31 January 2008

We're all connected...or not.

One of the grand developments that we used to call the "information superhighway" or the "world wide web" or "teh internets" is that we have the illusion that we're all connected. Most notably, I can dress my avatar up in pretty clothes and head out to the virtual grog shop to meet virtual chicks on Second Life, or "I" can party with my virtual friends from Australia in some massive multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft. I don't need to live my life based on my physical geography or my physical proximity to my "real" friends, or lack thereof.

On a more business-like level, the "elimination" of distance has allowed us to outsource call centers, host companies' web presences thousands of miles from where the physical company exists (if the physical company exists at all anymore), and hold "face-to-face" conferences with colleagues around the globe, all without leaving the comfort of our swivel chairs.

In other words, as myopic and simple-minded Thomas Friedman would have it, the world is flat.

Except it isn't.

We like to forget that none of this is real. Yes, it's useful and/or entertaining, and therefore has value for us, but if it doesn't work, we're left with the realization that the world is very much round and France and India are very much on different continents than the U.S., and that isolated hick backwaters (like where I'm from and love very much) really are in the middle of nowhere, instead of next door to the Metropolis on the big bad internet.

If you were psychoanalytically minded, you might call it the return of the repressed. Zizek might liken it to the Real overwhelming the Symbolic.

And it happens.

It's perhaps most fitting that it has happened to Dubai, which is virtual reality par excellence, a land that has recently been advertising a playground of a housing development/community that makes Disney's Celebration look authentic.

I expect to write more about Dubai's "FalconCity" in the future; however, Dubai's efforts to overtake Las Vegas as the Capital of the Simulacrum is only a side point -- the main point is that our world as we imagine it is utterly reliant upon bundles of cables doing their job properly. Banking and air travel, for instance, have developed to their stages based upon assumptions of secure and stable access to interconnected networks. Of less importance, blogging relies upon this access.

We are in a brave new world, until what...human voices wake us and we drown?

30 January 2008

State of the Moron.

If you dressed a rather large piece of shit in baby clothes, stuck a pacifier somewhere near the top of it, and stuck a jar of Gerber's in front of it, Michael Gerson would no doubt mistake it for a baby and praise its smooth skin.

Gerson has parlayed his hoodwinking by then-Governor Bush in 1999 into a virtue and regular columnist job with the Washington Post. Gerson is every used-car salesman's dream customer, the wide-eyed rube who wants to believe, really really wants to believe, that the puttied-up gas guzzling sand-in-the-transmission junker sitting in the corner of the lot really is a beauty of a driving machine.

Stupidity, however, is not a virtue.

In his latest effort, Gerson tries to convince readers that Bush really is a "compassionate conservative," a term that Gerson feels hasn't gained much traction because it's a "cause without a constituency," although the better term for it is that it's an oxymoron. Conservatism thrives on mean-spirited, devil-take-the-hindmost policies that consign the poor (aka the "surplus population") to a Dickensian fate that they "deserve" because of personal choices and "not applying themselves." Compassion is not highly valued in circles where concern for the uninsured and unemployed is crowded out by witty remarks about their stockbrokers.

But Bush isn't one of those nasty conservatives, Gerson argues. He's a "big hearted man" who has been misunderstood:
Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush's persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration.
Sure, Gerson scores points by raising the spectre of a Cheney administration -- which it sort of has been, given this current VP's elevation of the role of the VP to unprecedented levels -- and that image alone was enough to send chills down my spine, with visions of Cheney eliminating his political opponents through a series of "hunting accidents. However, Gerson tries to bamboozle us with the same window-dressing that has apparently tricked him. No Child Left Behind as a "compassionate" program? Only if you consider that the solution to fixing failing schools is to take their funding away so they lose teaching positions, extracurricular activities, and such luxuries as art, music, libraries, and guidance counselors. It's about as compassionate as the physician who believes the best way to heal the sick patient is to take away the medicine.

Which of course brings us to the prescription drug program, which Gerson touts as stemming from Bush's "big heart" and concern for Medicare recipients. However, Bush's proposal came in the wake of repeated pressure from advocacy groups and growing media attention that the elderly were going to Canada for their drugs, so it's less a question of Bush's "big heart" than it is of Bush's desire to capture the elderly vote in the following year's election. However, a quick google search (using the terms "Bush," "medicare," and "prescription plan,"-- hardly prejudicial terms, I would say) struggles to reveal anyone writing positively about Bush's plan.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the "AIDS and malaria initiatives," the bulk of which was Bush's announcement of $15 billion over five years to target AIDS in developing nations. Activists complained at the time that Bush's initiative didn't really include any new money, though that point is debateable. However, it's a fact that Bush's program underfunded established programs to fight AIDS, with Bush preferring to set up his own bureaucracy to oversee the money and divert funds to conservative pet projects like "faith-based" anti-AIDS programs. So was Bush's program really a "compassionate" move or an indirect payoff to his friends in the pharmaceutical lobby? Perhaps that question could be answered by looking to the man he hired to head the program, Randall Tobias, former chief executive of Eli Lilly. Hmm. And of course, it comes with a heavy dose of "blame the victim" by stressing "abstinence only" in its education initiatives.

