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19 August 2007
Intelligent Design, Unwise Use

There's been much public debate over the ideas of intelligent design and creationism, but much less discussion about the implications of those concepts in the real world.

If the presence of interconnectedness at all levels in the world--from parallels in shapes and functions of natural objects to the harmonious, perfectly balanced ways in which animals, plants, and environment all complement each other and naturally produce what the others need--implies a being of perfect wisdom and grace behind it;

Then what does the casual disregard for the small things, willful destruction of the natural creatures that are in such perfect balance, and the ongoing, large-scale disruption of the natural ecology for the sake of material gain imply about those who are behind it? Perhaps the opposite of wisdom and grace? By choosing selfishness and greed and violence over the divine that's all around us, do the religious of this world show willful ignorance of and disregard toward the purpose of this designed world?

According to most modern religion, humankind was given dominion over the world and its contents. But does it make any kind of sense at all that such a meticulously crafted, carefully balanced, nuanced and interrelated system of organisms would be created, with that level of care and harmony, simply for the purpose of being pushed aside, lumped together in an indistinguishable mass, and used as raw fuel for human consumption? Does it make any sense at all that the divine purpose of, say, a forest--with its immense richness of life and diversity of natural functions--would be to simply be bulldozed and paved over, a use which in no way acknowledges or uses its complex structure and design?

In what type of rational thought does "dominion" mean utter destruction? What would be the divine wisdom in creating natural systems of such profoundly complex functioning and potential if their purpose is to simply be clubbed, cut, or mown down and turned into pure energy for human wants that far exceed our needs for survival? What type of religious thought can put forth, for example, that the spectacularly, overwhelmingly complex construction and relationship with its environment of a large mammal suggests its use as a leather seat in a luxury SUV?

I've long wondered if this concept of "dominion" is not the blank check that many religious people seem to think it is--a license to behave in any way they like toward Nature--but rather a test, a challenge to see if mankind can be wise and reverent enough to truly care for the natural world, to use what it needs to in order to survive, but also to live in harmony with the beauty and inherent, separate purposes of everything around us.

The notion of dominion that has taken hold over the centuries is a blunt, barbaric, willfully ignorant sort. If your best friend gave you their dog, would you treat it the way animals are treated in the meat industry, and then devour it? Then why devour such a greater gift as the Earth for so little reason, for the establishment of a great Man-Empire, with its myriad temples of avarice and sweeping fields of concrete, its command to consume and purchase instead of caring for what we've been given? In the guise of divine instruction, we've built Babel to worship Mammon--our actions prove it, regardless of our words.

Intelligent design and creationism expressly put the hand of the divine into the smallest detail and nuanced interrelation of the natural world. That humanity is so willing to carelessly destroy such wonderfully complex things without caring to think about or understand that balance, or to even consider its purpose and the danger of such destruction, suggests a monstrous greed and savagery in this supposed most-favored, enlightened creation.

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17 August 2007

Reading recently about the book The Trap and the film Sicko got me thinking about the kind of freedom we have in this country, and some of the small and large manifestations of it I've been noting lately.

There's an enormous amount of wealth being generated in this country, an unprecedented amount. And at the root of it is not the much-vaunted wealthy investors and entrepreneurs, but the incredible sum total of productivity by average workers. And with all this productivity and wealth, where is the average American left? Spending their lives in fear and doubt about being able to live into old age without starving or not being cared for. Wondering whether they'll be able to afford proper care and education for their children. Hoping they or their loved ones don't get sick or hurt, because they don't have insurance or the right insurance. Working for years just to pay off debt from their own education.

Is this the America we want?

I'm not talking about an alternative such as pure socialism or communism. Obviously, capitalism creates a great deal of money and possibilities. But instead of raising the overall level of society, it seems that too much of that energy is simply turned into more fuel for reaching ever-higher peaks of wealth for the benefit of a shrinking few. Our society has given itself to the capitalist system, but capitalism is forgotting to give back to the vast majority of citizens.

The point isn't that everyone should be equally rich, that no one should have to work, that no one should have less than anyone else. That's a fantasy. The point is that in this country, which is supposed to be based on ideals of freedom and Christianity, it's simply wrong for the majority of the country to live in fear and doubt about the most basic of human needs--health, education, and shelter. In the long term, the economy wouldn't skip a beat if we as a nation decided that health care and education should be free. If anything, the shock to the economy would be a healthy, reality-based adjustment. And the resulting workers would be happier, healthier, and better able to realize the liberty and pursuit of happiness we like to believe is our ideal, furthering the independent, inventive spirit that we like to hold as a uniquely American trait.

(Could it be that this is not the actual ideal aspired to by those running our economic machine?)

So if someone wants to be wealthy and avaricious at the expense of others, so be it. But let it be within an overall civic system that puts the basic needs of people first--let it be after they help subsidize the basic necessities of the millions of people who are actually responsible for their wealth. Beyond those basic needs, let capitalism be the cold, winner-takes-all bloodsport that conservatives seem to revel in and defend so much. But let's just set aside enough, compel enough contribution from our overflowing coffers of wealth, to relieve that suffering and remove the obstacles to opportunity. We don't have to pay for anyone's dream or ideal life--we just have to be decent.

Now, as to our free society:

We can own .50 caliber tank-piercing rifles for personal use, but in many places (such as my own state) we can't choose how to birth our own children (with midwives), we can't buy or sell raw milk without navigating absurd legal tangles, we can't grow a fabulously versatile crop (hemp) that would create vast amounts of wealth for farmers, we can't breast-feed a child in public. Our notions of freedom are curiously skewed toward the big winners in the capitalist scheme, and curiously harsh toward the average individual. Advantages are piled upon advantages, freedoms upon freedoms, so that if you can't climb the initial rungs of the greed ladder, you're left out.

Corporations can pollute every body of water in the country to the point that most water found in nature is dangerous to drink, and they can manufacture plastic products which leave chemicals of unknown safety in every single citizen's body, and they can genetically modify seed and food in ways whose safety is unknown and market it to the public, all without accountability. But if someone wants to sell the milk from their cow to their next-door neighbor without a permit, they're a criminal.

Something is very wrong, and very askew, with how our notions of freedom have evolved in this country. The good news is that we have all the elements in place for a tremendously healthy society. The bad news is that those elements are horribly out of whack and have become a monstrous, gluttonous machine, existing for its own abstract sake instead of the sakes of the real, living people who give it life.

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31 March 2007
It's green, but is it good?

A recent issue of Fast Company magazine featured its annual "Fast 50" leaders in business innovation, and this year's focus was on concepts and products that address environmental, social, and health issues around the world--in other words, "green" business ideas that show concern for the world rather than obliviousness to it.

At first, I was really impressed with what they chose to highlight--there area lot of great innovations going on out there, including biodegradable plastic that comes from plant cellulose, the ingenious concepts used by Polyface Farms, peer-networking systems that work around government-imposed Internet censorship (as in China), reemerging electric car technology, some great ideas for cleaner energy sources.

But as I read and considered further, along with all the great ideas for replacing wasteful or toxic technology and practices with healthier substitutes, there was an unsettling thread running through many of the other featured items. The best way I can describe it is a type of business approach that addresses serious problems by adding something to them rather than by trying to truly solve them.

A few examples might explain this best. One featured item involved GAIN, a global partnership between social organizations, the UN, and big agriculture corporations. Their goal is to improve the nutrition of the poor around the world. An extremely important issue, no doubt. But the example the magazine chose to highlight was NutriSip, a nutrition-fortified drink that's distributed in juice-box-style plastic bags to Nigerian schoolchildren. It's even made with local ingredients, so how could that be troubling?

Well, call me picky, but it just seems wrong somehow that the children of Nigeria, with nutritious local food ingredients already available, will become reliant on a Swedish company to provide their nutrition for them, in a plastic-packaged liquid form. Children plagued by poverty are in dire need of nutrition, but "solutions" like this not only trade empowerment for reliance on outsiders, but base their very business model on a lack of self-sufficiency in the customers. If the Nigerian people become more self-sufficient and develop better ways to feed themselves, it will hurt this business venture. Never good to have capitalism blocking your way. It seems to me that it would be better for Nigeria if entrepreneurs found ways to help the people develop their own nutritionally-balanced food production that keeps everything local and removes reliance on outside manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. But where's the money in that?

Another featured item was GE's Water division and its new water-filtering technologies. GE is in the midst of acquiring many new water-purification companies and products, one of which is ZeeWeed, which is "powerful enough to transform Singapore's raw sewage into clean water". Brilliant, from a technological standpoint. What's troubling, though, is that same concept of adding something to a problem instead of truly solving its root cause. The immediate problem, of course, is that there's too much dirty water and not enough clean water. The approach taken here is, "how can we make the dirty water clean?" What seems to be ignored in the process is what seems to me the better question: "how can we prevent the water from getting dirty in the first place?"

Again, it might sound curmudgeonly, but this is troubling to me. We have a situation where industry and overpopulation are creating a massive problem of water pollution and scarcity. Clean water is perhaps the most essential and precious substance on earth (try living off diamonds, baby), and it's under the greatest threat it's ever been. But rather than looking for ways to protect it in the first place, GE's basing a massive corporate venture on ways to profit from polluted water. In other words, its business model relies on the existence of polluted, unusable water.

Now, so long as there are people, there will be polluted water. It's impossible to escape that altogether. But this scenario depends on the continuation of unsustainable polluting behavior by masses of people. Corporate success isn't about mere profit--it's about continuously growing profits, reaching greater and greater heights every quarter, forever. Because of that, only huge-scale pollution will sustain this huge-scale venture. And anything that reduces pollution works against the success of GE.

Think about that. Reducing pollution will weaken GE's business.

It's situations like that which should make us all tremble at the Frankensteinian implications or large-scale capitalism.

Do we really want to rely on distant corporations for our nutrition? Do we really want to rely on massive corporate juggernauts like GE for the most basic elements of life? Almost everywhere in the world, the ingredients for healthy, nutritious, clean, sustaining lifestyles are readily at hand. Corporate control of these resources has created a market where there doesn't need to be a market, and has created need where there doesn't have to be need. This has worked to distance all of us from our own self-sufficiency and virtually obliterated the practice of community self-sufficiency in the developed world.

A great example of a more positive direction is the much-heralded zeer pot, invented by Nigerian professor Muhammed Bah Abba. This simple, ingenious device nests one earthenware pot inside another, separated by an insulating layer of wet sand. It's simple, clean to make, uses readily available ingredients, and can be made, sold, and used locally, without reliance on any outsiders. The results not only improve health, through increased shelf-life for vegetables, but have cultural and local-economic benefits as well:
Traders use desert coolers in the weekly Dutse market which attracts 100,000 people. Farmers and their wives store vegetables in the coolers at home and sell from there or at the market at a good price, instead of sending out their daughters to hawk them at a poor one. This means the girls can go to school, while young men can earn a living in the village instead of going off to Kano. "Aubergines," says Muhammed Bah Abba, "can last for 21 days." Without a desert cooler, they last only a day and a half.

