Saturday, November 10, 2007

So Easy, A Caveman Could Tell You Where This One Is Going Posted by olvlzl

So, the latest thinking is that it was Neanderthal womens’ involvement in blood sports that was the reason their species became extinct. And the assumption was that Homo Sapiens women stayed home, sewed skins, cooked and took care of the babies.

But a recent study introduces another explanation: Stone Age feminism. Among Neanderthals, hunting big beasts was women's work as well as men's, so it's a safe bet that female hunters got stomped, gored, and worse with appalling frequency. And a high casualty rate among fertile women - the vital "reproductive core" of a tiny population - could well have meant demographic disaster for a species already struggling to survive among monster bears, yellow-fanged hyenas, and cunning Homo sapien newcomers.

The Brooks boys and their distaff auxiliary will say this tells us why social policy should discourage women from having careers* and that discrimination is embedded in our genes. To not discriminate on the basis of gender will insure our demise as a species. Just watch. I wonder when was the last time Betsy Hart was in danger of being mauled by a yellow-fanged hyena.

Oh, the temptation to bring that thought farther. In law.

* As has been pointed out, it’s only prosperous women who are encouraged to stay home. Poor women who can’t afford childcare, oddly, are the ones required to work jobs that don’t pay a living wage or have benefits while impossibly taking care of their children, paying for daycare. It’s seldom possible.

The logical conclusion is that conservatives are hoping that the underclass will thus become extinct through this modern form of social Darwinism. But not until after they have performed their role in driving down wages in general and feeding the prison industry its raw materials. And don’t think for a second that I don’t believe this kind of cold blooded thinking isn’t encouraged in our stinking oligarchy. It’s not only encouraged, it’s rewarded handsomely.

Friday, November 09, 2007

On My Blogiversary

If you go to the archives and read my very first post on this blog you can see how much "Echidne of the snakes" has changed. It has a life of its own now, and most of that is because of you, my dear and smart and kind commenters and readers. So thank you, million times.

I love the blog. True, it is very hard work for me and there will be a time, in not-so-distant future, when I have to stop for money reasons. But despite all that I think I have spent the last four years the right way. No one little blog can do very much, but lots of little blogs together can do a lot! And there will not be "lots" of those blogs if the individual bloggers give up. So I haven't, so far.

And all the friends I have gained during these years! Even those who later disappeared. I worry about them and hope that they are having full and satisfying lives. I have learned much from the comments on the blog, and they fill me with admiration most of the time.

I hope that this blog can be a home away from home, a place where ideas can pop up, be tossed back and forth and, if they are any good, perhaps some of those baby ideas ultimately enter the wider political conversations. Even if they don't the silence has been broken. That is very important.

Hugs to all of you. May you never lack bread to eat and someone to love.
Now returning to your regularly scheduled broadcasts.

Friday Puppy Blogging

This puppy is Onni, Tintti's dog, on his first day at his new home.

The Mysterious Polls

We get new political polls almost every day, and almost every day what they show is ignored by the powers that be. This may not be wrong, given your political philosophy, but it is still very mysterious.

Consider the fact that polls show George Bush now being regarded as very unfavorably by more than half of the people surveyed. Consider the fact that his approval ratings have hovered around 30% (and have dipped into the twenties recently). This has very little impact on anything that is happening in the political arena. The people really do not matter, if polls are seen as statements from the people.

What is it about the polls which suddenly make them so impotent? I remember a time, not that long ago, when the polls were regarded as always correct, because they supported the current administration's policies. Now that this has changed we hear that polls are not to be trusted.

They depend on the exact form of questioning. For instance, if you ask whether the U.S. should get out of Iraq to stop the slaughtering of our military in an unwinnable war - well - you are going to get a lot of agreement with that. But if you ask whether the U.S. should stay and get the important job of winning the war on terror done in Iraq, then lots of people will agree with that one, too.

And this is true, of course. But the creators of the polls know this and they could easily create neutral questions which would then be kept the same poll after poll, to measure changes in opinions over time.

I also hear the argument that people don't really mean what they say in polls. Sure, they can say that the U.S. should get out of Iraq and that the Democrats in Congress should do all they can to achieve this. But then they also say that the Democrats shouldn't hold back on war funding, because this endangers the military. It also happens to be the most concrete policy the Democrats have to try to force an end to the occupation. Taken together, these two majority opinions make it impossible for the Democrats to act. So why not add a question which links the defunding of the military to the ending of the occupation and asks about that?

I think the real reason why polls are suddenly regarded so suspiciously is that they show very different results between the Republicans on the one hand and the Democrats and the Independents on the other hand. The Republicans like George Bush, want military resolutions in Iraq and like the idea of bombing Iran. The other two groups, not so much. That they constitute the majority today just might be the reason why polls are suddenly ignored.

Angry Kooks

ThinkProgress reports on Karl Rove's opinions about political blogs:

According to Rove, bloggers are "nutty," "vitriolic," and "kooks." The Washington Times reported on his remarks:

"The Web has given angry and vitriolic people more of a voice in public discourse," said Mr. Rove, who served as one of President Bush's top strategists until he resigned this past summer, and is a noted technology nut.

