Friday, February 27, 2009

bigots, remember history!

for those anti-muslim bigots among the members of the mormon church, a look back at history ought to provide a tempering, sobering influence. it is never excusable to be whipping up hatred of minority religious or ethnic groups. but to come from a community which suffered persecution in the past and to nonetheless persist in these views is doubly wrong.

while reading Richard Bushman's book on Joseph Smith, i came across the words of newspaper editors who, in the 1840s, were calling for the dispersal and extermination of the mormon community in illinois. all you need do is replace the term "mormon" with "muslim" and you get a fair sense of the anti-muslim bigotry which animates a portion of the political right (recall ann coulter's call after to 9-11 to invade muslim countries, raze their cities, and enslave their women).

Thomas Gregg, a moderate editor, protested this extreme bigotry: "We see no use in attempting to disguise the fact, that many in our midst contemplate a total extermination of that people; that the thousands of defenceless women and children, aged and infirm, who are congregated at Nauvoo, must be driven out -- aye DRIVEN -- SCATTERED -- like the leaves before the Autumn blast! But what good citizen, let us ask -- what lover of his country and his race, but contemplates such an event with horror?" apparently quite a number of people contemplated such scenes with great relish, just as today there are many who lust for muslim blood. Gregg called for a meeting between the two sides to resolve differences.

one response was this: "I say, No, Never!! Just as well might you call upon us to strike hands with Pirates, or to compromise with the Powers of Darkness." Or, "You know but little of the circumstances by which the people of this county are surrounded -- you know nothing of the repeated insults and injuries received by our citizens from the Heads of the Mormon Church. . .We say, you can know nothing of these things, our you could not undertake to lecture us, for endeavoring to expose such a gang of outlaws, blacklegs, and bloodsuckers." (p.532-33)

interesting to note the "bloodsucker" ephithet, which was also used often on the Jews.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Green Zone/Red Zone

Naomi Klein's famous section on "categories of people" in the contractors' world (p.413-414):

"It [the Green Zone] feels, oddly, like a giant fortified Carnival Cruise ship parked in the middle of a sea of violence and despair, the boiling Red Zone that is Iraq. If you can get on board, there are poolside drinks, bad Hollywood movies, and Nautilus machines. If you are not among the chosen, you can get yourself shot just by standing too close to the wall.

Everywhere in Iraq, the wildly divergent value assigned to different categories of people is crudely evident. Westerners and their Iraqi colleagues have checkpoints at the entrance to their streets, blast walls in front of their houses, body armor and private security guards on call at all hours. . . .In Iraq, the lucky get Kevlar, the rest get prayer beads."

the new deal's "loaded gun"

Klein writes that the real death of international Keynesianism (ie, Marshall Plan) was the collapse of the USSR (p.252):

"There was never going to be a Marshall Plan for Russia [in the early 1990s] because there was only ever a Marshall Plan because of Russia. When Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, the "loaded gun" that had forced the development of the original plan was disarmed. Without it, capitalism was suddenly free to lapse into its most savage form, not just in Russia but around the world. With the Soviet collapse, the free market now had a global monopoly, which meant all the "distortions" that had been interfering with its perfect equilibrium were no longer required."

so what this means, in essence, is that the "victory" over the USSR was a heavy blow to neo-liberalism, since it removed all vestiges of social welfare, kept in place to keep revolutionary rage at bay. it was a success that appears to have been fatal, at least for the prevailing corrupt structure.

state within a state

Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) on the parallel contractor infrastructure built by taxpayer dollars but unaccountable to taxpayers (p.417):

"The emergence of this parallel privatized infrastructure reaches far beyond policing. When the contractor infrastructure built up during the Bush years is looked at as a whole, what is seen is a fully articulated state-within-a-state that is as muscular and capable as the actual state is frail and feeble. This corporate shadow-state has been built almost exclusively with public resources (90 percent of Blackwater's revenues come from state contracts), including the training of its staff (overwhelmingly former civil servants, politicians, and soldiers). Yet the vast infrastructure is all privately owned and controlled. The citizens who have funded it have absolutely no claim to this parallel economy or its resources."

"Under Bush, the state still has all the trappings of a government -- the impressive buildings, presidential press briefings, policy battles -- but it no more does the actual work of governing than the employees at Nike's Beaverton campus stitch running shoes."

with this last comment she ties this development in government to the corporate trend of outsourcing described in her book "No Logo."

