Sunday, November 30, 2008

UN Quickie

It seems I've fast reached obsolescence. In my early days as a far-left rabble-rouser, I disseminated a little pamphlet in the halls of my secondary school. After a few issues, I passed the torch to a competent young chap, who I've introduced to you many times. This fellow also shared my fondness for the United Nations (we met through Model UN), and he has written the post about the United Nations I've been meaning to write for years. That post is here, and it's short enough to read in entirety.

Still, I feel obliged to have some actual content. Here's an excerpt:
This is the danger of consensus. If everyone agrees, there is probably something very wrong, especially in an organization like the United Nations, which, by design, includes almost every possible viewpoint on almost every possible subject.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Watch This

I'm not one to post briefly, but I'm in the library, trying to write an essay about Iran, I can't really think of anything clever and witty to elaborate upon this with.

The video can be found here.

It's good, it's really, really good, and I kind of just want it spread everywhere. Iran is the nation to watch this coming decade, and this video gives me hope. That's about all it needs to do.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Double Redunancy

This morning I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow who's in both my "History of Islam" class, and my "War on Terror" class. The young man is going into the marines after graduation, and we talked about the nature in which war is waged by this nation.

The United States, he argues, has to be ready for two kinds of war at all times. We have to have the capacity to fight at least one superpower, and so that means a strong airforce, powerful navy, and the really expensive fancy stuff that combine technology with killing power. That's the high-end, worst-case scenario army we've got to have around, for the incredibly bleak "just-in-case" scenario.

The other war we have to be ready for is the kind of war we fight. Counter-insurgency, occupations, humanitarian missions - in these, our technological superiority is a given, so we have to better protect our forces and give them more tools to outmaneuver the enemies we fight.

Of course, the US is always in a process of readying ourselves for these wars - the 1950s saw the US arm itself to fight Russia on the fields of eastern Europe, and the 1980s saw the US readying itself for a massive air war against Russia. But then we fought the other kind of war - Vietnam was initiated with forces designed for the eastern European theater, and the 1990s saw an airforce useless against small bands of gunmen. The US of course adjusted - as the wars dragged on, we readied our military to fight the war it had to fight. But then, when the war was over, we switched from a force that could fight the war to a force that could fight another kind of war. But we had to fight the first kind of war again, and the transition hurt our effectiveness. A specific example - in Vietnam, our army was well-equipped for fighting along rivers, and we had what my classmate termed "a brown-water navy". This navy was then decommissioned and dismantled, leaving us in a position today where we have brown-water military needs (river patrols on the Tigris and Euphrates, fighting piracy on the coast of Somalia), but no brown-water capability.

My classmate argued for double-redundancy. We store the vast reserves of our military resources, and after a war of counter-insurgency, we keep our forces on superpower war alert. The costs here are only in storage and updating equipment - no wheels need reinventing, and we retain the military capacity we need during peacetime.

It's not a bad plan, but then I brought up the nuclear arsenals our country keeps. We discussed this for a while, and then had to part for class before I could make my argument.

I've argued on this blog before that having a nuclear weapon stockpile is a cheaper alternative to fighting big, costly, conventional wars. Of course, the United States still fights conventional wars - Iraq in 1990 is a good example of a recent one. But then, the United States transitions into fighting counter-insurgencies (more or less every other war we've fought over the past fifteen years). With the military's present emphasis on conventional superiority, the conventional war part doesn't last that long, and that's fine. That part sucks. But counter-insurgencies are also unpleasant, and by necessity take much longer. And our emphasis on the conventional aspect of war leaves us in a state of unreadiness when our armed forces switch over to police and counter-insurgents. And this is a problem we repeatedly find ourselves in.

My classmate's solution, as outlined above, is to keep a double redundancy of military forces. This way, we always have what we need, and can switch roles.

But my thinking is this - if the United States gets involved in a superpower war, it will go nuclear. It will go nuclear sooner rather than later, and it will go nuclear as soon as it looks like one side is doing better conventionally. And once the war has gone nuclear, everything else doesn't matter.

And that's well and good - if nuclear war was not the worst of all outcomes, it wouldn't be the strong deterrent that it is today. We need that. We absolutely need that horror waiting as a way of keeping us sane enough to not risk it.