One of his aims is to improve the situation of married women who, traditionally, cannot leave their village. He runs education centres for them and has found that his desert coolers help them earn the money to buy soap and other things they need. They make soft drinks called kunu, zobo and lamurje and sell them from the coolers. They trade in fruit and vegetables, either grown by their husbands or bought from other farmers.

To me, this is real innovation. Something that integrates into and preserves existing cultures, improves quality of life, and creates economic opportunities that produce secondary benefits rather than more waste and pollution.

There's green, and then there's greed. While the new wave of concerned corporate ventures will produce many wonderful things, we must be careful that we don't lose more of our humanity in the process, and must keep "voting with our money" in the best ways we can.

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25 February 2007
Guns don't make us free

I read a story yesterday that encapsulated a lot of what I despise about gun culture in modern America.

Jim Zumbo, a famous outdoorsman/hunter/gun advocate, has been vilified and basically sent into hiding after daring to suggest, in a blog post while on a hunt in Wyoming, that assault rifles have no place in the hunting community:

"Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity," Zumbo wrote in his blog on the Outdoor Life Web site. "As hunters, we don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them ... I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles."

As a result of expressing his personal opinions, this man has now lost his position with Outdoor Life magazine, the Outdoor Channel, and his corporate sponsorships. He's been publicly berated by the NRA and thousands of assault-rifle owners.

Zumbo is a 40-year member of the NRA, and has long been a public advocate for the organization and the gun-ownership rights it champions. It's obvious to anyone with a shred of intelligence that all he's saying is that these weapons made for war are grotesquely out of place in what should be a pursuit that's based on respect, dignity, and tradition. Further, he seems to be cautioning that gun owners as a group risk being lumped in with terrorists if they use the same weapons that terrorists use.

It's a pretty simple and obviously valid point. An example he singled out was the use of assault rifles when hunting prairie dogs. Doing that is comparable to a teenager playing a gory first-person video game, except unlike those video games which are so widely pilloried in society, this is actual violence committed against helpless creatures for sport and perverted amusement.

Zumbo was trying to draw the line between this unsportsmanlike behavior and the nobler hunting tradition in which hunters observe restraint and respect for their environment and their quarry. He was pointing out how the presence of weapons created to kill humans in the desperate setting of war--and indeed, these very same rifles are being used to kill our soldiers in Iraq as we speak--is not appropriate in a hunting setting.

And for this, his livelihood has been decimated, his character destroyed by his supposed friends and supporters. The NRA has gone a step further by turning his character assassination into something comparable to a mob hit, 'sending a message' over his figurative corpse:

The NRA--a well-financed gun lobby that for decades has fought attempts to regulate assault weapons--noted that the new Congress should pay careful attention to the outdoors writer's fate.

"Our folks fully understand that their rights are at stake," the NRA statement said. It warned that the "grassroots" passion that brought down Zumbo shows that millions of people would "resist with an immense singular political will any attempts to create a new ban on semi-automatic firearms."

All very noble-sounding, but Jim Zumbo isn't a politician. He's a gun advocate who dared to speak a warning to his friends, who dared have an opinion about the proper, dignified use of guns. And for this, all that he's worked for has been stripped from him.

And so it becomes clear, once again, that guns don't make us free. We see from this case, as with so many others, that the only real power of guns is fear. The same power that creates fear in anyone a gun is directed at also poisons the gun owner with fear, paranoia, and eroding character.

Like any other power, it can be used responsibly. My father is a member of possibly the last generation of dignified hunters in this country--he owns several hunting rifles, used to be an avid hunter, and is a lifelong conservationist. That's the type of gun ownership that I respect--one based in moderation, dignity, and a tradition informed with humility. What the NRA has sown in modern America, however, is nothing short of fanaticism, a distorted intolerance and hatred that is based in an irrational fear.

By continuing along this fanatical path, groups like the NRA are starting to undermine their own cause. They're showing that all our other freedoms are meaningless and can be extinguished at will in the pursuit of being able to own and use any type of weapon in any context, no questions asked. But without the context of our other freedoms and a higher, noble purpose, gun ownership becomes a perverse, thuggish, slavish addiction to power and unquestioned behavior. And as any theologian or psychologist will tell you, that will produce monsters.

In fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the type of behavior demonstrated by Zumbo's attackers is representative of a larger sickening of the American character that is responsible for the disgust and fear with which our country is widely viewed around the world. Increasingly, as a culture we seem to want to be able to do whatever we want, so matter how destructive or consumptive, and not be questioned or resisted in any way. It's like a reversion to a childish state, in which we have transcended any notion of not being able to have everything what we want, however grotesque.

No matter how much the NRA and its more fanatical members want to believe it, there's no such thing as freedom without limits. The limits to our freedom, especially those which we impose on ourselves, are the source of our nobility and higher purpose as a country and as individuals. Freedom without any limits is, by definition, anarchy, and a perversion of the ideals of this country.


19 February 2007
Return of The Police

It's a rare rock reunion that catches my attention, let alone interests me. But I was genuinely excited when I heard that The Police are reuniting for a tour, and even more excited when I watched their mini-set/press conference. They sounded terrific--like they'd never left.

The Police are a band who've been woven through the fabric of much of my life. I can still remember being a kid and seeing the huge Zenyatta Mondatta poster on the wall of my best friend's older brother's room. I remember wearing out my Ghost In The Machine cassette, almost as fascinated by the design of its package as the music itself (though I admit I didn't realize for a while that the symbols on the front were the band members). And I vividly remember the palpable, electric excitement that was in the air when the band's final album, Synchronicity, was close to release. To this day it's still the most excited I can remember, well, seemingly the whole world being about a new album--television, magazines, newspapers, all abuzz about this coming event. And later in life, after I'd left them behind to an extent, I found them all over again due to my dear friend Tris cluing me in to parts of their catalog I'd overlooked.

While I've rarely thought about them when I consider my greatest influences or "favorite bands ever", this reunion has helped crystallize the impact they've had on me for over 25 years. My well-worn Message In A Box box set has been getting a workout, and its unearthed memories, associations, and admiration for their work has woken me up to the strength of their influence on me.

Looking back at them after all these years, I'm almost baffled by how iconoclastic they were. Incredibly tight and accomplished as musicians, with a sound that was extraordinarily dark and brooding for a popular act and lyrics that ranged from offbeat to outlandish, they forged a unique sound. Like the best artists known for synthesizing existing genres into something new--from Elvis to Led Zeppelin--The Police made their punk & reggae starting point a launch pad into territory that only they could explore.

In light of all that, I thought I'd share my favorite Police tracks. For those who know them well, it's a comparison of sorts, and for those who may only know the most familiar singles, maybe a chance to find something new.

By album, chronologically (with iTunes song links and Wikipedia album links):

Outlandos d'Amour (1978). This album is a fun, tight, punk-influenced rock album, though very raw and unformed compared to what lay ahead. Big hit 'Roxanne' was here, though my faves are the straight-ahead rock of 'Truth Hits Everybody' (probably the hardest they rocked until the much later 'Synchronicity II'), the suicidally desperate 'Can't Stand Losing You', and 'Be My Girl-Sally', worthwhile for its great chorus, which alternates with a truly cracked ode by Andy Summers to his, er, inflatable girlfriend.

Regatta de Blanc (1979). Here's where the real sound of the band emerges. 'Message In A Bottle' is probably their second-most-iconic song and is still brilliant. Along with the edgily yearning 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', it features the sort of hypnotic, off-kilter, almost backwards-sounding bass guitar riff that Sting was such a genius at. This distinctive technique of his has been a huge influence on my approach to bass playing and has informed some of the most successful bass parts I've written over the years.

Zenyatta Mondatta (1980). To me, this is the first classic Police album. Their sound became smoother, more expansive, and more graceful, and a sort of unsettling quality crept in between the seams. My favorite song on this album, 'When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around', exemplifies this with a spare, hypnotic rhythm, rich guitar echoes from Andy Summers, and bleak post-modern/apolocalyptic lyrics from Sting. 'Canary In A Coalmine' and 'Man In A Suitcase' are also expertly crafted pop songs that contrast a sort of bleak despair in the lyrics with a bright, engaging melodic sound.

Ghost In The Machine (1981). Here is what I consider the Police's masterpiece. It's a departure from their first three records, and the wiry, raw strength of the individual band members starts to get sublimated to the song. But there's an absolutely unique sound and feel to this album that the trio plus producer Hugh Padgham created which has never been seen again. A rich, dark, smooth texture pervades this record, a sound at once futuristic, alien, and dreamlike, yet which can still engage at a grooving, visceral level. It starts off with the remarkable 'Spirits In The Material World'--one of the most subtly unusual pop songs ever, again with that trademark backwards/descending/off-beat bass line of Sting's. 'Hungry For You (J'Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)' is a gripping, lustful song, and 'Too Much Information' is a cycling, hypnotizing, irresistible beat, one of my faves to simply listen to and dig. The album gets a bit more strange and almost sci-fi toward the end, where two of my favorites, the propulsive rush of 'Omegaman' and the dark dream of 'Secret Journey', send it off in style.

Synchronicity (1983). Seemingly seen by many as the band's peak, to me this is an album of contradictions. It's a mix of absolute brilliance and simple filler, alternating breathtakingly accomplished songwriting with flimsy, thin throwaway numbers. This probably represents the increasingly un-democratic dynamic within the band at this time, but ironically enough, the album's signature tune (and probably that of the band as a whole), 'Every Breath You Take', is the most evenly-balanced song on the album, relying only on simple, restrained, and equal contributions from each band member for its effect. It's almost hard to listen to this massively iconic tune now with any objectivity, but when I do, I marvel at its understated magnificence. What restraint, what economy--not a note or moment wasted, not anything added needlessly, just the soft, urgent proddings of all three musicians that perfectly captures a mood of love, loneliness, loss, and menace all at once. After making a song like this, any band could reasonably decide that there was nowhere else for them to go. But other excellent songs accompany it here. 'Synchronicity II' is surely one of the most bizarre songs ever to be a big hit, with its doomy grandiosity and lyrics that connect rush-hour stress to a sort of Loch Ness monster, and the heartbreaking 'King Of Pain' packs an intensely sad, emotional lyric into an edgy, unsettled rock song. I can't think of a more dark and bleak album that's found such mainstream success.

So here's to The Police--a band that carved a path all their own, who created genuine excitement and power through raw musical and lyrical accomplishment, and who should rightly go down as one of the best rock bands of all time. I really dig 'em.

