Friday, April 30, 2010

Demanding the Impossible

A few weeks ago I posted on Texas's decision to rewrite the history taught in K-12 public schools there. But it looks as though Arizona may be trumping Texas's efforts to use public education to turn out perfect little Republican clones. Even as lawsuits are being filed and boycotts being organized against Arizona because of its infamous new immigration law, it turns out that the state government of Arizona is also messing with the state's educational system in ways are likely meant to complement the effects of the immigration law. Here is the Huffington Post's description of Arizona's new educational policy:
Arizona's new immigration law is just about crime, its supporters say, but given that the state's new education policy equates ethnic studies programs with high treason, they may not be using the commonly accepted definition of "crime."

Under the ban, sent to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer by the state legislature Thursday, schools will lose state funding if they offer any courses that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

As ThinkProgress notes, the Tucson Unified School District's popular Mexican-American studies department is the target here. The state superintendent charges that the program exhibits "ethnic chauvinism."

Meanwhile, in a move that was more covert until the Wall Street Journal uncovered it, the Arizona Department of Education has told schools that teachers with "heavy" or "ungrammatical" accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes.

As outlined by the Journal, Arizona's recent pattern of discriminatory education policies is ironic -- and is likely a function of No Child Left Behind funding requirements -- given that the state spent a decade recruiting teachers for whom English was a second language.
But what counts as an "accent"? Everybody has an accent! Who gets to decide? Guess they're going to have to fire all English teachers.

As for the ban against ethnic studies, just look at that phrasing: promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals. Nice touch, wouldn't you say, classing resentment of inequality and injustice and ethnic pride with high treason? Since just about any discussion of race, gender, class, or ethnicity is likely to be deemed "promoting resentment"-- hell, any mention of it-- that wipes out just about all social studies. Certainly mentioning, say, the Goldman Sachs hearings must be held to do that, too, so there goes current events. (Or do they still teach that?) In fact, I'm wondering how it's possible to teach history or civics or social studies or economics without running the risk of "promoting resentment."

But also? If courses aren't "designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group," then they can't be designed for WASPS, either. Or boys. Or heterosexuals. Or Christians. Now just how are teachers going to pull off designing a course that's not meant for middle-class white boys without at the same time not talking about race, ethnicity, class, sex, or gender? Seems an impossible task. (One not even Texas is demanding of its curriculum.) I'm sure I couldn't do it. But the real question's got to be: is there anyone who can? Guess a lot of people should start preparing suits against that law, too.

Teaching K-12 has seldom been a picnic. But it seems to be getting harder and harder for teachers to cope with politicians' interference in the classroom.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Raging Maniacs in Oklahoma Prevail over Governor's Veto

The State of Oklahoma has just enacted some horrific legislation that if allowed to stand will make life harder and meaner for women of childbearing age.

This is from AFP's report:
Oklahoma lawmakers overrode their governor's veto Tuesday to enact tough abortion laws that force women to undergo invasive ultrasounds and allow doctors to withhold test results showing fetal defects.

Even women who are victims of rape or incest will be required to listen to a detailed description of the fetus and view the ultrasound image prior to terminating a pregnancy.

They will also likely be required to undergo vaginal rather than abdominal ultrasounds as doctors are required to use the method that "would display the embryo or fetus more clearly."

The second bill shields doctors from "wrongful birth" malpractice lawsuits brought by parents who would have aborted a fetus had they been informed about its genetic or other defects.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the ultrasound law, which it said "profoundly intrudes upon a patient's privacy."

A similar Oklahoma law was struck down last year.

"Politicians have no business making medical decisions," said Stephanie Toti, a staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

"Another round in the courts won't change our strong constitutional claims against the law, it will only waste more of Oklahoma taxpayers' time and money."

Democratic Governor Brad Henry tried to block the bills last week, but the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature overwhelmingly overrode his veto with the help of Democrats.

Henry said that while he supports "reasonable" restrictions on abortions, the laws had serious constitutional flaws and represented an excessive intrusion of government into the private lives of its citizens.

"It is unconscionable to grant a physician legal protection to mislead or misinform a pregnant woman in an effort to impose his or her personal beliefs on his patient," the governor said in his veto message.

"State policymakers should never mandate that a citizen be forced to undergo any medical procedure against his or her will, especially when such a procedure could cause physical or mental trauma," he added.

Abortion foes hailed the veto overrides as a victory for the unborn.
But that's not all. They've also enacted the requirement that any woman seeking an abortion report on her marital status, education, miscarriages, previous abortions, method of abortion, reason for the abortion, and method of payment, which is then to be posted on the Internet for all the world to see (and presumably anti-abortion fanatics to harass). [ETA: As Nancy Jane Moore notes in the comments, the legislature hasn't yet overturned the governor's veto on this measure.] Here's the Tulsa World's description of it:
House Bill 3284, by Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, requires women seeking an abortion to report a host of information about themselves to be displayed statistically on a website run by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Information to be reported by the woman includes: marital status; education; miscarriages; abortions; method of abortion; reason for the abortion; and method of payment.

