Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pastor Wright, the "race card," and Obama

The recent flap about Pastor Jeremiah Wright is a prime example of how America’s mainstream media and political culture serve as thought police, making it almost impossible to have a debate over race and many other extremely important topics. Let us start by interrogating what the “hateful” Pastor Wright said--

The United States is responsible for innocent deaths through the “criminal justice system,” facilitating the spread of drugs, and its foreign policy—and therefore “God Damn America”

• I don’t know about the theological issues as far as “damning America,” but he pretty much nails that one out of the park.

The US gov’t helped to create the AIDS virus as a means to destroy black people

• Conspiratorial, yes, but no more conspiratorial than half the things I hear from “white” Christian Broadcasting, local Sinclair affiliates, and Fox News. And not totally off the mark—is it true or not true that the Reagan Administration did absolutely nothing during the AIDS epidemic--only acknowledging it in 1987—because according to his advisers, AIDS victims were “getting what they deserved”—is it a conspiracy if the government is consciously letting people die? And the government did deliberately infect black men with syphillis. So, close Pastor Wright.

On Louis Farrakhan—“When Minister Farrakhan speaks, Black America listens. Everybody may not agree with him, but they listen...Minister Farrakhan will be remembered as one of the 20th and 21st century giants of the African American religious experience.”

• I don’t see anything controversial in this statement other than it mentions Louis Farrakhan—which apparently isn’t allowed.

Today’s Israeli state is racist against Palestinian Arabs

• I can’t say that I disagree with him on this one. It is a complicated issue for sure, but he is not making this stuff up.

US foreign policy helped to cause 9/11

• Anyone with any knowledge of US policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s knows this is true. Can you say Pakistani ISI?

I could continue…The problem with Pastor Wright isn’t that he is “hateful” or an “extremist”—it is that he is truthful (although perhaps misinformed on the AIDS thing).

Ironically, this whole “public debate” about Pastor Wright and what Obama has to do as far as damage control simply confirms that America is not “post-race”—that nothing scares the mainstream (I won’t even say white because, God forbid I should point out a white person’s skin tone—that makes you “racist”) more than a militant black person who criticizes America for slavery, genocide, and ongoing racism in both domestic and foreign policy. The selective outrage is ridiculous--particularly over statements that are either factually accurate, or at least argumentatively within the realm of reason.

Racism manifests itself in many ways, however, one of the biggest problems of race in America is how differently white folks and black view the concept of race and the significance of racism. White Americans are very eager to embrace a "color-blind" view of the American past as if this will create a "color-blind" future. To point out racial disparity is "playing the race card" and therefore "divisive." This isn't color-blindness, it is simply blindness. African Americans and other people of color simply don't have that luxury, but whenever a prominent African American leader makes a speech like Wright's, it sends the media into a frenzy and political strategists into a damage control mode--and for many it is "proof" that black folks are the true racists.

This is ultimately the problem for Barack Obama—there is tremendous political pressure on prominent black politicians to trade in their "blackness" for some other identity--you can't be Jesse Jackson and win elections. For Obama it is easier because he is also of immigrant descent, and therefore can play the “immigrant card” as he did in his speech. The immigrant narrative, of course, is a very popular one because it is a narrative with which white folks are comfortable (huddling masses of immigrants pulling themselves up by their jockstraps, never benefiting from any government policy, program, or racial preferences). It is an updated version of the rugged individualist myth with an implicit critique of those who "fail"--and we know who they are.

If Obama can successfully negotiate this--more power to him—but we have a long way to go in this country to get past race.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Support the Troops--oppose the war

There is a very important event going on this weekend for those interested in brining an end to the Iraq War or to anyone concerned about the fate and well-being of American soldiers or Iraqis generally. It is called the Winter Soldier investigation and it is being carried out by Iraq Veterans Against the War with the support of other veterans organizations. It requires a quicktime player. The broadcast schedule is here and the main website is here.



