Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Who is John Belushi?

Saturday Night Lives for $600

In the fall of 1976, this star of Fletch became one of the first cast members to leave the show.

Consider it something we've forgotten

The power of protest, the strength of mass nonviolent action, the public courage of personal conviction taken to the streets.

On Monday, Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma called for a new presidential election "to maintain peace and accord." He's offered no details, but the firewall in front of a new election has been breached.

And today, the man who officially won but is accused of having done it by fraud, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, said he would accept a new election and offered to not run again, provided that his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, does the same.

And in another significant shift, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who openly supported Yanukovich during the campaign and twice congratulated him on his victory, was quoted by German Chancellor Gerhardt Schröder's office as saying that he was prepared to accept the results of a new election.

(Putin was feeling some domestic heat of his own:
Mr. Putin's most prominent liberal critics, including Irina M. Khakamada, Boris E. Nemtsov and the chess champion Garry Kasparov, issued an open letter today urging Mr. Putin to accept Ukraine's choice, which, in their view, is Mr. Yushchenko.

"The leadership of Russia must respect the choice of the Ukrainian people even if this choice conflicts with some personal but difficult-to-explain preferences of the Kremlin," the critics wrote in the letter, read on the Ekho Moskvy radio station.)
What's more, regional leaders in the eastern, Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, who had threatened to hold a referendum on autonomy, backed down.

It was undoubtedly developments like these that prompted Yushchenko to immediately rejects Yanukovich's proposal as well as his offer
to appoint Mr. Yushchenko prime minister and consider amendments to the Constitution that would share power between the country's starkly divided blocs.

"The election was falsified," Mr. Yushchenko said in televised remarks. "As long as this problem is not solved, all the other problems are secondary."
Yanukovich is looking increasingly isolated but he hasn't folded his hand, premising his offers on a court finding that the election results were invalid. Still, it's very likely that, at some point, some sort of compromise is going to be forced on the parties. Perhaps what we'll find is that instead of President Yanukovich offering the office of prime minister to Yushchenko, we'll have President Yushchenko offering it to Yanukovich.

The difference is the power of the people.

Xenophobia takes many forms

According to Netcraft, an Internet services company based in Bath, England,
[t]he Republican Party appears to again be blocking Internet users from outside the United States from visiting its official web sites, with www.gop.com, www.rnc.org and www.GeorgeWBush.com all dropping traffic that originates outside North America. The timing and implementation of the blocking ... suggests an ongoing interest in traffic filtering unrelated to the recent election.
In the week prior to the election, the Bush campaign site instituted such blocking, claiming unspecified "security concerns." The restrictions were eventually lifted on November 7, five days after the election. But on November 24, the site switched networks
and began having its domain name server (DNS) requests handled by the RNC's server, and redirecting traffic to the RNC's main site, gop.com. ... Since Nov. 26, the rnc.org, gop.com and GeorgeWBush.com domains all show an identical pattern of failed requests from stations in London, Amsterdam and Sydney, while Netcraft's four U.S. monitoring stations show no performance problems.
Supposedly the campaign site was hit with a Denial of Service attack on October 19, sparking the security concern. I guess for an administration that responded to 9/11 by treating all Arab and Muslim males as suspected terrorists, responding to such an attack by blocking the entire rest of the world from your website seemed entirely reasonable.

Er, excuse me, but...

...didn't we just get told by your boss that this was an Iraqi decision?
Baghdad, Nov. 30 (Washington Post) - The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq said Tuesday that security conditions would improve enough here in the coming months to allow national elections to proceed in January as scheduled, and he suggested that the country's minority Sunni Muslim community would likely abandon plans to boycott the voting once it became clear it would not be postponed.

Speaking to foreign reporters over lunch at the U.S. chancellery here inside the secure green zone, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte gave the clearest indication yet that the Bush administration would not allow a delay in the Jan. 30 elections, which U.S. officials have called an essential step in establishing the first broadly accepted government in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. His comments served as an unequivocal U.S. response to more than a dozen Sunni Muslim organizations, who in recent days have threatened to boycott the voting and potentially undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis.
The Bush administration won't allow it? Who the hell is actually in charge here? Or did we just get reminded of the answer?

Afghanis- oh yeah, I remember! The place where we won!

From AP for Tuesday:
Thousands of U.S. soldiers are preparing an operation against Taliban insurgents to preempt an expected spring offensive which could upset plans for Afghan parliamentary elections, a senior American general said in an interview Tuesday. ...

He said the aim is to tighten the Afghan-Pakistan border by sending special forces on raids against rebel leaders.

Still, violence continues to plague the south and east, where militants are strongest. A roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers in Uruzgan province last week, and American officials say militants continue to cross to and from neighboring Pakistan. To reinforce the frontier, [Maj. Gen. Eric] Olson said the U.S. military would establish several new camps close to the border. He said Afghan forces would also reposition "along and astride" routes used by militants. And he promised to strengthen cooperation with Pakistani forces across the border.
That is, continue to do the same things you've been doing all along. Meanwhile, you say the Taliban - who've been "defeated," what, six, seven times now? - are preparing an offensive which we have to "preempt."

Jeez, if this is success, what would failure look like? Oh, yeah, we know that too, don't we?

Being serious about democracy

Or, put another way: Never give up, never surrender. From today's Washington Post comes this:
Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik announced that they are seeking recounts in two more battleground states: New Mexico and Nevada.

The third-party candidates, who already have requested a recount in Ohio, won few votes in both states. But a Cobb spokesman said they were concerned that reports of Election Day problems at the states' polls were being ignored.
Cost is apparently not the issue it was in Ohio because some foundation is helping out.

Why do it if you think it won't change the outcome (which it probably won't)? Simple: They stole the election in 2000. I believe they were fully prepared to do it again in 2004. This may well not change anything now, but it may make it harder for them to try the same things next time. So it well might change things in the future.

Monday, November 29, 2004


What is Dublin?

Saturday Night Lives for $200

His classic characters on SNL included the Killer Bee, Joe Cocker, and the Samurai Warrior.


Updated I keep saying I'm trying to, like the man said, "keep hope alive." It's hope that gives us the strength to carry on and the courage to go beyond what we otherwise think we can. So good news is something to be welcomed. And here is a bit of such news, from AP for Monday:
The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to the only state that allows gay marriages, declining to hear an appeal aimed at overturning the Massachusetts law that prompted a national debate on the legality and morality of same-sex unions.

The decision ended the legal fight over a 4-3 Massachusetts high court ruling last November giving gay couples the right to marry. ...

Liberty Counsel, the Florida-based conservative group that filed the challenge to the Massachusetts law, argued the state Supreme Court ruling violated the U.S. Constitution because state judges had made a decision more properly decided by elected legislatures.

The high court rejected the appeal without comment.

Notice it wasn't even a group of Massachusetts residents but a bunch of out-of-staters coming in and - doggone it all! - trying to tell the people of Massachusetts what to do! Outside agitators! Interfering with our state's rights, our state legal process, our state constitution! Who do they think they are, messing with our local way of life?

Apparently, in the minds of conservatives "states' rights" is a rather elastic concept that often expands in areas such as gun control, environmental protection, labor organizing, and civil rights but contracts in areas such as gay marriage.

There is still a long battle ahead.
Gay marriage is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. The poll taken Nov. 19-21 found that 61 percent oppose gay marriage and 35 percent support it.

People are about evenly divided on whether gays should be allowed to form civil unions, which would give them many of the same legal rights as marriage, other polls have found.
An even split on "civil unions" and over 1/3 supporting marriage. How long ago would those numbers have seemed impossibly out of reach?

Footnote: As could be predicted, the Shrub team fell all over itself with brainless pandering.
"Activist judges are seeking to redefine marriage for the rest of society, and the people's voice is not being heard in this process," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. "That's why the president is committed to moving forward with Congress on a constitutional amendment that would protect the sanctity of marriage."
"Uh, excuse me, Scotty," someone damn well should have asked, "but could you explain to us how the president concluded that people wanting to get married undermines marriage?"

Update: I was wrong about something: There were some people in Massachusetts involved in the suit. Ten members of the 159-seat State House of Representatives and one of the 40 members of the State Senate signed on to the suit. May their political careers rot.

Is there a backroom involved?

I suspect that there is more going on than the usual ethnic-religious split between Sunnis and Shiites in the recent call for a delay in the Iraqi elections scheduled for January. This goes beyond the Sunni scholars of the Muslim Clerics' Association calling for a boycott or the threat of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party, to boycott the elections if they go ahead as now planned.

Consider that on Friday, CNN reported that among those who signed the call for the delay were

- Adnan Pachachi, an influential, moderate Sunni leader and former presidential candidate, who is seen as an Iraqi elder statesman and is closely allied to Washington. His level of respect is such that he was the UN' preferred choice for the Iraqi presidency.

- Three interim government ministers.

- Representatives from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the two main Kurdish groups. Their involvement is significant because they have been allied with the US, they are secular parties, and the Kurds' own regional elections were also scheduled for January 30.

In addition, CNN reported the next day that Rasim al-Awadi, secretary-general of the National Accord Party - Iyad Allawi's party - had also signed the call.

A total of 17 political parties and groups signed the petition, which joined Sunni parties with secular parties for the first time.

Not surprisingly, Reuters reported on Friday that
42 Shi'ite and Turkmen parties, including the influential Dawa Party and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said a postponement [of the election] would be illegal.
Now, at first sight, this still appears to be much the same schism as has concerned some people for some time: On the one hand, a long-suppressed Shiite majority, looking forward eagerly to "democracy," understood not to mean "majority rule with minority rights" but "majority rule, period." On the other, Sunni and Kurdish minorities look forward with dread to the same prospect.

But I still suspect it's both that and a step beyond. Pachachi's deep involvement (the meeting was held at his house) says this was a carefully-considered step, which could presage further cooperation between Sunnis and Kurds in the future. More importantly, what was Awadi doing there? Does this indicate dissent with Allawi's party? Or is it perhaps a bit of positioning for a post-election, perhaps post-Allawi position in the party?

