Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Last Sunday in the Berkshires

The view from the back of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Cloudy skies, a lazy day, and 322 Saturday Evening Post covers from the 1920s to the 1960s were enough to make one wish just a little bit that America had really been the bucolic, innocent place that Rockwell portrayed in most of his works. But he was a political liberal, and some of his depictions of school desegregation in the 1960s hit the mark in a simple, humanitarian way.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No photo, no vote

As you know, one of today's big news stories was the 6-3 Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana's law requiring a government-issued photo ID to get into the voting booth. Opponents of this law, including civil libertarians, are certainly right to argue that the law discriminates against poor, elderly, and disabled voters who might find it more difficult to come up with the kind of ID necessary, such as drivers' licenses. As the New York Times editorialized today, the law "solves [the] nearly nonexistent problem" of supposed voter fraud by "putting major barriers between voters--particularly minorities--and the ballot box." Moreover, the decision will open the door to every state with a Republican majority in its legislature to pass similar laws.

All true. So why do I have mixed feelings about this battle? First of all, as some of the Supremes pointed out in their published decisions, neither side of the controversy was able to point out actual cases where either voter fraud had taken place because a photo ID was required NOR actual cases (in Indiana, at least) where the law had actually prevented someone from voting. If that is true, then the debate has at most symbolic significance, and civil libertarians--by fighting this all the way to the Supreme Court--have inadvertently made it easier for other states to pass similar laws, certainly not the outcome they had hoped for.

In fact, I would argue that the fight over this law, while justified in the abstract, smacks of patronizing poor and minority voters by implying that they would not be willing to go to the slightest trouble to exercise their right to vote. Voter turnout in the United States is pathetic: In the Pennsylvania primary, for example, the figure I saw was that 52% of registered Democrats voted, which was heralded as nearly a record high turnout! Now, some on the far left might argue that such low rates are due to disillusionment with the electoral system
and the kinds of candidates we get to choose, and in many cases I would agree with this. But in this particular election, where the Obama-Clinton contest represents an interesting choice if not a fundamental one, I think it is fair to chalk this up to old-fashioned apathy for which there is little real excuse.

Nevertheless, there are certain conditions that make it much more difficult for the economically less well off to vote--but they don't really include the need to present a photo ID. One of the most important of these conditions, much more important, is that we vote on Tuesdays. That means that working class voters need to get their bosses to let them off to vote, sometimes standing in line for long periods--not to mention the travel time to get from work to one's local voting place. This is not such a big problem for wealthier people, of course.

We have been voting on Tuesdays since 1845, when President John Tyler proclaimed it should be that way. Why? Back in those days a lot of people had to travel overnight to vote, so they wanted to be sure that no one had to leave home on a Sunday. Sounds arbitrary, but true. In France, and in most European countries, people vote on Sundays, and the result is much higher voter turnouts. That may not be the only reason turnout is higher, but it certainly is a major one.
Although I have had this idea for some time, I am most definitely not alone. There is even a group called Why Tuesday? that has been arguing this position for some time, although it seems to be open to which day elections should actually take place as long as they are not during the week (that leaves only Saturday as the alternative to Sunday, of course.)

Now I am not even going to get into the arguments that some Christian fundamentalists will raise to Sunday voting, or that some orthodox Jews will raise to Saturday voting--other than to say that God would probably be thrilled if they went to church or synagogue first and then voted later (unlike so many pious people these days, God, if he or she exists, is highly unlikely to be a hypocite and is probably all in favor of voting rights. But we can deal with those issues in a future post.)

In summation: If we want to make it easier for people to vote, let's focus on major rather than minor obstacles to exercising the franchise. Let's vote on Sundays!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Peace, Love, Fort Ord (and John McCain)

Some of you will have seen, in yesterday's New York Times, another in a series of critical pieces about John McCain. This one focuses on possible favors McCain may have given to developers who supported him financially, in particular one Donald Diamond from Arizona. The article leads with an episode dated a decade ago, when Diamond wanted to buy a piece of Fort Ord, on California's Monterey peninsula, which had recently been closed. From 1969 to 1971 I was a GI based at Fort Ord, where I cooked for soldiers who were going off to Vietnam. But unlike John McCain, whose primary activity during that war was dropping bombs on North Vietnam, my main activity while at Fort Ord was trying to organize soldiers against the war. Back in 1993, when the closing was first announced, I wrote an article about these experiences (called "Peace, Love, and Fort Ord") in the now-defunct magazine Buzz. It is posted on the articles page of my Web site and you can read it at this link (it is a large pdf file, about 4 megabytes, so high-speed connection highly recommended.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Too close to call--really?