Iraq reconstruction

Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine), page 381, on Iraq "reconstruction":

"So while the reconstruction of Iraw was certainly a failure for Iraqis and for US taxpayers, it has been anything but for the disaster capitalism complex. Made possible by the September 11 attacks, the war in Iraq represented nothing less than the violent birth of a new economy. This was the genius of Rumsfeld's "transformation" plan: since every possible aspect of both destruction and reconstruction has been outsourced and privatized, there is an economic boom when the bombs start falling, when they stop and when they start up again -- a closed profit-loop of destruction and reconstruction, of tearing down and building up. For companies that are clever and farsighted, like Halliburton and the Carlyle Group, the destroyers and rebuilders are different divisions of the same corporations."

in the midst of the crisis, i wonder: was the war the birth of a new economy, or more hopefully, the apex of a corrupt, horrific stage, a stage now collapsing under its own fetid weight?

on shock

another excerpt from Naomi Klein, on shocks political and otherwise (p. 458):

"Any strategy based on exploiting the windown of opportunity opened by a traumatic shock relies heavily on the element of surprise. A state of shock, by definition, is a moment when there is a gap between fast-moving events and the information that exists to explain them. The late French theorist Jean Baudrillard described terrorist events as an "excess of reality"; in this sense, in North America, the September 11 attacks were, at first, pure event, raw reality, unprocessed by story, narrative, or anything that could bridge the gap between reality and understanding. Without a story we were, as many of us were after September 11, intensely vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends. As soon as we have a new narrative that offers a perspective on the shocking events, we become reoriented and the world begins to make sense once again."

on market "reforms" in russia

from naomi klein's excellent book on neo-liberalism from the 1950s to the present, "The Shock Doctrine," on the rise in ethnic hatreds and proto-fascism in russia in recent years:

"It is a bitter irony that when shock therapy was prescribed in Russia and Eastern Europe, its painful effects were often justified as the only way to prevent a repeat of the conditions of Weimar Germany that led to the rise of Nazism. The casual exclusion of tens of millions of people by free market ideologues has reproduced frighteningly similar conditions: proud populations that perceive themselves as humiliated by foreign forces, looking to regain their national pride by targeting the most vulnerable in their midst." (p. 450)

and more, on the threat of president allende (of chile) to the US in the early 1970s:

"washington always regarded democratic socialism as a greater threat than totalitarian communism, which was easy to vilify and made for a handy enemy. in the 60s and 70s, the favored tactic for dealing with the inconvenient popularity of developmentalism and democratic socialism was to try to conflate them with stalinism, deliberately blurring the clear differences between the worldviews. . . Despite the CIA-funded propaganda campaign painting Allende as a Soviet-style dictator, Washington's real concerns about the Allende election victory were relayed by Henry Kissinger in a 1970 memo to Nixon: 'The example of a successful elected Marxist government in Chile would surely have an impact on -- and even precedent value for -- other parts of the world, especially in Italy; the imitative spread of similar phenomena elsewhere would in turn significantly affect the world balance and our own position in it.'" (p.451).

In other words, the US Cold War fight was as much against moderate socialism as it was against Stalinism.

Monday, February 23, 2009

ancient clay letter

the letter is from about 1800 BC, i think, in mesopotamia. amazing, huh? the content regards debts of gold.

shreyl's visit

sara's friend from saskatchewan, sheryl, visited two weekends ago. we found two heavenly spots to lie in the sun -- one at hammonasset beach (see the tree), the other on a huge rock ridge on westwoods trail in guilford (see sara laughing). the picture of the two of them is from a small museum in norwich, "the rose of new england," a small city in economic decline full of beautiful old buildings.

done at last

after 8 and a half too-long years, i am done with my dissertation. it has been an albatross, an ordeal, a monkey on my back. i don't know which i felt more strongly on february 20, the day i defended: relief and happiness at finally finishing, or melancholy at those wasted years. i say "wasted" not because i did not learn anything, or that i feel no pride at my accomplishment, but because i feel uncertain i will find an academic job and because i know that had i had real advisory help, i would not have needed so many years.

the lower picture is 9:30 am, just before leaving my sister Karen's place to walk up to campus. poor althea just bumped her leg. the upper photo is of me and my advisors just after we finished, at noon. despite my resentment at their lack of professional ethics (save for the one closest to the camera, professor Kendall), i nonetheless felt somewhat emotional as it came to a close. after all those years, i felt they were for once really engaging me seriously -- at the moment it all comes to an end. its a rather absurd system, actually.

i meant to celebrate with Sara and my brothers over the weekend, but i was exhausted, and nearly came down with the flu. only today, monday, am i almost normal.

what iran's jews say

a good piece by the NYT's Roger Cohen. i am all for actual facts, not superficial focus on words.

