30 November 2005

I'm Sorry - Blog Against Racism, part IV

I've been reading about Peak Oil lately and I was considering the incredibly fast growth of technology over the past century completely due to this cheap, seemingly unlimited resource (which is quickly running out). At one time, the Energy Rate on Energy Invested (EROEI) for oil was 30:1. In other words, for the energy cost of 1 barrel, you could get 30 barrels back. That number is now down to 5:1. As production peaks it gets harder to get out of the ground. At some point in the relatively near future, the EROEI will be 1:1, and that is when we no longer have oil for energy. (By the way, this is a scary-ass scenario, and I want to talk about it in more detail sometime later.)

One thing that occured to me (speaking as the American part of my dual citizenship) was how at one point in the semi-distant past (compared to our short short lifespans), slavery was the cheap energy of the day.

My own folks migrated to the USA after slavery ended, and I'd always had the notion that slavery didn't affect me, that I hadn't benefited directly and that, while I supported campaigns for apology and/or restitution, it was always in terms of other people having benefited - not myself.

However, in thirty or fifty years hence, when the current consumer-age has ended, people will walk around the edifices that were built by oil. We will appreciate all the technologies we were able to keep from those days before the crash, and yes, we will have oil to thank for any of those niceties that remain. I now believe this is true for slavery.

I think the roads we drive on, the buildings that remain, some of the infrastructure, and certainly the technology we enjoy now was made possible because of the terrible oppression of our fellow citizens. All of us have benefited, no matter when we arrived.

And for that, I thank them for their terrible task and I am so so sorry for the collective suffering of those ancestors as well as for the trauma that still exists today from slavery's awful legacy.

28 November 2005

Support Nguyen! - Blog Against Racism, part III

I'm unhappy about the Australian ninemsn site's poll today: "Will you boycott Singapore to protest against Nguyen's execution?" One reason I was upset was that I don't want to think that Nguyen's upcoming death is a foregone conclusion. I'm hoping for an (albeit unlikely) eleventh hour reprieve. I was also upset because the no votes were more than twice the yes votes.

Nguyen Tuong Van is an Australian citizen of Vietnamese descent, convicted of heroin smuggling in Singapore, and is sentenced to death by hanging this coming Friday morning (2 Dec, 2005). Nguyen was a "mule", that is, he smuggled the drugs, but was certainly not the ringleader. Throughout his trial, he claimed that he had agreed to smuggle the drugs in order to pay off debts owed by his twin brother.

Another recent drug smuggling case that has had wide media attention here in Australian is that of Schapelle Corby. Corby maintained her innocence throughout the trial in Bali, and was initially sentenced to 20 years. A retrial reduced this to 15 years. I don't recall whether there was a similar poll about Corby's freedom (she originally faced a potential death sentence as well), but Australians were a lot more supportive of Schapelle than Nguyen.

I don't know how much of this is related to gender (people tend to support harsher penalties for men than for women). And I don't know how much is related to a belief in Chapel's innocence as opposed to Nguyen's guilt. However, I do think that the lack of wider support for Nguyen is racially motivated. Australians are strongly anti-death penalty. How is it possible that they don't see Nguyen as one of "their own"? A lot of anti-Indonesian racist sentiment surfaced during the Corby trial, and this has been nearly invisible during Nguyen's more recent trial. (A radio host, Malcolm T. Elliott referred to Corby's three judges as "monkeys" and complained that they "don’t even speak English, mate".)

I was moved by an article today showing Nguyen's mother asking to be allowed to hug her son one last time. I think it humanises the whole sorry tale, and I hope it moves people to action.

Prime Minister John Howard has requested (four times, I think) that Singapore not execute Nguyen. He has repeatedly been turned down. He has refused to impose trade sanctions or use other political means to pressure Singapore.

For, more and up-to-date information, check out:

26 November 2005

Race and Class and a Certain Brand of Syrup - Blog Against Racism, Part II

This occured about a year ago, but I didn't hear about it until recently, and I find it worth talking about. By now, you've probably all heard about John Sylvester, the program director and morning personality on WTDY-AM in Madison, who, around a year ago, referred to Dr. Condoleeza Rice as "Aunt Jemima" (implying that Rice was chosen for the Secretary of State position because she'd be subservient).

Of course, the Black community found the term derogatory and racist (who wouldn't?), but what I find notable was the strength of the outcry from the rightwing community (do a google search - the first few pages are horrified rightwingers, apparently shocked that racism exists), in particular since they have occasionally, from time to time, been known to harbour racists in their midst.

Another thing to mention is that Sylvester apologised (and elaborated) almost immediately with this statement:
I'm concerned that I have offended many African-Americans by using a crass term to describe an incompetent, dishonest political appointee of the Bush administration. I apologize. I know the term "Aunt Jemima" is not complimentary to African-American women who have worked so hard and yet receive so little from our great country.

I will not, however, apologize for pointing out that while Rice has clearly enjoyed the American dream, she has allowed herself to be used as a black trophy by an administration that is working hard to deny that dream to other African-American women.

