Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Bad Education News

My sister alerted me to this piece not too long ago, and I've been meaning to talk a little about it for awhile. This article, which would repay your careful reading, reminds us that, due to the way the laws were written, the federal government is on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars that have been lent to students to go to school. (The average debt for graduating seniors is $24,000.) In short, an education bubble that continues to inflate threatens more financial disasters for the country. And for what, because a college degree is not what it used to be. To wit . . .
Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.
The most predatory and cynical subprime lending has its analogue in for-profit colleges. Inequalities in US primary and secondary education previously meant that a large slice of the working class never got a chance to take on the large debts associated with four-year degree programs. For-profits like The University of Phoenix or Kaplan are the market’s answer to this opportunity. 
While the debt numbers for four-year programs look risky, for-profit two-year schools have apocalyptic figures: 96 percent of their students take on debt and within fifteen years 40 percent are in default. A Government Accountability Office sting operation in which agents posed as applicants found all fifteen approached institutions engaged in deceptive practices and four in straight-up fraud. For-profits were found to have paid their admissions officers on commission, falsely claimed accreditation, underrepresented costs, and encouraged applicants to lie on federal financial aid forms. Far from the bargain they portray themselves to be on daytime television, for-profit degree programs were found to be more expensive than the nonprofit alternatives nearly every time. These degrees are a tough sell, but for-profits sell tough. They spend an unseemly amount of money on advertising.
Other points:

  • fewer and fewer students benefit from fully qualified faculty members; most of their classes are taught by graduate students or poverty-level-paid adjuncts
  • administrators are soon going outnumber teaching faculty, and they command mind-boggling salaries
  • students can be hounded for their loan debt for a lifetime, even though the holders of loans have already been compensated
  • colleges and universities benefit from a myth that surrounds college degrees with almost mythical power; in reality, a degree doesn't mean much anymore
  • higher education has basically become yet one more scam in the dying empire.
Upon reflection, this article is far too meaty to be handled by one in a hurry to get things done before the next trip. This weekend, remember? Suffice it to say that none of the news about higher education is good. You won't like what you read in this article, but you should read it anyway.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Home Again

. . . for only a few days and then I'm on the damn planes again, this time to Louisiana. There I'll see both my family and Susan's family. Was certainly glad to get home. Only thing marring the return was that some huge piece of black plastic that goes behind the wheel well in my car just decided to come loose. I thought the damn tire was shredding, but no, that was this thing, whatever it is called, flapping against the side of the car! Needless to relate, I was a little perturbed about having to deal with this on my way home. Much easier than fixing a flat, which is what I thought I was going to have to do. I just ripped the thing loose and threw it in the trunk. If I know anything about these matters, here's what I predict:
  1. The car cannot do without this thing, whatever it is
  2. It will cost $400 to fix it
And a virulent pox upon all car repairs. I hate them. Doesn't everybody? 

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Some of you know I'm a chess player. I learned how the pieces moved when I was about 11 or 12, but I didn't learn the game until I was at college. My mentor was a Jesuit priest by the name of Hacker Fagot, now dead. As it turned out, he was not that strong a player, but he had a passionate interest in the game and he knew the basics about strategy. It came as a revelation to me at the time that chess games can be won or lost on the position of the pawns, the element of time (too many moves with one piece, for example, loses time), and a whole bunch of the strategic principles. The key lesson is that every move is crucial, from move one on.

Anyway, below is a chess playing machine you might like to see. I ran across it here. It's more an engineering feat than anything else. It's got some kind of chess engine in the guts of the thing. But this is certainly not the best way to play a computer. For starters, this machine is really clunky. And sslllllooooooowwwww. The perfect metaphor for those billions of people who think that what they see as a glacial pace in the game means nothing is happening. Between good players, something is always happening during a game. You cannot be expected to watch the whole thing . . . but I will observe that White doesn't play a very effective opening. No, the way to play chess is either to get a computer program like Fritz or Rybka and play on screen. Or you can play for free with real humans at Chess.com, FICS, or any number of other places.