Gerson of course ignores Bush's great humanitarian catastrophes: the poor management and callous attitude toward Hurricane Katrina survivors domestically and the international disgrace that is his prosecution of an illegal war of aggression in Iraq. But Gerson doesn't let little things like the destruction of a country's infrastructure and massive civilian deaths, not to mention the draining of the national treasury and the loss of American soldiers, get in the way of his touting Bush the humanitarian.

Just how blinded Gerson is by Bush can be seen by the way he opens his essay:
When President Bush took his final walk to the rostrum of the House chamber, his speech and manner conveyed little nostalgia. He views both meditation on the past and speculation about his legacy with equal suspicion, preferring to live in the urgency of the now. So his last State of the Union address had no Reagan-like, misty-eyed wistfulness. It was the most matter-of-fact of his congressional addresses: a clear theme -- trusting the people -- developed at a brisk pace, with modest proposals and an edge of impatience at congressional loitering. He seemed to be saying: "With a year to go, sentiment be damned."

Actually, Michael, it isn't that he views "meditation on the past" with suspicion; it's because he's the perfect example of Bertrand Russell's maxim that the "unexamined life is not worth living." Or perhaps Cicero's warning that those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it.

Then again, stupidity is no virtue.

22 January 2008

We already live with the corporate university.

Apparently writing long posts about policy is not very exciting reading, and Vedder's self-contradictory column is really a rather easy target, so I shouldn't have taken so long. Oh well. The main problem with idiots like Vedder is that they pretend that universities haven't been running on business models for quite some time now.

The long-term trend in the university business has been to reduce the power of the faculty and to centralize control functions -- even academic related functions -- in the hand of administrative bureaucrats who increasingly have little academic background themselves. For them, the university functions because they are there, and faculty and students are simply numbers to run through a bean-counting machine. The faculty senate is often complicit in this transition, abdicating responsibility for overseeing class sizes, tenure-line fights, and in general advocating for the university as a place of learning rather than as a brand name, which is how the administrators see it.

The corporate university is here. It isn't coming. It's here and it's been here, and rather than being hampered by non-profit status, as Dr. Vedder argues, universities have profited immensely, in large part through acquiring land that becomes tax-exempt.

A great observer and critic of this transition is Marc Bousquet, a professor at Santa Clara, who focuses on the adjunct and graduate laborers in the fields of academia. His latest book, which I am eagerly awaiting from Bridge Street Books, is How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, and he's been working in this field since he was the president of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus.

For this book, he's also done short interviews with academic laborers, and those video interviews are available on the book's blog (that's right). The videos are actually on youtube.com, but you can find links from the booksite.


Why the University is not a Business, yet again.

The Post must have a special relationship with the polyanna nutcases over at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading think-tank for economists who are well-rewarded for advancing the view that human life can be reduced to profit margins and that the sum goal of our endeavors is to increase Capital. I can't think of any other reason that the Post would allow these shills to place columns in the weekly editorial columns and weekend Outlook section so regularly. To find something that would balance out the shrillness of the AEI folks, you'd have to run weekly columns by Noam Chomsky, although they'd have to be rewritten by some eighteen year old who doesn't actually understand Noam Chomsky in order to be as incoherent and illogical as the AEI offerings.

This past weekend is a good example, with Richard Vedder's piece in the Outlook section. Vedder gets off to an interesting start, talking about Harvard and Yale's plans to reduce tuition for the middle and upper-middle class (and in some cases remove it all together for the few lower class students they allow through their doors), but Vedder's paymasters aren't interested in the middle-class, except as a fob, and the upper-middle class isn't of much more use: Vedder's American Enterprise Institute serves the mega-corporations and the ruling class individuals who pull those strings, not the middle-managers pulling in 100K a year or even the upper-level execs pulling in $200K. So he tips his hand early:
Yet greed trumps vision, and wealth triumphs over American egalitarian ideals. Harvard and Yale still want dollars from the mostly affluent families that send their kids to Cambridge and New Haven, and apparently just can't bring themselves to go tuition-free. Besides, what would they do with all the financial aid bureaucrats if there were no need for financial aid?

You'd be forgiven for doing a double-take over Vedder's invocation of "American egalitarian ideals." Whenever deployed by the AEI, this phrase has nothing to do with justice or equality -- it simply means that the wealthy should pay the same as the poor. So the tortured phrase, "wealth triumphs over American egalitarian ideals" might make you think he's actually arguing for something progressive like public funding of health care, but no, he's simply arguing that the super-rich should go to Harvard and Yale for free as well. Talk about twisting meaning around to be the exact opposite of progressive. Then he tacks on some bizarre implication that Harvard and Yale won't go tuition free because they want to retain "the financial aid bureaucrats." This moron, in addition to shilling for the AEI, works at a university, so he should be the first to know that universities tend to jump at opportunities to shed departments, and being able to dump student financial aid departments would free up lots of money and space, so you know Vedder's simply got a particularly dull ax to grind, and boy does he grind it.