Rice has had a very successful career in academia, but unfortunately she has clearly forgotten that many African-Americans are still paying the price for a country that promoted years of segregation, oppression and discrimination.
The unfortunate part is that while apologising for his use of offensive imagery, Sylvester didn't actually deal with the inherent racism therein: it is racist to expect that a member of any group or ethnicity should first and foremost be expected to be a mouthpiece for that group. Dr Rice has every right to be a high-ranking official in a movement that hurts working and poor people of every colour and ethnicity.

Furthermore, it can be debated whether Rice is purely a mouthpiece for the Bushies or whether she helps steer the train from time to time. I think she is less of a "trophy" (i.e., token) than Sylvester states. First, she's tons smarter than "that idiot son", and their politico-religious views are very much in sync.

That said, I don't care much for Condoleeza Rice and the neo-con agenda. And I don't care much for the rightwing revisionists suddenly touting themselves as "the party of Lincoln". All of a sudden it's in vogue to deny that your political camp ever practiced racism and it's all the rage to rewrite history to make yourselves out to be the good guys.

Let's start with Lincoln himself. "The Great Emancipator" was more concerned with saving the Union than with freeing slaves (his infamous letter to Horace Greeley proclaimed "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it"). The Emancipation Proclamation originally freed slaves only in those states that had seceded (those states over which he no longer held any control), and this may have been a way to convince European countries (who'd all rejected slavery earlier) to remain uninvolved, rather than stepping in on the Southern side. Most damning, Lincoln was also quoted as saying, "I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black race. While they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

However, Lincoln and the Republicans did abolish slavery and passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that, among other things, abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection and due process and addressed blacks' right to vote. Just as Republicans can take pride in this, so can liberals, as the Republicans were the liberal party of the day.

So, how did Republicans get marked as being racist? Easy. When the U.S. National Democratic party supported civil rights, the Dixicrats (Southern Democrats) left their party in droves, and in 1964, the Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had voted against the bill, was overwhelmingly supported by five of the Deep South states, four of whom had never voted Republican before. For the last forty years, Republicans have been aligned with various conservative causes and maintaining the staus quo, which has included mistreatment of minorities, women and gays, to name a few.

Let me be clear: I don't think Democrats are necessarily non-racist (or non-sexist, non-homphobic, etc). Similarly, I know that Republicans are not necessarily racist (sexist, etc). And certainly, the Democrats have a lot to answer for in terms of too much support for corporate hegemony, lack of a backbone in terms of opposing a war that is overwhelmingly being fought by people of colour, and way too much wishy-washiness in opposing the culture war (or even supporting the war, as in the case of Sen. Lieberman). These issues affect people in the lower portion of the socio-economic scale more than others, and therefore affect people of colour more harshly than whites.

I'm pretty happy that both parties are publically disavowing racism, although I am cynical enough to think that it's just another bandwagon. Maybe I'm wrong - I hope so. I'd like to see some changes happen. Let's come up with a plan.

24 November 2005

Conquering One's Inner Racist - Blog Against Racism, part I

There's a lot I want to say about racism, maybe too much. It gets really confusing, and it's such a broad topic. First thing, though, is this: racism - bad. Working on one's issues - good. Making a better world for people - good. Being honest about one's own internal attitudes, even when it's embarrassing or painful - that's good.

For starters, I'm white (unless you're an Aryan, in which case I'm a mudblood). And I was raised in the United States of America. By definition, this means that I am racist. I can't avoid it. It's so unconsciously taken in as part of the scenery, it's inescapable. The only recourse is to consciously try to become aware of it, try to listen well to people of other cultures and backgrounds, try to purge myself of it, and when someone cries race, assume as a default that they're right until whatever happened is fully understood and cleaned up. (This drives the right-wing crazy. Someone cries race, and they're all about denying it until it's so blatantly obvious that their own grandma is yelling at them to stop being such a bigot. And this is the grandma who sews the white triangular hats.)

I was raised in a privileged environment in a middle class Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on Long Island (where they teach you to say "Lawn Guy-land" in the third grade, in case you somehow were avoiding growing up with the accent). (I am consciously using Australian English spelling, by the way, as I live here now, and retraining myself is a complex and lengthy process. I'm not putting on airs.)

My best friend and next door neighbour, Cora, was a blond Catholic girl. In fact, a lot of my friends as I grew up were blond. Funny, I didn't really notice that until years later when it occured to me that my mum must have had some unconscious issues about her dark-complexioned Judaism and so the kids she picked to be my friends all had lighter skin than my own.

I first learned the "n-word" from Cora. I was seven. I asked my parents at the dinner table what it meant, and they treated it extremely gravely. I was made to understand that I should never ever use that word, since it was ... a bad word. It was extremely insulting to coloured people (the 1966 term for people of African or African-American heritage). Furthermore, I was told, Cora's dad was not ony racist, but he was anti-semitic and this meant that he didn't like us either. That was my first education in understanding the similarity of various oppressions.

Yet, that was only one lesson in many, and probably the only coherently anti-racism message I was taught. We locked the car doors driving through the neighbourhoods to our grandma's house (don't you hate that?!? Some sense of decency should have at least had our parents remember to put down the locks before we left the freeway, rather than when we saw the first black man walking! Damn you, mom.)