If I were a cynical person I would say that the networks have conspired not to call the election for Hillary so they don't lose most of their viewers early on. We will know soon!

Pennsylvania pre-mortem

While I am linking to pieces by friends, journalist-commentator Marc Cooper nails the meaning of the Pennsylvania primary in a sharp, acid post today. Marc points out that despite all of the media hullaballoo over today's vote, it will ultimately change nothing. Marc also points out that the youth vote will be the decider. Check it out. Oh, and please do not read anything into my choice of images to illustrate this post.

Genes are not destiny

In today's New York Times Science Times, my friend and colleague Carl Zimmer--one of the world's top science writers--writes about the genetics of the bacterium E. coli. The piece is adapted from Carl's new book, "Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life", which will be published imminently. In the Times story, Carl explains in detail, and in his typically clear and elegant writing style, how the bacterium and its behavior are not simply the sum of its genes. He critiques the tendency, endemic not only in science writing but among scientists themselves, to give much greater prominence to nature than to nurture. And Carl does not shy away from applying this critique to the way we usually look at humans. In a brief section at the end of the piece, he writes about how so-called epigenetic effects can make even identical twins very different:

"Identical twins may have nearly identical genes, but their methyl groups are distinctive by the time they are born and become increasingly different as the years pass. As the patterns change, people become more or less vulnerable to cancer or other diseases. This experience may be the reason why identical twins often die many years apart. They are not identical at all."

And he concludes:

"At the very least, E. coli’s individuality should be a warning to those who would put human nature down to any sort of simple genetic determinism. Living things are more than just programs run by genetic software. Even in minuscule microbes, the same genes and the same genetic network can lead to different fates."

Check out the entire article, a fascinating read.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Passing over Passover

As an "assimilated", secular Jew who grew up in Los Angeles, I skipped Passover this year--just as I do nearly every year. In fact, I had to be reminded when it came and went this past weekend. I am teaching in Boston at the moment, and enjoying the hospitality of my aunt who lives here, but she was not the slightest bit interested in organizing a seder. One of my cousins came by yesterday evening, and he had done nothing to mark the occasion either. He did inform us, however, that his older brother and his wife had gone to celebrate Passover at a local country club. I immediately volunteered the possible significance of this: When the Jews were leaving Egypt, they were in such a rush that they forgot their golf clubs, and the country club seder was meant to commemorate their suffering. My cousin and my aunt thought this was funny, although I will bet some readers of this blog might not--but then who can tell a Jewish joke better than a Jew, and who has a better right to tell it?

This brings me to an interesting story in the New York Times last Friday by Ethan Bronner, datelined Jerusalem (registration on the Times site required.) Apparently there has been a hot debate over a judge's decision overturning the conviction of four shops and restaurants for selling pizzas and rolls during Passover last year. What's wrong with that? Well, Israeli law bans the sale of such leavened items, called hametz, during Passover. As most of you probably know, the Bible relates that when the Jews left Egypt they didn't leave their golf clubs behind but rather they didn't have enough time to allow their bread to rise (or, perhaps, they left the leavening behind, I have never been clear on that and don't have a Bible to hand to check it.) Of course, they ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years, so eventually they must have found bread, or leavening, or both (perhaps someone who knows the details can provide a comment.)

At any rate, this court decision was controversial, as the Times article points out, because "it speaks to a palpable anxiety over the need to define and defend the Jewish nature of the state..." The article cites Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others to the effect that since the Palestinians "and their supporters" rejected defining Israel as a Jewish state, "it was more important than ever to do so." In other words, the anti-hametz law, while a relatively minor matter in and of itself, is nevertheless important because as Livni put it "this prohibition is part of the substantive question of how we wish to characterize our identity in the national home for the Jewish people."

Bronner quotes another supporter of the law, Sharona Mazalian (a "conservative" legislator) as follows: "The further we allow ourselves to go from Jewish tradition, the easier it will be for those who reject our legitimacy as a Jewish state... the less Jewish we are the easier it will be for others to say, 'Why not just be a democratic state for Jews and Arabs to live together?'"

