Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt: What happens now?

Or Mubarak = Pahlavi?

I have the feeling I've seen this movie before. A dictator who is largely friendly to the United States and its foreign policy goals is in trouble, shaken by massive street demonstrations.

It's not quite the same as Iran, because in this case the dictator wasn't installed by the United States. Still, things are not looking too stable for Hosni Mubarak.

It's very hard to feel bad about what seems to be happening to Hosni Mubarak, who seems to be a born henchman. And it's almost impossible not to identify with the demonstrators in the street, to say, as a friend of mine just observed, we are all Egyptians now.
If you're old enough you remember the same feeling watching the students in Tehran, risking murder by Pahlavi's SAVAK. I sure did. In fact, when I was in law school I had the chance to represent an Iranian student who was arrested on campus at the University of Michigan for wearing a mask at an anti-Pahlavi demonstration.

My problem is that I also remember what happened next. All right-thinking Americans supported the Iranian students. None of us thought that the result would be installation of an Islamic fascist dictatorship that holds power to this day.

I don't know the answer, but my question is this: Is there any chance that Mubarak can be escorted out without creating and Iranian-style Islamic dictatorship?

And does anyone have any suggestions on how to get there?

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

What was Loughner thinking?

We've seen a rapid swing on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, from the initial charges on the left that the shooter was encouraged by wild rhetoric from the extreme right, to an almost immediate backlash from the wingers who denied that he was motivated by right-wing views, to even claiming that he is a leftist.

Now we have a report that examines the actual content of his writings and guess what: his writings are saturated by some of the most extreme, right-wing anti-government ideas, conspiracy theories, and lots of pet claims by the extreme right (denial of the legitimacy of paper money, for instance).

Is this a claim that he was acting at the direction of Sarah "Crosshairs" Palin? No. I'll stipulate that Crosshairs wasn't seriously trying to provoke an assassination attempt when she published her violent campaign poster.

But there is no question that, to the extent Loughner's writings set forth any political ideology, it is the ideology of the extreme right.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: The Russian Debutante's Handbook

The Russian Debutante's HandbookThe Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like the author, Vladimir Girshkin immigrated from Russia to the United States as a boy, grew up in New York, and attended Oberlin (not named here). Hence, it is not unreasonable to assume an autobiographical element here.

I don't consider that a weakness.

Vladimir is the opposite of a picaro. Instead of getting into scrapes and living by his wits, Vladimir is generally carried along like a cork. Through various scrapes he manages to come out okay, but he is generally acted upon, rather than actor. If he is the Russian debutante, he is badly in need of a handbook.

Where the book excels is in its exploration of identity. Vladimir moved to the United States at fourteen and settles into what he sees as his natural role, that of a beta immigrant. As the novel progresses, we see him in other identities: minor bureaucrat, hipster hanger-on, organized crime boss. His mother excoriates him for "walking like a Jew", while a few months later his American girlfriend in Prague characterizes him as a "chewer of cud".

The questions his adventures raise are whether he will recognize and survive the real consequences of his choices, which of his adopted homelands he will wind up in, and whether he will ever achieve an identity he defines for himself, rather than take what is assigned to him.

Meanwhile, although not perfect, the book provides some colorful characters, some real laughs, and what I would call an entertaining read.

View all my reviews

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The Associated Press: Running Scared

It's been just a week, and we've gone from an outcry against the violent rhetoric of the extreme right to an equally rapid backlash, with "responsible" opinion cautioning against blaming the right-wingers for talk about crosshairs, reloading, and being armed and dangerous.

Now that backlash appears to be infecting our news coverage.

Today the Associated Press ran a story about a former Congressional candidate facing criminal charges for threats against Indiana judges.

Here's how the AP describes the defendant:

A woman who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress last year

What party, you might ask, was this woman a member of? Well you might as, but in the AP coverage you will never find out, because her party affiliation appears nowhere in the story.

If you're interested, she's a Republican.

But apparently, we're not allowed to say, or even know, the party affiliation of someone who engages in violent rhetoric.

That would be irresponsible.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Democratic Congresswoman in critical condition

UPDATE: Subsequent reports now make it clear that she is still alive and out of surgery.

The Twitterverse and the comments section on GMD are full of references to right-wing Republicans calling for violent attacks on Democrats, including former half-term Alaska governor Sara Palin's "Don't Retreat, Reload".

This just in, reported by TPM and other sources.

Giffords Shot Dead By Assassin

We now have apparently confirmed reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot and killed this morning by an as-yet-unidentified assassin at a "Congress on Your Corner" event outside a grocery store in her district in Tucson, Arizona.

I would concede that even the most unhinged Tea Party Republicans probably don't intend to incite their followers to violence and political assassination. On the other hand, what message do they think they're sending when they say it may be time to exercise our "Second Amendment remedies"?

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Vermont Yankee--Entergy rolls out its strategy for relicensing

Entergy takes another step in its campaign to win the trust of Vermonters.