Some of the racism was so subtle to be almost unnoticeable. We had a series of floor polishers who'd come by to wax the floor every fortnight. I remember a couple of them: My favourite was a middle-aged Italian fellow who would joke that we loved each other and that he'd marry me when I grew up. I don't remember his name. I was four and I sat on his knee while he had his lunch break. (Those were innocent days.)

I do remember Joe's name, though. Joe was the hero who saved Wendy's house from burning down one Saturday. We loved Joe for that. He was tall and lean and he was brown. I'm certain I never sat on his knee. Unlike my Italian friend, I was discouraged from "bothering him" while he relaxed on his break.

Race is such an area for hostility in the U.S. I am so sorry that racism exists in its present form and I'm at a loss for how to make a bigger difference. I also know that I've avoided being closer to people for fear of making mistakes, for fear of "bothering them" as I clumsily stumble my way through the obstacle course that is friendship, closeness and intimacy.

22 November 2005

Cheney criticises everyone who isn't him

In an interesting paradoxical article in the NY Times, Dick Cheney is quoted thus:
"I do not believe it is wrong to criticize the war on terror or any aspect thereof," Mr. Cheney said in an appearance before the American Enterprise Institute here. "Disagreements, arguments and debate are the essence of democracy, and none of us should want it any other way."

The vice president said "energetic debate" on important issues is the sign of a healthy political system, and one of the reasons he has stayed in public life.

But moments later, he described as "dishonest and reprehensible" any suggestion that President Bush or anyone in his administration had manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

"Some of the most irresponsible comments have come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein," Mr. Cheney said.
So, let me get this straight:

  • People who question the morality of a war, when new evidence comes to light that the reasons for that war were exaggerated are "dishonest and reprehensible".

  • People who support a war based on certain evidence and then change their mind when that evidence vanishes are irresponsible.

  • "Disagreements, arguments and debate are the essence of democracy", but people who disagree with the Bush White House are reprehensible (as well as dishonest and irresponsible).

H'okay, you win. Obviously there's no reasoning with you, Mr. Cheney.

21 November 2005

A Science Lesson

A few friends asked me about my earlier post, A Quick Poem on Intelligent Design. In general, the evolution/creation/intelligent design debate has nuances that a lot of people aren't familiar with. Evolutionary theory is a passion of mine, and I was involved for several years in a number of online evolution/creation debates. I was the geek girl in nursery school, aged 4, who didn't want to be a mommy or a teacher. I wanted to be a paleontologist. In retrospect, I would have preferred physical anthropologist, but that distinction didn't come along for a few years or more. (And instead, I'm a computer programmer.)

Anyhow, here is a quick guide to my poem:

Was Darwin right? Or was it God that put us here intact?
'Cause I've heard evolution's both a theory and a fact.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection roughly states:
Organisms have heritable traits they pass on to their offspring.
A species has more members than will survive.
Those that survive do so more often - as a generalisation - because their traits favourably enhanced their survivability.

In addition to these three statements, we know now about genes and DNA. The theory of evolution thus includes the concept that heritable traits are stored in an organism's DNA, and changes to these traits occur due to copying error (random mutations) during reproduction. Another part of the theory is that all life forms (all microbes, plants, animals, etc) evolved from one (or very few) common ancestors over time. This is sometimes called "common descent".

The strength of a scientific theory, and what distinguishes it from a hypothesis, is that it is supported by all related known facts. If any fact contradicts the theory, it must be dropped (this is what makes a theory falsifiable, and this is absolutely required for a theory to be counted as scientific). A theory also must be predictive. (Karl Popper, the father of Science Philosophy, extended this definition in the 1950s to include retrodiction - the act of predicting in the past.) Sometimes theories are not accepted by the scientific community until the mechanism of how something happened is understood. In the case of evolution, random mutation and heritability were the mechanisms by which common descent was made possible. [Creationists have claimed that "random mutation cannot introduce new information". This shows a misunderstanding of genetics, biology and information theory.]

Fact: evolution has been seen, measured, tested, etc. Creationists have claimed that this is not enough to prove common descent. They distinguish between micro-evolution (change in a gene pool) and macro-evolution (change to a species which effectively turns in into a new species). In fact, both of these "types" have been seen, measured, tested, etc. In addition, Creationists have never been able to specify how there could be some sort of "stopping mechnism" preventing evolution from going further than changes within a "kind". Since the discovery of homeobox (HOX) genes, we also now know that a small change to a HOX gene can alter the timing during an embryo's development and can result in huge developmental differences.

And are we accidental or was everybody planned?
If so, was it Jehovah? Or did Wanda lend a hand?

Biblical creationists like to believe that there is only one creation story worth introducing into science classes. In fact, there are thousands of creation stories, and since the science curriculum is fairly full, it would make more sense to introduce a Comparative Religion course instead.

Lenny Flank, a member of a number of numerous online Creation/Evolution debate lists and a renowned herpetologist, posits Wanda, the Witch of the North as an alternative creator. The U.S. Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". This is often interpreted to mean that no one religion can be supported to the detriment of a different one. Effectively, this should mean that, in terms of what is taught in public schools, Creationists' belief in Jehovah takes no precedence over Lenny's belief in Wanda.

