Monday, December 28, 2009

Blynn makes racial politics get ugly in North Miami

For the first time ever, there was a shooting at the basketball courts that stand beside the tot lot near my childhood home in Keystone Point, a peninsular-island community of mid- and upper- class homes aside the intercoastal waters of North Miami.

Shootings are certainly troubling, and they're not just happening in Keystone Point. Just yesterday, a woman was shot in the parking lot outside the Aventura Mall. In North Miami, my local councilman, Michael Blynn's response to the shooting was to suggest that we shut the basketball courts, apparently because of the large number of black teenagers that congregate there. Should we shutter Aventura Mall as well, because it is known to attract a large number of "African-American teenagers"? Obviously not. Yet it is by that very same logic that Michael Blynn wants to close the North Miami basketball courts.

There are reasonable ways to deal with violence that secure our common spaces for the good of many, rather than squandering the space for the actions of a few. Our communal, recreational spaces are as or even more precious and than our commercial ones, and their protection is our entire city's responsibility. Yet my own City Councilman, Mayor Michael Blynn, is on the record that the park should be closed indefinitely. Why has he taken such an extreme position after one isolated incident?

Blynn first made his thoughts first heard at a Keystone Point Homeowners Association Meeting. The Miami Herald reported:

"Although North Miami Police Chief Clint Shannon described the shooting as an isolated incident, Blynn warned residents that crime 'cannot be controlled' and that their quality of life will be affected if the court remains open.

Blynn added, 'No offense, but the African-American unemployment rate has increased in this area.'"

In all fairness, the Herald reporter must have thought, this is pretty outrageous statement. When he contacted Blynn later by phone to give him a chance to "clarify," Blynn said:

"a worsening economy exacerbates crime and unemployed African-American teenagers are more prone to commit crimes than whites.

'Crime statistics indicate that certain people commit more criminal activities than others,' he said.

'That's just the way it is.'"

So let me get this straight. By Blynn's logic, since "a worsening economy exacerbates crime and unemployed African-American teenagers are more prone to commit crimes than whites" and "crime cannot ever be controlled," the only way to assure that our "quality of life" is "not affected" is by shutting down the basketball courts indefinitely . . . because many African-Americans recreate there?

I'm positively baffled. We live in a city with a Haitian-American mayor. Many of our councilmen are black men. My sister teaches at North Miami Middle School, where well over 90% of her students are people of color. Is Michael Blynn sending 130 of my sister's Middle School students a message that the Keystone Point basketball courts are not open to people of their kind? That they are unwelcome on "our" side of Biscayne Boulevard? I struggle to find any way of forgiving the facially discriminatory and racially hostile tone of his rhetoric. It seems to echo from an ugly, segregationist American past that once ghettoized our nation's cities. The heritage of segregation and slavery is one whose ill effects linger on in our uneven and underfunded public education system, and in the very disparate incarceration rates that Blynn cites to support his noxious reasoning.

Reasonable and well meaning people can disagree about how best to provide security at the tot lot. No doubt, many good suggestions will be provided in the coming days by a variety of community stakeholders including our local police, councilpeople, and fellow citizens of every race. Some are already being discussed. What isn't needed is reactionary rhetoric that divides and marginalizes whole swaths of our community. I hope my councilman will apologize and reflect upon the reasons why his comments are so deeply offensive to his own constituents.

Read the full Herald article here.
Take action: let Michael Blynn know this kind of divisive racial rhetoric is unacceptable in our community. Reach him here to let him know exactly how you feel.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Facebook is designed to keep you from contacting too many of your "friends" at once

I first noticed this problem when I was helping manage the Facebook group "Save the Rose Art Museum" in the early days following Brandeis University's announcement that it was closing the museum and pawning off its $300 million collection to pay its bills in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The day I learned of the crisis, I joined a burgeoning group made by Brandeis student Zev Rowlett, the largest of three that had sprung up within hours of the release of President Reinharz’s statement announcing the Boards unanimous decision. Working with fellow alum Jenna Weiss, the two of us quickly got many of our Facebook friends to join the group and tell their friends about the news. Word spreads like wildfire on the Internet, particularly when people are passionate about something like the Rose, and so our group membership swelled from 200 700 to 3000 members within a week or so.

As our movement to save the Rose grew, I sent out one short message each day with an update on recent developments in the situation, links to breaking news and commentaries on sites around the web, and information on who to contact to write letters and make phone calls to voice opposition to the University's decision. Members of the group often wrote me back with tips, insights and their own unique perspectives on the unfolding events, allowing me to better understand how my Brandeis community and the larger world of Art lovers could collaborate to save the Rose. Facebook gave me the capability to gather insights about how to effectively communicate and collaborate with the members of the group and exercise leadership in helping it grow. It was Facebook at its most democratic (with a small "d") best: providing simple online tools to allow the quick and successful formation of like-minded individuals into groups dedicated to advancing an important value in our society and enabling those persons to work together to achieve a common end.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the social movement. One day, as I hit "send" on an update to the group, a box popped up to scold me that I could not send a group message to more than 5000 members at a time. Facebook put a cap on me. To this day, the group has 7,656 members, and the only way I can communicate with them is by posting messages on the wall or discussion board of the group itself, an arguably inferior method of directly reaching into the Facebook mailbox that acts as a more direct conduit to a person’s attention.

For some reason, Facebook has decided to cut off an Administrator's ability to send out messages to more than 5000 people at a time. And that's just one of many examples of a method by which Facebook keeps you from contacting too many of your friends, too much of the time, by limiting the capabilities of its platform and preventing users from trying to take up too much of each other's attention.

Of course there must be some rationale for these kinds of rules. It is undoubtedly cheaper for Facebook to keep its servers from allowing users to connect with only a limited numbers of "Friends" at a time because maximum usage strains expensive hardware resources responsible for efficiently processing so much information every second of the day. It also helps avoids the MySpace problem of letting too many spammers reach you electronically too much of the time, particularly in your inbox.

But it also has its drawbacks. No longer could I send direct updates to my members about the quickly changing and quite dramatic events surrounding Brandeis' decision to shutter the Rose Art Museum. Facebook witnessed the power of its own software and decided I'd had enough. As you may have noticed, the limit on how many people a group Administrator can send a message to is just one of all sorts of Facebook limits: on how many friends you can tag in a note, send a message to at once, or invite to a group or game at a time. Forgot about being able to easily agglomerate your friends’ email addresses; you’ll have to open up their profile pages one at a time for that luxury.

It makes it deliberately more difficult for an organizer like me with a good faith reason to contact the “friends” he is trying to most immediately reach.

Facebook is risk-averse. It doesn’t trust users like you to take some action to limit your interactions with the groups or individuals you no longer wish to hear from, whether by contacting the individual sending the message directly to tell them why they no longer chose to receive those messages, leaving a group, or even defriending someone. Nor does it make it easy to manage our relationships with our contacts on Facebook in easier ways. Facebook doubts our ability to control our own experience on its site, and so denies us the tools to manage our experience with its software. And it is influenced by a bias that we'd rather hear less from our associates than more.

This might be the case, but it shouldn’t be, and today I discovered another reason why. Today Alan Khazei, the president of Be the Change, Inc. and co-founder of City Year, was endorsed by the Boston Globe in the Democratic Senate race to fill the great political and moral position once held by Ted Kennedy. I was excited to see the mainstream Globe’s endorsement of the scrappy public servant with a grassroots movement ("Khazei is Massachusetts' best chance to produce another great senator”) and buoyed by recent polls showing Alan commanding a larger share of the vote than ever before.