Jolley said the information is needed to help policy makers determine how to prevent abortions. Wilson said the measure is a way to intimidate women so they won't get an abortion.

Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, called the measure a "gross invasion of privacy," adding that it was an intrusion into the relationship between a woman and her doctor.
These guys are seriously warped. It's all a waste of money, since presumably just about any court would throw these laws out as unconstitutional. But I suppose making women and civil liberties groups spend money contesting insane laws is a primary purpose of the exercise.

ETA: A video by Newsy's Multisource Video News Analysis can be seen here.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

Americans began their acquisition of Mexico by simply moving there. Even after the Mexican government prohibited American immigration to Texas, Americans continued to cross the border illegally. Stephen Austin, the "Father of Texas," urged Americans to come to Mexico, "passports or no passports."

After half of Mexico was claimed by the United States in 1848, thousands of Mexicans found themselves immigrants without ever having moved. In California, they outnumbered Americans by ten to one. They were made citizens of the United States, but they would, in the decades following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, lose most of their land to drought, squatters, taxes, and American courts.

Now, some Americans fear a reconquista of the Southwest.---Eula Biss, "Babylon" (Notes from No Mans Land: American Essays)

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Case of the Poison-Pen Russianist

Speaking of "negative reviews" and threatened legal action: have you been following the case of Orlando Figes? Figes has now admitted that he wrote savagely negative reviews of other historians' books (coupled with praise for his own) on When one of his maligned colleagues began to work out what Figes was up to, Figes adopted one after another tactic to deflect responsibility for his sleazy secret campaign against his colleagues. Here's The Sunday Times's account:
According to Figes, a bestselling author and history professor at Birkbeck, London University, unspecified “health problems” were responsible for his venomous reviews of rivals’ books behind the cloak of anonymity on the Amazon website. Earlier he had suggested that enemies keen to discredit him had engineered the campaign. Denying that he had anything to do with it, he threatened newspapers and fellow scholars with legal action if they dared to suggest otherwise. Then he outed his wife as the culprit, before finally confessing all.

Bespectacled, serious and intensely intellectual, the 50-year-old Figes does not look the sort to leave such a trail of outrage in his wake. Some authors who experienced his critical drubbings and legal threats were almost incoherent with anger last week.

One newspaper has described Figes as “an academic colossus”. For such a high-profile figure — besides being an acclaimed scholar, he is the son of Eva Figes, the feminist writer, and the brother of Kate Figes, the author and literary editor — Figes remains something of a mystery, even to his admirers. “He’s a very impressive, serious academic but also a superb narrative historian,” said a fellow Russianist, who pleaded anonymity. “He’s a bit of an enigma but he’s not a sinister figure or a freak. He’s a bit of a lad — he’s chatty, supports Chelsea football club and enjoys a joke.”

His victims have been able to extract one wry sliver of humour from the debacle — Figes was exposed using the repressive techniques that he chronicled in his 2007 book The Whisperers, an account of the Russian people’s suffering under Joseph Stalin.

“There has been a lot of fear,” said one maligned author. “His lawyer was made to act a bit like the KGB. It’s pathological behaviour that has had an extremely distorting and damaging effect on the field of Russian history for many years. No one else in the world of scholarship brandishes and uses power in this way.”

Not all of his detractors are indignant authors. “It was absolutely diabolical working for him,” said one of Figes’s former researchers, who asked to remain nameless. “He was quite the most unpleasant person I’ve ever had to work with. The job was all about feeding him and his further glory. He used to sit there with his feet on the desk, lording it over us.”
The article then narrates how Polonsky's "sleuthing" and her discovery of that Figes was behind the poison pen reviews and how Figes then began "issuing libel threats to all and sundry" in an ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of professional scandal. Weirdest of all, I think, is Figes's tactic of blaming the reviews on his wife:
Last weekend the affair took a sensational turn when Figes announced through his lawyer that he had just learnt that his wife had penned the poison reviews.

That seemed unlikely. Stephanie Palmer is a senior law lecturer at Cambridge, a barrister and a member of Blackstone chambers, the human rights specialist. She is also the mother of Figes’s twin daughters, Lydia and Alice. Was it possible that she had stood by and allowed her husband to issue denials and legal threats?