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14 January 2007
Why we need electric cars--now!

The story of the electric car is a long and tortured one, which I won't go into here, but it's worth learning about. Here's a teaser from the link above: "most popular roadworthy battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have been withdrawn from the market and have been destroyed by their manufacturers. The major US automobile manufacturers have been accused of deliberately sabotaging their electric vehicle production efforts. Oil companies have used patent protection to keep modern battery technology from use in BEVs."

If that doesn't pique your interest, nothing will. (And it would surprise me, as most of the people who I know have read this blog are the type to be concerned about such things.)

Anyway, it occurred to me in simplest terms today why we positively, urgently need to have electric cars available to us right now: because it would give us true energy independence.

Now, wait a minute, you might say. Electric cars still require lots of energy. We still have to generate all that electricity, and most of our supply comes from environmentally nasty things like coal, which is devastating to mine and poisonous to burn. That's true, and an ugly choice to have to initially make.

But what sets electricity apart from gasoline is that there are lots of ways to get it. If we keep driving gas-powered cars, even gas hybrids, we're still dependent on one unique fuel. We're still handcuffed to petroleum. It's the bottleneck on so many of our cultural advances. It ties us down economically, and it also keeps us tied uncomfortably close to Middle East politics and power struggles. Without our current great dependence on oil, we'd have had so much less contact with and involvement in the Arab world, and it's not a stretch to say that things like 9/11/01 could have been prevented, and certainly our current war too. Most likely, the Middle East would also be happier for our reduced meddling.

With electricity, we would control how it's produced. Coal would generate most of it at first, but all manner of alternative energies will grow and take on more of the load. Wind, water, solar--all of these things have been proven to be sufficient to keep electric cars charged. The result, whether with dirty coal or clean fuels, would be that our country would be independent in the area of our single biggest energy consumption. We'd be able to manufacture both our own cars and our own power. Oil consumption would drop steeply, and we'd be much less beholden to Saudi Arabia and OPEC. The powers in our own government with destructive ties to Big Oil--like the Bush family--would have less influence and less ability to get us into conflicts like our current quagmire.

Don't be fooled by counter-arguments--whatever limitations these cars might have, the opportunities they'd create for us would be immensely greater. The technology is out there right now, and has been for years. Toyota's electric RAV4 dates back to 1997 and the cost to run it was equivalent to getting mileage of 165 miles per gallon.

At the end of the day, we should have the choice. Behind-the-scenes forces in the oil and auto industries have made the choice for us, withholding this technology artificially and against the demand in the free market. Our current type of consumption is getting us into danger, involving us in wars, eating away at our paychecks, and leaving us beholden to foreign interests. In one easy fell swoop, we could turn the tables.

If you agree and want to share that opinion with the auto companies, here are direct links to contact information for some big ones:


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07 January 2007
Death of Saddam

In another chapter in our deepening, chaotic mess of a campaign in Iraq, we hurriedly pushed the execution of former dictator Saddam Hussein. What the hurry was, I'm still not sure, but it certainly managed to get the job done before Democrats took over control of Congress.

I'm sure there was much celebrating among those formerly oppressed by the man, as well as those neoconservative elements in our country who have long seen him as an obstacle to their idealized plans for the Middle East (all of which involve someone else's children fighting and dying).

But, no matter how many horrible things he's done or ordered others to do, when I saw him weep at the verdict of death in court, when I saw a photo of the execution scene itself--with him being roughly handled by masked thugs, taunted, and hanged in a dingy, dark room--I felt sick.

And I felt sadness for the suffering of this man--no matter how much of it he's caused, is it not the causing of suffering which is his crime, and yet we're doing it in turn to punish him? His crimes include killing thousands of innocent citizens, imprisoning opponents without just cause or trials, and torturing his enemies. Our country has done all of those things, on a grand scale, in the holy quest to unseat him. We've killed over 100,000 innocent civilians in Iraq during these almost four years of war. We've imprisoned thousands of men without any proof of cause, without any trials or due process. We've tortured many of these same men, for information or just for fun, humiliating them, defiling their religion, threatening or even harming their loved ones, sometimes in front of them.

In short, in an attempt to show the world how bad this man and his reign have been, we've done all the same things that made him a criminal in the first place.

But, unlike him, we're not forced to take any responsibility for it.

And let's not forget an equally important factor: that we created Saddam Hussein. I've detailed the sordid history already, but in a nutshell, we pulled Saddam out of relative obscurity as a young man, supported his ambitions to achieve our own ends, and then kept doing so all the way up to his fateful invasion of Kuwait. And that includes his infamous use of poison gas--we funded him and provided him with military intelligence, knowing full well that he would use the illegal chemical weapons against our enemies at the time, the Iranians. It's all true.

(And, in another nice touch, the Shiites we were so worried about back in the Iran-Iraq war days are in charge not only in Iran, but now also in Iraq, where they were elected democratically--replacing a secular dictator with a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy.)

So, in the end, the execution of Hussein is little more than a mafia hit--a boss taking out a loyal lackey who was getting out of hand, getting too violent. We pulled his strings right from the start, we helped build him up and shielded him from accountability. That infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam? It's from one of two diplomatic visits in late 1983/early 1984, and the second one came after Saddam used his poison gas. That's right, after he committed that heinous crime, we declared the way open for diplomatic ties with Iraq.

It was his reward for doing our dirty work. And now, after his usefulness is ended, he's being cast off, as so many others were during his reign.

He's another casualty, like all our dead soldiers, like all the many times more dead civilians, in a game of power controlled by rich white men in expensive suits who never have to take responsibility, who never have to get their hands dirty, who never have to care.

So that's why, when I saw the pathetic figure of Saddam just before death, I cared.

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28 November 2006
Columbia Visioning update

After a quick twilight run on the trail, tonight I went to the latest step in the city visioning project, the "BIG (Big Idea Gathering) meeting". It was an accurately named meeting, for it was little else than simply transcribing a few hundred ideas for ways to improve the quality of the city. I admit that I was a little let down at the lack of opportunity for discussing ideas--it made the two-hour meeting seem a little empty--but the turnout for the meeting was very good, many good ideas were proposed by the attendees, and it gave me a good look at what's on people's minds around town.

While the ideas proposed in my sub-group were all over the map--everything from building rail transportation between neighboring towns, to the city taking a more active approach in reintroducing those who've been released from prison back into society, to providing more affordable housing options in all new housing developments--when the top ideas from each discussion group were read out at the end of the meeting, it was interesting to see what themes emerged.

The most common themes, in terms of the number of groups who reported making them a high priority, included:
  • Environmental issues--protecting wild areas, preserving trees, etc.
  • Renewable energy--using more of it, energy efficiency
  • Controlling growth--better planning of infrastructure, better quality developments
  • Attracting business--drawing high-quality companies and jobs to the area
  • Education--providing consistently high-quality education to children in all areas of town
  • Looking out for the economically disadvantaged--providing loans for business development, making affordable housing and services available

It was notable that no strong pro-developer voice was heard, as far as I could tell. Even the obviously better-off members of my group, for example, were more concerned about quality-of-life issues like better airport services and a more vibrant downtown.

When I listened to the common themes being read to the overall group, I thought about what it all added up to in the end. It seemed that overall, the concern was about quality. Preserving natural beauty, using clean energy, reducing reliance on cars, attracting high-quality business to town (such as high-tech companies), and creating opportunities in the lower-income sectors. Not welfare, but opportunities--good housing, ways to develop economic self-reliance.

And it dawned on me that quality is precisely what has been lacking from Columbia's major growth and development projects lately. Nobody at the meeting seemed to be against growth and economic development. But they wanted good development--well-paying jobs, fewer franchises and more local businesses, more attractive and better-built buildings, and less environmentally-destructive developments.

Instead, what we've seen in the last few years in Columbia is an explosion of what amounts to junk-food developments. Large wild areas are clear-cut and leveled, and what goes in are cheap-looking strip malls and shopping centers, filled almost entirely with chain stores. Most of the jobs created are low-end, low-paying, part-time, with few benefits. Most of the money from such developments go to very few people, who already have money, and part of it gets sucked out of the community altogether, going to parent companies of the franchises. Housing developments are just as bad--builders come in, quickly slap together a neighborhood full of particle-board homes based on a few repeated designs, and leave in their wake something with no well-planned connection to city infrastructure, which often requires the city to fill in the gaps. On top of everything else, these commercial and housing developments are unattractive and often cheaply built.

And that's what's increasingly rubbing people in this town the wrong way--there's a lot of building going on, lots of new roads and new business, but in the end, what are we getting? Poor-quality jobs, unneeded goods and services, highly expensive housing, ugly concrete and neon landscapes, escalating burdens on city infrastructure, and little economic benefit for the majority of citizens.

This is a message that the developer and builder groups in the area would be well-advised to listen to. There's a growing wave of frustration and resistance to what developers have been doing. They can either change their ways and develop in ways that actually make the people of this town proud, or they can continue painting themselves into a corner. They can either be the engine of high-quality growth in town, or the biggest obstacle to it. What is the legacy they want to leave?

The visioning process is a long way from producing any tangible results, but a community voice is slowly starting to emerge. And it wants something better than what we're currently being given.


18 November 2006
Holy Israeli bionic wasps!

Even Robin never exclaimed something that absurd, yet it's due to become a reality.

It seems that as part of its ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, the Israeli military is planning to develop a "bionic hornet" that would be able to "chase, photograph and kill its targets", to "navigate its way down narrow alleyways to target otherwise unreachable enemies such as rocket launchers".

No, really. And they're working on super-powered "bionic man" gloves, too.

It all sounds pretty sci-fi--makes me think of the little miniature flying probes from the Star Wars movies--but the first thing that came to mind when I heard this story is: isn't it strange that Israel, the Holy Land to at least three major world religions, is also the world leader in killing- and security-related technology? That no state is so militaristically locked down, so permanently at war with its surroundings, so fervently focused on creating new ways of killing and torturing people?

Many people will hear such stories and fall into the lock-step thinking of, 'Israel's threatened by terrorists, so they have to protect themselves'. And certainly, if someone is threatening violence on others, they should be stopped (that goes for Presidents too, by the way).

But I can't help thinking that when you're more interested in creating bionic killer wasp-robots and bionic-man gloves than you are in addressing the root causes of violence and tension, that something's gone horribly wrong somewhere--that the situation has reached a new level of getting-off-track-ness.

Through these types of actions, Israel is making the world a darker, stranger, and less natural place--will the world really be a better place with the existence of bionic killer wasp-robots? That all this terrorism and bizarre war-technology is happening in what amounts to the world capitol of religion says a lot to me about humanity's capacity to disregard and destroy the beautiful potential in what it's been given.

