Friday, July 31, 2009

Let's show some awareness of history

Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government's handling of the famine, described it in 1848 as "a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence", which laid bare "the deep and inveterate root of social evil"; the Famine, he affirmed, was "the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part..."

This summer across New England we have been afflicted by an unusual agriculture condition, the "late blight", which has the potential to cause major failures of the tomato and potato crops. It has become commonplace for the news coverage of the late blight to refer to the best known outbreak of late blight, in Ireland in 1845.

It has also been commonplace for news coverage to refer to late blight as the condition "which caused the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century". "The crop disease -- the same that caused the Irish potato famine -- is not unusual, but arrived in the region early this year".

In fact, there is no question that the blight did not cause the Famine. True, it caused the failure of the Irish potato crop, but the only serious question of the cause of the Famine was whether it was the result of an intentional program of genocide by the English, or was simply caused by a callous indifference to the suffering and starvation that English policies imposed on the subjugated Irish population.

The quote that opens this essay is as good an example as any of the argument in favor of genocide: the very man charged with responsibility for famine relief was contemplating with glee the prospect of the death by starvation of millions of Ireland, with his only regret being that the number of deaths might be insufficient to suit his purposes. In 1996 Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote a report commissioned by the New York-based Irish Famine/Genocide Committee, that concluded "Clearly, during the years 1845 to 1850, the British government pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland with intent to destroy in substantial part the national, ethnic and racial group commonly known as the Irish People.... Therefore, during the years 1845 to 1850 the British government knowingly pursued a policy of mass starvation in Ireland that constituted acts of genocide against the Irish people within the meaning of Article II (c) of the 1948 [Hague] Genocide Convention."

In 1845, Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid declared his intention to send 10,000 sterling to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only 1,000 sterling, because she had sent only 2,000 sterling. The Sultan sent the 1,000 sterling but also secretly sent 3 ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.

On the other hand, historian Cormac Ó Gráda disagreed that the famine was genocide: first, that "genocide includes murderous intent and it must be said that not even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day sought the extermination of the Irish"; second, that most people in Whitehall "hoped for better times in Ireland" and third, that the claim of genocide overlooks "the enormous challenges facing relief efforts, both central, local, public and private". Ó Gráda thinks that a case of neglect is easier to sustain than that of genocide.

Given the public statements of those in power in England I find it hard to credit the idea that the Great Hunger was not caused by a deliberate program of genocide. While English imperialists did not create or engineer the blight, they undoubtedly took advantage of the crop failure to reduce what they saw as Irish overpopulation and to restructure the agriculture industry and system of land ownership in Ireland.

Genocide? Whatever your answer, it is clear that it was not the blight that caused the Famine. The American press should know better.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Marmaduke, 1945-2009

I just learned that John Dawson, who with David Nelson and Jerry Garcia founded the New Riders of the Purple Sage, died of stomach cancer yesterday.

This is very sad news to those of us who loved Marmaduke's music and his stage presence.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A great ex-president

Once again, Jimmy Carter has distinguished himself as a great ex-president and human being.

I couldn't stand him as president. He ran and governed as a conservative, from running against the government itself, to his "zero-based budgeting" scheme, to the use of paraquat (capital punishment for pot smokers), to sheltering that moldering dictator Pahlavi. In other ways he was simply inept, as in his failure to pass for and achieve labor law reform which would have included federal contract debarment for labor law violators like J.P. Stevens, and failing to fill vacancies on the board of the Legal Services Corporation at the end of his term, leaving Reagan the opportunity to appoint a full board determined to dismantle the program.

He's been much better since he's been out of office, and here's another example. There may be room for debate if Christianity is essentially and inherently a sexist, male-supremacist institution. I think there is no room for debate when it comes to the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter has finally had enough, and has publicly split with them.

I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

I'm sure this wasn't an easy thing for him to do. He comes close to saying what I would say about religion, that it's merely a political institution organized to keep certain people in power and others out:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

We need this kind of voice for human rights.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"You're under arrest."

"But it's my house."
"You're under arrest anyway."

America's newest crime: being in a house while black.

BOSTON (July 20) – Police responding to a call about "two black males" breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there — Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar.
Gates had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

You've gone out for the evening and forgotten your keys, or maybe the door is stuck, so what do you do?

It's your house, right? So if you have no other choice, you break the door in, or break a (preferably cheap) window and let yourself in.

Then, if you're a black man living in Boston, be prepared to deal with the police, and be careful how you talk to them.