"People in the past who have been on the nutty fringe of political life, who were more or less voiceless, have now been given an inexpensive and easily accessible soapbox, a blog," Mr. Rove said during a speech about politics and the Web at the Willard InterContinental, a hotel just blocks from his former place of employment.

"I'm a fan of many blogs. I visit them frequently and I learn a lot from them," Mr. Rove said. "But there also blogs written by angry kooks."

And there are also governments run by angry kooks. Imagine that!

I would think it an honor to be viewed as an angry kook by Karl Rove, actually. But I probably don't quite qualify, given that I'm a goddess, too. Heh.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Mustang Bobby reminded me that it's my blogoversary today. His blog was born on the same day. We are four years old today.

Chocolate cake will be served today, with nectar. Then you can vote for the blog here. Or you can send me a nice property on the Mediterranean or a year's blogging wages. Of course you won't and you will feel all itchy with guilt over it tonight. But that, too, will pass.

I intended to write a deeply meaningful post for the anniversary of the blog but I thought it was later this month. Gah.

Today's Video

It's from Brave New Films and about the way Fox News is concerned with "decency" in the society while exploiting female nudity and sexual titillation in ways which are not just inappropriate but disgusting. Though note that the video doesn't point out it's not men's bodies that are being exploited here. We should drop the euphemisms when we talk about these issues.

The New York Times Opinion page links to this site, where people can ask presidential candidates questions and then vote those questions up and down. I have not thought about this idea at all. Just put it out there for your consideration. An e-mail I got says that John Edwards will answer the questions. Perhaps other candidates do, too?

Going Once, Going Twice...

Lots of houses and condominiums are being repossessed these days. Atrios links to an interesting article on how the current situation relates to the changes in bankruptcy laws that the Congress approved only a short time ago:

Washington Mutual Inc. got what it wanted in 2005: A revised bankruptcy code that no longer lets people walk away from credit card bills.

The largest U.S. savings and loan didn't count on a housing recession. The new bankruptcy laws are helping drive foreclosures to a record as homeowners default on mortgages and struggle to pay credit card debts that might have been wiped out under the old code, said Jay Westbrook, a professor of business law at the University of Texas Law School in Austin and a former adviser to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

``Be careful what you wish for,'' Westbrook said. ``They wanted to make sure that people kept paying their credit cards, and what they're getting is more foreclosures.''

Washington Mutual, Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. spent $25 million in 2004 and 2005 lobbying for a legislative agenda that included changes in bankruptcy laws to protect credit card profits, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan Washington group that tracks political donations.

The banks are still paying for that decision. The surge in foreclosures has cut the value of securities backed by mortgages and led to more than $40 billion of writedowns for U.S. financial institutions. It also reached to the top echelons of the financial services industry.

You may remember that the changed bankruptcy law still allowed for tidy little loopholes for the wealthy. But those were not enough. Karma can be a bitch.

All these political stories can be told on several levels. Take the bankruptcy story as an example. On one level the story was all about careless, shiftless and greedy Americans spending, spending, spending. Not saving. And then crying and whining when the day of payments came. Except that the old bankruptcy laws just allowed them to say they were sorry and start again with a blank slate. Now, this was wrong. Hence the new laws which reward those who work hard and put money away for the rainy day.

A different version of that story talks about stressed and overworked Americans, daily being bombarded with the messages to buy, buy and buy. When they finally do buy, say, a house, something awful happens to them: a divorce, a serious illness a criminal business partner. Bankruptcy follows, and under the new laws they are done for. The end. No second chances here. But the rich don't have to lose their second houses in the same circumstances in certain states.

A third story about the same law has to do with the credit card companies. They didn't like the loss of revenues those bankruptcies caused. And they put money into some serious lobbying to get the laws changed. Success!

The third story actually explains how various politicians voted the best. But all those stories are true on some levels. People do overspend, the advertisers urge them to do so and the financial industries have a stake in that overspending.

What is done less often is a clear tying-together of these disparate stories. The article I link to is a nice example of how it could be done.

Women Buying Cars

The post below provoked a thread with lots of comments about the way car dealers relate to female buyers. You might be interested to learn that a study was once done on this by using the audit method. This method pairs male and female actors (or people who are trained to act) who are given the same lines to say and the same information to express. These actors are then sent out separately in various random orders (and not necessarily on same days) to, say, car dealerships, to see whether they get the same treatment, on average.

The point of the audit study is to control for all other reasons which might explain why women tend to get worse deals on cars than simply their sex and how the dealers react to it. The study showed a considerable difference in the dealers' willingness to go down in price. Women did not get as low offers as men who acted the same did.

This study dates from the 1990s but I doubt anything has changed in this respect.

How To Talk To Women

I was reading OpenLeft the other day and came across something that struck a bell in a post which discussed the playing of the gender card:

When I was young, around 12 or so, I called a car dealership, and, having a high voice at the time, I sounded to the salesman like a woman. I'll never forget just how condescending he became after I said 'hello'. It was 'dear this' and 'dear that', and I think he even spoke slower so I could understand his fancy car talk.