But what we don't need, so much at least, is an army to fight a superpower war. We need some of that force, certainly, and the production capacity to make a conventional military on a large scale when the need arises. But we don't need to be able to fight that kind of war immediately, and I would argue we hardly need any new capacity to fight that war at all.

Nuclear weaponry cannot allow for a cheaper military if it doesn't actually replace anything. Nukes have to be allowed to take the place of a carrier group or two. They have to stand in for divisions and for bomber wings. And they can, provided we are dealing with nations. Nations still act under rules like Mutually Assured Destruction, and cold-war formulations. The situations where people ignore these constraints (terrorists, non-state actors) are the situations where a military aimed at counter-insurgency can flourish.

(Sex) Education

The Bedford Hillsian has a great little piece up about sex ed. Inspired by a rather frustrating radio show (though the host fact checks, which is awesome), blogger "the unbeatable kid" brings in that most stalwart of sex ed defenders: Dan Savage. I reccomend listening to both Dan Savage's bit, and then the whole radio show. Make sure you have time for the second one; it's rather long (50 minutes).

The debate is the whole abstinence debate, with a decade of implementation and studies to match it.

And it's an interesting conversation, between intelligent concerned adults with different perspectives and different data. What's interesting to is not so much the disagreements, but the agreements with qualifiers. "No parent disagrees with abstinence, they disagree with abstinence only" and "Abstinence programs do teach about condoms; they teach how condoms aren't very effective" are my two favorite qualifiers.

The immediate things that bother me: 1), abstinence programs aren't allowed to encourage condom use, and 2), there is a desire to present information about condoms with an emphasis on the flaws and shortcomings. Regardless of my stand on sex education, my general stand on presenting information to youth is that teachers shouldn't lie to them. For a humorous take on disinformation, here's a dressing down of other pieces of disinformation targets at youth.

I had rather unpleasant experiences with abstinence-only sex education in middle school, so I am rather grateful that I was able to partake in a comprehensive sex ed program offered outside my school. The strengths of that program are many - it addresses the emotional and relational issues of sexuality, it isn't exclusively hetero-normative, and it covers STIs and contraceptives with an eye towards accuracy. More than that, however, it does a remarkable thing - it trusts that youth, given accurate information, will be able to make informed decisions about their own lives.

To restate: it trusts that youth, when allowed to, have the capacity for rational decision making.

This is huge, and this is one of the big things missing from sex education in schools, and from the debate over sex education in general. And really, it's missing from education a lot of the time - the PSAs linked to above all trust in fear and trust to force youth into acting appropriately. And frankly, that's undemocratic and unAmerican.

If we want better decisions made, and if we want essential freedoms, we as a people have to do 2 things: make sure that accurate information is provided, available, and encouraged (while making sure that people know how to call "bullshit!" when they see it), and we have to trust people to take that information and act as best they are able.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Past in Color

According to the little statcounter in the corner of this blog, my most visited page is the one about Tsarist Russia in color. It's one of my favorite posts, and it is certainly much more in the blogger's tradition of "look at this awesome thing" than it is in mold of "look at my ideas here for you". And the work speaks more profoundly than anything I can really say about it.

Instead, here's another glance at the past as scene in color. The scene below is from about 90 years ago:

It's World War I, and the picture comes from this incredible gallery. (Incidently, I found the gallery via this BoingBoing post). Many of the other pictures are more vibrant than the one I selected. This one, though, I think sells it - the war wasn't as grim and stark as black and white photography makes it appear, but it came surprisingly close.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


In discussion with Evan, and inspired by Nora, I've decided to do some alternate history short stories. Speculative fiction, historical imaginings, that sort of a thing. It doesn't fit the tone of this blog, so I'm putting them elsewhere.

My fiction blog is Battles of Isonzo. Besides always thinking that "Battles of Isonzo" is a pretty kick-ass band name, it's one of those incredibly pointless parts of history. Twelve battles were fought on the river in WWI, with between 500,000 and 700,000 soldiers dying there. It seems like an appropriate title for futile reminagings.