Later in his diatribe, Vedder lists out some bullet points that he thinks are causing tuitions to rise. The list is hilarious in many ways, but it's also very sad, because you realize when you're done that this sort of poor reasoning is being disseminated by the Post weekly without any sort of commensurate response from someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. Anyway, here's a sampling from Vedder's list:
Nonprofit status. As nonprofit institutions, most colleges and universities have no market incentives to reduce costs vigorously, improve quality or use new technology -- for example, having students listen to lectures on their MP3 players -- that could lower costs and improve efficiency.

Does Vedder live in a cave, or is Ohio University simply a backwater? Many universities do record lectures in digital formats, and for years before that have used whatever technologies were available (CCTV, tape, etc.) to deliver content to larger numbers of students. Nonprofit status -- the AEI by the way is a nonprofit -- has nothing whatsoever to do with employment of technology, and Vedder deliberately pretends that nonprofits don't face the market or have "market incentives" -- even though earlier in his piece he complains about the cost of new dorms at Princeton, which guess what, is a "market reaction" to treating the students like consumers who need to be wooed not by great education, but by material comforts like superdeluxe dorms:
to increase applicants (a factor in the ranking computations), the school has built the ultimate student-living facility

Seriously, is Vedder a total moron for thinking readers can't connect his reasoning for Princeton's building the dorm to "market incentives," or does working for something as soulless as the American Enterprise Institute simply kill your respect for other living people as sentient beings? But really, the list goes on:
Exclusivity. The need for accreditation, as well as other barriers, restricts new, for-profit institutions that may be more efficient and innovative from entering the higher education field.

Ah, that's right. Pesky things like licensing are driving up college costs. It's true, the need for accreditation/licensing also restricts my neighbor from hanging out a shingle and performing brain surgery in his garage, too. He's always on about that. Of course, Vedder lists accreditation as "exclusivity," trying to act as though this process, which every institution of higher learning (other than diploma mills that you get emails for all the time) goes through, is somehow elitist. I agree with him that accreditation is something of a joke, except I think it's a joke because it's too easy to get accredited. He apparently thinks it represents an insurmountable barrier. Which makes this next point pretty laughable:
No bottom line. Did Harvard have a good year in 2007? Who knows? There are few measures of the value added in attending college, making it difficult for schools to even define goals, much less achieve them.

Apparently, Vedder wants something like a stockholder's report for universities. Again, as a university employee, he should know that those things are readily available, but he's not really interested in the truth -- he's more interested in rephrasing the problem in a business model: "bottom line." Let's throw out accreditation, but let's come up with all sorts of other standards -- imported from the business model -- to determine if the university "did well" -- by which it's pretty obvious in his language above, means did Harvard "turn out good products." Because, at bottom, that's all that humans are to the folks at the American Enterprise Institute -- they're little technicians, or managers, or slop-pickers -- so long as they serve Capital. Whether you've advanced as a human being (advanced in your own terms: learned something you've found useful, felt you understood the world better, etc.) is of no concern to little minds like Vedder.

The list also contains the usual complaint about tenure (limits "flexibility," as if it weren't a sad sad joke that at nearly all universities, you've got a permanent pool of part-time labor who have taught at the university for ten or twenty years because of the needs of "flexibility") and a few other ridiculous assertions that make you wonder if Vedder does in fact actually work at Ohio University.

Welcome to the poverty of the business model. It's been increasingly ruling our public institutions since at least 1981, and through think tanks like the AEI, it's being given a gloss of "scholarship," shoddy as it may be.

19 January 2008

Yet another edition of "The Company You Keep"

A mini-furor has erupted over a leaked Canadian government document that lists the US and Israel as countries in which prisoners are in danger of being tortured. Both countries are disturbed that their interrogation techniques, which include simulated drowning and, in the US's case, have been notoriously on display recently at Abu Ghraib, would be considered torture -- or at least would be named as such:
"We find it to be offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China. Quite frankly it's absurd," said the US ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins.

Mr. Wilkins, you note, isn't really addressing whether or not the US engages in torture, since it's pretty clear from our latest Attorney General hearings that our government, to our nation's shame, does engage in torture, or should I say, "the questioning that dare not speak its name." No, the real problem is that our behavior is now getting us linked to the other human rights violating regimes across the planet.

Canada, of course, has apologized for "mistakenly" giving the document to Amnesty International, and for "mistakenly" putting the US on the list, which reflects their fear that the US may invade and torture Canadians as if Canada were a breakaway republic if the Canadian government shows a little too much backbone. However, this position is quite literally where we are and where the Bush Administration (not that previous US administrations have been exactly squeaky clean, but BushCo seems to revel in chances to bring torture to new arenas and challenge basic concepts of human rights that the US at least in theory held dear for so long...) has brought us.