So to all the people out there who think that flying killer robots, sonic weaponry, heat rays and lightning guns will make the world of tomorrow safe and happy and devoid of all those nasty dark-skinned bad people...sleep well. And stay the hell away from the rest of us, please.


The O.J. debacle

I hate to even be talking about this, but I feel like adding my voice to this horrible O.J. Simpson spectacle that's currently unfolding. It's horrific on so many levels--that someone could find it in their heart to create a morbid work like this on the brutal death of a loved one, that a publishing company would support and fund the idea, that thousands of people will end up buying the book. It's a disgusting cycle that reveals the worst about our collective culture. From the original crime to the absurd circus of a trial to this new low, it is the very worst that America has to offer, culturally.

Among all the absurdity, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp--which owns the publisher of the book (HarperCollins), the Fox network, and the Fox News channel--has found a way to up the ante. Firstly, they're publishing this book, which is bad enough. Then they're airing a two-hour, two-night interview with Simpson about his wretched book. And to top it all off, their news channel is providing seemingly non-stop coverage of the interview, largely devoted to indignation and outrage over it.

Despite protests by the delusional Bill O'Reilly to the contrary, this is all one company that's doing this. Creating the book, then reporting on it as news, then completing the cycle by devoting hours of airtime to how outrageous and unconscionable it is.

The entire scenario, from the idea of the book to its creation to all this coverage, is a great example of how the media, especially the most pandering and unethical media like Murdoch's companies, work cooperatively to manufacture artificial realities. Everything about this situation--that it exists in the first place, that it's being made into a story of note, and the controversy surrounding that--is all fabricated. None of it would exist in the first place without the media companies--publishing and broadcasting--making it exist.

It's not like some accident or natural disaster that the media covers after the fact. This is different--they create it, they profile it, they react to it. They create the illusion of multiple parties at work--event/coverage/analysis--when there's one source for everything. And along the way, they wrap up millions of people and millions of dollars in the story, all the while balking at being held responsible for the results--as though they're not entirely responsible for its existence.

Shame on everyone involved. And if we keep watching this media and becoming uncritical players in its morbid theatre, shame on us too.


No paving our trails

Earlier this week, a Columbia city panel scuttled the idea of paving our city's recreational trails with asphalt as part of an effort to encourage more trail use and less car use for commuting. The idea, originally proposed by trails consultant Ted Curtis and pushed by the mayor, was met with an enormous wave of opposition from users of the trails. Faced with such opposition, the PedNet panel decided to scrap the idea for existing trails, favoring instead the idea of covering any new city trails with a hard surface, which seems to me like a great compromise. (PedNet has more info on the pros and cons of paved trails.)

After this decision, Curtis said, "I’m a little concerned people are going to focus on [paving the existing trails] and not look at the big picture" of encouraging non-motorized transportation. As it happens, that's precisely the concern many people had about Curtis--that, in focusing on an unwanted change to existing trails, he was missing the bigger picture that Columbia is not a pedestrian-friendly town.

My issue with the original plan was twofold. For the most part, our city's recreational trails aren't very practical for commuters. The MKT trail does connect some significant parts of the city, but the areas it runs through are largely among the parts of town already most friendly to pedestrians. And the city's other recreational trails are pretty inefficient routes to anywhere--much better suited to their intended purpose of recreation than as effective routes of mass commuting.

The real issue when it comes to having a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town has nothing to do with these trails. It has to do with the isolated, inconsistent way that development has taken shape in this town. The size of this town is very manageable--it should be very simple to make this a town that can be easily commuted around without a car. But careless developers and a city council with little interest in cohesive planning have left us with a disjointed, patchwork infrastructure that has been slapped together with little regard for its overall flow. The result is a group of residential islands connected by major roads that are completely unsuited to non-automobile traffic. Our main arteries and all of our major commercial developments are built around the car, plain and simple.

This is why the paved-trail plan falls so far short from a practical standpoint. The vast majority of people in this town would gain no commuter benefit from our current trails. Take me, for example--I live in an old, established neighborhood and work for one of the city's major employers. I work only 5 miles from where I live, but I couldn't take a trail to work even if I wanted to--the routes wouldn't be useful for me. For me to get to work without a car, I'd have to navigate through at least 7 major intersections and travel almost the entire route on multi-lane, dense traffic arteries with no bike lanes (and sometimes no sidewalks or shoulders), 40-50 mph traffic, and major hills. Is it possible to do this? Sure. But is such a prospect going to encourage even 1% of the population to try it? Not a chance.

The key will be new trails and pedways. A significant road-extension project will be starting soon next to my workplace, and it will include an 8-foot-wide pedway running alongside the new road, separated from the main road by a swath of green space. Imagine if all of our city's major roads had such a feature! In a town this size, it would make walking or biking around town a snap. That's the future that PedNet imagines, and it's a great one.

I'll end with the second part of the reason I was opposed to paving our existing trails. As anyone who's read much of my writing on this site knows, I have a deep love for the recreational trails in this city. They provide ready access to a great degree of beauty--flora, fauna, creeks, forests, plains, wetlands. They provide oases of peace and contemplation in a town that's becoming increasingly muddled otherwise. They're a place anyone can go for a walk or bike ride, walk their dog, share the beauty of nature with their kids, play in the streams, even bow-hunt or fish in certain areas.

The gravel & dirt surface of the trails integrates with the natural surroundings. Bugs dig and slither through it, birds forage on it, grass grows in patches of it, water runs cleanly through it, its forgivingly soft surface rolls and ripples with the natural irregularity of the land around it. In short, it has an established identity, a specific beauty that is beloved by me and many others. Most of the people on these trails go there to get away from what is elsewhere, to be in this specific place. That place doesn't need to be turned into a road, with black ooze sealing off and suffocating a swath which would otherwise breathe and live. We don't need asphalt runoff, yellow stripes of paint, and slippery, slowly crumbling black junk carving up these sacred places.

Let them create new trails with all the modern advantages. But in this time when it seems like so much of the natural beauty of this town is being cut down, bulldozed, and paved over, leave us the things that we already have, that we value so much. Let us treasure what we have and make something new to complement it.

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25 August 2006
What are we striving for?

Recently Ann Marie was talking with me about the concept of a job vs. a career, and that so much attention is paid to faceless numbers like 'job creation' as opposed to individuals' actualization and fulfillment.

It got me thinking--what is the real goal of our national and world economy? We hear so much lip service being paid to capitalism as the greatest system on earth, that free markets are the foundation of our free country, blah blah. But at the end of the day, what is it for?

From the way it has developed in modern history, it seems a fair conclusion to say that the economy exists for its own sake, and that its only true purpose is growth. The question of individual human worth and meaning is not even brought up, and the reality that there is no such thing as unchecked growth in the natural world is nervously brushed aside.

And this strikes me as strange. Even with our natural human selfishness, even with our tendency to horde and conquer and want, when I take a step back it seems so odd to me that the gargantuan engines and structures of our modern economy have been built in support of what amounts to an abstraction, an economic theory.

You'll hear economists talk about wealth creation, about a country's standard of living, etc, but really, there's no broad measure of human happiness and health that our economy can be said to be a real success at, and if you look at what drives the market, general affluence is not much more than a byproduct. Can our greatness as a community be measured in the number of plasma TVs or iPods we manage to buy? (Because increasingly, our country only buys now, doesn't produce.)

Have we come to a point in our history where we can no longer ask fundamental questions about our very societal structures and foundations, or is it still possible to ask: what are we striving for? Why are we working ourselves into the grave for this abstraction instead of a shared goal of, say, no one starving or living in poverty? Is it impossible to conceive of a society in which true welfare and health of all its citizens is a mandate which must be met before any other goal--such as massive hoarding of wealth and luxury by a small number of individuals--can even be considered? Is it possible for us to measure our success in a shared way, as opposed to the "scrambling to get mine" mindset which plagues us?

I'm not even talking about socialism, really. I'm just wondering about an economic system which every year seems to grow more amoral and abstract, and toward which all our social structures, from schools onward, seem to be directed. At the end of the day, does the economy serve us, or do we exist only to support the economy?


16 August 2006
Drowning in a red tide

A headline on the MSNBC web site today was, "FBI struggles to keep up in post-9/11 world". It nicely summed up what to me seems like an impossible game that our government is playing.

Look around us: war rages in Iraq, with a record number of Iraqis (more than 3,400) killed last month and total U.S. fatalities just topping 2,600. U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan have increased each year since our invasion in 2001. Hundreds of Lebanese civilians have been slaughtered by Israel in an invasion we've supported and perpetuated. Our "diplomatic" rhetoric isolates and stonewalls every country we're having difficulty with, such as Iran and North Korea, the result being no diplomatic progress at all with these countries during Bush's terms in office.

And what do we have to show for 5 years of anti-terrorism military actions abroad? For all of our black-and-white, good-versus-evil posturing?

Fear, paranoia, and ridiculously convoluted security measures. One delirious lunatic brings explosives on a plane in his shoe, and the result is millions of Americans taking off their shoes every time they get on a plane. Now liquids and gels are banned on planes. At this rate, we'll all be nude and cavity-searched every time we fly--it's the logical conclusion to this progression.

Do we feel safer? No, we're inundated with violence and mistrust of those who are different. Republicans construct tidy fantasies for themselves of a rising tide of anti-American violence of which we're innocent victims, with our stern-father president protecting us.

Any intelligent person, however, sees the absurdity in this. We're stoking the fires of violence around the world, and we're failing to keep up with it. The FBI won't be able to keep up with it, our soldiers won't be able to invade and conquer it. We're simply tapping into more violence around the world than we can keep up with.

It's not the same as, say, WWII, when we had a massive but very focused military undertaking. The violence we're facing is diffuse, granular, spread in tiny packets all over the world, and it's reactive. Reactive to our economic policies, our corporations' abuses of foreign sovereignty and civil rights, our devaluing of the lives of dark-skinned people abroad, our imposing of our evangelical Christian mores on countries whose poor and ill need help without conditions, our hypocritically selective military actions, the cultural, economic, and military presence we push on the rest of the world.

We simply can't bomb that out of existence. It's like trying to take out a huge killer bees' nest with a pistol--one shot, and suddenly you've got a cloud of angry enemies spread out with no clear target or way to overcome them. Each enemy is small, but can hurt you badly, and you can't keep up with all of them.

Iraq and Afghanistan are quagmires. Lebanon became a quagmire for the Israelis after only a couple weeks, and they look to be pulling out in shock. The last few years of failed American policies have revealed that we're simply not that effective at dealing with this type of adversity.

This game we're playing, of detaching cause from effect, where terrorism is turned into some spontaneous evil devoid of other motivation, where enemies are simply evil and have to be destroyed, is childish and deadly. Like Hercules and the hydra, we can't keep up with the violence our violence is spawning--we're only one country and we're simply getting overrun. Until we take the time to be adults and confront the roots of hatred and violence toward America--and take steps to remedy those causes, and to dismantle our sense of privilege and superiority in the world--the swarm will keep growing, and the result will be more misery for everyone involved.

