Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pushing the envelope

Veterans for Peace established this memorial on the beach at Arlington West in Santa Monica in 2004, and it has expanded relentlessly each year with the casualty count in Iraq.

As of today, the war in Iraq has inflicted 3,454 deaths and 26,188 wounded on U.S. forces. 980 of those deaths have occurred since last Memorial Day weekend, compared to 807 during the previous year. Over two hundred troops have been killed over the last two months alone. It's not unusual for the same number of Iraqis to be killed and wounded over a single weekend.

And it will only get worse, as Bush warned on Thursday:
"We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months," he said. "We can expect more American and Iraqi casualties." He added, "It could be a bloody -- it could be a very difficult August."
Meanwhile, yet another poll shows that:
"Six in 10 Americans say the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq and more than three in four say things are going badly there -- including nearly half who say things are going very badly, the poll found."
Last week the Democrats in Congress blinked in their confrontation with Bush over timetables for withdrawal. They had little choice, of course, since they lack the Republican support needed to override the inevitable second veto. The war is funded through September, and it seems unlikely that even these poll numbers will persuade Republicans to desert Bush in sufficient numbers to have an impact on policy. Unless the situation deteriorates dramatically, they're unlikely to go into total panic mode until the primary season begins in 2008.

As a lame duck, Bush is unlikely to be able to pursue any kind of domestic agenda in Congress, for which we can all be grateful. But on Iraq, as with the Gonzales affair, he can safely adopt an in-your-face posture, defying the growing opposition to do something to force a change.

During the 1996 campaign, Bob Dole got exercised because Al Gore visited a Buddhist temple and was rewarded with some $122,000 in (legal) campaign contributions. He asked: "Where's the outrage? When--when will the voters start to focus? ...How far can you push the envelope? How much can you get away with? What can you do? "

The context has changed completely, but eleven years later Dole's questions—which seemed trivial even back then—are far more momentous. Voters are clearly focused on the war, and there seems to be no lack of outrage, but Bush has plenty of reason to believe that he can get away with just about anything—and nothing can be done about it. Sadly, he apparently faces no political consequences even if another 2,000 Americans die in Iraq before January 20, 2009.

PHOTOS: Arlington West [Thanks to Digby at Hullabaloo for the tip.]

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Geaghan: Saturday snippets

Back on the circuit

Al Gore is riding the interview circuit again, peddling his latest book. The Assault on Reason, directed at a wider target than the current execrable administration, sounds terrific.

Last night, on Charlie Rose, Gore was both passionate and articulate with such force that you had to wonder yet again what Gore '07 might've been able to do in 2000 (when he won by a half million votes, of course) or 2004. At a minimum, he might've put up a more strenuous fight over the Florida recount rather than quickly ceding the field (and the election) to the likes of James Baker, Katherine Harris and the Supremes.

It seems clear enough, for now, that Gore would be the strongest in the current field of hypercautious Democrats. But "strongest" doesn't necessarily mean "electable," given the baggage that Gore has to carry—quite unfairly, for the most part. Still, he's the only candidate in either party who comes across as what we once called "presidential," back when that was a compliment.

He seemed to leave the door open, just a crack, to running if the right conditions develop—like if Clinton or Obama self-destruct or get dismembered by the proverbial vast right-wing conspiracy. A Gore candidacy, of course, would invigorate the hyenas who have never stopped circling him. But, for now, no one else inspires much confidence that he or she is up to the job.

As for Charlie Rose, he and Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air still do the best in-depth interviews in the U.S. media. Though I'm a dedicated viewer of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, their interviews are simply too short—and too facetious, by design—to address complex issues. And Colbert's interviews are, hilariously, as much about Colbert as they are about his guests.
No subject is too obscure for Charlie Rose's show, and it lasts a full hour, so there's both depth and breadth. But he has an irritating tendency to interrupt responses that promise to be interesting, and he seems to think he has to give progressive guests a hard time to pre-empt conservative critics who otherwise might accuse him of lacking "balance." This tendency remains widespread among journalists (especially on PBS/NPR) who still overreact to conservative challenges. For the most part, though, Rose tends to be obsequious, sometimes to the point of fawning, towards his celebrity guests. Still, it's consistently the best interview show on television.