If you don't mind speculative fiction that concerns war, have yourself a look! And if you do, know that this blgo won't be changing any.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Who the President Serves

Ever since I toured college campuses and sat in on political science courses, I've wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of a multiple party system. Voting for a party instead of voting for an individual seemed, to me, to be a much stronger way to get a variety of perspectives into office, and for people to vote ideology instead of personality. This is a compromised benefit when a party that one votes for is left out of a ruling coalition, however; coalition politics themselves are nothing but political machinations removed from the control of voters, and that's almost disenfranchisement. The contrast is strongest in how legislative bodies function: you vote for your party, and if your party (or it's coalition) wins, then they pass everything they want. The losers sit in government, and do very little except growl angrily and wait for the leading coalition to collapse.

This is not the best of things, and while many countries make it work, in the United States we expect our individual congressfolk to serve us. The congress as a whole has a terrible approval rating, but individual congressfolk are well-liked by their constituents. Indeed, working across party lines is often a successful slogan for congress people, as it shows a willingness to deal with the vile forces that ruin everything on behalf of the people the congressmember serves. John McCain made a career of this willingness, and had his campaign been run on that promise, he may well have stood a better chance.

But that didn't happen. And this post isn't really about legislative bodies.

This post is about the presidency. The president has one of the oddest constituencies ever (electors), but really that's just an odd calculation and a stand-in for the American People. Congressfolk all have a very set group they are supposed to serve, and on top of that, they are expected to act in the best interest of the nation. The president has the whole of the nation as his (aware of gender pronoun) constituency, and the president has a base who gets him elected that he is expected to serve especially well.

The fun part about the two-party system is that, contrary to many detractors, it gives the president the largest possible constituency. How so, you ask, my reader? Well, let's have a chart(!):

1 candiate: guaranteed election
2 candidates: requires 50+ percent of the vote
3 candidates: requries 34+ percent of the vote
4 candidates: 26+ percent of the vote
100 candidates: requires 1+ percent of the vote

By having a two party system, the president is forced to seek the votes of over half of Americans. This is majority rule, and while that has dangers, it means that a candidate seeking the presidency (or re-election) still has to appeal to more than half of all voters. That's the presidents constituency.

The president serves on behalf of the entire nation, however. Presidents who serve only in the interest of the followings that got them elected tend to alienate and divide the nation (cough *W* cough). So while Obama may be our candidate, and though he is aware of the debt he owes to the new left (are we calling ourselves that yet?), he has to serve the entire nation. And he's damn well aware of that; indeed, a lot of his appeal in this election is that he will serve everybody. And to the left, I just want to say amidst all the exuberance, that we knew this when we picked him. In fact, this is largely why we picked him.

Because if he's to be the president we want him to be, he'll have to act as the nation needs, and not as we want. At the moment, those two points are more aligned than they've been in a goodly while. And that's a relief. And that's to our nation's benefit. I'd say more, but you know the rest. Instead, I will leave you with this:


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Victory Means

It's a blessing this morning to wake up with Barack Obama as the President-Elect, and with all five senate and house seats in New Mexico in the hands of Democrats. I was worried about Heinrich for a while, but coattails buoyed him quite nicely. I certainly can't complain about that - almost everything has gone my way so far (Prop 8 and a few others being the outstanding examples).

What is strange is realizing that I don't know what to do about victory.

My first instinct, of course, is to tell the many people who I've seen long suffering in the face of American politics going against them that the good days are here. For my late grandfather Roy (and for Terry Arnold), part of my special appreciation of tonight is for you - we're going to have a sane Foreign Policy again, where we treat other nations like humans and not like playthings. At Roy's funeral I swore, in my idealistic 13 year old way, that I'd do everything within my power to fix the system, take the expanded Presidential powers under Bush and do everything to undo the harm he'd caused. It was a naive, idealistic statement, but it was also aimed at something in 2024. I had no idea that we'd have step one to repairing the damage of the last eight years elected immediately after Bush. I underestimated the nation, and it's reassuring to know that I was wrong.