Today is my daughter's birthday. She's 43. Happy birthday, Tanya, my all-grown-up girl! Right now, she's in Europe (Turkey, Greece) with the other dear lady in my life, her mom Susan.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

And the Winner Is . . .

I found this site stumbling around in RefDesk. Says every five minutes what the most popular subjects people are probing on the Internet. I'm doing this blog entry about five days before it will ever be seen by anyone, so all of the most popular sites you will see are all going to be different. But just in case you're curious, these were the four most popular topics at 7:45 p.m. on Monday, May 23.
  1. Jennifer Anniston's new haircut (what??)
  2. Arnold Schwartzenegger
  3. Selena Gomez (who?)
  4. Joplin tornado (the first thing on the list that actually matters)
By the way, "the rapture" was #8.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Well, Now We Know

As my friend Bob puts it, now that I've reached "advanced middle age," i.e., that would be pressing almost 7 decades on this planet, I can't remember shit. There's a wide, real wide, variety of health issues that people have at this stage of life, but there's one complaint that's universal. The older you get, the less you can remember. What's clear is stuff that happened years and years ago. What happened yesterday . . . well, not so much. This piece I ran across offers an explanation.

According to Michael Yassa, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, the reason things get tougher to remember as we get older is because the pathways leading to the hippocampus degrade over the years. Since the hippocampus is where memories are stored, it makes sense that with age our brains just find it more and more difficult to process information we receive into things we remember. 
In essence, it's not that our brains are "filling up" with information; it's just that our brains get less effective at writing and storing that information as we get older. It's the reason, according to Yassa, why we're so nostalgic as we get older: it's just easier to look back on memories our brains have already stored than to create new ones that are just as vivid. At the same time, Yassa's research doesn't suggest how we can fix the process; only that the research could be useful in treating Alzheimer's in the future.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Invincible Ignorance

"Are we never going to learn that the flotsam of our invincible ignorance will always come back to haunt us on a rising tide?"
A quote from Paul VanDevelder's book Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory, which won the 2011 Oregon Book Award.

How many ignorant things of the nation variety can you think of that have been done in your lifetime? I can think of several, but the first that comes to mind is getting militarily involved in the Middle East. Those wars will haunt us . . . and our children's children.

What's yours?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday, Bob

Yesterday was Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. I'm just discovering that today. I copy this entire section from yesterday's Writer's Almanac. I've grown up with Bob Dylan. He's been a constant companion, and I've passed him on to my kids. All these many years--since the early '60s--I've marveled at his talent, delighted in his poetry, pondered his contradictions, and loved his music. There's none like him. His influence on music and my generation is unmeasurable.
It's the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in 1941. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and grew up in nearby Hibbing, just off the road that ran all the way up from New Orleans and lent its name to his sixth album, 1965'sHighway 61 Revisited. He moved down to Minneapolis and studied art at the University of Minnesota, and though he'd started out his musical career with a rock 'n' roll band, he soon converted to folk, playing gigs at a coffeehouse, the 10 O'clock Scholar, in the Dinkytown neighborhood north of campus. Rock was catchy, but it wasn't deep enough to satisfy him, and he later said: "I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings." He left Dinkytown for New York and became the darling of Greenwich Village's folk community. 
By the mid-1960s, he'd gone electric, forsaking folk and returning to his rock roots. It wasn't a popular move among his fans, and at a show in England they booed him and called him "Judas." He responded by cranking the amps even louder, never one to worry about a rapport with his audience. 
His lyrics evolved too, from protest songs into more literary undertakings, influenced by Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and John Keats (to say nothing of Dylan Thomas, who inspired Zimmerman's name change). He's been called one of America's great contemporary poets, and his lyrics are studied in college poetry classes, stripped of the music. Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents directs students to consider the iambic and ballad meter on Dylan's album John Wesley Harding. Oxford professor Christopher Ricks puts him on a par with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He's been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature every year since 1996. He wrote a volume of poetry and prose calledTarantula in 1966 (published in 1971), even though he had famously proclaimed himself "a song-and-dance man" in 1965, when asked outright if he was a songwriter or a poet; The New Yorker published two of his poems from that period in 2008. Perhaps it's best to draw the distinction where he did, in the liner notes for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem." 
He's also kept up with his art, drawing and painting to fill the time when he's on the road. Some critics compare his style to Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Matisse. Others say he is "spasmodically brilliant," and one art history professor said he "paints like any other amateur." The artist himself says, in his typically laconic style: "I just draw what's interesting to me and then I paint it. Rows of houses, orchard acres, lines of tree trunks, could be anything. I can turn it into a life and death drama."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some Items . . .