I admit I don't know. But it does appear clear to me that events have moved one step past the expected Shiite-Sunni divisions.

Don't bogart that joint

Did you ever think you would be cheering on Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi? Neither did I. But they are among the states filing amicus curiae briefs in a case before the Supreme Court about medical marijuana.
Washington (AP, November 29) - Attorneys for the Bush administration and two California women sparred Monday before the Supreme Court over the use of marijuana as a legitimate medical treatment.

Justices are considering whether sick people in 11 states with medical marijuana laws can get around a federal ban on pot. ...

Besides California, nine other states allow people to use marijuana if their doctors agree: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Arizona also has a law permitting marijuana prescriptions, but no active program. ...

Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, conservative states that do not have medical marijuana laws, sided with the marijuana users on grounds that the federal government was trying to butt into state business of providing "for the health, safety, welfare and morals of their citizens."
Now, the argument should give us pause because it's really a states' rights claim, which as we well know can be (and has been) used for various nefarious purposes, but it is still true that there are yet some things traditionally regarded as within the realm of state control and I think there is a very serious question of the feds' authority to punish someone who grows their own pot for their own use, who neither sells it nor transports it across state lines, and who has permission under their own state's laws to do what they're doing.

In fact, Bloomberg News notes that
[t]he court ruled in 1995 that Congress couldn't make it a federal crime to possess a gun in a school zone, and in 2000 the justices struck down a provision that let rape victims sue their attackers in federal court.

In those cases the court said Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce didn't cover local, non-economic acts.
So now we'll see if what's good enough for gun owners and rapists is good enough for seriously sick people.

Interestingly, the government attorney in the case, Paul Clement, doesn't seem to have spent a lot of time arguing the feds jurisdictional powers. He just kept on about "marijuana BAD." About the closest he came, based on news reports, was his argument that California, from where the case at hand arose, may be allowing people to subject themselves to health dangers from doing the evil weed. (Which could be an argument for federal action on the grounds that states were failing to protect "the health, safety, welfare and morals of their citizens," which if I understand correctly was a legal basis for the validity of federal civil rights laws that did not involve interstate commerce: the feds could step in if the states failed their duties.)

But for the most part, Clement harped on supposed dangers, assumed and unproved social harms, and the supposed uselessness of medical marijuana.
"Smoked marijuana really doesn't have any future in medicine," he said. ...

The Bush administration argues that Congress has found no accepted medical use of marijuana and needs to be able to eradicate drug trafficking and its social harms.
Now, first of all, I'm not sure where we get the idea that Congress and/or Paul Clement are the final arbiters of what is medically useful. Second, since we're not talking about trafficking here, there's no need even to argue that because it's utterly irrelevant. But something else about Clement's statement struck me: Smoked marijuana has no future in medicine, he said. Not marijuana, smoked marijuana. So does this mean that if some huge pharmaceutical company patented the active ingredients, formed them into a pill available by prescription at the usual insanely large markup, that would be okay? Certainly, his statement leaves that option open, doesn't it?

Footnote: Apparently, the usual suspects are braying about "sending the wrong message" and
several justices repeatedly referred to America's drug addiction problems.
Did anybody involved have the gumption to say to those justices "And just what does addiction have to do with marijuana?" And what is this "wrong message" we'd be sending? "Hey, you, too, can grow your own dope and smoke it, too! All you have to do is be dying from cancer or AIDS, in constant pain from brain tumors, or going blind from glaucoma! A snap!"

Yeah, I bet that'll send the rates of the use of heroin and barbituates and other actually addictive drugs skyrocketing.

Extra added footnote: For more information on both medical marijuana and why marijuana use shouldn't be treated as a criminal matter at all, check out The Science of Medical Marijuana and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Sunday, November 28, 2004


What is the finger?

On the Map

A house of parliament called the Dail Eireann meets in this world capital.

Ukraine update

Two things, it seems, are driving the conflict over the disputed presidential election in Ukraine: One is an ethnic division between the more industrialized, Russian-speaking east and the more rural west. (Sort of like the so-called "red-blue" divide except even more intense and geographically focused; none of those purple maps there.) The other is that people seem to be, as I noted before, serious about their democracy and not willing to either fold or look for "healing" in the wake of fraud. (Unlike certain unnamed major parties here, which don't even seem enthusiastic about examining charges, much less taking to the streets over them.)

Tens of thousands continue to fill a tent city in Kiev. The opposition has demanded that President Leonid Kuchma fire Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the purported winner over Viktor Yushchenko in the November 21 balloting, and threatened to block Kuchma's movements if he fails. The Parliament has passed resolutions calling the election invalid and declaring no confidence in the Central Elections Commission. Those resolutions are not legally binding but they are politically important.

Perhaps most significantly, the BBC reported on Friday that
[j]ournalists on Ukraine's state-owned channel - which had previously given unswerving support to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych - have joined the opposition, saying they have had enough of "telling the government's lies".

Journalists on another strongly pro-government TV station have also promised an end to the bias in their reporting. The turnaround in news coverage, after years of toeing the government line, is a big setback for Mr Yanukovych. ...

A correspondent on the state channel, UT1, announced live on the evening bulletin that the entire news team was going to join the protests in Independence Square. She said their message to the protesters was: "We are not lying anymore".
Now seriously, ask yourselves, really think about this: Can you think of one time, a single instance, just one time when a reporter or anchor on network TV news, some member of our so-called free press, said flat out "the government is lying to you?" Just once? I don't mean the fanatical right-wing asshole talking heads, I mean something that was supposed to be giving news, not opinion. Can you think of a single time? If so, please tell me about it. Because I don't know of one.

Yanukovych's forces are starting to hit back. The legislature of his native region, Donetsk, voted 164-1 to hold a Dec. 5 referendum on autonomy. Autonomy would require a change in the constitution, but raising the specter of increasing regional splits and on-going conflict if the election is overturned may be intended as a means to pressure the opposition to give in.

Meanwhile, Kuchma started dropping hints that he is considering what are usually euphemistically called "sterner measures."
Kuchma, who backed Yanukovych, criticized the blockades [of government offices] Sunday as a "gross violation of law" that "would be unacceptable in any nation." He made his comments during a meeting of his National Security Council, parts of which were broadcast live on Ukrainian television.

"Compromise is the only way to avoid unpredictable consequences," Kuchma said.
"Unpredictable consequences" has an ominous ring coming from him. Nonetheless, for the moment the protests will continue. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the election on Monday. I don't think it will end the conflict no matter what it rules, but either side will use it as a club to beat the other. This is not over and I very much doubt it will be over after Monday.

Footnote: One amusing note is that, according to the Beeb's article,
[e]ven the sign-language presenter said that in an earlier bulletin, she had rejected the pro-government script and informed her viewers instead of the allegations of vote-rigging.
So the news reader is there, giving the government line, and there she is, signing away about charges of vote fraud. Must have been quite a thing to see for anyone who could hear but knows sign language.

Stick it!

Again, thanks to Left End of the Dial.

You've undoubtedly heard about the stickers various school districts have been putting on science textbooks to curry favor with right-wing fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution because it conflicts with their Biblical literalism. One from Cobb County, Georgia, reads
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.
Now, first off, it should be noted that the sticker shows a deep ignorance about evolution: Evolution is not about the origin of life but about the development and change in life forms once life emerged on Earth. They are two different subjects.

But leave that aside for the moment. Jumping off from Cobb County's sticker, Colin Purrington, Associate Professor of Evolutionary biology at Swathmore College, has come up with some more warning stickers for textbooks. Definitely worth a look. And a printout.

Footnote: For those who get told evolution is "only a theory," the proper answer is that there is nothing "only" about a theory. As Paul Ehrlich put it,
Scientific hypotheses are, in one way or another, tested against nature - the "real world" that all scientists conventionally agree is "out there." Only when hypotheses are sufficiently tested and bind together information from relatively diverse areas that previously had not been connected do they properly become theories. But that is the opposite of the popular understanding of the term; it's scientific meaning is much closer to that of the word "fact" in common parlance. Theories embody the highest level of certainty for comprehensive ideas in science. Thus, when someone claims that evolution is "only a theory," it's roughly equivalent to saying that the proposition that the Earth circles the sun rather than vice versa is "only a theory." Evolution is, in fact, a very useful theory.
(Quoted at Evolution: Fact and/or Theory? - a useful antidote to the poison of creationism and so-called "intelligent design," which is just creationism in it's Sunday best.)

Put another way, in science, a theory is a hypothesis confirmed by observation and experiment to the point where it does not require further demonstration and the burden of proof is on those who would deny its accuracy. In the case of evolution it is no longer enough (and hasn't been for some time) to say we don't know every detail or haven't found every transitional fossil. The basic principle of change over time in interaction with environment stands unchallenged by anything but pure assumption. Saying evolution should be doubted or questioned because questions remain is exactly - and I do mean exactly - like saying the existence of gravity should be questioned because scientists looking to unite gravity with quantum mechanics believe the force of gravity should be mediated (transmitted) by gravitons, which no one has ever found.

The details of evolution provoke spirited debate among scientists. The fact of evolution does not. And anyone who tries to tell you different is not doing science. Period.

The Dip of the Month award goes to...

...Rep. Ernest Istook (R-A cave somewhere), the man who wanted to have authority to look at everyone's tax returns then tried to dodge responsibility when he was caught - and who is also engaged in a foul attempt to kill Amtrak by punishing its supporters.

Via TalkingPointsMemo comes a link to the November 24 issue of The Hill, which tells us that Rep. Isakook
dispensed a little appropriator’s justice, punishing 21 Republicans who wrote him a letter in support of $1.8 billion for Amtrak.