Two days ago Figes’s nerve cracked. “I take full responsibility for posting anonymous reviews on Amazon,” he said. “I am ashamed of my behaviour and don’t entirely understand why I acted as I did.” He pleaded for time to reflect on his actions “with medical help”.
The article concludes by noting the difference between Figes's response to masked Russian police seizing an electronic archive of oral histories Figes had amassed and his treatment of his colleagues' responses to his smear campaign against them:
This principled behaviour was in stark contrast to the threats that Figes instructed his lawyer to make to Service, the Oxford professor of history and Russianist, whose offence was to object to “unpleasant personal attacks in the old Soviet fashion”. Service, who said he and his wife had been “through hell” for nearly two weeks, expressed relief “that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean”. The affair, in his view, had shown “how dangerous our libel laws are to those who seek to expose malpractice”.

Figes appears to have taken the first steps in the Tiger Woods course of public rehabilitation: confession, remorse and sick leave. Using libel law to suppress academic debate is of a different order from serial infidelity, but then the golfer never grassed up his wife.
The Seattle Weekly blog, I see, has a post today about it, remarking that
Amazon's comments section is quickly becoming known as a place where grudges get settled. There are the angry Kindle users who downgrade books they haven't read simply because publishers don't make e-versions available at the same time as hardbacks. And there are more prominent figures, like British historian Orlando Figes, who recently admitted to anonymously savaging the work of some competitors.
I've always wondered whether Amazon customer reviews make any difference at all to a book's sales or reputation. The presumption seems to be that they do, though I've never seen any evidence to back it up. For myself, whenever I read any review, I find it necessary to make a judgment about the reviewer at the same time tjat I'm considering what to make of what the reviewer has to say. Is that so rare? Of course I understand that someone like Figes might be clever enough to be credible in his poison pen screeds. But it seems to me that hateful reviews on Amazon tend to get high disapproval ratings (from the people who actually "vote" on them, anyway).

Friday, April 23, 2010


Mary Daly, "Mog Decarnin", Wilma Mankiller, Lucille Clifton, June Havoc, Kage Baker, Dorothy Height, Liz Carpenter, Granny D, Patricia Leonard, Sylvia Pressler, Jean Simmons, and Betty Wilson, the Australian cricket pioneer.

It seemed to me that our blog had only commemorated the deaths of men in 2010, and that had to change. Also we missed Louis Auchincloss, who has a claim to being an important anti-misogynist voice in the realm of letters.

Collective Liberation - An Alternative to "Oppression Olympics"

by Kristin King

The concept of "intersectionality," also referred to as "the intersection of oppressions" has been cropping up lately in feminist thought. The general concept is that class, gender, race, ability, orientation, age, and other types of oppression intersect with one another and reinforce one another, and that you can't address one while ignoring the rest.

Another, related term has also been appearing in both feminist and activist circles: collective liberation." It's a tantalizing term, nearly self-explanatory. In contrast to "women's liberation" or "black liberation," terms popular in the 1970s, it means everybody getting liberated all at once, together. Where did it come from, and how is it being used? I don't know, but here are a few dots on the map.

In "Circle Unbroken: The Politics of Inclusion," Aurora Morales explains the concept:
Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.
This is not the work of one person, done in a vacuum. Rather, it's the continuation of theory done by many women, stretching back for decades -- at least.

One precursor, written by black lesbian feminists in 1978, is the Combahee River Statement. This is a must-read. The authors drew their conclusions after doing organizing work and seeing the particulars of how racism, sexism, heterosexism affected their daily lives and their organizing. It was also a step toward consciousness-raising for black feminists who had previously been doing their work in isolation.

Here, the authors introduce the concept of intersectionality:
[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
This analysis came out of the authors' understanding of their own oppressions:
We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such as thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.
The authors noted that their liberation was necessary "not as an
adjunct to somebody else's but because of our need as human persons
for autonomy." At the same time, they also felt their liberation would
benefit everyone:
We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
Which brings us full circle back to Morales' quote: "our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet."

Works Consulted

The Combahee River Collective. "The Combahee River Collective Statement." Copyright 1978 by Zillah Eisenstein. Found at

Derek Shannon and J. Rogue. "Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality." November 7, 2009. Found at

Morales, Aurora Levins. "Circle Unbroken: The Politics of Inclusion. " Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity. Cambridge: South End Press,1999. Article text available online at

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Reviewing, redux

The latest issue of the American Book Review arrived in my mailbox today. The title of the editorial--"Criminal Editors"-- immediately caught my eye, and so I read it first. What, I wondered, could that be about? What it's about is a lawsuit an author is bringing in a French court against the editor of an international scholarly journal for publishing a review that basically characterized the plaintiff's book as meticulous but not going as far as it might have in exploring its subject matter. The ABR editorial refers to the review as "negative" (presumably because that's how the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it in its article NYU Professor Faces Libel Lawsuit in France for Refusing to Purge Negative Book Review. Imagine, if every editor had to work in fear that every review that's not a glowing rave might provoke a lawsuit.
Soon after it appeared, Ms. Calvo-Goller wrote to Mr. Weiler, saying that the review, by Thomas Weigend, director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law and dean of the faculty of law at the University of Cologne, was defamatory. She asked that the review be removed from the site....