At Palestine Square, opposite a mosque called Al-Aqsa, is a synagogue where Jews of this ancient city gather at dawn. Over the entrance is a banner saying: “Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution from the Jewish community of Esfahan.”

The Jews of Iran remove their shoes, wind leather straps around their arms to attach phylacteries and take their places. Soon the sinuous murmur of Hebrew prayer courses through the cluttered synagogue with its lovely rugs and unhappy plants. Soleiman Sedighpoor, an antiques dealer with a store full of treasures, leads the service from a podium under a chandelier.

I’d visited the bright-eyed Sedighpoor, 61, the previous day at his dusty little shop. He’d sold me, with some reluctance, a bracelet of mother-of-pearl adorned with Persian miniatures. “The father buys, the son sells,” he muttered, before inviting me to the service.

Accepting, I inquired how he felt about the chants of “Death to Israel” — “Marg bar Esraeel” — that punctuate life in Iran.

“Let them say ‘Death to Israel,’ ” he said. “I’ve been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.”

The Middle East is an uncomfortable neighborhood for minorities, people whose very existence rebukes warring labels of religious and national identity. Yet perhaps 25,000 Jews live on in Iran, the largest such community, along with Turkey’s, in the Muslim Middle East. There are more than a dozen synagogues in Tehran; here in Esfahan a handful caters to about 1,200 Jews, descendants of an almost 3,000-year-old community.

Over the decades since Israel’s creation in 1948, and the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranian Jews has dwindled from about 100,000. But the exodus has been far less complete than from Arab countries, where some 800,000 Jews resided when modern Israel came into being.

In Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Iraq — countries where more than 485,000 Jews lived before 1948 — fewer than 2,000 remain. The Arab Jew has perished. The Persian Jew has fared better.

Of course, Israel’s unfinished cycle of wars has been with Arabs, not Persians, a fact that explains some of the discrepancy.

Still a mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity.

Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.

That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.

I know, if many Jews left Iran, it was for a reason. Hostility exists. The trumped-up charges of spying for Israel against a group of Shiraz Jews in 1999 showed the regime at its worst. Jews elect one representative to Parliament, but can vote for a Muslim if they prefer. A Muslim, however, cannot vote for a Jew.

Among minorities, the Bahai — seven of whom were arrested recently on charges of spying for Israel — have suffered brutally harsh treatment.

I asked Morris Motamed, once the Jewish member of the Majlis, if he felt he was used, an Iranian quisling. “I don’t,” he replied. “In fact I feel deep tolerance here toward Jews.” He said “Death to Israel” chants bother him, but went on to criticize the “double standards” that allow Israel, Pakistan and India to have a nuclear bomb, but not Iran.

Double standards don’t work anymore; the Middle East has become too sophisticated. One way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force. Iranian language can be vile, but any Middle East peace — and engagement with Tehran — will have to take account of these points.

Green Zoneism — the basing of Middle Eastern policy on the construction of imaginary worlds — has led nowhere.

Realism about Iran should take account of Esfehan’s ecumenical Palestine Square. At the synagogue, Benhur Shemian, 22, told me Gaza showed Israel’s government was “criminal,” but still he hoped for peace. At the Al-Aqsa mosque, Monteza Foroughi, 72, pointed to the synagogue and said: “They have their prophet; we have ours. And that’s fine.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Furious George!