So in addition to recession, loss of prestige, pointless warmaking, and bald hypocrisy, we can add the world's moral condemnation to Bush the Second's legacy.

18 January 2008

R.I.P. Bobby Fischer

Here's a man gone long before his time. Bobby Fischer, perhaps the most brilliant chess mind to ever walk this earth (and raving antisemitic paranoid nutcase), has passed away at age 64. Although I don't talk about it much, I'm an avid player of the game and in my youth spent many a weekend at tournaments mixing it up with the old guys who would show up on Thursday, sleep in their cars all weekend long, and wear the same ever-rumplier suit each day.

Fischer became a hero in the USA when he defeated Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, an event that was so much more than a chess match because it happened against the backdrop of the Cold War, just as the 1980 Lake Placid "Miracle on Ice" was so much more than a hockey game. However, Fischer never defended his title, and the title went over to his would-be challenger, Anatoly Karpov, in 1975. Fischer probably would have beaten Karpov, although Karpov is a brilliant tactician who held the title until 1985, when Kasparov -- maybe Fischer's only equal -- unseated him.

The guy was a loon even before that, but after he won the world title, his looniness was on full display, even if he wasn't -- he went into hiding before spending the last several years in Iceland, scene of his historic triumph. It is rumored that he still followed the game and in fact during the last world championship match between Viktor Kramnik and Veselin Topalov he apparently was on chat boards analyzing the games and suggesting improvements for play.

Chess has changed so much since Fischer ruled the roost; computer databases store every game ever recorded, computers regular vanquish their human counterparts, and cheating has become much easier, thanks to these technical improvements (in fact, Topalov's team believed Kramnik was using his frequent bathroom breaks to receive information and analysis from his team).

It's a sad note that Fischer's early triumphs will always be shadowed by his eccentricities and coupled with his antisemitic conspiratorial ravings.

17 January 2008

Two posts in one day? What the hell is going on here?

I got caught up in the New York Times today and took until late afternoon to read the Post, but it was well worth the effort as it included this tidbit about our "new" schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Readers of this blog know that I'm not her biggest fan, mainly because she brings no managerial experience to a hopelessly corrupt system that needs heavy-duty managerial clout to straighten up (sorry, but running a head-hunting agency is not managerial experience on this scale).

As you might recall, Fenty's takeover of the schools got off to a bumpy start when it was revealed that Victor Reinoso, Fenty's hand-picked "Deputy Mayor for Education," plagiarized a third of the school plan that the mayor presented. His excuse was pretty much as bad as the typical undergrad who's been caught cheating: blah blah cut and paste blah blah meant to cite the source blah blah must have pasted wrong paragraph in yadda yadda. It doesn't work in freshman comp, but it does work in DC government.

But that was last spring. Our new school leaders have now had nine more months (for Rhee, seven) to get used to the fact that people seem to be paying attention to what they're doing and not rolling over for them. Yet, here's Rhee being quoted by the Post on the DCPS registration process:
Her frustration, as a D.C. public schools parent of two daughters, with the bureaucracy in the schools. She complained that registering her children for school "was a nightmare."

Uh oh. It's pretty bad when the Chancellor isn't able to navigate her way through a process that thousands of parents seem to negotiate easily enough each year. I'm sure there are problems, especially in communities where the local school administration is uninterested in helping parents, but I'm fairly certain Rhee isn't sending her kids to any of those schools. I remember registering my son. It took something like, oh, ten minutes (of course you have to get your documentation together confirming that you live in the District and that your child is immunized...maybe she had some trouble there).

However, more stunning was Rhee's statement about school improvement:
Her speculation that despite all her initiatives, significant improvement might not occur for several years. Experts, she said, told her "realistically, you're not going to see gains until five years out. . . . I do think starting in the '08-09 school year, we'll start to see [test scores] moving in the right direction."

OK, let's do some math. Rhee was hired at the very end of the 06-07 school year, meaning she didn't have any control until the 07-08 year (the current year). So she says that in 08-09 school year (i.e. beginning this August), we'll see the change that comes five years out...That would place the initiatives that would drive up test scores squarely in the tenure of....wait a minute....Clifford B. Janey.

And why not? She hasn't changed the curriculum he put in place.

Am I the only one who understands that five years don't pass between summer 07 and summer 08?

R.I.P. Milton Wolff

Milton Wolff, the last living commander of what's popularly known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, died on January 14th in Berkeley, age 92. Wolff, a avid communist, and many other Americans like him viewed Franco's fascist rebellion in Spain as a threat to human progress and volunteered for the Republic's International Brigade. While the Spanish government was aided somewhat tepidly by Stalin's Soviet Union, and the western democracies refused support, Franco's fascists were heavily supported by Mussolini and Hitler, the latter of whom especially saw the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for his military equipment and tactics. Both fascist governments sent official military "legions" to Spain, and it was Hitler's Luftwaffe that devastated Guernica, leading to Picasso's memorable painting:

This same painting now hangs in the United Nations building in New York, where it was covered up while Colin Powell lied to the UN General Assembly about Saddam Hussein's military capabilities (remember the "artist's renditions" of mobile chemical weapons trailers, none of which were ever found?). What a shameful moment for our country.

