Archive for August, 2009


When words become meaningless

August 28, 2009

This is old, but worth watching if somehow you haven’t seen it already.

The far right has been extremely effective since late 2008 in making various previously meaningful terms completely meaningless. “Socialism” no longer has any meaning in our national discourse. It was a loaded word before, of course, but now it’s completely unusable. “Nazism” has now suffered a similar fate. (Hint to these folks who seem to think Obama is both socialist and a Nazi: “national socialism” ≠ “socialism”.)

This reminds me of a tactic that an instructor I worked with years ago used, when teaching development and globalization theory to high schoolers who had thus far been completely unexposed to these heady topics. Among the ideas covered were certain neo-Marxist ones like dependency theory. But he was very careful never to use the words “Marxism” or “Communism,” knowing they would result in a knee-jerk reaction and an automatic closing of the mind.

We should strive to respond not to words but to the ideas underpinning them; this whole trend of right-wingers calling anyone supporting health care reform “socialist” or “Nazi” has the effect of obscuring real ideas under an onslaught of increasingly meaningless and inflammatory empty words. Barney Frank isn’t playing their game. Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed here before, journalists are.

Flying Whale


American Historical Association in the hot seat

August 27, 2009

I just got wind of this via the H-World listserv, but there has been a healthy debate going on over at H-Labor for a couple weeks. The short story is, the American Historical Assocation chose the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego as the location for its 2010 annual convention. Problem is, that particular hotel is the site of a longstanding labor dispute and is boycotted by the San Diego LGBT community for its owner’s role as a principal funder of the Prop 8 campaign.

“I have a panel accepted at the AHA in San Diego but neither I nor my panel will cross a picket line,” the professor who posted the notice to H-World says. Will be very interesting to see how many folks follow suit and if the AHA ends up moving the convention (I wouldn’t bet on that happening).

The AHA Executive Director, Arnita Jones, clarifies the contract situation:

Over the years the AHA has learned that its agreements with its hotels matter. They must be signed several years in advance to ensure competitive rates needed by historians and those looking for work as historians. Once signed, a contract cannot be cancelled without financial penalty, a penalty that increases substantially the closer to the group’s meeting dates. Moreover, a cancelled contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt would only result in enriching the owner of the hotel being boycotted, pure profit for him.

Interestingly, Jones’ response goes on to address the LGBT issues but avoids discussing the labor dispute in any form.

Without knowing anything beyond the UNITE-HERE posting and the discussion at H-Labor, it seems to me that the best outcome would be for the AHA to hold the convention at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, but for attendees to avoid crossing picket lines and hold their actual panels outside the hotel. AHA avoids having to breach contract and pay a massive fine; Manchester Grand Hyatt gets negative publicity; AHA learns a lesson about selecting its hotel contracts more carefully.

Flying Whale


Echoes of a bygone era

August 26, 2009

In late September, Pittsburgh will host a G20 summit to follow up on the April summit in London. The Pittsburgh police department is not messing around with this, as they have apparently requested 4,000 extra police officers from across the country to help keep control around this summit. To put that number in perspective, the entire Pittsburgh police force numbers less than 1,000.

Why the crazy paranoia? While Pittsburgh is obviously a blue-collar town with a strong labor tradition, it’s not like Seattle and located near a hotbed of radical/anarchist activity. Are the powers that be worried that the global economic meltdown is actually enraging people enough that a massive police presence will be needed to keep the peace?

The “protest culture” that the 1999 Seattle WTO Ministerial spawned has not had any relevance in the United States since 9/11 (the 2004 FTAA summit in Miami could have been a prominent exception, but it received scant national attention relative to the scale of the chaos actually happening on the ground). The organizing strategies behind the global justice movement changed to fit a new political reality. “Teamsters and turtles” wasn’t just a chant in the streets, it became a real, if usually uneasy, political coalition working against further expansion of the WTO and even more controversial bilateral and regional agreements.

But if people are really on the brink of taking the streets en masse once again, I can’t say I think this is a bad thing. I’ve long thought that there has been far too little outrage in the United States about the global economic crisis. I don’t expect Pittsburgh to be another Seattle in the sense of educating a whole new generation of activists (not even close), but any signs of life on the streets would be welcome.

(An interesting aside: according to that Times article linked above, Seattle’s chief of police during the 1999 protests regrets ordering the use of tear gas, saying it “set the tone of conflict for the rest of the week.”)

Flying Whale


Reading assignment: The war on drugs

August 26, 2009

After being urged by a critical mass of folks to read Ben Wallace-Wells’ How America Lost the War on Drugs, I finally made time before work this morning.  The masses were right; I learned a lot.

To be honest, before today, I had no comprehension of the movement of the pulse of coca production from Bolivia to Colombia to Mexico over the last decade and a half.  Instead, I had a vague sense that all three were somehow involved.

