Archive for March, 2011

American exceptionalism is the belief that America is somehow a qualitatively special place, a “shining city on the hill” ordained by God (for the religious types) or by Nature (for non-religious idealists) or by history (for secularists) to be the best and the brightest country ever.   As exceptionalism usually goes, America is “special” because its founders broke from European tradition to found a true democracy based on individual freedom and equality.  Multi-nationalist scholars take exception to this belief, of course, pointing out that America did not break from Europe but actually continued its marauding, colonizing, belligerent ways under the cover of democracy rather than monarchy.  Indeed.

But I want to write about the connection between a belief in exceptionalism and some other isms.  If you believe that you and your country are the best ever, belief in xenophobia (hatred of foreigners) is just around the corner, as is nativism, the belief that you and your fellow citizens, or the people of your state or your city or your block or members of your family are the people whose rights should come first in any dispute.

And if you hold all of these beliefs, racism is a handy way to justify them.  It’s okay to hate foreigners, or the people down the block, because they are different from you and yours in some crucial way.  Here I’m put in mind of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, wherein Gulliver visits a land that is torn apart by a rift between the Big Endians and the Little Endians.  The argument is over where, exactly, is the best place to slice a boiled egg.

I’m put in mind of this in turn because I have finally gotten around to reading Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent study of the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court, entitled The Nine.  The book is about the court as it was prior to the appointments of Roberts and Alito.  It nonetheless contained some real conservative loons:   Thomas, Scalia, and, to a lesser extent Rehnquist and O’Connor.

Right now I’m reading about this court’s wrangling over the death penalty.  In particular, the death penalty for minors.   Scalia and Thomas would, no doubt, put every single convicted person to death if they could, no matter how young or how disabled.  So the court had its work cut out for it in 2004, when a juvenile death sentence was put before them.  By this time a majority of the Justices were opposed to the death penalty for juveniles, and several opposed it in general because of the many death-row convictions recently overturned by the advent of DNA technology.

When the Justices questioned the lawyers for the prosecution in the 2004 case, Justice Kennedy tried a clever tactic, asking if the word “unusual” in “cruel and unusual punishment” covered the fact that the United States was the ONLY country in the word that still executed juvenile offenders.  Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria,Yemen, China, and the Republic of Congo were the last countries to engage in juvenile execution, and all had stopped the practice prior to this discussion.  Except for the USA.

This line of argument brought Scalia’s nativism raging to the fore.  He wanted to know, in essence, why America should consult the mores or laws of any other country.  Justice Breyer tried to help out by pointing out that the founders had certainly borrowed from international law and practice when writing the Constitution.  But Scalia was not to be calmed.  In his minority opinion he claimed that the Court’s “grazing” in foreign law and “the so-called international consensus” was simply an attempt to foist the majority’s liberal opinions on the country (Toobin 230).  American exceptionalism indeed!  We are the only country that executes minors and we’re damned proud of it!

Toobin goes on to show how nativism is endemic to the current Republican party.  After the 2004 decision, for which Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, Rep. Steve King of Iowa studied the number of trips abroad that had been taken by the Justices between 1998 and 2003.    Based on his findings, King claimed that “there are a couple of justices, chiefly Kennedy and Breyer, who are more enamored of the ‘enlightenment’ of the world than they are bound by our own Constitution” (231).  IOW, if you are interested in other places and people, you cannot be loyal to the homeland.   Kennedy was also attacked by that paragon of virtue Tom Delay, and Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson called for his impeachment.

The teachers of rhetoric that I know would fail a student who relied on logic like King’s, with its fallacy of the excluded middle (ie it is impossible to imagine a factual middle premise that allows one to travel from the major premise to the conclusion).   The either-or quality of this brand of nativism illustrates the childish levels on which contemporary conservative “thought” operates:  “You are!”  “Am not!”.  And the scary thing about it is that in Scalia (and Thomas, as Toobin demonstrates throughout his book) conservatives have elevated it to the Supreme Court.   Equally scary is that this cheesy logic is as easily turned on one’s neighbors and friends as it is upon Justices of the Supreme Court.


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You’ve probably heard by now that the Rethug governor of Maine has removed a mural from the Department of Labor offices there.  The guv sez the mural “discourages business” because it depicts scenes from the history of labor struggles:

Surely the panel on the right is meant to evoke memory of the Triangle Shirtwaist workers.

