That said, I believe it would be worthwhile to explore the possibility of minimum-impact domestic drilling, but that would be only supplemental to the development of green energy sources, and the smart development of modern nuclear reactors 9which would borrow technology and inspiration from France, who is 30 years ahead of us at this). We have a right and a duty to protect the environment, but it is politically impossible to at every turn chose the environment over people. This is about interdependence, and the best way to be a good steward is to see to it that meeting the needs of humans is met in a way that best protects the environment. Treating people and nature as oppositional hurts people, weakens the causes of the environmentalists, and makes green-friendly politicians vulnerable in elections to those who would despoil the earth.


I know, this is a lot. And yeah, it's mostly moot because I'm unelectable anyway. Still, I think this is a good idea of what a president informed by my take on UU values would espouse. If you have any other ideas of UU presidential aspirations, or re-thinking of how I see the principles applied to governance, feel free to leave a comment.

Guilt and the Flaw of Anti-Racism

Anti-racism is work that I believe to be incredibly important and almost vital for our society. That said, it's a confusing pile of uncomfortable, guilt, accusations, blame, and competing political philosophies. And the biggest flaw of all is uncertainty in action, which leads to "awareness-raising" and very, very little else.

Awareness by itself does nothing, and awareness that self-propagates is a vicious little thing. And that's how AR work functions when used among those who clearly benefit from privilege. Telling a white person who makes 100k or greater a year that they benefit from an unfair privilege because of their race doesn't go over well, and it only gets harder the more distant a person becomes from obvious signs of wealth and privilege. The resistance that has built around Affirmative Action for decades has a lot to do with those on the low socio-economic end being really upset that another group of low socio-economic folk get an advantage they don't. As they see it, poor's poor, and race doesn't appear to be a big enough factor to warrant special treatment. (As an aside, this is part of why the individualistic and self-made impulses are so strong among the people who would most benefit from welfare state policies - aid has historically been seen as unfair, so it makes more sense to do away with unfair aid instead of expanding aid to everyone).

So awareness by itself is flawed, and leaves either guilt or resistance. Awareness is supposed to be uncomfortable, and guilt/resistance are both reactions to uncomfortableness that cannot be processed. But there's a point to awareness, or it wouldn't be a consistent agent of change. Awareness, if done properly, changes behavior. So then awareness has done a good job changing language, changing some behaviors, and getting rid of the most overt signs of racism. But Anti-Racist activism focuses a lot on institutional racism, which isn't something that can be changed except by either institutional reform or widespread changes public opinion. Institutions are incredibly hard to change by guilting individual members, and structural factors that hinge on race are easily dismissed because they are obscured by the many factors that correlate with race (wealth, education level) and which can be explained as a lack of drive or initiative. Racism, without overt signs, is really hard to change on an individual basis, and almost impossible on an institutional basis.

AR work is incredibly tricky, and when it fails, it fails big. "Whiteness" is not a comfortable topic, not a casual state, and it is such a weird mixing of legacy (early New Englanders, slave importers) and assimilation (Swedes, Irish, Italians et al becoming white after a generation of immigrant experience) that "whiteness" has a wide range of internal interpretations. The "assimilated into privilege" makes the formula much more complicated than "our ancestors are guilt for your suffering", and it's the assimilation that makes all races in the US White versus (racename).

So what's to be done? This dichotomy of white vs other leads to notions like colorblindness, where everyone just doesn't have race be a part of their identity, or at least not an obvious huge defining part of their identity, like it has for many white Americans. Sure, when asked I'll say my race is Welsh, British, and Scottish, but those terms are almost meaningless for me in the US because the unstated "white" identity is so overriding. The classic line goes "much like fish in water, white people in American society are oblivious to the privilege they exist in all the time". The problem with the colorblind solution is that it assumes everyone else will assimilate into that same privilege, and that the only thing stopping them is a race that is part of their identity. Here Anti-Racism doesn't offer a solution so much as destroy a flawed one.

Another common approach is to look at the flawed socio-economics in this nation, and assume that, given the strong correlation of race to class, the problems can all be dealt with by programs that ignore race and just look at economic status. I'm somewhat partial to this plan, and it's informed my attitudes towards changing affirmative action (go meritocracy! don't make the law vulnerable to angry white men!), but that's not a perfect solution. This, too, ignores race and legacies of racial injustice for a classist slant - it would rob affirmative action of the notion that it corrects past wrongs and make it about more equal distribution of wealth, which changes the whole thing. And it treats race as class, which it isn't; it correlates, but that is all. Dynamics of race are different than dynamics of wealth, and while both are unjust and need to be changed, it ignores race to treat it as class, and it confounds things because in the US notions of class are linked to personal performance, and poverty is often seen as an individual failing. While it may address similar ends, race as class isn't the way to go.

