Debating Torture

“Torture” seems to be the topic of the week.

In all this “debate” it is important to keep in mind that we are really discussing at least three connected but distinct issues (none of which is what the U.S. did, a set of interrogation acts no longer in dispute).

Issue one is whether or not the U.S. sanctioned and committed acts of “torture” in the legal sense of the word.  This is a legal debate, one hinging on the interpretation of both domestic and international law.  Regardless of what that answer is, another issue is whether or not these practices were a good idea.  This is the debate about what information they yielded, whether that information could have been obtained through other means, and, considering how it was obtained, whether or not it could be trusted.  A corrollary of this debate is the “cost” of such practices.  Does their use weaken our public image?  Does it put future U.S. prisoners at greater risk?

The final issue, and the most important from my perspective, is whether or not these acts are ethical.  This is not a crude “ends versus means” debate.  No matter what the answer is to both of the above sets of questions, this is about power, humanity, and maybe even morality.

Seeing both the intersections and the distinctiveness of these related debates is the only way for this moment to be useful.  This is the only way for it to have a lasting, historical impact.  The technique of blurring these lines—one currently being employed by Dick Cheney in his almost daily interventions into the public discourse—is, I believe, the technique of maintaining the status quo.  It limits our ability to act in relation to answers we have to any one of them by creating a false sense of singular simplicity, letting any answer to any element of any of the debates stand in as “conclusive.”

Even if successful, there may be a bright side: the fact that Dick is leading the “defense of torture” side of the debate speaks volmes about “the Right’s” current state of upheaval.


Academic blob

Do you watch Oprah?  I know!  Me, too.  Hell, it’s probably the law or something…

Well, as you know, Oprah and her middle/upper class viewers are obsessed with both living healthy and living forever.  Enter Dr. Oz.  He’s been helping us help ourselves for sometime now, though lately he’s kicked it up a notch.

Oz and his buddy have gone around the world researching what makes old people old.  You know what they found?  It’s about regular exercise, a healthy diet, vitamins and minerals, and emotional & mental nourishment.  Damn scientists!

Well, with the above constituting the “secret recipe” for a long life, it’s no wonder academics don’t do too well. I mean, we got the whole emotional and mental nourishment thing down (although I’ve met more than a few “on the job” who are a little emotionally, shall we say, wanting?) but even if you eat right, they still smack you down with the whole physical inactivity thing.

This is part of a work email I got today:

Here is how it works – Once a faculty member identifies the desired book through the electronic catalog system [redacted], they simply push the “request” button that is on the screen. After logging in with their name and ID number, the faculty member can choose to either have the item held at the library or can select “mail.” In the case of “mail” a menu will appear offering the seven campuses as delivery choices. The faculty “request” goes into a queue; a librarian will print a slip, retrieve the book, check the book out to the requesting faculty member, package it up and send it to the mail room. The mail service will deliver books at least once a day. Each campus mailroom will deliver the books to their respective faculty members. Similarly, books may be returned to the library or through individual mail rooms and the mail staff will pick them up and return them to the library.

The art of browsing is dead. I may be following soon.


Four Twenty

Today is an underground holiday, of sorts.  Nobody knows when it started, or how it started, but, I assure you, more people than you can imagine will partake in it.


“Four Twenty” (or 4:20 or 4/20) is something of an urban legend, (sub)cultural joke, and community-building practice all rolled into one.  (Hehehehe, he said “rolled.”)  For those of you who don’t know (and, really, if you found this, you do) it refers to a time of day (and, annually, a day of the year) when people are supposed to get high by smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana.

Depending on the generation “observing” the feast, it has been alternately a form of collective political rebellion (thumbing one’s nose at a law prohibiting the very celebration in question); a mark of a distinctive generational status (“we” get high but “they” didn’t); and a form of nurturing an “imagined” community (no matter where you are, if you get high at 4:20 or at 4:20 on 4/20 then you are not getting high alone).


As with any cultural phenomena based more on rumor and humor than on any single historical event, there’s no particular reason for this.  Legend has it that 4-20 is the part of the criminal code somewhere which makes smoking pot a crime.  It’s not, but that doesn’t stop the story from being told from one generation to the next.  Others have (more recently) linked it to urban legends about happenings at high schools (the time detention got out at one; the locker number of where one dealt the contraband at another).  I suspect the events at Columbine in 1999 may have had something to do with linking it in the collective memory to some kind of high school rebellion, but those rumors, too, are just that.

The tradition continues, however, as it probably will for the, well, forever.  As somebody who works on a college campus, I am never surprised to see the “next” generation’s participation in this version of “pot culture.”  Ten years from now, most of those doing what they’re doing, will either be non-smokers remembering their youthful indiscretions, teetotalers trying to get the “drugs away from our children,” or addicts.

Which will you be?  Huh?  Yeah, I’m talking to you.  Imagine that!  Me!  Talking to you!!  And we’ve never even met!!!  And you’re just sitting there, at your computer, with all that belly-button lint!!  And I’m using so many exclamation marks!  Did you ever notice how that word was spelled: e-x-c-l-a-m-a-t-i-o-n.  The word “clam” is in there?  And “mation”!  My god, I have to Google search “mation”!!

But, today, they were people who alter their mental state by imbibing an herb that modern U.S. society has decided to criminalize.



Chavez enrolls Obama in Latin America 101

The Presidents of Venezuela and the United States have “informally” crossed paths twice at this weekends’ Summit of the Americas. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama first exchanged words yesterday, and then, today, Chavez gave Obama a book as a gift.

CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

The book he gave him is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. (Here’s a recent article on Galeano where he discusses some of his ideas on Latin America and his new book, Espejos.)  The text is a familiar one to students of Latin American history, serving as it does as something of an introduction to European and U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.

That’s right; Chavez just suggested Obama “go to school” on the imperial history of his nation.

I suspect the big O already knows a bit about that past (and, regrettably, present), but I still hope he takes the time to read Galeano.  It’s one of those life changing books, challenging as it does many of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. involvement in the hemisphere.

But Chavez didn’t stop there.  In comments he delivered on Saturday, Chavez said the U.S. “must breakaway from the concept of viewing us as its backyard.”  (See the full story here.)  The notion of “proximity” has always been a prcursor to U.S. empire, as argued (with copious amounts of proof) by scholars like Lars Schoultz and Louis Pérez Jr. When he said that, Chavez wasn’t speaking to Latin America, the only part of the hemisphere that seems to be reporting on his remarks.  He was intentionally trying to “teach” the U.S. about the problems of its own “savior” tendencies.

Chavez is a well-read man, familiar with much of the recent work in Latin American history produced by English-language writers.  Some years ago, he made a public appearance holding Empire’s Workshop, by historian Greg Grandin (a stellar book, btw).  Our president has the chance to show Latin Americans he is more than a machine spouting off the rhetoric of neoliberalism, like our previous 43 guys in office.  A good start might be by showing them he understands what it is they know and why they know it.

But, then again, it’s politics.


Bob Dylan on being a ‘cult figure’

Look, I love the guy, too, okay?  He’s a legend, one of popular music’s best poets, and an iconic figure of American music and letters.

But, where I come from, when we start talking like this, somebody puts you into your bed, kisses you on the forehead, and says “Goodnight.”

A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.

I dated four of the above, and two were students in a class of mine.  I’ll let you guess which.

In all seriousness, I love his answer—the rhythm of it, the imagery, all of it.  This is just a taste—and hardly an indicative one—from the recent interview Bob Dylan gave to Bill Flanagan.  For most of what I’ve read of it, he is surprisingly frank and direct, not two traits I would often assign to him.  And, of course, he’s also Bob Dylan, like here in his comments on Val Kilmer:

Funny thing about actors and that identity thing. Every time I run into Val Kilmer, I can’t help myself. I say, “Why, Johnny Ringo – you look like somebody just walked on your grave.” Val always says, “Bob, I’m not Johnny Ringo. That’s just a role I played in a movie.” He could be right, he could be wrong. I think he’s wrong but he says it in such a sincere way. You have to think he thinks he’s right.