The local press has had a field day with the wild chimp story. "Furious George" was the Daily News cover a couple of days ago, which made me laugh. Today's cover was "Pri-mates," with a photo of the owner and chimp posed as "surrogate husband" and wife. the opener went like this: "we've heard of animal magnetism, but this is bananas!"

yeah, it is a sad story, but come on -- this woman was an idiot. you don't raise a wild animal and expect it to be human.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

W, "good-time Charlie"

below is the writer of Will Ferrell's play on George W. Bush, on why audiences have responded warmly to the depiction:

“He’s so clearly a neglected 13-year-old that there’s something really kind of heartbreaking about him,” McKay said, calling him “a good-time Charlie” who was “just used his whole life to front questionable business endeavors, and in a way that’s what his presidency was.

“He doesn’t have Cheney’s cartoonish need for power and greed that’s so off the charts you don’t even understand how Cheney got that way. W. may have some awareness, deep down inside, sort of like a petulant teenager who just flunked the trig quiz and knows he screwed up. I think Cheney not only knows but is delighted with everything he did, as is Rumsfeld.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obama cuts SS benefits?

in response to a report along these lines on the Daily Kos, a commenter left this desperate, humorous comment:

People this side of 50 are upset, furious, scared, feeling betrayed, flim-flammed and increasingly hopeless. First our lifelong savings/assets are absolutely in the loo. Now we’re supposed to take another financial hit via SS reductions?

A few days ago, I sounded off about class warfare looming even larger in this country. I didn’t necessarily mean conventional warfare. Economic warfare waged on the most vulnerable citizens of this country: the aging and elderly, the poor, those edging ever-closer to being poor, those with disabilities, etc.

Congress is tone-deaf, and the wealthy tut-tut in the manner of Barbara Bush re the Katrina victims having a better life in Houston than in NOLA.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!! Oh, wait. I have no choice.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pomeranz on China's water

China’s Water Woes: Past, Present, and Future

The Chinese droughts have just begun to move onto the front pages of the world's newspapers, but the droughts are just the latest sign of much more dire warnings of water woes in China. Some China experts are talking about this (see, for instance, today's event at the Wilson Center on "Temperatures Rising: Climate Change, Water, and the Himalayas"), but, in China Beat fashion, we're hoping to encourage many more people to do a little more reading and talking about it too, so we invited Ken Pomeranz to reflect on the present news and suggest a few further readings for those who are interested.

By Ken Pomeranz

Water is back in the China-related news lately – and that’s almost always a bad sign. Most recently, we have had stories about the grinding North China drought; this may be the worst since the late 50s drought that exacerbated the Great Leap Forward famine. A bit earlier, we had the report of credible (though unproven) research suggesting that last May’s catastrophic Sichuan earthquake may have been triggered by pressure from the water stored behind Zipingpu Dam. (See here for an early report, and then the slightly later piece, with more about the key Chinese scientist involved, by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker). Late in January, Jiang Gaoming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a sobering piece (China Dialogue, January 22, 2009) about how accelerating the construction of dams in China’s Southwest – part of the P.R.C.’s ambitious stimulus package to fight the global recession – is worsening the already considerable environmental and social risks involved, with some projects beginning before any Environmental Impact Assessments have been completed. Such a confluence of events is enough to make a historian think back…to about six weeks ago.

When the China Beat crew decided to put together our book China in 2008, I drew what you could consider either the long or the short straw, depending on your tastes: light editorial duties in return for writing an “end of the year wrap-up” piece to go at the end of the book. (Most of the copy had to go to the press by November 1, and a book with the sub-title “10 months out of a year of great significance” somehow didn’t seem right.) And as the last days of the year ticked off and I tried to figure out what things about 2008 to emphasize, water kept winding up at the center. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Olympics briefly focused attention on China’s serious air pollution problems…But China’s water woes are at least equally pressing, and it may be easier to see what effects they will have. Two little-noted news items from near the end of the year may illuminate that – after we review some background.

Water has always been a problem in China, and effective control of it has been associated with both personal heroism and legitimate sovereignty for as far back as our records go…. But water scarcity is probably an even greater problem than excesses, especially in the modern period. Surface and near-surface water per capita in China today is roughly ¼ of the global average, and worse yet, it is distributed very unevenly. The North and Northwest, with over half the country’s arable land, have about 7 percent of its surface water; the North China Plain, in particular, has 10 to12 percent of the per capita supply for the country as a whole, or less than 3 percent of the global average. China also has unusually violent seasonal fluctuations in water supply; both rainfall and river levels change much more over the course of the year than in either Europe or North America. While the most famous of China’s roughly 85,000 dams are associated with hydro-power (about which more in a minute), a great many exist mostly to store water during the peak flow of rivers for use at other times of year.