It could be that the salesman realized he was talking to a child. But perhaps not. I've had that same experience many, many, many times. Otherwise quite normal (usually older) men suddenly losing their ability to speak rapidly or to use long words. This happens simultaneously with a certain change of tone, into a syrupy octave, if such exists, spiced with a certain amount of benevolent condescension. It really is almost exactly the way someone might talk to a child, though even children don't really appreciate that attitude.

Now, I don't think these experiences are as frequent as they used to be (though there are a few neighbors...), or perhaps I'm no longer young enough for that specific kind of condescending treatment. Or perhaps there are fewer older men left who think that there is a certain way to talk to a lady. But I could be wrong about that. What is your experience?

And what was that funny voice all about? I don't get it.

Aqua Dots Swimming In My Eyes

Although these are children's toys, not the kinds of dots I sometimes see after reading too many inane political articles (including my own, let me hasten to add). These Aqua Dots are not good for little children:

About 4.2 million Chinese-made Aqua Dots toys were recalled for possibly containing a "date rape" drug, U.S. safety officials said on Wednesday after earlier announcing another batch of toy recalls for unacceptably high levels of lead.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said the Aqua Dots craft toys include a chemical, 1,4 butanediol, on their beads which, if swallowed, can turn toxic and cause unconsciousness, respiratory depression, or seizures.

I have written about the safety risks of imported foods before, and in particular with the problems of Chinese quality and safety controls which mostly don't exist. The Chinese manufacturers compete in price only, and if adulterating something allows a fraction of a cent savings per million items produced, it is worth it. As long as you don't get caught, naturally. But the probabilities of getting caught in the United States were for a long time period quite minor, because the fashionable politicians wanted to dismantle all that cumbersome bureaucratic machinery which used to check foodstuff for safety.

You might argue that markets will ultimately punish manufacturers who produce dangerous products, and in many cases they do. But do we really want to wait for the markets to work that way? I'm not sure, given the hundreds of people who died in Panama because of taking poisonous cough medicine made in China and given all those pet deaths here in the United States.

For better or for worse, China is now the country which makes most of our junk, and it is going to be made as cheaply as possible. Something to think about when debating global free trade and its benefits.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, II

Another woman has been allowed to die because of an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy which can never result in the fetus surviving):

Two weeks after Olga Reyes danced at her wedding, her bloated and disfigured body was laid to rest in an open coffin - the victim, her husband and some experts say, of Nicaragua's new no-exceptions ban on abortion.

Reyes, a 22-year-old law student, suffered an ectopic pregnancy. The fetus develops outside the uterus, cannot survive and causes bleeding that endangers the mother. But doctors seemed afraid to treat her because of the anti-abortion law, said husband Agustin Perez. By the time they took action, it was too late.

She went to a health center, was referred to a maternity hospital two hours away, and was then told to go back home for the night. With an ectopic pregnancy!

Read the whole article. Various authorities argue that physicians should act quickly and decisively in the cases of an ectopic pregnancy because there is no possibility of the fetus surviving. At the same time physicians are not actually told this, but fear that they will go to prison if they interfere. As one physician said:

"Many are thinking that instead of taking the risk, it is better to let a woman die," said Dr. Leonel Arguello, president of the Nicaraguan Society of General Medicine.

Indeed. Because the life of the fetus is of value. The life of the woman? Not so much.

The Gifts Of Recessions

Robert Samuelson writes about them in today's Washington Post. Recessions, those times when the standard of living goes down and people lose their jobs and food is suddenly not that plentiful, are not that bad, really, because recessions have all sorts of hidden virtues:

Of course, no one likes the usual side effects of a recession: higher unemployment, weaker profits, more stress. Still, popular rhetoric exaggerates the damage. By and large, recessions are problems, not tragedies. Since World War II, there have been 10 of them, or one about every six years. On average, they've lasted 10 months (indeed, a common definition of a recession is at least two quarters of declining output). Disregarding two severe recessions -- those of 1973-75 and 1981-82 -- peak monthly unemployment has averaged 7.1 percent.

Recessions also have often-overlooked benefits. They dampen inflation. In weak markets, companies can't easily raise prices or workers' wages. Similarly, recessions punish reckless financial speculation and poor corporate investments. Bad bets don't pay off. These disciplining effects contribute to the economy's long-term strength, but it seems coldhearted to say so because the initial impact is hurtful.

Today, a U.S. recession might also reverse the upward spiral of oil prices and trigger a faster -- and healthier -- drop in home prices. As economist Berner notes, the slow decline in prices prolongs the housing slump, because it induces "would-be buyers [to] wait for more attractive deals." By making homes more affordable, a quick and sharp price drop might revive housing more rapidly.

Samuelson then gives gentle advice to the government not to try to meddle with this health-creating god of recessions. The bitter pill and all that.

On a purely technical level Samuelson has a point. The business cycle has booms and it has recessions, and the recessions are needed to fix the problems of the booms. All this assuming that nobody tries to regulate the booms or the recessions, assuming that the business cycles are some sort of an unavoidable beast with its own rules and morals.