While I wanted to share the joy of last night with almost everyone I know, the person I singled out to call was my dad. He's never before had an election where he voted for someone a) that he genuinely liked as a candidate, and b) had them win. Or at least, he hadn't before. And this is someone who grew up as a quasi-international citizen, with a wealth of experience in the universality of humans. To consistently have that understanding undermined and thwarted in the name of American interests must have hurt, and election season (starting in 2000) became very much a process of finding silver linings and proof that humans are basically good if misguided. So it's especially nice that my idealism was able to converge with my father's on my first election. There is a real potential for things to get better, and this isn't just the luxury of youth (where time for things to get better is more or less infinite) speaking. This is every failed promise to the baby boomers, and this is a passing of the torch. Things can get better, and they very likely will.

A special nod towards Nora's excellent post about coming of age politically in the Bush Years. She touches on a very important point, and one I want to elaborate on here. She says:

So knowing all that– understanding the only America I’ve known– you know the gravity that comes with the following statement:

I am proud to be an American tonight.

And it's a profound statement. It's not a statement I can really dispute, and it's not a personal experience I want to challenge.

But I'm not sure I feel identically. I've always identified very strongly as American. Well, not so much American as an Albuquerqueno and as a New Mexican. But also as an American - I can't go back a few generations and have relatives who came over by boat. Athertons and Coopers seem to have been rather perpetually American, if New Englanders. And despite being a bit of an anglophile (in the loving england way, not the other one), I really can't imagine any state of being that isn't as an American.

So the last eight years have been interesting. I politically came of age with Bush as President, with the War of Terror on, and with my diplomat grandfather's death, but I also came of age politically in the New Mexico under Richardson, and in a Unitarian Church, and with the changing of the guard in the democratic party. Not that the last eight years were fertile ground for unquestioing patriotism, but they were a challenge we grew into. The brilliance of Barack Obama is not that he's a democrat who won, and not that he's someone on the left who won. The brilliance of Barack Obama is that, for good or bad, he reimagined the left as a concept with mass appeal, and he reimagined the democratic party not as the Clinton's did (where it was the center + the left), but as an ideologically strong unifiying force. Democrats may have been the party of Obama, and they were certainly the people on the ground for him, but his message isn't exclusively for them, and it's never been.

Back to patriotism and the Bush Years. While I never felt like I wasn't a patriot, for those eight years I perpetually felt that my patriotism, which was real, didn't count. As though it was the wrong kind of patriotism, as though caring about the nation enough to see some of what it did was wrong was something like a sin. The Bush Years were, to understate things, devisive. And throughout those years, I felt that active democrats were the scrappy few, pursuing a vision of the nation that was different from the current course of action. And every time we failed, or ran into any obstacle, it felt as though we were through, as though our nation had been co-opted. And it felt as thoguh caring about the nation was a losign battle, one that would have us all drained, spent, and finished, without any real progress.

Waking up today with Barack Obama as the President-elect means that our struggle wasn't in vain, that our vision of America is a valid one, and that our kind of patriotism counts as well. It's a tremendous burden that has been lessened (if not lifted entirely), and that's something we can all be happy about.

I woke up this morning amid the feeling of resignation from those who had backed McCain. And McCain, despite the flaws of his campaign, was incredibly gracious in defeat. We can never forget that, and it is folly to imagine that he did anything but care about his country as best he knew how. His dedication to this country is remarkable, and it is unfortunate that he was the one to carry the republican banner to defeat this year. More importantly than the man himself, however, is the fact that in this nation, in this blue tide (as it were), 55+ million people voted for him. That's one in six americans, and that's 46% of people who voted.

One more detour before concluding. On twitter, some young parent friends of mine:
Last night, in bed, Eck turns to me and says, "Goodnight, my love. Just think - this is our last night as downtrodden liberals." :)
And part of that means that we're vindicated. Part of this is everything we've been waiting for, since, well, ever. And part of that is realizing that there are real people who are now, for the first time in eight years (and, depending on how you see it, for the first time since 1994) on the outs. And partially, this is because their vision isn't the one that fits the present America. But that doesn't entitle us to inflict any of the same bullshit on the losers that we've had to suffer through. Because if we do that, then it's all for not. We crawled through shit, through years of having our loyalty questioned, our values ridiculed, and our sense of patriotism deemed un-American so that no one has to put up with that.