Despite these hopeful signs, the reality is also that Alan’s numbers are nearly half that of the Democratic front-runner, and because he’s taken no money from special interests and is only running for public office for the first time, he’s been less able to mount the kind of effective campaign to win the support of the greater universe of Democratic voters in Massachusetts outside the national service world who have simply never heard of him. In low-turnout primary elections, name recognition is a big boost, and for Alan, the battle has always been uphill. But the dynamic of a primary, with its endemic anemic voter turnout levels, also empowers small groups of dedicated people with the ability to turn out enough votes to sway the election.

It is with that goal – to inform people about the Globe’s endorsement, and introduce them to the man I hope they will vote for next Tuesday in the primary election in Massachusetts – that I published a blog post on my website earlier today with the news. Because my blog links to my Facebook account, the post was published on my wall within an hour.

After a friend re-posted the note on her own wall, I realized it could be very helpful to directly contact the my Facebook friends who are in networks in Massachusetts to politely tell them about Alan’s bid and ask for their support. I wouldn’t normally send such a large message to such a diverse group on Facebook, and good etiquette dictates I not send a message again unless in response to a direct contact, save for perhaps one additional message the day before the election reminding people to vote. In such a way, I would be able to effectively and politely use the power of Facebook to make the powerful kind of political impact that campaigns always dream about and work diligently to make through traditional and more costly methods like phone banking parties and door-to-door grassroots advocacy. Yet Facebook denies me that ability. It tells me that if I want to contact all these people at once, I’m going to have to work harder to get their attention.

It is primarily for that reason that I am posting this note today. While I’m writing this putting for the general interest all Facebook users share in how the platform operates, I am specifically tagging my “maximum” in this note because I believe these individuals may be Massachusetts residents with a common interest in filling the United States Senate with honorable men of integrity dedicated to public service and democracy. You'll find my original post here. If you are one of those people, I ask you only, and with great respect, to consider your civic duty as an American and make a principled decision about how to vote in nine days with the hope that my candidate will inspire you to cast your lot with him. And of course I’d be happy if you could forward the information about Alan along to any friends or family you know in the great state of Massachusetts, where I earned my bachelor’s degree.

I also hope that as Facebook grows, it will reconsider some if its limits on its members’ ability to organize and reach one another. Social networking is fast becoming one of the most democratic mediums of all time, but it will only improve if we, the users of its resources, demand it.

Alan Khazei for Senate -- Vote in Massachusetts next Tuesday!

It is exceedingly rare when a candidate runs for higher office who is so inspiring, so unconnected to special interests, and so truly driven by idealism and a passion for service, and even rarer when such a person has a chance of actually winning the nomination of a major political party. Yet in Massachusetts, this kind of opportunity is now represented by the candidacy of City Year founder Alan Khazei.

Alan is a person who has dedicated his life to serving our nation, bringing Americans together to improve our civic life, and being a positive agent for change in our society. Today, the Boston Globe has formally endorsed Alan as the right candidate to win the Democratic primary 9 days from now in Massachusetts.

I am no longer a Massachusetts resident, but having lived there for four years, and being a faithful Democrat, I can think of no person better suited to continue the legacy of Ted Kennedy than Alan Khazei -- a man who will serve as a truly inspirational leader in the United States Senate.

To all my friends in Massachusetts, I urge you to get out and vote for Alan Khazei next Tuesday. Primary elections have notoriously low turnouts, and the efforts of just a few thousand young people getting out and voting when they normally wouldn't could make the absolute difference in this campaign. Make it a priority to get out and elect Alan next Tuesday, and remind your family and friends in the area to do the same. Together we can assure this great American is elected to the Senate in 2010!

Learn more about Alan's campaign and how you can get involved in his grassroots effort!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Famous People

President Barack Obama

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Israeli President Shimon Peres

Senator Harry Reid, Majority Leader

Professor Goodwin Liu, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Constitution Society

Earth warming faster as catastrophe draws nearer

On global warming, we're playing with fire. Jeff Goodell published a powerful little article in Rolling Stone this week detailing the fact -- not surprising, in my opinion -- that global warming is happening faster then the world's leading scientists ever thought possible. Scientists once thought the Arctic would be completely melted by the end of the century; now, they believe the entire ice mass will be gone in the next couple of decades. The Arctic is dramatically smaller than it was even ten years ago because the ever expanding open waters melt ice faster, which warms the water quicker, assuring that the sum temperature of the waters are higher and less and less ice refreezes every winter. In short, positive feedback.

Here's the really scary part. Beneath the Arctic is a layer of permafrost "more than 1000 feet thick in some places" made of "partially decomposed trees, plants, woolly mammoths and other organic matter that lived in the region thousands of years ago." The terrifying reality is this:

As it thaws, all that rotting debirs send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Worse, the debris is a feast for microscopic bugs that transform it into methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than CO2. All told, there are some 1 TRILLION metric tons of carbon buried in the Arctic - the equivalent of the oil, gas and coal reserves on the entire planet."

It gets worse.

"A similarly huge amount of methane is frozen in the floor of the shallow seas surrounding the Arctic. As the water warms, these bubbles of methane ice can bubble to the surface and release million of tons of methane -- more or less cooking the planet overnight."

Think of the enormity of that sum of methane - "equivalent to more than all of the oil, gas and coal reserves on the entire planet," doubled. Then recognize that methane is TWENTY times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. What we are talking about is no less a global meltdown that would raise sea levels by as much as nine feet by the end of the century. Such a rise in water levels would leave major cities like Miami, London, New York and Shanghai under water. It would also flood entire countries in low lying areas like Bangladesh, destroying the homes of millions of people.

The time to take action to stop global warming has come; in fact, it may have already passed.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

One year ago tonight: a night to remember

For all of you who, like me, are still waiting for the most sweeping change to come, and might be feeling a little down from all the negativity and political bs of Washington, remember that one year ago tonight, we made history when we elected Barack Obama President of the United States. This is a great country where great things can happen; let us never forget it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Justice for Debbie: GOP activist resigns from all official positions after putting DWS on target at fundraiser, shooting at it

A few weeks, you might remember that I strongly condemned the actions of the Broward County GOP and their candidate for FL-20, Rich Lowry, who shot at a figure with the words "DWS" written on it, referring to my congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Well, it turns out that our letters of protest worked. Ed Napolitano, the man who orchestrated the event, has resigned from all his positions in the Republican party, and issued strong apologies for his actions.

It is comforting to know that when citizens stand up for respect and common decency in our political discourse, the right things can actually be done!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

FDR's Second Bill Of Rights

Below is the text of FDR's famous "second bill of rights" speech, in which he laid out a vision for American security and prosperity that begins with the security of fundamental economic rights for every citizen. It is my belief that American progress in the 21st century depends on finding creative ways to actualize these ideals so that WE THE PEOPLE can form a more perfect Union.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The Economic Bill of Rights”
Excerpt from 11 January 1944 message to Congress on the State of the Union

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Log Your Run - See my route

This website,, is great! It lets you use google maps to plan out your run so you know exactly how many miles you are going. Check out my 4.27 mile run this morning. It was great :)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tell Rich Lowry to Apologize for shooting at a cutout of Debbie Wasserman Schultz

These Republithugs never cease to amaze me. Back in my hometown District, FL-20, the latest GOP contender to lose run against the powerhouse that is Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently attended a Broward County Republican Party event where he and supporters took turns shooting at cut outs of Muslim caricatures, and of a figure with the word DWS printed on it. From on Oct. 9 article:

The Associated Press reports today that the South Florida-based Southeast Broward Republican Club held an event earlier this week at a gun range where targets included silhouettes of Muslim stereotypes and of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). Among those who attended the event was real estate CEO Robert Lowry, who is vying to replace Wasserman Schultz in 2010.
More details available here.