Istook, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies, drastically reduced, or entirely excised, the transportation earmarks that those lawmakers were expecting to receive, making good on a little-noticed threat he issued in a letter last February.
When members of the House wrote to Isakook supporting a call for $1.8 billion for Amtrak, he replied by sending a "Dear Colleague" letter said their support for Amtrak funding,
"even if submitted in a separate document, must and will be weighed against your other requests, and I will consider it as a project request for your district."
He made no other attempt to contact those members before their funding was cut, and many of them did not learn of his actions until after the bill passed.

That he's making a blatant attempt to intimidate members into not supporting Amtrak was not even denied by his office.
"Last year, they had 32 members sign the letter, and this year it was only 21, so some people got the message," [spokeswoman Micah] Ledorf said, adding that she expects even fewer public supporters for Amtrak funding in next year’s process.
Several of the Republicans whose projects he killed are considered vulnerable and this certainly will not help them maintain support in their home districts - which means his selfish, conceited, over-the-top, high-handed thuggery is actually risking the GOPper majority in the House.

There has been some speculation about whether their dominant position will lead the rightists to overreach, as has happened many times before to dominant parties. I suppose this could be a sign of it, one where the right wing of the GOPpers feels so much in control it doesn't even have to pay attention to its own party's (by comparison, at least) moderates. So it will be interesting to see if in the wake of these two incidents the GOP House leadership will take any steps to rein in Isakook - which it appears they should do for their own, if not the country's, good.

All hail the brave hero!

Now we hear that Bush was "targeted for assassination by Marxist rebels" during his visit to Colombia. "No evidence" has been recovered of plots that "don't seem to have advanced very far," but so what?
"The administration of George W. Bush is everything that Marxist rebels hate in a U.S. government," journalist Toby Muse in Bogota, Colombia, told CNN.
Yeah! Terrorists hate him! Marxists hate him! (I thought we were supposed to believe there weren't any more Marxists, but what the hey, for old times' sake.) That's our guy! Brave and resolute in the face of terrorism and assassination! Yeah!

Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about kiss the boot? Remember?

Thanks to Left End of the Dial for the picture. Posted by Hello

Saturday, November 27, 2004


What is sauerkraut?

Good Eats for $2000

Relax, this body part is not an ingredient of the small sandwich named for it.

We don't need no stinking studies

Tell me if you can imagine a more perfect example of the Shrub teams approach to knowledge than this, for CNN for Friday:
President Bush's re-election insures that more federal money will flow to abstinence education that precludes discussion of birth control, even as the administration awaits evidence that the approach gets kids to refrain from sex.

Congress last weekend included more than $131 million for abstinence programs in a $388 billion spending bill, an increase of $30 million but about $100 million less than Bush requested. Meanwhile, a national evaluation of abstinence programs has been delayed, with a final report not expected until 2006. ...

"We don't need a study, if I remember my biology correctly, to show us that those people who are sexually abstinent have a zero chance of becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted disease," said Wade Horn, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of federal abstinence funding.
I'll accept that's true. It's also not the question. The question is if programs to push abstinence, particularly those that push abstinence in the absence of information on safe sex and contraception, do a damn bit of good. And even the administration admits it has no clue, with Horn saying "the research is not as adequate as it needs to be."

Well, the depends on what he means by adequate. Certainly there is research, research that should be adequate to open minds, but since it rejects the administration's narrow-minded, closed-eye view, it's inadequate for the purpose to which Horn would put it.
Independent researchers said in 2002 there is no reliable evidence whether [abstinence] programs are effective in reducing teen sex, pregnancy or the transmission of disease. ...

Advocates for Youth recently compiled state evaluations that found little change in teens' behavior since the start of the abstinence programs [in 1997]. The states evaluated are: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Leslee Unruh, president of National Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D., said those state programs are not true abstinence programs because they talk about delaying sexual activity, but not specifically waiting until marriage.
Which is a laughable argument, because if the programs couldn't even convince the teens to delay sex (which is certainly a reasonable conclusion from the finding that there was "little change" in their behavior), what in hell makes anyone think that a "true" abstinence program could convince them to avoid sex altogether? It shows the desperation of their position and the paucity of their logic.

Oh, by the way, the folks that did that 2002 report have been updating their findings for HHS.
A second report was supposed to be released earlier this year, but has been pushed back, said HHS spokesman Bill Pierce. The final installation is expected in 2006.

Footnote: Horn said he's
not willing to wait for more evaluations, calling abstinence education "something that parents and children want."
Would that they would take that attitude about global climate change.

Pet peeve

The Netscape news poll for Saturday had this question and results:
Are "moral values" playing too big of a role in the U.S. government?
Church and state need to stay separate - 55%
All decisions should be guided by morality - 42%
I don't know - 2%
Now, the numbers are meaningless and not the point here. (Self-selected polls are unreliable, those drawn from an audience very likely not representative of the general public even more so; what's more, Netscape never tells you how many people responded so you have no idea of the size of the sample. On the other hand, I'll say that some of the AOL polls might have some significance even if they are self-selected among a possibly unrepresentative audience; I figure when you start to get a sample size of 300,000 or 400,000, as some of their polls have gotten, you might have some fair indication of sentiment.)

The point here is the choices: Either church and state are separate or decisions are guided by morality. The net meaning of those choices is that morality = religion = morality. And I find that misleading, untrue, even offensive to me and others like me who don't base their ethical and moral principles on some God-figure. I'm an atheist. I have been told to my face that because I'm an atheist, I can't - not even don't, but can't - have moral values, that I must judge everything in terms of cold calculations of practicality and self-interest. I have been told to my face that "morality comes from God." I was even accused once of "affecting religion" when I spoke of the preciousness of life.

I'm content to let any regular reader of this blog judge for themselves if my lack of religious belief has left me devoid of concerns and commitments regarding right and wrong. I'll just say this: We should never be governed by or as a civil society embrace religious orthodoxy of any kind. But as I've said several times, some things you do just because they're right, not because they're profitable. If you ever feel constrained by necessity to do something you feel is wrong, it should be because you knowingly made that unhappy decision, not because the wrongness did not figure in it.

So my answer to the poll would be yes to both: Church and state should be and stay separate and morality should guide decisions. I see absolutely no conflict there.


Or a reaction, at least. Don't know how I missed this, but I did. From CNN for Tuesday.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to investigate complaints of several systemic problems with this month's elections, a group of Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday.

The investigation comes in response to two letters written by lawmakers to the GAO which address numerous media reports of irregularities in the 2004 vote and call for those to be reviewed.

The GAO said it will not investigate every charge listed by the Democrats, but will examine "the security and accuracy of voting technologies, distribution and allocation of voting machines and counting of provisional ballots." ...

As part of the inquiry, the group said it will provide copies of specific incident reports received in their offices regarding the election, including more than 57,000 complaints provided to the House Judiciary Committee.
There have been cases where the GAO has been bullied into timidity by threats to its budget but it usually does reasonably independent investigations. We'll have to see what happens with this one - and keep an eye on attempts at intimidation by the GOP.

Honeymoon over so soon?

I've got some good news and some - well, actually it's good news both ways.

The good news is that the bill acting on the 9/11 Commission's recommendations to "reform" the intelligence services is dead for the time being. Good first because the central idea, the big proposal to combine the services under centralized control, is a really bad one: A case can be made that the intelligence services, assuming you're going to have them because governments need information to function properly, need reorganization - but putting so much control in a centralized office only increases the potential for intelligence to be cherry-picked for political ends, since there would be only one voice. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the slight diversity of opinion, the varying shadings of doubt, were the only good things about the assessments. Under the new regime, even those shadings would disappear.

Good second because some of the other stuff added to the bill was just, well, bad. Bad as in stinky bad. Bad as in anti-civil liberties bad. Bad as in anti-privacy bad. Bad as in xenophobic bad.

Which brings us to the other good news: why the bill has stalled. From AP for Tuesday:
Defying President Bush, Reps. Duncan Hunter and James Sensenbrenner - who led opposition dooming legislation based on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations - said they won't change their minds without Senate concessions.
Their joint opposition forced House Speaker Dennis Hastert to pull the bill. That is, the bill is stymied because House and Senate Republicans are banging heads. And it's a pleasing sound.

For Hunter, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, this is a turf battle. The Pentagon opposes the bill because it would lose its leading position in intelligence matters, and whatever limits the Pentagon's influence also limits that of Hunter's committee. So he'll resist it even if he has to resort to adopting DOD's ridiculous argument that the reorganization would result in soldiers' "being confused about the chain of command" - as if corporals and PFCs are going to be reading intelligence reports and struggling to decide it they conflict with orders from their commanders.

For House Judiciary Committee chair Sensenbrenner it's more anti-foreigner, as he refuses to yield to a demand from the Senate (and urging from Bush) to drop a provision changing asylum laws, which his paranoia claims are an open door for terrorists to enter the country.

What's fun about this is that it's already become personal.
"It'll be tougher now because the well got even more poisoned by the senators and their supporters thoroughly criticizing Duncan Hunter and myself by name on the talking head shows yesterday," Sensenbrenner told The Associated Press on Monday. ...

"It was tough to begin with. It will be even tougher after the Senate plus (GOP House Intelligence chairman Pete) Hoekstra had a press conference where they badmouthed Duncan Hunter and me, and everybody got on the talking head shows and pilloried Congressman Hunter and me," Sensenbrenner said.
So the Senate GOP leadership is pissed at the House GOP leadership, the House GOP leadership is pissed at the Senate GOP leadership, and Bush is probably pissed at both of them for not managing to come up with something he can parade around.
There was nothing left but recriminations on Monday, with most of Congress heading home for Thanksgiving and Bush still on an overseas trip. No meetings of the bill's negotiators have been planned.

Footnote: Ex-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman told CNN
"[t]his is the classic confrontation you see in Washington that they can sell tickets for.... Because the president now has been challenged directly by the leadership of the Congress and by the lobbyists and by the bureaucracy. Now he's got to show who's in charge."
And I'm on the phone to Ticketmaster.

Yeah! You go get 'em, tiger!