In any case, it seems the guv also wants to rename some meeting rooms, among them the Caesar Chavez room and the Frances Perkins room.  You can read all about it at HuffPosthttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/23/maine-paul-lepage-unions-labor-mural_n_839520.html.

Now if this doesn’t blatantly advertise the fact that business is opposed to gains made by workers, at least in the governor’s mind, I don’t know what would make it more clear.

I thought Arizona had easily won the race for Worst Governors Ever (Mecham, the thief guy, Brewer) but some of these midwestern and eastern states are competing hard for the title.

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This last week I’ve come across mention of Frances Perkins in conjunction with both the tragedy of 100 years ago yesterday which took place in New York City and the disheartening actions in Wisconsin and Maine by Repugnican lawmakers who’d like to return us to a time when such calamities could happen.

I first learned of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire 25 years ago when I bought an old, oversized photo history book of New York City in a used book store.  The fire was a huge event at the time, partly because the horror of it was so public.  The crowds in the streets could do nothing but watch as women and children jumped to their deaths, some of them afire as they fell, from from the factory storeys of the Asch Building, which were too high for fire engine ladders to reach.  The fire escape ladder quickly broke under the weight of panicked escapees, who couldn’t get out through the door leading down through the building because the owners of the company had locked it.  146 people died in less than 20 minutes.

I’d never heard of Frances Perkins until this week.  She was Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor for the whole of his presidency, and was the first woman to serve in the cabinet of any president.  Her family was from Maine, and her portrait is included in the mural that the governor of that state wants removed from Maine’s Department of Labor building because he’s had complaints that it detracts from a ‘business friendly atmosphere’.

Frances Perkins was a groundbreaking woman.  From Wikipedia:  “She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA degree in chemistry and physics in 1902, and from Columbia University with a master’s degree in political science in 1910.”  That’s impressive for a male or female in any decade.  More Wikipedia: “She held a variety of teaching positions including a position teaching chemistry from 1904-06 at Ferry Hall School, now Lake Forest Academy, in Lake Forest, Illinois. In Chicago, she volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House.”
She opted to keep her birth name after marrying, and had to go to court in order to convince officialdom that she could do so.

She was an eye witness to the Triangle Fire while a professor of sociology at Adelphi College.  She later recalled that March 25th as ‘the day the New Deal began’.

Andrew Tobias reprinted an article from the 3/18 Washington post by our current Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, commemorating the fire, wherein she quoted Perkins:

“A century ago this week, in Lower Manhattan, a young social worker named Frances Perkins was having tea at the Greenwich Village townhouse of her friend, the socialite Margaret Morgan Norrie. They were interrupted by clanging fire truck bells. Then they heard the anguished screams: “Don’t jump!”
They raced out of the townhouse and ran toward the commotion: a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, just off Washington Square. Flames and black smoke shot from the top floors, and as they watched in shock, young girls and women, some alone, some clutching hands, inched up to the windows’ ledges — and jumped to their deaths.
Perkins would describe the scene in lectures later: “They couldn’t hold on any longer. There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit. It’s that awful choice people talk of — what kind of choice to make?” She added: “I shall never forget the frozen horror that came across as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help.”
Frances Perkins first worked with Roosevelt when he was the Governor of New York, effecting progressive reform in that state in the aftermath of the fire, including factory investigations, limits on working hours, and minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.

As Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, she repeated the effort at the national level, shepherding minimum wage, social security, unemployment insurance, child labor, worker safety, and workers’ compensation laws in to place.

George Mokray, commenting on Andrew Tobias’ blog this week, wrote:  “ . . . Frances Perkins was a gutsy woman.  Here’s a story of her tangling with Alfred Sloan, from Edwin Black’s ‘Internal Combustion, a history of the internal combustion engine’:
In 1934, when Sloan telephoned Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to renege on a promise made to meet with labor strikers, Perkins lashed out bitterly at the GM chief.  Shocked at the reversal, Perkins shouted into the phone, “You are a scoundrel and a skunk, Mr. Sloan.  You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men…  You’ll go to hell when you die…  Are you a grown man, Mr. Sloan?  Or are you a neurotic adolescent?  Which are you?  If you’re a grown man, stand up and be a man for once.”

A flabbergasted Sloan protested, “You can’t talk like that to me!  You can’t talk like that to me!  I’m worth seventy million dollars and I made it all myself!  You can’t talk like that to me!  I’m Alfred Sloan.”
“There’s also a Frances Perkins Center which is still working on her issues, most recently preserving Social Security.  My grandfather was a labor organizer for the ILGWU and one of the lawyers for the workers in the Triangle Fire case.  It is part of my family history.  Thanks for remembering.”
Frances Perkins, after retiring from government service, continued to teach and lecture until just shortly before her death at 85.