The People’s Republic has made enormous efforts to address these problems – and achieved impressive short-term successes that are now extremely vulnerable. Irrigated acreage has more than tripled since 1950, with the vast majority of those gains coming in the North and Northwest; this has turned the notorious “land of famine” of the 1850-1950 period into a crucial grain surplus area, and contributed mightily to improving per capita food supplies for a national population that has more than doubled. Much of that, however, has come through the massive use of deep wells bringing up underground water far faster than it can be replaced; and a great deal of water is wasted, especially in agriculture, where costs to farmers are kept artificially low. (Chinese agriculture is not necessarily more wasteful in this regard than agriculture in many other places – and certainly the deviations from market prices are no worse than in the supposedly market-driven United States – but its limited supplies make waste a much more immediate problem.) Water tables are now dropping rapidly in much of North China, and water shortages are a frequent fact of life for most urban residents. (Beijing suffers fewer water shortages, but only because it can commandeer the water resources of a large surrounding rural area included in the municipality.) Various technologies that would reduce water waste exist, but most are expensive. More realistic pricing of irrigation water would help – but probably at the price of driving millions of marginal farmers to the wall, and greatly accelerating the already rapid rush of people to the cities. Consequently, adoption of both of these palliatives is likely to remain slow.

Instead, the state has chosen a massive three-pronged effort to move water from South to North China – by far the biggest construction project in history, if it is completed. Part of the Eastern section began operating this year, and the Central section is also underway (though the December 31 Wall Street Journal reported a delay due to environmental concerns). The big story in the long run, however is the Western line, which will tap the enormous water resources of China’s far Southwest – Tibet alone has over 30 percent of China’s fresh water supply, most of it coming from the annual run-off of some water from Himalayan glaciers. (This is an aspect of the Tibet question one rarely hears about, but rest assured that all the engineers in China’s leadership, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, are very much aware of it. Tibetans, meanwhile, not only see a precious resource going elsewhere when their water is tapped: they regard many of the lakes and rivers to be dammed as sacred.) The engineering challenges in this mountainous region are enormous, but so are the potential rewards, both in water supply and in hydropower – the electricity water can generate is directly proportional to how far it falls into the turbines, and the Yangzi, for instance, completes 90 percent of its drop to the sea before it even enters China proper. The risks, as our two stories make clear, are social and political as well as environmental…

Call the two news stories the “double glacier shock.” On December 9, Asia Times Online reported that China was planning to go ahead with a major hydroelectric dam and water diversion scheme on the great bend of the Yarlong Tsangpo River in Tibet. The hydro project is planned to generate 40,000 megawatts – almost twice as much as Three Gorges. But the water which this dam would impound and turn northwards currently flows south into Assam to form the Brahmaputra, which in turn joins the Ganges to form the world’s largest river delta, supplying much of the water to a basin with over 300 million inhabitants. While South Asians have worried for some time that China might divert this river, the Chinese government had denied any such intentions, reportedly doing so again when Hu Jintao visited New Delhi in 2006. But when Indian Prime Minister Singh raised the issue again during his January, 2008 visit to Beijing, the tone had changed, with Wen Jiabao supposedly replying that water scarcity is a threat to the “very survival of the Chinese nation,” and providing no assurances. And so it is – not only for China, but for its neighbors. Most of Asia’s major rivers – the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej, and Indus – draw on the glaciers of the Himalayas, and all of these except the Ganges have their source on the Chinese side of the border. Forty-seven percent of the world’s people, from Karachi to Tianjin, draw on those rivers.

In short the possible damage to China’s neighbors from this approach to its water and energy needs is staggeringly large – and the potential to raise political tensions is commensurate. Previous water diversion projects affecting the source of the Mekong have already drawn protests from Vietnam (and from environmental groups), and a project on the Nu River (which becomes the Salween in Thailand and Burma) was suspended in 2004. But this project has vastly larger implications for both Chinese and foreigners. If, as some people think, the twenty-first century will be the century of conflicts over water, Tibet may well be ground zero.