....Mr. Weiler refused to remove the review but offered to publish a response from Ms. Calvo-Goller, "so that anyone reading the review would immediately be able to read her reply," an approach that "would have amply and generously vindicated all possible interests of the author of the book," he wrote in the editorial. "I continue to believe that in all the circumstances of the case ... removing the review by Professor Weigend would have dealt a very serious blow to notions of freedom of speech, free academic exchange, and the very important institution of book reviewing."

Faced with what he notes is "the heavy financial burden of defending such a case — expenses which are in large part not recoverable even if acquitted," Mr. Weiler has appealed for "moral and material assistance" from the academic community and writes that he is optimistic that he will be acquitted at trial. "Any other result will deal a heavy blow to academic freedom and change the landscape of book reviewing in scholarly journals, especially when reviews have a cyber presence as is so common today."
You can read this so-called "libelous" review that the author is claiming "could cause harm to my professional reputation and academic promotion" here. (As someone who has received a few vitriolic reviews in her time, I have to wonder how she would have reacted to receiving an actual hammering.)

The author, by the way, is a senior lecturer at the Academic Centre of Law and Business in Israel. I find myself wondering if she teach law students. Only yesterday I was reminded of all the potential damage John Yoo could be doing in his role as teacher.

I'm also reminded that I recently came across a news item about a lawyer using the law to bludgeon his opponents-- viz., Juneau County Distrinct Attorney (in Wisconsin), Scott Southworth, who
warned that teaching a student how to properly use contraceptives would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. He said it would be promoting sex among minors, who are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin.
This is presumably because Wisconsin State has just passed a law "requiring schools that teach sexual education to adopt a comprehensive approach." In Juneau County, at least, the teachers charged with teaching sex education are caught between a rock and a hard place. (The AP story can be read here.) And I'm also wondering whatever could such a law mean, that minors "are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin"? They have a law prohibiting that? I'm wondering what a "minor" is. Any Wisconsin folks reading this who could clue me in? But to get back to Southworth's campaign and the new law:
Wisconsin schools aren't required to teach sex education. But under the new law, which was backed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, schools that do must teach a range of topics, including the benefits of abstinence, the proper use of contraceptives, how to make responsible decisions, and the criminal penalties for underage sex. Parents can choose to keep their children out of the classes.

Southworth says he is not trying to bolster his reputation as a social conservative for a potential run for higher office, but his stance has proved popular with antiabortion groups.

Matt Sande, the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, which opposes the new law, said every district attorney in Wisconsin should follow Southworth's lead.
Sex education is contributing to the delinquency of a minor?
A negative review is libel?
Torture is legal and a prerogative of the POTUS?

Using the law to bully people who don't have the resources to defend them has become utterly commonplace. Bet that editor never imagined he'd find himself hauled into court on such a charge.

But do get back to "Criminal Editors," here's Jeffrey R. Di Leo, in his ABR editorial:
If book reviewing is to distance itself from the perception that it is simply a promotional service for the publishing industry, then it needs to engage in legitimate practices....As an editor, I face both positive and negative reviews on a regular basis. The backbone of reviewing rests on reviewers competent to handle the books they have been assigned and level of honesty regarding their responsiveness to the text before them. Reviewers with an ax to grind or a preconceived notion of what they are going to say before they even read the book are to be avoided. However, if a fair assessment of a text results in a negative consequence, then it is the obligation of the reviewer to report it and of the editor to publish it. Anything less compromises the integrity of the review process.
He also notes that reviewers tend to err "on the side of sympathy" when they feel themselves reacting negatively toward a book-- or else simply refuse to write the review.

Justina Robson, by the way, discusses her experience of the costs for reviewers (in the sf field) for writing less than unalloyed praise, in her review of Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes for Strange Horizons this week.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2010 Locus Award Nominations

Tis the season for award nominations. A new set is out, this time for the Locus Awards, and some Aqueductistas are that ballot, too. Congratulations to Rachel Swirsky, for yet another nomination for "Eros, Philia, Agape," to Nicola Griffith for "Second Time Around" and to Maureen McHugh for "Useless Things," and congratulations to Ursula K. Le Guin, for Cheek by Jowl (an Aqueduct Press book)!