Guillermo del Toro

Speaking of Fresh Air, Terry Gross offers an outstanding interview (available via podcast) with Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican writer-director whose Pan's Labyrinth won four Academy Awards this year. The mythical dimensions of this film run far deeper than were apparent to me after just one viewing. Del Toro is impressively articulate and entertaining, and Pan is on my short list of the best films of the last five years.

"The Lives of Others" (2006)

This German film (Das Leben der Anderen), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has been playing to full houses here in Portland for the last six months or more. If you haven't seen it yet, and it's still in local theaters, don't miss it. It deserves comparison with my other German favorites such as Mephisto (1981) and Downfall (2004), along with such classics as Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987) and The American Friend (1977). Like the comic Goodbye Lenin (2003), it's set in East Berlin during the last years of communist rule. Great acting, directing and cinematography throughout. Oddly reverberates on this side of the Atlantic after six grim years of George Bush.

PHOTO: Al Gore (Wikipedia Commons, 2006)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blues Break: Dire Straits - "You And Your Friend"

Mark Knopfler casts a spell, and displays his inimitable talent, during a performance in (most likely) Nîmes, in the south of France, during the mid-90's or so. The song first appeared on the album "On Every Street" (1991).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Portland metro: The region that works, sometimes

When I moved to Portland—the one on the Upper Left Coast—more than three decades ago, the downtown was separated from the Willamette River by a freeway and a parking lot filled the defining space in the center of the city. Now the freeway is Waterfront Park and the parking lot has become the fanciful and popular Pioneer Courthouse Square. The city is arguably the most politically progressive in the country. Its politics have been dominated by a liberal/progressive coalition that has elected a variety of eccentric but effective politicians to city, state and national office—including a mayor who ran a tavern and first made a name for himself by posing for a photo in which he opened his trench coat and (apparently) flashed a downtown bronze nude.

The "city that works," as city vehicles describe it, has been a success on so many levels that it's hard to object to the rampant smugness about the place. Until recently, innovation has been a recurring theme in city and state politics since the era of Governor Tom McCall, one of the last progressive Republicans. He collaborated with a Democratic legislature in 1973 to create Oregon's legendary land-use scheme, which limited sprawl and protected farms and forests until it was eviscerated by Ballot Measure 37 in 2004. Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, since disgraced, had a vision for downtown Portland that was successfully realized over two decades.

The Portland metro region extends from the state capital in Salem to Vancouver, Washington, and has a population approaching two million. Land-use planning in Oregon has achieved two major successes in this region:

1. Transportation

Some twenty-five years ago, federal funds were diverted from a freeway project to create the first segment of the MAX light-rail system, which has been extended to the western suburbs, the south shore of the Columbia river and the busy airport. The system is fast, efficient and unaffected by heavy traffic on local streets. However, it only carries about 4% of daily commuters in the region, even though rush-hour trains are packed. And it lacks the express trains that would offer better competition for freeways by shortening commutes.

A new $117-million commuter rail line through Beaverton, Tigard and Wilsonville could become a promising model for similar intersuburban projects. Still, the new line is expected to attract a ridership of only 3,000-4,000 daily trips by 2020. Regional transportation planning lags far behind the demographic curve.

2. Containment of sprawl

The Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) was intended to draw a line in the rural dirt, beyond which urban development would not extend. The rich farmlands of the Willamette Valley, though often wasted (IMHO) to cultivate grass seed for golf courses, are directly threatened by the urban expansion of Portland, Salem and Eugene. The Portland region's UGB extends over 232,000 acres and includes 24 cities and parts of three counties.

Where I live, near the limits of the UGB, there's no transition from urban to rural: you drive about a mile and suddenly the subdivisions stop—you're in pristine open countryside. And you don't see miles and miles of the miniature baronial estates on 1-5 acre plots that desecrate the landscapes of places like upstate New York and Pennsylvania with their immaculate lawns and aristocratic pretensions.