Wednesday's Washington Post reported that the Ohio Democratic Party has announced that it's supporting the efforts of the Green and Libertarian Parties to get a recount in the state.
The organization, whose decision is expected to give more legitimacy to the recount push, complained that Ohio voters faced long lines at the polls Nov. 2, that some voting machines malfunctioned and that some absentee ballots were never delivered. ...

The Democrats are not helping to pay for the recount but will keep close tabs on legal decisions that affect it and place observers in each of the state's 88 counties to monitor the tabulation.

The Kerry campaign said it intends to monitor the proceedings for irregularities. "We didn't ask for it," said Dan Hoffheimer, the campaign's legal counsel. "But since it's apparently going to happen, we want to make sure it gets done right."
That's it: Cave the night of the election and don't express any interest in investigating fraud or other irregularities affecting voters, but when someone else does it for you, jump right in with press releases to show your "concern" and share the credit - but don't put in any money and make clear you "didn't ask for it."

Yeah! That's the Democratic Party I know!

Morality is for wimps

I noticed recently that I had been dropped from the link list of a blog I read on a fairly regular basis. I assume, based on other evidence, that this was in reaction to some posts sharply critical of Israel which I had put up shortly before. I regret the loss of the link (and I still read the other blog) but the truth is, I don't see how Israel can continue to claim any significant moral superiority in the face of cases such as this one. It involved a 13-year old girl named Iman al-Hams and occurred near the southern border town of Rafah on October 6. This report is from The Independent (UK) for this past Wednesday:
Israeli soldiers continued firing at a Palestinian girl killed in Gaza last month well after she had been identified as a frightened child, a military communications tape has revealed. ...

It shows that troops firing with light weapons and machine guns on a figure moving in a "no entry zone" close to an army outpost near the border with Egypt had swiftly discovered that she was a girl.

In the recorded exchanges someone in the operations room asks: "Are we talking about a girl under the age of 10?" The observation post, housed in a watchtower, replies: "It's a little girl. She's running defensively eastwards, a girl of about 10. She's behind the embankment, scared to death." ...

The tape records the commander as telling his men, after firing at the girl with an automatic weapon and declaring he has "confirmed" the killing: "Anyone who's mobile, moving in the zone, even if it's a three-year-old, needs to be killed."
Now, in fairness, I will say that the commander who "confirmed" the murder is being prosecuted for "exceeding his authority." But not, however, for murder or even manslaughter since it supposedly couldn't be proved that the two shots he put into the wounded and possibly still alive girl were what actually killed her. Which means whoever did actually fire the fatal shot(s), whoever it was, will walk.

He's also charged with obstruction of justice because he lied to cover himself: He told senior commanders
that he came under fire from Palestinian gunmen 300 yards away as he approached the girl and shot at the ground to deter the fire.
The point here is that version was accepted uncritically by those commanders until soldiers present at the incident went to the press to complain.

Even more the point is that this is not an isolated incident at the border stations. While shooting terrified 13-year old girls at point-blank range is, happily, still unusual, the daily violence, degradation, and humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints has become part of the routine.

The Christian Peacemaker Teams have seen it. Consider this report from December 13, 2003:
The taxi fills up in Hebron and starts for Jerusalem. At the Etzion checkpoint, CPTer Greg Rollins introduced me to my seatmate - a Palestinian professor of molecular biology who is supervising a group of graduate students working in a genetic engineering lab at Hebrew University.

He translated for us the parts of the conversation that we couldn't understand at the next checkpoint. In the initial questioning at the checkpoint, the Israeli soldier asked our driver for the new newspaper on the dashboard. The driver refused, so the soldier said, "OK, then pull over there to the side and wait."

After about ten minutes, our driver noticed a ranking police officer. Our driver told him, "Those soldiers are making me wait here because I wouldn't give them my newspaper." The officer called the two soldiers and came to our van. In front of the soldiers, the officer began his lecture to our driver: "If a soldier asks you for your paper, you give it to him. If he asks you for your undershorts, you give them to him, then claim for them later. At the checkpoint, the soldier is God, and anything he says to you, you obey. Now, give him the newspaper. OK, now you sit here till he's ready to talk to you." ...

After a few minutes, the soldiers gave the paper back. Then they came around to the side door, opened it, and asked for everyone's ID. At that point, as our passports came forward with the Palestinians' IDs, the soldiers realized that they had two Canadians and two US citizens in the van along with the Palestinians. ...

"Richard Meyer?" I climbed out. "I have an appointment in twenty minutes at the US Consulate," I said to the soldier. "What should I tell them about why we are late?"

"Why didn't you come out right away when I called?" "You called for the Canadians first. I came when you called my name."

Then the soldiers had a short conversation with each other while they looked at Kristin Anderson's passport: "What can we do to get this pretty face out of the van?"

"Ask for her visa."

"But her visa's right here."

"OK, OK."

The soldiers gave us our passports back, we climbed back in, and we drove on. Just a twenty-five minute stop.

"It happens like that every other day," the other passengers said.
Israeli grandmothers have seen it - and have been hated for seeing it - as shown in an article in the November-December issue of Mother Jones magazine:
He Huwwara checkpoint just south of Nablus simmers with routine misery on a sweltering August afternoon. A long line of Palestinians wait to enter the West Bank’s largest city as Israeli troops regard them, stone-faced, from behind a barrier of concrete blocks and sandbags. The troops let the women and children through, but send those Palestinians who've not been granted travel permits - almost all young men - to a fenced-off detention area topped by a corrugated iron roof. The jora, or pit, is a West Bank purgatory: a pen where Palestinians often languish for hours until they have been cleared by Israel’s internal security arm, the Shin Bet. ...

Suddenly, two middle-aged Israeli women walk past the barricade, attracting a mix of curious and hostile glances from the soldiers. Wearing floppy sun hats, khakis, and tennis shoes, Menucha Moravitz, 54, and Roni Klein, 55, look more suited to brunch at a beachfront café in fashionable north Tel Aviv than to this dust-choked bottleneck deep inside the West Bank. ... "This is absurd," Moravitz says. "The soldiers have a list of wanted men, but they don't even bother to check it. It's easier to put young men in the holding pen for hours and deal with them when they get around to it." ...

[A]s conditions in the occupied territories have deteriorated, more and more women like Moravitz ... are joining the ranks of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch. Founded in 2001 by three veteran women peace activists, the group's volunteer monitors now number more than 400, and their meticulously detailed reports of checkpoint abuses - published daily on its website - have become required reading for both the media and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). ...

Machsom Watch has exposed a pattern of abuses at the checkpoints that the group says feeds the rage that leads to the terrorism they're supposed to prevent. In late July, for example, a 26-year-old university student named Muhammad Cana'an was kicked, beaten, and shot in the arm by an Israeli soldier, apparently without provocation, at a checkpoint near Nablus. ... Two days later, several Machsom Watch women near Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah reported that troops had stoned and smashed the windows of a Palestinian taxi. The army, under pressure from the group, imprisoned two of the soldiers - one for 56 days, the other for 42. ...

Even the IDF brass has come to regard Machsom Watch with grudging acceptance. ...

Not everyone in Israel speaks of Machsom Watch so evenhandedly. Nadia Metar, cochair of the Women in Green, an extreme right-wing group, says that Machsom Watch is a group of "fifth columnists who collaborate with the Arab enemy." Female Jewish settlers are mounting a campaign of harassment of Machsom Watch volunteers at the checkpoints. Monitors have been slapped, punched, and threatened in recent months. In each case, they say, Israeli police and soldiers have stood by and done nothing. In May 2004, two male settlers beat up the Arab-Israeli driver of the van that shuttles the women to the checkpoints and knocked out his false teeth. Daniella Weiss, the mayor of Kedumim, part of a cluster of ideologically hardline settlements near Nablus, admits organizing attacks and says she will carry out more. "I make a lot of effort to stop their activities," Weiss said. ... Asked if she was advocating more violence against Machsom Watch, Weiss replied, "Yes, indeed."
Even the soldiers themselves have seen it and some have come to admit to it: Roadblock (or Checkpoint) Syndrome is a book written by Liran Ron Furer, a former staff sergeant in the IDF, which describes his own experiences over three years as a guard at a checkpoint in Gaza. (The book is published only in Israel and available only in Hebrew; permission to translate it into English for international distribution was denied by Israeli authorities.) Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz (Israel) last December 11, had this account of the book and Furer:
He is haunted by images from his three years of military service in Gaza and the thought that this could be a syndrome afflicting everyone who serves at checkpoints gives him no respite. ...

Furer is certain that what happened to him is not at all unique. Here he was - a creative, sensitive graduate of the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, who became an animal at the checkpoint, a violent sadist who beat up Palestinians because they didn't show him the proper courtesy, who shot out tires of cars because their owners were playing the radio too loud, who abused a retarded teenage boy lying handcuffed on the floor of the Jeep, just because he had to take his anger out somehow. "Checkpoint Syndrome" (also the title of his book), gradually transforms every soldier into an animal, he maintains, regardless of whatever values he brings with him from home. No one can escape its taint. In a place where nearly everything is permissible and violence is perceived as normative behavior, each soldier tests his own limits of violence [sic] impulsiveness on his victims - the Palestinians.

His book is not easy reading. Written in terse, fierce prose, in the blunt and coarse language of soldiers, he reconstructs scenes from the years in which he served in Gaza (1996-1999), years that, one must remember, were relatively quiet.
There were the routine humiliations: he and his comrades forcing some Palestinians to sing an Israeli pop song; making children clean the checkpoint prior to inspections; "returning" ID cards by throwing them in the air just to make the drivers get out and pick them up off the ground.

The routine degradations: The dwarf who came every day on his wagon who was forced to have his picture taken sitting on his horse, hit, and degraded for a good half-hour. The one who was made to go on all fours and bark like a dog. The one on whose head a soldier urinated because he'd dared to smile at a guard.