Let's be gracious in victory. And with that, let's be one people again - a people who disagree, but a people. Two armed camps is a terrible stage of existence.

Epilogue: Two Readings

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone
-Wayne B Arnason

If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us an injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.

Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.
-Hosea Ballou

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Darren White and the Local Press

Note: This is nothing more than a copy-paste job of two comments I left in this comment thread on the Duke City Fix. The comments are long enough to count as their own posts, so I am putting them up here for safekeeping.

Darren White:

Darren White himself has shown that he's a take charge guy in executive situations. I don't agree with his decisions in many of them, but I can't deny that he made decisions and acted quickly. That's a great trait for an executive. However, he's running for a legislative seat. The duties and roles of that office are very different, and while his hands-on experience is certainly something rather novel in that body, it may be because it's largely irrelevant.

Being on a legislature requires compromising one's singular vision to work with others, even within one's own party, and having to make that compromise is a bare minimum. McCain is an unusual candidate in this election precisely because he's made a record of compromises that aren't strict party, that aren't the ideal version of what he wants, but are in the best interest of the nation, and are better than no solution. That's part of the wealth of experience that legislative experience adds to an individual, and it's helped McCain dodge a good chunk of the harm against the Republican brand. Martin Heinrich, though young, has a wealth of relevant legislative experience. Albuquerque as a city contains more people than many house districts, and governing that populace as part of a legislative body means Heinrich has experience in creating workable solutions, as opposed to pursuing his solitary vision. The streetcar proposal, arguably Heinrich's biggest mistake, was scrapped and abandoned when it was clear that it wasn't in the interest of the electorate, or the city itself, and that's something that had to hurt - as a tech-aware environmentalist from Nob Hill, street cars are all kinds of appealing. But as much as he personally may have wanted it, he knew when to quit, and when to work in the best interest of the entire city. Likewise, the minimum wage increase was first shot down as an overly-ambitious bill, but was re-introduced in such a way as to remove volatile ingredients and replace them with a form that both serves our city and doesn't alienate voters. This is the reputation of a man with ideals, but who understands that ideals have to be tempered with reality and practicality. That's more or less exactly the kind of legislative experience we need in CD3.

But this post isn't about Heinrich; it's about White. White, when working for the governor of New Mexico as head of the department of Public Safety, felt compelled to quit over an ideological opposition to Governor Johnson's support for medical marijuana. Rather than using his position to influence the implementation of any law Johnson signed, White quit over an ideological disagreement. Had he remained in that position (and had the Governor's support turned into a passable bill), White could easily have been in the best position to ensure that the drug is strictly controlled as a medical product, and could have maintained the sharp distinction between medicinal use and illegal personal indulgence. But he didn't, and instead left an office where he could have done much good because he didn't want to be seen as compromising his ideals over an initiative that never came to pass, and was ultimately not a crime issue but a health issue. Much as White touts that experience, it's terrible background for someone we want to reach across the isle, and represent all of us instead of just part of us.

(for more on Darren White, see my Fix post here)

The Local Press

I understand some frustration at the Journal's editorial board for it's endorsement. Always frustrating when those influential disagree with us. Still, this is no need to call for the paper's demise. The Journal, as an organ of the free press, is free to say what it wants until it can't afford to print, and then it can say things it wants online at an absolute minimum of cost. Living away at college and without a regular newspaper, there are some things I miss out on. Yes, I get news, and yes, the blogosphere does a fair bit with news. But what the blogosphere lacks (and the Journal has) is the economic necessity of objective reporting.

Blogs run at the absolute minimum of cost and don't have to appeal to anyone. Newspapers, at the least, have to sell to a large percentage of the city. Now editorial decisions can influence some of that appeal, but that's more background than reality - it's the printed blog entry in print every morning, and it's like eights inches at most. If that is offensive enough to not buy a newspaper, than don't buy the newspaper. It is, however, balanced out by the actual content of the paper, which cannot show bias and which has to care about Albuquerque. Those are both good things, both needed things, and both constraints that new media doesn't have to abide by. For me, that balances out disagreeable editorials (and the god awful content vomit that is the Tuesday editorial page).