My answer to that is: Yes, why not? Does the survival of the Jewish people and Jewish traditions require a "Jewish state"? I am very mindful, of course, of the historical background in which Israel was created, and European Jews could not be blamed for seeking refuge from a continent in which murderous anti-semitism was the rule rather than the exception (talking here about Nazi or fascist movements in nearly every European country, although many, many Jews preferred instead to come to the United States or stay in Europe.) But Jews have done very well, thank you, as a small minority in the United States, and it is hard to imagine that they could not also do very well as a majority within the 1967 borders of Israel. Let me take this further: According to what principle can we justify a Jewish state? Many of those who bristle at the idea that the United States is or should be a "Christian" nation, or who feel nothing but contempt for the notion of an "Islamic republic," seem to have no problem with the notion that a state should be organized around the identity of a particular religious or ethnic group; moreover, many seem to suffer only mild embarrassment that it should be organized around the religious views of one particular segment of its society, namely that of the orthodox rabbinate which tries to enforce religious laws and prevents Jews and Arabs from marrying (Jews can't marry Christians either.)

In essence, in the case of Israel, we have carved out an exception to the principle that all citizens of a state should be equal in the eyes of the law and the values of society. And, as many commentators much wiser than I have pointed out--many of them speaking from inside Israel itself--the Israelis are fighting a losing "demographic" battle to keep themselves ethnically pure, by walling out the Palestinians, keeping them subjugated, and taking over their land.

Not so long ago it was difficult to say such things. Yet it is getting easier all the time. Some American Jews, in particular, want to forget what we all talked about openly when I was growing up Jewish in Los Angeles: We had a right to all the land, and we intended to take it away from the Palestinians. Yes, when I was in Hebrew school, when I was attending my (roughly 50% Jewish) high school in the San Fernando Valley, we made no bones about it--because back then the Palestinians were entirely powerless and no one cared about them. Today, only a minority of Jews dare express such ideas openly; and to be fair, the history of the last 40 years has taught most Jews that this is an unrealistic goal.

Many of us, out of those early experiences, went on to become politically active in the 1960s, to become internationalists, indeed to formulate a new kind of Judaism that was socially aware and sought justice for all peoples. We put aside the tribalism that made us uncritical supporters of Israel, even if we tried to preserve Jewish customs and traditions, or even just Jewish food (the bagel being one of our greatest legacies to humankind.) Indeed, this is the choice for Jews today, in Israel or in the "diaspora": Internationalism vs tribalism. We can't have it both ways, and sooner or later, history won't let us.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Sunny April Sunday in Boston

Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand

That's the title of a long, blockbuster story in the New York Times today (registration on the Times site required) that is absolutely essential reading. I can do little better than reproduce the first several paragraphs here which pretty much speak for themselves. The only question I would raise is why it took so long for the Times, or any other media outlet for that matter, to do this story. Has it not been more than five years since the invasion of Iraq? Perhaps some bloggers have been on this earlier, and some media critics like the folks at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, but I have not seen much about it--even though it should be pretty obvious when one thinks about it.

April 20, 2008
Message Machine

Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand

In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration confronted a fresh wave of criticism over Guantánamo Bay. The detention center had just been branded “the gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, there were new allegations of abuse from United Nations human rights experts and calls were mounting for its closure.

The administration’s communications experts responded swiftly. Early one Friday morning, they put a group of retired military officers on one of the jets normally used by Vice President Dick Cheney and flew them to Cuba for a carefully orchestrated tour of Guantánamo.

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The multimedia scoop on prehistoric poop

Earlier this month, Science published a paper (widely covered in the media) describing the extraction of ancient human DNA from fossilized feces (coprolites) found in a cave in Oregon. The findings tend to support the so-called "pre-Clovis" hypothesis for the peopling of the Americas (I had the privilege of writing Science's news story on the paper.) My friend Rick Pettigrew of The Archaeology Channel writes to say that this very worthwhile Web site has posted a video about the discovery, as he describes below. Check it out.

Friends and colleagues: Whether Clovis Culture at 13,000 cal. B.P. represents the first human migrants to the Americas has been hotly debated for decades, but a new discovery from Oregon appears to document the human presence firmly a full millennium before Clovis. The archaeologist who recovered the new evidence tells the story directly from the find-site at Paisley Caves in Finding Pre-Clovis Humans in the Oregon High Desert: An Interview with Dennis Jenkins, the latest video feature on our nonprofit streaming-media Web site, The Archaeology Channel (

In this interview, conducted at Paisley Five Mile Point Caves on June 13, 2007, by Rick Pettigrew of ALI, Dr. Dennis Jenkins describes the remarkable discovery of human DNA in coprolites dated between 14,000 and 15,000 calibrated years ago. This evidence, reported in the 3 April 2008, issue of the journal Science, strongly supports the proposition that human migrants to North America arrived at least 1000 years before the widespread Clovis complex appeared. The data also support the conclusion that the first human population originated in northeast Asia. Dr. Jenkins, standing in the very spot where his field school team recovered the evidence, relates why and how the excavation was carried out, explains the significance of the find and shares his personal reflections on making a momentous discovery. Images woven into the interview show the environment surrounding the caves and the student archaeologists comprising the field crew.