I have already sent an email to Mr. Lowry's campaign demanding an apology, which I will include below. I urge everyone, particularly citizens of District 20 (weston, hallandale, aventura, nmb, north miami, miami/downtown, the beaches) to send one as well. Shrugging this off as a "joke" and a "mistake" is not good enough; our citizens demand accountability for such an irresponsible action.

Email lowry at

My letter:

Dear Mr. Lowry,

As a resident of District 20 in South Florida, a voter, and an American citizen, I am shocked and quite frankly horrified by recent news reports that you pretended to shoot at a cut out picture of our Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at a public campaign sponsored event. (See
At a time when the rising threat of political violence is all too real in this country, your actions were much more than just in bad taste - they were downright contemptible. I think every single District 20 resident deserves a public and sincere apology for these reprehensible actions, that demonstrates your genuine understanding of why this was such a shameful and intolerable act.


Adam Schwartzbaum
North Miami, FL

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Plenty to Blame: Modernism, Fascism, and Genocide in the 20th Century.

From the Armenian massacres of WWI to the European Holocaust of WWII, from ethnic cleansing in Cambodia and Albania to organized mass murder in Rwanda and the Sudan, genocide, the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group, has unfortunately become one of the defining characteristics of the modern world. What is most incredible about these atrocities, aside from their sheer scale, is that they happened with the full knowledge and complicity of entire populations, often in close proximity to their homes and villages. One of the most blatant examples of this phenomenon is the Dachau concentration camp. Built in 1933, Dachau was the Nazi’s very first forced labor camp/crematorium; it housed up to 30,000 prisoners in the center of a German city, and executed nearly a quarter million innocent people before its liberation by allied forces in April 1945. The camp remains there to this very day, an artifact of an almost mythic past, a vivid reminder of a tragic, world historic event. A recent traveler to Germany notes that “if you're so inclined, it is possible to live in a brand-new condo built just a few meters from the walls and barbed wire of the Dachau Concentration Camp. The camp would literally be your back yard. You could tell visitors ‘Keep an eye on the enormously tall sign for the McDonald's restaurant. Turn left at the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. If you come to the Krematorium or the blood trench where the Soviet POWs were shot, you've gone too far.’” Dachau was no Sobibor, a remote death camp on the edge of a Polish forest; situated in the city’s center, no citizen of Dachau could have lived without noticing the trains constantly bringing thousands of prisoners into the new camps, or missed the distinct smell of burning flesh and the human ashes that rained down upon the city on busy days.

A whole body of literature has developed around the question of the German people’s relationship to their genocide in their midst. While historians debate the question of culpability for the atrocities of the Holocaust, it is equally, if not more important to look to the literature of the time, and see what contemporary culture has to say about the world historic moment that was the state fascism and European genocide of the mid-20th century. Two authors who can help inform our understandings of this period are Eliot and Auden, poets whose work gives us insight into the basis for fascist tendencies in high intellectual circles, and a moral framework through which to view the failure of the German people to contest the crimes being carried out in their midst. Eliot’s Wasteland, with its highly controlled form and famous three tiered invective, datta, dayadhvam, damyata- give, control, and sympathize- provides a kind of logic for the nationalist collectivism of National Socialism. Eliot employs the mythic method to make a case for the necessity of modern art to connect to a common cultural, literary and historic tradition, and in the process, influences the modern cultural elite with a belief that modernism is not incompatible with fascism, and may even need it. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, by contrast, delivers a stunning (if ambiguous) critique of that same elite, exposing the tendency in people to turn away from tragedy when forced to negotiate between moral action in the face of injustice and the complacency stemming for their perceived worldly interests.

For most literary critics, Eliot’s Wasteland is considered the definitive poem of high modernism: an epic work of art modeled after the quest narratives of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, unique in its content, fragmentary and highly controlled style, difficulty, and most significantly, its use of the mythic method to draw parallels between the great foundational tales of Western civilization and our present, modern condition. Let us examine two interplaying aspects of this mammoth text: collectivism, and the mythic method.

Throughout the poem, images of a desolated, unconnected world form the background for all the characters and their actions. Their existence within The Wasteland is so tragic because they cannot connect to one another and form a genuine collective, and this ability is lost because they have lost their primary connection to a shared literary, cultural and historic tradition. At the end of the first section, The Burial of the Dead, the reader finds first mention of the “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn” (59-60). This same term is repeated in The Fire Sermon (Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter noon (207-208)), and is alluded to a third time in What the Thunder Said (Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal (374-377)). Eliot repeats this image of an alien world to emphasize a modern commonality: as these cities all contain citizens who cannot connect to the European heritage that unites them, they are in a paradoxical way all the same city.

Consider the lines immediately following the first mention of “Unreal city” in The Burial of the Dead. We are presented with the first collective of the poem, “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many./ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes upon his feet” (62-65). With the use of the word “flowed,” the crowd is metaphorically compared to a stream of water, united as one force. Yet despite their close proximity to one another, they are completely unconnected, each with his eyes “fixed” before his feet as they head to the cities financial center in order to do their work. This is a quintessentially modern moment, a phenomenon Marx noted in his description of alienated labor in the new industrial world, and one reinforced here by Eliot, whose allusions to Dante’s Inferno in lines 63 and 64 imply that these people are living in a kind of purgatory.

The final eight lines of this stanza illustrate the greatest way for modern masses to break out of this eremitic existence: to find knowledge and connection through a shared tradition. In line 69, the speaker breaks away from his description of the crowd, stating “There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!/ “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!/ “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/ “Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?” (69-73). In this verbal exchange, the speaker is able to connect with another person because they share something in common; both were together “in the ships at Mylae,” (70) a reference to the Sicilian seaport at which the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic war. The character of their connection is critically important to understanding what Eliot values in this disconnected modernity. It is a militaristic, nationalist citizenship that binds them, devotion to a Roman sense of national mission and an almost romanticized notion of empire. The corpse he refers to could be interpreted as the corpus of Western literature: the high cultural artifacts that, according to Eliot, allow us to define ourselves against a definition of our own culture and history. In a similar vein, his cryptic question- whether the corpse has sprouted or not- is understood as a critique of the modern estrangement from the tradition the corpse represents. The corpus has died in the modern world, but it has a chance of being revived if individuals are willing to submit themselves to the collective experience of the western canon. What is unfortunate about this argument is that its logic can easily follow to National Socialism, with the Fuhrer and the State acting as the collectivizing agent that judges what is and is not in the canon, and who is and is not admitted as a citizen within the society that deems it such. In the case of Nazi Germany, it was Aryans in, Jews (and Poles and Slavs and gypsies and communists and homosexuals) out.

A second key feature of The Wasteland is the repeated use of the mythic method, a literary device Eliot describes in a review of Joyce’s Ulysess as a process of using myths to manipulate “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity . . . simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Perfect examples of this method in practice abound within The Wasteland, where Eliot draws explicit connections between contemporary characters and figures within Greco-Roman mythology. One intriguing example of the mythic method at work in The Wasteland is the parallel Philomel/Lil narratives, which occur in the second section of the poem, A Game of Chess. A brief analysis of these two narratives will allow us to develop a useful strategy for reading The Wasteland as well as Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts.

The first narrative, spanning lines 77-138, describes a rich woman in her extravagant home, surrounded by luxurious aesthetics, priceless works of art, “and other withered stumps of time” (104). Particular attention is paid to a painting sitting “above the antique mantel” (emphasis added), which “displayed/As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene/ The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale/ Filled all the desert with inviolable voice/ And still she cried, and still the world pursues/ “Jug Jug” to dirty ears” (97-103). This painting depicts a famous scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In its notes on this “sylvan scene,” the Norton Anthology explains that “Tereus raped his sister-in-law, Philomela, and cut out her tongue. To avenge her, his wife, Procne, murdered her son and fed him to Tereus. All three were changed into birds: the sisters into the nightingale and the swallow, Tereus in the hoopoe pursuing them.” The painting literally shows Philomel being raped by Tereus and having her tongue cut out, with a nightingale close by to symbolize the eventual “change” to come. Once that is established, the terrible euphemism of this language is obvious, as the violence committed against Philomel is called only a “change,” and the act of rape referred to with the words “so rudely forced.” The action of the painting is made coexistent to the present condition of the rich woman, which is why the rape of Philomel can be seen “as though a window gave upon the sylvan scene.”