Of course, China is hardly the only country that has ever appropriated water (not to mention other resources) that others see as theirs; I am writing in Southern California, made much more livable by denying Mexico Colorado River water it is theoretically guaranteed by treaty. And there is also something to be said, environmentally, for anything that provides China with lots of electricity and isn’t coal…

But that’s where the second glacier shock of 2008 comes in – news that this crucial water source is disappearing faster than anyone had previously realized. A report published in Geophysical Research Letters on November 22 noted that recent samples taken from Himalayan glaciers were missing two markers that are usually easy to find, reflecting open air nuclear tests in 1951-2 and 1962-3. The reason: the glacier apparently had lost any ice built up since the mid-1940s…And since the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the Himalayan highlands will warm at about twice the average global rate over the next century, there is every reason to think the situation will get worse. One estimate has 1/3 of the Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2050, and 2/3 by 2100. If that scenario is right, then even if all the engineering challenges of South-North water diversion can be solved, and even if China undertakes and gets away with taking water away from hundreds of millions of people in South and Southeast Asia, the resulting fix might not last very long…”
Strangely, these stories have attracted very little press coverage. There is, however, an excellent video at the Asia Society website. And there is a fair amount of stuff that’s worth reading about China’s water problems in general. If you are interested in learning more, here are a few things I would recommend:

1. James Nickum has a nice, short, summary of the South-North water transfer project available online. His December 1998 essay in China Quarterly, “Is China Living on the Water Margin?” (#156, 880-898) seems to me to have held up very nicely for a 10-year old overview of this rapidly changing set of problems (and as regular readers of this blog know, we give extra points for punning titles).

2. Another useful overview from several years ago (more technical than Nickum’s) is Olli Varis and Pertti Vakkilainen “China’s 8 challenges to water resources management in the first quarter of the 21st Century,” Geomorphology 41:2/3 pp. 93-104 (November 15, 2001). If you’re at a place where you can access the web version (i.e., a library with a subscription), you’ll find lots of useful further links to click on. (Here is one link for those with a subscription through ScienceDirect.)

3. Elizabeth Economy’s The River Runs Black seems to me to overstate the problems at some times (and since I don’t have a sanguine view, that should give an idea how, umm, black, her take is), but it’s a very good introduction to some of the relevant policy-making agencies and processes.

4. Dai Qing’s various essays on Three Gorges and other hydro projects are very useful, as is the collection Mega-Project (which included both official and unofficial views of the project).

5. Probe International often has good material, as does the International Rivers project.

6. And since plugging oneself is OK on a blog, I have a long-ish essay on the history of Chinese water management in a forthcoming collection of essays on environmental history: Burke, Edmund III, and Kenneth Pomeranz, editors The Environment and World History (UC Press, forthcoming March, 2009).
POSTED BY THE CHINA BEAT AT 2/12/2009 07:13:00 AM

family words: snitch

as a child, you grow up with certain words -- these words are like familiar objects, an old pair of scissors or shoes, or a frying pan. it is only as you grow out of your family you begin to realize that some of these familiar words are not familiar to other people. many words come from your parents. my dad said "blast!" my mom said "gad!" and "i haven't the foggiest idea!" other words come from siblings. in my case, it was my four older sisters, who spun out their own rich vocabulary, creating a small cultural cocoon which defined the four who had suffered the loss of their father. us younger kids absorbed these words from the periphery.

my sisters liked to use the word "snitch" -- not to mean "inform on," but to mean "pilfer food," usually some dessert or treat, before mom and dad had authorized it eaten. having nine siblings, it is understandable that this word would be so important! just to think of those days is to remember many pairs of sharp eyes, zestfully monitoring anyone who approached the prized cake or plate of cookies.(the other night, flipping through an old photo album, i saw two photos of myself holding a sandwich. it was curled within my protective grip. my middle school friends used to laugh at how i held my sandwich in the cafeteria, as if it was about to be snatched). but as i got older, i did not hear the word used in this way -- instead, its mainstream usage as "inform" seemed to come from prison and underworld cultures.

last week, sara was reading a mystery, "death in duplicate," when a sentence leapt out: so and so had been snitching cookies from the funeral home kitchen. huh? so had my sisters not made this meaning up? and a search online confirms that this meaning of "pilfer" is about 100 years old. i wonder if this meaning is regionally specific.

snitch (n.)

