Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

six years

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

I wanted to schedule this audioconference for work as soon after Labor Day as possible, and after some back and forth, it became clear that September 11th was going to be the only day that fit everyone’s schedule.  One of our guests was a state senator from NY, so I asked her scheduler was she sure that the 11th was ok, and she said yes.  So we held it today.  And I’m not going to any memorial services or doing anything out of the ordinary today.

But I was glad that it was gray and overcast today, and not another impossibly perfect blue sky.

If you feel a call to gather and talk about your memories and feelings, we’ve opened up Wednesday Whining a little early this week.

Last year’s post

2005 remembrances


(Yes, I did hit my 3rd blogaversary last month.)

Two years later

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Two years ago today, like pretty much everyone else with access to a computer, I was blogging about Katrina.

Two years ago tomorrow, I was "sad and angry" about the f*cked up state of health care coverage in this country.  And the uninsurance figures have only gotten worse.  And, as I noted two years ago, having health insurance doesn’t mean that you’re not screwed anyway.  I got this video from the Edwards campaign in my inbox today — if you listen carefully, you’ll note that the woman asking the question says that she has health insurance, but still has had to borrow $50,000 to pay for her treatment.

Two years ago yesterday, I was blogging about the man who invented the word "genocide" and remembering the anniversary of the Beslan massacre.  At that time, I wrote "I suppose there’s not a date on the calendar where there hasn’t been pain and bloodshed, somewhere, somewhen."

This morning I was listening to NPR on the radio, and Cokie Roberts was talking about New Orleans.  She said that the areas that haven’t been rebuilt are strangely beautiful, because the ground there is so fertile that marsh grasses have sprung up already where there used to be buildings.  It made me think of the Carl Sandburg poem, Grass.



Pile the
bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work


Thursday, June 14th, 2007

All of my parenting email lists and many blogs are abuzz with news of the recall of a bunch of Thomas trains for lead in the paint.  I think it’s drawing a lot of attention for several reasons:

  • These trains are awfully popular.  Pretty much every kid I know has some.
  • They’re expensive, and they’re made of wood, so they have an old-fashioned aura.  People aren’t surprised that the cheap plastic crap from the dollar store is made in China or Mexico, but they don’t expect the stuff that’s $15 for a little train to come off the same assembly line.
  • It’s coming right after there’s been a lot of attention to the impossibility of protecting the food supply from contaminants.

Realistically, I don’t think there’s a need to panic, unless your kid has been walking around sucking on James all day.  While it’s clearly a bad thing, all of us who grew up when leaded gasoline was in common use got exposed to much higher levels of lead.   

(Don’t worry, I will check our train bins to see if we have any that are affected — I think all of ours are older than 2005, though.)

But it does highlight how interconnected — and how vulnerable — we all are in this global economy.  There’s really no way to avoid it.  The part of that NPR story on the food supply that struck me the most is that China produces 80 percent of the world’s Vitamin C.  Unless you’re going to go try to play Robinson Crusoe somewhere, you can’t avoid it.

Molly Ivins

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I just heard (via my left nutmeg) that Molly Ivins has died and I’m feeling surprisingly bereft.  In the 2 1/2 years that I’ve been blogging, it seems like I’ve written about the passing of too many important women — Ann Richards, Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks.  (And I feel badly that I didn’t write about Tillie Olsen.)  But this one seems to have shaken me more than the rest.  I think it’s because they all seem like people out of history, who did things long ago.  Molly was writing up to the end.

She warned us all about Shrub, years ago, and we (the country) didn’t listen to her.  And don’t we all wish we had.  But she was never shrill, always funny.  I remember sitting outside a laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry and reading Molly Ivins can’t say that, can she? and laughing out loud, attracting odd looks from the passers-by.

The Texas Observer has (at least for now) turned their site into a memorial for her.

Firedoglake has some nice excerpts up too.

Failure to launch

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Via Shawn Fremsted at Inclusionist, I ran across this article by Theda Skocpol reviewing two books about the GI bill (free but annoying registration required).   Skocpol notes how unusual the GI bill was in providing assistance to young families:

"But unlike most other U.S. social programs, the G.I. Bill focused its largesse on young adults at just the moment when they were building lives for their families. Usually, we spend money on the elderly, who have earned the nation’s support after a lifetime of work."

The article made me think about Strapped, by Tamara Draut, which I reviewed earlier this year.  Draut talks about how the changes in the economy — the increased cost of education, housing, and child care — particularly pinch young adults right when they’re trying to start families.