But governments have always tried to influence those cycles. Even George Bush's government has tried to influence them. Now, it is well known that if the government acts too late it might deepen the business fluctuations rather than dampen them. But is Samuelson really suggesting that the government should do nothing?

The problem with these types of articles is something very similar to those psychological pieces I once read which argued that the way we make someone else's death or suffering meaningful is by the message WE learn from it. It's pretty easy for someone earning a nice and stable salary to discuss the negative aspects of recessions as a welcome economic correction. And note that the piece has no discussion about the distributive effects of recessions, nothing about who it is who suffers in them and who it is who does not suffer in them. It is just assumed that the bad people get punished and the good people get encouraged.

Today's Cartoon

Go here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Another Thing

Something I have thought about a lot recently is the difficulty of getting anything into the media that isn't simplified to a dualistic argument between the two extremes. I don't like that, because I believe, with some justification, that the world, the universe and its meaning are all quite complex matters. Trying to find a simple solution is usually a waste of time.

But that attitude is scorned as too nuanced, too whiny and so on. And also, of course, as too complicated. One is supposed to say something clear and rigid, and if one does not, then one is called a fence-sitter or something nastier. But seeing the nuances is not a bad thing at all. It could sometimes be that very ability which allows us to correct a terrible problem. And seeing nuances does not mean the kind of "he-said-she-said" vacuity that much of the media discussion on politics has become.

Why so much on something that might sound like hair-splitting? Perhaps because of the book reviews I just finished. I don't think the kind of books I'd like to write would ever be published. A book has to have a simple main thesis and all the evidence must be arranged to support that main thesis. Then someone else writes a different book, equally simplistic, but with different evidence, and THEN we are supposed to have a debate about the issues. This is boring and inefficient, I think, but it's also not quite reflective of reality. It's also quite likely to leave people believing that one of the two simplistic theses is the correct one.

Today's Nice Story

The video at this link is really charming.
Hat tip to Prior Aelbert.

The Terror Dream. A Book Review

Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream. Fear And Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. has a poorly picked title. Yes, the book is about fear and fantasy in the U.S. where "9/11 changed everything", but it is not about all the fear and fantasy that was changed or that stayed the same. It is, quite specifically, about the way our views of gender were pushed and pulled after the massacres and about the way the massacres were retold so as to fit them into an old national myth: the one about the courageous men defending the innocent virgins and pregnant mothers.

And Faludi has a point, you know. I started following the events she described fairly early and read many of the sources she uses, but I never quite "realized" (in the deeper sense of really seeing it) something she states in the opening chapter of the book: The vast majority of the 9/11 dead were men, roughly three quarters. Only eight children died, all of them on the planes. Yet the public coverage of the disaster focused on the female victims and on the dead children. Later, of course, the appropriate victims were found among the widows and children of the men who died.

Faludi's second point about the way the 9/11 butchery was altered in our imagination is linked to this one. It has to do with the way an attack against the most powerful business interests (Twin Towers) and military interests (the Pentagon) was reinterpreted into an attack against the American homeland. Even the term "homeland" was selected for the new government branch, meant to protect us all. What is weird about this is that bin Laden explicitly wanted his attacks to destroy the business and military hearts of the country. Well, not weird, because protecting the American homes is a lot more appealing, of course.

The rest of Faludi's thesis is that the events of 9/11 caused strong pressure on women to act more like damsels in distress, more like pure mothers, preferably pregnant, more in all those ways worthy for a brave man to defend. At the same time, the media gave us brave men to admire: firemen who charged into the Twin Towers just to die with those there was no way of actually saving, policemen who were the First Defense against future terrorism attacks and cowboy presidents in manly flight suits. In short, the traditional sex roles reared their less-than-pretty heads, with the eager support of many in the media and most of the right-wing media.

Now we know what men are good for, went the argument. Yes, I remember those stories. I remember thinking that I have always known what men are good for and wondering who it was who felt so insecure about that to require this whole approach to be resuscitated. And I remember trying to understand why the valuation of men seemed to require the devaluation of women. For the heroes to do their stuff someone must clap and cheer, I guess, for the hero to rescue the damsel-in-distress the damsel must just sit their and be distressed. So it goes.

But I also remember thinking that nobody seemed to notice the gender of the attackers. We wouldn't have needed the bravery and the sacrifice of the firemen if the terrormen had not committed mass murder first. It's quite dangerous to start that particular strand of thoughts so I stopped there.

It is interesting to read a book which treats the recent past as history, because our own memories of the events are still fresh. This is one of the reasons Faludi's book has been reviewed fairly critically by many. The usual argument is that her thesis about the events forcing women back into their kitchens, barefoot and pregnant, failed, because Hillary Clinton is running to be the president, because there are still lots of women with paid jobs out there and because right-wing pundits have always been telling women to return to their homefires, to rock that cradle with that hand which then rules the world. In short, the anti-feminist messages have always been there and they still aren't working.