Skip Gates broke into his own house, and when the police showed up he took umbrage, reasoning that he was being targeted for his race. If you're the cop, and you have any sense, what do you say? How about, "Sorry to bother you, sir, but we had to check out the break-in report. I'm glad you were able to get in."

What do these cops do? They arrest him for disorderly conduct.

Gates — the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research — initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.
"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.
He was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior." He was released later that day on his own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26. Police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

The next time you find yourself wondering if there is still a need for the NAACP after 100 years, remember this story.

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Frank McCourt, Dead at 78

Frank McCourt, a former New York City schoolteacher who turned his miserable childhood in Limerick, Ireland, into a phenomenally popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” died in Manhattan on Sunday. He was 78 and lived in Manhattan and Roxbury, Conn.

Like many, especially of Irish descent, I read and appreciated Angela's Ashes. I hesitate to say "enjoyed", because the life portrayed is so full of misery and neglect, caused in large measure by the father's alcoholism, that it's hard to say that the reading was enjoyable. Nevertheless, this vivid depiction of a miserable life is suffused with humor and illustrates the author's ability to rise from a childhood of abject poverty to the opportunity offered to an immigrant in New York.

If you haven't read Angela's Ashes, you should.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Larry/Deity 04: The Lamb and the Lion

What about that lesson? The lion will lie down with the lamb?

Finally we have the answer.

The Worst Journey in the World

Emperors of the Ice: A True Story of Disaster and Survival in the Antarctic, 1910-13 Emperors of the Ice: A True Story of Disaster and Survival in the Antarctic, 1910-13 by Richard Farr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Great book. This is an account of Scott's fatal second expedition to the South Pole, told in the voice of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and based in part on his monumental work, The Worst Journey in the World.

This is published for advanced younger readers, age 12 and up, but the story isn't dumbed-down, and an adult reader will find it as satisfying and gripping as a younger reader. The voice is all Cherry, and he tells the story of the first human expedition to see nesting Emperor penguins, which was nearly fatal in itself, and of Scott's final, push to the Pole, with the heroic Birdy Bowers and four other doomed explorers.

Most people won't read Cherry's full 600 page memoir, but this gives a great story of this expedition to the extremes that Earth has to offer.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Obama's great education plan

Most parents of college-age students have had the same experience: complete the FAFSA, which is burdensome enough in itself, submit the information, wait for the notification of the expected family contribution, and then try to face the shock. Whatever you thought you could afford to pay, it's not nearly as much as what they tell you you're going to pay. Not even close.

There is a crisis in higher education in the United States. People just can't afford it, and many students graduate with paralyzing levels of debt. What we should do is what many civilized countries do: provide higher education free, or nearly free. We're not going to do that, but we should.

Obama's new proposal is a major step in the right direction. By directing more money to community colleges, the new plan will bring higher education within reach of many who cannot now afford it; direct funds to some of the most motivated students, who are best able to benefit from it; and provide education and training that is directly relevant to the career needs of many students.

Community colleges have never gotten the respect they deserve. Everyone knows a derogatory nickname for the community college in their community: when I was at Michigan State I couldn't tell you how many times I heard Lansing Community College referred to as Last Chance College. What a mistake. Community colleges provide great value for the money, are nimble, and reach nontraditional students who are there not just because it's expected of them, but because they are prepared to get something out of it.

I think this proposal is a great idea. It's also a major campaign promise kept. And if you're a parent or a prospective college student, this proposal builds on a great educational option.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Who's evil now?

A couple of years ago we posted about how Apple was trying to crush innovation by "bricking" people's iPhones.

Maybe it's something to do with owning the hot, exclusive technology that makes you arrogant, but this case is too ironic to believe. The hot new technology this time around is the Kindle, the new e-book reader from Amazon that many people consider the first e-reader that, although not perfect, is the first on that's even worth looking at. Three bills brings it home, and you can buy over 300,000 titles.

But what if you buy a title and Amazon changes its mind? Well, then you've got a bit of a problem, as Amazon customers learned this week when they found out that books they had bought from Amazon were suddenly gone.

Or should I say "bought"? The customers thought they owned these books, but Amazon changed their mind, or the publisher changed their mind, so, poof, no more books. All the books by, get this: George Orwell!

That's right, the author who visualized and warned us against Big Brother, the all-seeing, all-powerful dictator, who knew what you were reading, what you were doing, and had the power to make you love Him. That George Orwell.