The key point, I think, is that it was the 50s and 60s that were the anomaly, not today.  One of the reasons that, in most of history, men have married younger women is that men were strongly discouraged from marrying until they were able to support a family, and there was no expectation that they’d be able to do at a young age.  Older teens and young adults were expected to work, but they typically contributed their labor or earnings to their families of origin.  And when times were bad, as in the Great Depression, people married later.

So we’ve got this perverse combination of an economy that all but requires higher education for success (even though a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job, as Lauren will attest), an educational system that is dependent on student loans, and an expectation that young adults should be able to make it on their own.  There’s no historical precedent.

TBR: Tell Them I Didn’t Cry

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

When you read the headlines each day from Iraq, of bombings, elections, and daily life, do you think about what the reporters went through in order to file their stories?  In today’s book, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq, Jackie Spinner of the Washington Post attempts to describe what it is like to be a reporter in Iraq.

This is war reporting without any bravado.  Where Michael Weisskopf writes in his Time cover story that Iraq was "a dream assignment, a chance to escape Washington and work in exotic environs on a big story," Spinner cheerfully admits that she was terrified almost every minute, even as she argued with her editors to send her to Iraq and let her escape "career death" in the financial section of the Post.  Spinner writes about the constant fear of kidnapping or assault, the frustrations of reporting through a security cordon, the vitriolic emails she got from readers, and her attempts to establish something resembling a normal life under totally abnormal conditions (she cooked dinner for the Post’s Iraq bureau every Friday night, rotating through a variety of world cuisines).

I heard Spinner talk at an event earlier this year, and she spoke about how common it is for war reporters to get post-traumatic stress disorder.  Reading the book, I got the impression that writing it was therapeutic for her, giving her the chance to tell all the stories she couldn’t tell her family while she was overseas, because they would have been too freaked out.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always make for good writing — Spinner buries the reader in a sea of details, without providing much in the way of perspective or context.

Spinner writes with passion about the role of the Iraqi reporters, translators, drivers and other support staff who make the American reporters’ work possible.  She notes that they were in far more danger than the Americans, risking their life every day they came to work.  She points out that the Iraqi journalists valued their work enough to ask for, and receive, bylines in the Post, even though they made themselves targets in the process.  But in spite of Spinner’s obvious affection for her Iraqi colleagues, she doesn’t make them stand out as individuals, except for one young woman who Spinner is particularly close with.

Until I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t noticed that the subtitle emphasizes that Spinner is a "young" journalist, but not that she is a woman.  In spite of that absence, it’s clearly a big issue in the book. Being a woman in Iraq obviously affected some of the stories that Spinner could report — she was less able to interview Iraqi men than her male colleagues, but more able to interact with women.  But beyond that, it’s hard to imagine a male journalist writing this book, with its free admission of fear and focus on interpersonal relationships.  Even the title — which comes from an episode when Spinner is nearly abducted — is something only a woman, who is stereotypically expected to cry, would feel a need to say.

5 years

Monday, September 11th, 2006

It was grey and drizzling in DC today.  I told one of my colleagues that I was glad it was overcast and, without hesitation, she said "not another perfect blue sky."   Moxie says the sky was bright blue in New York, just like five years ago.

Some links:

I hope no one is offended by the inclusion of the Onion piece.  After September 11, for a long time I had this poem taped to my office door.

A Man Doesn’t Have Time In His Life

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.
-- Yehuda Amichai

mideast musings

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

I keep starting posts about the fighting in Israel and Lebanon, then discarding them, and starting again.  It seems wrong not to acknowledge the fighting and the heartbreak it is bringing to people on both sides, but I’m not sure what I have to add to the conversation. 

Lisa at Global Voices Online reports that this is probably the most blogged war in history.  I’ve been reading Allison Kaplan Sommer, who discusses such homely details as her decision whether to send her kids to camp this week. 

I think Allison is right that the US would be totally unrestrained in a comparable situation.  I don’t think even W. is nuts enough to go nuclear, but pretty much everything else would be considered fair game if US cities were the target of missile attacks.  But that doesn’t mean it would be right.  There’s basically two arguments for hitting back with everything you’ve got.  First is the purely political consideration that anything less would be considered week and make the government vulnerable to criticism.  The second, and more significant, argument is the idea of deterrence — that if everyone knows that you’re going to respond immediately and hard, they’ll be less likely to attack in the first place.  But the problem here is that Hezbollah wants Israel to respond out of control, because that response stirs up the mass hatred of Israel in the Arab world.