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07 August 2006
Toxic business takes a hit

Do you believe that companies should be responsible for the safety of their products? Well, the European Union does, and their latest proposed plan (highlighted by Andrew Leonard on Salon.com) designed to enforce responsibility in manufacturers is already drawing howls of protest from business interests who'd rather not be bothered with the implications of the toxicity of their products.

The new plan, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), would, in Leonard's words, "require manufacturing companies to prove in advance that the chemicals in their products aren't dangerous, as well as publish previously tightly held toxicity data on the REACH Web site." In the words of a software company director, "With REACH, companies will bear the responsibility for the chemicals in their products and will have to know the impact of those chemicals, whether they're cancerous or otherwise toxic."

What a concept.

We often hear complaints about the heavy hand of government regulation. But without sensible regulation, the marketplace can and will put all of us at risk with materials that are hazardous at all stages of their creation, use, and disposal, for the sake of quicker and larger profits. For example, consider the variety of plastics that you are likely surrounded with at this very moment.

The free market, left to its own devices, will maximize its efficiency at generating profit, and things like safety and health concerns are inherently inefficient and impede the optimization of pure capitalism.

With more and more focus on quarterly stockholder reports and other short-term measurements of success, and new stories every day of executives bailing out of companies with golden parachutes, we can't trust corporations to consider the damaging long-term impact of practices that hurt the environment or customers. To put it simply, the market is amoral, and only wise human intervention can give it a heart.


06 August 2006
Israel & Lebanon, by the numbers

I've been generally keeping up with the appalling situation in Lebanon, with Israel using the flimsy excuse of two captured soldiers to invade another country and kill hundreds of civilians. How Israel thinks this will in any way make them safer is beyond me. What's happening instead is a unification of the Arab world behind a group that was on its way to being marginalized both by other countries and its own countrymen. Why, even in our own Iraq v2.0, there have been widespread demonstrations denouncing both Israel and America. I'm waiting for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to tell us that this is all part of the plan.

But apart from any other analysis at the moment, I'm struck by the casualty numbers on both sides, and how they show the incredibly wanton and irresponsible nature of Israel's actions.

As of today, 93 Israelis and 591 Lebanese have been killed in this violence (source: AP). But just take a look at how the numbers break down:

  • Total Israeli deaths: 93
  • Israeli military deaths: 57 (61% of total)
  • Israeli civilian deaths: 36 (39% of total)
  • Total Lebanese deaths: 591
  • Lebanese Hezbollah deaths: 53 (9% of total)
  • Lebanese military deaths: 29 (5% of total)
  • Lebanese civilian deaths: 509 (86% of total)
So Israel is claiming this invasion is all about Hezbollah, and yet an incredible 91% of those being killed by Israel aren't even Hezbollah militants.

Hezbollah, this supposedly evil group, is in fact doing a much more efficient job of killing only combatants: 61% of their killings have been Israeli troops, compared to Israel's paltry 9% number of Hezbollah members killed.

Another way to put it: Israel has killed 14 times as many civilians in this conflict as has Hezbollah.

And perhaps most damning of all, from an Israeli perspective, is that as of today (and this may well change), more Israeli soldiers have been killed than have Hezbollah militants. If that isn't an omen for this ill-considered invasion, I don't know what is. They've been at this for three weeks now, and it's already a quagmire.

A likely rebuttal for what I've been laying out is that Hezbollah has a history of violence, so to isolate these casualty numbers is misleading. It's true that Hezbollah's military wing has an alleged (though mostly unproven) history of violence, but all the killings that Hezbollah has been accused of over the years is actually a lower number than the number of Lebanese civilians already killed by Israel in this current conflict. Which makes me think of the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians our military has killed in supposed revenge for just under 3,000 American deaths at the hands of a group of Saudis.

With numbers like this, it's little wonder that Hezbollah and its counterparts throughout the Middle East exist.

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17 June 2006
Gay marriage and murder

Gay marriage is good because murder is bad.

That may seem like a puzzling statement, but bear with me for a moment. I was thinking about the Biblical approach to morality and how it's been applied as really the only thing approaching an "objective" rationale for banning gay marriage. (I'll leave aside the very dubious Biblical basis for homophobia, since it's given about as much weight by God as His supposed support for making animal sacrifices.)

Let's step back for a second and look at an example of morality: murder. In the Bible, God forbids murder, calling it a sin and raising a commandment against it. Now, objectively speaking, is murder a bad thing for any other reason than God's will? Can any Christian honestly say that the only reason that murder is bad is because God forbids it? If God changed His mind, would murder suddenly be okay and accepted?

Of course not. Not in our time, not in any time. There's a basic, functional level on which murder is wrong, and an emotional level too, which have nothing to do with any religion. Long before Christianity, civilizations banned murder for a variety of reasons. In our modern world, there are myriad laws and regulations regarding things not even dreamt of in Biblical times.

What that all means is that even in our supposedly "Christian" nation, Biblical morality is not the only basis for our culture and laws. Thus, Biblical morality is not absolute, and thus it immediately becomes invalidated as the one source and limit of our laws.

In the absence of a Biblical justification, any practical arguments against allowing gay marriage quickly fall apart. The most common argument, that gay marriage is a "slippery slope" to any imaginable cojoining of creatures being recognized by the state, is an empty one. Very simply, marriage can be defined once and for all as occurring between two consenting adults. There. Wasn't that easy?

To make it even simpler, we could adopt an idea I recently read about online, which is to remove from churches the legal ability to enact civil unions. That way, churches could hold whatever ceremonies they want to (or don't want to), wedding people in the eyes of God; but the actual legal, government-sanctioned contract between two people would be a function of the state. That way, churches could continue to discriminate if they wished, but people in love who don't fit their preferred description could still have happy, devoted, and legally recognized relationships.

When you're not limited by the dogmatic blinders of organized religion, so much more--so much good--becomes possible.


10 April 2006
Review: Why We Fight

After foolishly missing it at the recent True/False Festival, I recently caught a showing of the new documentary Why We Fight (thanks to Ann Marie's encouragement).

This smart, patient film looks at evidence spanning more than 60 years and includes interviews with a wide range of people, from Gore Vidal to Richard Perle, from John McCain to the father of a 9/11 victim, to the Stealth fighter pilots who dropped the first bombs in our current war on Iraq. Interspersed are telling historical anecdotes relating to our nation's transformation during and after WWII and the amazing tale of five-star-general-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower's realization of the increasing--and frightening--role that militarization was playing in American life.

The conclusion that the evidence points to is an alarming shift in power away from elected government--which still has some degree of accountability to the people--and toward a more secretive network of military contractors and militaristic think-tanks and advisors who are, in essence, writing government policy without any accountability.

The result of all that is a film that is insightful and emotional while never being cheap or sensational. Unlike, say, Michael Moore films, this one is sober, calm, and largely allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Sights like footage of carnage in Iraq and a military contractor performing magic tricks at a military-vendor trade show (sleight of hand, anyone?) tell stories more powerful than words.

It's an emotional film, but it doesn't play on your emotions so much as it calls on your sense of common decency. It's a bracing reminder about what we've come to take for granted as normal and acceptable, and what we're still accepting today, over 60 years after our last necessary war ended. Highly recommended.

For more info, see the film's official site, an interview with director Eugene Jarecki, and an opinion piece by Walter Cronkite addressing the film.


26 March 2006
Help needed for at-risk children

I read the following story in today's Columbia Daily Tribune and thought it important enough to pass along to any gentle readers of this site. It has to do with a funding shortfall for an important function of the Rainbow House, a local children's emergency shelter.

Please read the full story and if you're able, give, and regardless, pass along to any who might be able to. An excerpt:
A wing of the Rainbow House emergency shelter is home to a special place where children can go to talk about things that are sometimes hard to say.

If necessary, a doctor or nurse examines them. Sometimes they get a warm bath and a clean set of clothes. Always, they are made comfortable in a room designed with boys and girls in mind.

The room features stuffed animals and toy cars, happy pictures on the walls and furniture built to accommodate little people.

The Regional Child Advocacy Center was created to give young victims of sexual and physical abuse a safe place to talk with trained professionals about what happened to them.

Jan Stock, Rainbow House executive director, said last year 250 children from nine Missouri counties were taken to the child advocacy center inside the shelter’s 12,000-square-foot facility at 1611 Towne Drive. The children are referred to the center by sheriff’s departments, prosecutor’s offices and police.

So far this year, the number of young victims needing help is up. Last month, 21 children were taken to the regional center for services, Stock said.

But funding for the center is down.


05 February 2006
Faith, fire, and freedom

By now we've all seen coverage of the insane, violent reactions by some Muslims to cartoons caricaturing their prophet, Muhammad. While some see this as proof of the exceptional extremism of Islam, I simply see it as a natural extension of organized religion. It's one more example of why I reject all religions and consider myself spiritual but not religious.

Spiritualism is inherently individual. It can be described but never truly shared, and that fact can be both exhilarating and terrifying. It connects one to the mysteries of the universe, but does nothing for that pesky, low human fear of isolation and need to belong. Religion, on the other hand, is all trappings--it organizes all of our fears and desires into a tidy, black and white rulebook which attempts to create one standard common denominator for all human spiritual experience, in the process turning the vast, incomprehensible infinitude of reality into a simple little historical narrative which typically takes place in a very small geographical area.

Which, of course, is all rubbish. I don't disparage individuals' religious beliefs, but the recent violent protests around the Middle East show once again, as we've seen before on countless occasions including the Crusades and Inquisitions, that all religion has a dangerous capacity for terror and destruction. It's another reminder that the distinction between faith and dogma is crucial.

On a side note, far more worrisome to me than the actual protests is a line of commentary from the Vatican about the issue:
The right to freedom of thought and expression cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.

On the contrary--it can, and it does.


28 December 2005
Have cars turned us all into jerks?

By the time I appeared on this Earth, the car culture in America had long since set in, so I don't have any perspective on its initial appearance or development.

However, I just read a fascinating column by the British writer George Monbiot which gives me some idea of what it might have looked like, to the thoughtful observer. Monbiot outlines the growing movement supporting automotive freedoms in Britain, and how what began as a specialized issue is starting to seep into many other areas of social and political life.

The result looks like a troubling increase in selfishness, carelessness for one's fellow man, and an increased perception of government and community institutions as the enemy--as obstacles to unlimited individual freedom. Monbiot makes a convincing case that the automobile may be a root cause of some of these trends. Definitely worth reading.