The Winter Soldier investigation is named after an investigation of the same sort that occurred during the Vietnam War. It is an attempt to chronicle the experiences of American soldiers with an emphasis on the shortcomings of United States policy and its impact upon the soldiers and Iraqis. If you oppose the war and wonder how you can support the troops, support IVAW.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Review: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

“Eat your vegetables and don’t snack before dinner.” Remember that from childhood? Well it turns out that Mom has one up on the food industry, nutritional scientists, the FDA, and the media. Who would have guessed? Despite the flood of “healthy foods” into the marketplace, Americans are fatter, more diabetic, and more prone to cardiovascular problems than ever. Why is this so? Michael Pollan explores this paradox in his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto.

Being someone who considers themselves health conscious and who enjoys cooking because of it, there were not too many things in Pollan’s book that I did not already know or at least suspect. The food processing industry is evil; fast food may the former, but it certainly is not the latter; and most Americans eat way more food than they need because the quality of the food they eat is so poor they are never satiated. Therefore, the more direct control you have over what you eat, the easier it is to make healthy choices and to not suffer from an array of diet related maladies. Although this seems like common sense, why do Americans have so much trouble?

Pollan does an admirable job of looking at the historical development of eating, “nutritionism,” and food production. As Pollan argued in his previous work The Omnivores Dilemma, humans can eat a wide variety of things. This is both a blessing and curse. It contributed to the ability of humans to survive in varying climates and eco-systems, but it also means that we eat lots of things that are not good for us, with negative effects only emerging later. Since humans have the ability to transform their environment and make conscious decisions about what they want to eat, a “good diet” is culturally and materially conditioned. This accounts for the multitude and diversity of ethnic cuisines throughout the world—all of which are basically healthy.

Whereas most traditional diets are derived from cultural wisdom, Americans have had an unusual, and counterproductive, obsession with food and its nutritional value going back to the 19th century. Pollan attributes this to the WASPy emphasis on pragmatism—food needs to be understood for what it does to the body and mind as opposed to being an expression of culture. “Nutritionism” has led to an arguably unconstructive attempt to dissect food to find out why certain ones produce certain effects. It is not sufficient that broccoli is good for you—nutritionists need to know what chemical in broccoli makes it good for you, so presumably this chemical can be isolated, separated from the broccoli, and reinfused into our diet in another way—saving us from the burden of eating our broccoli. Pollan argues convincingly that this mind set has blinded us to a more holistic understanding of food and has cut us off from the wisdom of grandma’s kitchen.

The food processing industry has only made things worse. The triumph of agricultural trusts, as decried in Sinclair’s The Jungle, has made the American diet much more homogenous (despite the apparent dizzying array of choices) and dependent upon mass produced food. Despite the abundance of food in the United States, the deleterious health effects of industrial food emerged in the post-WWII period. In the 1970s, a government study concluded that Americans should eat less meat and dairy. What? Americans consume less? Why that is downright un-American! The food processing industry immediately sprang into action, successfully pressuring the government to alter the overall message of the report—rather than eating less, Americans should eat more nutritious food--codifying nutritionist logic into national policy. This, along with increased subsidies to farmers to produce more food (particularly corn and soy) and changes in FDA regulations that no longer require food producers to label foods as “imitation” if they are chemically altered, has led to a radical alteration in what we eat (food is “enhanced,” “fortified,” and “enriched” not to mention heavily laced with corn fructose and soy derivatives). Subsequently, the diet industry, along with aggressive marketing campaigns to make just about anything seem “healthy,” has produced a tremendous amount of confusion about what is good for us.

Pollan’s well written and accessible work offers a simple solution in the first line of his book--“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Regarding the definition of food, if your grandma would not recognize it as food, do not eat it. And also, do not eat anything that will never go bad. Sounds simple enough, and it really is. The difficulty is following it in world where making good food choices can often be difficult. America’s hyper-individualistic, fast-paced, over consumptive culture, where everyone expects to “have it their way” and “now,” is a marketer’s paradise and reflects the level of cultural dominance that corporations have over the American people. More folks, including myself, are choosing CSAs and farmers markets over supermarkets as a means to get control over their food consumption. Of course, cooking as many meals as you can is important. From what I see, however, American consumer culture has bred a generation of adults with the food tastes of 8 year olds, which is disastrous for our health—but does wonders for the pharmaceutical industry.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Murray Bookchin--Anarchist