The routine punishments: Deliberately keeping Palestinians at the checkpoint for hours to make them lose an entire day's work. "It's the only way they learn," Furer wrote.

The routine brutalities: Having a souvenir picture taken with bloodied, bound Arabs they'd beaten up. Stealing prayer beads and cigarettes. "Miro wanted them to give him their cigarettes, the Arabs didn't want to give so Miro broke someone's hand, and Boaz slashed their tires." ("If a soldier asks you for your paper, you give it to him. ... At the checkpoint, the soldier is God....")

The routine violence: "I ran toward them and punched an Arab right in the face. ... He collapsed on the road."
"I came to realize that there was an unchanging pattern here," he says. "It was the same in the first intifada, in the period that I was serving, which was quiet, and in the second intifada. It's become a permanent reality." ...

Furer is out to prove that this is a syndrome and not a collection of isolated, individual cases. ... "I was considered a moderate soldier - but I fell into the same trap that most soldiers fall into. I was carried away by the possibility of acting in the most primal and impulsive manner, without fear of punishment and without oversight. ...

"At the checkpoint, young people have the chance to be masters and using force and violence becomes legitimate - and this is a much more basic impulse than the political views or values that you bring from home. As soon as using force is given legitimacy, and even rewarded, the tendency is to take it as far as it can go, to exploit it much as possible. To satisfy these impulses beyond what the situation requires. Today, I'd call it sadistic impulses ...

"We weren't criminals or especially violent people. ... Something about the situation - being in a godforsaken place, far from home, far from oversight - made it justified ... The line of what is forbidden was never precisely drawn. No one was ever punished and they just let us continue."
In the most telling line of the entire piece, Furer says "I was an average soldier." And so he was. An average soldier corrupted, as so many are, by power and hatred. He, at least, has been able to step far enough back to see it for what it was. Others are not so - I was going to say fortunate, but that's not the right word. "Human" fits better, or at least "humane."
"A friend from the army read the book[," Furer said, "]and said that I'm right, that we did bad things, but we were kids. And he said that it's a shame that I took it too hard."
And just how hard should he have taken it when it is still going on every day?

Thanks to Left End of the Dial for the link to The Independent's piece.

Footnote: Such attitudes toward Palestinians are not limited to the IDF; in fact, they're not even the worst of it. Christian Peacemaker Teams are now active in the area around Hebron, walking Palestinian children to school. The children have been subjected to regular harassment and threats from nearby Israeli settlers. Twice in recent months - in September and again in October - CPT members have been physically attacked by settler thugs.

September 29:
The five settlers, dressed in black and wearing masks, came from an outpost of the nearby Ma'on settlement and attacked [Chris] Brown and [Kim] Lamberty with a chain and bat. All of the children escaped injury by running back to their homes.

The settlers pushed Brown to the ground, whipped him with a chain and kicked him in the chest, which punctured his lung. They kicked and beat Lamberty's legs. She is not able to walk because of an injury to her knee and has a broken arm. The settlers also stole Lamberty's waistpack, which held her passport, money and cellular phone.

Lamberty and Brown were taken by ambulance to Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva for treatment. Hebron Team Support person, Rich Meyer, reports that the two CPTers told him they are receiving excellent care from Israeli doctors.
October 9:
[E]ight settlers with wooden sticks and sling shots attacked CPTers Diana Zimmerman and Diane Janzen, an Operation Dove member (name withheld by request), one resident from Tuwani, two residents from Tuba, and two fieldworkers from Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera and Maartje Houbrechts.

When the accompaniment team saw the settlers, dressed in blue jeans, t-shirts, and masks walking toward them they called the police immediately and began walking quickly away from the settlers. Three of the settlers with sling shots ran after the Palestinians hurling stones at them. The other five settlers attacked the accompaniment team. The masked settlers hit Donatello Rovera and Diane Janzen with wooden sticks. Then the settlers beat the Operation Dove member and stole his video camera. The settlers finally ran away when one of the Amnesty International women yelled at the settlers in Hebrew, "The police are coming. You are not going to get away with this."

The police did not arrive until thirty-five minutes after the internationals called for help.
Operation Dove is an Italian Christian organization that undertakes accompaniment work similar to CPT. So many good people of who you never hear trying to do so many good things. Maybe there is hope yet.

Friday, November 26, 2004


What are sweet potatoes? (Acceptable: yams)

Good Eats for $1200

The main ingredient of this German food, a traditional hot dog topping, is cabbage.

Another lost day

For a variety of reasons, Friday proved to be another day that has just slipped away from me. So I guess I'll just have to store the outrage for another day.

Back tomorrow.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


What is a (Bengal) tiger?

Good Eats for $400

At Thanksgiving, many families enjoy a side dish of these veggies baked with marshmallows and brown sugar.

T-Day geek post #4

Okay, we've gone from today to 13,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago. Kid stuff.
Scientists in Spain announced Thursday that they've unearthed a 13 million-year-old fossilized skeleton of an ape that is possibly a common ancestor of humans and great apes, including orangutans, bonobos, chimps and gorillas.

The find could add a yet another branch to the human family tree and fill in a gap in our knowledge of hominoid evolution. ...

Researchers think great apes diverged from lesser apes, which are gibbons and siamangs, about 11 million to 16 million years ago. Fossils from that geological epoch, called the middle Miocene, are fairly rare. Scientists believe humans diverged from the living great apes about 6 million years ago.
Those fossils are rare because the animals often lived in forests, where the damp conditions make bones decay fairly rapidly so they don't fossilize well. (This fact, by the way, seems of no interest to the flat-Earth anti-evolutionists who will harp on every gap in the fossil record even though a number of those gaps occur where you'd expect them to occur, such as among animals that did not live in dry climates.) So the find is very significant.
Study of the fossilized bones suggest Pierolapithecus [catalaunicus, as the species has been named,] was a tree climber, with a stiff lower spine, and a specially adapted rib cage and wrist bones. However, its short fingers suggest it did not do a lot of hanging from branches. ...

Study of the fossils suggests the ape was male, weighed about 75 pounds, and ate fruit.
Footnote: The same article notes one other thing:
Only four species of great apes - orangutans, bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees - exist today. All of them are endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.
"Humans are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner."

T-Day geek post #3

In 1936, some shaped stone points, intended to be placed on a shaft and used for hunting, were found in a cave near Clovis, New Mexico. They were clearly of human design and were dated to roughly 11,000 BCE, or 13,000 years ago. Many more of these points, which became known as Clovis points, have been found. From this discovery grew the hypothesis that humans arrived in the Western hemisphere about 13,000 years ago as a result of following game over the land bridge that then existed across the Bering Strait.
"That had been repeated so many times in textbooks and lectures it became part of the common lore," said Dennis Stanford, curator of archeology at the Smithsonian Institution. "People forgot it was only an unproven hypothesis."
An unproved and now doubtful hypothesis, as several sites have been discovered in the Americas that can be dated much earlier, to 15,000 or 17,000 years ago, perhaps even earlier.

Perhaps even much earlier, as CNN reported on November 17:
Archaeologists say a site in South Carolina may rewrite the history of how the Americas were settled by pushing back the date of human settlement thousands of years. ...

An archaeologist from the University of South Carolina on Wednesday announced radiocarbon tests that dated the first human settlement in North America to 50,000 years ago - at least 25,000 years before other known human sites on the continent.
The site, called Topper, is near Allendale, South Carolina, on the Savannah River about 60 miles south of Columbia.
If true, the find represents a revelation for scientists studying how humans migrated to the Americas. ...

This new discovery suggests humans may have crossed the land bridge into the Americas much earlier [than previously thought] - possibly during an ice age - and rapidly colonized the two continents.
"If" of course being the operative word. Some are doubtful and some reject the idea that what was found at the site shows signs of human manipulation. And the work has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, although that's supposed to happen next year. But as skeptic Theodore Schurr, anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noted,
"[i]f [the radiocarbon] dating is confirmed, then it really does have a significant impact on our previous understanding of New World colonization."
We already know that "protohumans" reached Indonesia nearly 2 million years ago, meaning they left Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier than thought. And we also already know that homo sapiens spread earlier and more rapidly than had been thought. So maybe - maybe - this is one more leap in a process of learning that we're rather more ancient than we have believed.

T-Day geek post #2

Tom Sever at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, has a unique job - literally. He is NASA's only archaeologist.

His job involves studying satellite photographs to see what they can tell us about ancient civilizations. Now, NASA says, by combining such information with that from in the dirt archaeological expeditions, Sever and others think they've figured out the answer to one of the study's great mysteries: the fall of the Maya.
Where the rain forests of Guatemala now stand, a great civilization once flourished. The people of Mayan society built vast cities, ornate temples, and towering pyramids. At its peak around 900 A.D., the population numbered 500 people per square mile in rural areas, and more than 2,000 people per square mile in the cities - comparable to modern Los Angeles County.

This vibrant "Classic Period" of Mayan civilization thrived for six centuries. Then, for some reason, it collapsed.
The question has been why.
From pollen trapped in ancient layers of lake sediment, scientists have learned that around 1,200 years ago, just before the civilization's collapse, tree pollen disappeared almost completely and was replaced by the pollen of weeds. In other words, the region became almost completely deforested.

Without trees, erosion would have worsened, carrying away fertile topsoil. The changing groundcover would have boosted the temperature of the region by as much as 6 degrees, according to computer simulations by NASA climate scientist Bob Oglesby, a colleague of Sever at the MSFC. Those warmer temperatures would have dried out the land, making it even less suitable for raising crops.

Rising temperatures would have also disrupted rainfall patterns, says Oglesby. During the dry season in the Petén, water is scarce, and the groundwater is too deep (500+ feet) to tap with wells. Dying of thirst is a real threat. The Maya must have relied on rainwater saved in reservoirs to survive, so a disruption in rainfall could have had terrible consequences. ...

Using classic archeology techniques, researchers find that human bones from the last decades before the civilization's collapse show signs of severe malnutrition.