. . . in USA Today that caught my eye this morning:

First, this editorial cartoon. What can I say? This is right on the money. I won't be voting for Obama in 2012. You can take that to the bank.

  • Speaking of banks, apparently over 3,700 federal contractors got $24 billion in stimulus money who owed at least $750 million in back taxes, and probably a lot more according to the GAO. What's the matter with this administration? This is intolerable.
  • Defaults on student loans are increasing. The average debt load for graduating seniors is $24,000. Holy cow! This is almost eight thousand dollars more than Susan and I paid for our first house. Trends are "disturbing." Half of the students at for-profit schools like University of Phoenix will default; one-third of the students at community colleges; and one-quarter of those in four-year schools. Observation: I've taught at all three of the these kinds of institutions, and this does not surprise me at all. Purist that I am, I discovered--although I admit to being a real slow learner about this--that the purpose of what used to be called higher education is not to educate anybody about anything; it's to keep the money flowing. Especially at for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix. After several years teaching for them both on-ground and online, I got fired from both jobs because I expected students to perform and to actually do the assignments. Hell, even at the University of Oklahoma, I had a graduate student tell me that he had "paid good money for this course" and he deserved an A.
  • A new sex survey by the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, described as "prestigious," by the way, finds that far from the common one in ten reckoning for the number of homosexuals in the population, the actual figure is between two and five percent. There are all kinds of other data--for some it is "preference" rather than "orientation"--but this one is the most striking to me. To tell the truth, I never thought that ten percent of the population was gay. It always struck me as a ridiculously high number. Now we've got some hard data.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Somewhere Only We Know

This English group is called Keane . . . I can't help it. I like this sweet-sounding stuff. And I cannot help but observe, from the vantage point of all these years, that the singer appears to be not a day over 16.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Yet Another Oil Crisis

Did you know that the U.S. consumes 8 percent of the world's olive oil, yet produces only about 1 percent of it? I'm not at all surprised to see that Spain is hands down leader in olive oil. When Susan and I visited there, we would go for miles on the train when all you could see on both sides of the track were olive groves. For miles and miles.

Another lesson here: big consumers of olive oil live longer and have far less heart disease. More proof that what God put here for us to begin with beats any improvement we've attempted.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Goog Lab Tools -- Chapter 2

I can't drift away from this topic without sharing a couple of other things with you. I sent this site, Art Project, to my artsy daughter a few days ago and she never responded. She's a busy person, so perhaps she hasn't gotten to it yet. This site lets you tour 17 of the world's most famous museums--Van Gogh in Amsterdam; Met, Frick, & Moma in NYC, Uffizi in Florence, for example--and examine art works really up close if you want, much closer than you would be allowed to approach in many of these museums. I've always been a sucker for sites like this. In fact, there is an incredible amount of art you can look at on the Internet. Just for starters, try this.

This little program called Google City Tours is kinda neat for those of us who want to hit the high points and avoid all that tiring research. Just type in the name of a place, click, and presto! you've got a little walking tour mapped out, complete with suggested time to spend at the attraction site and the travel time (on foot) to get there. Be advised, though, Google CT is picky about the cities it will tour in. Oklahoma City and Norman didn't rate in OK, and Baton Rouge didn't make it in Louisiana. But Cairo works, and Portland OR, and New Orleans, and Dallas+Ft Worth and Cleveland, and Mainz, Germany, and St Petersburg, Russia, and finally, Basel, Switzerland. I wore out about 15 minutes just playing around at these places.

Finally, let me suggest you take a look at "Google Reader - Play," that's what they call it. It's just a place that throws a potpourri of various stories at you, somewhat like their Fast Flip, only my little test, hardly scientific, I thought the stories on the former were more interesting and catchy, but that's only a matter of opinion.

