Jan 31st, 2010 by ravi
Lewontin on the real function of the Democratic Party

In the United States just after independence from Britain, the farmers of western Massachusetts, led by Daniel Shays and still in possession of their muskets, occupied the general courts to prevent bankers from obtaining judgements to confiscate farmers’ property for debt. The bankers in Boston succeeded in getting Continental troops to put down this rebellion, but all at the cost of considerable social upheaval. It is obviously in the interest of those who have power in society to prevent such violent and destructive conflicts, even if, with the police power of the state, they are sure to win.

As such struggles occur, institutions are created whose function is to forestall violent struggle by convincing people that the society in which they live is just and fair, or if not just and fair then inevitable, and that it is quite useless to resort to violence. There are the institutions of legitimation.

He’s speaking generally about equality, power and revolt, but he might as well have been speaking of the current financial crisis and the real function of Obama and the Democratic Party.


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Apr 20th, 2009 by ravi
Gergentuan analysis
(image from The Guardian)

(image from The Guardian)

At the Summit of the Americas, in a weak human moment, Obama shook hands with and smiled at Hugo Chavez. Needless to say, that has set off the most profound analyses among our news media.

Shake hands with Chavez but hold smiles, analyst says – CNN.com

David Gergen, CNN’s senior political analyst, said Obama is trying to make good on that pledge.

“I think most political advisers would tell the president, you know, it’s fine to shake hands, hold the smiles,” he said, adding that the gesture shows some inexperience on Obama’s part.

“What the real test here is going to be in policies and in the actions. And I think Barack Obama has to somehow make a balance between being open, reaching out and also not surrendering or retreating on basic American principles and on showing some toughness,” Gergen said.

Perhaps Gergen, part time CNN stooge and full-time Harvard professor (yes you read that right), also needs a copy of Open Veins of Latin America, or a full record of US participation in the various anti-Chavez actions.

A bit presumptuous of me to suggest that Harvard professors spend time reading history, but the rest of you might benefit from perusing these:

[ Link ]

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Nov 17th, 2008 by ravi
From the NYRB: How Muslims Made Europe

Anthony Appiah’s NYRB article:

How Muslims Made Europe – The New York Review of Books


Later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Gibbon remarked that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, he thought, if ‘Abd al-Rahman had won, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who…asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”[2]

At the time, though, it would have been odd to regard Charles Martel’s victory as guaranteeing religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Muslim Conquest, bringing rulers who practiced toleration toward them as well as toward Christians and Zoroastrians, was not unwelcome. During the first period of Muslim domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Muslims or criticize Islam. The contrast with Frankish rule could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark.


The original core of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, which stands to this day, was built for ‘Abd al-Rahman in an astonishing burst of architectural fervor, apparently between 785 and 786. With 152 columns, arranged in eleven aisles, it consisted of two parts: a large prayer hall, some two thirds of an acre in area, and an adjoining piazza of the same size, filled with rows of orange trees, which together made up a square whose sides measured about 240 feet. The results, added onto over the centuries, still amaze. Lewis writes:

Its builders devised the art and science of transmuting matter into light and form that medieval Christendom was the poorer for its general inability to comprehend…. The unprecedented innovation of the Great Mosque’s master builder was to loft the coffered ceiling to a height of forty feet by means of an upper tier of semicircular arches that appeared to be clamped to the bottom tier of horseshoe arches supported by columns…. Structurally ingenious, the visual effect of the double arches has been from the moment of completion one of the world’s distinctively edifying aesthetic experiences.

If the Great Mosque was the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in ‘Abd al-Rahman’s time, the Umayyads sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Córdoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, dwarfing the largest libraries of Christian Europe. The university of Córdoba predated Bologna, the first European university, by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Córdoba’s population was 90,000, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs, and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that would generate a genuine cosmopolitanism.

There were no recognized rabbis or Muslim scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Córdoba’s ambassador to Constantinople and Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Córdoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar but was also the chairman of the caliph’s medical council; and when the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII sent the caliph a copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, the caliph sent for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge that the caliph’s doctors acquired made Córdoba one of the great centers of medical expertise in Europe. By the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Muslim world.

Like Charlemagne’s, the emir’s position was partly religious; he was supposed to be (and often was) pious. But piety for the emirs did not mean—as it did for the Holy Roman Emperor—imposing one’s religion on others. From the earliest times, the emirs of al-Andalus accepted conversion but did not demand it. There were, naturally, some pressures to convert: non-Muslim subjects—the so-called dhimmi—were required to pay special taxes; and non-Muslims could be enslaved while, at least in theory, Muslims could not. Still, it probably took about two centuries after ‘Abd al-Rahman’s death in 788 for Muslims to become a majority in al-Andalus.[4] In the cities of al-Andalus, scholars of all three faiths, with access to the learning of the classical world that the Arabs had inherited and brought to the West, gathered and transmitted the learning whose recovery in Europe created the Renaissance.