As my minions of readers are aware, I have been reading a number of works on Anarchism, both past and present. This piece is a review of Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1970) and Lifestyle Anarchism and Social Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1995). Murray Bookchin was one of the most dedicated anarchist thinkers in the 20th century. Bookchin spent his life committed to the struggle for human freedom and his thoughts were constantly in the process of evolution, defying the ideological border patrol which lumps people into easily defined categories. As a young man, he became involved in the socialist workers movement, joining the Communist Party. After becoming frustrated with the ideological conformity of Stalinism, he gravitated to Trotskyism, and then ultimately rejected Marxism altogether. In the 1960s, he became one of the leading activists for a New Left version of anarcho-syndicalism. Retaining his anarchist vision in the 1990s, he became critical of what he called “lifestyle anarchism”—a version of anarchism that rejects the more redeemable cause of anarchism—namely social equality.

Accepting the nuances of his thought, these two works are frustrating at a number of levels. One of the major difficulties is that both books were written, in part, to engage in internecine struggles of the left. Post Scarcity is a collection of articles, some of which are polemics against Marxist groups, while Lifestyle Anarchism is a critique of New Age Anarchism. Both seem to be specifically written to engage certain individuals and groups—and therefore some of the deeper issues are either dated or opaque.

Lifestyle written in the 1990s was written largely in response to the emergence of several anarchist zines and cultural movements and the decline of the political Left. Bookchin champions “The Left that was” (not to be confused with the bureaucratic “Old Left”) for its universalist and socialist values. He is largely critical of the modern academic Leftism (post modernism, political correctness, and the romantic left) because of its parochialism and retreat from universalist principles. Notably, he doesn’t discuss right wing libertarianism (the anarcho-capitalism of Rothbard)—I suspect because he doesn’t view this line of thought as being akin to anarchism as he understands it.

I found many of the Bookchin’s criticisms of lifestyle and individualist anarchist to be sound, although most of the discussion focused on the former, not the latter. He only briefly mentions Benjamin Tucker and cavalierly dismisses him. A more substantive engagement would have been welcome. He then picks up individualist anarchism in the 1980s, focusing on “New Age” anarchism. This variant focuses heavily on individual acts of cultural rebellion. Not that I am totally unsympathetic to New Age sensibilities, I agree that this form of anarchism arguably reinforces many of the worst aspects of modern society—hyper individualism, selfish-gratification, and cultural elitism. He is most critical of lifestyle anarchism’s abandonment of social equality and collective action in favor “personal spiritual liberation.”

His criticism seems at odds with an almost romantic reverence, in Post Scarcity Anarchism, for the new social movements of the 1960s—feminism, environmentalism, hippie culture, black liberation and Third World peasant revolts. Bookchin sees these movements as confirmation that the traditional worker movement (the “Left that Was”) only prepared workers to be good “bourgeois” (and reactionary) workers and that the real revolutionary movement would come from declasses, the lumpen, and in the case of the third world, the peasantry. I too have had a romantic fascination with the social movements of the 1960s at times, growing up in the 1980s and becoming politically active in the 1990s, but I also see the relatively direct connection between these movements and the balkanization of the left that Bookchin criticizes. Perhaps hindsight is 20/20, but how terribly shocking is it that the hippie, Age of Aquarius, drug culture evolved, in part, into apolitical New Age mysticism and an anarchism based on personal self-gratification? And this from a Deadhead!

There is a similar trend with regards to his relationship to Marx. One of Bookchin’s more polemical pieces is called “Listen Marxist!” It is more a criticism of sectarian Marxism than Marx, but also raises serious questions about the role of class struggle in social transformation. Interestingly, Bookchin ends up defending Marx in Lifestyle Anarchism for his commitment to international revolution. I am not trying to make Bookchin out to be some sort of hypocrite—it is more a reflection on his almost rigid lack of rigidity, if that makes sense.

Bookchin does make a number of key theoretical points that are often elided or misunderstood by the most devout Marxist. His criticism of the way in which class struggle has been conceptualized is important. Not only does he press us to not define class struggle in purely economic terms, but if the struggle in capitalism is a dialectical one—between workers and owners—it must necessarily lead to the destruction of both. To put it another way, the central role of working class struggle is not simply to overthrow the capitalist state, but to eliminate itself as a class. Conversely, capitalism constantly seeks not only to exploit the working class, but to recreate it. Necessarily, much of the class struggle is internal to the working class as it attempts to transform itself into the “non-class class.” The cultural tensions that exist among workers are reflections of growing pains as the working class is reshaped, reformed, and struggles with its own “workerness.” In this respect, the dialectic is not just between capitalists and workers, but between the nightmare of the past (paraphrasing Marx) and a future, pregnant with possibilities.