Micheal Behe says that certain things are too complex.
A designer must have done them using supernat'ral specs

Michael Behe is one of the most famous supporters of Intelligent Design (ID), being a well-read, well-educated, well-spoken biochemist who published his hypothesis of irreducible complexity in a 1996 book called Darwin's Black Box.

Irreducible complexity is the hypothesis that certain molecular structures are so complex that could not have evolved, since any partial structure would have been useless and therefore would not have been selected. Behe's most famous example is that of a bacterium's flagellum motor. The claim is that any partial motor would be useless and thus it would have had to be created in toto, or designed.

(There are a number of counter-arguments on the web to this and other Behe examples, both in terms of the mathematics required, and in terms of separate sub-systems that show that the motor is not irreducible. I won't go into detail here.)

But my fallen arch is achy and my vision's not so hot.
If I'm a perfect speciman, how come my back is shot?

ID posits an intelligent designer, but does not explain why various species exhibit poor design. An example is the panda's digestion: its digestion is so inefficient that it eats for 16 hours a day and excretes most of what it takes in. ID has no explanation. Creationism would say, "God works in mysterious ways" or point out that the expulsion from Eden caused species to "de-evolve". Since ID cannot admit its religious roots, it's left with an explantory gap.

Evolution on the other hand quite handily explains the panda: pandas evolved from carnivores fairly recently and their digestion is relatively poorly adapted to plant matter. In a similiar vein, the recency of human evolution to an upright posture explains some of our difficulties with bad backs, fallen arches, etc.

And is it science? If it is, we'll use it to predict
which parts evolved all by themselves, and which ones were hand-picked.

ID makes no predictions, and cannot say what evolved and what didn't. Thus, ID tends to become an argument (and a logical fallacy) for what's been called "God of the Gaps" (or, similarly, "Argument from Personal Incredulity"). If we don't understand something well enough, clearly it is too complex, and "Goddidit". If we then learn more details, the example was evidently just a bad example, and other examples are then offered, limited only by our current knowledge and rate of research.

In addition to not predicting / retrodicting what was designed and what was created, ID also cannot predict when design or creation will happen again. In contrast, evolution can say things about the rate of mutations and, based on population sizes, how fast changes can spread through a population.

But if it's just a backdoor way to get religion in
then you be damned! I shun you all. ('cos lying is a sin.)

Or you could say cowardly, dastardly, unethical, etc., if "sin" is too religious a concept.

20 November 2005

Thanksgiving, Part II

My dog's pretty cute. We had a Thanksgiving party yesterday, and after we all moved to the other end of the house and were hanging out, she started to act all antsy and attention-getty. We have a command, "show me", in which she leads us to what she's wanting us to pay attention to. So, I follow her back down to the rumpus room, where we've already done a bit of cleanup, including tossing stuff in the trash.

She'd knocked over and nosed through the trash, and found.... a turkey bone! And this is what she came to get me for. Evidently, she needs mom's permission to eat something really cool - like a turkey bone! Of course, being a dog, she clearly didn't require our permission to go through the trash, and she'd already cleaned up the leftover mashed potatoes, roasted yams, and bits of salad.

I love my dog.

(By the way, turkey bones splinter and aren't good for dogs. I gave her a beef bone from the fridge instead.)

18 November 2005


The first year we were here in Australia, we celebrated Thanksgiving, because, frankly, I like the holiday. It's a good opportunity to feast and to celebrate being with friends and family. Since there isn't a similar holiday in Australia, we decided to expand upon it, and to celebrate what is important in our lives and what we're grateful for. While this might be the original intent behind Thanksgiving, I'm not sure I'd ever really celebrated it that way. My family got together with some far away cousins, aunts and uncles, had a mini-reunion, and napped in front of whatever game was on the TV in the afternoon. We'd say a perfunctory grace and that was about it.

In redefining Thanksgiving for ourselves, we also chose to make it a declarative holiday. We invite a couple dozen friends and family members for a feast, go around the room, say what we're thankful for and state up front something we intend to do in the next year that we'll be grateful for.

The first year, we invited a friend who declined, saying he didn't want to partake of an American holiday. Indeed, in Australia there's so much cultural influence from the U.S., I can understand his unwillingness to participate. I'm also aware of how much the original holiday was tied in with European imperialism (I'm mostly aware of how we repaid the native peoples for their hospitality with disease and possession of their lands).

Anyhow, all those thoughts will go through my head as I celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend. We're having a smaller shindig than usual. I think we had 30 people last year, and that was a bit much. I didn't get to spend time with half the guests, and that no longer makes sense. I'll miss those people who won't be over this year, but, among other things, I will be grateful for more intimacy.

17 November 2005

I Lied...

I lied to you. And I had told myself I wouldn't. I'm convinced that connectedness is one of the very few things in life that really matter. And honesty, complete honesty is the only way to get that type of connectedness. I grew up in a subculture (middle class) that avoided intimacy, but I thought that was behind me.

And then in spite of all that, I got embarrassed and I didn't want to expose myself, and so I avoided being honest.

I'm referring to a comment to an earlier post (and a reference to Janet Albrechtsen's article) in which I had written:
Yeah, it really pisses me off at work, feeling like I'm less respected for my abilities than my male counterparts. But what really gets to me is that in my culture, 33% of women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime…
I re-read that and it falls flat. It has no juice because it wasn't really true. Oh, sure, I can get worked up about issues at work, but worked up about some statistics? Too impersonal. I'm numb.