"informer," 1785, probably from underworld slang meaning "the nose" (1700), which apparently developed from an earlier meaning "fillip on the nose" (1676).

snitch (v.)

1803, "to inform," from snitch (n.). Meaning "to steal, pilfer" is attested from 1904, perhaps a variant of snatch (v.).

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bonobo on Obama

below i have copied an interesting take on Obama and the banking crisis. by the way, have you read george soros' sobering piece on the huffington post? it really makes me think "depression." and it also makes me think Obama has too many wall street old timers around him to think boldly.

"Obama is the wrong man at the right time.

This is the right time for direct government intervention. People have lost confidence in market mechanisms, and, once burned, are twice shy about returning their money to the old system. They will only reinvest (in significant numbers) in something that is clearly distinct, such as a central bank making direct loans.

Obama is the wrong man because, for both personal and philosophical reasons, he is a devoted incrementalist. As a black man raised in a foreign land, he is the quintessential Outsider, and he is very conscious of it. Thus he surrounds himself with Insiders, and is very cautious about sudden moves that might spook old folks. This is reinforced by his observation of the failures of Radical Change during the Bush years, and, like many others, has concluded that Radical Change itself (rather than the type and execution) was at fault.

He models himself on Lincoln, forgetting that Lincoln"s first years were failures, in great part because he was trying not to depart too drastically from the old system. Obama may come to the same personal evolution that Lincoln eventually did, but if he is as slow about it, the intervening years may be similarly painful for the rest of the country.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

2 "proud mary"s

going to youtube and watching tina turner sing "proud mary" in the 1970s is amazing. she uses her face, body and voice to achieve a level of drama that is reminiscent of Japanese No theatre. her introduction is as good as the song itself: she grimaces as she speaks, saying many people like songs sung "easy," but since she only knows how to sing "rough," she will start out easy and get rougher. her raspy voice and contorting mouth, and the slow rhythm starting up in the background, absolutely suck in the viewer and build up anticipation. she pauses before saying the words "rough" and "easy," creating a comic effect, enunciating them with such vibrancy and force the words take on mythical dimensions. the tension in watching the intro and start of the song is in feeling that she is straining just to hold herself back. and when she lets herself go, it is just wild. at breaks in the singing, she and the backup singers whip their long hair forward and backward ferociously.

now watch beyonce, channeling turner, singing "proud mary" for an elite audience including george and laura bush. it is delightful watching her imitate turner, who is sitting next to the president. there are two shocks for me in watching this performance: one is the shock of how much Black music has penetrated and indeed become the cultural mainstream. could anyone imagine Nixon or Ford sitting in the audience watching Turner gyrate and howl? would Turner have felt comfortable doing so? the social roughness of Black music's roots -- a roughness still evident in Turner's own life, even in her raspy voice -- was much of that music's unmatched stylistic power.

this point leads to my second shock: that in moving into the mainstream, even this roughest of rough performances by the bad bad Tina Turner could become a smooth product. when Black music moves from Tina Turner to Beyonce, it gains an immense perfection: Beyonce is a dream to watch and hear, beautiful, disciplined, vocal and bodily movements in perfect motion. but that perfect production, reflecting social mainstreaming, is also the song's loss. Beyonce mimics Turner's delightful introduction to the song but does not fully delve into it, inhabit it. watching Turner rasp and grimace and grin, one feels how much she herself enjoys the performance, how fully she is absorbed into it and is it. Beyonce, on the other hand, is merely gesturing at something done long ago. technically proficient, calculated, she does not erupt like Turner. there is little soul.

i wonder: is it possible for a socially marginal art with the eruptive, intense power of Black music to become the mainstream without losing that very power?

our Youtube adventure started with watching a BBC production called "southern soul" on VH-1. sara was immediately entranced, at Otis Redding's and Aretha Franklin's performances. i myself could hardly believe that in all my years i had never been educated on this rich period in american culture. i had heard of Redding but knew nothing about him. now BBC and Youtube are schooling me -- should i be sad that the schools i attended failed so miserably? or happy that BBC and Youtube succeeded? better late than never.

the second part of the BBC program covered the 80s and 90s. the beginning is so evocative of the 80s paradox: the camera lingers on sunlit Bronx project towers, while we hear Whitney Houston's mellifluous voice singing. the brutality of the economic system, seen in that landscape bathed in wintry sunlight, matched with popular culture's sweet vacuousness.

