Sunday, December 25, 2005

In Defense of "Happy Holidays"

Christian conservatives are backlashing against polite people. In a move out of the political correctness handbook, Christian conservatives have made it un-PC to say "Happy Holidays." Such a phrase is offensive, it seems, because it hides the fact that the fabeled birth of Christ occurred today.

To this, all I can say is: When did it become rude to be polite, respectful, and aware? I choose "Happy Holidays" over "Merry Christmas" because I know that there are a number of holy days during this month for not only Christians, but Jews, Sikhs, pagans, and others. I cannot tell the faith or persuasion of the many people I encounter this time of year at the bank, at the grocery, at school, at the dry cleaners to whom I wish glad tidings.

To say "Merry Christmas" is to assume everyone is Christian. To say "Happy Holidays" is not intended to minimize Christmas but to respect and acknowledge that not everyone around me is Christian. I simply wish to be polite and respectful. (And, isn't that good Christian values?)

So, to my readers: Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2005


Disappointment. It’s something I now experience regularly as I wait each month for signs of absence to learn if new life is occurring in me. In my adult years, until now, I had few disappointments. I experienced many as a kid.

There were a few disappointing Christmases, when presents were donated from the couple next door; months of daily disappointments during the worst days of my young adulthood, when I’d come home from school and see Mom already holding in hand a low ball of whiskey and a splash of water, the sign of a long night ahead; when Mom would let Keith back into our house after an especially violent episode between them, when she vowed he'd never be allowed to return; when I did poorly on my ACTs; when I remained in the second row of the flute section; when that check that would help ease our poverty did not come yet again.

Disappointment is very cruel. It generates feelings of sadness, melancholy, self-pity, and frustration. There is a feeling of helplessness, that there is nothing to be done to satisfy the desire, the longing for the object or the state that is to be denied once again.

Perhaps, that’s what’s so cruel about disappointment. The opposite of disappointment is hope. Hope brings promise, excitement, and possibility. Hope tricks the mind into pondering better days, visualizing that object and the subsequent joy it’s supposed to bring. Disappointment is the result of hope denied.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Soul Cleansing

It's hard to be the leader of the "free world" when your own citizens don't like you so much. President Bush's approval ratings aren't so great, and so he's been trying to do what he can to improve his image among his people. Along with four major addresses the past few weeks, a soft interview on NBC news, and a live broadcast speech to air tomorrow (Sunday) at 9EST, he's been doing a little confessin', doing a little soul cleansing.

The first confession was that he took responsibility for taking us to war on faulty intelligence. A little part of me says "good, I'm glad he finally owned up." It's not much of an "oops, I screwed up" since he still argues that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do to bring democracy to the Middle East even if we had to kill, by his estimates, as many as 30,000 Iraqis in the process.

His second wash and rinse of the soul occurred when he stopped threatening to veto the McCain Amendment to the Pentagon spending bill. I doubt his motive was actually to do the right thing, but I'll take this particular cleansing, since the end product is that we still finally have a moral position on torture.

[As an aside, some of the faulty information connecting al Qaida to Iraq, which the president now recognizes as faulty, came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who was an al Qaeda leader renditioned to Egypt, where he was tortured. During his torture he confessed that al Qaeda had contact with Saddam Hussein. He has since retracted this confession, and there is no credible evidence of any link between the former Hussein government and al Qaeda. See how useful torture is for getting reliable information?]

Maybe confession was feeling good, and he was feeling the joy of clean, and so revealed a little surprise. He authorized the "No Such Agency" to spy on Americans and others living in the United States without going through the usual legal channels, thereby violating basic civil liberties. Bush claimed that he gave such authorization to track and intercept communications occuring between people who have a link to al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations.

It turns out that not only is the NSA spying on American citizens. So is the Defense Department. Two SUNY Albany students have appeared on a watch list by the DoD as being threats to the military. The students are part of Campus Action, the same group I mentioned in my post about the Solomon Amendment a month back. The group is a non-partisan student group that has protested the Iraq War and military recruiters on campus. And, that's how they got on the DOD watch list. When military recruiters have come to the SUNY Albany campus, Campus Action protesteed their presence. That seems to have been enought to land them on the watch list entailing that their telephone calls and email messages have been monitored by the government.

As a communicative action, the confession is intended to redeem the confesser. The President aims to feel better, and as a by product, those who listen to the confession get to learn juicy secrets. But, for it to be a succesful redemption he needs to be forgiven. On this, I'm agnostic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

My Temperment

Lois Scheidt has on her blog a link to a little survey about temperment. I cannot resist such Cosmo-style quizzes. So, here you go:

You Have a Sanguine Temperament

You are an optimistic person who is easily content.
You enjoy casual, light tasks - never wanting to delve too deep into anything.
A bit fickle, it's easy for you to change plans or paths when presented with something better.

You enjoy all of the great things life has to offer - food, friends, and fun.
A great talker, you can keep the conversation going for hours.
You are optimistic and sure of your success. If you fail, you don't worry about it too much.

At your worst, you are vain. You are obsessed with your own attractiveness.
A horrible flirt, you tend to jump into love affairs and relationship drama easily.
You're very jealous - which just magnifies the craziness around you.

Yeah, I'm not so sure about the last part. I am a flirt, I will confess, but I'm not *that* obsessed with my mirror image. And, I'm not jealous. Usually. And, actually, I do worry about success. I'm not comfortable with failure.

Stupid quizzes. Why do I take these things? They're never right.

But, now you're curious, aren't you? What's your temperment? It's irrisistable.

Torture? No. Not Us!

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has found herself having to explain and defend the United State's policy on torture. Today, while speaking in the Ukraine, Secretary Rice stated that the United States does not condone torture in its interrogation practices of prisoners.

Well. How about that?

She stated that the United States strictly adheres to the United Nation's Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, which was a statement ratified by the United States in 1994. The statement prohibits the use of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

This is, by far, the most clear statement by an administration official that suggests that this administration does wish to be part of the civilized world.

Of course, the words of Rice do not clarify what the U.S. policy really is. Scott McClellan, the White House Spokeman, said that Secretary Rice's statement represents no change in U.S. policy.

If that were true, then Senator McCain wouldn't be trying to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress and with the White House on legislation that would ban inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners.

If that were true, we would not have seen the Justice Department in 2002 issue a legal opinion that interrogation methods were allowable that stopped short of causing pain that might compare with organ failure, the impairment of body function, or death.

If that were true, then we would not have seen an opinion from the Justice Department a year ago that defined torture more broadly yet did not reject prior condoned torture practices, including water boarding (making a person believe they are going to drown), exposure to prolonged and intense cold, or shackling to floors or walls in painfully uncomfortable positions for hours at a time.

Although I wish her speech was an articulation of a new commitment on the part of the Bush administration to ban torture practices, I suspect her true goals are to calm the critics in Europe by telling them what they want to hear (without it actually being the truth), and to short circuit the McCain ban by making it seem unnecessary now that the Bush administration seems to have found its soul.

Unfortunately, her speech falls into the "empty words" column. But, she cannot utter words that tell people what they want to hear without there being repercutions when it turns out there is no reality that matches those words. She may find herself in the same position as Secretary Powell--telling the world lies to serve administration goals. To what end, and at what cost?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Private Public of Blogs and Classrooms

I just completed a lecture to my undergraduates about blogging. Only three of them know much of blogs, so we spent time getting ourselves acquinted with the whole phenomenon.

We talked, well, I talked, to some degree about the strange private public of the blog, and about my reticence in posting truly private things about myself on the blog. I revealed to them a personal matter that I can't bring myself to talk about on the blog (as tempted as I have been several times to do so). In telling them this private matter, I was trying to illustrate the vulerability I feel in writing personal things for an unknown, unseen public.

Yet, I found it intriguing that I could reveal this personal matter to my students. They are a seen public, although they are still unknown to me. They know far more about me than I know about them. (Indeed, that's one of the many reasons I've found teaching difficult--the one-way nature of teaching is challenging for those of us anxious about our presentation of self.) Yet, somehow, it still feels safer to tell them this private thing than to tell it here. Perhaps because if I were to spill all here, it would be in far more detail, therefore revealing even more than the few sentences I expressed to my undergraduates. In the classroom the revelation served a purpose; The purpose of this whole blogging thing still escapes me.

And still, here I am blogging away.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Torture Begats Torture

As part of my routine of easing into work, I browse the headlines of the New York Times online. The headline that haunts me this morning is: "Torture Alleged at Ministry Site Outside Baghdad". U.S. military discovered 173 mostly Sunni men who had been held in a basement in Baghdad. They had been tortured by their captors, Iraqi police of the Shiite faith.

The United States government is urging Iraq to investigate the torture, but I don't see how we have the moral high ground on this issue.

It's worth remembering that three years ago President Bush declared that the Geneva convention's guidelines on the treatment of prisoners did not apply to people the United States suspects might be "terrorists." And, it's worth recalling that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld generated the guidelines on torture that let to the abuses we've seen at Abu Graib prison in Iraq. And, we should not forget that the United States' CIA has been "disappearing" suspected al Qaeda leaders to countries with poor human rights laws, where these men have no rights, no status, no humanity (See the Washington Post).

Two weeks ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was on the Hill lobbying Congress members to not put forward legislation forbidding the United States military and CIA from torturing captives. Currently, the House and Senate have to reconcile their vastly different Pentagon bills, as a result. The House, caving to the pressure from the White House, refused to include any language constraining the military and the CIA to follow the Geneva conventions on torture. The Senate, through what became known as the McCain Amendment, included a provision banning cruel and inhumane practices (recall McCain was a victim of torture when he was captured in Vietnam). And, according to the New York Times, the White House continues to pressure House members to reject the Senate versions in reconciliation.

The United States has set a poor example when it comes to torture, and we should not be surprised to find the new Iraqi government and its police force following our lead of abusing the "other." We have failed to abide the powerful ideals of equality and humanity that shaped our constitution, and now we must watch as our immoral practices haunt us.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Finding Common Ground

(Good Grief is it November already????)

Last night I attended a forum on campus about the Solomon Amendment. I didn't know much of anything about this Amendment other than it had something to do with allowing military recruiters onto college campuses or face the threat of losing federal funding.

The forum was held by the University Faculty Senate (of which I am a member, and hence felt some obligation to attend). The speakers included a professor from the Criminal Justice school, a representative of the College Republicans and a representative of an organization called Campus Action that has been actively protesting military recruitment on the University at Albany campus.

The grounds for the protest, by the way, are because the military is a discriminatory agency. Alongside recruiting men and women to kill other men and women (which might be grounds enough for protest), the military discriminates against gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. Universities generally require prospective employers who recruit on college campuses to sign a statement that they do not engage in discriminatory hiring practices. Obviously, the military cannot sign such a petition, but the federal government requires Universities give them access anyway.

The way out of this for colleges is to stop taking federal funds, which largely come from research grants faculty receive from the government. Such funds can comprise as much as 20% of a university's budget. In short, there's not a snowball's chance in hell colleges are going to refuse federal funds to stop military recruitment on campus.

The case will be heard by the Supreme Court on December 6. The Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, an association of 38 law schools, sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on First Amendment grounds. They argued successfully before the 3rd District Court of Appeals that the federal requirement violates universities and schools first amendment right to free speech when it requires them to contribute resources and personnel to an employer with which they disagree. Rumsfeld and the DOD appealed, and it is now before the Supreme beings.

All of this is to say that the Republican student representative and the Campus Action representative exchanged some heated words with their opponents in the audience. At times the statements were hyperbolic and derogatory of the other side (statements of the other side being "crazy," "homophobic" supporting slavery, against the working class). I was anxious at times by the high level of antagonistic discussion.

But, the one issue upon which all sides seemed to agree on was that at least they were not apathetic. No matter what side the students fell on, they found common ground in their activism.

College should be where political beliefs take root. For too many years I've encountered highly apathetic students. The exchanges last night, heated and aggressive as they were, gave me some clear evidence that political activism is not dead on college campuses. I found that heartening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Mythos of the Power of the Individual

Rosa Parks died on Monday at the age of 92. She has been labeled in the history books as the mother of the civil rights movement through her simple act of defiance--refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

Listening to Democracy Now on WRPI yesterday, I learned a few interesting tidbits about Parks. The first was that it's a popular misconception that the reason Parks didn't give up her seat was because her feet were tired, and she didn't feel like standing. Parks herself worked hard to conteract that myth in her retellings of that fateful day. She refused to give up her seat, as required by the Jim Crow laws, because she no longer wished to be a second class citizen to white people. She was an active member in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and her defiance in giving up her seat was activism.