I only got aware of that the next day, when I was mulling it over, wondering why it felt wrong. You see, what I had original written, and what I freaked out about and erased was the part where I almost wrote: "what really pisses me off is that *I* was assaulted."

Fuck statistics. Fuck "33%". That was ME in those numbers. Ok?

Here are the facts: women are the victims of sexual violence in large numbers. Those parts of any culture that allows abuse are abhorrant. This includes Western culture. So Janet Albrechtsen can have her little rant about how boo-hoo middle-class in our concerns western feminists are for ignoring that women in Islamic countries are abused and that girls in indigenous communities are abused, and how all of us are pampered.

Well, eat shit, Janet. First, we're not as shallow as you'd imply. Second, don't use these women's pain to score yourself political points. If you're feeling so bad that people aren't helping, go get involved. What, are your legs broken? It isn't just "feminists" who are responsible for stopping oppression of women. In a similar vein, feminists have a wide range of concerns including protesting the war, paying their bills, getting healthy, stopping the Liberals from passing draconian new laws, raising kids, doing the shopping, stopping oppression of women, men, children, elders, etc.)

A lot of women don't know that other women (and other men) have been victims of (sexual) violence, and lot of men are really surprised that it's happened to people they know. Oh, they might know if their girlfriends have had violence in their past (we tend to tell our partners, since it always affect that way we relate intimately), but they probably don't know about their sisters or their mothers and aunts. We don't talk about it much. I am struck with admiration for those women who tell their stories, because that's where change happens. I'm full of admiration for women in Muslim countries who are speaking about their abuse and who are changing those Hudood laws which sanctify that abuse. I'm in awe of women all over Asia who, in their 60s and 70s, are speaking up for the first time about their terrible ordeals as Comfort Women during the Second World War. Boy, that's some courage.

When I was a 10 year old, a couple of 12 year old boys jumped me. And although I fought them off after a while, it was a pyrrhic victory. With a 10 year old's logic, I never told anyone, 'cause I would have been in a lot of trouble (I probably wouldn't have been allowed to babysit myself again until I reached majority). I dreamed for years of telling my daddy and having him make it all better (I'm so sorry, daddy).

A couple of weeks later, my best friend confronted me. Her mother, through some weird rigid veil of German Catholic anti-semitism, saw me "having fun with some neighbourhood boys".

Mrs. Messbauer, listen up: having fun at age 10 is bicycling down the hill faster than you've gone before, pigtails flying in the wind. Having fun was learning a new intricate "pattycake" game. Having fun was shrieking with my best friend, your daughter, with that mixture of horror and glee because the toads we just chased and caught pissed our hands. Being attacked - being pinched and poked and prodded and having to fight as hard as you can, and finally being glad that you and your sister beat the snot out of each other day after day, so you know how to fight off two older brutes until they finally get tired of not gaining an advantage and they get bored and leave .... Well, that isn't fun.

Looking back, I don't know how to separate sexism from whatever those boys used psychologically to justify their actions to themselves. I always assumed that they were perpetrators, rather than just simply acting within a cultural definition of men and women. Let me clarify: if someone is acting out of some pathology, I assume they need treatment and that it requires intervention of a personal, psychological (and perhaps legal) nature. When the pathology is inherent within an entire culture, it's time to change the culture through any means necessary.

In retrospect, I think it was cultural. That year (1970) I fought my 8 year old neighbour (and friend) because he kept insisting that as a boy, he was superior. I intuited that a person's worth was not only measured in terms of how strong they were, but I couldn't express it well enough to convince him. We ended the fight in a tie. He was pretty chuffed, and used as proof of his superiority that despite his being two years younger, he did not lose. 1970 was also a big year for "Women's Lib", and our 5th grade class held a debate on whether women were equal to men. Again, although all the girls were convinced that we were (being human beings, how could we doubt that our worth was the same as everyone else's?), we couldn't convince our peers and the debate ended in a "tie".

And as far as my story? That was one of them. I'm done for now. Go connect with the women in your lives.

15 November 2005

Then came Reaganomics.

When I was a kid, we had a house. My dad, a CPA, paid for the mortgage over time. My mom went back to work when I was 8, and with the extra income, they paid for vacations, invested, saved to send their kids to school. As far as I can recall, there was never anything we really wanted that we couldn't afford.

When I was 18, I moved out, and, passing up the opportunity to go to uni, I supported myself in a series of low paying jobs. However, Buffalo N.Y. was inexpensive and progressive, with a lively arts community, cheap pubs with great music and food co-ops. To top it off, there was a natural food restaurant where you could trade work for food credit. I lived with about 8 people in a "collective" house where rent was cheap, and I didn't want for much, despite my low earnings.

Then came Reaganomics.

Suddenly, jobs were hard to come by. I knew well-educated people who were driving cabs or flipping burgers in order to make ends meet. Most of my friends rented, but I did know the occasional person who owned a house and who suddenly couldn't pay their mortgage and ended up losing the lot. I remember newspaper articles about tent cities springing up in (warmer) towns. In 1982, we protested the closing of Bethlehem Steel in nearby Lackawanna. Despite everyone's best efforts to pressure the company, the state, the local government and to convince the unions to take over the shop themselves, 20,000 workers lost their jobs within the year.