The UGB's governing body, called Metro (for Metropolitan Service District), has resisted pressure from developers and other lobbyists to extend the UGB in our area. But the UGB has grown incrementally in other parts of the Metro region that have been designated for suburban expansion, partly in response to a state law requiring a 20-year supply of buildable residential lands. (Care to guess how that happened?) In fact, the boundary has been adjusted more than three dozen times, most recently in 2005. Metro asserts that the UGB was not intended to be "static."

So the central question for a UGB defined in this way is: what's the point, long-term, in having a growth "boundary" that keeps expanding? The current answer goes something like this: the UGB promotes orderly growth that won't overwhelm local governments and infrastructures. In reality, though, periodic expansions of the UGB only delay sprawl, which moves inexorably into some of the best farmland west of the Mississippi. Metro claims that it utilizes a 50-year planning horizon, but current rates of UGB expansion are unsustainable over such timespans.

In Oregon and the other 49 states, no once seems capable of contemplating hundred-year horizons, much less the Great Law of the Iroquois: "In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

The other major failure of regional planning has been its inability to effectively regulate sprawl within urban growth boundaries. (At a meeting of elected officials, I heard a councilor from a nearby city declare flatly that "you can't have sprawl within a UGB.") The result is suburban sprawl that would be difficult to distinguish from what you'd find around Atlanta, Minneapolis or Phoenix, including:
  • Freeways that are totally inadequate for the volume of traffic they have to accommodate in a rapidly-expanding region. And there are few plans to even deal with existing bottlenecks, much less anticipate future ones. Despite a vague sense that more freeways aren't the solution, there's little planning for alternative modes of transportation on a regional scale that could make a difference.
  • Vast shopping complexes that similarly overwhelm the transportation network, especially the large regional megamalls of Washington and Clackamas counties.
  • Euclidian zoning that compulsively segregates residential from commercial areas, forcing residents to drive miles to do their grocery shopping (with some notable exceptions, like Orenco Station on the west side). Mixed-use development is a still a rarity despite the influence of New Urbanism (and here) on professional planners during the 1990's.
  • Traditional subdivisions built at relatively low densities on street networks that lack connectivity. Many of these subdivisions are visually oppressive, including "snout" houses with projecting windowless garages that produce neighborhoods devoid of charm.
  • Low-density development creates an autocentric region in which mass transit becomes a less viable and more expensive alternative.
  • Design practices that continue to place retail stores in strip malls at the far end of vast parking lots, creating a depressingly sterile wasteland of asphalt and parked cars.
  • Trademark architecture, from Target to McDonald's, that is standardized across the country and demolishes any remaining sense of place.
  • Wide boulevards that are so pedestrian-hostile that, for my children's safety, I once drove across an 8-lane avenue to go to the other side rather than risk crossing on foot.
The list could go on and on, but you probably get the idea by now. On balance, the UGB is far better than nothing, but it has failed to deliver on its real potential. The sad likelihood is that the region will suffocate on its own growth as freeways clot and the beauty of the landscape is subverted by sprawl.

Builders, developers and realtors have kept up the political pressure to erode even the few successes of Oregon's land-use system. BM 37 is their most recent (and spectacularly effective) effort, but they have also managed to persuade many residents that high densities are inherently evil—and almost a socialist plot. Yet some of the most expensive and desirable property in Oregon (and the world, for that matter) is built at high density, like Portland's thriving Pearl district. The real issue is not density, but design. If sensitively and attractively designed, with private as well as public spaces (and decent soundproofing), high density can be a positive feature in urban development.

Portland has one huge advantage in this regional free-for-all of internal expansion: it can't sprawl, since most of its incorporated area has already reached buildout. Land-use issues in Portland involve redevelopment (as with the Pearl district) and gentrification (as in parts of Northeast Portland that were once low-income and African American neighborhoods). In both respects, development in Portland has achieved some spectacular successes and a few notable failures.