Have fun, y'all!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Google Lab Tools

Don't know about you all, but every so often I go poking around in the Google labs to see what those guys are cooking up lately. I always find something interesting, and quite often I find tools that are more than just interesting. Take, for example, Google Squared. You can use this to list characteristics of an item or facets of a subject. The home page has examples. I tried "kitchen spices" and "chess grandmasters" and "pork chop recipes" among others. You can save the lists, share them if you want. More than just entertaining.

Really downright useful for information junkies like me is Google News Timeline. The name is a bit of a misnomer, not because it doesn't describe the tool, but because it gives no indication of its vast scope. You can push the dates of queries back on this thing for centuries. And wonder of wonders, one the magazines it gloms in on is Baseball Digest, which is really slick for a guy who does baseball research. Best thing to do with this one, and with all of these tools, I suppose, is to play around with them. Push buttons, add and subtract categories. See what happens.

Like many Google tools, things that aren't meant to be tools are very cool too. Take for example Chrome Experiments. You can just get lost in this thing. Try Ball Pool, for example, and tell me this thing doesn't hook you in. Experiments will only work for you if you use the Chrome browser to access the Net--and just as an aside, if you have not given Chrome a whirl, you should. Only Firefox comes close to it in quality. Forget Microsoft's Internet Explorer. It's been out of the race for a long time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's in a Name?

The website where I found this, a place called LiveLeak--which by the way I would have never found but for All My Faves--is but one of a whole bunch of places on the Web where you can find and presumably post videos. They entitle this video "The Worst Congress Ever." That's a little oblique, don't you think? I suggest something along the lines of "The national catastrophe our collection of numbskulls we call Congress chose to ignore and still choose to ignore so they can spend their time engaged in pointless and destructive political posturing." So what's in a name? I don't think this map is subtle. I see no reason its title should be either.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Smell a Smoky Rat

You all know about our vaunted Department of Justice, right? These are the guys who cannot find a way to prosecute a single one of the Wall Street criminals who even as we speak are rolling around in money like Scrooge McDuck in his basement . . . money that we taxpayers have coughed up for their benefit without receiving anything in return. . . . while housing prices continue their plummet and unemployment for people who actually work for a living remains around ten percent. This is the same DOJ which caved to pressure from the right and changed its mind on prosecuting 9/11 prisoners on US soil. The same DOJ which even people like me who keep up on these things cannot tell you of a single accomplishment. My take is these people are not interested in prosecuting anybody worth more than a million dollars.

Yeah, these guys. Well, guess what they're up to now? The always-popular-with-the-dunder-headed-public war on drugs. What better way for the do-nothing-for-justice Department of Justice to divert attention from its utter incompetence than to stir up trouble against medical marijuana? Basically the administration has pussy-footed this issue as it has so many others that the progressive wing of the party cares about. What's happening is that the DOJ has threatened to prosecute state officials if they are in any way involved in the licensing of the production or distribution of marijuana. This effectively scares state governments into the position of doing nothing to further medical marijuana interests in their states. Moreover, DOJ is going after producers of the drug with the tax code which prohibits any tax deductions for companies "trafficking in controlled substances." So if you're a grower or processor, you basically have no tax deductions for expenses connected with your business. Nice, eh?

All of this in the face of the administration's avowed policy of not going after the medical marijuana industry. Remember that pledge? Well, brothers and sisters, what's happening here is the administration doesn't want to appear "soft on drugs" next year, so it's blunting that issue right now. These people lie as easily as they breathe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm Back

I'm of mixed mind on travel. I enjoy going to new places (or old places again) and seeing old friends. This was the case of this trip that took me to Chicago for the past few days. A grad school bud and his lovely wife put me up (and put up with me) the entire time I was there. But have you ever gone someplace and been really unprepared? That was the case here. It was frigging cold in Chicago, and of course I didn't bring any cold weather clothes with me from sunny Oklahoma. Temp was in the low 40s with wind of varying speeds for most of the time I was there. This is lower than the average. Wiped out ball games for me in both Wrigley and Cellular Park. The day we were supposed to go to Wrigley, it was also raining, raining hard enough that the ball game was canceled after the seventh inning.