For his vision of Franco's fascist rebellion as a precursor to the tide of fascism that would sweep over Europe less than a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Wolff and his comrades were labelled "premature antifascists," a term that identified and ostracized communists or Leftists for agitating against Hitler and Mussolini while the United States government and businesses were still doing business with them.

In later life he continued to fight for the Left, "prematurely" agitating for the end of segregation and leading a drive to purchase ambulances for the Sandinistas, who were fighting the drug-running and US funded -- and oh the slippages between US government activity and drug-running, oh, yeah, arms for hostages, too -- Contras, whose major tactic was to destroy schools and hospitals.

Another man's done gone, as Woody wrote.

16 January 2008

When being sick is no fun.

Well, the whole damn family is sick now. Yesterday I was so sick I didn't have the energy to play with my new toy, pictured below:

Seriously, I was wrapped in three layers and lying under a blanket all day, with my hoodie up over my head. This little Zoom G-1X is pretty amazing. A friend of mine had the first generation Zoom back in the late 80's, and I've pretty much wanted one ever since, though my guitar playing has taken a backseat since the birth of the children. But I got one for Christmas, and have had a few chances to play with it.

Basically, it's a bundle of guitar effects wrapped up in one package, and the pedal is a multifunction device depending on the settings: it can control the general volume, the effect mix, etc. Oh my it sounds good.

14 January 2008

Recognizing possibilities lost, or a negative take on "The Road Not Taken," with no reference whatsoever to the poem.

My back seems to have returned to normal, which is nice, so I'm no longer taking the valium or percocet, although I've continued to take the horsepill of ibuprofen also prescribed to me. I suppose I can keep the extra happy pills for the next time I throw my back out or break my ankle or just want to make watching television bearable.

Now, the remainder of this post will be of interest, if at all, only to those connected to Academe.

I had one of those all too familiar and cautionary experiences this weekend of returning to some old research I'd done into a major writer's neglected novel. This particular piece of writing was something I'd sent out for publication back in the mid to late 1990's, and it had been returned to me from two prominent journals. The first prominent and oh so important journal had simply returned it to me with a form letter telling me that it was rejected. The second important journal had returned it with a reader's report, and looking again at the reader's report some ten year's hence, I thought, well it's not so bad and the journal is telling me to send it to a more specialized venue. OK. Good advice. I'll just polish it up and send it to a more likely target.

The first polishing of course involves seeing what's been done on your topic since the ancient day in which you wrote your piece. I found three articles. Not bad, given the length of time between my writing and today. Then I read the articles. The second newest one, published in 2003, is almost but not quite my very argument. It's a pretty shitty feeling to read in a nice published essay an argument similar to your own unpublished dogeared manuscript. I say similar, because it's still possible to salvage my article, but I will need to redirect it to incorporate this new research, because otherwise what's the point, right?

Besides, the 2003 article is more solid than mine -- the tact this writer took is based more solidly on documentary evidence and not circumstantial, speculative evidence as mine is. In other words, while I don't necessarily agree with the entire line of reasoning the writer uses, I see the actual archival evidence he bases it on, and that's good.

I already announced as my new year's resolution a dedication to scholarly publication, so I obviously can't back down from this challenge.

11 January 2008

Once again, the past keeps knock knock knocking at my door...

Let me tell you a story about my technical past. In college, I used the Macintosh computer labs, because the College of Education worked with Macs. In 1991, I received my first computer. It was a Mac Classic. Sometime around 1995 I bought a Mac PowerPC, and that was my computer until sometime around 2003, when I purchased a PC for the first time in my life.

What that means for me and you is that pretty much all of my graduate work was done on the Macintosh and remains on floppy disk. In fact, everything I did on computer was on Macintosh floppy disks, and has been nearly completely inaccessible for the past five or so years. I'm digging through those disks right now with the help of a program call MacOpener, trying to see if there's anything in my scholarly records salvageable and publishable with a little dusting off...

In the meantime I'm also finding that I've got quite a bit of poetry that I haven't seen in long time. So here's a little gem from the archive, circa 1995, from a period in which I must have been trying to write sonnets.

Love and its attendants

Though you make tears flow in torrents
and fill my nights in dread dreams,
I pull myself to your side: quiet moments
with palms pressed or the unspoken need
of lips upon lips as the memory recedes
like a tide at its ebb. In wave's wake
the gulls walk stilted and pick tender meat
from stranded shells, the lonesome fate
of those who would leave the hidden deep
for a sunlit world, like those who expose
their soft bellies in the name of a dream.
I've seen vulture-cleaned bones in the glow
of moonlight, when the clouds split above,
and despite the terror, I will speak of love.

10 January 2008

Invasion of the body snatchers.