The most interesting chapters of Post-Scarcity deal with the role of ecology and technology. Although technological development and ecological balance are often counter-posed as being incompatible, Bookchin sees them as complementary. Only through the development of clean technology, new energy sources, and more sophisticated machinery can the balance between man and nature be restored. He is very critical of the romantic primitivism of many anarchists, instead imagining a world where technology complements human creativity, and where the social and technical division of labor, which reduces people to cogs, is supplanted by a blending of land and community.

Bookchin’s thoughts on ecology and technology speak to the limitations of 19th century Marxist and utopian socialist thought. As he correctly points out, most 19th century socialist thinking assumed that the initial task of socialism would be to ration scarcity, while improving the productive capacity of society. What Bookchin argues is that this is no longer necessary. Of course, he argued this in the 1960s, before the more recent burst of globalization. Moreover, it is difficult to quantitatively prove that we are “post-scarcity.” Nevertheless, global industrialization has continued as has the expansion of “unproductive labor,” namely the bureaucratic administration of capitalism. These trends, combined with the voracious over consumption in the United States at least suggests that if we aren’t already post scarcity—we are pretty darn close.

Even with the inconsistencies in Bookchin’s thought, these two books are important contributions to the struggle for human freedom and imagining a world where both desire and need can be satisfied for all.

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Prospects for the Reds

Baseball season is upon us and Reds fans are anxious. The Reds have failed to produce a winning season in seven years and for a city that used to the occasional pennant run and even a World Series. That anxiety is particularly acute this year. The Reds have a number of aging veterans (Griffey and Dunn) who won’t be around forever and a bevy of young talent (Bailey, Cueto, Volquez, Votto, and Bruce) who are still developing. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. The problem is how best to use the talent as it stands now. Do the Reds play for the future or is the future now?

The Reds recently acquired Corey Patterson to the consternation of Redland. Patterson was yesterday’s top prospect who never quite materialized. Most likely, he will end up platooning in CF with Hopper. Both are speedsters—Patterson is better defensively, Hopper has better OBP. The move means that Jay Bruce may very well begin the season in the minors, which upsets many Reds fans. They are upset for two reasons—one is the overly optimistic belief that Bruce, who has never seen a major league pitch, will immediately become a star. The other is that new manager Dusty Baker prefers veterans over younger players and is too nepotistic. Without getting into a debate about the relative merits of Dusty Baker (he does produce winners), I don’t think that sitting on Bruce is that bad of an idea. Bruce is only 20, most pro ball players peak around 27-28 and the free agency clock lasts 6 years. Bruce has one more minor league year and therefore it makes financial sense to hold Bruce back—at least until June when he can be brought up and still retain his rookie status. We are much more likely to see Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez in the rotation early. Both have some major league experience and are ready for the biggies.

The question is whether the Reds are ready to make a run this season. We still have Griffey and Dunn and with Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion—the Reds have ample power at the plate. Harang and Arroyo give the Reds staff a one/two punch, I like the addition of Josh Fogg, and if even one of the prospects emerges, our pitching staff will be the best the Reds have had in a while. The acquisition of Francisco Cordero helps to solidify a suspect bullpen, with David Weathers to be the primary set up man. The Reds weaknesses remain numerous. We don’t have a strong lefty either in the rotation or the bullpen. Jeremy Affeldt may work his way into the rotation, but our lefty relievers are either over the hill or unproven. Our defense is atrocious. Griffey’s mobility is dubious (his contract is an albatross), Dunn is definitely a liability, and Encarnacion isn’t that great. The Reds give up a lot of free runs. For these reasons, I suspect that the Reds may fall short of a division title this year. I remain cautiously optimistic—if some of the younger guys emerge as the real deal, we could be in the running late in a division without a clear frontrunner.