Well, I disagree with these wholesale criticisms. I participated in that trip through time, you know, and I read voraciously from about 2002 onwards on all the issues Faludi mentions. There indeed was a renewed emphasis on the cult of the male hero and a renewed emphasis of the need for women to return home. The op-ed pages were suddenly almost totally masculine and the few women who still had access to the foghorn were overwhelmingly conservative and anti-feminist. When I pointed out this in a private conversation with someone I was told that war is a man's business.

The "lifestyle" pages (intended for women's consumption) sprouted several made-up trends about women wanting to quit working or about women wanting to have lots of babies or about women worrying and not wanting to be away from their families. These are made-up trends because no such trends actually appeared. At the same time, there were few stories about women wanting to defend the Homeland or wanting to enter the political debate about how to win the war against terrorism. Surely some women, somewhere, wanted to do exactly that?

So yes, Faludi is right when she describes the pressures of that time on women. Where I think she went slightly wrong is in the focus on the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In fact, all the anti-feminist trends she discusses started in the 1990s, with the stories about the era being post-feminist (which means that we no longer need to worry about equality for women), with the theories about women wishing to just nest or "cocoon", and with the whole reduced pressure on the importance of seeing more women in public positions of power, including in positions of writing about terrorism. The so-called "third wave" of feminists took their eyes off that ball and focused their work on other areas, perhaps thinking that old gains are there to stay. But what I saw was a retreat on many of the issues that supposedly had already been settled to the benefit of women.

The massacres of 9/11 provided a pretext for the anti-feminist message to be accelerated, true. But the message didn't suddenly pop into existence right there and then. The preparatory work had been in the making for a long time, and anyone who had listened to Rush Limbaugh was ready for the next stage.

But of course not everyone listens to Rush Limbaugh all the anti-feminist ladies of the right. This is another problem with the way Faludi's thesis is written and/or received: It is true that all this was in the air during the time when smoke still whirled over New York City, but most people did not read all those conservative newspapers and web sites. Most people only got small doses of the anti-feminist stew Faludi serves us. Her discussion pulls together everything about the culture of that era which tried to steer women back to traditional gender roles, but most of us didn't get as much of the propaganda in our daily lives.

I think this is the reason why some reviewers think that Faludi is exaggerating her message. But something else is going on in reviews like this one:

These efforts on Ms. Faludi's part to use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as an occasion to recycle arguments similar to those she made a decade and a half ago in her best-selling book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (1991) feel forced, unpersuasive and often utterly baffling.

To begin with, the reader wants to ask: What disappearance of female voices? What "bugle call" to "return to Betty Crocker domesticity?" Since 9/11, Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the leading Democratic contender in the race for the White House, with a good chance of becoming the first female president in history; Katie Couric was named anchor of the CBS Evening News; and women like Lara Logan of CBS and Martha Raddatz of ABC have been reporting from the frontlines of the war in Iraq.

Note that the thesis in this review is that Faludi's thesis is wrong because the public space isn't totally masculine. That is not a valid reading. It could well be that there would be many more women in public roles had the "Betty Crocker domesticity" calls not been heard, say. It could well be that the attempt to change gender roles right after 9/11 did exist but failed, because women on the whole didn't accept those suggestions. It could even be that the entry of the liberal and progressive blogs and especially feminist blogs into the political debate has changed the discussion from what it seems to be on some of those conservative sites. And it could simply be that the window for the anti-feminist attempts after 9/11 has closed.

There is something odd about many of the reviews of the book I have read, and the only way I can define that oddness is by suggesting that it doesn't seem necessary to actually study feminism to bash it.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Monday Mutterings

I read two seriously political books in the last five days, not something I'd advice for its mental health benefits. The review on Naomi Klein's book is below. The review on Susan Faludi's book will probably happen tomorrow. I think I will review also the reviews of her book, because it's a fun meta-game and because the reviews themselves are an important aspect of the culture in which we live.

The grapevine tells us that Rosie O'Donnell

is in serious discussions to return to television atop a new soapbox: a prime-time show on the cable news channel MSNBC, according to executives on both sides of the negotiations who have been briefed directly.

Under one scenario, Ms. O'Donnell would be given the 9 p.m. slot each weeknight on MSNBC, where she would go head-to-head with two heavyweights of cable talk: "Larry King Live" on CNN and "Hannity & Colmes" on Fox News. Her show would replace "Live with Dan Abrams," a relatively low-rated program that only recently replaced "Scarborough Country," which was also little-watched.

Interesting, if true. I've wondered why the networks don't add more liberal coverage given the success of Keith Olbermann's show.

The Ms. Magazine's 35th anniversary issue is out. It's well worth reading. In general, if you can afford it you should support feminist press. The conservatives have the Scaife Foundation and its ilk to keep the struggling Washington Times, say, in business, but the progressives and liberals appear to think that the "free markets" will take care of the survival of the opinion magazines. This is an odd reversal and worth pointing out. The conservatives subsidize their press, whereas we don't seem to be so keen to do that.