I'm fairly certain someone has hogtied the real GW Bush and left him in a storage closet in the White House while a doppelganger is roaming the world pretending to be the Decider. I base this assumption on Bush's rather strong announcement that Israel end the occupation of, well, the Occupied Territories:
Speaking after a meeting with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, Bush said: "There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. An agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."
Interestingly enough, Bush got the date right, which I see as further evidence that he's an imposter.

Israel's position on the Occupied Territories has been fairly clear in practice, if not in official policy: they have since 1967 been establishing settlements and actively recruiting the religiously zealous and recently immigrated (many of whom are not well-off enough to afford their own place in Israel proper) to occupy what are effectively armed camps in land seized during wartime. It's dangerous to be a settler, because like it or not, you represent to many of your Palestinian neighbors the shock troops of the Israeli government, much like missionaries and farmers were sent to Africa by the European nations as precursors to military occupation and national subjugation.

As a young nation, Israel faced many threats from hostile nations that didn't recognize the state's legitimacy (in principle, you can kind of see their point: the state of Israel was created by the UN in a last gasp of the colonial era and as such belongs to the same illustrious history as many other hotspots created by colonial powers: India/Pakistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Congo, Liberia, etc.), but it has survived those threats and indeed prospered through heavy US investment. It's hard to conceive today that Israel faces the same invasion dangers that it faced forty years ago; today's threats -- I'm talking real threats here -- are far different, consisting mainly of long-range attack.

For that reason, I would suggest that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and threat of occupation at-will of the Gaza Strip is in fact more of a threat to peace than would be its relinquishing of those territories. For one, the creation of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state would remove one of the major grievances that other Arab states (who actually care almost nothing for the plight of the Palestinians except for their political usefulness as bargaining chits against Israel) claim to harbor against Israel. Likewise, hardcore Palestinian militants would be less influential when the general populace has an independent, internationally recognized, and functioning government to turn to for redress of grievances (the mock-autonomy of the current Palestinian Authority could most likely be compared to the difference between "free range" animals and veal).

Of course, Bush couldn't let well enough alone. On the subject of the endless checkpoints that remind Palestinians daily that every one of them is considered a terrorist by the Israeli government, Bush showed his callousness:
Turning to Israeli checkpoints, he said: "I understand why Palestinians are frustrated driving through checkpoints. I can also understand why the Israelis want a state of security." He went on to joke that "my motorcade of a mere 45 cars made it through without being stopped."
As a joke, that's not even funny. It's not close to being funny. It's like his mom claiming that the Katrina refugees were better off being in the Astrodome than they were in New Orleans. But that's what lifelong privilege -- never having to get by in life with less than a surfeit -- brings you: a complete lack of understanding how day to day insults gradually wear at your humanity and harden or break you.

09 January 2008

Does anyone remember the old adage about comparing apples and oranges?

Yet another education study has been released that ranks DC among the bottom -- in fact, in this study, DC is the bottom -- in the nation. The headline, which is what everyone reads, gives most people all they need to know to fill up their water cooler talking points: "Report: Md. and Va. Schools Rank Among Nation's Best; D.C.'s Are the Worst."

Most people, rushed for time and not necessarily that invested in education issues, will only read that headline, since it confirms for them their preconceived notions that DC schools are an endless pit of violence, leaking roofs, non-flushing toilets, and remedial curriculum. And who can blame them, since the media reinforces this impression through its lazy reporting?

Dig a bit deeper into the article, though, and you find the following:
Swanson [Director of Editorial Projects in Education's research center] cautioned that although his group included District schools in the national report because its leaders set educational policy like a state does, its extremely low performance is more similar to other large cities than to states with a mix of urban, suburban and rural schools.
"D.C. is a combination of a low-performing urban school system and, quite frankly, not the most active policymaking," Swanson said.

Oh. So you included the District even though it doesn't fit the model for the study. Brilliant. So you might say that the District perhaps fares so poorly as compared to states because the District is in fact not a state, but rather a city system. In other words, it's an orange and therefore doesn't taste, look, or feel like an apple.

Basically, the study then is worthless as a comparative assessment as far as the District is concerned. However, even that fact does not excuse the District's spokesperson for ignorance of the report:
D.C Public Schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said she had not seen the report and could not comment.

Honestly, there's no excuse for being ignorant of an annual report from a major education research organization. That comment simply reinforces most readers' opinions that the DC schools administration is completely out of touch, unconcerned, and ignorant about educating the children of this city.

08 January 2008

Perhaps my only post about pro football.

I don't often write about Pro Football because, well, because I don't often write about Professional Wrestling, either. To my mind, the National Football League symbolizes the triumph of style over substance, a sport whose storylines are often more important for the "feuds" between the players or coaches than for the contests themselves. I have even more distaste reserved for the NBA -- a league that has actually destroyed the spirit of the game -- but I'll save that lecture for a later date.

Joe Gibbs has resigned. The first time he retired, he left a hero, having developed the Toughskins into dominating team for much of the 1980's.

The problem with retiring as a legend, though, is that any comeback will inevitably be compared to the first (aka the return of the Messiah), and shortcomings can only tarnish the legend.