Now the giant, all-powerful, octopus-like e-retailer claims to feel bad about how it handled this situation, but you have to wonder if they would have acted this way if they had any real competition in the e-reader market.

Now maybe they do. It's not on the market yet, but it looks pretty good to me.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sen. Coburn to Judge Sotomayor: "You'll Have Lots of 'Splainin to Do"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Strategy from Republicans

Great news! The Republicans have come up with a strategy to attract Hispanic voters: pepper their commentary on Judge Sotomayor's confirmation with wacky, Desi Arnaz-flavored ethnic slurs.

That's right, Sen. Coburn decided to share his wisdom about what would happen in the unlikely event that Judge Sotomayor would get hold of a gun and shoot him. It's his considered legal opinion that if that were to happen, she would have "a lot of 'splainin' to do."

Read the rest here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Please, mandatory Internet access for Republicans!

Okay, here's another one: you wouldn't necessarily say that every time a Republican goes near a computer it helps us, but they really aren't helping themselves.

Here's a story from the Daily Beast about Audra Shay, a woman who's the leading candidate to be the national chair of the Young Republicans. (I know, I know, my mother always said there was no such thing.) On her Facebook page she starts complaining about Wal-Mart, and how they're helping the country go communist by supporting Obama's health plan, and people start making comments.

One of her friends posts this comment:
“Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist… Muslim is on there side [sic]… need to take this country back from all of these mad coons… and illegals.”

Eight minutes later, Audra posts back: “You tell em Eric! lol.”

Two of Audra's friend point out that there might be something wrong with endorsing this kind of racist statement, and Audra responds by defriending them. Then she claims that she wasn't responding to Eric's racist comment, but another comment he made an hour earlier.

Yeah, right.

So follow the links and read the whole story. She took down the page, but someone had already archived it, so the links take you right to the evidence.

Once again, I say, let's handcuff the Republicans to their computers. It can only help us.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mr. Deity and the Magic

"Ignorance is bliss." That's what the Deity says.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

God Bless America

If you're like me you don't have much use for "God Bless America", and you're even more annoyed about the fact that you can't go to a ball game without being assaulted by it when you just want to hear "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh-inning stretch.

Also like me, but unlike Bradford Campeau-Laurion, you've probably never been grabbed up by the police and hauled away because you had something better to do than sit there while the sheep watching the game with you sing.

There's now good news for Mr. Campeau-Laurion and for your civil liberties: with the help of the ACLU he sued the Yankees and the New York Police, and they've now settled for a cash payment to the plaintiff, attorneys' fees, and a statement from the Yanks that they won't force people to listen to the song if they don't feel like it. (Actually, the settlement says that the Yankees don't have any such policy and don't plan to institute such a policy, but you get the idea.)

So when you go to the game, and you're celebrating the greatest American game, and you hear a song that supposedly celebrates American values, you can be glad that you don't have to shed your civil liberties at the gate.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Robert McNamara's Date with Justice

On September 29, 1972, a passenger on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard recognized McNamara on board and attempted to throw him into the ocean. McNamara declined to press charges. The man remained anonymous, but was interviewed years later by author Paul Hendrickson, who quoted the attacker as saying, "I just wanted to confront (McNamara) on Vietnam."

Sadly, the war criminal responsible for millions of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of military deaths, did not meet justice on that day. Rather, he died peacefully in his sleep this morning, a benefit that he denied to his victims. He did not perish in torment, his flesh consumed by the flames of napalm. He was not subjected to the Bell Telephone Hour like many of the prisoners of American forces, his testicles connected to a hand-cranked electrical generator. He did not spend months or years tortured as a POW.

No, McNamara lived to the comfortable age of 93. He had the opportunity to sell his memories for cheap absolution, while never truly acknowledging anything more than mistakes that were made. In response, Howell Raines wrote on the Times editorial page: “Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen,” The New York Times said in a widely discussed editorial, written by the page’s editor at the time, Howell Raines. “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”

McNamara was one of the so-called "Best and the Brightest" dissected by David Halberstam. Even the ultimate technocrat later admitted that before he helped launch the war of aggression against Vietnam he had no idea that the Vietnamese had been expelling invaders for a millenium. McNamara represented the arrogance embodied by that other ancient war criminal, Henry Kissinger: I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.

In the end, of course, nothing McNamara, Kissinger, or any other American could do could mold Vietnam to fit American interests. There will be other days to wonder whether we will learn that same lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan. For now, we can join in Clarence Darrow's observation that “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”