What a woman!  I like this picture of her in a hard hat.

The Triangle Fire is still commemorated, but memorial events and awareness of it on its 100th anniversary seem subdued, and I can’t help but wonder whether conservative owners of news organizations have instructed that it be downplayed, not wanting to stir further the blinking, eye-rubbing, barely re-awakening spirit of the American working class.

Frances Perkins is also quietly remembered.  She’s honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA)  on May 13.  The headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. was named the Frances Perkins Building in her honor in 1980.
It just galls me that radical conservatives want to erase her legacy before most of us have ever even heard of it.  I’m glad I stumbled across her.  She was an astounding, admirable woman.

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A Song of Ice and Fire

Browsing Amazon yesterday to see whether I can afford duplicate copies of my Morrowind and Oblivion discs, I ran across a publication date for George R. R. Martin’s Dances with Dragons.  This will be the fifth novel in his long-awaited Song of Ice and Fire series.  (And I do mean “long”;   the last installment,  A Feast for Crows, was published six years ago).   I began rereading the first novel in the series, A Game of Thrones, this year when I learned that HBO will do a series based on it starting in April (if I finish before Dances comes out I will complete my third reading of the novels available so far).  Best of all, HBO cast Sean Bean to play Eddard (Ned) Stark, lord of Winterfell and Hand of the King:

Martin is that rare thing, a Real Writer of fantasy novels.   He can do all the standard stuff:   string a plot (or plots, in this case) together, draw interesting characters, set scenes.  But he also adds a moral dimension to his work that renders it utterly intriguing, for me at least.  Even better, this moral dimension is grounded in the central metaphors of the series–darkness and sunshine, frigid and hot climates, sleet and snow vs. warmth and light–in short, ice and fire.   Best of all, the good men and women (the Starks of Winterfell) hail mostly from the northern icy wastes where a 700-foot wall of ice was built long ago to keep out some dire threat, only briefly sketched so far, while the vile baddies (the Lannisters of Casterly Rock) hail from the south.  Except for the dragon queen, of course, who is, for the moment, exiled to the east (hmm) where she marries a dashing horse lord.   Intrigued yet

Martin draws events from British history of course–Hadrian’s wall and the Wars of the Roses–and from British decor and culture as well–knights and ladies, jousts, long hours of training to the sword and bow, and so on.  But Martin creates wonderfully innovative turns on all of this lore.  A central hero in the narrative (who seems like a villain at first of course) is Tyrion Lannister, scion of an important house.  Because he is a little person,  Tyrion has learned to survive by his wits–and a witty guy he is.  He enlivens every page on which he appears, and luckily for us, HBO cast Peter Dinklage to play him in the series:

Here’s a tidbit to give you an idea of intriguing qualities that Martin instills in his sideplots.  In the early chapters, a party of Starks come upon a direwolf who died while giving birth to six pups.  Because the direwolf is the sigil of their house, and because Ned Stark has six children, we just know this is an omen.  Each child gets a direwolf, and each wolf proves to be utterly loyal to his or her human.  The direwolves in fact become a crucial part of the developing main plot, and I, at least, have come to care as much about what happens to Ghost (who has all white fur) and Nymeria and Lady and Shaggydog and Greywind and Summer as their human companions do.

If you want to know more about the novels, there are plenty of great websites devoted to them.  I recommend a self-titled wiki, as well as a website called “Westeros,” from which I snagged the photos above (credit to Helen Sloan).

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Ironies Abound

The Rethuglican Party in Wisconsin has gone after a professor’s e-mails, requesting that the University of Wisconsin search for and send them all his correspondence that has words like “union” in it.

The professor in question is William Cronon, no less than the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History at UW.  And oh yeah:  he is also the incoming president of the American Historical Association.

Seems the good professor wrote an editorial for the New York Times in which he reviewed the history of political movements in Wisconsin.  What brought the Rethugs down on him though, was his peroration, in which he compared Scott Walker to Joe McCarthy, claiming the two employed similarly aggressive tactics.