I also had no idea that our national policy has—over the last 35 years—been what can only be described as intentionally incompetent.  Don’t get me wrong—I was on board long before today with folks who are skeptical that the terminally ill using medicinal marijuana and crack addicts have anything to do with one another, and since writing a policy brief about mandatory minimum laws, I’ve been well aware of the disparities between penalties for crack versus powder cocaine.  But I didn’t know how wildly our comprehensive strategy has changed from drug czar to drug czar and I’d certainly never heard of the way in which the pharmaceutical lobby delayed effectively controlling methamphetamines for almost a decade.

Lots of learning.  Lots.  My only complaint is that the article never acknowledges the difficulty of communicating evidence-based policy solutions.  It isn’t all malicious ignorance.  Sure, there have been instances in which the War on Drugs took a turn directly contrary to all science and, frankly, all common sense.  But the “gateway theory” was once researched-backed as well.

David Kennedy, a Harvard criminologist, appears throughout the article, usually complaining that the solutions he developed for Boston, San Francisco and High Point, NC, haven’t been taken to scale.  He says:

If ten years ago the medical community had figured out a way to reduce the deaths from breast cancer by two-thirds, every cancer clinic in the country would have been using those techniques a year later.  But when it comes to drugs and violence, there’s been nothing like that.

Maybe.  But the folks working on illegal drugs and the crossover of legal drugs into the illegal market and violent crime and the implementation of mandatory minimums and the international supply of cocaine and meth and…well, there are a lot of them and they don’t have great channels through which to talk to one another yet.

That’s not an excuse.  But it is a reality.

At any rate, it’s a well-written article that provides some incredibly helpful historical context.  It’s long, but absolutely worth your time.  Read it.




August 26, 2009

I’m not a Muslim by either faith or culture, but I fasted during Ramadan several years ago alongside a good friend of mine who is. Though it wasn’t the first or last time I shared a spiritual practice with someone I loved, it still lingers in my memory as one of the most profound.

There is certainly much else to write and think about today, but I love the way the Big Picture has captured the spirit of the first few days of this holy month.

To all those fasting, praying and celebrating around the world: blessings and peace.



How to argue

August 25, 2009

debateSince the launch of this blog, I’ve been thinking more than usual about opinions and beliefs—how we develop them, how we articulate them and how we persuade others of them.  Having suffered through some abysmal PowerPoint presentations lately, I’ve also been thinking about the way in which I expect information, especially inthe form of persuasive arguments, to be communicated to me.

As uncreative as it may be, I strongly prefer that “the point” be stated very early on.  The earlier the better.  It gives me a structure within which to store everything else and I’ve discovered that I’m virtually incapable of retaining any evidence if I don’t know what it’s supposedly supporting.

But a soon to be published article in Psychological Science begs to differ.  Research shows that “the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way…the rest of the thought is interpreted.”  From this finding, folks over at Miller-McCune go on to argue that when presenting a persuasive argument to a disagreeing audience, one should present the evidence first and the conclusion last, so as to delay the “instantaneous neural response” as long as possible.

I have to say that I find this ridiculous.  It extends from an understanding of persuasive argumentation in which the evidence is neutral and only the conclusion is opinionated.  But most of the time, that separation is only an illusion; the selection of evidence and the way in which it is communicated are just as opinion-based as the conclusion itself.  Furthermore, a media-literate audience knows this.  And roundabout persuasion feels disingenuous.

I’m not arguing with the findings in the article, but reading the summary did remind me that I dearly wish we’d drop the notion of objective evidence presentations.



Woman Enough?

August 25, 2009

Following in the vein of Flying Whale’s post yesterday, I’ve found another instance in which it’s appropriate to say: “the way we look at these issues is just as important as the fact that we’re looking at all.”

Folks are in an uproar about Caster Semenya, a gold medalist at the World Championship in the women’s 800 meter from South Africa.  The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) is investigating whether or not Semenya is woman enough to be the champion of the women’s 800.  Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, “It is unclear what the exact threshold is, in the eyes of the I.A.A.F., for a female athlete being ineligible to compete as a woman.”

Whenever we’re forced to bump into our own insistence that sex is binary, I sit up and pay attention.  Largely we don’t know what we’re talking about and we certainly don’t know how to talk about it.  And because of that, we end up with quotes like this one from defeated Mariya Savinova of Russia, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

An unbelievably muddled statement, no?  The female pronoun.  The assertion that Semenya is a man.  And the “these kind of people,” which could be interpreted in all sorts of ways, none of which are good.

Even today, we struggle to talk about folks who are not clearly male or female—whether that’s their sex or their gender presentation.  And even more problematic, even the New York Times, which is careful to emphasis what it calls the “fuzzy biological line between male and female,” also labels instances in which people have characteristics (genetic or otherwise) that are both male and females disordered.

Regardless of what one thinks about sexual orientation, the societal role of a given gender, or whether or not someone with elevated testosterone levels should compete in a “women’s” event, it’s amazing to me that we continue to ignore—in our speech and in our understanding—the biological reality that folks who have both male and female characteristics are not weird or rare.  They’re actually astonishingly commonplace.