This and other programs are available on TAC for your use and enjoyment. We urge you to support this public service by participating in our Membership ( and Underwriting ( programs. Only with your help can we continue and enhance our nonprofit public-education and visitor-supported programming. We also welcome new content partners as we reach out to the world community.

Please forward this message to others who may be interested and let us know if you wish to be removed from our mailing list.

Richard M. Pettigrew, Ph.D., RPA
President and Executive Director
Archaeological Legacy Institute

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Romeo Dallaire, Bill Clinton, and Rwanda

This is not primarily a political blog, but not because I do not have political opinions--I probably have altogether too many of them. However, I don't find that my opinions are particularly original, and there are so many political blogs out there that I would rather read them than write one myself. Nevertheless, I am a very political animal, and from time to time I might just feel that I have something to say; if so, I will say it here.

The current flap over Obama's "bitterness" comments, and in particular Hillary Clinton's typically opportunistic exploitation of them in her losing battle for the nomination (side by side with McCain on this one, Hillary) reminds me once again why Americans so badly need to sweep Clintonian politics aside for something better. I don't see Obama as a savior, but I do see his election as vitally necessary for any serious change to come about in our country--not necessarily because of what Obama himself might do, but because grassroots activism needs a healthy, hopeful atmosphere in which to blossom.

A couple of years ago, I posted the following on the News section of my Web site, but I doubt that more than a few people ever saw it. Perhaps a few more will see it here. This is my summation of what Clintonian politics is all about.

Romeo Dallaire, Bill Clinton, and Rwanda

Living in Paris as I do, I sometimes miss films that I really should see when they first come out. This was the case with Hotel Rwanda, which had a fairly brief run here--perhaps because of lingering guilt about the role of the French in Rwanda, who supported the former Hutu-dominated government up to and even during the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people. The film is now out in DVD, and last night I rented it from my favorite film rental shop.

I read Philip Gourevitch's book "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" when it was first published, and a few months ago I finished "Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda," by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who was head of UN forces before and during the genocide. Recently I also purchased the paperback edition of Volume II of "My Life" by Bill Clinton. I bought it for only one reason: So that I could bring it home and quote it accurately when I wrote the remarks you are reading here.

In 1998, Clinton visited Rwanda--or, more accurately, visited the airport outside Kigali, which he never left according to news reports of the event--and delivered his famous "apology" for the inaction of the United States in the face of the slaughter. In his autobiography, Clinton devotes one reasonably long paragraph as his explanation for this inaction. The first half of this paragraph is devoted to a factual recounting of what happened and how many people were killed. He concludes: "We were so preoccupied with Bosnia, with the memory of Somalia just six months old, and with opposition in Congress to miliary developments in faraway places not vital to our national interests that neither I nor anyone on my foreign policy team adequately focused on sending troops to stop the slaughter. With a few thousand troops and help from our allies, even making allowances for the time it would have taken to deploy them, we could have saved lives. The failure to try to stop Rwanda's tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency."

First of all, much of this statement is a lie, as journalists have fully documented: In fact, the main opposition to doing anything in Rwanda came from Clinton and his UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, who did everything they could not only to prevent US involvement but an adequate UN response too. And even if Clinton does regret Rwanda, he does not regret it as much as having been discovered having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, as even a cursory reading of his autobiography demonstrates.

What would someone do if they were really sorry about what happened in Rwanda, and for their responsibility in allowing it to happen? Well, in addition to a brief stop at the Rwanda airport in 1998, when it came time to write their autobiography, would they not devote many pages--would it be too much to ask for an entire chapter?--on what happened, why it happened, including a detailed and honest accounting of one's own personal actions? And would the purpose of doing this not be to get everyone to say, oh Bill, it's okay, thanks for apologizing and feeling the pain of others, but in fact to learn lessons so that in the future such a thing would "never again" happen?

So I have to conclude that Bill Clinton is lying when he says he was sorry. I have to conclude that Bill Clinton rarely gives the matter much thought.