And you all have heard me grouse about airlines and airports. It pains me to report that the experience of both has not improved. And, I'm gonna have to take two more plane trips within the next few weeks. A family thing in Denver and a Civil War history thing in Louisiana. Anyway, I actually missed the blog while I was on the road. So I'm back, but alas, I doubt if I'm any wiser than when I left.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Mardy Bum

These are the Arctic Monkeys. Geez, I just keep finding these wonderful groups. I'm so glad I never outgrew this music! Enjoy.

This just the song. If you go to YouTube you can find a bunch of live performances of this song, but all that I checked out had the audience singing . . . I thought you'd rather the album version.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beating My Drum


The same drum I've been beating for a long, long time. You can play this for laughs--Maher is definitely funny--or you can weep, but any percentage of people in this country who think the sun revolves around the Earth (actually 18%) or don't know what country we fought the American Revolution against . . . well, that is just beyond the pale. Prepare (once again) to be astonished at what a lot of Americans don't know or have the foggiest idea about.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Whoops! I Forgot

A friend of mine sent me this quote from a piece called "Wild West Justice" in the most excellent CounterPunch blog. It's part of a larger lament about the sickening reaction of many Americans to bin Laden's death. I remember all of the things this writer, Ramzi Kysia, writes about. This national amnesia about the awful things the USA has done in the name of freedom and democracy is yet another reflection of how little people really know about their country's history. Read the whole piece. Worth it.  I think a large part of our sickness comes from how we view our own history. We remember the Alamo, but forget Polk's War. We remember Pearl Harbor, but forget Hiroshima. We remember September 11th, 2001, but forget September 11th, 1973 [CIA-instigated overthrow of Allende government in Chile.]

I remember September 1st, 1983, when in the dead of night the Soviets shot down KAL 007, an off-course, Korean jetliner with American citizens on board that had strayed into Soviet airspace. Americans were practically frothing at the mouth in their anger at the Soviets and their desire for blood-vengeance. But I also remember July 3rd, 1988, when in broad daylight Captain William Rogers, of the U.S.S. Vincennes, shot down Iran Air 655, killing 290 innocent Iranians. Captain Rogers got promoted. Americans were actually angry with Iran, for getting upset, and genuinely seemed unable to understand why Iranians were upset.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Out of Pocket

Hey, faithful readers. I'm going out of town to give those talks I've been talking about. I leave Wednesday and will be back next Tuesday. I've front-loaded a couple of entries for later in the week and I might even blog some from up north. Who knows? Anyway, keep the faith. I'll see y'all soon.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Ocean of Real Blood

Confederate dead at Sharpsburg MD, September 1862
Talking about Little Aleck yesterday and all this preparation I've been doing has gotten me thinking about "the Wah," as they put it down South. Although the days are gone down there when "the Wah" referred only to the Civil War, with the sesquicentennial upon us, whether we really like it or not, we're going to be exposed to a lot of Civil War material over the next four years. One of the best things currently going is the "Disunion" series running daily in the New York Times. First rate articles by first rate people who know what they're talking about. Many, but not all of the writers, historians of the period.

Speaking of which, I've also just read a rather longish piece in Salon by Glenn W. Lafantasie, a working Civil War scholar. You might find it interesting. I don't know. It covers a lot of ground. He doesn't have much use for the so-called "reenactors," those (crazed, at least in my opinion) people who dress up as Union or Confederate troops and shoot blanks at each other and fire blank cannons at each other reenacting battles that happened 150 years ago. Basically, he objects to the prettification of what by any understanding was a horribly ugly, bloody, and tragic time in our history. As he puts it, a "war that should, by all rights, repel us and horrify us and send shivers of fright down our spines."