12 December 2005
Our need for heroes, and enemies

Tonight I was distracted away from a mediocre Monday Night Football game (c'mon, who really thought that Falcons v. Saints would make a good showcase game?) by a very interesting edition of American Experience on PBS which focused on the two titanic boxing matches between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938.

Of course, it's a gripping tale, an iconic tale for so many reasons that involve race, politics, sport, and struggle. But what affected me most about it was the sort of subtly tragic aspects of society it revealed. For a downtrodden and discriminated-against black American society, Louis quickly became an enormously powerful symbol of hope, being given a burden that no man could hope to live up to. That burden only increased when, in his rematch with Schmeling, he became the vessel for an entire country's hopes--a symbol of an entire nation that was beaten down but still somehow unified against an equally confused nation in Nazi Germany.

Both countries, short on hope and fueled by propaganda, pinned an enormous symbolic resonance on these two simple men, and in that process I saw a perfect encapsulation of humankind's need for heroes--and for enemies. The hero represents a distillation and magnification of the people's hopes, ideals, and also follies and flaws--allowing self-celebration by proxy in victory and self-flagellation by proxy in defeat. The hero's struggle against an enemy--in this case, a Germany who was not yet an enemy in practice but instead in spirit--provides a flattering mirror that allows contrast with what we dislike as different, and an exaggeration of what we most value (or imagine) in ourselves. Joe Louis, in perhaps a unique way, was a projection of our ideals sent from the depths of our collective despair and malaise to do battle with our fears and frustrations.

And at the same time, it was just a boxing match between a couple of very human, commonly flawed men. In its wake, black American leaders demanded a higher standard of action from Louis that reflected their view of him as symbol more than man (a flip side to the Nazis' indifference to Schmeling in the wake of his loss). White media had demanded an idealized standard of demeanor and personal behavior that revealed a persisting ignorance. And the rough-edged realities of these men disappeared into a legend, a heroic epic which overshadowed both their true lives and the muddled psyches of two nations seeking their identities through contrast and conflict with one another.

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26 November 2005
Thoughts on the evolution debate

By now we've all heard many stories about the debate over the theory of evolution and its place in education. Much of what passes for a 'debate' over this issue is foolish, simplified, and too narrow in focus.

Here are, as I see it, the essential points about evolution and its place:

Evolution, as a process, is fact. Simple genetics describes processes happening all the time in nature where genetic traits shape the nature of offspring. This process is observable and is not at all speculative. My favorite way of explaining this is simply: do you believe that when two red-headed people have a child, that the child will always be red-headed as well? Yes? Then you believe in evolution. Science has proven how genes and dominant and recessive traits work, and over the course of time this process translates into evolution. It cannot not result in evolution--evolution is simply the cumulative outcome of all the various genetic mixes that are happening all the time.

The theoretical extension of evolution is not the same thing as the process of evolution. To scientists, as to everyone else, the origin of life is a mysterious subject which has been examined since the dawn of civilization. Scientists, observing the realities of genetic evolution & mutation and the fossil record of humans and other species, reason that since evolution is happening all the time, to step backward toward the dawn of life means to step backward through the evolutionary process. Evolution happens continuously, so to speculate about early humans, scientists logically reason that however things began, they began at the far end of the thousands of years of evolution that has happened since.

The theory of humankind's origin and evolution is precisely that--a theory. Any scientist worth their salt would say, of course it is--everything in science is at most a theory, even things we consider to be unshakably true in everyday life. The sum effect of many years of research and study has taken certain ideas about the origins of humankind--that we evolved from more primitive primate-like lifeforms, and that we share evolutionary connections with the primate family--past the point of being mere hypothesis and into the more solid--but still ultimately open-ended--realm of a theory. Once something is considered a theory in science, it typically moves into a phase that is more concerned with refining and explaining why and how the theoretical process works than with questioning its very validity--but it never becomes unquestionable or beyond doubt. There are no closed doors in science.

The theory of evolution is the theory currently accepted by the scientific world as the most plausible. This doesn't mean that every scientist agrees with it, simply that the theory has not yet been proven false by experiment and that the evidence observed and experimented with to date has made the current theory of evolution and natural selection the leading explanation of these issues. There are many scientists who, by virtue of their personal religious beliefs, believe that life on Earth has different origins than this theory describes. But removed from any belief system, removed from any preconceived notion of how things began, looking only at the physical evidence, this theory is the one which has held up the best under all forms of scientific scrutiny. Impartial religious scientists can look at this in a detached way and simply say, 'while I do not believe that the origins of life are random and explained by this theory, I acknowledge that the current state of our scientific observation doesn't suggest another explanation stronger than this one.' And there is the key.

Teaching or acknowledging the theory of evolution does not invalidate other ideas. When a student is taught the theory of evolution in school, they aren't being taught that their religious belief is wrong and that this one scientific theory should replace their beliefs. Instead they are simply being taught about the scientific process--that this is how science looks at a problem, and that after looking at the problem, this is the best explanation science can give. There is a world of difference between saying, 'this is the truth' and 'to the best of our ability to reason and experiment, this is what the scientific community at large believes to be the most plausible explanation for the physical phenomena we have observed.' The latter is what teaching the theory of evolution means. The student learns about how the scientific method works and what its distinct reliance on physical phenomena alone produces. The student doesn't learn the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything (we of course know that is '42'), but very simply this: what a finite number of scientists, observing a finite amount of physical evidence, deduce from that evidence.

Learning this theory is a starting point, not an end. Learning about the theory of evolution can be seen in two ways: as part of a passive education that involves simply being told what one is to believe or take as fact; or as part of a process that provides one with the tools that one needs to understand the context for scientific inquiry. It's my personal belief that many of the critics of the teaching of evolution theory approach education the first way--as simple indoctrination. But any honest education, just like any honest science, is about giving everyone the tools they need to think critically and act in an informed manner. Knowledge of what the theory of evolution is and how it was arrived at gives the student a starting point for understanding and critical evaluation of all science and its interrelated theories.

The only people who need fear the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools are those who believe either the students are not smart enough to form their own opinions on what they learn, or that they should only learn one small, narrow set of ideas and never be exposed to any others. This approach disrespects both the students and the integrity of the ideas--be they religious or alternate scientific notions--that the evolutionary skeptics seek to protect.


Gifts that make a real difference

Thinking about Christmas shopping, or other gift-giving, these days? For anyone looking for something creative and meaningful to give this holiday season, there's a brilliantly original web site out there which can help.

Goodgifts.org connects simple monetary gifts from you to a wide variety of specific, tangible benefits all over the world. Of course, donating to charities is always a good idea, but the clever twist offered by this site is to tell you exactly what you're paying for. For example:

  • $26 to clear 10 square meters of minefield
  • $34 to set up a fishwife in business in south India
  • $34 to protect 250 sloth-inhabited trees in eastern Brazil
  • $43 to buy a baby-care kit for a refugee family
  • $43 to buy a donkey plow in rural Sudan
  • $43 to protect an acre of rainforest
  • $46 for a cataract operation for a needy child
  • $60 to buy a bicycle for a midwife in a developing country
  • $77 to for two months of soap-making training in Sierra Leone
  • $86 to reunite an abducted child with their family in the Congo
  • $94 to set up a bicycle taxi business in Rwanda
  • $94 to buy a rocket launcher to be turned into farm tools and school bells
  • $129 to buy a flock of ducks or chicken for a war widow in Sierra Leone
  • $163 to completely outfit a car & bicycle repair shop in Africa, which will employ several people
  • $214 to buy a camel for a Saharan African nomad
  • $300 to buy a water pump for a village of 250 people
  • $4,300 to preserve 100 acres of rainforest and give your own name to the reserve
These are only a selection of the many gifts available. All are provided through recognized charities and are guaranteed to direct 100% of your money to the specific item or service you select. Well worth checking out and passing along to friends, churches, or other community groups who are looking for ways to help those in need.


24 November 2005
'Buy Something Meaningful' Day

The folks at AdBusters are admirably pushing a very admirable idea--declaring November 25, the day after Thanksgiving, as 'Buy Nothing Day'. The idea is that for this day, we are to not participate in the economy, not fall for the marketing gimmicks and sales that run so much of our consumptive lives. It's a venture with a noble aim and I support their pursuit of it.

(As an aside, I do think the overall approach of AdBusters is a bit questionable; to me they're an example of the message being communicated in a method [obtuse, artsy abstraction] wholly inappropriate for its most important potential recipients [the regular, non-artsy people actually fueling the corporate marketing machines]. And you have to chuckle at a group proposing Buy Nothing Day whose own web site features their merchandise available for purchase on the home page. But their hearts are in the right place, and more power to them.)

But as attractive as that idea might sound, here's my proposal: perhaps we could instead make the day 'Buy Something Meaningful Day'. By the same logic that voting is better than not voting, spending money on things which enrich our lives is arguably a better form of encouraging social change than is dropping out.

So instead of getting groceries at Wal-Mart, we can buy fresh produce or free-range turkeys at the local farmer's market or natural foods store. Instead of buying decorative gifts at the mall, we can go to the colorful locally-owned stores downtown that sell local artists' work. Instead of eating at a large chain restaurant, we can go to a local place, whether an exotic vegan cafe or a working-class greasy spoon. Instead of going to Barnes & Noble, we can explore the invitingly labyrinthine locally-owned bookstores. Instead of shopping at the massive Bass Pro Shop, we can buy our hunting, fishing, and camping gear at the smaller local store that's been serving the community for many years. Instead of standing in the cold to rush into some department store at 6am in a frenetic bid to grab the cheapest crap possible, we can move more slowly and thoughtfully and buy goods that are of better quality from local businesspeople who truly care about what they sell.

As admirable as it is to stand apart altogether from the economic machine, I'll choose instead to cast my vote for the elements of my local world that I want to see flourish. So today I'll be heading downtown to the Beaux Arts Bizarre to check out the works of many local artists and eating lunch at the deliciously vegan Main Squeeze cafe. And I know I won't be alone.


04 September 2005
A strange tribute to Katrina

While visiting my folks this evening, I saw the start of a NASCAR race, including the pre-race invocation (i.e., Christian prayer). Generally speaking, I find this pretty strange; this is my own opinion, but I don't see that God has anything to do with sports, which is inherently motivated by selfishness. Not to insult athletes (which I guess doesn't really apply to NASCAR drivers)--I admire and enjoy athletic achievement in many ways. But any athlete worth their salt would admit that it's basically selfish in nature. Especially when you throw in marketing, advertising, sponsorships, and all the other profit-making add-ons of professional sports.

But what struck me as odd was that the invocation invoked the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and ended by saying that the drivers were inspired by them and implied that the race was in some part a tribute to them. I couldn't help but immediately think of the energy crisis that the hurricane-affected area of the country is facing--many areas without power, most without access to gasoline. Granted, the gas used in NASCAR is not the type used for general consumer consumption, so they're not taking gas directly from any hurricane victim, but the principle of the thing left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you want to race cars around in circles, burning through thousands of gallons of gas and other materials (tires, metal parts, etc.), that's fine, go do that. But don't try to turn it into some noble venture, a tribute to those who are suffering for the lack of the very things you're wasting on pure spectacle.