In DC, the media thinks that whatever the Suburban Maryland Toughskins do is newsworthy. If a player's car gets dented by a shopping cart in the Giant parking lot, it's the lead story on the local news. Even in the offseason, if the staff parking lot at Toughskins Park is being repainted, it's worth a lengthy article in the sports section of the local papers, even if they have to bump a story about another sport's championship game to fit it in.

So I'm not really writing about professional football, am I? I'm writing more about the idiocracy that surrounds Deadskins coverage in this town -- about a team that doesn't even play in Washington and is in fact illegally poaching the name of our fair city. Did Irsay keep the name "Baltimore" when he moved his team out of Charm City? No, as much of a shitbag as Irsay was, he had the decency to rename the team to reflect its new home, Indianapolis.

But back to the resignation of Joe Gibbs. The Post is in a rush to protect his legacy. Thomas Boswell bloviates:
While Gibbs's retirement, of which he gave absolutely no hint at any time, was a shock and disappointment to his team and its fans, it at least came at a time when his coaching reputation had been restored.

Huh? How does sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7 and getting schooled 35-14 in said playoff game qualify as a restoration of reputation? [ESPN is also reporting this revisionist line, babbling nonsense like "His decision to leave follows perhaps the best coaching performance of his career. " Seriously, WTF?

I felt bad for Gibbs when I heard he was coming back to coach the Foreskins. As crazy and egotistical as Jack Kent Crook was, he at least seemed to understand that he didn't know a whole lot about the daily life of the team he owned. Gibbs had to deal with Little Napoleon, the NFL's version of Kim Jong Il, who somehow combines vast arrogance with sycophantic behavior around actual celebrities.

Dan Snyder drew back the veil on the savage reality of NFL branding by either charging or trying to charge for every single activity related to his team. He only cares for his team's fans so far as he can shake another dollar loose from them. And why should he care any more? The stadium is full no matter how shitty a product he puts on the field, more and more cars are adorned with those ridiculous window flags whether it's game day or not, and merchandise continues to flow from store racks to customers' backs at a brisk clip. I wouldn't put it past the minute megalomaniac to authorize special jerseys to "commemorate" (i.e. cash in on) Sean Taylor's death.

Snyder, whose patience is about as deep as a puddle following a spring rain, had painted himself into the corner with the hiring of Gibbs, because he couldn't very well fire a legend without enduring the wrath of the Toughskin faithful, who don't have much time for the tiny tyrant and hold Gibbs in reverence matched only by Christ/Allah/Yahweh/Etc.

Now the media is speculating on Gibbs' replacement. I've heard them mention Bill Cowher's name. For his sake, I hope he's smart enough not to take the job. After working for the Rooneys, working for Dan Snyder must make you feel like you constantly need to take a shower.

07 January 2008

Another sign that age has crept up on me.

I suppose I should tell the story of how I've ended up in bed in the middle of a Monday afternoon hopped up on percoset and valium, but your imaginations are probably much better than the truth.

So I'll give you a few moments to think up the scenario...

Time's up.

The correct answer is not that I've chucked it all to the wind having been utterly and entirely and absolutely rejected in my job search during the past year's MLA extravaganza. In fact, in the relative calm of an empty house, I've managed to do a little reading in the direction of my hopes for next fall's job search.

Neither would it be correct to answer that I've become depressed by the post-holiday lull that is early January, that dead and dreary space following the outrageous excesses of December. January is merely a precursor to my birthday, and far from being depressed about yet another year rolling by, I still look forward to getting free stuff in the early days of February.

The correct answer would have something to do with the National Gallery of Art and that infernal skating rink that sits in the middle of the sculpture garden. Of course, it would also have something to do with the beautiful spring-like weather we had yesterday and the fact that my daughter, not yet three years old, is about the right height to make me bend over close to eight inches to support her while she tries skating for the first time.

A few times around the choppy ice at the NGA rink (sorry folks, but they aren't too careful with the zamboni at the NGA), bent at the waist to keep a toddler on her feet, and you'd be hurting, too. However, the real pain didn't manifest itself last night or even overnight...no, it waited until I was walking to pick up a few croissants this morning on Columbia Road. Two blocks from the house and I'm walking briskly to get home in time for the kids to eat before school, and bam my back seizes up like someone fused all the moving parts. Luckily, I could hobble around and complete my morning errand, but it only got worse until I ended up in the emergency room at GW Hospital...where they were able to see me sometime around 1:30 p.m. (this tactic being used after I'd called the GW Medical Faculty Associates' "Urgent Care" appointment center and secured an "urgent" appointment for tomorrow. Sorry, but my back hurts today. Now. Intensely.) and filled me up with prescriptions for percoset and valium.

So I suppose it isn't all bad.

I may have to add to my one resolution for the year (remember it: publish publish publish) the following important resolution to stretch stretch stretch in the mornings and maybe at night, too, lest I find the gum band in my back has finally snapped for good.

04 January 2008

Predictable, not an "Earthquake."