Or maybe the first entry on his new blog pissed them off more:  there he disclosed some stuff that Rethugs really don’t want Americans to know.  To wit:  the role played by a shadowy group named ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) in writing the union-busting legislation recently forwarded by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (and probably by other Rethug governors as well).   Although its website proclaims this group to be non-partisan, Cronon did some digging and found out otherwise.  You can’t become a member without doling out some big bucks, for one thing.  And they write legislation that has been put forward/adopted in many states;   Arizona’s SB1070 is another example of their work.  If these two examples are typical, they are anything but non-partisan.

You can read more about all this at James Fallows’ blog at the Atlantichttp://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/have-you-no-sense-of-decency-the-wm-cronon-story/73010/.    Josh Marshall also has an editorial post up about it at TPM Cafe.  Cronon’s very own blog is called “Scholar as Citizen” and you can access it here:  http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net/.  As you might expect, Cronon is a clear and careful writer, and his posts on the matter lead readers to the right legal resources and explain his position in detail.  So much detail, in fact, that the media will probably not have the patience to read it all.

And now to the ironies:   First:  Bill Cronon sez he belongs to no political party, and never has.  He also sez he criticizes unions as often as he supports them.  I think I know this sort of (white male) senior professor in the humanities:   he thinks that his grasp of history is so sweeping that he can’t possibly be partisan (I’ll suspend disbelief on this for the moment), and he has never lifted a finger to help either graduate students or part-time faculty protect themselves against the abuses served up to them by administrators and tenured faculty alike.  Like Stanley Fish, another pampered prof whose eyes were recently opened to the importance of unionizing, he always thought that the AAUP offered sufficient protection to university teachers, even though it can do no more than sanction universities, and even though the few universities it has sanctioned have nevertheless gotten along just fine for years.

Now perhaps I am being unfair to Professor Cronon because I don’t know him, and what I just did (imagining his beliefs) is little better than wingnuttery.  I apologize.  On to

Irony number 2:   the Regthugs are behaving just like Joe McCarthy, trying to dig up dirt on the good professor so they can shame him and thus devalue the important information he has provided to the citizens of Wisconsin and the rest of us.  All in the interest of trying to saddle Cronon with the same charge.

Irony number 3:   Cronon is the last guy the Rethugs should have picked on.  His professional status assures that his job will never be in jeopardy–UW would be shunned by other elite professors for years to come should they fail to protect him in this instance.   And unlike thousands of his colleagues, he has options, as he points out in some detail on his blog.  And if he is indeed a political independent, as well a a pillar of the UW community, as he seems to be, they will get no traction whatever against him.  No Bill Ayers in this barn.

So once again their failure to make distinctions and see differences (or nuance, now a dirty word in conservative circles) led Rethugs to believe that all professors are liberals.   I wonder where they got that idea?

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At long last I have come to appreciate modding.  Snob that I am, I used to think that people who modified great games like Morrowind and Oblivion were on the same plane as people who repaint The Last Supper using characters from Lost:   the results are funny, but they aren’t art.

Mind changed.  Over the weekend I discovered massive overhauls for both games.  (Apparently the Fallout games have been modded and overhauled as well, but I haven’t checked those out yet).  For those of you who are  newbies to modding, like me, an overhaul is a collection of mods put together by a developer who reviews the available mods and selects the best for inclusion, then assembles a package wherein there are no internal conflicts, and writes an install package that even novices can use.  Voila!  A more beautiful game.

You can play a game that is harder or easier, one that has over 300 races to choose from rather than the six featured in the original games, change the plot, add episodes, add more weapons and armor, add more beautiful bodies, faces, and hairdos (and get those bodies nude if you want).  And the artwork is incredible in the best of these.

Here are some samples from the overhaul:

An interior from Morrowind–an alchemist’s shop in St. Olm’s canton.

Here is an exterior–just south of Balmora near the river Odai.

And here is a screenshot from a save game that allows you to play Oblivion as Russell Crowe:

G’day, mate!

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I found this article in The Guardian online to be helpful yesterday in gaining some perspective on the current nuclear crisis.

Lessons for Japan from the Chernobyl catastrophe

I think we’ll certainly have some shortages and price increases in the short term, but I suspect countries such as Korea, China, Singapore and us (the US has several Toyota plants) etc will ramp up production to compensate.

It’s no one’s fault that this happened, and no one could have predicted this.  But that’s why we shouldn’t build such potentially catastrophic devices as nuclear power plants.  We CAN’T predict what disasters may befall them.  When they in turn become disastrous the consequences can be too broad and long lasting.  And frightening.


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