Here's the full ballot:

Science Fiction Novel
  • The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker (Subterranean; Tor)
  • Steal Across the Sky, Nancy Kress (Tor)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)
  • Galileo's Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperVoyager; Ballantine Spectra)
  • Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Fantasy Novel
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
  • Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)
  • Drood, Dan Simmons (Little, Brown)
  • Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland)
First Novel
  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)
  • The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (Penguin)
  • Soulless, Gail Carriger (Orbit US)
  • Lamentation, Ken Scholes (Tor)
  • Norse Code, Greg van Eekhout (Ballantine Spectra)
Young-Adult Novel
  • The Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon)
  • Going Bovine, Libba Bray (Delacorte)
  • Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (Scholastic; Scholastic UK)
  • Liar, Justine Larbalestier (Bloomsbury; Allen & Unwin Australia)
  • Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)
  • The Women of Nell Gwynne's, Kage Baker (Subterranean)
  • "Act One", Nancy Kress (Asimov's 3/09)
  • "Vishnu at the Cat Circus", Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon)
  • "Palimpsest", Charles Stross (Wireless)
  • "By Moonlight", Peter S. Beagle (We Never Talk About My Brother)
  • "It Takes Two", Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)
  • "First Flight", Mary Robinette Kowal ( 8/25/09)
  • "Eros, Philia, Agape", Rachel Swirsky ( 3/3/09)
  • "The Island", Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)
Short Story
  • "The Pelican Bar", Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse Three)
  • "An Invocation of Incuriosity", Neil Gaiman (Songs of the Dying Earth)
  • "Spar", Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)
  • "Going Deep", James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's 6/09)
  • "Useless Things", Maureen F. McHugh (Eclipse Three)
  • Analog
  • Asimov's
  • Clarkesworld
  • F&SF
  • Baen
  • Night Shade
  • Pyr
  • Subterranean
  • Tor
  • Lovecraft Unbound, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse)
  • The New Space Opera 2, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos; HarperCollins Australia)
  • The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin's)
  • Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, eds. (Subterranean)
  • Eclipse Three, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Night Shade)
  • We Never Talk About My Brother, Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
  • Cyberabad Days, Ian McDonald (Pyr)
  • Wireless, Charles Stross (Ace, Orbit UK)
  • The Best of Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe (Tor); as The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (PS)
  • The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny: Volumes 1-6, Roger Zelazny (NESFA)
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Gardner Dozois
  • David G. Hartwell
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Gordon Van Gelder
  • Stephan Martinière
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
  • Charles Vess
  • Michael Whelan
Non-fiction/Art Book
  • Powers: Secret Histories, John Berlyne (PS)
  • Spectrum 16: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Cathy & Arnie Fenner, eds. (Underwood)
  • Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. Le Guin (Aqueduct)
  • This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is "I"), Jack Vance (Subterranean)
  • Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess, Charles Vess (Dark Horse)

What they knew about their torture victims

Yesterday I read that Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, has provided a sworn statement to assist the International Human Rights Clinic at Willamette University College of Law in Oregon and the Federal Public Defender who are suing US officials for the wrongful detention and torture of Adel Hassan Hamad. Hamad was a humanitarian aid worker from Sudan working in Pakistan when he was kidnapped from his apartment, tortured, and shipped to Guantanamo where he was held for five years before being released. We have known for a long time that most of the detainees held at Guantanamo were innocent of terrorism, but I don't recall that anyone inside the Bush Administration has ever admitted that the Administration knew as early as August 2002 that this was the case. But Wilkerson says that
President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld “indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons” and many in the administration knew it. The wrongfully held prisoners were not released because of political maneuverings aimed in part to cover up the mistakes of the administration.

Colonel Wilkerson, who served in the U.S. Army for over thirty years, signed a sworn declaration for an Oregon federal court case stating that he found out in August 2002 that the US knew that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were not enemy combatants. Wilkerson also discussed this in a revealing and critical article on Guantanamo for the Washington Note.

How did Colonel Wilkerson first learn about the innocents in Guantanamo? In August 2002, Wilkerson, who had been working closely with Colin Powell for years, was appointed Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State. In that position, Wilkerson started attending daily classified briefings involving 50 or more senior State Department officials where Guantanamo was often discussed.

It soon became clear to him and other State Department personnel “that many of the prisoners detained at Guantanamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all.”

How was it possible that hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners were innocent? Wilkerson said it all started at the beginning, mostly because U.S. forces did not capture most of the people who were sent to Guantanamo. The people who ended up in Guantanamo, said Wilkerson, were mostly turned over to the US by Afghan warlords and others who received bounties of up to $5000 per head for each person they turned in. The majority of the 742 detainees “had never seen a U.S. soldier in the process of their initial detention.”

Military officers told Wilkerson that “many detainees were turned over for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives.” The U.S. knew “that the likelihood was high that some of the Guantanamo detainees had been turned in to U.S. forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money.”

As a consequence, said Wilkerson “there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place.”

Wilkerson wrote that the American people have no idea of the “utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the initial stages…Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.”

....In addition, the statement points out “a separate but related problem was that often absolutely no evidence relating to the detainee was turned over, so there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place.”