Now we're back at square zero, it seems. To affect change in people, AR work has to make them uncomfortable enough to want to radically change their behavior for good. When that fails, people become reactionaries and resistant and are less open to notions of racism as endemic of systems; they'll abstain from meaningful work against organizations with flawed practices because they don't want to confront the guilt of being racist, or of being blind to a system that is racist. But that's if being made uncomfortable fails; should being uncomfortable work, people will now find themselves with a drive to change things (I know I did!), and with very few means of driving that change. If you spread awareness, you risk making a whole bunch of people guilty and resistant or guilty and agitated by how little there is that they can do. Or people could try and engineer individual ways out like colorblindness, which doesn't work and is offensive (in that whole "denying an aspect of humanity" sort of way). People may turn to class politics and understandings, but that is only part of the racial dynamic. When it fails, Anti-Racism work leaves a lot of people bitter and uncomfortable. When it succeeds, it can turn people into agents of change but it doesn't provide many valuable outlets for that energy, and it may burn people out before critical mass to change institutions (by having anti-racists in sufficient number running them) can work. The picture, as it can undoubtedly be painted, is bleak.

There's hope and there's some solace in all of this, though. Firstly, Anti-Racism is a young discipline and movement, which traces its origins back to the early 1990s (as far as I can tell). One of the benefits of spreading awareness rapidly since then is that, while total numbers are small, there are plenty of anti-racist activists working to figure out what to do with the knowledge that anti-racism has given them. This allows anti-racism to be a tool used in other debates, adding it to the side of human dignity. An example: knowledge of drug usage trends + knowledge of disparity in drug sentencing (500x the penalty for black drug crack versus the penalty for white drug cocaine) allows one to look at a flawed system and say, in addition to previous flaws, that it is racist in execution and should be changed. That's a powerful asset. The solace in all of this is that anti-racist work is moral work, it's valuable work, and it wouldn't be done if there weren't a pressing need for it. It's a flawed system currently, but as a moral imperative it is solid. It's why I keep up with AR work despite the criticisms. We'll hit upon the right solution eventually, and until then we can be gadflies who add minds to the collective brainpower trying to engineer a solution. To those skeptical, you have every right to be so, but take solace in the fact that we'll get their. The drive is too strong and the stakes are too high for us to not make it work.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Domestic Drilling

Obama is almost certain to come under fire for a shift in his position on drilling in areas of the United States where drilling has previously been prohibited. The anger makes sense, as he had previously expressed a different opinion (and how dare politicians act differently under different circumstances!), and more importantly as the left are often the stewards and protectors of wilderness (it's creatures, delicate climates, etc.). And don't get me wrong, I am right up there with "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". The environment is hugely important, and the cynic in me says that the best thing humans can do for much of nature is stay far, far away. So I understand where the anger at Obama is coming from.

But I disagree with it completely.

Let me clarify: protecting wilderness is good, and is one of the fundamental roles of humans and of government as stewards of this planet. But government, and especially democratic government, has a priority which overrides most other sacred tasks: a government has to provide for the dignity of its people. This is part of my new running theme about "human dignity = justice", and this works especially well with the debate over drilling.

The debate is framed in two ways, and the framings are:
"Times are harsh, and we need to do everything we can to make the people have an easier time economically, even if it means letting a few animals perish" (This is on the right, courtesy of McCain)
"No matter how dire the circumstances, we need to preserve our wilderness, and maybe limiting the domestic production of oil is a good thing, as it will force people to be better gas consumers and yay happy alternative energy whoo!" (The left, courtesy of the left)

McCain's approach is the one that will stick. It will stick because it addresses the hardship of voters, and portrays the government as moving to restore their dignity in the face of hardship, instead of being heavy-handed and imposing a set of values from above. For this reason alone, the left (and specifically Obama) needs to embrace domestic drilling. The framing of the issue is too strong, and the left will be unable to portray themselves as sympathetic to the working class if they cannot let the immediate crisis of human dignity take precedence.

This is not to say that drilling will actually work. Odds are it will take many years to yield anything, and that the production will be really very small. There are valid reasons such as "useless" to think domestic drilling is bad, and those reasons are pretty solid. But this only helps with a democrat deciding to support drilling. It's much easier to affect how the bill will play out when in support of it, and it is much easier to mitigate fears when actually doing the legislating.