[ Link ]

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Oct 27th, 2008 by ravi
WWII: the backstory on the Soviet pact with Hitler

Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’ – Telegraph

Papers which were kept secret for almost 70 years show that the Soviet Union proposed sending a powerful military force in an effort to entice Britain and France into an anti-Nazi alliance.
Such an agreement could have changed the course of 20th century history, preventing Hitler’s pact with Stalin which gave him free rein to go to war with Germany’s other neighbours.
The offer of a military force to help contain Hitler was made by a senior Soviet military delegation at a Kremlin meeting with senior British and French officers, two weeks before war broke out in 1939.
The new documents, copies of which have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, show the vast numbers of infantry, artillery and airborne forces which Stalin’s generals said could be dispatched, if Polish objections to the Red Army crossing its territory could first be overcome.
But the British and French side – briefed by their governments to talk, but not authorised to commit to binding deals – did not respond to the Soviet offer, made on August 15, 1939. Instead, Stalin turned to Germany, signing the notorious non-aggression treaty with Hitler barely a week later.

[ Link ]

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Sep 17th, 2008 by ravi
UN due influence

Without any hint of irony or humour, The Guardian worries that Western influence within the United Nations is waning — worrisome because it wrecks “efforts to entrench human rights, liberties and multilateralism”.

Drop in influence at UN wrecks western attempts to push human rights agenda

The west’s efforts to use the United Nations to promote its values and shape the global agenda are failing, according to a detailed study published yesterday.

A sea change in the balance of power in favour of China, India, Russia and other emerging states is wrecking European and US efforts to entrench human rights, liberties and multilateralism.

This perhaps belongs in the same category of new-found Republican concerns regarding sexism and the Bush administration’s alarm at Russian unilateralism (vis-à-vis Georgia). Dare we remind them that the United Nations came about as a response to the two disastrous wars that these nations inflicted upon the rest of the unenlightened world? Or would that explicit notice have as little effect as the implicit caution offered by a history of colonialism, political mischief and unilateral intrusion (Iran, Iraq, Latin America, Afghanistan, Africa, India, Pakistan,…)?

A recent article in the New York Times presents an altogether different picture than the one The Guardian offers, when it comes to US interest or respect for other values and thought. The article ends with a quote from Northwestern law professor Steven Calabresi:

In “ ‘A Shining City on a Hill’: American Exceptionalism and the Supreme Court’s Practice of Relying on Foreign Law,” a 2006 article in the Boston University Law Review, Professor Calabresi concluded that the Supreme Court should be wary of citing foreign law in most constitutional cases precisely because the United States is exceptional.

“Like it or not,” he wrote, “Americans really are a special people with a special ideology that sets us apart from all the other peoples.”

Discussing the use of international opinion in judicial analysis, the NYT articles draws a telling contrast:

Judges around the world have long looked to the decisions of the United States Supreme Court for guidance, citing and often following them in hundreds of their own rulings since the Second World War.

[…] American constitutional law has been cited and discussed in countless decisions of courts in Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and elsewhere.

But many judges and legal scholars in this country say that consideration of foreign legal precedents in American judicial decisions is illegitimate, and that there can be no transnational dialogue about the meaning of the United States Constitution.


The Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning, said John O. McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern, and recent rulings, whether foreign or domestic, cannot aid in that enterprise. Moreover, Professor McGinnis said, decisions applying foreign law to foreign circumstances are not instructive here.

“It may be good in their nation,” he said. “There is no reason to believe necessarily that it’s good in our nation.”


In any event, said Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, many Americans are deeply suspicious of foreign law.

“We are used to encouraging other countries to adopt American constitutional norms,” he wrote in an essay last month, “but we have never accepted the idea that we should adopt theirs.”

“It’s American exceptionalism,” Professor Posner added in an interview. “The view going back 200 years is that we’ve figured it out and people should follow our lead.”

[emphasis mine]

In contrast, the New York Times describes the attitude elsewhere (including in India, a country that The Guardian laments is gaining influence in the UN, and whose UN soldiers are prominently pictured at the top of The Guardian’s piece):

The openness of some legal systems to foreign law is reflected in their constitutions. The South African Constitution, for instance, says that courts interpreting its bill of rights “must consider international law” and “may consider foreign law.” The constitutions of India and Spain have similar provisions.

and explains why a shift away from US standards and opinion is occurring:

Frederick Schauer, a law professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in a 2000 essay that the Canadian Supreme Court had been particularly influential because “Canada, unlike the United States, is seen as reflecting an emerging international consensus rather than existing as an outlier.”

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Jul 7th, 2008 by ravi
The Cuban Missile Crisis…

It turns out that much of what we think we know about one of the most studied episodes in modern history is either inaccurate or incomplete. Even more alarming, much of what Kennedy thought he knew about Soviet actions and motivations rested on flawed intelligence reports.

Far from being an example of “matchlessly calibrated” diplomacy – a term used by Camelot historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr – the missile crisis is better understood as a prime illustration of the ever-present “screwup factor” in world affairs.