Portland's downtown deserves first mention on the list of successes. It channels light-rail and bus routes along designated streets with limited automobile traffic. Design elements, including brick sidewalks and public sculpture, provide some visual unity (though nothing like you'd see on the streets of Florence or Paris). Short, 200-foot blocks and height restrictions help the downtown retain a more human scale. The overall impression, amplified by clean streets and heavy pedestrian traffic, is quite stunning compared to most cities in the U.S. No wonder planners and journalists (as here) still come from all over the country to tour Portland. As the old saying goes: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed are kings."

Looking at individual buildings, though, downtown Portland is mostly bland and undistinguished. For the last half-century the ubiquitous glass and steel towers of the modernist style have dominated new construction, and few are memorable in any way. One of the rare innovative structures, Michael Grave's Portland Building, is a pale and sadly underfunded imitation of his original postmodernist design. Plans for new corporate buildings offer little but variations on a painfully familiar dehumanizing theme. Meanwhile, the city's political leadership faces constant criticism for its stagnation and lack of real vision.

Like Pittsburgh, the area outside downtown Portland includes some revitalized neighborhoods (such as Northwest 23rd Avenue and the Hawthorne district on the east side) that retain their richly-textured urban charms. The downside of such gentrification, as usual, has been much higher rents and real-estate values, displacing residents who often have to look to inner-ring suburbs for affordable housing (if it's available at all).

It should certainly be noted that, for a city its size, Portland offers some impressive cultural advantages, including a thriving music and arts scene. It has also become a much more ethnically diverse area, with many fine restaurants, thanks to migration from both inside and outside the U.S. Portland, at last, is beginning to have the feel of a cosmopolitan city.

Meanwhile, Oregon is struggling to reclaim its tradition of innovative land-use leadership through a visioning process awkwardly known as the Big Look. A better name for it might be "On Second Thought."

Perhaps it's a mistake to expect a place like Oregon, and a region like Portland, to be an earthly paradise. The natural beauty of the state, deeply marred as it is by industrial logging and urban sprawl, continues to move and even astonish me more than thirty years after my arrival. But such a large and growing disparity between potential and reality leaves me, ultimately, disappointed and fearful of what's coming next. It's been a tough decade for Oregon, as well as the rest of the country and world, but there are some fragile signs of hope.

The people of Oregon have yet to prove that they're worthy of occupying this landscape. But all in all, it's still a great place to live, and (shameless plug) visit.


This is the fourth installment in an occasional series—previous installments are here, here and here—about the so-called "Oregon Story," which might be more accurately described as the "Oregon Myth." My focus has been on successes and failures of Portland and Oregon as places to live and their potential as a planning models for other regions. The series is based on my observations as both a long-term resident and a former elected official in the metro region. I'm neither a land-use planner nor an architect, though I tend to have strong opinions about both disciplines.

PHOTO #1: Portland and distant Mt. Hood from the Pittock Mansion, about 1,000 ft above downtown. (My photo, taken March 2007).

PHOTO #2: Recent urban sprawl within the Urban Growth Boundary, including a Safeway, Barnes & Noble, Office Depot, Target, Haagen's and--inevitably--a McDonald's. Location: 185th Avenue and the Sunset highway in Washington County. This entire area was farmland when I moved to Oregon. (Photo from Google Earth.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Welcome, Ellis!

Ellis, a refugee from the temporarily-dormant Disambiguation ("Voice of the overeducated liberal coastal elite since 2006"), is about to become a—we hope—regular contributor to Runes, starting as soon as he can free up some time from his present conditions of servitude. A philosopher by training and temperament, Ellis will no doubt touch on that subject as well as any damned thing that interests him. Like the rest of us, he enjoys reader comments and the occasional full-blown controversy. So welcome, Ellis!