The reasons for the euphemistic language and window metaphor are twofold; by using uncertain language, Eliot intentionally obfuscates the act, so that the reader is denied easy access to its meaning; next, we realize that the woman who owns the painting herself does not understand her connection to the art object and the cultural tradition it represents, because as the following interactions with her lover suggest, she too is a woman denied agency and made to suffer existential despair. Philomel’s rape re-enacts itself through this woman, which is why the paintings actions are as present as the world outside her window. Because she is alienated from this mythic past, she cannot realize that even as a seemingly powerless woman, surrounded by finery but unable to make it for herself without the support of the man bringing it home to her, she, like Procne, can claim her agency. Instead, she resorts to asking “What shall I do now? What shall I do?” (131). Ideally, upon seeing a nightingale, she can make the connection to Philomel’s story, hear the voices of her cultural past and find hope and strength. Instead, all that is heard is “Jug Jug to dirty ears.” Disconnected from her culture’s mythic past even as it begs for admittance in her own home, she is helpless and hopeless, and this is the root of her tragedy.

In the second half of A Game of Chess, a second character, Lil, is engaged in a dialogue with an unnamed confidant in an English pub as it is closing for the night. The reader learns that Lil’s husband has been recently demobilized following WWI, and will soon return home to find that Lil has not used the money he gave her to fix her teeth as he instructed. Lil’s acquaintance chastises her for refusing to get the requested dental work, and warns that “If Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling. You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique” (155-156). The use of the word antique, employed earlier to describe the mantel upon which the painting of Philomel sat, immediately signals to the reader that these two narratives are connected, in addition to the name Lil, a low class version of the high sounding “Philomel” to which the rich woman is compared. The reader soon learns the reason Lil has refused the dental work. We discover that she was impregnated by her husband for the sixth time and decided to buy pills in order to abort the child. Her choice is a rational one; after all, she “nearly died of young George” (160). Yet because her society dictates that a husband should have unlimited access to his wife’s body, her role is institutionalized to the point where she relives Philomel’s fate on the level of realism. In this case, mythological violence becomes the normal routine violence of modern life. Lil is imprisoned by her circumstances, in fear of losing her husband and only base of support for her five children, and like the woman in the first half of A Game of Chess, denied agency. Again, Eliot’s point is clear: should these women listen to the voices of their mythic past, they could unite across class lines and have a collective experience which would empower them. But they don’t, so they can’t.

Having established these two themes within the Wasteland---the importance of collective experience in lieu of a connection to our mythic past---let us now turn to Auden’s Musee des Beau Arts, and observe how these same themes are challenged and reworked by his experience with artifacts of our mythic past. At the very start, the poem posits its thesis: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (1-4). The organizing principle of the poem, in which he employs descriptions of several paintings within the French Museum of Fine Arts to explicate his point, is that suffering is awful in itself, but when it occurs without any response from humans occupying its same space in the natural world, it is heightened to the level of tragedy.

The two main figures in Auden’s poem are both major icons of classical Western mythology: Jesus Christ, depicted dying on the cross as “the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree;” (12-13) and Icarus, drowning in the sea after a failed escape from the labyrinth of Minos, king of Crete. His improvised wings of wax, employed to fly from the prison, melted as he came too close to the sun, and in this painting he has already plunged to his death, the only sign of him “the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water” (18-19). Like Christ, Icarus’ death is relegated to “a corner, some untidy spot:” (11) quite literally, the bottom right corner of Brueghel’s painting of the scene, which focuses the majority of the space on the canvas on a ploughman plowing his fields high above the harbor in which Icarus drowns, and an “expensive delicate ship” (19) sailing before a magnificent horizon. Like Eliot, Auden is employing the mythic tradition to draw a parallel between these two figures. His most basic point is that the indifference of the society surrounding these dead men intensifies the tragedy of their deaths.

On another level, we can learn much by contrasting the Eliot’s use of the mythic method in the Philomel/Lil narratives and Auden’s employment of it here between Icarus and Christ. In Eliot’s poem, it is the inability of these women to connect to their mythic forerunner Philomel which denies them access to authentic agency. The implication is that were they to have a collective experience of this myth, they could transcend their station in life and escape the complications of modernity. Auden’s poem draws a quite different conclusion from the suffering of its figures. Unlike Eliot’s poem, which positions contemporary people in literary parallel to their mythic counterparts, Auden only includes the mythic figures themselves. Instead of extolling their tragedies as examples centralizing moments in the Western experience we can all access in order to gain a better understanding of our present, he focuses on the almost pathetic circumstances of their deaths; how in Icarus’ case, “everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster;” (14-15) that alienation from world historic moments of tragedy is not a particularly modern, but rather fundamentally human characteristic, which stems from the very same indifference to suffering displayed by Nature.

Musee des Beaux Arts is even more remarkable because of its sophisticated commentary on the role of class and social status on our moral culpability for tragic suffering. This critique is tied closely to Auden’s claim that humans have a natural tendency to allow their own concerns and pleasures get in the way of moral action. This is hinted at in the first stanza, when we are presented with the “aged” who “are reverently, passionately waiting/ For the miraculous birth,” (5) contrasted with the “Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood:” (7-8). The reader is reminded of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which present man before the Fall in his innocent state, untainted by ideologies and domination. While the old men essentially waste away their last moments on earth praying for the redemption Christ will bring, Auden reminds us that life goes on; what is left more or less ambiguous is whether or not this is a good or bad thing.

In the second stanza, we find a much more explicit condemnation of the social forces that work to obscure suffering (and thus mitigate response to it) from the public realm. Two figures are in the scene, a ploughman representing the laboring, lower class, and the trading ship, a symbol of the upper class (and ally of Eliot’s high cultural elite). Both figures ignore Icarus’ death; however, it is the upper-class ship that is held more responsible for that ignorance. For the ploughman, whose principle task is to provide food for his family so that they will not starve to death, his work is imminently tied to his survival. Concerned mainly with performing his role in the production of capital, he “may/ Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/ But for him it was not an important failure” (15-17). Auden uses the word “may” to introduce uncertainty into the scene. There is even a possibility that he didn’t hear it, and even if he did, he was so concerned with providing himself with the basic necessities to live, and so far removed from the position in which to affect change (being high above and far removed from the site of Icarus’ drowning), that he almost can’t be blamed for not responding. Almost.

Greater moral culpability lies with the “expensive delicate ship,” which Auden points out “must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” yet despite incontrovertible evidence that something extraordinarily awful was happening right before their eyes, within the realm of possibilities for them to take action and stop it, the ship “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (21). The ship, a symbol of the rich and powerful, who is the closest to the action of suffering and most able to stop it, fails to take moral action. Like the ploughman, it too is more concerned with the production of capital than the saving of lives; for those shipmates, like some citizens in Mussolini’s fascist state, it is more important that the trains run on time than progress be held up for the saving of one innocent life.