Another note on this strange event. There was also a segment paying tribute to our military serving in Iraq. This is something else that makes me uncomfortable. Professional sports in this country is about the least necessary, most wasteful activity there is. Its sole purpose is entertainment, yet it consumes monstrous amounts of resources and people's time. Again, I don't want to overly dismiss it--I enjoy my NFL and pro soccer and tennis--but I think it's wrong to link such frivolity to something as serious as war. Particularly when that war is almost certainly focused so much on oil.

A NASCAR race, or any other sporting event, is no tribute to the suffering caused by poverty, natural disasters, or war. Rather it's a reminder that while some have to struggle for their very lives, the rest of us can afford to waste time, money and resources on pointless, mindless entertainment. We can sit in the stands or in our living rooms and swell up with some kind of detached-from-reality pride when the solemn announcer invokes something that actually means something, then diminishes that very meaning to transfer a false importance to the meaningless sport. Most people don't deal well with contradictions, even less so with accepting it in their own behavior, and so don't realize how absurd this juxtaposition is. Let us not run from that dichotomy, but rather learn from it and use it to help us grow out of such childish complacency.


'Your bumper sticker sucks'

As I was driving away from work today, after putting in some extra time doing hurricane-related work, I was passed on the expressway by some older, obviously well-off guy driving one of those awful newer Cadillacs that look like a cross between the bottom part of a vacuum cleaner and a brick. I had my windows down and was concentrating on the challenging and brilliant King Crimson live album I was playing on the stereo, so I just happened to glance over and see the guy, as he was passing me, roll down his window and say to me, "your bumper sticker sucks!"

The first thing that hit me was just how strange this was. This was some late-50s/early 60s guy who had a complete look of tanned affluence about him--as though he'd come from the golf course or more likely, his enormous house overlooking a golf course. A guy with enough privilege to not deserve to get angry about many things. And he takes the time to roll down his window and yell over at some random person in a Subaru. I currently have four stickers on the back of my Subaru (I know, I know; it didn't start that way, but somehow I found myself falling into that cliché):

"Question Consumption"
"Bush inherited his safety net--now he wants to bankrupt yours"
"War is NOT pro-life"

Now, since he didn't specify which sticker he meant, I was left to wonder which one would make this rich person angry. "Question Consumption"--I bet that some people snickered at that when I first got it early this year. Now, with gas over $3/gallon, it's just good sense. That might come off as twisting the knife to this guy driving a gas-guzzler, but that would just produce resentment, not a critique. "Treehugger", again, might produce an ideological defensiveness, but it doesn't really say anything--it's more just a reclaiming of the word.

So I'm thinking it's one of the last two, which in my mind means the guy was either motivated by greed or guilt, or both. To get offended at #3 means that he must either have some personal psychological attachment to George W. Bush (which I would consider a neurosis) or else he's simply greedy and wants even more money. And to get offended at #4, I can only think that his reaction means that he's having some kind of guilt complex over holding contradictory views. So many American Christians (not all, mind you) consider themselves "pro-life", yet, again neurotically in my opinion, have an almost reflexive support for any position that supports the president--a man who has made the cheapening of lives here and abroad a centerpiece of his terms in office.

After he spoke, this fellow rolled the window back up and sped off ahead of me--just the mix of cowardice and denial I'd expect from someone who'd do that in the first place. As I drove along, I considered what, if anything, I'd do if I came to catch up with him as I drove along (which I did not attempt). I felt strangely unmotivated to do anything. I found his behavior to be embarrassing and childish, and understood that any type of response to it would validate it. By doing nothing, I leave him as the only one with an action to regret.

Some days I almost feel guilty about the crudeness and slight unfairness of having bumper stickers--they're necessarily overly simplistic and sort of lecture the people behind you without giving them a chance to respond. Today, I was glad I had them.

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28 August 2005
New Orleans & Katrina

As I write this, Hurricane Katrina is looming off the coast of New Orleans, its advance guard of wind & rain already raking over the Gulf coast. I'm hoping, along with everyone else, that this "once in a lifetime storm" will weaken and start to break up overnight, though most forecasters are doubting that possibility. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this, and somehow I'm feeling glad that I gave blood this week.

One of the most telling stories to come out at this stage is the estimated 100,000 or so inner-city (read: poor) residents who don't have the means to leave the city--no cars, not enough money. I saw some news footage tonight of hundreds or thousands of people streaming into the Superdome, and most were obviously poor, and most of them were black. As I thought back to the images of thousands of cars and SUVs streaming out of town on the interstates, and compared it to this, I felt sad. Sad largely for those unfortunate people who once again come up short in the game of life, who are left in harm's way due to the socio-economic factors stacked against them. This storm is a more overt example of the fact that thousands of people there, and untold millions everywhere else, are at risk all the time. The next time you think how much affluent white people need tax breaks, think about the people who don't have social and economic levees to protect them.

Of course, I feel a great sadness for all those who were able to evacuate; I can only imagine what it must feel like to know that there may be nothing left when you return, and of course they'll be suffering great losses over the next few months. But I can't help but feel greater sorrow for those trapped with the dual helplessness of not being able to flee this approaching monster, and also having to deal with the aftermath of loss. These poor folks, with less income and less insurance, will be last in line again in the recovery phase. Not being either the prime business movers nor the prime consumers, they will no doubt be overlooked long after the storm as passed.

We can't do anything about the storm, but we can control what happens afterward. Here's hoping no one is overlooked.


23 May 2005
Why do veggie burgers exist?

I'll step away from all the politics for a moment to briefly address a question I hear meat-eaters ask us vegetarians from time to time: "why would a vegetarian want to eat fake meat?" Why, these thoughtful souls wonder, would anyone who doesn't eat meat want to eat something that tastes or looks like meat, that is, all the simulated-meat products out there (from veggie burgers to Tofurkey to simulations of ground beef, chicken nuggets, ribs, etc.)?

Before getting to that, I have to set the proper context. Firstly, my dear carnivores, think for a moment--why do you like to eat real meat? Is it because it's meat? I highly doubt it. Do you enjoy a hamburger because it's a ground-up hunk of cow muscle? Or pepperoni on your pizza because it's a slice of pig tissue? Or your Thanksgiving turkey because it's a dismembered bird carcass? Perhaps a small percentage of hardcore weirdos actually do enjoy meat for those reasons, but I firmly believe, having been a meat eater for most of my life (up until 5 years ago), that people who eat meat enjoy it, not for the fact that it's meat, but because...are you ready for this? Because it tastes good. That it's slowly rotting animal flesh is incidental.

Thus, we have a disconnect. Meat eaters are seeking out an aesthetic experience which has very little to do with the reality of meat itself. If one attacks a live cow, pig, or chicken with a knife, slicing off chunks or tearing the flesh from the bone with one's teeth, the experience will be completely unlike what one gets with a burger, chicken sandwich, or pepperoni pizza. It would, in fact, disgust and horrify most otherwise gentle meat eaters. Only through extensive processing, transforming, seasoning, and often cosmetic steps as well, does meat become something that the average human carnivore "loves".

Now we've come back around and are only a short hop over to the vegetarian point of view. I eat "fake" hamburgers, sausage, bacon, chicken, dairy products, heck, even jerky. I do this because I like the taste, texture, and comfort of the overall aesthetic experience. It was initially a little odd to make the switch from the "real" thing (which I hope I've successfully shown to be, in fact, an artificial experience), but I adapted quickly and realized that I could get just as much satisfaction from the simulated items as the animal-based versions. That so much of our culture's experience of meat derives not from its origin, but a distant post-processed state, makes this leap eminently logical. The health benefits of avoiding meat, not to mention the way my conscience is lightened by not contributing to horrific suffering of animals and grotesque consumption of resources and pollution in industrial meat production, seals the deal.

And to address one final point that my carnivorous comrades may not fully appreciate, it's good to remember that not all vegetarians or vegans are in it for the same reasons. Some are in it for the principle that it's wrong to kill living beings for food, that all creatures have a right to self-determination and do not "belong" to us. Others believe that humans are biologically unsuited for digesting meat. Still others, like me, believe that while it's perfectly natural biologically for us to eat meat, contributing to the wholly destructive and polluting meat industry is an unethical act. And some people have health problems or food allergies which make avoiding meat a necessity.

The point is that there are many different ways to look at this issue, and many different motivations and ideals behind actions that may seem a bit odd to the unquestioning mainstream culture. The next time you contemplate why things like Tofurkey and soy cheese exist, consider your own basic assumptions and what you're taking for granted.

And I really recommend those Quorn patties. They give the answer to what mycoprotein tastes like: "chicken."


13 June 2004
The 80s live on, and die

Music of the weekend: Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse. Bought this album on Friday after downloading it a month ago (downloading is truly my radio now). I think it's a terrific continuation of what they established on their last album, Murray Street, where the noise aspects of what they do are woven into a more melodic context, with nice patient explorations that are given time to develop and build. To me they've reached a state you could almost call elegance, having achieved some kind of focus after all the edgy experimenting, and now sounding as though they're reaching for something higher and simultaneously are humbled. Not many bands from the 80s and 90s have grown beyond their roots; there are many defining statements from that era but I can't think of many who've continued to refine and expand their voices over time. Along with Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock and The Church come to mind, and however inconsistent they've all been in their post-80s years, they've all made breathtaking work that has more than justified their continued artistic existence.

As for the Church, I now feel like their most powerful and expressive work missed their latest album altogether; tracks like "Cantilever" and "Moodertronic" from the Forget Yourself bonus disc, and "Crashride" and "Nervous" from their iTunes-only EP
are to me the real defining statements of their current phase. But I digress...

Fox News pushes the envelope...of absurdity. Good lord, just when I thought Fox News was already as idiotic as it could be, yesterday it was my misfortune to catch one of the most surrealistically wrong pieces of propaganda I've seen there yet. It was some sort of bizarre marketing piece on behalf of our illegal prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (the base commonly called "Gitmo"). This took the corrupt concept of "embedded" journalists to a whole new level of, well, corruption. Ostensibly a "Fox exclusive", it basically spent all its time describing how mild and friendly the place is, and how cushy the prisoners (Fox was careful to always say "detainees", lest a slip of the word "prisoners" imply that they are in fact prisoners of war, and as such actually have human rights) have it there. Why, they have full 8'x6'x8' cells! (Small cages with only about 3' wide floor space.) And the walls are open, metal grilles, allowing them to communicate with one another! (Oh, and giving them no privacy whatsoever.) Why, those who cooperate with interrogation are even allowed outside to play volleyball or soccer in a small enclosed dirt field! We even paint arrows on the floors of their containment areas to show them which direction Mecca is in--this is positive luxury!