Exactly. Over 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War, a horrific number. This country bled a vast ocean of real blood during those four terrible years, but you would never know it from the way the war is thought about--if it's thought about at all--and portrayed and acted out by grown up boys, who like to dress up and play soldier. The guys in the picture above didn't get up and dust themselves off when the battle was over. The casualties at Sharpsburg were four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as died in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined. The casualties at the battle of Gettysburg surpassed in three days what it took over six weeks to amass at Iwo Jima during the second world war. Casualties in the Civil War are more than the total of casualties of all of America's other wars combined, and, yes, that includes the world wars and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The essay includes a few paragraphs about Civil War books that he likes and recommends. It's a tricky business, this. I can't say I agree with all his choices, but I will say it's nice to see Bruce Catton's marvelous trilogy on the Union Army of the Potomac getting a shout-out. This (and being born in Vicksburg MS with its glorious national military park) was what turned me on to the Wah when I was a teenager, those many long years ago.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Little Aleck"

"Little Aleck" Stephens around 1860
See that guy over there on the right? That's Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. He was the vice president of the Confederate States; he was born in 1812 and died in 1883. And in 1988 I published a book about his life. Once you write a book about somebody, especially if the work took about ten years to do, the person never really leaves your life. A pretty attractive caricature of him from Puck, the 19th century British satirical magazine, hangs right outside my study door.  I see Aleck Stephens every day.

"Little Aleck"**--that was what the press and admirers and enemies called him--was a highly interesting character. A lifelong bachelor--I used to be convinced he was not gay; now I'm not so sure, but I still don't have hard evidence--he grew up poor in Middle Georgia, son of a farmer. Several benefactors enabled him to get an education, including college. After an ill-fated year teaching, he became a lawyer, then a state legislator, a U.S. congressman, and vice president, as I've said. He went back to Congress after the war and died as governor of Georgia.

If he looks sickly, it's because he was. The man never weighed more than 90 pounds in his life. More than one observer said he looked like some refugee from the graveyard. But he was a good and diligent lawyer and largely through his practice, and later through the products of his land, he amassed a good deal of money. He was definitely part of the upper crust. He ended up owning 32 slaves, all of whom stayed right there on his property after the end of the war.

But I'm letting myself get caught up in his story when all I meant to do was explain that this guy is the reason I have not been diligent about posting to the blog this week. I've been working on a presentation about him and Jefferson Davis to Civil War Round Tables in Milwaukee and Chicago at the end of next week. So he will also be the reason I'm going to be offline again at that time. My hope is to try and get something up on the blog--I think I've told you the guilt trip I put on myself for not posting every day--even on the days I'm gone. There will be a few more of those near the end of May when I'm off to Denver to see my mom and then to Louisiana for another history presentation.

**As any southerner can tell you, "Aleck" is pronounced "Ellick." People in Louisiana, for example, call Alexandria "Ellick."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How Utterly, Utterly American

Buy several! Give 'em to your friends!

"Looks like Osama bin Laden is worth more dead than alive. That is, at least, in the make-a-buck marketing world of souvenirs, collectibles and tchotchkes."*
          --Lead-in to story discussed below

How long did you think it would take American merchants to figure out a way to make money off the killing of bin Laden? If you guessed less than 24 hours, advance to Go and collect $200. This article appeared in USA Today this morning under the headline "Marketers act fast." Between midnight on Sunday and mid-afternoon on Monday literally thousands of people posted Osama-death product ideas on such sites as Zazzle.com and CafePress.com where they could perhaps earn royalties if some company picked up their idea and used it for a consumer product. Executives at both these places say they haven't seen such an outpouring in a long time. This is even bigger than the capture of Saddam Hussein!

Divided into roughly four categories--patriotism, military support, celebration, "justice is served"--you can get T-shirts, buttons, coffee mugs, caps, bumper stickers, neckties, a phone case for your iPhone at $51.40, and, but of course(!), a T-shirt for your dog. One of the marketeers explains that they've always reflected popular culture. "What's more important than personal expression?" (Oh, gee, I don't know. How about civility or taste or virtue?)

I'll let the psychologists explain this. "People wear these things or buy these things in order to inflict the final indignity on bin Laden, says one. "And $25 isn't a lot to pay to gain entry in the national act of ridicule." And while they do their explaining and read their tea leaves, I'll just be disgusted and embarrassed yet again by the accident of my birth to be identified with these idiots.