In any case, the latest issue of the Ms. Magazine has interesting stuff about comparing how much women's lives have changed in the last three decades and about the victories won as well as the struggles still waiting to be won.

The Shock Doctrine. A Book Review

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a book worth reading. Indeed, it is an important book. And a well-researched book, a book filled with facts and anecdotes and evidence. For all those reasons it is also a demanding book for the reader, but it is worth the effort.

Klein's thesis looks initially very simple: She argues that disasters are the new frontier for capitalists, the next emerging market in which to make a killing. Just consider Blackwater, Haliburton and other similar firms, now the main arm of the U.S. government in disaster management. When things go badly wrong, who do you turn to? The traditional answer was that your community would help you and that your government would be there for you. But why let such a lucrative market as disasters stay in the public domain? The market is a dreamy one for capitalists: desperate people will pay almost anything to get relief.

So why has this lucrative market not been tapped earlier? Klein doesn't address this directly but the reason for its current flourishing is that the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund both love privatizing, and these international organizations give the disaster industry a helping hand, wads of money and permanent access to the highest levels of governmental decision-making in the so-called free world. As Klein puts it in the book, the old saw about "the revolving door" between the government regulators and the industries they regulate (which refers to the practice of the regulators often coming from the industry they are supposed to regulate and/or being later hired by the very same industry) has now become "an archway": a permanently open communication between the government and the private firms. Indeed, in some very obvious ways the "military-industrial complex" has become more openly "industrial", and the ideas of outsourcing the most central government tasks to private firms is now commonplace. We now have private soldiers (in Iraq only, so far), private police and private firefighters, all of course protecting those who pay their fees and not who just happen to pay taxes.

I mentioned that Klein's thesis only looks simple. This is because her book doesn't only address the straightforward case of disaster capitalism as described above, but also presents a much wider and even more worrisome form of the same in terms of the triple shocks of first some natural or human-made disaster, then a conservative economic takeover and then (or simultaneously) the enforcement of all this by the shock of a police state, including torture. She applies this triple-shock model to countries ranging from Chile and Argentina in the 1970s via Russia in the 1990s to Iraq today.

The basic story she tells is a simple one. First some natural catastrophe strikes a country, or its political system collapses or its currency is rumored to be in trouble or a powerful country invades it. The initial reaction of the country's inhabitants is shock, numbness and a great desire to get rid of the immediate problem. This, according to the economists among the disaster capitalists, is the time to strike with conservative economic reforms, because the bitter pill can be forced down more easily in such a situation. People are desperate. If the reforms cause opposition the third shock can be administered: imprisonment and torture of the opposition, a few carefully staged open executions, mutilated bodies left in ditches.

Klein over-applies her theory. For example, the Falklands War was not the kind of shock that is needed to make the United Kingdom into a country of people numb with shock, ready to accept Mrs. Thatcher's conservative reforms. But the theory is interesting, especially in its focus on the economic part of the story, and the role of the conservative economic models as the new right-wing religion. These models have been adopted by the International Monetary Fund and by the current U.S. government. That they are theoretical models, based on several assumptions not likely to be satisfied in reality is ignored. Their treatment among the adherents is as religious truths or scientific truths, and anyone refusing to marvel over the models is viewed as misguided or even perhaps evil.

The book's strength for me is in bringing this to the forefront of the discussion, in making sense of the "military-industrial" complex and in pointing out that millions of people may have died or suffered because of unproven demand-and-supply graphs once drawn on blackboards at the University of Chicago and similar places.

And what are these religious models? Their basic message is to privatize everything, to remove all price and wage controls, to let the market have a ball and to cut back on all social spending. Then open all doors for international capital to flow into the country (and of course to flow out of the country, every bit as easily), and, presto, you will see a booming economy created overnight!

It is true that lots of people will suffer horribly at first. The elderly, for example. Think about the Russian miracle: Klein tells us how Jeffrey Sachs was sent over to administer the bitter medicine of free-market capitalism to the Russians. The outcome was a market in which the prices of basic food items were no longer subsidized and pensions were not allowed to rise. What do you think this did to the elderly who were trying to live on their meager pensions and now could no longer afford bread?

Then there were all those suicides in Russia, all that drinking, all that violence. But now Russia has quite a few billionaires! See what you can do when you work hard and the markets reward you? It's true that the average life expectancy of Russians has dropped and that they no longer dare to have many children, but there are areas of Moscow which look like Hollywood? People have private body guards! You can buy anything in Moscow if you have the money!

Yes, I'm foaming at the mouth about Russia, because the story of what took place there and the story of the refusal of the West to help the country are sad ones and mostly a result of pure human arrogance, greed and stupidity. The Russians took Sachs' advice to privatize all their main industries, enormously lucrative ones. They were auctioned off to a few well-connected individuals at prices so low that it's hard not to feel the prices meant as another spit in the faces of Russian people. For example,

Forty percent of an oil company the size to France's Total was sold for $88 million. (Total's sales in 2006 were $193 billion.) Norilsk Nickel, which produced a fifth of the world's nickel, was sold for $170 million - even though its profits alone soon reached $1.5 billion annually. The massive oil company Yukos, which controls more oil than Kuwait, was sold for $309 million; it now earns more than $3 billion in revenue a year. Fifty-one percent of the oil giant Sidanko went for $130 million; just two years later that stake would be valued on the international market at $2.8 billion. A huge weapons factory sold for $3 million, the price of a vacation home in Aspen.