“The initial group of 742 detainees had not been detained under the processes I was used to as a military officer,” Wilkerson said. “It was becoming more and more clear that many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military. If there was any evidence, the chain of protecting it had been completely ignored.”

Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this early on and knew “of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released,” wrote Wilkerson.

So why did the Bush Administration not release the men from prison once it was discovered that they were not guilty? Why continue to keep innocent men in prison?

“To have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers,” wrote Wilkerson.

“They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released,” according to Wilkerson. “I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.”
Speaking of Guantanamo and the US Government's disregard for detainees' legal rights, which disregard has everything to do with their atrocious and flagrant violation of detainees' human rights, today I happened to have read about artist Matt Cornell's performance piece featuring Yoo Toilet Paper, staged yesterday in the restrooms of UC-Berekeley's law school to protest the presence of John Yoo, author of the Bush Administraiton's infamous torture memos, on the School of Law's faculty.

The torture memos, in case you've forgotten, offered, in the words of the ACLU, "dozens of legal opinions meant to permit gross violations of domestic and international law." Each roll of Cornell's Yoo Toilet Paper contains text from the Convention Against Torture (which John Yoo disregarded in his memos). A short video of Matt Cornell and his fellow performers distributing the toilet paper can be seen here. One question did occur to me: why did Cornell put the text of a convention he would like to see honored on what people will be using to wipe their asses with? If it had been my piece, I would have put some of Yoo's text on the paper instead. But I suppose he was going for the ironic effect... something I'm not sure really works in this particular instance.

Monday, April 19, 2010

New Big Other Post: "Passive versus Active: DEATH MATCH, or possibly just a cup of tea"

I have a new post up at Big Other:

Discussions around active and passive characters tend to make me uncomfortable. It’s possible to discuss active or passive traits as value-neutral dimensions, but most often, people seem to want to make judgments about them. Active characters are lauded. Passive characters are considered deficient.

I don’t accept those judgments.

For one thing, I find it awfully suspicious that ‘active’ is a coded masculine trait and ‘passive’ is a coded feminine trait. It seems unlikely to me that it’s just coincidence that the so-called masculine trait is awesome-pants and the theoretically feminine trait is icky.

But more than that, I feel like there’s a coding here that I just don’t agree with–the idea that some people are suitable protagonists for fiction, and others aren’t.

This is an old idea, right? Kings are suitable protagonists! Knights are suitable protagonists! Stories about mill workers? What’s wrong with you?

I think this class-based attitude toward who is the acceptable lead of a story is still very much alive in modern fantasy fiction, and I occasionally her complaints about “boring” protagonists that are made about very exciting, action-filled stories, and thus seem to boil down to “he’s a farmer” rather than a sorcerer...

Comments over there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dorothea Dreams by Suzy McKee Charnas

As I mentioned in my post about the WisCon launch of our new Heirloom Books series, the second book in the series will be a novel, Dorothea Dreams, by Suzy McKee Charnas. This is a work that's hard to classify, as you'll see from the passages below, excerpted from Delia Sherman's introduction. It's the story of a gifted artist who can't let go of her most powerful work. It's the story of a Chicano neighborhood fighting a corporation that is buying up the neighborhood using foul trickery. And it's a ghost story. Delia opines that it's interstitial.

Here's a bare-bones synopsis:

When her old friend, Ricky Maulders, who's dying cancer, visits artist Dorothea Howard, he discovers she’s being held captive by the magical power of one of her own creations that she refuses to let go of, and haunted by the ghost of a judge in post-Revolution France. Dorothea insists that all she wants is to be left alone. But then three Chicano teens on the run from the police and a gaggle of summer-school students violently enter Dorothea’s life, and Dorothea is confronted with all the messy stuff (like “politics”) she’s always sought to avoid.

And here are two passages from Delia's introduction:

When [the paperback edition of] Dorothea Dreams came out in 1987, I snapped it up, knowing only that it would be good. Now that I have read The Vampire Tapestries, I realize that the voice of Dorothea is a variation on the voice of the Weyland stories. At the time, I was chiefly struck by how spare and unyielding the prose in Dorothea Dreams is—like the desert landscape it describes, and like Dorothea herself. I also remember how real everything felt: the desert, Albuquerque, Dorothea’s house and splendid wall, Pinto Street, Ricky’s suffering. Blanca’s asthma.

Now, Dorothea Dreams is a thematically and structurally complex and subtle book, not the story of a single secondary character. Still, my most vivid memories of that first reading are all of Blanca. I myself was an asthmatic child, and I knew the terror of the band around the chest, the panicky feeling that your body is fighting against its own survival, the helpless fury of knowing that you can’t do almost anything you want to do because you might have an attack. And although I had written several short stories and a novel by then and should have known better, it seemed obvious to me that no one who had not experienced that helpless fury, triggered by just that physical event, could possibly have written about it with the unsentimental clarity Suzy had brought to Blanca....