Progress at the expense of human suffering; collectivism for the sake of national unity; purpose as defined by the interests of the group in power of the means of production; all these things can describe the state of the masses wandering over London Bridge in The Wasteland, the figures ignoring tragedy in Musee des Beaux Arts, and finally, the inhabitants of almost every state which has engineered a genocide in the 20th century. What these poems provide us is a framework through which to understand the mentality of the high cultural elite of the time, and a critique of that mindset for the ills that it produces. In Eliot’s case, his 1922 publication of The Wasteland came as a response to the devastation and suffering of WWI. When his poem ends with datta, give, daydhvam, sympathize, and damyata, control, he is urging his contemporaries to give the knowledge of their mythic past to the masses, to sympathize with the condition of humanity in the modern area which causes alienation, fragmentation and nihilism, and then control the ill effects of this sickness by collectivizing. While this is only one interpretation of this highly complex ending to an immensely complicated poem, it is not implausible; Eliot’s own prose attests to his fascist tendencies and anti-Semitic sympathies, especially as Europe approaches the threshold of WWII. What is perhaps most disturbing about Eliot’s work is its snobbish attitude about the primacy of the Greco-Roman condition, which alienates and even dehumanizes the Others who do not fit into his cultural paradigm.

Auden’s poem takes a jab at this elitism from the onset. Its title, Musee des Beaux Arts, implies the special knowledge of a certain cultural elite, who could recognize the French and provide a mental image of the art being described. It is not the lower class working man who is seeing these paintings and reading his poem, but rather the upper class, highly cultured elites; it is those same people whose appeasement and inaction in the face of human suffering has allowed for the dangerous historical precipice upon which the poem is situated. Published in 1938 at the very edge of the Holocaust, Auden’s poem confirms one of the darkest, saddest truths about humanity: that tragedy, even genocide, occurs when the majority of the common people are occupied with assuring their survival, while those in positions of power convince themselves that they “had somewhere to go and sailed calmly on.” German native and Holocaust survivor Fritz Ottenheimer describes it well. Throughout his memoir, he grapples with the question of the German populace’s failure to take a stand against the “Final Solution.” What Ottenheimer realizes is that

The professionals, the educated people, were the ones that the ordinary people might have looked to for guidance. But they were busy trying to get into positions from which their Jewish colleagues had been fired. Many others found it advantageous to do Hitler’s work. . . I am afraid that what I noticed was not a weakness of the German people but a weakness of human nature. We tend to ask ourselves, how does this affect me [or] how does this affect my family? And that if it’s someone else’s family [affected], we tend not to get as excited as we should.

What Ottenheimer and Auden both understood is that same notion first posited by John Locke; namely, that all human action is motivated by a desire to alleviate present uneasiness; and if collaborating with murderers or even simply turning away while the “dreadful martyrdom runs it course” is more convenient and less troublesome than taking a moral stand against evil, humans will often sadly choose the former response to tragedy over the latter.

With this is mind we return to Dachau, and though no poem or essay can ever truly explain for the moral failure that was the Holocaust, together these two modernist works help us understand the cultural conditions that lead to fascism and the human failings that helped lead it to genocide. When people live in a controlled system, damyata, where their real daily concern is survival through work, alienation is inevitable and moral failures routine. For one final example of this thesis in practice today, we need not look further than the contemporary genocide occurring now in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered and starved to death and thousands more continue to die as the United Nations watch from a distance with their hands tied. Meanwhile, the majority of the American public doesn’t even know genocide is taking place. The website, dedicated to raising awareness about this crisis, notes that “during June 2005, CNN, FOXNews, NBC/MSNBC, ABC, and CBS ran 50 times as many stories about Michael Jackson and 12 times as many stories about Tom Cruise as they did about the genocide in Darfur.” What is obvious is that, like the “expensive delicate ship” sailing calmly along as Icarus’ body dropped into the sea, the news networks theoretically dedicated to providing our nation with the most important information necessary to making informed moral choices are in truth more concerned with turning a profit- and the fact of the matter is, sensational entertainment and celebrity sells more ads than genocide. In both Icarus’ and the people of Darfur’s cases, the market dictates where people place their attention and determines what is and is not “an important failure.” The true test for our democracy is to demand that moral principle trump material gain. Until that day arrives, the tragedies will continue, and the lessons of modernism will remain unlearned.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Insurance Reform Reality Check

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually been proposed.”

Below, you will find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. I encourage you to share this posting with them.

Health Insurance Reform Reality Check

8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage

1. Ends Discrimination for Pre-Existing Conditions: Insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.

2. Ends Exorbitant Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays: Insurance companies will have to abide by yearly caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.

3. Ends Cost-Sharing for Preventive Care: Insurance companies must fully cover, without charge, regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms or eye and foot exams for diabetics.

4. Ends Dropping of Coverage for Seriously Ill: Insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.

5. Ends Gender Discrimination: Insurance companies will be prohibited from charging you more because of your gender.

6. Ends Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage: Insurance companies will be prevented from placing annual or lifetime caps on the coverage you receive.

7. Extends Coverage for Young Adults: Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through the age of 26.

8. Guarantees Insurance Renewal: Insurance companies will be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays their premium in full. Insurance companies won't be allowed to refuse renewal because someone became sick.

Learn more and get details:

8 common myths about health insurance reform

1. Reform will stop "rationing" - not increase it: It’s a myth that reform will mean a "government takeover" of health care or lead to "rationing." To the contrary, reform will forbid many forms of rationing that are currently being used by insurance companies.

2. We can’t afford reform: It's the status quo we can't afford. It’s a myth that reform will bust the budget. To the contrary, the President has identified ways to pay for the vast majority of the up-front costs by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse within existing government health programs; ending big subsidies to insurance companies; and increasing efficiency with such steps as coordinating care and streamlining paperwork. In the long term, reform can help bring down costs that will otherwise lead to a fiscal crisis.

3. Reform would encourage "euthanasia": It does not. It’s a malicious myth that reform would encourage or even require euthanasia for seniors. For seniors who want to consult with their family and physicians about end-of life decisions, reform will help to cover these voluntary, private consultations for those who want help with these personal and difficult family decisions.

4. Vets' health care is safe and sound: It’s a myth that health insurance reform will affect veterans' access to the care they get now. To the contrary, the President's budget significantly expands coverage under the VA, extending care to 500,000 more veterans who were previously excluded. The VA Healthcare system will continue to be available for all eligible veterans.

5. Reform will benefit small business - not burden it: It’s a myth that health insurance reform will hurt small businesses. To the contrary, reform will ease the burdens on small businesses, provide tax credits to help them pay for employee coverage and help level the playing field with big firms who pay much less to cover their employees on average.

6. Your Medicare is safe, and stronger with reform: It’s myth that Health Insurance Reform would be financed by cutting Medicare benefits. To the contrary, reform will improve the long-term financial health of Medicare, ensure better coordination, eliminate waste and unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies, and help to close the Medicare "doughnut" hole to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors.

7. You can keep your own insurance: It’s myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan or force you to change doctors. To the contrary, reform will expand your choices, not eliminate them.

8. No, government will not do anything with your bank account: It is an absurd myth that government will be in charge of your bank accounts. Health insurance reform will simplify administration, making it easier and more convenient for you to pay bills in a method that you choose. Just like paying a phone bill or a utility bill, you can pay by traditional check, or by a direct electronic payment. And forms will be standardized so they will be easier to understand. The choice is up to you – and the same rules of privacy will apply as they do for all other electronic payments that people make.