The good news is that next year, the Reds are looking at a significant transformation. We will most likely see a major youth movement—Votto 1B, Bruce OF, Keppinger SS, and a rotation featuring Bailey, Cueto, and Volquez. Shedding Griffey and Dunn (and their contracts), keeping a few veterans in their prime like Phillips, Encarnacion, Harang, Fogg and Cordero—with the possibility of Patterson and Arroyo sticking around--and the Reds are looking pretty good for the next several years.

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The Bengals Off Season

With Free Agency underway and the draft looming, it is time to take a look at the Bengals off season needs. The Bengals have been a disappointment since their 11-5 2005 season, but I still think they aren’t far off from playoff contention. Not surprisingly, the Bengals, have focused on retaining certain key players and adopting the strategy of addition by subtraction. They have been content to watch veterans Madieu Williams and Justin Smth depart. Neither move his terribly shocking since both commanded salaries which would have wreaked havoc with the salary cap and Williams has become expendable due to the emergence of Ndukwe and White. They are still negotiating with Landon Johnson—a player I believe they really need to keep if they are to retain any continuity on defense.

Their major free agents retentions have been Dhani Jones, Jonathan Fanene and Kyle Larsen. Jones emerged last season as a starter due to a linebacker corps decimated by injuries. Larsen has proven to be a reliable punter and I am glad to see him back. The have also added Antwan Odom, a defensive end from Tennessee. Odom will replace Smith and probably rotate with Fanene at defensive end. It is a good signing for much less money than what we were paying Smith. Odom is also younger and has more upside as a pass rusher. The Bengals also picked up safety Kyries Herbert from the CFL. I suspect he will mostly be used in special teams. Whether the Bengals will make too many more major singings is dubious. At best we might bring in TE Ben Utrecht from Indianapolis. It appears as if signing a major defensive tackle is becoming more remote as the Bengals have not been able to reach an agreement with Dewayne Robertson despite the willingness of the Jets to trade him. The only way this deal works is if the Jets cut him and he is forced into a situation of negotiating an entirely new contract. The remaining free agent DTs aren’t that much better than what we have. Given that the Bengals will probably have 9 or 10 draft picks this year, it seems unlikely that they are going to break the bank on free agents.

The Bengals draft needs are relatively simple. They need a lot of help in their front defensive seven, primarily defensive tackle. I look for the Bengals to use their first pick on the best available DT—probably Ellis or Dorsey. If neither is available and Gholston (DE/OLB) is available, I think we will take Gholston. At least one of the three should be available. If not, I suspect we will trade down. If we take Gholston, I would look for us to pick up a DT with one of our third round picks (we should have two)—I like Frank Okam or Red Bryant as a possibility and one of them should be available--both would help if we are planning on mixing in some 3-4.

Our second round pick will most likely go to the offense and it will either be a running back or a guard. I am partial to the latter, although there will probably be a number of good running backs available. The Bengals running game has suffered since the loss of Eric Steinbach. The primary reason is that our line now is totally comprised of converted tackles. Although it makes for good pass protection, it makes the running game one dimensional. It doesn’t do any good to have speed backs when no one is fast enough to be out in front of him.

Mid-draft, the Bengals should also pick up another LB and/or DE and perhaps an additional DT to groom. Our linebacking corps has been decimated by injuries and off field problems. If we are lucky, we are looking at a lineup of Brooks and Johnson with Henderson/Thurman/Jones competing for the final spot—but we can’t depend on that situation turning out well, so we need some depth. Offensively, we will look for either a guard or running back (whatever we didn’t pick in round 2), and a tight end (unless we sign Utrecht). Late rounds, I look for the Bengals to add depth in the defensive backfield and at wide receiver, possibly another defensive tackle or linebacker.

If we get the 10 picks folks say we will, I look for a breakdown something like this (in order of priority, not necessarily what order we will make the picks)—

2 DT/NT
1 G
2 LB
1 DE
1 RB
1 TE
1 DB (preferably a coverage guy who can play both Safety and CB)
1 WR (preferably a possession, Housh-like receiver)

I could also see college free agents signings at Center (since the pool seems poor) and for possible return guys. Obviously, major free agent signings could alter this but I think our overall needs won’t change dramatically.

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