I do think the US would have been slower to react to the kidnapping of American soldiers.  For better or worse, because we don’t have a draft, I think there’s more of a sense of "they’re professionals and knew the risks that they were taking."  Because an Israeli soldier could be, quite literally, anybody’s child, I think there’s more of a commitment to doing whatever it takes — from commando raids to exchanging prisoners — to get them free.

The reach of love

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

In her comment on Monday’s Eat Local post, Mary from Stone Court pointed me to this Salon interview with Peter Singer, in which he is critical of the local foods movement.

In your book you say that socially responsible folks in San Francisco would do better to buy their rice from Bangladesh than from local growers in California. Could you explain?

This is in reference to the local food movement, and the idea that you can save fossil fuels by not transporting food long distances. This is a widespread belief, and of course it has some basis. Other things being equal, if your food is grown locally, you will save on fossil fuels. But other things are often not equal. California rice is produced using artificial irrigation and fertilizer that involves energy use. Bangladeshi rice takes advantage of the natural flooding of the rivers and doesn’t require artificial irrigation. It also doesn’t involve as much synthetic fertilizer because the rivers wash down nutrients, so it’s significantly less energy intensive to produce. Now, it’s then shipped across the world, but shipping is an extremely fuel-efficient form of transport. You can ship something 10,000 miles for the same amount of fuel necessary to truck it 1,000 miles. So if you’re getting your rice shipped to San Francisco from Bangladesh, fewer fossil fuels were used to get it there than if you bought it in California.

In the same vein, you argue that in the interests of alleviating world poverty, it’s better to buy food from Kenya than to buy locally, even if the Kenyan farmer only gets 2 cents on the dollar.

My argument is that we should not necessarily buy locally, because if we do, we cut out the opportunity for the poorest countries to trade with us, and agriculture is one of the things they can do, and which can help them develop. The objection to this, which I quote from Brian Halweil, one of the leading advocates of the local movement, is that very little of the money actually gets back to the Kenyan farmer. But my calculations show that even if as little as 2 cents on the dollar gets back to the Kenyan farmer, that could make a bigger difference to the Kenyan grower than an entire dollar would to a local grower. It’s the law of diminishing marginal utility. If you are only earning $300, 2 cents can make a bigger difference to you than a dollar can make to the person earning $30,000.

It’s an interesting argument, and one that makes a fair amount of sense.  (I give the majority of my charitable donations to international aid organizations on the similar grounds that the same amount of money goes a lot further in third world countries.)

What Singer misses is the what Wendell Berry describes as "the power of affection."  Singer is famous for taking utilitarianism to its logical ends — holding that if you have the power to save two lives on the other side of the earth, but it would kill your child, you have the moral obligation to do so, because two lives are more important than one.  Only slightly less dramatically, he argues that it is immoral for any of us to enjoy the typical American (or European) standard of living while children are dying for want of medicines that cost pennies.  (The Salon article notes that Singer gives 20% of his salary to charity, which is far more than most of us, but still way short of the moral standard that he upholds.)

Berry’s response is that it’s fundamentally inhuman to expect us to value strangers’ lives as much as our children’s, to expect us to care as much about pollution someplace that’s a dot in the map as much as pollution in the pond down the road.  In his list of 27 propositions about sustainability, he argues against cities and globalization because:

"XX. The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the
reach of one’s love for the place one is working in, and for the things and
creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results.
An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of

I’m not willing to go as far as Berry.  But I do think that the challenge for our time is that if we’re going to live in a world of globalization, we need to extend the reach of our love.

So where does this leave us on food?  Singer actually has a lot in common with the local foods movement.  He offers a different general guideline:

"Avoid factory farm products. The worst of all the things we talk about in the book is intensive animal agriculture. If you can be vegetarian or vegan that’s ideal. If you can buy organic and vegan that’s better still, and organic and fair trade and vegan, better still, but if that gets too difficult or too complicated, just ask yourself, Does this product come from intensive animal agriculture? If it does, avoid it, and then you will have achieved 80 percent of the good that you would have achieved if you followed every suggestion in the book. "

Plus, this way, you get to keep drinking coffee.

Darfur rally

Friday, April 28th, 2006

If you’re planning on being at the Darfur rally on Sunday and are interested in trying to get together, drop me a line with a valid email address or cell phone number.

If you can’t make it on Sunday, but want to help, you can sign onto the Million Voices for Darfur campaign.