Here's the sequence of events, as reported in today's Brattleboro Reformer.

Step 1: April, 2010--find leaks in three of the actuators for Vermont Yankee's four safety relief valves. Fix the leaks during refueling.

Step 2:

In an analysis completed on Oct. 25, Yankee engineers concluded "there was firm evidence that the condition may have existed for a period of time greater than allowed by the technical specifications."

Step 3: Report the event to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on December 22.

Step 4: keep running those sappy "I am Vermont Yankee" ads on TV. Ignore the fact that nobody much cares how nice the employees of Vermont Yankee are, but we care very much about whether they are competent enough to run the plant and honest enough to be trusted with the public health and safety. I keep waiting for them to identify one of their employees as a fork and spoon operator from Sector 7g, but so far no luck.)

Good work for Reformer reporter Bob Audette to come up with this. The source for some of his analysis was an e-mail from Vermont Yankee. Apparently no explanation was available for why the information about the leaks, which VY had in April, or its analysis of the leaks, which they had in October, wasn't disclosed to the NRC until just before Christmas.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the collection of press releases and news updates on the Vermont Yankee web page doesn't say anything about this latest set of leaks. Not even in the section they call "We're all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts".

Maybe, in Entergy lexicon, "facts" means "stuff we couldn't keep covered up any longer".

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Class mobility in America

David Sirota has a great piece on the American media's use of the case of Ted Williams to congratulate the United States for the opportunities it supposedly affords everybody.

I'm sure you know the story, but the short version is this: homeless ex-addict is discovered to have an amazing radio voice, is offered employment, and is now a success. Horatio Alger all over again.

Sirota does a great job of pointing out the myths and ironies of the situation, and I commend the entire column to you.

I will just point out one thing that he's missing: contrary to what many people say, there is actually a lot of class mobility in America. Just look at all the formerly middle-class families who have been plunged into poverty by job loss or medical emergencies, or who have been plunged into homelessness by predatory lending, financial deregulation, and foreclosure .

We have class mobility all right. It's just not anything to brag about.

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Israel blows it

This week Israel had the chance to draw a contrast between its own ideas and religious totalitarianism. It had the chance to demonstrate that unlike countries dominated by radical Islam, Israel is a land and a culture of free expression and open debate.

You won't be surprised to learn that Israel once again failed the test.

Look at Pakistan and what do you see? Vicious government suppression of dissent, the use of the death penalty for blasphemy, and the assassination of a state governor for his opposition to blasphemy laws.

And in Israel? Noam Chomsky, a man who single-handedly started a scientific revolution in the field of linguistics, and who is known the world over for his progressive politics and writings, is denied entry.

Typically, Israel won't give a reason. Nevertheless, if the government of Israel is determined to silence its critics, it has little claim to the support or respect of the United States.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Religion of Peaceā„¢

People in the civilized parts of the world have been horrified by the way people in Pakistan have been getting sentenced to death for blasphemy. Fortunately, one Pakistani politician has had the courage to stand up to this fundamental denial of freedom of thought.

Now that politician, Salman Taseer, has been assassinated by his bodyguard, who boasted about killing him for opposing the blasphemy law.

Don't you have to love religion?

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More questions than answers

I've been following the news coverage of those Navy videos over the last few days and I still don't really understand what's going on. It leaves me wishing for context we don't have.

In case you don't know, the commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise (not the NCC-1701) is in trouble for offensive remarks he made on videos broadcast to the crew. Apparently the outcry caused by these videos is so strong the commander may lose his job.

I've watched the video, and there's no doubt that it's offensive. The video, or at least the excerpt available on line, is full of offensive comments, especially anti-gay slurs. Beyond that, what is striking is that the overall tone and content is juvenile in the extreme. Watching the video leaves you shaking your head, asking yourself, "These are the guys running our nuclear navy? Really"

But it's the questions about context that keep coming back to me, and I'd like to see answered. First, is there something in Navy culture where this kind of shipboard video is common, and is done in most ships as an unofficial form of morale-building entertainment? You almost get the idea that there is, but it's not in any of the coverage I've seen.

Second, after the anti-gay slurs, the most common comments on the videos are statements by the commander that in the case of any legal or court proceedings it is important to point out that neither the admiral nor the captain knows anything about the content of these videos. That makes me suspect that even before the current controversy there were complaints, and possibly even legal challenges, brought to these videos. It also suggests that in light of these prior challenges, if the admiral and captain didn't know what was going on they should have.

True, these videos were made during the time of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. During this time official military policy was not that homosexuality was incompatible with military service, but that it would be accepted as long as the ridiculous strictures of DADT were adhered to. The commander's hostile, anti-gay comments were an extreme example of bigotry that would, one hopes, not be accepted if they had been directed at racial minorities.

I hope the guy does lose his job, but more than that, I hope we get more information than we now have.

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