Now here is what I would expect from someone who was really sorry about the death of 800,000 people in Rwanda. This is from a Oct 24, 2003 online dispatch from the CBC:

"After Rwanda, Dallaire blamed himself for everything. He sank deep into dispair. He attempted suicide. Three years ago he sat on a park bench in Ottawa and drank from a bottle of alcohol. He's forbidden to drink because of the drugs he takes for depresssion. The mixture almost put him into a coma. Police had to take him to a hospital."

I've searched the internet to see how many times Bill Clinton has been found on a park bench drinking himself to death over his failures in Rwanda. Obviously Google is not as efficient as it claims. And the comedy of this is, Romeo Dallaire bears no blame whatsoever for what happened in Rwanda. But he does bear one thing that Bill Clinton does not have and never will have: a sense of responsibility.

Bill Clinton lived in the White House for 8 years. Many Americans, including many of my friends, are nostalgic for those days after the crimes and lies of George W. Bush. My question is: is this the best we can do? Are there no Romeo Dallaires and men and women like him in America who could be president of our country? Why do we want Bill Clintons and George Bushes in the White House in the first place?

Could it be that many of us don't want to take responsibility either? In that case, we elect the presidents that we deserve. Maybe some day that will change. Maybe some day we will choose a president who has the humanity and the sense of responsibility to feel so guilty about the murder of 800,000 people, even when it wasn't his fault, that he sat drinking on a park bench over it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


I got my hair cut today. Big deal, you say? It is a big deal when you are in another city, far from your regular coiffeur, and have to trust your hair to a complete stranger. Actually, Sheila, who cut my hair here in Chestnut Hill (a section of Brookline, Massachusetts), is not a complete stranger. About a month ago she cut my hair for the first time. I spend most of the year in Paris, where Michel, who knows me and my hair about as well as anyone, has been doing a great job for the past 17 years. One's relationship with the person who cuts one's hair is--or should be--very intimate. Michel is a great conversationalist, and after 20 years in Paris, my French conversation is not too bad either. Fortunately, we share the same left politics (I'm more left than him, but then I am more left than most everyone I know.) And when someone is rubbing his or her fingers through your hair, talking is the best way to reduce the sexual tension.

In the case of Sheila, I am somewhat ambivalent about wanting to reduce the sexual tension. Nevertheless, I don't put any particular interpretation on her own almost complete silence while she cuts my hair--she may be naturally shy or just one of those people who doesn't like to talk when she doesn't have anything to say. And I try not to take her taciturn demeanor personally.

The relationship between a client and his or her haircutter is built on a strange kind of loyalty. When I lived in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles, I went to a coiffeur named Steve whose boutique was in nearby Silverlake. Like many people who live in Silverlake, Steve was gay, and so were most of his clients (I was one of the exceptions.) We talked about everything from politics to sex, and when he moved his shop to the northern San Fernando Valley I drove the 45 minutes each way to his new location for a year. Then my girlfriend of the time told me my hair looked awful and dragged me to a very talented coiffeuse in Venice named Sally. After one cut, Sally proved that Steve did not know what he was talking about when he said I had no choice but to part my hair in a very dorky way (he didn't say dorky, but the mirror did.) So I abandoned Steve, never went back, never said anything, and have felt guilty about it ever since.

Until Sheila, no one else had cut my hair for 17 years--with one exception. A few years ago I went to Istanbul and did not have time to have Michel cut my hair before I left. I spied a coiffeur behind my hotel and wandered in, whereupon I was given tea (a ritual before anything else can happen in Turkey) and a haircut. The coiffeur spoke no English and me no Turkish, despite many trips to the country, but from a drawer behind him he pulled out a tattered sheet of paper with English phrases written on it ("where are you from, how do you like Turkey, how many children do you have") and proceeded to read from it. I am not sure if he understood any of my answers. But he did give me a pretty good haircut.

When I went off to Boston to teach this semester, I made sure to tell Michel where I was going so he wouldn't think I had flown the coop. I will be back in Paris for the summer, and then back in Boston to teach again in the fall. Michel will give me my next haircut. But I made sure to tell Sheila that I would be back in September. I wouldn't want her to think I had abandoned her.

A blog looking for a home

My blogging has been in fits and starts, but since I use Google for everything else (email, calendar, etc.) perhaps I can have a fresh start here on Google's Blogger. I started out with a blog on Wordpress and made a few entries but did not get very far with it; and then there is the long-running news page on my main Web site, which has been in existence for more than three years.

Let's see how it goes. If anyone is out there, watch for posts--occasional at first, perhaps more prolific as time goes on.