*Tell me the truth: did you have to look up "tchotchkes"?

Monday, May 2, 2011

I'm Not the Only One

The editorial cartoon above is brilliant. Capturing without a word the overarching truth about bin Laden's death. An act of vengeance disguised as something that advances the cause of liberty.

I didn't think I would be when I wrote yesterday's piece, but there had not yet been time for others to get out there and say the same kind of things I have been thinking. For example, Phyllis Bennis writing for the Institute of Policy Studies, wonders about Obama's claim that the killing of bin Laden somehow represented justice. And this piece by David Swanson who writes "Nothing is actually resolved, nothing concluded, and nothing to be celebrated in taking away life. If we want something to celebrate here, we should celebrate the end of one of the pieces of war propaganda that has driven the past decade of brutality and death."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Great Day for America?

Late tonight word came that the U.S. military had killed Osama bin Laden, the supposed mastermind of the attacks that brought down the twin towers in New York City a decade ago, the man who has been the symbol and face of terrorism ever since then. The focus of the country's hatred for a decade. A troll in the eyes of millions. Surely the top of the most-hated list in this country. (Here is the AP account of the attack that succeeded in killing the guy. Along with links to other aspects of the story: the celebrations, the unit that carried out the killing, etc.) The president went on television to announce the news. It was "a good day for America," he said. He went on to say "Today we are reminded that as a nation there is nothing we cannot do." The country's reaction to the news is well illustrated in the picture above. Frenzied flag waving and manly chest-beating and celebrations like the team just won the Super Bowl would about sum it up. I read that the number of tweets on Twitter about bin Laden's death set records.

Well, at the risk of being the only person in America to say this or have these feelings, I will state that I have doubts about this being "a great day for America." And I categorically reject the notion that this military operation proves that as a nation "there is nothing we cannot do." I was from the beginning, from the very day of the attacks, against employing the US military in what I regarded then and still regard as a police matter, that is, the capture of criminals who carry out murders. The rest of the world which has also been victimized by terrorists, with the exception of Israel, I suppose, deals with attacks on its civilians as matters for the police to handle. But that is not the way the vile little pretender who occupied the White House from 2001-2008 handles things. He immediately called for vengeance and embarked on a course of war. We are still yet on the course he put us on, a trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives later.

A great day for America? I have always stood for peace. Peace first. Always. So we should wave the flag and bellow "USA! USA!" at anything that in any way vindicates what we've been doing for the past ten in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya? No way am I celebrating that. How can I possibly cheer an event that excites the blood lust of people and stirs up frenzies of so-called patriotism in millions of people? the idea that whatever this country does is right by definition? that wars we initiate are just by definition? that the killing of enemies is a path to glory? that it's an event worthy of flooding out onto the streets as if it were a carnival? No. I'm not going to cheer that. Summary execution does not get my approval either.* This country is supposed to be a nation of laws. In my humble estimation, the legality, not to mention morality, of our ventures in the Middle East over the past decade are at the minimum questionable.

And as for the ridiculous notion that this killing somehow proves that the US is in the same category as God Almighty--"there is nothing we cannot do"--this is the kind of nonsense that Obama should be ashamed of himself for propagating. The fact is plainly that we cannot do many, many things as a nation, things far more important to our national welfare than a revenge killing which in the long view of history will simply be another death in a the carnival of death we as a nation have visited on that region. We cannot decently educate the vast majority of our citizens; we cannot insure equal justice under our laws; we cannot pass essential legislation to fight the warming of the globe; we cannot devise a health care system that is fair and effective; we cannot exist without war. Nothing we cannot do? This is not even a beginning of a complete list of everything that would fit that description.

Is it a good thing that bin Laden is gone? Yes. Is the price we have paid as a nation worth his death? No way. And one other thing. What do you think will change because of what's happened?

*Update I: The news reports Monday evening say that the mission against bin Laden was instructed to take him alive if possible. It's also reported that the CIA ordered that he be killed. Which version do you believe?

Update II: According to corrections made by the White House today, Tuesday the 3rd, bin Laden was not armed as first reported. But he was shot twice: once in the chest, once in the head over the left eye.