Fast forward 20 years.

A few months after we moved to Canberra, some friends purchased a house. "Why, that's ridiculous," I thought. "You don't buy houses. What if you lose your job and it gets repossessed?" It never occured to me that two wage-earners in their 20s could actually buy a house.

Since then, housing prices have gone up, professional wages have gone down, and mortgages now have extra pages for parents as co-signers. The house my father bought would have cost two wages one generation later. Two generations and you need a third wage.

My friends were lucky to buy when they did. And because of Australia's labour laws, they're currently guaranteed that they won't be arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs. And if by some misfortune their job disappears, they will be made redundant with generous packages that will give them at least a few months to find something before the money runs out.

At least for now.

Because in John Howard's Australia, all these rights that workers fought for over the last century could be taken away.

14 November 2005

A Quick Poem on Intelligent Design

Was Darwin right? Or was it God that put us here intact?
'Cause I've heard evolution's both a theory and a fact.
And are we accidental or was everybody planned?
If so, was it Jehovah? Or did Wanda lend a hand?

Micheal Behe says that certain things are too complex.
A designer must have done them using supernat'ral specs
But my fallen arch is achy and my vision's not so hot.
If I'm a perfect speciman, how come my back is shot?

And is it science? If it is, we'll use it to predict
which parts evolved all by themselves, and which ones
were hand-picked.
But if it's just a backdoor way to get religion in
then you be damned! I shun you all. ('cos lying is a sin.)

- elissa (14 November 2005)

(I've added an explanatory article to the blog.)

13 November 2005

By the way, December First is "Blog Against Racism" Day

As announced here:
Creek Running North: December First is "Blog Against Racism" Day

Here are a few forward pointers:

What if they gave a war and everyone went home?

We watched The Daily Show from 7 Nov last night (it takes the pixels a few extra days to arrive in Australia). John Stewart had Barak Obama, Democratic Senator from Illinois, as a guest. Very funny, very charming, damn good-looking. He seemed very fresh, very smart and very energetic. That there are people like him in public office gives me hope.

Then John Stewart asked him, "If Barak Obama was in charge of the Iraq policy, what would we be doing right now?"

Obama replied:
Well, y'know, Iraq is sort of a situation where you got a guy who drove the bus into the ditch, you obviously have to get the bus out of the ditch and that's not easy to do, although you probably should fire the driver. <Lots of laughter from the audience.>
He continued on, next stating his credentials as having been against the war from the start, even before he was in office. Then he said:
Now the question is how fast can we get our troops home without causing all out chaos in Iraq, and I think that you're looking at Dec 15 as the date for the next Parliamentary elections. That has to be a benchmark where we say to ourselves, we're not going to have a military solution to this. We can't replace the Revolutionary Guard of Saddam Hussein in holding this country together. If the Iraqis are serious about keeping the country together, then we should be able to start phasing out our troops by next year. And we've got to have specific benchmarks to do that. (italics added)
It wasn't until later that I realised that I've heard that line so many times without other alternatives being offered that I've just sorta assumed it was true. But is it?

(I want to be careful to make it clear that this is in no way a criticism of Obama. I've heard the rationale a number of times. Damn, I've probably even said something like it myself. He's only the most recent.)

But how about this: what if we were to leave immediately? What if we stopped being an occupying force? Well, obviously we'd stop being a target. Would the attacks slow down or even stop, or would the country descend into civil war? Would the local law enforcement still be viewed as collaborators? Or would they be viewed as local law enforcement rather than enemy combatants?

I do know this: human nature being what it is, had we not been there to shore them up, the drafters of the Iraqi Constitution probably wouldn't have had the audacity to change the wording in the 11th hour so that boycotting the vote counted as acceptance, rather than rejection. The Constitution would have likely been rejected without this change, creating opportunities for more negotiation and more options for satisfaction for the Sunni minority. Maybe democracy, that elusive dream, would have broken out.

Anyhow, I have a lot more questions than obvious answers, and I can't look forward and compare two alternative histories. I do know that civilian Iraqis are being killed by our troops daily, and that virtually no Iraqi family is untouched. What was touted as a "liberation" would seem more and more an invasion to any Iraqi whose son, mother, sister, neighbour was killed or knew someone who was killed at the hands of the combined U.S., British, Australian forces.

I don't know what would happen. But I know that I don't want my government to kill any more Iraqis. And I think that maybe, just maybe we can trust sovereign peoples to govern themselves without our "help".

Not to follow a faulty metaphor too far, but sometimes you just gotta leave that ol' bus lying in the ditch, and bring the passengers home.

12 November 2005

"How the Left Lost Teen Spirit"

I've been reading Danny Goldberg's How the Left Lost Teen Spirit". The book is part memoir, which I found interesting for the stories, and in part admonishment to the (U.S.) Democratic party for the repeated failures brought about by pandering to the swing vote rather than speaking to their base.