Learn more and get details:

8 Reasons We Need Health Insurance Reform Now

1. Coverage Denied to Millions: A recent national survey estimated that 12.6 million non-elderly adults – 36 percent of those who tried to purchase health insurance directly from an insurance company in the individual insurance market – were in fact discriminated against because of a pre-existing condition in the previous three years or dropped from coverage when they became seriously ill. Learn more:

2. Less Care for More Costs: With each passing year, Americans are paying more for health care coverage. Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums have nearly doubled since 2000, a rate three times faster than wages. In 2008, the average premium for a family plan purchased through an employer was $12,680, nearly the annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage job. Americans pay more than ever for health insurance, but get less coverage. Learn more:

3. Roadblocks to Care for Women: Women’s reproductive health requires more regular contact with health care providers, including yearly pap smears, mammograms, and obstetric care. Women are also more likely to report fair or poor health than men (9.5% versus 9.0%). While rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are similar to men, women are twice as likely to suffer from headaches and are more likely to experience joint, back or neck pain. These chronic conditions often require regular and frequent treatment and follow-up care. Learn more:

4. Hard Times in the Heartland: Throughout rural America, there are nearly 50 million people who face challenges in accessing health care. The past several decades have consistently shown higher rates of poverty, mortality, uninsurance, and limited access to a primary health care provider in rural areas. With the recent economic downturn, there is potential for an increase in many of the health disparities and access concerns that are already elevated in rural communities. Learn more:

5. Small Businesses Struggle to Provide Health Coverage: Nearly one-third of the uninsured – 13 million people – are employees of firms with less than 100 workers. From 2000 to 2007, the proportion of non-elderly Americans covered by employer-based health insurance fell from 66% to 61%. Much of this decline stems from small business. The percentage of small businesses offering coverage dropped from 68% to 59%, while large firms held stable at 99%. About a third of such workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees obtain insurance through a spouse. Learn more:

6. The Tragedies are Personal: Half of all personal bankruptcies are at least partly the result of medical expenses. The typical elderly couple may have to save nearly $300,000 to pay for health costs not covered by Medicare alone. Learn more:

7. Diminishing Access to Care: From 2000 to 2007, the proportion of non-elderly Americans covered by employer-based health insurance fell from 66% to 61%. An estimated 87 million people - one in every three Americans under the age of 65 - were uninsured at some point in 2007 and 2008. More than 80% of the uninsured are in working families. Learn more:

8. The Trends are Troubling: Without reform, health care costs will continue to skyrocket unabated, putting unbearable strain on families, businesses, and state and federal government budgets. Perhaps the most visible sign of the need for health care reform is the 46 million Americans currently without health insurance - projections suggest that this number will rise to about 72 million in 2040 in the absence of reform. Learn more:

Visit for even more information.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

My Kenyan Birth Certificate

Does this mean I can't be president?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Pass Climate Change Legislation NOW!

Usually, I try to stay fairly professional with my blog posts, but today I am feeling so angry about something that I feel the need to just let loose. The topic is one that is near and dear to my heart - climate change, and our alternative energy future. Here's what's happening this summer: while the concentration of Carbon Dioxide increases, extreme weather events rage across the country. Congress, finally seeing the need to pass aggressive climate change legislation, began with an inspiring bill that was deformed by compromises and special interest pandering - but at least it passed cap and trade. To its credit, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, could make America more energy-efficient, boost investments in clean energy solutions and dramatically cut global warming pollution -- by an amount in 2020 equivalent to taking 500 million cars and SUVs off the road. It may not go as far as needed, but at least its a start. Now, as the bill makes it ways through the Senate, the radical right is apoplectic. To hear them, you would think that liberals are out to destroy the American economy with new taxes designed to enrich government coffers, when in actuality, the goal of cap and trade legislation is to cut global warming in a way that spurs industry and innovation to devise new ways of providing energy to America. In the long term, aside from education, creating a path to a sustainable energy future is the most important way of securing America's economy and national security. Fossil fuels are dirty, extracted in destructive ways, and are largely owned by America's enemies. Scientists and industry leaders are both coming to the realization that we are nearing, or have even passed the point of peak oil, at which point we will see diminishing returns from existing wells and skyrocketing prices for all types of fuel. The way to beat the odds is to make the necessary adjustments now, for the benefit not only of our economy, but for the health and safety of ourselves, our country and our children. Reducing the discussion about cap-and-trade to a stale old argument about government taxation is just another example of short sighted, lazy thinking on the part of conservative dinosaurs who fail to open their eyes to the realities of our changing world.

Please, take a moment to call or write your Senator today and ask them to support the American Clean Energy and Security Act. This August recess is a crucial time to make your voice heard on this important issue.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tell Ringling Brothers: Animal Cruelty Must Stop!

Today, I watched a horrific video of elephant trainers from Ringling Brothers beating their elephants. After you watch it, I hope you will be as moved as I was to write a short letter to the company holding them accountable for these inexcusable actions.

I wrote this letter:

Dear Ringling Brothers,

I was disgusted and horrified to see this video of your trainers beating elephants with bullhooks. This is despicable and cruel behavior. My mom used to take me to the circus every year as a child and I loved it, but knowing that you are treating your animals like this makes me think I should never patronize your shows again! You should be ashamed. I think the entire world deserves an explanation for this behavior, and there should be a major change in your policies regarding how you treat animals.

Here's the video.

I would like a WRITTEN RESPONSE.

Thank you,

Adam Schwartzbaum

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Castles made of Sand

Every sandcastle dies on the shore:
adamant towers swell in the sea sands,
diffusing shards of small shells shimmering.
Those castles made of sand melt into the sea,
diaphanous blasts of summer blue and green.
Waves break on the beach;
Earth and Sunlight deliquesce
in an aquatic genesis.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tell the Attorney General to Stand Strong on Torture

Big news: Attorney General Holder may be on the verge of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate cases of torture from the Bush era.

With new revelations coming to light regularly, it's critical that an impartial investigator has the power to find out exactly what happened and who was responsible.

And that investigation must hold the architects of the program accountable. It's the only way we'll be able to make sure it never happens again.

But there's enormous political pressure to bury the worst abuses. The Attorney General is sending signals that he may move forward despite the pressure—and he needs to hear from regular Americans who are standing with him and want the truth. Can you email Holder right now to ask him to appoint a special prosecutor who can hold the architects of the program accountable?

Attorney General Eric Holder

Below is a copy of the letter I sent to the AJ. Feel free to crib from it for your own letter.

Dear Attorney General Holder,

As many Republican Senators reminded us today in the confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor, we are a nation of laws that must uphold the rule of law. The pursuit of equal justice under our law demands that those who break it be held responsible for their crimes. There is much we still do not know about the torture program authorized by the Bush Administration. The little we do know suggests that a deeper investigation is warranted - and it is to you, and our Department of Justice, that we look to hold the architects of the program accountable. There MUST be consequences for breaking law, and it is within your power to assure that justice be done. I hope and pray that you will do the right thing by authorizing an independent investigation of the Bush-era torture program. The appointment of a special prosecutore who will be able to investigate the entire program, inclduing those who designed it, will be an important step in restoring the rule of law in our democracy.


Adam Schwartzbaum

Monday, July 06, 2009

Goodbye Palin, We're Sorry to See You Go

America took one step closer to declaring its Independence from Mediocrity this July 4th with the Sarah Palin's abrupt announcement that she will be resigning from the office of Governor of Alaska at the end of the month. In a rushed and rambling speech from her Wasilla home, Palin resigned from office with 17 months to go in her first term.

Critics on the left smell blood in the water, calling Palin "the bull goose loony of the GOP" and "Caribou Barbie." Yet it wasn't just Democrats scratching their heads at Palin's bizarre move; even Republicans like Karl Rove were admitting that her actions hurt her chances for a 2012 presidential bid. One prominent conservative blogger declared her "done with elected politics." The Wall Street Journal put it plainly enough when they wrote "Giving up on an executive job a year and a half early isn't the best way to persuade voters you're ready for the more demanding rigors and scrutiny of the White House."