What a load of crap we can read in the papers this morning. The Washington Post, sitting here on the table, asserts that "Change in the Air" and "Conventional Wisdom Defied," as if it was such a big surprise that Huckabee and Obama won the Iowa Caucuses. The online edition is even more hyperbolic, claiming "An Earthquake in the Midwest." "Change" and "Defiance" might have been in the air if, say, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich won the Caucuses, but those two finished so far off the map it's probably safe to say that most readers won't find much about them in the papers. But then, that would be fairly similar to the way the papers have covered the campaigns of anyone who isn't listed as a "frontrunner" early on. Aside from a puff piece on Kucinich (that made constant reference to his wife and her tongue piercing) and an opinion piece on Paul that claimed to be about Libertarianism, the Washington Post, along with other major media outlets, has more or less taken a vow of silence concerning candidates not named Clinton, Obama, Huckabee, or Romney (Guiliani, McCain, and Edwards get some attention, but not much).

Part of the problem is that the media is unaccustomed to dealing with multi-faceted contests; it's much simpler and more space-conscious to turn things into two-way races. After all, most blockbuster films and sports contests use that format, so why get confused trying to remember anyone else? Fundamentally, the papers have a terrible time discussing politics without turning it into a sporting contest. As they look ahead to New Hampshire, the Post wishes to portray the Republican contest as a fight between Romney and McCain, dropping the Iowa winner Huckabee to status of odd-man out, because New Hampshire doesn't contain as many false-faced Christians -- the journalists can't actually write stories that capture the primaries as multiply contested fronts. Even as the Post pays lip-service to the Huckabee's win, they turn their attention to reducing the next matchup to the easiest possible narrative.

Seriously, though, how can any paper see Huckabee's win as some sort of sea change in the GOP? Huckabee, like Bush before him, is riding the social conservative wave of religious fundamentalism that has formed the core of the GOP for the better part of the last three decades. For this core of whack-jobs, Mitt Romney --a Mormon for Christ's sake -- is hardly more than an atheist and certainly a step or two below a Catholic, McCain is a Manchurian Candidate, and Guiliani is a dangerous abortionist.

Now you have Huckabee, a man who's spent more money (not his own though) on this campaign so far than all but a few people have made in their lifetimes, trying to claim that his victory is a victory of a new "ruling class," whatever the hell that means:
"One is not elected to be part of the ruling class; he's elected to be part of the serving class," he said. "Because 'We the people' are the ruling class of America."

I think he cribbed it from a movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's one of those troubling sentiments to me, because it's one that I believe should be true, but one which reality constantly reminds me is not true. I doubt that "We the people" really advocated closing down all our factories and driving up corporate profits at the expense of, well, "We the people." I doubt that "We the people" are behind the continued prosecution of George Bush's Iraqi Adventure, but so far Huckabee's "ruling class" hasn't forced Bush out of Iraq. Last time I checked, "We the people" weren't even entrusted with the knowledge of our government's nasty dealings with third-world dictators and secret prisons and torture methods. Pretty pathetic ruling class, if you ask me.

02 January 2008

Happy New Year, or better late than never.

It's been a week since I was in D.C., but driving down Connecticut Avenue last night around 9:30, I felt like it had been a month. Maybe it's because the train ride from Chicago had been so long -- a seven hour layover in Pittsburgh made it a nearly 24 hour journey -- or maybe it's because we simply ran ourselves ragged on every leg of the trip.

In Pittsburgh, with seven hours to kill, we visited the Andy Warhol Museum, seven floors of fun just across the 7th Avenue Bridge on the North Side. It had been several years since our last visit, and it seems that in the interim the museum has decided that Warhol's work alone isn't enough to keep the museum fresh, and two floors almost completely featured work by other artists (Bruce Nauman and Ron Mueck).

I'm also pleasantly surprised to say that after four days in Chicago, where they put meat in everything from soups to sodas, we were able to get beautiful salads in Pittsburgh, a town not exactly known for healthy eating. Lest my dear readers think I'm knocking Chicago, which is a first class city, I will admit that we hardly went out of our way to find good food. In fact, at least half of the meals were eaten either in the hotels of the MLA or the underground tunnels connecting the hotels. OK, let's be honest...at least 75% of meals were consumed that way.

A quick rundown of the MLA would go like this: saw friends, saw panels, bought or weaseled my way into many books, chatted up a few press acquisition reps, moderated a panel that was surprisingly well attended, given its kiss of death time slot, and finally spent the last few hours in Chicago at the Art Institute. Most of the modern American art is unavailable or scattered throughout the museum, as they're undergoing a pretty ambitious expansion and have many galleries closed. Also, a Jasper Johns exhibit was taking up way too much space. I like some of his stuff, but after two shows at the National Gallery of Art earlier this year, I think I'm Jasper Johnsed-Out for a time. Besides, the show was called "Gray," and featured his grayscale paintings, which after about five rooms starts to overload.

As for New Years Resolutions, I resolve this year to work on publications. That's a modest enough goal, I think.