and there is something deeply sad about watching Mary Blige being interviewed -- at how desperately she has worked to be "pretty," ironing out her unruly nose and becoming perfect. somehow, for all her mainstream acceptance, she will continue to appear tragic to me in a way that tina turner does not, as rough as turner's life was. i am not sure why.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


activist John Pilger deflates media hyping of Obama's taking office by comparing it to Blair's ascension more than ten years ago. I sincerely hope that Obama is wiser than the foolish Blair. But so far, Obama's cowardly (if politically correct) silence on Gaza and his intention to escalate the Afghan war are not encouraging. Kennedy's smarts did not give him the moral wisdom to refrain from war in Vietnam, a country of no strategic importance to the US, except in paranoid cold war visions that passed for "reality" in those days.

Sharing the Bollocks Runner-up Prize is the Observer, which on 25 January published a major news report headlined, "How Obama set the tone for a new US revolution." This was reminiscent of the Observer almost a dozen years ago when liberalism's other great white hope, Tony Blair, came to power. "Goodbye Xenophobia" was the Observer's post-election front page in 1997 and "The Foreign Office says Hello World, remember us." The government, said the breathless text, would push for "new worldwide rules on human rights and the environment" and implement "tough new limits" on arms sales. The opposite happened. Last year, Britain was the biggest arms dealer in the world; currently it is second only to the United States.

In the Blair mold, the Obama White House "sprang into action" with its "radical plans." The new president's first phone call was to that Palestinian quisling, the unelected and deeply unpopular Mohammed Abbas. There was a "hot pace" and a "new era," in which a notorious name from an ancien regime, Richard Holbrooke, was dispatched to Pakistan. In 1978, Holbrooke betrayed a promise to normalize relations with the Vietnamese on the eve of a vicious embargo that ruined the lives of countless Vietnamese children. Under Obama, the "sense of a new era abroad," declared the Observer, "was reinforced by the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state."

Clinton has threatened to "entirely obliterate Iran" on behalf of Israel.

gumbo etymology

wow. what a dense, rich word: coming from the bantu language group (c. africa) by way of french around 1800, it originally meant simply, "okra," then the thick stew made with okra, then a french creole language, then a silty, sticky soil. how cool is that. a glance at the history of the word and dish shows why delta louisiana is one of the few parts of the US which is not predominantly anglo-saxon in its dominant and foundational culture. i copy a couple of definitions below.

Having originated in New Orleans, Louisiana, created by the French, but enhanced by additions from other cultures, gumbo is the result of the melting of cultures in Louisianan history. For example, the dish itself is based on the French soup bouillabaisse, along with the "Holy Trinity," which is of Spanish origin and the use of filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) which is Native American. But the dish got its name from the French interpretation of the West African vegetable okra. Currently, the dish is very common in Louisiana, Southeast Texas, southern Mississippi and Alabama, and the Lowcountry around Charleston, South Carolina, near Brunswick, Georgia and among native Louisianians throughout the country. It is eaten year-round, but is usually prepared during the colder months.

1795–1805, Americanism; < LaF gombo, gumbo < a Bantu language; cf. Umbundu ochinggombo, Luba chinggombo okra

Chiefly Southern U.S. See okra. See Regional Note at goober.
A soup or stew thickened with okra pods. Also called okra.
Chiefly Mississippi Valley & Western U.S. A fine silty soil, common in the southern and western United States, that forms an unusually sticky mud when wet.
Gumbo A French patois spoken by some Black people and Creoles in Louisiana and the French West Indies.

[Louisiana French gombo, of Bantu origin; akin to Tshiluba ki-ngumbo, okra.]

AP CEO Curley

Curley gave a speech today in which he decried Pentagon efforts to infiltrate propaganda into the media mainstream.
"His remarks came a day after an AP investigation disclosed that the Pentagon is spending at least $4.7 billion this year on "influence operations" and has more than 27,000 employees devoted to such activities. At the same time, Curley said, the military has grown more aggressive in withholding information and hindering reporters."

"influence operations"?? how is this legal in a democracy? people are up in arms because bankers are using taxpayer money for private jets and trips to vegas. here the pentagon is taking billions of citizen money to trick us -- planting "news" stories. we are paying for our own deception. it has to stop.