"Archeologists used to argue about whether the downfall of the Maya was due to drought or warfare or disease, or a number of other possibilities such as political instability," Sever says. "Now we think that all these things played a role, but that they were only symptoms. The root cause was a chronic food and water shortage, due to some combination of natural drought and deforestation by humans." ...

How did they thrive for so many centuries? An important clue comes from space:

Sever and co-worker Dan Irwin have been looking at satellite photos and, in them, Sever spotted signs of ancient drainage and irrigation canals in swamp-like areas near the Mayan ruins. Today's residents make little use of these low-lying swamps (which they call "bajos," the Spanish word for "lowlands"), and archeologists had long assumed that the Maya hadn't used them either. During the rainy season from June to December, the bajos are too muddy, and in the dry season they're parched. Neither condition is good for farming.

Sever suspects that these ancient canals were part of a system devised by the Maya to manage water in the bajos so that they could farm this land. The bajos make up 40% of the landscape; tapping into this vast land area for agriculture would have given the Maya a much larger and more stable food supply. They could have farmed the highlands during the wet season and the low-lying bajos during the dry season. And they could have farmed the bajos year after year, instead of slashing and burning new sections of rain forest.
This is of more than academic interest. Over the last 40 years, half of the original rainforest has been destroyed by farmers practicing "slash and burn" agriculture.
By 2020, only 2% to 16% of the original rain forest will remain if current rates of destruction continue.
The very real risk is that modern residents of the area are repeating the Maya's mistakes, deforesting the land only to produce climate changes that will more than undo whatever you've gained. Cloud formation and rainfall patterns are already changing over deforested areas of Central America, which could lead to the same sort of downward spiral that the Maya suffered. But
"[b]y learning what the Maya did right and what they did wrong, maybe we can help local people find sustainable ways to farm the land while stopping short of the excesses that doomed the Maya," [Sever] says. ...

Could today's Petén farmers take a lesson from the Maya and sow their seeds in the bajos?

It's an intriguing idea. Sever and his colleagues are exploring that possibility with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture. They're working with Pat Culbert of the University of Arizona and Vilma Fialko of Guatemala's Instituto de Antropología e Historia to identify areas in the bajos with suitable soil. And they're considering planting test crops of corn in those areas, with irrigation and drainage canals inspired by the Maya.

A message from 900 A.D.: it's never too late to learn from your ancestors.
And another message from 900 CE: Stop screwing around with the climate!

T-Day geek post #1

Why is the Jesus lizard called a Jesus lizard? Because it can walk on water. Well, okay, it doesn't exactly walk on water - it runs on water.

Really. It can. Aside from a few insects and spiders that spread their weight out far enough to not break the surface tension of the water, the Jesus lizard - more usually known as the basilisk lizard - is the only creature that can do it. And now, the BBC for Wednesday reports, scientists may have figured out how it does it.
Harvard University's Dr Tonia Hsieh told the BBC World Service that experiments showed the lizard to be producing massive sideways force to stay upright. ...

The study, which was reported recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals how a large upward force is produced every time the lizard slaps its foot down into the water.

This keeps the animal from sinking straight down into the liquid. But just like we tend to teeter forward when we run on a soft surface such as sand, the lizard would also stumble forward unless it had a mechanism for stabilising itself.

And this is where the sideways force comes in - and it is almost as strong as the initial slap down. ...

Animals that run on land with two legs, such as birds and humans, have little force directed out towards the sides. The basilisk lizard is very different. ...

"Our guess on this is that it appears to help maintain stability ... as they're running across water; they're constantly tripping[," Dr Hsieh said.]

"It's a matter of catching themselves and keeping themselves upright before they actually fall over."

The lizards have long bodies and large feet. On the edges of their toes are fringes that resemble pom-poms with a number of fronds.
That serves to spread the force of the slap over a larger area of water. Think of trying to reach something at the bottom of a sink full of water. Which would be easier: Pushing your hand in fingers first or slapping down with your palm? Well, then why? Combine two things: First, pressure, which is force per unit area (e.g., air pressure at sea level is about 14.7 pounds per square inch - do the metric conversion yourself). And by Newton's Third Law of Motion ("for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"), the harder the slap on the water, the greater the push of the water on the hand. So compare an Olympic diver with a 300-pound man doing a belly flop. The former has less force (weight is a force) than the latter but still probably generates much greater pressure on the water because that force, even if smaller, is still concentrated on such a small area. Our belly-flopper, then, exerts less presure but hits the water with greater force. Which one will feel the hit more?

In the same way, when the lizard slaps its broad foot on the water, the water pushes up against the foot, supporting the lizard. In fact, any of us could probably do the same by wearing some kind of sufficiently large flipper arrangement on our feet - for about one step. Then we'd fall face forward into the water. What I find so cool about the explanation is that it means that the lizard is actually constantly tripping but because of the distribution of forces it just manages to keep up with itself long enough to keep from actually falling. Neat.
Dr Hsieh said there were "definitely" broader implications coming out of the research that would centre on the study of how animals moved over many different types of surface.

"They have to manoeuvre across all these surfaces on a daily basis - how exactly are they doing this?" she said.
Footnote: There is in mythology a terrible beast called the basilisk that was so deadly its very glance was lethal.

A day off from politics

Yeah, I'm taking the day off. Not from blogging (or from work, for that matter), but from politics. I do expect to have a few posts up but they're all going to be Geek posts - that is, science-related items I found cool or otherwise interesting.

Friday, back to outrage - while I keep looking for a little hope here and there. Right now, most of that seems to fall under the heading "not as bad as we thought," but if that's what there is, I'll take it.


...from all us turkeys. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Who is Bambi?

Literary Animals for $1000

Shere Khan, Mowgli's enemy in The Jungle Book, was this type of feline.

Unintentional humor, part two

In a November 20 report on the situation in Iraq, the BBC said that
US forces in Falluja continue to fight what commanders say are the last pockets of insurgent fighters hiding in the south of the city.

Artillery, tank shells and bombs fell on the area for much of the night and the boom of artillery fire continued into Saturday morning.

The marine commander says these are the final bands of fighters in Falluja but they are proving difficult to dislodge. ...

Many homes in the Martyrs' neighbourhood have been reduced to rubble.

This tactic may be part of the insurgents plan to sway public opinion against the American forces, says the BBC's Jennifer Glasse who is embedded with US marines there.
Must be. Fighting to the death, having your homes reduced to rubble, yeah, all part of a big PR campaign to reverse the enormous levels of popularity American forces now enjoy in Iraq.

Footnote, Now They Said It, Now They Didn't Div.: From the same article:

- Thursday, November 18: The top marine commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, says the Fallujah attack has "broken the back of the insurgency."
- Saturday, November 20: Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy head of US Central Command in Iraq, says it's "too early to say" if the resistance has been broken.

Unintentional humor, part one

The Los Angeles Times for Sunday reported that
[f]ive months after embarrassed State Department officials acknowledged widespread mistakes in the government's influential annual report on global terrorism, internal investigators have found new and unrelated errors — as well as broader underlying problems that they say essentially have destroyed the credibility of the statistics the report is based on.
So not only is the original (April) report, which the White House trumpeted when it said terrorist attacks and related deaths had dropped to their lowest levels in three decades, a pile of crap, but the revised (June) report, which revealed terrorism-related attacks and deaths at a 21-year high, is also useless because of a wholesale lack of consistent standards of reporting and a restricted definition of what constitutes "terrorism," one that omits many incidents in Chechnya and Iraq.

Now, that's pretty funny in itself, but this is what I was referring to in the title:
"We become the laughingstock if we redo [the report]. But [not doing it (sic)] poses a serious credibility problem," said the official, a terrorism analyst on Capitol Hill. "This determines where we put our resources, what we tell other countries, what we think the trends are. And this just ruins our credibility. People just don't trust us anymore."
Uh, "anymore?"

Something to be thankful for

From the BBC for November 21.
A nationwide polio vaccination campaign has started in India as part of a World Health Organization initiative to eradicate the virus around the world.

More than 170 million Indian children under the age of five are being immunised over the next three days.

Despite an epidemic in 2002, India - by vaccinating as many children as possible with multiple doses - looks likely to stop the spread next year.

Another 80 million children are being vaccinated in 24 African countries.

In the last campaign, about 90% of children were immunised and this time health care workers will be trying to reach those in remote areas.
There are, however, some dark clouds. First, an outbreak in Cote d'Ivoire has not been addressed because the conflict there has made a vaccination program impossible for the moment. Worse,
future campaigns in the UN's Global Polio Eradication Initiative are in doubt.

An additional $200m is needed to continue vaccinations in 2005 and without this money the virus will be able to spread quickly in unimmunised children throughout the world.
How's this for a quickie holiday campaign: The US should show its "moral values" by covering the $200 million cost for the program for 2005. Since that is the equivalent of about 25 hours of the cost of war in Iraq (based on the Pentagon's current estimate of $5.8 billion per month), I really think we should be able to afford it for the sake of eliminating this scourge from the world. Call it our holiday gift to the world's children.

A page with info and links about WHO's polio eradication initiative is here.

Maybe they just don't like you

As reported by Wednesday's Toronto Globe & Mail, an audiotape has surfaced supposedly made by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in which Muslim scholars are harshly criticized for having "quit supporting the mujahedeen."
"You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy... You made peace with the tyranny and handed over the countries and the people to the Jews and Crusaders. ... when you resort to silence on their crimes, when you refused to hold the banners of Jihad and Tawhid, and when you prevented youth from heading to the battlefields in order to defend the religion," he said. ...

It was unclear whether his message was intended as a direct threat against religious scholars.
I beg to differ: If the tape is genuine, I think that's exactly what it was intended as. You're with us or you're against us. Either you supported Jihad and Tawhid (both earlier names of Zarqawi's group, which he now calls al-Qaeda in Iraq) or you handed over the people to the enemy and "preferred your money and sons" to God's word - a word which Zarqawi, evidently, gets to define.