[ Link ]

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Jun 9th, 2008 by ravi
Kevin Alexander Gray on James Clyburn

Democracy Now! | Race, Politics, Dr. King and the Primaries in South Carolina

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking right now to Kevin Alexander Gray in Columbia, South Carolina. The Republican primary is January 19th. The Democratic primary January 26th. Talk about your congressman, James Clyburn. He is the only African American congressman from South Carolina, one of the leaders in Congress. He’s overseas right now, appears to be extremely angry about what has been happening.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, he hinted that he might support Obama, but I don’t think that that’s going to happen. Jim—first of all, you know, people say Jim was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Jim was the head of the State Human Affairs Commission before he ran for Congress. And Jim has kind of been the pick of the status quo established white community for a long time. So I don’t see Jim leaving too far off of that plantation and bucking the party establishment in the state by picking somebody.

[ Link ]

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Feb 12th, 2008 by ravi
The history of the US in Iran

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Feb 4th, 2008 by ravi
History vs Hope

The Democrats finally have their “Mission Accomplished” moment and boy is it good to get all that guilt off your back! In a piece that is embarrassing for not just the lack of content but also the adolescent gushing, Andrew Rosenthal writes in the New York Times:

Michelle, Maria, Caroline and Oprah on the Hustings in California – New York Times


Ms. Winfrey — finally — spoke to the most emotionally fraught aspect of this contest. “Now look at this campaign: the two front-runners are a black man and a woman,” she said. “What that says to me is we have won the struggle and we have the right to compete.”

Instead of seeing a painful choice, voters, Ms. Winfrey urged, should see a moment when they “are free from the constraints of gender and race.”

After watching the candidates struggle with the issue, painfully and awkwardly, in the past month, it was a relief to hear someone finally frame it in a way that celebrated what the Democratic Party has achieved — and then move beyond it.


And that ladies and germs, is the promise of Obama (and Hillary too, if you believe Oprah). His candidacy assuages the soft leftist’s guilt about the disparities and discrimination that surround us, offering him the opportunity to cast one small vote for himself but achieve a giant leap for humankind. Vote for Obama and you can keep your SUV and iPod and save the environment too! Vote for Obama and you can move beyond all pain and awkwardness! Free of the constraints of gender and race! This is a competition between unbounded hope and inescapable history. Is it a matter of surprise that older people, women, and those with lesser formal education, choose Clinton over Obama (though they may prefer neither)?

Note that that is the explicit core of the Obama campaign which started out frugally short on detail and gained steam while staying light on substance. As Obama and his wife point out, his campaign is not about him (a messianic Christ-like figure who thunders about “his God”) but about “you”. And if by voting for him and electing him, you have not managed to move beyond the constraints of gender and race, it cannot be your class (which we eliminated from consideration via John Edwards) or the environment you are thrown into, but as Reagan would say, perhaps its your lack of responsibility? (Obama identifies the success of Reagan with dissatisfaction with large government growth and excesses, without accountability).

If there is any further doubt that Obama’s rhetorical dictionary is an approximate facsimile of the Republican one (he has consciously but barely stopped short of calling himself the “uniter”), you can consult Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who points out repeatedly that not only is Obama’s healthcare plan to the right of Hillary, but that his tactic of criticising Hillary’s plan echoes that of conservative and insurance industry operatives in 1992.

Recently, there have been a spate of pro-Obama editorials and opinions on the online pages of the New York Times. One among the many was poignant — it quoted the words of a younger feminist parting ways with her feminist mother on the issue of Obama vs Clinton. The young feminist offered that “her [Clinton’s and by extension her mother’s] issues are not my issues”. In keeping with Oprah’s proclamation, I guess she felt that she was free from the constraints of gender. But her characterisation is inaccurate. Her mother’s issues will always be her issues (at least so long as she considers herself a feminist), especially if she is unaware of that!

As Gloria Steinem writes writes in the same rag, under the apt title “Women Are Never Front-Runners“:

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”

(I would ignore the part about Clinton’s “progressive policies”)

Some very intelligent people whose opinions I respect greatly are supporting Obama today. I do not believe that they are misled by the baseless hope that Obama represents. I do not even think that they are weary of struggle and want for once to taste some victory (even at some cost). Nonetheless, I think they are on the wrong track.

[ Link ]

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Dec 7th, 2006 by ravi
BBC | US Mexicans haunted by repatriation

I have heard and read about the Japanese internment during WW2, but this I had not previously known:

BBC | US Mexicans haunted by repatriation


As the depression deepened, state and local governments passed laws restricting employment to native-born or naturalised citizens.

The Federal Government required all firms supplying it with goods and services to hire only US citizens.

And private companies fell in line with the prevailing anti-Mexican feeling and sacked their workers.

Francisco Balderrama, professor at California State University and co-author of Decade of Betrayal, estimates that somewhere in the region of a million people of Mexican origin were driven out of the United States during the 1930s.

Nearly two thirds of those who left were US citizens.


Around 50,000 people were formally deported in the 1930s.


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to approve Senate bills that would require schools to include the repatriation in the curriculum, and to offer victims compensation.

Time to start deporting Austrians? ;-)

[ Link ]

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