And how were these purchases financed? Essentially through a scam which made the taxpayers pay for them.

There is no other way of describing what took place in Russia than as a crime. Scavengers ripping apart the dead body of the Soviet Union.

Now, the free-market priests of the West didn't exactly condone this "Maffia capitalism" that the Russian markets produced. But they believed that all this would ultimately end up benefiting the Russian people, through that old stand-by of conservative economic thought: The trickle-down phenomenon.

Indeed, all the Chicago School reforms in countries ranging from Chile to China have as their real justification the assertion that opening up the markets to all and sundry and removing most all consumer and worker protections will ultimately benefit the ordinary people, even if only after a painful adjustment period. Is this what the wider type of disaster capitalism has achieved?

The proof of this pudding is in the eating, and here I wish that Klein had given us more evidence. She tantalizingly hints that the countries which were the victims of the triple-shock treatment now have a larger underclass, and that the outcome of the conservative market reforms is always to create a small and exceedingly wealthy elite while pushing more and more people below the poverty line. This certainly seems to be happening in some of the countries she described, but following the cause-and-effect networks is made harder by the fact that many of the early objects of the economic shock-and-awe later changed their policies and retreated from the extreme privatization path. I would love to learn more about the long-run effects of the free-market shock treatments. Do they kill off the middle classes? I suspect they do.

Klein's book has enough material for several book reviews. I have not touched on the parts of the book which most readers probably find the best part: Her discussion of the Iraq debacle and the incredible corruption, greed and incompetence the U.S. government's contractors there have demonstrated. Neither have I mentioned the New Orleans debacle, the Baghdad on our own shores. I learned a lot from those chapters even though I have followed the media as carefully as I could, and much of what I have learned is depressing.

Still, the book ends with a chapter of hope, by pointing out that the shock therapy stops working once people are in on the plot, that one can get used to being shocked in these way and actually come out of the experience less willing to be numbed again in the future.

And what did I not like about the book? I believe that Klein stretches her thesis too far. Not everything in the world necessarily falls under one simple explanation. She also has the tendency of a true advocate to paint her own people in flattering tones and the adversaries as ugly as she can. She is not alone in this, of course. Almost every political book I have read does the same, from both sides of the aisle. That's what sells, I guess. But it is annoying, because reality is always fuzzy and complicated and we should have the courage to argue that something matters and is relevant even if its role is not quite so overpowering or its explanatory power so simple as we would like.

Weblog Awards

I'm a finalist, it seems, in the category of small blogs. My thanks to those who nominated this blog. It's getting to wear big-girl pants, yanno. Nearly four years old...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sunday Night Emily Dickinson Blogging

Two seasonal poems.


Ribbons of the Year --
Multitude Brocade --
Worn to Nature's Party once

Then, as flung aside
As a faded Bead
Or a Wrinkled Pearl
Who shall charge the Vanity
Of the Maker's Girl?


The name—of it—is “Autumn”—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

But Hillary Laughs Funny and John Edwards Has Good Hair Posted by olvlzl

How much have you heard about, or do you expect to hear about Fred Thompson spending a good part of this year traveling in a jet provided by a friend, close adviser, contributor and convicted drug dealer, as a part of his presidential campaign?

Thompson selected the businessman, Philip Martin, to raise seed money for his White House bid. Martin is one of four campaign co-chairmen and the head of a group called the "first day founders." Campaign aides jokingly began to refer to Martin, who has been friends with Thompson since the early 1990s, as the head of "Thompson's Airforce."

Thompson's frequent flights aboard Martin's twin-engine Cessna 560 Citation have saved him more than $100,000, because until the law changed in September, campaign-finance rules allowed presidential candidates to reimburse private jet owners for just a fraction of the true cost of flights.

They’ll probably say it wasn’t campaign travel because he hadn’t declared yet. The FEC might have to pretend that he wasn’t campaigning and that legal charade will be the excuse used by the Republican media shills to ignore his associations with a convicted drug dealer, we, friends, are free to look at the reality of the situation.

What is that part of the reality?

Martin entered a plea of guilty to the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana in 1979; the court withheld judgment pending completion of his probation. He was charged in 1983 with violating his probation and with multiple counts of felony bookmaking, cocaine trafficking and conspiracy. He pleaded no contest to the cocaine-trafficking and conspiracy charges, which stemmed from a plan to sell $30,000 worth of the drug, and was continued on probation.

Thompson's campaign said the candidate was not aware of the multiple criminal cases, for which Martin served no jail time. All are described in public court records.

Hands up anyone who isn’t shocked that someone who would end up a right-wing businessman supporting Fred Thompson didn’t serve jail time for crimes that would have sent a poor kid up the river for many years?