PHOTO: Ellis Island, after which our friend was not named.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Playing out the clock

In case you haven't heard, the surge in Iraq is a success. For confirmation, all you need to do is tune in to the recent evaluations by George W. Bush, Tony Snow and Fox News. Or listen to John McCain, who (on NBC's Meet the Press) once again regurgitated the Bush line that the U.S. still has "a chance of success" in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of U.S. operations in Iraq, declared:
"What I am trying to do is to get until April [!] so we can decide whether to keep it going or not. Are we making progress? If we're not making any progress, we need to change our strategy. If we're making progress, then we need to make a decision on whether we continue to surge."
In fact, it's impossible for the surge to fail, as Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money (among others, including us) noted a month ago. If U.S. and Iraqi casualties go down, it shows that the pacification plan is working. If casualties go up, then the insurgents are getting desperate, like cornered rats.

In the alternate universe where most of us prefer to analyze our news, the tangible evidence suggests abject failure so far and little patience among the U.S. public for an indefinite continuation of the war. As noted in today's online London Guardian:
The US military surge in Iraq, designed to turn around the course of the war, appears to be failing as senior US officers admit they need yet more troops and new figures show a sharp increase in the victims of death squads in Baghdad.

In the first 11 days of this month, there have already been 234 bodies - men murdered by death squads - dumped around the capital, a dramatic rise from the 137 found in the same period of April. Improving security in Baghdad and reducing death-squad activity was described as one of the key aims of the US surge of 25,000 additional troops, the final units of whom are due to arrive next month.

U.S. combat deaths in Diyala province north of Baghdad have increased by 300% compared to last year, as insurgents have shifted their focus to that region. The commander of U.S. forces in that region complained that he didn't have enough troops to meet the new challenges—still a recurring theme in Iraq, four years into the war.

Meanwhile, 100,000 to 300,000 barrels a day of Iraq's limited oil production has been "siphoned off" through corruption over the last four years. Apparently the proceeds have been used, in part, to fund the insurgency. With an average price of $50 a barrel, and an average diversion of 200,000 barrels a day, that would equal $10 million every day for 1,460 days. Pretty soon we're talking real money (on the order of about $15 billion by my math). That could buy a lot of RPG's and anti-armor munitions, and pay a lot of people to plant IED's along Iraqi roads.

So far in 2007, U.S. military fatalities in Iraq are 50% higher than during the same period (January to mid-May) last year. Looking at April 2007, there have only been three months with more U.S. fatalities since the war began. On average, there were 3.9 U.S. fatalities per day in April, the highest rate since the first few months of the war.

The number of U.S wounded increased by 44% compared to the same period in 2006. Most of the increase in U.S. casualties occurred after the surge began.

Reports of Iraqi casualties are notoriously unreliable, as the recent dispute between the al-Maliki government and the U.N. revealed once again:
In its previous report, in January, the United Nations said 34,452 civilians had died in violence last year, based on information from government ministries, hospitals and medical officials. The Iraqi government put the toll at 12,357. The numbers obtained by the Los Angeles Times indicated civilian deaths numbered 1,991 in January, dropped to 1,646 in February, when the security plan began, and rose to 1,872 in March. [These numbers are very close to those on the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count's website (1)]
Dubya, Cheney and General Odierno may be convinced the U.S. public is prepared to wait until next April for even a preliminary assessment of the surge. But every recent poll reveals that such thinking is delusional, at best.

But the political challenge is clear enough: how to force a change in policy, including a prompt withdrawal from Iraq, before the 2008 election—or, more realistically, before the swearing in of the new president. The Democrats lack the votes to override a veto, much less impeach Bush and Cheney. Congressional Republicans, though they're clearly very nervous about their prospects for 2008, are unlikely to join them in sufficient numbers to force Bush to confront realities in Iraq.

Most likely Bush will grudgingly accept short-term funding of the war and continue to play out the clock until his successor has to contend with his disastrous legacy. Conventional politics inside the beltway don't seem to offer an earlier resolution. Perhaps events, including the effects of intensified political turmoil within the U.S., will intervene in ways that can't now be foreseen.


(1) According to the ICCC, Iraqi civilian and military deaths increased by 130% during the "surge months" of March and April 2007 compared to the same two months in 2006. The ICCC site notes: "Iraqi deaths based on news reports. This is not a definitive count. Actual totals for Iraqi deaths are higher than the numbers recorded on this site."

PHOTO: U.S. Marines in Fallujah, Iraq.