I also learned that two black women in prior incidences had also refused to give up their seats on buses when demanded they do so by whites. These women are not in the history books, because they didn't get arrested. The critical ingredient in Ms. Parks' defiance is that she was arrested and fined $14.00 for her disobedience.

Of course, the incident might not have made anyone notice, except a 26 year old Reverand named Martin Luther King, Jr. urged a boycott of the buses when Ms. Parks was arrested, and that propelled her act of defiance onto the national stage.

Now, I don't want to be misread as saying that what Ms. Parks did was unworthy of the attention she received. She does deserve to be named and identified as an essential figure in the civil rights movement.

What I want to highlight is how many other people likely were doing similar acts as Ms. Park, small acts of disobedience in the face of injustice, but who have not become part of our national mythos. I also want to highlight how it wasn't Ms. Parks alone, but people leading up to and afterwards, that launched the first stage of the movement for civil rights for blacks in the United States.

Humans are creatures of narrative; that is, we need and create stories to make sense of our realities. Stories have main characters usually with vast agency to influence their surroundings. The story of Rosa Parks is a compelling narrative; it gives us a key actor that helped launch the civil rights movement.

Perhaps, we cannot make sense of cultural changes without such narratives. Without a Ms. Parks to serve as our protagonist in the story of injustice, we would not recognize the beginning of the civil rights movement. We would not know that change was occurring.

A recent protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your position) Cindy Sheehan is another case in point. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq there have been U.S. citizens against the war. Yet, the tale we are now telling about the anti-war movement starts with Sheehan's protest at President Bush's Texas ranch.

In order for a movement to be recognized as existing, we need an individual to mark its beginning. This effectively eviscerates the the collective group that gave rise to the individual moment. Parks likely would not have refused her bus seat if she hadn't joined a group, the NAACP, that was raising awareness of injustice, urging people to become agents of change rather than agents of the same. Similarly, Sheehan likely would not have camped out at Bush's "ranch" if she hadn't been encouraged and supported by other people against the war, to help mobilize her to camp out in the Texas sun.

The myth in this culture is that single individuals can do momentous things. They do, but only when they are made aware by others that there is a need for change, and are supported in helping to make that change by joining with others for a common goal.

Our "rugged individualism" is a myth that hides the critical importance of the collective for change.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Indentured Servitude does not a Democracy Make

A downplayed news article I caught in the Albany Times Union reports that Halliburton's primary subsidiary in Iraq, KBR (which is the largest military contractor on the U.S. payroll for Iraq), is hiring subcontractors to find cheap labor to help in the rebuilding and securing of Iraq.

These subcontractors, according to the article, are luring men from countries, such as Nepal, with lies promising them work in safe Middle Eastern countries, like Kuwait, for lots of pay. When they are brought to work in Iraq and paid far less than promised there is little they can do, since they are often indebted to the subcontractors who brought them to the country and must work to pay off the debt (hence, indentured servant). According to Coalition Casualty Count nearly 100 foreign national contract workers have died in Iraq out of the 270 total contract workers who have died since the war.

The U.S. government and Halliburton are both pleading ignorant on this morally unconscionable practice. They claim that complaints about who is being brought into Iraq to work should be directed to the subcontractors.

The State Department urges sanctions on governments that engage in such practices, countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, for the trafficking of indentured servants and slaves into their countries for cheap or free domestic and physical labor. Yet, President Bush waived the sanctions against them (since we're engaging in the practice ourselves), which allowed the U.S. to sell those countries weapons (this of course keeps the military-industrial complex appeased).

We cannot claim to be a nation that advances democracy while we allow our military contractors to engage in slavery practices. Bush's current premise (note that it's not the original argument for war) is that we are there to build a democracy. It appears to be a democracy for some.

The hypocrisy runs deep.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Feeling Like a Lemming

Okay. I've decided to make the leap to "real" blogging. I've been "musing" on my website for over well over a year now, but I haven't had the functionality of comments nor the ease of automatic archiving.

I've received a few requests by the handful of people who actually read my musings to switch to proper blogging software so that they may comment publicly to my thoughts.

I've resisted the urge to switch to blogging software, I must confess. I'm weary of fads.

But, I've given in. I think I decided to make the jump because my friend Josh has a beautiful blog, and it's clearly so easy to update and maintain. I'm envious of the ease, and so, well, I'm making the jump.