Now comes the speculation about why. Palin certainly seemed like a woman running from something, and the chattering class is already in a frenzy over what that something could be. I'll leave others to speculate on the true reason for Palin's resignation, and I suspect more information about this will reveal itself in the coming weeks. Personally, while others might celebrate the quick drop in Palin's presidential stock, I for one am saddened by the loss of this contender, if only because her nomination would have all but assured certain victory for President Obama in 2012. This intellectual lightweight is just the kind of political mosquito that Obama would crush in a presidential matchup. So, while others revel in the loss of Sarah Palin, I'm going to take a more mournful approach. So long, Sarah. I'm sorry to see you go.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Yesterday there was a coup in Honduras. Armed forces kidnapped the President, throwing the Central-American nation into a politicL crisis. In Iran, anti-government protests continued Sunday, with the opposition leader Moussavi organizing another demonstration in Tehran. This, despite the continued beating, arrest and detention of dissidents, journalists and opposition leaders and sympathizers. Late last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed sweeping climate-change legislation instuting a cap-and-trade system that will spur investment and development of alternative, renewable energy solutions while bringing American greenhouse gas emissions down over 80% by 2050. In North Korea, Kim Jong Il seemed to threaten America with a missile sent toward Hawaii over Independence Day weekend. Also last week, missing Governor Mark Sanford revealed he had not been hiking the Applachian Trail as he reported, but rather was visiting his mistress in Argentina. All this news wa overshadowed by the sudden death of music icon and international celebrity Michael Jackson, who it seemed meant something to everyone. While Jackson will rightfully be missed, I hope Americans will also be aware of the other big news stories going on right now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Governor Mark Sanford: Just Another Conservative Republican Hypocrite

It was all a mystery at first: the case of the missing Governor. What happened to the possible-Presidential-nomination-seeking, stimulus-fund-refusing, moral-values-loving Republican from South Carolina? He vanished without a trace, leaving behind his cell phone; even his wife says she doesn't know where he is. His people had a story: he was hiking the Applachian Trail. Then someone reported seeing him in the airport a few days ago. Turns out he left the country - for Argentina. And what was Governor Mark Sanford doing in Argentina? Escaping from his wife and four sons to visit his mistress.

The Headlines were blaring: "THE ARGENTINE AFFAIR: TEARS, EMAILS, SECRETS. Sanford's South American sweetheart has been a friend for eight years, though apparently things only turned romantic in the past year. His arrogance and hubris were stunning: to visit his Argentinian lover, Sanford reportedly "slipped his security detail, lied to his staff about his whereabouts and neglected to transfer executive power to the lieutenant governor in case of a state emergency." Turns out he took three previous trips to Argentina with taxpayer money in the past. His wife, Jenny, discovered the affair five months ago. They took a trial separation, and Sanford did the only thing a sensible governor should do in such a situation - mysteriously disappear.

At least his unfortunate wife is maintaining her dignity. Not so much for Sanford. His love letters have already hit the net, and the entire media is in a spectacular uproar over the dramatic political hijinks.

In his press conference today admitting the affair, Sanford resigned from his position as chair of the Republican governor's association. This wannabe poster-child for the emergent post-Bush "return to true Conservatism" crowd has given us just another Republican sex scandal by a family-values-touting, Bible-bumping hypocrite. Amazingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly, given your politics), this entire affair comes off the heels of the revelation of another sordid affair: that of Nevada Senator John Ensign, who resigned from his Senate leadership position after admitting to having an affair with the wife of one of his longest-serving staff members and family friends.

Its hard to judge whose prominent national disgrace is more revolting. But it seems to be part of a long pattern of Republicans saying one thing about family values, and then doing things like sleeping with prostitutes, soliciting gay sex in airport bathrooms, and sexually harassing House interns (see Senator David Vitter (R-LA), Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL)). These holier-than-thous shamefully underscore the serious crisis in leadership facing the Republican party, whose most prominent figures right now include an adulterer (Newt Gingrich), a thrice-married prescription drug addict (Rush Limbaugh). Its time for Conservatives to stop lecturing Americans about family values when they can't even keep themselves in line with what is right.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Inspiration of the Day: Nena Soltani & the Prologue to Demian

This is my story; it is the story of a man, not of an invented, or possible, or idealized, or otherwise absent figure, but of a unique human being of flesh and blood. Yet, what a real living human being is made of seems to be less understood today than at any time before, and men--each one of whom represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature--are therefore shot wholesale nowadays. If we were not something more than unique human beings; if each one of us could really be done away with once and for all by a single bullet, storytelling would lose all purpose. But every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration. In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each man the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross . . . .
Each man's life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Yet each one strives to become that--one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best as he can. Each man carries the vestiges of his birth--the slime and eggshells of his primeval past--with him to the end of his days. Some never become human, remaining frog, lizard, ant. Some are human above the waist, fish below. Each represents a gamble on the part of nature in creation of the human. We all share the same origin, our mothers; all of us come in at the same door. But each of us--experiments of the depths--strives toward his own destiny. We can understand one another; but each of us is able to interpret himself to himself alone.

Is This The Best Republicans Can Do?

Haley Barbour? Seriously?

This fat old white man is actually being bandied about CNN as a possible contender for the 2012 Republican Presidential Nomination.

We all know that the Grand Old Party is dominated by cantankerous old clods - see Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh - but does any Republican strategist really foresee a Mississippi Governor taking the Oval Office from President Barack Obama? I don't want to sound too cocky, but its stories like these which make me see two terms for Obama as preordained. Sure it would be a laugh riot to watch him smother Sarah Palin, but a victory over someone like Barbour would be a cakewalk.

Go ahead, Republicans. Nominate this guy for President. I dare you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Obama's Iran Dilemma

This article was originally published on Mother Jones. Today, hundreds of thousands of Iranians engaged in a silent march through the streets of Tehran in support of opposition leader Moussavi. The Grand Ayatollah has called for a re-examination of the voting irregularities, but I believe it is just a strategic move by the regime to co-opt popular anger with the election fraud by making it seem as if a legitimate process will now take place. The regime is just buying time in the hopes that this problem will go away, that the opposition will peter out, and that they will soon use their control of the military and police to recpature their grip on power. Sadly, I believe they will probably succeed. It will take incredible sacrifice and resilience for "the greens" to wrest power from the cabal that currently controls Iran. I fear they will fail, and many will die.

Obama's Iran Dilemma

How far will the Iranian opposition go? And how should the president react to Iran's election crisis?
—By David Corn

The Iranian election fiasco—or coup—poses a challenge for President Barack Obama. How should he continue his policy of engagement with a regime that appears to have stolen an election so brazenly? The United States does routinely deal with autocrats and democracy-suppressers around the world: Egypt, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and others. Few suggest that Washington shouldn't have diplomatic relations with Beijing until China becomes a multi-party state with free elections. But should Obama withhold his support for the movement for reform and democracy in Iran? Could he do so without causing harm by tainting the opposition (Washington is not so popular in Iran)? And could he do so without killing the possibility of reaching any future accommodation with the present leaders of Tehran, who could end up staying in charge for years to come? No doubt, neocons and others who have been calling for a hardline on Iran will exploit Tehran's crackdown on democracy and make the ready-for-cable argument that the West cannot deal with the Iranian regime and there's only one course of action: get tough and tougher and tougher.

On Saturday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement: "Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities." This brief statement did not reflect the dilemma faced by Obama.

And that dilemma will be shaped by how the Iranian opposition led by Mir Hossein Mousavi responds to the crisis. With the dust still swirling, there's no telling yet what direction the opposition will take. Will it fade and Ahmadinejad consolidate power? Will it spread and force some sort of societal show-down that threatens the autocrats of Allah?

I subscribe to a listserv run by Middle East expert Gary Sick, and for the past few days analysts who know Iran well have been discussing and debating on this list what could happen in Iran. Below are two takes from participants, which I am reprinting with their permission.