Goldberg makes some great points (and a lot of this I didn't know, or it hadn't yet clicked), including:
  • While young voters were strongly courted, they were treated dismissively because of a perceived low voter turnout. However, the turnout rate for those 30 years and younger was a whopping 51.6%, compared to 42.3% in 2000! (Since overall voting was up, the ratio of young voters had stayed at 17%.)
  • Goldberg points out that the "majorities of the American public regularly tell pollsters they want national health insurance, tighter gun control, better pay for schoolteachers, energy independance, and stronger environment regulation" [pp. 33-34].
  • It is a myth that the Democratic party was able to regain political power "only when it embraced traditional politics and rejected the idealistic fervor of the sixties" [p 49]. This myth ignores the role that various left movements (pro-choice , women's, environmental and civil rights) movements have played in virtually all subsequent victories.
My favourite passage from the book (from the intro to the second edition):
There is no more effective cultural populist on the left than Michael Moore. He is emotional. He speaks about class issues through the prism of his own childhood. He knows how to make complex subjects understandable to average people. Yet Michael's very populism, his gift for expressing political ideas with humor and emotion, is resisted by some of the liberal snobs who, to me, are part of the problem. Shortly after the election, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, "firing up the base means turning off swing voters. Governor Mike Johnson, a Nebraska Republican, told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for John Kerry, Mr. Kerry's support among Nebraskans took a dive." Patrick Goldstein quoted former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta as saying, "The party of FDR has become the party of Michael Moore, and that doesn't help the party."

Of course, Nebraska is not a swing state, and it is implausible that there were polls that measured the effect of Michael Moore's utterances. It is also pretty silly to ask Republicans for advice on how Democrats can win. They want Democrats to lose and they know that anything they say in the media is part of what political pros call "the permanent campaign." It seems likely that the Republicans who counsel Democrats to put Michael Moore and Hollywood liberals at a distance are trying to psyche out their opponents - the way they did when they convinced Al Gore to steer clear of Bill Clinton in 2000.

Panetta and his ilk seem to think that "rallying the base" was a political mistake depsite the fact that this was the primary strategy of Karl Rove, the mastermind of Bush's victories. It is unimagineable that conservative columnists or politicians would suggest that Rush Limbaugh did more harm than good for Republicans... and that is one of the reasons they won [pp 27-28].

The 2000's are a great decade for activism, with anti-globalisation struggles and the anti-war movement active in virtually every country. Certainly it isn't up to the political leaders to "save us". That's for us to do for ourselves. However, now would be a good time for them to join us.

11 November 2005

Australia, Fair Dinkum

Australians are great. I'll just get that out there first. They have a good sense of humour. They're humble, even self-deprecating. Salt of the Earth. They'll never lord it over you. And, like my fellow Americans, my fellow Australians (I'm a dual citizen) are being ill-treated by the neo-cons in government.

[Some background, for the non-Aussies:
The leader of the Liberal Party, John Howard is the Australian Prime Minister. The Liberal Party and the smaller National Party make up the long-standing Coalition Government. The opposition party, Labor, is actually larger than either, but smaller than the Coalition. I quite like Labor. They actually support, you guessed it - labor! The Liberals and the Nationals are conservative. Labor is "small l" liberal, i.e., not conservative. Labor is liberal in the same way the Democrats under Carter were liberal (i.e., moreso than under Clinton, but by then the Religious Right had pulled the Republicans so far to the right that a moderate like Clinton appeared to be somewhere left of Fidel.)]

The Liberals' party platform is beautiful. I've read it. It says all the right things about the innate worth of the individual, personal responsibility, the various freedoms (freedom of thought, worship, association, et al), equality of opportunity, a just and humane society. In practice, the Liberals are conservatives, for instance on issues such as race and reconciliation, immigration and the war on terror.

The Liberals held their seats in the 2001 election on a fairly strong anti-immigration policy and very possibly in part due to the children overboard scandal. Known as "a certain maritime incident" (always in quotes), the Liberals claimed that asylum seekers on an "suspected illegal entry vessel" (SIEV) threw their children overboard in a sickening bid to gain unlawful entry into Australia. The demonising of the asylum seekers allowed the Liberals to run on a platform of stronger border protection and national security. The story was found to be untrue - photos of people in the water published three days after the claim was made were actually taken two days earlier when the un-seaworthy vessel was sinking ("SIEV" starts to look alarmingly like "sieve") , but the claims (and the hard-line policy) were never retracted.

Last year (2004), the Libs won the government again, this time using the threat of increased interest rates should Labor win, and the spectre of a resulting housing bubble bursting were that to happen. As in the U.S., folk here operate under the misconception that conservatives are better for the economy, while (small l) liberals are better for the economy of the working person and the poor. Since almost everyone either works or is poor, I'm not sure how "The" economy can be so exclusive. By the way, with one and a half decent salaries, my husband and I cannot afford to buy our own house in Camberra. Before moving into a share house with another couple, our rent was triple what it was in Buffalo, N.Y.

