Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Support Your Local Papers! Gordon Sisters in the Times-Picayuner

Here's something genuinely weird: I don't have internet in my apartment, and I just signed up for a month-long subscription to NOLA's local paper (the Times-Picayune). I'll probably get another when that one runs out. Why? Well, the easiest reason is that I like having something disposable to read every morning. A better answer would be that, with my church membership, apartment, and employment(ish) here, I feel committed enough to through down some more shallow roots.

And the best answer? Have some foreshadowing, and check this space again in a week.

Edit 10/5: After my totally unsubtle buildup, the Times-Picayune story on the Gordon Sisters Window. It does a better job of the history than I do (easy access to newspaper records helps with that), and on the whole, I think it's well done. My only qualms are, funny enough, nitpicking with my ministers language - while it's important to emphasize the good that the sisters did, I think there is little gained in excusing them as "products of their time", instead of focusing on them as "flawed people acting on contemporary notions of justice." To me, what is fascinating about them is not the views they held in common with their peers, but instead how they managed to hold those views and do lots of good works despite them. That said, I think the story does justice to the Gordon sisters, and First Unitarian Universalist of New Orleans decision to honor them as flawed humans. The newspaper article gets the nuance down, and for that I am grateful.

Again, my previous post discussing their complicated historical legacy is here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Realist goes M.A.D.

Over the past two days, I've made some fairly bold claims about nuclear power on my twitter account. Here's my claims:
  • I trust the sanity of people who have the most to gain by not engaging in nuclear war. Being king > being dead. And yes, even Kim Jong Il has more to gain by not nuking, and he's as close to insane as we've got. It's in Kim Jong Il's interest for people to think he is crazy - he (and those in power around him) gain nothing, however, by actually engaging in Nuclear War.
  • The main argument I've heard for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) not being stabilizing: Bernard Lewis, who claimed that the Iran govt was apocalyptic, and saw the certain destruction of nuclear war as an inducement, rather than a deterrent. I spent a good part of last year writing a response for my War on Terror class. My core counter argument was, essentially, that while Ahmadejinehad (and Iran proxy) have a lot to gain through nuclear posturing, and even through the possession of nuclear weapons, they are first and foremost a government. And as a government, things are better for them if they both a) stay in power, and b) stay alive. Religious belief may be strong enough to motivate a terrorist to kill himself on behalf of his community, but very few people are genuinely willing to risk initiating the actual death of their community. Altruistic motives fuel suicide terrorism; if you think your death will benefit the community, you may well do it. But it does not extend far enough to risk the entire community, because nothing is gained by that.
  • M.A.D. works precisely because even if the leader has more to gain in a war, and leaders usually have the most to gain, gains in war become impossible w/nuclear second strikes. Were a nuclear nation to initiate war against another nuclear nation, the damages that resulted would be, well, apocalyptic. You'd get two devastated nations, and the cost + time involved in rehabilitating them is certain to be expensive. Not going to war is, in this day and age, always cheaper and the better economic prospect for a nuclear armed nation. Plus, any government that initiates such a war is sure to either die, be deposed, or be greatly reduced in power within minutes.
  • Finally: a single person may be irrational (Ahmadejinehad, Kim Jong Il). But a small group of people (say, the rest of the governing bodies in Iran with a special emphasis towards the Supreme Leader, or the bureaucratic elite of the DPRK) errs towards rationality.
  • Governments of States, as collections of people with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, are going to be more rational and more restrained that the sum of their parts. They might posture, and they may well pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but actually engaging in nuclear war is not in their interest.
That is, more or less, the whole of my argument as regards states. Nonstate actors are generally perceived as less rational. Fortunately, however, nonstate actors can't really produce outright nuclear weapons on their own (dirty bombs being another matter). Nuclear forensics, while not as developed as it should be, mitigates the risk of a nonstate actor obtaining (and therefore using) a nuke. Nuclear forensics, ideally, makes the nation that gives a nuke to a nonstate actor (read: terrorist) responsible for any deaths caused, and therefore vulnerable as though the state itself had launched the weapon. So rather than MAD deterring the use of weapons by nonstate actors, it deters nations unloading nuclear weapons on terrorist groups. And so that makes the governments of all nuclear nations put a premium on tight control, small stockpiles, and encourages nuclear actions to be controlled as a state, rather than enacted by nonstate proxies. Following the thesis of states as rational actors, MAD is an effective deterrent, so long as nuclear war is seen as fundamentally unwinnable.