Well maybe, Mr. Zarqawi, it wasn't their "money and sons" those ulema (religious Muslim scholars) preferred, maybe it was avoiding an endorsement of butchery, beheadings, and bigotry. Maybe, since many have indeed spoken against the occupation, maybe it's not the resistance they dislike. Maybe, Muslims know the difference between opposition and indiscriminate murder and they are not willing to tolerate the latter to advance the former. Maybe it's not that they endorse the occupation but that they reject you. Yeah, that sounds about right.

At the same time, I want to repeat what I just said: If the tape in genuine. Considering the timing and the language, it has the feel of a statement made by someone, if you will, on the run, a cry of desperation or at least of pained frustration, saying, again, that the scholars
"let us down in the darkest circumstances. ...

"You left the mujahadeen facing the strongest power in the world," he said. "Are not your hearts shaken by the scenes of your brothers being surrounded and hurt by your enemy?"
You let us down! Where were you when we needed you? How could you do this to us? The sentiments of someone losing a fight, who knows they're losing, and who feels abandoned by those who should be friends.

I guess I find it just a little too perfect, a little too fitting in the wake of Fallujah, a little too in PR synch with the administration claims that "we've got him on the run!" So yes, I have my doubts as to its authenticity.

But assuming it's real, do I think it's a threat? Well, so far Zarqawi has shown no compunction of which I'm aware about killing anyone whose death he thought might serve a political purpose. I don't imagine that Muslim scholars who were insufficiently enthusiastic about his version of what God wants would be immune.

Footnote: The undercurrents of murder are not limited to Sunni radicals and the ethnic strife so thinly papered over in the interim government continue to fester.
This week, two Sunni clerics who were part of an influential Sunni group that openly called for a boycott of Jan. 30 national elections because of the U.S. offensive against Fallujah were assassinated by gunmen.

On Tuesday, Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi, was killed as he left a mosque after dawn prayers in the town of Muqdadiyah, 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, police said.

His assassination occurred a day after another prominent Sunni cleric was killed in the northern city of Mosul - Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the association's spokesman. It was unclear whether those two attacks were related.
Perhaps they weren't - but if so, I think it's one hell of a coincidence.

True art requires truth

Caption to the AP photo: "'Man In Abu-Ghraib,' a marble statue by Iraqi artist Karim Khalil, is part of the country's art renaissance after its best talents spent decades glorifying Saddam Hussein." Posted by Hello

Via the Toronto Globe & Mail for November 24.

Keep counting on it

Two quick updates on voting irregularities.

- The number of House of Representatives members who have signed a letter to the GAO calling for an investigation is now up to 13. They are:

John Conyers (D-MI), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Robert Wexler (D-FL), Robert Scott (D-GA), Melvin Watt (D-NC), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), George Miller (D-CA), John Olver (D-MA), Bob Filner (D-CA), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA).

In addition, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), has added his name but it hasn't yet been formally submitted to the GAO. If your Rep isn't on that list, ask them why not.

- The League of Women Voters has declared that voting problems "should be fully investigated and resolved." League President Kay Maxwell said in a press release last Friday that
The League of Women Voters is deeply concerned about voting irregularities in the 2004 election. The appropriate officials must fully investigate these concerns through open and public processes. Election officials should look into problems quickly and thoroughly and fix what proves to be wrong. Transparency and a willingness to look into potential problems will strengthen voter confidence and ultimately improve our electoral system.

It is important to ensure that every properly cast ballot is counted and to make improvements for future elections. Attention must be given to inadequate polling place procedures, problematic voting machines, voter registration system failures, casting and counting of provisional ballots, and absentee voting issues.
The statement also called on anyone who submitted a provisional ballot to exercise their rights under the Help America Vote Act to find out if their ballot was counted and if not, why not.

One other thing: Maureen Farrell has a good column on Buzzflash about the media response to the questions being raised.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Who is the Tortoise?

Literary Animals for $600

Felix Salten's fawn, first appearing in print in 1929.

Déjà vu vu vu, part two

There have been all kinds of analyses as to why the election turned out as it did. The most common, the "values voters," doesn't have near the potency that is being assigned to it because while 22% of voters, according to exit polls, said "values" were their biggest consideration, those polls did not probe what those voters meant by the word. It was simply assumed that "values" always meant anti-gay, pro-Bush voters. The truth is, what put Bush over the top was likely the very thing that Kerry was supposed to be the "Anybody But Bush" who could best challenge it: national security. That's the openly contended area where Bush maintained a consistent double-digit lead - partly because of "don't change horses" thinking, partly because of the slams, slurs, and slanders against Kerry, and partly because Kerry never made clear just what it was he'd do differently.

The point here, though, is not to re-argue to campaign or the polls. It's to suggest that there's something to which we've given very little thought: the sources, the driving forces behind, the overall conservative resurgence. Not just in this election, but generally over the past few decades. We haven't, to refer to the cliche, looked at the forest.

So I want to pull out two other old things I found in the same search as that which produced the previous item. They weren't - especially the first - written with this purpose in mind, but they do relate to efforts to answer the question that has plagued us since at least 1980: Why do average people keep voting against their own best interests?

The first excerpt actually arose out of an exchange about religion I had with a friend in the UK. You can, if you want, skip the first two paragraphs and still get the sense of my argument. Don't worry, it does relate to the issue at hand.
I have an interest in the historical Jesus, that is, Jesus as the philosopher and teacher, as the real living person, not as the phony created God. For example, a question non-Christian (and some Christian) Biblical scholars occasionally ask is, did Jesus mean to start a new religion? Put another way, did he mean to overthrow Judaism? Did he really think himself a redeemer, a savior, a god? Never mind the "miracles:" Being a miracle-worker, a healer, is no indication, since there were many such healers before, during, and after his time and while being able to do "great works" was regarded by his contemporaries as a sign of special authority from God, it was not regarded as a sign of divinity. Never mind the interpretations developed when this small, heretical band decided to bring their rabbi's teachings to non-Jews, believing his message to be one of universal salvation not limited to Jews alone (a revolutionary notion for the Jewish community of the time), and found they had to adjust their laws and doctrines in order to make any headway (the elimination of the requirement for circumcision being the most obvious example). Never mind Calvin and Luther and Augustine and (most importantly) Paul. Consider just what Jesus himself said.

In that light, it's interesting to note that in three of the four Gospels, the synoptic Gospels, the only place where his (supposed) words are recorded, he never once referred to himself as the son of God but rather as the son of Man, which in the Judaic tradition meant something entirely different. The son of God could mean the "Christ," the redeemer, the promised savior; the son of Man was a prophet with a special relationship to God, through who God would speak to "his people" and whose mission was to prepare the way for God's promised kingdom. (And, in fact, could also refer simply to an ordinary person, since every man was a "son of Man." Gender usage as per the usage of the time.) While Jesus didn't deny the title "son of God" - he didn't correct others who called him that - he avoided (cagily at times) acknowledging it and sometimes ordered his disciples to avoid using the term publicly. It's only in John, written, it's generally believed, for a non-Jewish audience who wouldn't be familiar with the distinction and in which the terms "son of God" and "son of Man" appear to be used interchangeably, that Jesus is recorded as having described himself by the former term. And even there, "son of God" is used only five times while "son of Man" is used ten - and even some of those five are vague enough that it's impossible to tell if Jesus meant himself or just a man, any man.

Even through the partisan, pro-divinity filter of the Gospels, it seems clear (to me) that the answer to those questions about Jesus' view of himself and his work is no. He didn't see himself as the "Christ," but rather as an instrument to bring about God's kingdom. Indeed, he said himself that he did not intend to destroy the Judaic law, but to fulfill it. What he believed and taught was the necessity to prepare the way for the final days by returning to a purer form of Judaism, arguing that the priests and pharisees and Sadducees had (in their different ways) perverted it out of their own vanity and pride.

There is in that a fascinating parallel with more recent events in more recent times. Consider the puritans of 16th and 17th century England, who railed against the hierarchy of the Church of England, against the "grand ceremonies" and rites and vestments, and urged a "return" to a "purer" form of Christianity (thus the insulting appellation "Puritan") in preparation for (and, for many, anticipation of) the predicted second coming of Jesus - a tradition renewed of late (i.e., the last few decades - we are talking historical time here) in the growth of independent evangelical churches.

And, in its own way, the current political cries for "traditional values" echo that same theme: The old ways and days, so many believe, were simpler, not so complicated, purer, better, closer to some ultimate truth which we in our pride, our commitment to the pleasures of technology or the earth or (usually) the flesh have forgotten. Conservatives, right-wing ministers, and even those who talk of the wisdom and mysterious technologies of "ancient civilizations" are far more nostalgic than the most cliched 55-year old hippie in sandals and love beads. Whenever the present looks stressful and the future doubtful, there are those who find their security in a dimly recalled and largely imaginary past. Change is frightening to many (fear of change being the one common psychological thread across classes and ages among people who call themselves "conservative") and history has the virtue of being - or, more properly, seeming - sure.

Are we really to think, for example, that it's coincidence that the right wing gained strength in the wake of the '60s, which challenged previously "self-evident" beliefs on an unprecedented scope and demanded people rely on their own wits to judge moral and ethical questions? Are we likewise to think it coincidence, to return to an earlier theme, that puritanism gained strength and adherents during a time when not even one but two supernovas visible in broad daylight occurred (1572 and 1604), so thoroughly shattering the centuries-old and blindly accepted Aristotelian notion that the heavens were eternal and unchanging that even the Catholic church hierarchy couldn't maintain it? I've for a long time argued that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don't have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It's already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone. The power of David Koresh was rooted in the emotional desperation of his followers: It wasn't his theology, which, from what I know of it, was infantile, but his certainty that captured their hearts, their minds, and ultimately their wills.