The bill can be changed and crippled in committee, or it can be amended to the point of minimal environmental impact. It's known that the results will not be great; what people want is to know that government is doing everything they can do to help make things easier for them, and people would be upset if, after hearing about drilling as an option, it wasn't pursued. That's why expressed vocal support of drilling is important. But it also allows for elected officials to make the drilling happen in the least harmful way possible, even perhaps authorizing it and forestalling it.

Sure, it's Machiavellian, but it is also politics.

Edit 8/7/2008: Thanks to some question from handy gadfly Evan, I realize my intended point here does not come across as strong as I would like it to come across.

I am not in favor of domestic drilling. I am in favor of saying one is in favor of domestic drilling. I think that the effects of drilling, were it to happen, would be negligible to the point of being indistinguishable from how things are currently. But I'm not most people, and I think that when told more oil is available at home, it's a pretty easy connection to make that "letting us get our own oil = electable", while "keeping us from a resource we need = crazy lefty fringe". So I think that the politician that wants to get elected should say they are in favor of drilling.

But I really like the muddled processes of congress here, and the whole "sausage factory" aspect. It's easy to write a bill that addresses an issue in name and origin but in fact does nothing of the sort. This is where the bold environmental stand can be made. A bill authorizing domestic drilling could add so many conditions, regulations, considerations, and oversights to any new ventures that it isn't simply profitable, and no self-respecting capitalist would try. Or it could only allow exploration for a few years, and require that a ludicrously high predicted yield be discovered before another bill is written to authorize actual drilling for production.

Should a crippled bill like that get passed, it'd be much harder for the advocates of drilling now to say "we passed a bill to drill now but them libruls dun killed it", because a bill would have been passed. People would realize that latter, if they were still paying attention, but by then November would have come and gone. And both houses are in Democratic hands right now. It wouldn't be hard to pass a bill like that, especially because everyone would still look good by election time.

Qualifier: yes, I'm advocating lying to one's constituency, or acting in a way that is tantamount to lying. It's excused here (far as I'm concerned, at least), by the fact that it isn't quite oath-breaking, that it's in the best interest of the nation, and that every other politician (excepting Kucinich) would be doing it too.

Edit 2, 8/11/2008: My further thinking on this issue, revised thoughts and retracted statements, can be found in this post. They're companion pieces, so I encourage you to read both or neither, but don't just read one.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


While I was out of town at UU Church Camp, I had a few quick thoughts about a few things.

There was a shooting at a UU church. I'm late to the blogosphere for this, so I'll leave the guttural reaction to webcomicer Jeffry Rowland. Also, he provides this handy link. There's a lot to read through (and in a dark humor sort of way, the "fanny pack around his waist that contained extra shells for his shotgun" is kind of priceless), but the major point is that violence is unacceptable. Just last week I said that all ideas and opinions should be allowed on the table, and I stand by that. But that only goes so far as ideas - murder because of ideological disagreement is always the step too far. Disagreement polarizes, but the fastest way to lose support for a cause is to make your own side appear crazy, disconnected, unreasonable, and dangerous.

Assuming the man had just been discontent, unemployed, and angry at liberalism (and not violent) the appropriate response would be to try and find what is so threatening about the church, and why he felt it was so dangerous. The church's affirming stance towards homosexuality was known, and the article quotes a gem of a phrase from the church website:
The church's Web site states that it has worked for "desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women's rights and gay rights" since the 1950s. Current ministries involve emergency aid for the needy, school tutoring and support for the homeless, as well as a cafe that provides a gathering place for gay and lesbian high-schoolers.
In affirming the diversity and the strength of the churches mission, they hit upon an interesting conundrum. They speak to the disenfranchised, the multitude of those who are not historically well-off or empowered in this nation. There is nothing there which reads as sympathetic to the unemployed, angry, down-and-out white male, and that's a shame, because he needs (or needed, before his actions invalidated all hopes of sympathy) a chance at some human dignity, like everyone else the church is adamant about advocating for and helping. The fundamental role of a UU church is, as I see it, to work for human dignity, and we are really good about the historically disenfranchised. We've just got a bit of a problem where it comes to the poor white male, who is angry because talk of privilege is meaningless for him, and there is no way for him to understand how power in his favor could leave him in the state he's in. It's a confusing thing, a frustrating thing, and it is a serious issue that needs re-examination.

But not because the church did anything wrong. We do not need to scour our souls with victims guilt, and we do not need to stumble about deadened by the unfairness of it all. The positive action that can be taken is to see where we can better serve the cause of human dignity. After all, the shooter went after the church not because we had done anything to demean him, but because we have such a strong and visible legacy of advocacy for others. I think we, as a denomination, have the power to take this on as well.

I'll end the blog post unusually, with a reading from a worship at camp:
"Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow."
-Dorothy Thompson