Howard's standing in the polls has been in a bit of a plunge recently, with the Federal Government's proposed industrial relations changes being perceived as leading to degradation of wages and conditions, loss of unfair dismissal laws, and the removal of workers' rights to bargain collectively. And people are pretty upset by the injury added to this insult in the form of $50 million (AUD) tax dollars spent by the government to promote their partisan plan. In addition, Australians are upset by a suite of new counter-terrorism laws that are perceived as threatening civil liberties. This isn't a misperception: according to Howard's own Media Release, he's asking States and Territories to provide for even longer preventative detention periods "because there are constitutional restrictions on the capacity of the Australian Government to provide for this type of detention".

So, in the last week, a minor change to current law was installed and as a result, 17 men were arrested on terrorism-related offences on Tuesday (8 Nov), primarily the offense of being a member of a terrorist group.

Not to take this lightly, as there are some (alleged) pretty dastardly plans foiled by these arrests, but given Howard's recent downturn in polls, is the timing a bit of "wag the dog"? Or are these folks an actual threat? We'll await the trials, of course.

And I think everyone agrees with the concept that as far as comparing the two scenarios, having a few innocents languish for a short while in a modern, Westernised jail is the lesser evil compared to the possible deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocents. (Although, having watched all 6 seasons of "OZ", I'm pretty convinced that jail qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment"! Perhaps 6 seasons of OZ qualifies as cruel and unusual as well.)

That said, arresting people for joining a "terrorist organisation" is a slippery slope. The Liberal Party's tenet of "freedom of association" starts sounding more like guilt by association. And in the U.S., there are similar laws: US Code Title 18 (2239B) specifies as criminal "Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations". As amended by the Patriot Act, this includes financial support.

This is all well and good as long as those nasty terrorist groups declare themselves so on their letterheads! (Or if they were overheard planning attacks on civilian populations, as this group is supposed to have been doing.) But what happens when Greenpeace stops a whaling vessel and are labelled "terrorists" by an unhappy government for respecting life over property? Was I guilty of violating Title 18 when I sent in my yearly $35 membership fee?!?

By the way, the original title of this piece was going to be "Australia, unter alles", which is a really bad pun, trying to do too many things at once. I was attempting to make some wise-acre remark tying fascism together with "Down Under", a colloquialism for Australia. But, according to Godwin's law, my very act of invoking (German / Nazi) fascism would have meant that I would have automatically lost the (one-sided) "debate"!

Speaking of opposition parties, Go Harry Reid! It's about time the Democrats started acting like an opposition party! But that's another post.

10 November 2005

Gay Marriage in Massachusetts

I just caught a segment from last week's The Daily Show (03 Nov) where Ed Helms interviewed Brian Camenker, an anti-gay marriage activist (How do these guys even exist?!?). Ed asked whether the quality of life in Massacchusetts has decreased (more homelessness? higher crime rates? what about the air quality?)

<sound of crickets chirping>

He also asked, "how does legalised gay marriage affect your relationship with your wife?" Brian's response was pretty telling: "That's such a ridiculous question, I don't even wanna answer".

Thinking about the ban that just got passed in Texas, I realise that my marriage to Shane is being insulted by these conservatives:
  • My marriage is not "sacred", since I don't believe in the same God they believe in. (My God is infinite, while theirs is limited by pettiness.)

  • My marriage is not about children, since we don't have any, and may never have any.

  • My marriage is about two adults loving each other and our commitment to continue to seek that love with one another.

  • My marriage is about sharing our commitment to one another in the eyes of our community. In fact,we had two ceremonies, one in Australia and one in NY, because we had two communities to include.

Given my definition of marriage, I can't see why any two adults who so wished to partake would be excluded, no matter the shape of their genitals.

09 November 2005

unabashedly politically correct

Pretty audacious title, actually, and I just want to say that I don't mean "pc" in terms of being polite and saying the "nice" thing. In fact, I'm insulted that the rightwing so grossly misrepresents leftist concepts and belittles political correctness when defining it as being "tactful" (i.e., "Tact is just not saying true stuff", Cordelia Chase in Buffy The Vampire Slayer). First off, there's a place when avoiding terminology where you might actually being buying into the terminology. Something's an insult only when you believe it is (which is why it's so important to reclaim words).

There's a different place when you avoid terminology because other people haven't yet healed, and it's important to respect that. There's yet another place to avoid terminology when other people haven't evolved 8-).

I want to reclaim political correctness and I'll define it right now to be about holding ourselves to the higher ethical standard of healing people and healing the planet. It's in direct contast to the moral depravity of the current neo-con attitude of gross neglect, greed, and general stupidity.

Let's just be clear.

There are some assumptions I'm making, including this: there are things which are good, and these include democracy, liberty, equality. I also assume that all people pretty much want the same thing:good lives for themselves and for their "inner circle". I think the main difference is in the definition here of "inner circle". Each person is in the center, perhaps with their partner or family, if they have one. The next ring includes friends and extended family. Neighbourhood might be the next ring. Society or culture. For some people, Race. And finally humankind.

Some people stop caring at the first ring. Some people expand their caring circle somewhere out past humans to include all life. (I kinda stop at sentient life.)

This is my first post. I've been thinking about starting a (progressive) political blog since Al Franken went off the air (Air America) last week and left a bit of a gap. We miss you Al. But honestly? You weren't all that funny. 8-)

Anyhow, as the Talking Heads once aptly put it

if you don't like what's on TV, make up your own show.

So here I am!