Wednesday, May 30, 2012


This is really kind of cool:
This week, J Street is expected to land one of its biggest names when it announces its endorsement of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the veteran Democrat from California who sits on the Senate intelligence committee, an important forum for Middle East intelligence. With Ms. Feinstein’s acceptance of J Street’s endorsement, the group’s PAC plans to raise at least $100,000 in support of her re-election bid, the officials said.
Founded in 2008, J Street’s political action committee is on pace to set a fund-raising record this election. By November, it expects to raise nearly $2 million in support of more than 60 [all Democratic] Congressional candidates whose views on Israel are aligned with its own, said Alexandra Stanton, a co-chairwoman of the PAC, and she said it had tapped into pro-Israel donors who had no real political outlet before now.
J Street's passionate moderation on Israel and the two-state solution does not exactly reflect my views, which are more at the Peace Now end of the spectrum,  but it's heartening that any kind of non-hawk standpoint is rising at this time when the discourse in Israel itself seems to have gotten so badly lost.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake.
Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, 'the first President to lose a war.'
We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?... (John Kerry, in testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 23, 1971)
From Southern Foodways.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Retroactionary Watch: Empire

The colonialist faction of the conservative movement—the what?—Well, Dinesh D'Souza and crypto-Belgian wannabe terrorist Newt Gingrich charge Barack Obama with being an "anti-colonialist" as if that were a particularly bad thing, so I guess their own stance must be pro-colonialist. Anyway they're back in the news, as D'Souza's 2010 Regnery best-seller The Roots of Obama's Rage gets filmed, in a production by Gerald Molen and with some financing from Joe Ricketts (the one who runs one campaign to cut wasteful government spending and another to raise $200 million in state-backed bonds for renovations to his family's own Wrigley Field, at the same time), for release this summer. Go ahead and watch the trailer:

You wouldn't necessarily think, in the second decade of the 20th century, that colonialism was going to be a very high-stakes issue. Colonialism where? Nobody ever refers to the occupied West Bank as a colony because HOLOCAUST! IRAN! SHUT UP! so are we talking about American Samoa? Gibraltar? the Galápagos? Alberta? That's what made it funny in the first place, like Ron Paul's fixation on the gold standard—Republicans earnestly worrying about the concepts of Captain Mahan and Colonel Roosevelt, as if they were still waxing their mustaches and knocking back oysters three dozen at a go.

What I wasn't thinking of was the mysterious ability of the Republican mind to conceptualize an inverse time, from future through present to past, in what I have called the retroactionary tendency. Republicans can imagine the Obama of 2016, proposing himself as a socialist dictator of the world, inveighing against colonialism, as the direct cause of the independence of Kenya in 1963. Worse yet, that independence, continuing backwards, leads inexorably to the horrors of the Mau Mau insurgency of 1952-59, etc., etc.

By the same token, they themselves are the optimists, looking forward to the conquest of the Philippines and Hawaii! It's morning in America, if the sun rises in the west!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

If the tsar only knew!

Updated 5/30/2012

While we're on the education subject, TPM invites us to note that President Obama has been making a campaign theme of the idea that Willard Mitt Romney wants to expand public school class sizes without apparently realizing that his own education secretary, Arne Duncan, takes a position that's hardly different from Romney's.

It isn't the first time he is attacking his own education policy, either. Remember what he had to say about high-stakes testing a little over a year ago at a Univision-sponsored town hall: [jump]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Town and Brown

The New York Times has been commemorating the 58th anniversary (May 17) of Brown v. Board of Education with a series of articles dealing with the fact that American schools are still segregated by race (in a beautifully written thick-description feature by N.R. Kleinfield describing the consequences of segregation at a charter middle school in Flatbush, Brooklyn), the apparent fact that the authorities don't seem to see any reason for doing anything about it (David L. Kirk's op-ed asking why school reformers have abandoned desegregation as a way of narrowing the school achievement gaps between racial groupings), and the widespread belief that it really isn't a problem anyway (in an 8-way debate—"Jim Crow is dead, segregation lives on. Is it time to bring back busing? "—about what needs to be done).

Really! That is, some of the debaters thought desegregation was a pretty good thing and worth reviving, of course, but others seemed not to understand why it was even an issue; according to Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute, for instance,
From Babble Voices.
Falling back to 1970s-style desegregation policies like busing ignores new schooling options that weren’t available decades ago and which offer better educational opportunities for minority students.
As if the original desegregation policies had merely been techniques for wringing inefficiencies out of the system. It's like arguing that there's no point in enforcing anti-slavery laws because there are better ways of maximizing profit for cotton cultivators. School segregation is illegal, according to the law of the land as established in Brown in 1954, and it is illegal because it is wrong—because it deprives people of certain rights guaranteed them in our constitution.

It was amazing to me to see in these essays, as also in the reader comments, how many apparently respectable people don't seem to know that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was decided wrongly; that separate can never be equal. Kirk's article makes it seem, in fact, as if the Supreme Court has effectively overruled Brown and restored Plessy to its original status, in the sense that it has been gradually disallowing all the means for desegregating. (Indeed, the reputedly evil Michelle Rhee was actually on the left side of this one, since she argues in the Times debate for "socioeconomic integration", i.e., for a method of achieving racial integration without mentioning race, which might make it acceptable to the Court and effective at the same time.)

In particular the proponents of various kinds of "school choice" and charter school approaches appear genuinely to believe that separate but equal institutions are possible. They emphasize the spiffiness and modernity of the charter school or Small School of Choice, its advanced electronic equipment, its youthful (underpaid) teachers. Izumi even cites a fraudulent "proof" of the high quality of the new schools in terms of what a spiffy study it was
The study used the most rigorous experimental design, randomized control trial...
(It may be a rigorous design,  but it's not very rigorously applied; in fact, an absolutely crappy study—I've discussed the work in question at some length here.)

But if you look at the typical features of these new schools—the high ratio of administrators to teaching staff, the focus on high-stakes test scores and test prep, the elaborate discipline and dress codes, the de-skilling of teachers who are often required to stick to a script—you can see that they are not at all equal to the kind of school you want for your own children, in spite of the bells and whistles. They're not meant to instill habits of critical thinking but of swift obedience. They're not meant for "our kids" but for "their kids". And Brown has not yet become irrelevant.
Finnish blackboard. From Dipity.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Be afraid. Be meta-afraid.

As you will recall, Saddam Hussein had his own little camp of Iranian terrorists on the Iraqi side of the border, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), acquired after Saddam's downfall by our dear JSOC and subsequently by Israeli intelligence, who used them to murder Iranian physicists. They've always had a big sad about everybody calling them terrorists, just because they do a lot of terroristic, um, stuff, but now we learn from emptywheel that the Obama administration is thoughtfully working to get them off that list. Great headline:

MEK to Be Delisted as Terrorists in Reward for Engaging in Terrorism

And guess where else they're showing up this week? In Hamburg, of all places, where they have provided Die Welt (summarized in English in Haaretz) with another one of their specialty packages detailing how Iran has intensified work on its nuclear weapons program, if it has, which is as usual far from clear; as in previous such packages of 2002 and 2008, MEK's assertions can't be independently assessed, and they don't have a very good track record. Not to mention the infamous Laptop of Death they hung around Colin Powell's neck in 2004.

Maybe they've moved up into specializing in metaterror: frightening us with the news that we're going to be frightened. Wonder if there's a list for that?
Meanwhile in Israel, amusingly enough, Iran seems to be virtually forgotten in the exuberance in the new political arrangement, in which Likud and Labor and Kadima have united in the common purpose of let's please just not have an election for a long while, revealing Binyamin Netanyahu's real top priority to be pretty much the same as that of his rival Shaul Mofaz.

What will really be interesting is if Iran's upcoming talks in Baghdad, conducted, for once, without Netanyahu standing outside waving his finger in everyone's face, actually got somewhere for a change. Thomas Erdbrink for the Times sketches out a really interesting picture of how this might happen with Iran declaring, essentially, victory—they've got the peaceful nuclear program they always said they wanted. This is the first really new-looking thing I've seen on the issue in a long time: read it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day

My own mother, Dorothy Bloom, born in 1924, died unexpectedly but very peacefully at the beginning of the month just a month short of her 88th birthday. She was in a hospital upstate (as I languished in my hospital in the city) for observation following an apparently minor cardiac event, had a fun evening of card playing and gossip with relatives and nurses, and then just passed sweetly and swiftly away without any sign of fear or confusion.

She was a greatly exceptional person in just about every way, and it was such good fortune for the five of us to be her child that it seems almost ill-mannered to mourn—like, you want more? Anyway, here's some music, dedicated to her.

Friday, May 11, 2012

He evolved

As you all know by now President Obama has shed those silly-looking gills and taken his flashy new lungs up onto permanent land residency; his lengthily evolving position on marriage equality has evolved itself right up to where some cavilers will say it should have been a year or three ago. Not me! And I'll tell you why.
Fins to limbs, from shark to Eryops. From McGraw-Hill Access Science.*
*Note by the way that the bottom three species—shark, coelacanth, lungfish—all still exist, while the others are extinct (the natural selection process is not, as vulgarizers of the theory and Tom Friedmans and the like continually allege, about new species replacing old ones but rather about new species exploiting new ecological niches).
Entertaining the question of whether Vice President Biden had jumped the gun by endorsing marriage equality earlier in the week,
“I had already made a decision that we were going to take this position before the election and before the convention,” Obama said in his interview with ABC News that aired this morning. (via Think Progress)
Do you see that weird little pronoun shift in "I" decided that "we" would take the position? This is not a mistake; it reflects the complexity of what we are talking about when we talk about "the" president; the citizen Barack Obama, the institution that is President Barack Obama (with the special US wrinkle that that is two institutions, the Head of Government and the Head of State), the forests of committees that carry out the institution's functions, and the fact that Obama really is, as poor George W. pretended to be, the "decider"—the ultimate chair of all those committees. Citizen-chairman Obama decided not just that the views of the institution were going to evolve, but which direction they were going to evolve in and how far.

The Obama who favored same-sex marriage when running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 was clearly Citizen Barack; and so was the one who rejected it in 2004, running for the US Senate and presumably thinking about voters black and white from outside his own sophisticated district (and not being very brave, perhaps, but not being exceptionally dishonest either).

The candidate, anyway, is never just presenting his citizen-self to the public, but is trying out for the role of the committee chair, whose speech must be more circumspect. This is a political thing, and it is not far removed from seeking out political positions that get votes, but it is not quite the same thing if the candidate is doing it the right way.

Willard Mitt Romney's Etch-a-Sketch approach is drawn from his corporate business background; it is basically applying for a job by offering to be a total toady for whatever your employer wants, personally or publicly. It's not very dignified, in comparison to applying on the basis of one's ability to carry forward the work of the firm, and it's really not wise to hire such a person, though I guess that's how the Masters of the Universe roll, recruiting their fellow psychopaths, measuring their ability to bully in the future by their ability to grovel today.

Obama's campaign technique is to sketch out a range of territory where he would be interested in acting, in such a way as to attract the most possible voters of course, often including some who are going to feel burned by what he actually does. Sometimes he cannot find a very broad range at all, as with closing down Guantánamo, and sometimes he can, as with the throwing together of all the different kinds of civil-union and marriage options.

After the inauguration, the citizen and the chair have to start negotiating their respective roles and contributions, which can get pretty complicated; it's here that the turning-round-an-ocean-liner metaphors come into play. The marriage equality issue was an especially easy one in some senses: Citizen Barack's views were on record (that would of course not bother Romney, who would simply deny that he had said anything of the sort), very important sectors of campaign money (Hollywood!) were for once on the radical side, and so were the rapidly moving trends of public opinion.

There was only one force arrayed against against marriage equality, but it was a very powerful one: the super-lagging indicator, Cokie's hairdresser, or the Village, or the Conventional Wisdom, or what I would like to start calling, after Flaubert, Received Opinion ("les idées reçues", from Bouvard et Pécuchet).These people were not themselves actually against marriage equality, or anything else for that matter—they never are—but they asserted without qualification that it couldn't be done, that it wasn't "politically possible", words that strike terror into the hearts of the Committee to Manage the President's Secret Identity.

This is where things stood in 2010 when Obama made his declaration that his own views on the subject were "evolving", and I think everybody should have understood exactly what he meant, instead of complaining about the coyness of the expression: that Citizen Obama had seized the tiller on this issue and would be leading it in his own preferred direction. There was only one direction in which it could be said to "evolve" in any case; bird species may on occasion stop using their wings, but they do not transform them into tiny velociraptor claw arms.

So for this week's announcement, it basically looks earlier than supporters had any right to hope—before the campaign even starts when I would have been betting on 2014. It's great news!

OK, Mr. P.? I've totally got your back on this one—now, can we start talking about holding prisoners without charges, and persecution of whistle blowers? Any evolution going on back there?

Sunday, May 6, 2012


First reaction to the Hollande election, by Loïc Sécheresse for Libération.
"Chuis pu président" = "Je ne suis plus président" in Sarko's ugly swallowed-up diction. The joke turns on the difference between "faute de" ("mistake in" a given discipline) and "faute à" ("fault of" a given agent), with the suggestion that it's one of the subtleties where the (ex!) president tends to screw up. Goodbye, Sarko, in any case.

Wanker of many generations!

Bill Johnson, ex-politician (R-Alabama, sometime gubernatorial candidate) and current international humanitarian, discussed in a post here last December, resurfaced recently (via General Stuck in comments at Balloon Juice).
Possible recipients in the Rotorua mud baths. Picture from Fodors.
Johnson was the strange soul who went off to New Zealand to help with earthquake relief and while living in Christchurch took to the unusual hobby of sperm donation, [jump]

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Short times

Henri IV exercising the Royal Touch to cure scrofula. Engraving by André Du Laurens ca. 1609. Wikipedia.
The Times teaser for its editorial this morning seems like a true Shorter*:
After the unmistakably weak employment report for April, it’s obvious that the economy will not heal itself without more government help.
Gosh,  Sparky, ya think? And that oh so subtle line between "obvious to everybody not representing a major journalistic enterprise or the Republican Party" and obvious tout court, what does it specially have to do with this April's report as opposed to, oh, say, the report for April 2009?

Nevertheless the editorial itself is not so ingenuous, and not disingenuous at all; it may start off all "nor is it clear where more growth will come from," but it's very clear about the source of the dissipating unclarity:
Election-year politics are bound to further confuse the economic picture and the way forward. On Friday, Mitt Romney blamed President Obama for the April jobs figures, saying that in a normal recovery “we should be seeing numbers in the 500,000 jobs created per month."
The truth is that the economy has not seen job growth like that in nearly 30 years. More to the point, the policies Mr. Romney espouses — notably deregulation and tax cuts for the rich — were the favored policies under President George W. Bush, years when job growth and wage gains were, at best, anemic.
The reason it's this April is that it's the April of the presidential campaign, and the reason it's newly obvious is that the policy debate for the campaign is taking on its definitive form, with its Democratic picture of job growth as something that can be done by anybody who can put some money together with a job description and a hire, and your Republican picture of "job creation" as some kind of quasi-ethnic property, like the ability to cure scrofula, remaining there even if it is unused, so that Willard Mitt Romney was still a job creator when his main job was slashing thousands upon thousands of actual jobs and in all the years he has been a simple rentier (with a hobby of political campaigning rather than RV travel and the like).

And even though what would really be nice is if it inspired somebody to say, "Hey, let's ship some money out to those state capitals," just taking that position is a help.

*We are selectively aware of certain Internet traditions.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bittová right

I didn't really have anything I wanted to post except I had to get up a performance by the extraordinary Czech violinist and singer  Iva Bittová before I lost her again in my memory hole. See below.

It's every time that Obama puts on a tux and does some standup, you know, it's like a sign that something's underfoot. Immediately after last year's WHC dinner, the killing of Osama bin Laden (on which coincidence this was a kind of great column); then after this year's, the signing of an agreement with President Karzai in Kabul. The Times is kvetching that Obama's speech for the occasion was "short on specifics" for how he planned to accomplish something that—as you'd think even they might have realized at this point—is just not likely to happen.

I expect Republicans to attack him on the basis that he only does it because he's oversensitive to criticism. "If somebody made fun of me for going on the Jimmy Fallon show would I just turn around and do something crazy like setting up the end of the Afghan War? Of course not!  But that Obama just can't stand being second-guessed about anything!"