Babak Rahimi is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, San Diego, who is now in Iran studying the elections. He reports:

As I write this, the echoes of “Allah Akbar” can be heard from the neighboring streets and houses in Tehran, where I have been conducting research on the elections since March. This is the latest innovative method by the pro-Mousavi camp to oppose the results of the election. Such innovation is rooted in the revolutionary tactics of 1979, when symbolic acts of defiance set the stage for a mass uprising that culminated in the toppling of the Pahlavi regime. Revolutionary traditions die hard.

I do not want to suggest that a certain revolution is underway in Iran, but surely a major crisis of legitimacy has taken place here which could potentially become a source of considerable tension for years to come.

With regards to the electoral map, let me challenge some myths that have been articulated by some in the media.

Ahmadinejad won the rural votes: Maybe! We basically do not have hard evidence that the rural regions gave overwhelming support to the current president. Based on my fieldwork, in Bushehr, Khuzestan and Lurestan, I have come across major tensions between provincial officials, especially the local Friday Imams, and Ahmadinejad administrative officials based in Tehran. The Friday Imam of the port-city of Asalooyeh is a case in point. During the president’s final visit to the province of Bushehr, the Imam refused to meet the president, an act of defiance which was praised by many locals.

Also, during my travels in the provinces, I conducted informal interviews in the rural regions. The level of support for Ahmadinejad was considerably lower than I expected. In fact, I heard some of the most ferocious objections to the administration in the rural regions.

This is of course not a scientific survey and does not reflect the view of the entire country. But there is something here that could challenge this common perception advanced by some analysts.

The Mousavi movement is limited to the Northern Tehran: False! True, Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have attracted many from the working class from southern Tehran, but many are also highly frustrated with the regime. During a pro-Mousavi political rally few days ago, I met and interviewed a number of southern Tehrani men who described Mousavi as the man of the "Mostazafin." I have a number of different examples that would reveal class was not (most likely) the determining factor in the election.

Unlike the 2005 elections, nationalism, in its macho-militaristic form, has become more of a central issue to Ahmadinejad supporters. To give an example, two days ago I met a wealthy Iranian, with a British passport, declare his support for the current president. Why? “Ahmadinejad has made Iran a superpower in the region,” he enthusiastically described.

Rahimi seems quasi-optimistic that anti-regime sentiment is widely spread throughout the country and that it will not easily disappear--whatever happens in the coming days.

Wayne White was a top Near East analyst at the State Department for years and is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. His view is a clear-cut one: the opposition has to turn up the heat or give up the kitchen.

There are reports that election protests are becoming more scattered, despite some continuing clashes here and there. This would be consistent with many scenarios in which a tough-minded authoritarian regime faces a potentially problematic popular reaction, deals with it aggressively and heavy-handedly, and then public manifestations of opposition fade out. This would then be followed by a far more systematic regime effort to seek out and arrest hundreds--even thousands--of apparent ringleaders to use as examples in order to intimidate still further the opposition as power is consolidated once again....

In the face of harsh repression like this, there may only be one real option for the opposition to effect meaningful short-term change: get rough or stand down; confront a coup with a popular countercoup, or wait and hope for better days. I know it is vastly easier for me to sit back here in the States and comment that either the opposition organizes mass street action in which it is willing to inflict and take substantial casualties or it almost inevitably fails in its clearest near-term objective, but that probably is, I fear, the bottom line in this particular instance. The so-called coup itself has demonstrated just how little the emerging new order cares about matters such demonstrations and scuffles (save perhaps especially defiant ones placing many hundreds of thousands on the street, which no longer appears to be happening). That is how the 1979 revolution elbowed its way to power, sacrificing thousands of its people in bloody confrontations with the Shah's security forces.

In today's situation, however, there are complications with even this far more radical and dangerous approach. Many other Iranians would likely take to the streets in support of the security forces to defend the regime and Ahmadinejad. Additionally, it is unknown whether a substantial number among the security forces would change sides in the face of such fierce opposition--a critical aspect of the events of 1979 (or whether major elements of the army would be willing to join the fray in order to counter the Revolutionary Guard). Mousavi & Co. also do not represent the sort of galvanizing--practically messianic--presence that was Khomeini in those heady days of late 1978 and early 1979.

One could go on and on about the great difficulties involving in mounting a far more determined and almost certainly very violent challenge beyond simply the potentially dreadful sacrifice in lives. Nonetheless, we probably have reaching the point--or are fast approaching it--at which this, essentially, is, again, the bottom line (something in which Ahmadinejad and other regime hardliners doubtless take great comfort). So long as pro-reform or anti-authoritarian forces are unwilling (or effectively incapable) of pressing well beyond the boundaries of dissent--already much-compressed--set for them by those now dominating the regime, they may well be condemned to endure still more. Despite the control of several institutions, a clearer popular mandate, and a far freer press, Khatami failed to effect much lasting change, in large measure because he and his supporters dared not (or did not even wish to) wander into such dangerous territory when boldly countered by the determined and bloodyminded hardliners dominating the regime.

I do not argue that the events of the past two days are without profound impact--possibly so momentous as to set up the eventual collapse of the increasingly authoritarian structure apparently now being put in place. However, quite some time may be required to effect significant change toward that end.

On Monday morning, White emailed me an update of his analysis:

Today, in fact, we are seeing just the sort of call on the part of Mousavi which probably dooms the protests over the long-term: calling off the major protest rally in the face of possible government use of lethal force. Although, again, it is easy for me to prognosticate from the safety of my mountain fortress, a movement (and its leader) determined to wrest power from bloody-minded authoritarian forces must be willing to defy authority even in the face of potentially serious casualties. He apparently feels he must pursue the legal challenge route until exhausted, but its chances of success are extremely remote--and this ruling clique already has shown its own utter contempt for legalities in any case.

I was watching the iPod bit last night in which, what, less than a dozen police on motorcycles with nothing more than batons took on a dense crowd of a thousand or more at close quarters. Instead of largely heading for the hills, such a crowd could easily have closed in behind the police and taken them all down, not just one. The tipping point in many of these situations is when the police become either as fearful as the demonstrators, more so, or even grow thoroughly sickened by the violence they have been ordered to carry out. That crucial moment is far less likely to come if demonstrators stand down or shrink back in the face of the mere threat of violence. In fact, outrageous acts of violence committed by authorities often help mobilize a truly viable & volatile opposition (not to mention further alienating an already-wavering international community).

For one thing, I fear we have in Mousavi another Khatami: a well-meaning reformist who has been himself so much a part of the current system and unused to the tough realities of street politics that he is psychologically unable to break fully with that system--not a thoroughgoing oppositionist determined to go to the limits of defiance.

I should clarify that "wresting power" from the authorities isn't even the goal of much of the opposition at this point, let alone Mousavi. But even to push back effectively against the powers that be so as to make them blink demands more robust and boldy defiant action.

And, as we've seen in situations in the past that began as widespread, heated protests against abusive of power, not revolutions, often further, more brazen abuses of power eventually transform vigorous reform efforts into revolutionary movements.

Yet another apparent weakness in the opposition with respect to the above is leadership: I can see no evidence of any coherent street leadership that can harness the power of the opposition, perhaps even supplanting the more timid Mousavi if necessary to defend the demonstrators and take the bolder measures noted above.

Obama's problem may be that he has to deal with half an opposition in Iran--that is, one that captures global attention but isn't as serious or as competent as movements elsewhere that toppled tyrannical regimes. (Think of the Ukrainian opposition.) In other words, Mousavi is not a good horse to bet on--even if he has the moral high ground. The tricky part for Obama will be figuring out how to use this election--however it ultimately plays out--to his advantage. To do so, his aides ought to be consulting with many of the experts on and off Sick's list, even though there is hardly a consensus among them regarding what will happen in Iran.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on twitter.

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