....for years, I thought of Dorothea Dreams as the book with the asthmatic child in it, and oh, yeah, wasn’t there a wall in the desert and a ghost?

Re-reading the novel, twenty-three years later, I know enough to see how Blanca and her asthma fit in with the ghost and the desert and Dorothea’s wall. Like the plastic doll hands and broken china and rocks that make up the glittering glory that is Dorothea’s masterpiece, the reality of Blanca’s disease and her reaction to it is part of the larger pattern of suffering and response to suffering that gives Dorothea Dreams its shape and emotional power. Every character, primary and secondary, from Ricky to Roberto to the volunteer art teacher Ellie Stern to the dog Mars to Dorothea herself, suffers physically and emotionally and must deal with the extreme physical and emotional suffering of others.

Some of the characters respond better than others, but even the most emotionally competent among them can make errors of judgement when the stakes are high or their resistance is low. On this level, Dorothea Dreams is a meditation on the infinite variety of human frailty and the breakdown of even the toughest character’s coping skills in the face of death. For a domestic-realist, this would have been enough. But Suzy has also written into Dorothea Dreams a political thriller about a corrupt corporation pressuring a long-established Latino neighborhood out of existence and a young man’s coming-of-age and a portrait of the artist as an aging woman. Oh, and a truly creepy ghost story.

In fact, I would claim that Dorothea Dreams is a true interstitial novel, drawing on the themes and conventions of multiple genres in a way that is far more common now than in 1987. Like Dorothea’s wall, writing it was a risky move. But the best art comes from taking risks, as Dorothea’s dying friend Ricky suggests in his response to her telling him that she has destroyed a series of sketches because they were too disturbing:
“If you’re lucky enough to have visions to set down, you shouldn’t complain that they aren’t pretty or soothing or entertaining enough for you. You should have the courage of your gifts, but instead you’ve denied your own creative impulse.”
Suzy has the courage of her gifts, all right, even when they burden her with visions that are ugly, troubling, and upsetting. In every piece she’s written, from Walk to the End of the World to The Furies and “Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast,” she demonstrates her lack of interest in the pretty and the soothing. What Suzy is interested in is nothing less than beauty and truth, even if they’re unfashionable subjects and even if they take her to uncomfortable places.---from Delia Sherman's introduction to Dorothea Dreams

We plan to launch it at WisCon. But of course I'll keep you all posted about when it will be available through Aqueduct's website.

A Paradise for Birds

Tom and I again visited the University of Washington's wetlands restoration area. We saw a lot of coots again-- the notice board mentioned that someone observed a red-tailed hawk killing and eating a coot yesterday-- but swifts, a wide assortment of ducks, a blue heron in flight, two kinds of turtles, and--- most fascinating-- a pelagic cormorant. We watched the latter for a long time, as it fished and ate its catch. I don't think I've ever heard so many different birds singing and calling at once. I was amused to see that one bird's square, fan-like tail flipped every time it sounded its single note. (I've no idea what bird that was: I really must get a book!)

I found the turtles a little curious. They weren't just lazing in the sun. Some of them, probably, were catching bugs. One (see the second photo) had its legs dangling in the water. And as I watched, one jumped off the log and apparently swam away, perhaps hoping for something better in the water. But what, exactly, were the ones piggy-backed together doing?

It Walks in Beauty

I suspect many readers of this blog may not know who Chandler Davis is (though some may have guessed he's historian Natalie Zemon Davis's husband). I wrote about one of his stories, "It Walks in Beauty," in "Old Pictures: The Discursive Instability of Feminist SF" (The Grand Conversation, 2004), a story that was first published in 1958 and was reprinted by Ellen Datlow on SCIFCTION.COM in 2003. Chan published most of his science fiction stories in the 1950s, and one in Crank! in 1994. But the particulars of his situation are complicated.

Harvard awarded Chandler Davis a PhD in mathematics in 1950. Three years later, hes was served with a subpoena as a result of his having paid for the printing of a pamphlet critical of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his subsequent ordeal included the loss of his job at the University of Michigan and a six-month imprisonment in 1960 for contempt of Congress. Blacklisted from full-time academic jobs in the US, he ultimately found employment in 1962 at the University of Toronto, where he is now an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics.

It Walks in Beauty collects several of Chan Davis's science fiction stories, which probe deeply into such social and political issues as nuclear escalation, gender roles, and eugenics, as well as a selection of his essays, originally published in venues ranging from The New York Review of Books to the Waging Peace Series of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a speech he gave at the February 1995 meeting of AAAS. And, of course, the three meaty essays by Josh Lukin I mentioned in my last post.