So it's legitimate to examine the emotional climate in which Jesus lived and preached. (Thought I wouldn't get back to it, didn't you?) It was, in fact, a time of simmering tension over the Roman occupation, during which numerous hasidim, in the words of one scholar, "went about healing the sick, controlling the weather, casting out devils, and quarrelling with the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem." That hierarchy was conservative and collaborated with the Romans out of a (legitimate) fear that the alternative was military reprisals, a position that did little to endear it to nationalist Jews - some of who staged riots and other forms of violent resistance. We tend to forget that the rebellion that lead to the Romans destroying the Temple broke out only a little over 30 years after Jesus' execution. In short, it was a time when many - not just Jesus and not just his followers - thought that the promise of God's kingdom was to be fulfilled. Jesus preached the necessity of doing good works and the lack of necessity of the rites, rituals, and politics of the high priests as preparation for that kingdom, which he predicted would come within the lifetimes of his disciples. The kingdom he envisioned was a spiritual, heavenly one (Some of his supporters abandoned him when they figured out he wasn't the Messiah they expected, who was to bring an earthly kingdom.) and preparation for it was to be found in - surprise - the old ways, the old, simple, "pure" ways.
Simply, the more stressful the times, the more looming the change, the greater the anxiety, the more likely conservatism becomes, the more likely a turn to what seems familiar, what seems to be firm ground, what seems safe.

Fast forward to 1994, after the cliched "angry white male" had carried the Newt-wits to victory in the Congress. This was written in the spring of 1995:
What makes the present moment more difficult is that the so-called "angry white male" is not without legitimate grievances: His hopes are shrinking, his dreams for his family and his children are fading, he keeps working harder and getting less for it - he is, in short, losing ground and has been doing it for nearly 20 years now. (Real median family income in the US peaked around 1977 and has been declining more or less continuously since, despite the fact that the average work week has lengthened and more spouses than ever are working. Consider that the rich have gained over that time, and it's clear that the decline suffered by the middle class and the poor is considerably worse than that average.) Meanwhile, things that he thought he could take for granted in his social relationships have been subjected to almost constant assaults in which he is too often cast as the conscious villain of the piece rather than as what he is: the unwitting beneficiary of standards and (pre-)judgments that profit him in the short run but damage him in the long run.

The result is that he feels pressured, frustrated, haunted by the suspicion that he's failed his family, that his efforts are unappreciated, and that he's being blamed for things that "aren't my fault" - which combine to make him bitter and defensive; ready, even eager, to have someone to blame to relieve his own guilt and creeping despair.

Bill Clinton, of all people, expressed it well in a speech on April 8: Referring to middle-aged white men who when they were 20 looked forward to a "good life" of sending their kinds to college followed by a secure retirement, he said "Now they've been working for 15 years without a raise and they think they could be fired at any time. And they go home to dinner and they look across the table at their families and they think they let them down. They think somehow, what did I do wrong? It's pretty easy for people like that to be told by somebody else in the middle of a political campaign with a hot 30-second ad, you didn't do anything wrong, they did it to you."

And who, according to those bastards, are "they?" Intrusive big government. Irresponsible poor people. Environmental elitists/extremists/doomsayers. Selfish minorities. Pushy women. And what is it they "did?" Taxes that take away your money. Laze about on those taxes - your taxes - while you work harder than ever. Environmental laws that take away the job you have. Affirmative action programs that take away the job you deserve.

So the problem isn't that the "angry white male"'s frustrations are without any legitimate cause. It's rather that the very people who are most responsible for his contracting future, for his sense of loss (and for his genuine loss of economic security) - that is, the corporate elite, the rich, the powerful, those who've selfishly gained from the economic trends of the past two decades, those who benefit the most from the old oppressions and divisions - are the very people who are doing their damnedest (so far successfully) to get him to point his finger at anyone except them. The sad fact is, it's always easier to blame those weaker than yourself for reasons that are not only sociological but also psychological: In a foot race, you may resent or envy those in front of you, particularly if you see them pulling away - but it's those coming up from behind who make you feel a threat to your position. Meanwhile, challenging the legitimacy of the position of the leaders would require an adjustment in how the structure of the race itself is viewed. In other words, blaming the poor requires only calling them names. Blaming the rich requires re-thinking the nature of society. Which of those is more likely to be seized on by lost people who feel their world no longer makes sense?

I'm sure you've noticed ... how often I've used some variation of the word "loss" in describing people's feelings. It's my sense that people in the majority culture in the US (i.e., whites) are feeling that things which were valuable to them, important to them, things that gave their lives an, if you will, organizing core, that enabled them to orient themselves with respect to the world around them, are slipping away. More than that for some - being stripped away. And even that description, misty though it is, puts too fine an edge on it, implies too much of a conscious awareness, a conscious analysis. It's more of an undifferentiated sense of being adrift with neither moorings nor bearings, because things you thought you could count on before are no longer reliable.

The punditry, on those rare occasions it can be moved to consider our national mood in descriptions of more than three or four words, will usually point to the "social dislocation" caused by movements for racial, ethnic, and gender justice as the source of our malaise. (I have to laugh, for lack of another sanity-maintaining response, at the continual efforts to blame everything on "the '60s." On May 7, for example, the New York Times ran a page one story that described the rise of paranoid armed private militias of the sort that apparently carried out the Oklahoma City bombing as, quoting the title, "an unlikely legacy of the '60s!" How? Well, in the '60s people said "question authority" and these people distrust the government, so...QED, right?) I would argue, though, that what's happening is more fundamental than "concern about an economic downturn" or "confusion over changing social relations." I say that what's happening to us is a loss of hope. Just a generation or two ago, we as a people had a certain native, even naive, confidence that things would get better. Not necessarily any specific, identifiable thing, but, well, you know, things. More recently, that confidence has faded, to be replaced by the fallback position that "things" can get better. Now, even that limited faith has failed us.

And people feel - lost.

This is not to say, of course, that social stresses and economic strains are unrelated to this; they are. But contrary to the talking heads, they are not the cause(s), particularly not feminism, gay rights, "the legacy of the '60s," or whatever else it is they want to waggle their tongues at. Social changes can cause confusion and resentment, but you get over it, you adjust and move on and, usually, the next generation isn't sure what all the fuss was about. Economic recessions, even depressions, cause genuine hardship, but you hunker down, you survive, and expect that at the end of the day your children will be a little better off than you were. No, the cause is the context in which the present stresses and strains exist, and that context is an economic one, and that economic context is an unremitting stagnation in personal income that's coming to look as though it has no end, that this is no "slump" or "downturn" that will eventually reverse itself, that rather this is the way it is and is going to be, that it's not going to change, that work gets you nowhere and more work gets you more nowhere. (Of the six primary ethnic-gender groupings in the US - black, white, and Hispanic men and women - only one of them, white women, has made a clear gain in real median income over the last 20 years. The others have either stagnated or declined.) Perhaps never before in our history, certainly never before in this century, has such a large portion of our population (and not just those proverbial angry white guys, either) looked at their children and felt that those children will wind up worse off than they themselves are - felt, that is, like failures.

What has this has done to us? It's made us a little colder, a little harder, a little more inured to others' suffering, and a lot angrier. It's prompted us to regard as "unfair" anything (such as affirmative action) that we don't see as benefitting us, personally and immediately. It's propelled us toward isolation from our own communities, fragmentation of any sense of mutual responsibility, and condemnation of anyone different or "other."
What I'm suggesting through these lengthy quotes is that people are feeling more and more, without even it being so clear a thought, but feeling more and more that things are out of their control, that their energy has to go into holding on to what they have instead of building for a future. If they can't control some things, if they can't have influence over some things, they can still try to control others. They can't control their economic futures (or even have much impact on their present) but they can stop gays from being "just like us," from dammit changing the way it used to be. Yes, there is more than enough homophobia to go around. Yes, it is a battle that has been fought over and over, on religion, on race, on gender. But one of the things that has brought it to the forefront, one of the ways in which the issue has been manipulated to focus people's attention on it to the exclusion of issues that actually affect their lives in demonstrable ways, is that it's something people still feel they can control. One familiar thing they can keep just the way it is, something they can hold onto even as what I maintain is the genuine "American dream," the idea that your children will be better off than you are, slips further out of reach.

We can't easily fight that sense of loss of control by wonkishness. We don't lack policies, proposals, or programs; we lack, as others have said, a narrative. A theme, a meme of what progressives (noting as I have before that some Democrats still deserve the title) are about. I have my own notion of a narrative, a pull quote from that speech I quoted on November 12:
What I ultimately reject is the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little; what I ultimately resist is the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. What I ultimately affirm is the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression; what I ultimately demand from our society is the effort to guarantee that right.
The single word summary being "justice." What we have to do isn't to show people we have programs but to show that our programs provide hope. That it's the left, not the right, that offers them the promise of a better tomorrow. For example: While the right looks at the economy and cries that we all have to "sink or swim," we talk about providing everyone with water wings: You still have to do your own swimming but you won't drown in the process.

And we are the ones who actually talk about responsibility: The right talks about being responsible for yourself, and in that they just want the half that benefits the selfish and the rich who want to be freed from any commitments that don't profit them personally. But we talk about responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, to the community as a whole; we talk about the whole thing, not just half.

Bottom line: They talk about "go for yourself." We talk about "love thy neighbor." And yes, dammit, that will require some sacrifices, but some things you do just because they're right, not because they're profitable - and if everyone is made to chip in the way they should, according to their ability, including the greedheads and top dogs who have been screwing all of us for decades, it probably won't be a sacrifice at all.

Most importantly, we are the ones who offer them control over their own futures. We are the ones who believe in their right to privacy. We are the ones who believe in their freedoms. We are the ones who want to include them in the overall discussion of where we will go as a people, not dictate the answers. Yes, yes, yes, you can have a say, you can have a voice, and not the imaginary ones like right-wing talk radio that allow you to vent in order to distract you while your future continues to contract. But a real voice in a real community. And a real way to build a real future for you and for your children. Real hope.

That's what we offer and what the right never can.
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