The first excerpt above is from part 5 of their chat, featured on the HuffingtonPost, where you can also access part 4, the source of the second.  Parts 1 to 3 are somewhere on Dylan’s own website, a place a find a little bit confusing but a lot of fun to visit.

Kids at Texas labor camp (1942)


“Boys sitting on truck parked at the FSA … labor camp, Robston, Tex.”
Photographed Arthur Rothstein, (1915- )
(January 1942)

Photograph is part of the Library of Congress collection available online at the LOC flickr page.

Burger King apologizes to Mexico

Burger King has apologized to Mexico for an ad campaign.  As featured in print and television, the campaign involves a diminutive Mexican wrestler and a lanky Texan cowboy.  Here’s the commercial:

I can think of two or three things they could have apologized for, but the lo siento was directed at the Mexican public who have been inundated with the poster version of the campaign, not the commercial.  Those posters feature the use of the Mexican flag, draped around “El Cachito.” The use of the Mexican flag in a commercials is prohibited by Mexican law.


The television commercial–which runs in the United Kingdom and Spain–is in compliance with the laws of those countries.  So rejoice!  Deep-seated cultural sterotypes relating to physicality and power will remain in regular rotation.

You can read about the story here.

How Republicans spin ‘gay marriage’

On yesterday’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich responded to questions regarding the recent advances for the legalization of same-sex marriage.  “It’s very dangerous for the country to have the judiciary become the chief agent of social change,” he said.

I wasn’t surprised to hear what he had to say.  If anything, Gingrich has been a consistent representative of the most mainstream “conservative” viewpoint.  If you have been anywhere near a state that has been confronting the issue of same-sex rights in the past decade, you’ve heard the rhetoric already.  The “assault” on “traditional marriage” has been led by a cabal of “activist judges.”  Leave it up to the masses, they say, or else we are walking down an “anti-democratic” road.

Sadly, this analysis is not a new one.  You might think this strand of judicial skepticism within “conservative” thought is the result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case making abortion legal.  It’s not.  This argument stretches back to the Brown v. Board decision almost two decades earlier, as well as to a host of federal circuit court decisions relating to civil rights which were adjudicated in the years immediately after WWII.

As the courts increasingly recognized the disparity between the Constitution and “real life”–a material condition which included legalized segregation, discrimination, and bold political disenfranchisement–they were persuaded to side with the parties fighting for equal rights.  They did not see their work as that of “activists.” The opinions they issued were framed according to their interpretation of what the law required.  In fact, in a host of cases before and after 1954, judges did EXACTLY WHAT IT WAS THEIR JOB TO DO: make decisions about the law apart from whether or not those decisions were popular or whether or not people wanted them.

It is significant to note that a clear majority of the U.S. public disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board.  Whether or not they agreed with school segregation is a matter of debate, but they clearly did not agree with compulsory desegregation.  Apart from arguments we would see as “racist” from today’s perspective, many people just thought the courts couldn’t change people’s hearts.  The only way for racist practices like school segregation to end, these “progressives” argued, would be when people felt differently and realized the error of their ways.  Sound familiar?

If you want to read the most famous reply to this kind of thinking, read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The anti-same-sex marriage movement uses its critique of “activist judges” to suggest the quest for equal rights is the work of people not following the rule of law.  They imply these judges are engaged in a form of social engineering where they disrespect the “will of the people” and the “democratic tradition.”  More than anything, that analysis is political spin.

The “will of the people” has a historic tradition of racism, sexism, and other forms of widely recognized unjust practices.  Would these “conservatives” have left them in tact because of public support?  Do they believe any law is a just and moral law simply by its existence?  What about laws that contradict the Constitution?  What about laws that contradict other laws?  What about capricious laws?  What about those Republicans who sound off anytime somebody encroaches on the Second Amendment?

There are too many contradictions in their line of argumentation to deal with here, and this is why is use the term “conservative” so cautiously.  The same “conservative” mainstream using the “activist judges” arguments are also the old guard when it comes to the “law and order” and “Constitutional rights” arguments.  The reason they see no conflict here is that none of these positions is about philosophy or ideology as much as it is about political expediency.  The “conservatives” in question don’t want to see LGBT people get married, and they are willing to use rhetoric that spits in the face of principles they claim to uphold because it suits their purpose.

Most perspectives in this world depend on the position from which you are viewing a given issue.  The “suicide bombers” who constituted the “terrorists” who “attacked” the United States on September 11, 2001, are “heroes” and “freedom fighters” to others in the world.  Timothy McVeigh, the man who committed a “terrorist attack” on the U.S. is seen by others as a “hero” and a “patriot.”  The list goes on and on.

Many who support the cause of obstructionism and stand opposed to same-sex unions are people who deeply believe in their stance.  They see queer folk the way others saw people of color forty years ago–living in ways that challenge the “norm.” Of course, their norm is hell for the rest of us.  While they long for a time that never really existed, and try to stop the tide of change that takes them further and further away from their mythical “America,” they bypass contradiction because some things become more important than others in the big scheme of things.

The Republican spin doctors who help mobilize them, however, are conscious in their work.  They are out in full force right now doing what they have done for decades, digging in their heels to try and preserve a power imbalance that the force of social conscience and the rule of law are both disabling.  They do so for many reasons, not the least of which is that change brings with it the loss of a tool to mobilize for their causes.  A half century after civil rights became a household word, people have to work a lot harder to use racial fears in the work of politics.  Make a wrong step, and even people sympathetic to your cause may flee out of a sense of guilt and morality.  The Republicans in question recognize same-sex marriage will go the same route if they don’t do something about it.  And they are doing their best to spin their way to success.

But, eventually, they’re just going to get dizzy. . . or dizzier.


Emiliano Zapata is still…

…dead? Well, yes, but not really.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the death of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.  Assassinated on April 10, 1919, the leader who fought for Mexico’s agrarian poor ceased breathing on this day, but he hardly stopped living.  He remains perhaps the most powerful symbol of the rights of the the poor to their land, and to the right to earn a living from that land.


While he most famous declared “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” his ideas extended beyond the masculinist rhetoric of war.  His “Plan de Ayala” served as his movement’s revolutionary blueprint.  It read, in part:

In virtue of the fact that the immense majority of Mexican pueblos and citizens are owners of no more than the land they walk on, suffering the horrors of poverty without being able to improve their social condition in any way or to dedicate themselves to Industry or Agriculture, because lands, timber, and water are monopolized in a few hands, for this cause there will be expropriated the third part of those monopolies from the powerful proprietors of them, with prior indemnization, in order that the pueblos and citizens of Mexico may obtain ejidos, colonies, and foundations for pueblos, or fields for sowing or laboring, and the Mexicans’ lack of prosperity and well-being may improve in all and for all.

With the motto ¡Tierra y Libertad! (Land and Freedom!), Zapata remains a powerful force in the present-day indigenous movement which derives their name from his as well as countless other endeavors representing the rights of the poor.  In times like these, heroes like him are invaluable.

So, while the man died on this day, his legend is another thing altogether.

To learn more about Zapata, check out John Womack’s now famous book on the man and his life, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution.


ICE regularly detains “legals”

From the Los Angeles Times today comes “U.S. citizens caught up in immigration sweeps,” yet further verification of the racial profile realities of immigration raids. The article reads, in part:

Immigration raids of factories and other work sites often result in at least a short-term detention of lawful residents and even citizens, as agents seal targeted businesses and grill workers about their status.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire story.