Reclaiming Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day! Brave New Foundation presents the true history of Mother's Day and suggests alternative ways to honor it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Blues Break: Elliott Smith - "Angeles"

Elliott Smith's double album, New Moon, is out today. It's a powerful piece of work, as good as anything that Elliott has done. He was such a prolific songwriter and musician that only 3 of its 24 songs, all accompanied by Elliott's acoustic guitar, have previously been released. It's engineered by Larry Crane, who developed Jackpot Studios in Portland with Elliott in 1997. The songs were recorded between 1994 and 1997. As they've done in the past, Elliott's family will donate a portion of the proceeds to Outside In, a free clinic in Portland for low-income adults and homeless young people.

The Lucky Three video was made by Elliott and Jem Cohen in 1996, two years before Elliott's Oscar nomination for Miss Misery. Filmed in Portland, it was the first video of Elliott's solo career.

On a personal note, I'm proud to claim Elliott—and his wonderful family in Portland, New York and Minnesota—as friends. He is loved and dearly missed by all of us and by his legions of fans around the world.
The people you've been before
That you don't want around anymore
That push and shove and won't bend to your will
I'll keep them still

—Elliott Smith, Between the Bars (from Either/Or, 1997)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Geaghan: Things without parallel

When asked how many of the ten Republican candidates didn't "believe in" evolution at last week's debate, three raised their hands. Turns out that proportionately more R candidates accept evolution than the general population, where the percentage is less than half.

Today's Washington Post reports that:
A recent Newsweek survey presented people with three explanations for the origins of human life: that humans developed over millions of years, from lesser to more advanced forms of life, while God guided the process; that God played no hand in the process; and that God created humans in their present form.

The first option is a sort of hybrid creation-evolution endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the debate; "I believe in evolution," he said. "But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon . . . that the hand of God is there also."

The second option is evolution as explained by science, and the third summarizes the idea of creationism.

Nearly half the sample, 48 percent, said the creationism option was closest to their beliefs, and 30 percent chose the hybrid option. Just 13 percent of the sample chose evolution alone as the best approximation of their view of human development.

Those results have been mirrored in a series of Gallup polls that have asked nearly the same question at several points over the past 25 years.

According to a 2004 poll mentioned in the article, "61 percent said the creation story in the Bible—that God created the world in six days—is 'literally true.'" Therefore:

The reality is that many Americans see themselves as believers both in a higher power and in science. In a Time poll conducted last fall, 49 percent said it is possible to believe in both evolution and "divine creation by God," whereas 41 percent said the two ideas are incompatible.

But how could 61% declare that the Genesis version is "literally true" if a large portion of that majority also claim to be "believers" in science? From a strictly scientific point of view, the story in Genesis is entitled to no more credence than the Hindu notion that Vaak gave birth to the cosmos through the Golden Womb.

Does the notion of "belief" even apply to science? If so, it's of a very different order—maybe words like "hypothesis" or "high probability" or even "law" convey the texture better. A belief in the Christian creation myth is strictly a matter of faith, while a "belief" in the laws of gravity or thermodynamics is founded on observation and predictability. Whenever journalists write about science and religion in terms of belief, they imply that one worldview is as valid and defensible as any other. One simply "chooses" to believe in creationism, another in evolution, and beliefs become almost interchangeable. So a belief in creationism is entitled to equal time in our classrooms whenever Darwinian evolution is mentioned.

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, both understood and embraced the central paradox of his own Christian faith: the contrast between the intensity of his belief and the paucity of evidence to support it. His god transcended all human categories such as science, and could never be "known" as we know gravity or evolution:

What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.

Religious believers often express sorrow for the presumed despair of those who can't share their faith. Kierkegaard proposes the opposite: belief in the Christian god requires acceptance of staggering paradoxes, and a faith for which no evidence exists, all of which imposes a heavy burden of doubt and constant anxiety. For Kierkegaard, faith is dynamic and must be constantly replenished. Christians bear heavy subjective baggage, whether they acknowledge it or not, for the "leap of faith" that makes their belief possible. Kierkegaard, for one, acknowledges this central struggle--in fact, it's central to his philosophy.

Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, offers a more prosaic notion of faith, which he defined as: "Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."

Religious faith and science have nothing whatsoever in common, unless you accept at face value the claim that the god of the Catholic church periodically intervenes in human affairs through miracles. Science's inability to explain all phenomena, due to the limitations of our senses and reason, gives rise to a mystery that can appropriately inspire awe to anyone contemplating the Grand Canyon. But that sense of mystery is not proof, or evidence, of the existence of god.

PHOTO: Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Geaghan: A homegrown surge

Barack Obama's strengthening candidacy has incited hordes of white racists to discard their inhibitions—if they have any at all—in what Dave Niewert at Orcinus* calls the "new racism." He describes this phenomenon in the following terms:
Today informed its staff via email that they should no longer enable comments on stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama. The reason for the new policy, according to the email, is that stories about Obama have been attracting too many racist comments.

So far, we have been regaled with the oft-repeated "Hussein" note, the Fox smear of Obama's Muslim background, followed by Limbaugh's astonishing riff on "Barack the Magic Negro". That these reflect a barely concealed racial animus mixed with general white xenophobia should be obvious, and notably, these are all occurring on a national scale, within ostensibly mainstream media sources.

For right-wing audiences, cues like this signal just how far they can take things themselves. So on the public level, the result of this kind of talk is a regular outpouring of old-fashioned racist bile, permission having been granted by leading right-wing voices.
Niewert continues:
This resurgent racism likes to cloak itself in the pretense of rebellious individualism standing up to the oppression of overbearing "political correctness," or else in academic-sounding terms that fling about misinformation regarding the sciences and sociology to construct a pseudo-rationale for what they euphemistically like to call "race realism."

But pull the cloak aside, and the same old, decrepit racism of a century ago is there, festering like a decaying zombie who refuses to die.

And as the summer goes on, and the presidential campaign picks up steam, and Obama solidifies his already formidable position as a front runner ... well, expect to see a lot more of those zombies crawling the streets of our public discourse.
Or, as I wrote last month in reference to the Imus controversy:
Imus is part of a nauseating (and apparently growing) cultural phenomenon founded on an in-your-face racism, sexism and homophobia that proudly flaunt what they call their "political incorrectness." In reality, "politically incorrect" is nothing more a euphemism for language and symbols that are meant to hurt other people, especially minorities and women. When someone objects, they're accused of being "hypersensitive" and urged to get over it.
And we still have eighteen months until the election. If either Clinton or Obama emerges as a nominee, it's hard to imagine how deep the effluent will get between now and then.

Meanwhile, Harvard has put together an online test (the Implicit Association Test) intended to evaluate whether a person has an automatic preference for one race over another. It's free and takes about 10 minutes. While I have some questions for the assumptions and utility of the test as designed, here are the results for the "European American - African American IAT:"

The most important result: 70% of the respondents had a preference for whites that ranged from "slight" to "strong." 54% had a "moderate" or "strong" preference for whites. About 12% showed a "slight" to "strong" preference for blacks, or about the same percentage as African Americans in the U.S. population. Less than one out of five people had "no preference."

The results could be significant, since 732,881 people took the IAT between 2000 and 2006. But who chooses to take these tests, and why? I suspect that overt racists would be less likely to take it, but the data still reflects a 70% preference for whites.

It's not too surprising that people would have a "preference" for those of their own "race" (whatever that is). Still, it's hard to believe that this is a healthy condition in a very diverse society.


*Thanks to Digby at Hullabaloo for the link to Orcinus.

NOTE: There are many other types of IAT's available at Harvard's site.

PHOTO: Sens. Barack Obama and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) tour a Russian base where mobile missiles were being destroyed as part of the Nunn-Lugar program.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Blues Break: Jim Hendrix - "Voodoo Child"

Hendrix and The Experience perform "Voodoo Child" on the BBC in 1969. Hardcore fans of this classic (also listed as "Voodoo Chile" in some versions) will also appreciate the late Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover.