September 29, 2007
More recent reading, mainly from the usual suspects. Blame my being forced to rely on dial-up access.
James Carroll interviewed at TomDispatch:
Think of that phrase -- "manifest destiny." A key doctrine in what I am calling American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum -- right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives -- because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars -- Vietnam then, Iraq now -- represent an egregious failure to live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that -- no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other nations do.Carroll also talks about the disquieting religicisation of the US military.
A couple of years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ rendered in profoundly fundamentalist ways, most terribly, the death of Jesus as caused by "the Jews," not the Romans...Also at Alternet, Gavin McNett of Sadly, No! explains why following wingnut weblogs helps decode more mainstream right-wing rhetoric:
And then that film was featured at the United States Air Force Academy. Its commanders made it clear that every one of the cadets, over 4,000 of them, was supposed to see that movie. Repeatedly over a week, every time cadets went into H. H. Arnold mess hall, they found fliers on their dinner plates announcing that this movie was being shown. I saw posters that said: "See the Passion of the Christ" and "This is an official Air Force Academy event, do not remove this poster."
As a result of that film, there was an outbreak of pressure, practically coercion, by born-again evangelical Christians aimed at non-Christian cadets and, in a special way, at Jews. This went on for months and when the whistle was blown by a Jewish cadet and his father, the Air Force denied it, tried to cover it up. Yale University sent a team from the Yale Divinity School to investigate. They issued a devastating report. The commander at the academy was finally removed; the Air Force was forced to acknowledge that there was a problem.
Rather than, for instance, arguing for the elimination of New Deal social programs, today's message machine will slap together rickety claims of a Social Security crisis and have its yawpers run around scaring people, offering as the cure a "saving Social Security" plan that coincidentally means privatization. Rather than arguing, in time-honored GOP fashion, that the wealthy should pay less taxes, conservative yawpers will run around advocating an "IRS reform" to simplify the complicated tax forms that we all hate filling out -- coincidentally by eliminating graduated tax rates. In short, conservatism now functions by fooling the public with a succession of Trojan horses...Daniel Davies proposes the privatisation of Western values:
Such performances, of course, demand a certain indifference to the notion of truth (i.e., high-level conservative columnists often don't believe what they're saying), and a cavalier attitude toward looking like an idiot (i.e., they never expect to fool all the people, all the time)... And as you move down the scale from the best-connected and highest-paid ones, through the medium players like the Charles Krauthammers and Peggy Noonans, past the Thomas Sowells and Cal Thomases, ever downward toward the pickle-barrel solons at the National Review Online and the Weekly Standard -- indeed, down through the bottom of the barrel and into the pickle-soaked dirt beneath -- the intelligence and cunning falls away in stages, and you're able to see the same conservative arguments-of-the-week made ineptly, by bozos who know very well what they're supposed to be for or against but don't have a clue how to make it seem reasonable to sane Americans.
Like the Young Republicans at the Rick Santorum rally who tried to support 2005's Strengthening Social Security plan by chanting "Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, Social Security has got to go," it's easy to track the disinformation shell-game by watching these people, because they're essentially honest: As true-believers, they see their job as spreading the received wisdom that they get from the GOP message mains, and in contrast to slick word-splitters like Gerson, will happily take conservative arguments to their natural, but completely ridiculous conclusions. It's one thing, for instance, when Harvey Mansfield of the Harvard Department of Government appears in the Wall Street Journal editorial section trying to float the notion of a president's inherent dictatorial powers during wartime. But when Mark Noonan of Blogs For Bush gives his version of the same argument, literally advocating a return to a 13th-century model of government with George Bush as king, the Unitary Executive Theory is, in effect, prancing around on the front lawn in its underwear, with jammy hands and a Kool-Aid moustache. Having experienced Noonan, one may never again picture Harvey Mansfield with his pants on.
It's a rather paradoxical situation. We live in a world where the goodwill and reputation of a handbag manufacturer is aggressively protected by the full force of the law, but really important labels like "democracy", "rationality" and "liberalism" are available for the taking by anyone who fancies them. If someone wants to claim that they are destabilising a democratically elected government in the name of democracy, or passing laws telling women what they can wear on their heads in the name of feminism, then there is literally no legal recourse available to stop them.Also amusing is Mark Steel's recent column on the 2007 London Arms Fair.
And they'll be in the company of the Indian firm DRDO, which is boasting a new line of mobile multi-barrel rocket systems, that can be fitted with six different warheads at a range of 30 kilometres and "neutralise" an area 700 metres by 500 metres. In other words, everyone in the area, which is as big as 70 football pitches, is incinerated. What do you say when the salesman shows you that? Do you go: "Yes, but have you got it in blue?" Or there's the good people of Raytheon, manufacturers of Patriots and Sidewinders and Paveway missiles, whose latest factory is in Derry, set up after the IRA ceasefire. Somewhere in Raytheon's prospectus it must have said: "Now we've got these idiots to see the stupidity of trying to get their way through weapons, we can finally build our weapons factory."Dennis Perrin had one of the better takes on the absurd flap over the Iranian president speaking at Columbia University:
It was Raytheon software that guided a missile on to the building in Qana, Lebanon, last year, killing 28 civilians. For efficiency like that, in 2006 they conducted sales of $20.3bn.
The Ahmadinejad circus at Columbia reminded me of when Daniel Ortega spoke there in the 1980s. This was back when the mighty Nicaraguan state was threatening not only all of Central America, but the peace-loving United States, so his visit to New York was rightly compared to Hitler or Tojo trying the same con job. I was on the Columbia campus the night of Ortega's appearance, but couldn't get into the hall, as it was standing room only. But there was an entertaining show outside the hall, where pro-Sandinista students and activists were exchanging insults with rightwing students, at times actually trying to engage the rightists in political discourse. A complete waste of oxygen. The highlight came when several members of Columbia's football team chanted the Pledge of Allegiance several times. Once they were finished, a few young women yelled at them, "Win a game! Then we'll talk!" This was when Columbia had the longest losing streak in all of college football, and the taunt clearly stung the jocks as they suddenly dropped the patriotic posturing and explained how their coaching staff was killing them with bad play-calling. The young women laughed and laughed, and the football boys stomped off into the night, muttering about how unfair it all was.Here's Matt Taibbi on Fred Thompson:
You have to see it to believe it, the effect that Fred Thompson has on certain crowds. Reporters who describe his public appearances as "bland" and "uninspiring" and "vague" and "blurry" do so because they're looking for the wrong thing; they're looking for theatrics, for fire and brimstone, for that candidate who can get crowds howling for blood. What Thompson inspires is something much more appropriate for Americans of the TV age: He gets audiences purring in a cozy stupor... While voters often leave Giuliani events wondering if they should hand this seemingly crank-mad Catholic the nuclear football, Thompson crowds walk out with the dazed smiles of recovery-room zipperheads, looking like they've just had their brains removed and couldn't be happier about it.At FAIR, a comprehensive takedown by Aaron Swartz of the Rachel-Carson-Was-Worse-Than-Hitler nutjobs:
In his stump speech, the hulking Southerner paces the stage wearing a fatherly expression, giving a Gregory Peck-like pensive rub of the chin from time to time and hypnotically tossing out soothing ruralisms like "ain't" and "wadn't" that descend upon his audiences of besieged Decent Folk like gentle snowflakes. The pulse rate in the crowd goes down, not up. The gritted teeth and wizened anger lines around the eyes of these taut, white Silent Majority faces loosen and relax. Whereas minutes before they were collectively certain of imminent attack by an evil confederacy of Al Qaeda and Mexicans and queers ("What should society's position be on deviants?" one Iowan wonders at a Thompson event) all inspired to violence by their envy of the Decent Folk's shimmering new trucks and almost-new big-screen TVs and prized displays of Christian collectible figurines, they now feel if not safe, then soothed, in the right tent, at least. And their hearts flutter as this humble actor who gave up a big career on TV for them -- for them! -- tells them a story they like, a story about a world where America is still the good guy and no changes need to be made for things to turn out just fine in the end.
When Silent Spring came out in 1962, it seemed as if this strategy was working. To take the most extreme case, Sri Lanka counted only 17 cases of malaria in 1963. But by 1969, things had once again gotten out of hand: 537,700 cases were counted. Naturally, the rise had many causes: Political and financial pressure led to cutbacks on spraying, stockpiles of supplies had been used up, low rainfall and high temperatures encouraged mosquitoes, a backlog of diagnostic tests to detect malaria was processed and testing standards became more stringent. But even with renewed effort, the problem did not go away.Some historical pieces: Richard Seymour pointed me to this review by Dave Renton of Daniel Guerin's The Brown Plague, an account of his tours through Germany during the early part of the Nazi era; and Counterpunch provides Claude Cockburn's account of the Great Crash of 1929 and Vincent Navarro's examination of the Spanish transition to democracy after the death of Franco.
Records uncovered by entomologist Andrew Spielman hint at why (Mosquito, p. 177). For years, Sri Lanka had run test programs to verify DDT’s effectiveness at killing mosquitoes. But halfway through the program, their standards were dramatically lowered. “Though the reason was not recorded,” Spielman writes, “it was obvious that some mosquitoes were developing resistance and the change was made to justify continued spraying.”
But further spraying led only to further resistance, and the problem became much harder to control. DDT use was scaled back and other pesticides were introduced—more cautiously this time—but the epidemic was never again brought under control, with the deadly legacy that continues to this day.
Instead of apologizing, the chemical companies went on the attack. They funded front groups and think tanks to claim the epidemic started because countries “stopped” using their products. In their version of the story, environmentalists forced Africans to stop using DDT, causing the increase in malaria. “It’s like a hit-and-run driver who, instead of admitting responsibility for the accident, frames the person who tried to prevent the accident,” complains Tim Lambert, whose weblog, Deltoid, tracks the DDT myth and other scientific misinformation in the media.
And speaking of Richard Seymour, I particularly liked the last paragraph of his recent post about the bizarre demonisation of harmless pomo academic Tariq Ramadan.
The strident paranoia about Tariq Ramadan is not fake, but the source of it is obviously not Tariq Ramadan. There is is indeed a sincere and utterly demented belief that something called 'the West' faces an existential challenge from something called 'Islam', but the cause of it is not Islam. The cause of it, dare I say the root cause of it, is not merely a rationalisation of the alliance with American imperialism. It is an awareness of how fragile the 'West' really is, how threatened it is by its inner tensions and recurring crises, and how incapable it is of dealing productively with its problems. The prickliness and belligerence of these commentators hardly suggests a great deal of confidence in 'the West', after all. And what is there to be afraid of? In its worst possible light, the actual military threat from various Islamist groups is puny. There is no economic threat to US dominance besides capitalism's own inherent tendency toward secular crisis. The EU isn't going to acquire cohesion overnight, and China has a long way to go yet. The Muslim countries are all handily under lock and key with guns, gaolers, torture equipment and bombers supplied by America, where they don't simply occupy. Culturally, America is becoming asinine and in some cases decidedly on the verge of Streicherism, but if the challenge is supposed to be low-tech video signals from Osama, I wouldn't sweat it. It isn't an external challenge that is producing this crisis, any more than decadent liberals lacking moral clarity caused it. It was there, brewing all along: the economic turmoil, the racist retrogression, the erosion of cultural hegemony, even the inability of mainstream ideology to handle the 'feminisation' of discourse (in which "political correctness" is seen as linguistically emasculating, thus restraining the necessarily "robust" response to the enemy of the month), all of it is entirely, er, indigenous. Still, as a totem is clearly necessary, by all means blame Osama. If you can't blame Osama, blame Tariq. Hell, fuck it, blame me. I killed Kennedy, wounded Reagan, had unsatisfying sex with John Leslie, and crashed Diana's car. I did it all, and now I'm behind the Islamic plot. Dialogue with me is utterly useless: I don't expect you to talk, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.
September 28, 2007
The Sea of Green
From this 1995 article by Michael Pollan on marijuana cultivation, a fine illustration of the whack-a-mole absurdity of drug prohibition:
Without a doubt, one of the pioneers in Brian's industry is Wernard, the proprietor of a leading marijuana garden center in Amsterdam. Now a professorial-looking fellow in his 40's, Wernard was present at the creation of the Sea of Green, working with expatriate American growers (and their seeds) to perfect the indoor cultivation of marijuana. On Saturday afternoon, he offered a packed hall of gardeners—a surprisingly eclectic group that included, besides the expected array of aging and aspiring hippies, several middle-aged farmers, grad students and even a few sport-jacketed retirees—an informative slide lecture on its history and development.
What is perhaps most striking about the recent history of marijuana horticulture is that almost every one of the advances Wernard covered is a direct result of the opening of a new front in the United States drug war. Indeed, there probably would not be a significant domestic marijuana industry today if not for a large-scale program of unintentional Federal support.
Until the mid-70's, most of the marijuana consumed in this country was imported from Mexico. In 1975, United States authorities began working with the Mexican Government to spray Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat, a widely publicized eradication program that ignited concerns about the safety of imported marijuana. At about the same time, the Coast Guard and the United States Border Patrol stepped up drug interdiction efforts along the nation's southern rim. Many observers believe that this crackdown encouraged smugglers to turn their attention from cannabis to cocaine, which is both more lucrative and easier to conceal. Meanwhile, with foreign supplies contracting and the Mexican product under a cloud, a large market for domestically grown marijuana soon opened up and a new industry, based principally in California and Hawaii, quickly emerged to supply it.
At the beginning, American growers were familiar with only one kind of marijuana: Cannabis sativa, an equatorial strain that can't withstand frost and won't reliably flower north of the 30th parallel. Eager to expand the range of domestic production, growers began searching for a variety that might flourish and flower farther north, and by the second half of the decade, it had been found: Cannabis indica, a stout, frost-tolerant species that had been cultivated for centuries in Afghanistan by hashish producers.
Cannabis indica looks quite unlike the familiar marijuana plant: it rarely grows taller than 4 or 5 feet (as compared to 15 feet for some sativas) and its deep bluish green leaves are rounded, rather than pointed. But the great advantage of Cannabis indica was that it allowed growers in all 50 states to cultivate sinsemilla for the first time.
Initially, indicas were grown as purebreds. But enterprising growers soon discovered that by crossing the new variety with Cannabis sativa, it was possible to produce hybrids that combined the most desirable traits of both plants while playing down their worst. The smoother taste and what I often heard described as the "clear, bell-like high" of a sativa, for example, could be combined with the hardiness, small stature and higher potency of an indica. In a flurry of breeding work performed around 1980, most of it by amateurs working on the West Coast, the modern American marijuana plant—Cannabis sativa x indica—was born.
Beginning in 1982, the D.E.A. launched an ambitious campaign to eradicate American marijuana farms. Yet despite vigorous enforcement throughout the 1980's, the share of the United States market that was home-grown actually doubled from 12 percent in 1984 to 25 percent in 1989, according to the D.E.A.'s own estimates. (The figure may be as high as 50 percent today.) At the same time, D.E.A. policies unintentionally encouraged growers to develop a more potent product. "Law enforcement makes large-scale production difficult," explains Mark A. R. Kleiman, a drug policy analyst who worked in the Reagan Justice Department. "So growers had to figure out a way to make a living with a smaller but better-quality crop." In time, the marijuana industry came to resemble a reverse image of the automobile industry: domestic growers captured the upscale segment of the market with their steadily improving boutique product while the street trade was left to cheap foreign imports.
The Reagan Administration's war on drugs had another unintended effect on the marijuana industry: "The Government pushed growers indoors," says Allen St. Pierre, assistant national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Before programs like CAMP"—the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, which targeted outdoor growers in California from 1982 to 1985—"you almost never heard about indoor grass."
The move indoors sparked an intensive period of research and development, including selective breeding for potency, size and early harvest, and a raft of technological advances aimed at speeding photosynthesis by manipulating the growing environment. Gardeners also learned how to clone their best female plants, thereby removing the unpredictability inherent in growing from seed. All these developments coalesced around 1987 in the growing regimen known as the Sea of Green, in which dozens of tightly packed and genetically identical female plants are grown in tight quarters under carefully regulated artificial conditions. Near the end of his lecture, Wernard flashed slides of several such gardens he'd tended: green seas of happy-looking dwarf plants holding aloft enormous buds that elicited actual oohs and ahs from the gardeners in the audience.
As Wernard was quick to acknowledge, authorship for the Sea of Green belongs to no one horticulturist but rather to hundreds of gardeners working independently in the States and in the Netherlands and then sharing what they'd learned, often in the columns of High Times and Sinsemilla Tips, a defunct quarterly that many growers refer to as "the bible." By 1989, their collective efforts had yielded exponential increases in the potency of American marijuana and earned the grudging respect of at least one D.E.A. agent, W. Michael Aldridge, who told a reporter on the eve of yet another crackdown (this time on indoor growers): "I hate to sound laudatory, but the work they've done on this plant is incredible."
September 09, 2007
Salton Sea Documentary
Louis Proyect reviews Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when water from a breached irrigation canal flowed into a salty geological depression in California's desertic Imperial Valley.
As a consequence of the underlying mineral beds, the waters became saltier than the ocean.Flooding and industrial run-off then transformed the area into an environmental basket-case and destroyed its status as a tourist resort. The film details this history, and looks at the eccentric community that continues to live on the shores of this American dead sea. Or, not quite dead:
In an effort to turn the Salton Sea into a tourist attraction, local politicians stocked the sea with salt-water fish like the tilapia. Fifty years after its formation, Salton Sea became a mecca for working class vacationers who could not afford Palm Springs. It was also popular with water-skiers and motor boat enthusiasts. ...[I]t became a symbol of the post-WWII good life. Vintage newsreels from the 1950s describe towns clustered around the Salton Sea as a kind of miracle in the desert.
Despite its dubious origins, the Sea evolved into an extremely important bird habitat. With “development” rampant all across California, migrating birds have made the Salton Sea area a key nesting place on routes north or south. In one of the film's many fascinating interviews, an environmentalist asks where the birds are supposed to go if their habitat is destroyed.
September 06, 2007
Re claims of impending violent protests at APEC 2007, a brief statement of the blindingly obvious from Crikey!
Roger Gathman waxes lyrical on traffic jams.
Jon Schwarz on The Iron Law of Institutions.
Via Limited Inc., Michael Pollan's collection of articles on history, biology and agriculture. So far I can vouch that Why Mow?, No Bar Code (a piece on the Local Food "movement"), A Gardener's Guide to Sex, Politics and Class (a comparison of gardening books and nature writing) and Weeds Are Us are simply excellent.
From "Why Mow?":
Another day it occurred to me that time as we know it doesn't exist in the lawn, since grass never dies or is allowed to flower and set seed. Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much.From "Weeds Are Us":
Now what would Emerson have to say about my weeds? I had given them the benefit of the doubt, acknowledged their virtues and allotted them each a place. I had treated them, in other words, as garden plants. But they did not behave as garden plants. They differed from my cultivated varieties not merely by a factor of human esteem. No, they seemed truly a different order of being, more versatile, better equipped, craftier and more ruthless.And apropos of nothing, I think I'll be changing the subtitle here, as "Pointed missives thrown blindly into the void, there to pass unnoticed and unloved" is starting to bum me out. What I replace it with will probably change about once a day until I get bored enough with tweaking it to settle for what's there.
What garden plant can germinate in 36 minutes, as a tumbleweed can? What cultivar can produce 250,000 seeds on a single flower stalk, as the mullein does? Or travel a foot each day, as kudzu can? Or, like the bindweed, clone new editions of itself in direct proportion to the effort spent trying to eradicate it? According to Sara B. Stein's excellent botany, "My Weeds," Japanese knotweed can penetrate four inches of asphalt, no problem. Lamb's-quarter seeds recovered from an archeological site germinated after spending 1,700 years in storage, patiently awaiting their shot. The roots of the witchweed emit a poison that can kill other plants in its vicinity.
No, it isn't just our lack of imagination that gives the nettle its sting.
So what is a weed?...
Weeds, as the field guides indicate, are plants particularly well-adapted to man-made places. They don't grow in forests or prairies—in "the wild." Weeds thrive in gardens, meadows, lawns, vacant lots, railroad sidings, hard by dumpsters and in the cracks of sidewalks. They grow where we live, in other words, and hardly anywhere else.
Weeds, contrary to what the romantics assumed, are not wild. They are as much a product of civilization as the hybrid tea rose, or Thoreau's bean plants. They do better than garden plants for the simple reason that they are better adapted to life in a garden. For where garden plants have been bred for a variety of traits (tastiness, size, esthetic appeal), weeds have evolved with just one end in view: the ability to thrive in ground that man has disturbed. And at this they are very accomplished indeed.