And watching this, I felt it was positively un-American and disgusting. I could see this exact thing being done for the Asian-Americans "detained" during WWII, and whatever outlandish justification might have been made for that in its time has no bearing here. These people in Cuba (and does anyone else see the irony in our country maintaining an illegal prison camp, in which our own law and international law is thrown out the window, in the country our government rails against so much for being an unlawful dictatorship?) may be terrorists, and may not be. The point is that what we're doing there is illegal, it's immoral, and it goes against everything that supposedly makes us different from the rest of the world (emphasis on supposedly). We've deprived these men of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for over two years now, with no access to counsel, no oversight from the outside world, no chance to state their case to anyone but their interrogators, and no status other than the 'we can do anything we want to them' "enemy combatants". This is a concentration camp, folks--a torture camp, a place to make people disappear. Our administration has taken advantage of the world's sympathy after 9/11/01 to create an ambiguous state of quasi-war, where the actual term "war" is used constantly in a theatrical sense but only in a legal sense when it broadens the power of the President and Pentagon to do what they want without any checks.

So, to the bastards at Fox I say this: Gitmo is not an example of our country's noble, humane nature. No matter how you spin bread & water into luxury amenities, it's still holding someone prisoner with no trial and no rights. Would you find a prayer mat, shower cap, blanket and salt packet (all things listed as "comfort items" by the military) a sufficient comfort for being taken away from your family for two years without being charged with any crime or given any indication when, if, or how you'd ever be free again? Of course not. This is simply Kafkaesque. I had to give a rueful laugh at the soundbite excuse a soldier gave for the prisoners' presence: "they did fight us". Of course they fought you, moron--you invaded their country. The final straw that made me turn off the TV was the bubbly blonde reporter's breathless tease that we should "tune in tomorrow to see an interrogation we were allowed to witness". War and war crimes as entertainment--thank you, Fox News, aka Ministry of Homeland Information.

Hurry up and wait. It now seems that my last month of running was a bit too good--I'm now suddenly sidelined with what I'm hoping is shin splints, and hoping is not a stress fracture. I've done a lot of research in the last couple days and have learned a lot I wish I'd known before upping my distance from 4.5 miles to 6; in retrospect a 33% increase all at once may not have been so good. I was too busy testing my will and my lungs to do my homework on my legs, and it seems to have caught up to me. So I'll be backing off for a little while to recover, and taking a slower approach when I start again. I'm paying the price for being an overenthusiastic novice, but I'm still proud and happy of the point I reached--I pushed right through the limits I thought I had. I know that I'll get back there again later in the summer, with a more sensible approach this time, and will appreciate it that much more.

Reagan. On a human level, I'm relieved that his long suffering is over; nobody deserves to go through the nightmarish illness he's struggled with these last 10 years or so. And I'm saddened for his wife and family. But I won't mourn him as a president. His terms were rife with imperialism, corruption, economic discrimination, and deficit-ballooning militarism. And contrary to the popular myth, he didn't win the Cold War--he merely allowed it to end, acting opportunistically, and grudgingly, in response to the actions of Gorbachev. We should give him due credit for doing this; he might well have seen Soviet weakness as an opportunity to crush them once and for all, rather than opening the West to them. But we should give it, along with what other praise he might deserve, without the delusional, defensive idealization that's plagued the media this week. He was a man--nothing more--riddled with faults and bad choices. He as a person gave the U.S. hope in a difficult time, but at a terrible price we're still paying today. Let's remember his successes in the proper context.

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17 May 2004
Civil rights, 21st-century syle

Song of the Day: Jay-Z, '99 Problems' (Brown, Purple, Silver, White, Double Black, Black Encored, and Black on Black album versions. I'd have to say of all those, the Brown version is my favorite.)

How far we’ve come, how far to go. Somehow it seems fitting that the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (has it only been 50 years!) shares the headlines with talk of gay marriage and the crusade against it. The parallels couldn’t be clearer. Brown was a case of the law leading the people of this country in the right direction, somewhat against its own will, and today we’re faced with a similar choice.

At the time of Brown, many southern whites were opposed to integration due to an array of imagined woes. Blacks, in their minds, were an inferior race of low moral fiber, unclean and disease-ridden. They didn’t want the institution of education corrupted by this filthy influence. Of course, they were fools; bigoted, hateful fools who couldn’t see how wrong they were. But if you had put the issue to a vote, the South would have preserved forced segregation. So fifty years ago, the Supreme Court decided for the South that segregation would not stand. From that decision cascaded a variety of other court decisions, opening up other restricted areas of society to blacks and planting the seed for the modern-day civil rights movement.

Today we’re right back in the middle of this philosophical issue, but instead it’s homosexuality on trial instead of skin color. Once again, an array of bigots is lined up against the prospect of extending a basic civil right to a large group of our population, once again babbling a list of imagined ills that will befall the world if this group is allowed the same freedoms they have. What harm comes to anyone, to anything, if a gay couple marries? None whatsoever. The only difference is that the amount of love and self-respect in the world increases a little. Can anyone look at our world today and not count that a good thing?

Some can. Some who believe in fairy tales, who base their lives on myths and interpretations of myths. Some who believe that when prophets like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad spoke of love, they meant it selectively, as though it was one elite group’s right to decide who it belonged to. Some who would rather keep an entire class of people in a state of inequality, of fear and self-loathing, rather than permit them a basic happiness. And for what reason? Simply because they can’t allow their own beliefs to be challenged. There’s simply no other reason to be opposed to gay marriage, because, like blacks in public schools or owning land, like women voting, like the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude, it only makes the world better. It adds to the count of happy, productive citizens contributing to the common good. The only negative is the hatefulness we see in those opposing it—-those who seek to impose their own world view on the hopes, dreams, and destinies of others.

A story about Brown published today quotes Dennis Archer, a junior high school student when Brown was announced, and now the first black president of the American Bar Association. He says, "I stand on the shoulders of people I’ve never met, but have read about; those who were lynched, beaten, spat upon."

The question for you is simple: will you be one of those helping to lift up this persecuted part of our population? Or will history remember you as one of those who spat, who beat, who lynched? Now is the time for you to decide.

Our President, in true form, took the Brown anniversary as another chance to show his hypocrisy and shallow intellect. Some quotes from him today:

"Fifty years ago today, nine judges announced that they had looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race."

This, on the same day he derided "activist judges" deciding on civil rights for gay Americans.

"The habits of racism in America have not all been broken," he said. "The habits of respect must be taught to every generation. While our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are still not equal in opportunity and excellence."

This, on the same day he asked Congress to deny opportunity to all of gay America based on bigotry and intolerance.

In the name of false democracy, Bush has requested that Congress propose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, to allow the "people to decide." A popular vote didn’t overturn slavery, or segregation. Some issues go beyond majority rule, to the realm of what is right and good. This is one of them.

Now is the time for you to decide. Love--or hate.

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16 May 2004
Discoveries old and new

Songs of the Day: Steve Kilbey, 'Atlantis' and 'The Dawn Poems', Annbjorg Lien - 'Den Bortkomne Sauen'.

Another 6 mile run on the trail yesterday. I may actually be getting used to this. Scary.

Discoveries old and new. I suppose I was having too pleasant a weekend to blog--I must be more regular about it. Some small pleasures mixed in--today I was reminded how much I admire Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes; his work throughout the run (1984-1994) of the British series is one of my favorite dramatic performances, of any kind, of all time. Nuanced, devilish, always a step ahead of the viewer, and haunted in ways that extended off-camera. Simply masterful. (More)

I've also come to think that Wax Poetics is the best magazine published today. Its aesthetics would be enough--heavy, high-quality paper, top-notch photography and design, even the ads are terrifically designed. But the content is, based on what I've read so far, exceptional. Ostensibly targeted at the DJ culture (which I find insufferably insipid), the result is a hefty tome dedicated to the love of music, of sounds, images, and textures, of the whole music buying and listening experience. Look for it in better bookstores; here in Columbia you can find it downtown at 9th St. Bookstore and the new APOP indie record shop.

Required reading. A couple of essential online items passed through the radar in the last few days. One is a new site dedicated to un-spinning the right-wing media spin of Fox News and its assorted allies in disinformation, called Media Matters for America. Hidden beneath that unfortunately generic name is an attempt to keep up with all the propaganda and lazy inaccuracies that are at the core of what Fox, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the rest shovel out to the masses. Keeping up with all of that is more than a full-time job, so best of luck to these folks.

The other item of import is a story that everyone should read, which has mysteriously been virtually ignored by the media (aside from one NBC story, months ago). Fortunately resurrected by Slate, the story very clearly indicates that the Bush administration purposely avoided attacking the one known terrorist operating in Iraq before the war, Abu Musab Zarqawi from Jordan, seemingly to preserve a key justification for the war. Zarqawi has since been linked to about 700 deaths--the latest of which was Nicholas Berg. I feel like a voice in the wilderness here, but this is grounds for impeachment. The Republican-controlled Congress brings Clinton up for impeachment for having extramarital sex, but George W. Bush blatantly fails in his duty to protect us from terrorism, and he gets a free pass.

Now tell me about that "liberal media" the right-wing loves to rant about. Where are these stories? There are many more like them. Believe it, folks--there are only two kinds of media that most people see today: neutral corporate media, and right-wing corporate media. By "neutral", I mean those corporate media conglomerates motivated solely by greed, as opposed to, say, Fox News, which is motivated by both avarice and a political agenda. When you turn on the TV, who do you see? Fox. When you turn on the radio, who do you hear? Rush. When you go to the newsstand, what do you see? The National Review, The Wall Street Journal. Where are the progressive, liberal voices? Hardly in control, hardly running the show. If you've never read The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Working for Change, Alternet, Buzzflash, or all the other progressive media sources marginalized by the mainstream, you're missing the real story. The big 3 networks and major magazines leave out vital information, and the righties like Fox lie constantly. Do yourself a favor and dig some more. You may not agree with all the philosophies you find, but you'll find many cold hard facts ignored--willfully or otherwise--by the media you've come to trust.

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29 March 2004
Steve Kilbey on poetry

"[Poetry] It's probably the art form that has the least money involved, you know--there's no Top 100 Billboard of poets. There's no cocaine & glamour associated with it. People write it for the love of it and people read it for the love of it. Apart from the stylistic tricks you have up your sleeve, there's no way you can enhance your poetry--you can't electronically process it to make it better poetry. So that's what I really like about it. To me it's probably the most pure art form there is." -- Steve Kilbey of The Church, Australian TV interview c.1987, discussing his book of prose poetry, Earthed.


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