And speaking of “many years”, extra points to anyone who can spot the non sequitur in this part of the story.

Karen Hanretty, Thompson's deputy communications director, said yesterday that "Senator Thompson was unaware of the information until this afternoon. Phil Martin has been a friend of the senator since the mid-1990s and remains so today." Thompson communications director Todd Harris added that Martin was not subjected to the campaign's standard vetting process because "he's a longtime friend."

"There's not a campaign in the world that has the ability to research every one of its supporters going back more than 20 years," Harris said.

Getting back to the title of this post, just as you can be certain the Republican media shills will. There is mention of Hillary Clinton having to return money raised by Norman Hsu two sentences on, as if that was relevant to the story.

It’s a safe bet that if this does become something the media can’t ignore, they will bring up Hsu along with Charlie Trie and any other past contributors to Democrats with shady pasts and vaguely Asian sounding names.

Buzz Flash, where I found the link to this story, pointed out that this is the kind of story often leaked by political rivals. Those are all Republicans at this point.

Genuine Imitation Posted by olvlzl.

The Zenph re-creation of “The Goldberg Variations of ‘55" raise some interesting issues in music and art. Having touched on the issue of re-creation before it seemed as if I should write about them.

Like most classical musicians I have the greatest respect for J. S. Bach. His music matches unsurpassed greatness with a truly miraculous volume. Few composers approach his music in quality or quantity. Having played and taught some of Bach’s pieces for decades, it is music that doesn’t wear out with repeated exposure, changing ideas and emotions. Unlike many, I’m not so much a fan of Glenn Gould’s piano playing, though his early recordings of Bach were some of his best work. He was an amazing musician in many ways, even a genius. He was a very interesting and ambitious composer of tape music. The Idea of North alone would have given him that distinction but I’ve never liked his recording of other peoples’ music. Still, there are many beautiful things in his recording of the Variations and his 1955 recording is much better than the one made shortly before his too early death. Having heard both the original on LP and the new recreation using very up to date computer analysis and Yamaha reproduction technology with a very fine and very well engineered piano, I have to say the results are impressive.

Like almost everyone, I never heard Gould play live. He gave up public performance in favor of record very early. I haven’t heard a public “performance” of the Zenph recreation either, so any comparison will be between the issued recording and the reproduced recording. This gets to the issue of reproductions of performances, an additional wrinkle to the digital vs. vinyl pseudo-controversy so beloved of lazy public radio producers.

It is a question of definition. What constitutes a performance? Glenn Gould wrote well and at length, though not always coherently, about the issue of live performance and the increasingly accurate recording of them. For him the issue of corrective and preferential editing of recorded performances gave recordings the edge. I suspect that the convenience for himself and the ability it provided him to have a performance career while maintaining his favored urban hermit way of life was his real motive. He predicted the demise of live performance, though that doesn’t seem to have come about yet. But is a recording the “same thing”, even if it could fool every last person with very good ears? I don’t know the answer to that except to say that you could only compare one hearing of the recording to one live performance. Repeatedly listening to the recording would make the comparison ever more tenuous.

In his Russell Sherman’s wonderful book, “Piano Pieces”*, written around the same time he was recording the complete Beethoven Sonatas, he said that a set of 32 different performances of one of the sonatas would give insights into Beethoven that a recording of the 32 Sonatas wouldn’t**. He emphasizes the essential, living aspect of the kind of music that transcends any one performance of it, something that can’t be analyzed, systematized or defined but only experienced. This is what is lost in the recording of any one performance after a recorded performance acquires familiarity.

So, we get back to recordings, some by great pianists of the past, many of whom we have exactly one recording of any one work to hear. Are they worth listening to? Of course they are. There are great musical experiences in even the oldest, fuzziest and scratchiest recordings made in the wax-cylinder days. I’m waiting to hear the Zenph recreations of Busoni’s recordings and have heard the recreation of Cortot’s*** on the radio. The Art Tatum recordings I heard over the radio didn’t impress me as much, maybe they would if I heard them more than once.

* This is the best book I’ve ever read about playing the piano and one of the best I’ve ever read about music of any kind. I would recommend it to anyone interested in music.

If the comparison of recording technologies is invidious, comparing pianists is bound to be worse, but I can’t help pointing out that Russell Sherman is a far more original and brilliant pianist than Gould was, far more respectful of composers’ intentions and the essential quality of music being a real, live experience and far more open to other musicians’ ideas. I would recommend his recordings and live performances to anyone.

** The composer Kenneth Gaburo said that Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas are such individual creations that instead of concentrating on the superficial formal similarities they share that they should be considered sui generis. In the most basic way this is true of all music and most true of great music.

*** It’s interesting that Zenph seems to be concentrating on pianists who always flirted with eccentricity, perhaps pathology, even as they exhibited genius. I would like to hear what they do with the very few recordings left by composer-pianists like Debussy, Ravel, perhaps even that old recording of Brahms. The wonderful recordings of Charles Ives, though, should never be touched by this technology. Those are perfectly transcendent in themselves. I’m still not giving up the “originals” of any of them, though.