While from the Jerusalem office of the permanent campaign, the Times's Jodi Rudoren, writing less than penetrably a couple of days ago:
At the same time, there is a growing sense that Israeli elections will be called this fall rather than next year. And while Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity remains all but impenetrable, coalition politics means a robust campaign filled with charged language nonetheless.
I think she meant you can't poke holes in the popularity, not that you can't understand its causes and mechanisms. But then again,  in the followup Tuesday, she added that most Israelis reject the prospect of an independent strike against Iran, but they love Netanyahu anyway:
“Israelis like the hawkish rhetoric,” said Mina Zemach, director of the Dahaf Polling Institute. “Netanyahu is very strong now. What the public hopes is that Netanyahu prepares us just in case, if no one will stop Iran, then we have to attack.”
So it's impenetrable in that sense after all. "I'm not voting for some clown who's only as crazy as I am, it has to be somebody considerably crazier than that!"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The principal mistake

Duck tacos at Poe's Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, Boston. Photo by Boston.Grubstreet.Com.

Michael Winerip brings another of those horror stories back from the NYC Department of Education, but then starts wandering in an unsafe direction:
On the state math test, P.S. 30 did better in 2011, with 41 percent of students scoring proficient — a 3 or 4 — versus 29 percent for P.S. 179.
But on the state English test, P.S. 179 did better, with 36 percent of its students scoring proficient compared with 32 percent for P.S. 30.
And yet, when the department calculated the most recent progress report grades, P.S. 30 received an A. And P.S. 179 received an F.
Is P.S. 30 among the best schools in the city and P.S. 179 among the worst? Very hard to know.
No, you know, it's really not very hard to know at all. Or if you prefer, it's hard to know because it's a profoundly stupid and trivial question. Not so much hard to know as not worth knowing, because when distinctions are being made on this fine a metric then the difference between best and worst is not important.

I want you to understand this, Michael Winerip, because it's really making me crazy. If Schuyler sells slightly more cocktails on Thursday than Wednesday but fewer shrimp entrees, while Eugenie's cocktail sales decline a little between the two days but she does somewhat better on the shrimp front, do you ask if one of these persons is among the best waitresses in New York and the other the worst? Do you fire Schuyler and close down her section, replacing all the tables with tropical fish tanks? Or starting a "sharing" experiment with an avant-garde taco boutique?

The fact is that both these young women are very talented and commendable workers and the information gleaned in this little statistical observation is of no appreciable value in judging them. P.S. 179 and P.S. 30, in the same way, are both pretty dismal institutions, in spite of the Herculean efforts of many talented and compassionate people, not least the students and parents, and for reasons that are largely very well known that nobody appears to have any intention of doing anything about. One of these things would be support from institutions that seem instead determined to figure out ever more Byzantine ways of judging and condemning them.
Last week, 24 schools were closed based in fair measure on report card grades.
Whether a principal is removed or receives a $25,000 bonus depends on the report card grade.
And yet, what appears to be a substantial difference in two schools’ achievement scores can come down to just a few correct answers per child.
Yes, you do need evaluation metrics in the New York school system, but the failure you need to focus on isn't on the teachers, or even the principals, but the effectiveness of the support given by the DOE, or withheld as the case may be in favor of schemes to make it look as if the DOE is carrying out its responsibility...
Teacher accountability taco designed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Photo from The Taste Spot.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cheap shots and chasers 5/1

Cerberus at Sadly, No suggests that Mrs. Romney really hasn't ever worked a day in her life:
Bitching at the help to do a better job cleaning your house and raising your children is so far removed from the notion of “work” by any interpretation of the word that… Well, frankly, I have to believe that brain-sucking parasites is the only reason that anyone is taking it halfway serious.
 Are you kidding? In her class that's what the husbands do as well, except for the "house" and "children" part, and do you realize what they get paid? It's called "management", my dears. And "multitasking". And if they buy you for breakfast it gets their husband a tax break. That's called "job creation".
I say, give a man a fish and he will eat today, teach him to fish and he will eat a lifetime, give him a low-interest loan and he might stay alive through his fishing lessons.
And lastly, give him a little Taj Mahal and... just give it to him. Does there have to be an economic reason for everything?

Darryl Issa says,
“But again, we’re very busy in Washington with a corrupt government, with a government that I said a year ago, because of the money, because of the TARP and stimulus funds, was going to be the most corrupt government in history, and it is proving to be that.”
In other celebrity news, Kermit the Frog complained that President Obama's skin is the greenest of any president's in history.