Qualifiers and Postscripts:

Nuclear forensics is valuable, but it isn't as effective a deterrent as MAD. MAD is purely a "between states" thing, and works on the premise of states as rational actors. Since states have a lot to gain by posturing, posturing through nonstate loose cannons is a fancy little risk in this day and age. That said, nuclear forensics still holds promise of making deterrence continue to be relevant, two decades after the cold war.

Security through proliferation? The topic itself came up because a friend made an aside about how giving everyone nuclear weapons was not the path to peace. Another friend interjected that I "might advocate giving all STATES nuclear weapons. Some silly thing about rational actors." So, I then went out and kind of babbled my way through a rough version of the argument you see above. I genuinely trust states rational actors, and I stand by the value of deterrence in a world with nuclear weapons. What I omitted in the above argument but included in my conversation are two fairly important asides:
  1. The only nation that was nuclear and actively, unilaterally disarmed itself was the apartheid government of South Africa. The reasons for this were multiple - the cold war was ending, South Africa really didn't see a need for itself to be nuclear, and the outgoing government really did not trust the rationality of the people they were handing the reins of power over to. It's an example of disarmament, which is a net win for everyone, through an explicit distrust in the rationality of states, which is probably fair but makes me a sad panda. I'm not sure what relevance this has, beyond being basically a silver bullet counterargument to my stated claims. Seemed worth mentioning, any way.
  2. Having nuclear weapons protects a single nation while increasing the risk to all other nations, resulting in a net lose of security. This is a macro-scale effect of the SUV phenomenon: if you drive an SUV, you yourself are safer, but every SUV on the roads makes the roads less safe. More nuclear weapons among more states doesn't actually provide much in the way of stability to anyone outside the most recently nuclear state, and greater proliferation comes with a greater risk of loose nukes and nonstate actors using them. For this reason, while I don't begrudge a nation like Iran seeking to protect itself with a nuclear deterrent, I'm really not all that fond of greater proliferation. I understand it, and don't see it as leading to the end of the world, but in absolute terms it's not a good thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Gordon Sisters, their Window, and Quiet Little Faults

Today in my church we dedicated a pair of stained-glass windows. The new set is a beautiful post-Katrina triptych, donated and made by volunteers who made many a trip to the city to rebuild. It's not a subtle piece, but it is very pretty, and hyper-relevant to the building in which it is now housed. It's history, though already pretty elaborate, is nothing compared to the main focus of this morning's service.

At the center of the morning, and at the center of the wall facing the congregation in our sanctuary, is the Gordon Sisters window. It's a piece of stained glass with more history than most towns, and it commemorates two little-known but tremendous figures for social justice, who just so happened to be members of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans.

The sisters were fascinating people. Childless and never married, they brought sanitary water and sewage to New Orleans, worked to build a "model home-school for the care and vocational education of the mentally handicapped", spent ten years working for children's rights (which resulted in the Child Labor Act of 1906), one of them directed the Louisiana State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and they "pushed for the state constitution to allow women to vote," where "partial victory was granted and women taxpayers were given the vote, in person or by proxy, on matters relating to taxation." It's about the perfect distillation of late 19th century progressive causes. Reading that, it's a wonder that we don't lionize Kate and Jean Gordon with Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton.

But there are reasons for this. For all the progressiveness of the Gordon Sisters, there are some quietly omitted flaws. Kate fought for women's' suffrage, but she fought for it through state rights. There's a reason Louisiana only gave the right to vote to women taxpayers - that's a category that is almost exclusively white women, and this was the Jim Crow south. Pursuing suffrage on the state level meant that you could still exclude some as you expanded the franchise. This was intentional. This is a stark contrast to the standard progressive discourse about late 19th century liberation movements. We remember Susie B as an abolitionist and a suffragette - they go together perfectly in the progressive canon. We forget, in praising our forebears, all the murky grey area and disagreeable positions that came before.

Jean, too, falls into the grey area of history. The second hit on her name is a book discussing eugenics in the deep south. At the above-mentioned model home school, Jean Gordon admitted only whites, and then sterilized them so that feebleness could be weeded out of the white race. We, as a church community, honor the fight against hardship and feebleness, but it is hard to look back with fondness on forebears who embraced so overtly racist a policy as eugenics. These are sins of omission, perhaps, but it makes a platonic ideal of what should be an examination of caring but deeply flawed people.

This will emerge into a new light soon, and it was already simmering at the service today. Racist predecessors are hard people to acknowledge. More challenging even than that is reconciling the tangible good they produced (sewage and drainage, child labor laws, and even the murkily reasoned good of expanded suffrage) with ulterior motives we would today find appalling. History is not the kindest of materials to work with, and Unitarian Universalism is not free from it's ill effects.

The window itself is still beautiful, it's figures all full of dignity. They're all white (and a dog), but that doesn't have to diminish from the dignity of the piece. It just requires that we are conscious of the exclusion, and mindful that when we focus on achieving justice, our definition of justice is limited to our experience. One day, history may well judge us for our biases, and it is good that it is done.

I'd worry if progressive meant the same thing after a century later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mayoral Quickie

Having not read the Albuquerque Journal in a while (being out of state can do that), I missed an article about the Mayoral Candidates positions on Albuquerque's water future. Here's what they have to say, in turn, using the same order as my earlier post.

Romero said the Mayor's Office should take more interest in the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which has a voting position reserved on its board for the mayor.
Chávez does not attend water authority meetings but sends his chief administrative officer instead.
"We can't just stomp our feet and say, 'I don't like this authority,' " Romero said.
He said more oversight of the authority from a mayoral administration could help coordinate conservation, growth and acquisition efforts.
Romero supports acquiring new water rights, and said the focus needs to be on conservation. He said the city's water conservation record can be improved in its golf courses, parks and buildings.
"The program (to improve city conservation) needs to be accelerated," he said.
Chávez touts his administration's water record with what he calls the most important act as mayor — pushing for the San Juan-Chama diversion project to get off the ground after decades of unused, city-owned surface water in the Rio Grande flowed past the city every year.
Chávez was one catalyst for the construction of the new water system in his first term.
Chávez said he supports desalination, but only as a short term measure. He said reuse systems and new technology, such as toilet-to-tap systems, "if people can get over the 'ugh' factor," would also be welcome in the city.
Chávez is also proud of the steep decline in water use per person in Albuquerque since the 1980s, where personal usage has dropped per capita by about 90 gallons a day.
He said the real improvements can come from the state Legislature, which could force surrounding areas that use the aquifer to implement conservation programs.
Chávez, a former state legislator himself, said the city can do "virtually nothing" to force conservation on other communities. The state has that power, however, he said.
"We can't continue to be the only entity with a meaningful conservation system," Chávez said.
Berry said the city needs a vision and a plan for conservation and future water sources. He said his administration would have a scheme to not only help look for new water rights, especially large water transfers like the San Juan-Chama project, but to also make sure the city is prepared to responsibly pay for it.
"I think the city should have a leader who ... helps drive the vision and helps implement the plan," he said.
Desalination of brackish water, using the aquifer for water storage and the large water transfers are all options to add to the city's water supply, he said. Conservation, for the short term, is the city's best bet for more water, he said.
"Enhanced conservation is the cheapest supply of new water," Berry said.
But Berry also warned that some conservation techniques he supports, such as water reuse systems and low-flow toilets, do not save any water for the city's new water system, which requires the city return its used water into the Rio Grande downriver. He said only new water supplies will satisfy large growth in the area.
My Take:

All the candidates argue for conservation as the first and best way to manage our cities water. Good. Romero wants the Mayor to take a more active role in water policy (which includes acquiring more water rights), Chavez says that the real change needs to happen in the state legislature, and Berry wants to marshal new resources in a way that allows for long term growth. Given that choice, I'm kind of disappointed in all of them, but least disappointed in Romero's position. The city needs a very strong orientation towards conservation, because any growth that happens without it will only make the city much more likely to die out. Marty Chavez should be able to step up on this - the Albuquerque/Rio Grande corridor is the biggest fish in the NM water usage pond (I believe - correct me if I'm wrong), and the mayor of ABQ can do a lot more with that than he thinks he can. Romero sees that active role, but doesn't have any more sweeping vision. As for Berry, he sees conservation as a way to enable growth, which isn't inherently bad so much as a little risky.

Your thoughts?