Here's the Table of Contents:


History, Heresy, Hegemony:
On the Relevance of Chandler Davis—by Josh Lukin


Critique & Proposals 1949
. . . From an Exile
Two Open Letters: (1) “Violence and Civility” (2) “Imprisoned Mathematician: J.L.Massera”
The Selfish Genetics
From Science for Good or Ill
“The Untimely Rhetoric of Chandler Davis’s Essays”—by Josh Lukin


Last Year’s Grave Undug
Adrift on the Policy Level
It Walks in Beauty
The Statistomat Pitch
The Names of Yanils


“Shooting Rats in a Barrel”: Did the Red Hunt Win?


“Trying to Say Something True”: The Paradoxa Interview with Chandler Davis


"Alternatives to Reverence"—by Josh Lukin


You may well be wondering why Aqueduct Press, which focuses on feminist science fiction, has chosen to launch Heirloom Books with a title by two men. Here are a few snippets from Josh's "History, Heresy, Hegeony: On the Relevance of Chandler Davis," the essay that introduces It Walks in Beauty:
It Walks in Beauty: Selected prose of Chandler Davis is the first male-authored book to be published by Aqueduct; it includes three stories with all-male casts; and its articles most often focus on male victims of oppression. Its aptness for a feminist press is, then, not immediately apparent; so I hope to make a case for it on biographical, literary, political, and theoretical grounds. Davis’s feminist life and the strategies he developed in his battles with the Red Hunters could be of particular interest to feminist readers; a look at his work is also important to more general issues of ideological struggle and of recovering ideas and texts from progressives of the past –hence my emphasis on the fact that US Communism from 1935 – 1955 was a fruitful source of feminist thought, which provided a milieu that supported Davis’s values. The relevance of Davis’s work to several present-day political battlegrounds will also, I believe, become evident in the course of my argument.
Josh then considers the biographical, literary, political, and theoretical aspects of the relevance of Chandler Davis's work for Aqueduct Press readers. Under the literary rubric, Josh writes,
I have argued elsewhere that, in an era in which the grossest misogyny in life and literature passed unremarked or celebrated, even small anti-sexist gestures were worthy of notice. Chandler Davis was in the minority of SF writers who sought consistently to create female characters with competence, authority, and agency. In the stories for Astounding Science Fiction that first made his reputation, we see a female Congressional staffer whose competence and quick thinking helps avert nuclear holocaust (“To Still the Drums,” 1946), a revolutionary cell on Ganymede in which men and women have equal authority (“The Journey and the Goal,” 1947), a female leader of a revolt against a eugenicist autocrat (“The Aristocrat,” 1949), and a planetary research team in which men and women collaborate as scientific peers (“Share Our World,” 1953). But Davis’s most penetrating anti-sexist statements are his later works set in patriarchal societies –not only “It Walks in Beauty” but also the oft-reprinted “Adrift on the Policy Level.”

Jean Smith, in a tribute to Davis, characterized “Adrift on the Policy Level” as “about scientific advice getting shuffled aside in a corporation,” which suggests that the story’s theme is bureaucratic incompetence in the world of commerce. While broadly true, that characterization elides the story’s most innovative social, psychological, and political attributes. Politically, it matters that the setting is not “a corporation” but “The Corporation,” a quasi-governmental entity that not only runs on marketing but administrates large geographic regions; psychologically, the story’s satirical punch owes much to the way in which The Corporation has by the end imposed a blissful false consciousness on the protagonists; and socially, the story offers a novel depiction of how an oppressive society uses gender to further its ends.

The subtleties of the story’s approach to gender may not be immediately clear to a reader today, as the piece plays with three commonplaces that are rooted in the era of its creation, viz:
(1) The Fifties (and indeed the preceding and following decade) saw a huge expression of anxiety that managerial jobs were emasculating or feminizing men, both because they were not rugged individualist forms of self-assertion and because they entailed “emotional labor” and attention to the minutiae of pleasing others, tasks that were thought of as more appropriate to women.

(2) SF of the Fifties (and the Forties and the Sixties) had rigid conventions in which women were allowed authority. Luise White famously observed in 1975 that “ . . . active, vigorous women characters [in SF] invariably worked either directly for the state, or for some male-run institution that controlled so much power and revenue, it might as well be the state itself” (Delany 167); she noted that these women included the heroes –Kathy in The Space Merchants, Rydra Wong in Babel-17, and many others– as well as the monsters, such as Hedy in The Space Merchants and Olivia in The Stars My Destination.

(3) Mainstream literature was less ambivalent: women with authority in political or bureaucratic milieux were pretty consistently monsters along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate’s Eleanor Shaw, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Big Nurse, The Ugly American’s Marie MacIntosh, and (from Humbert’s point of view) Lolita’s Miss Pratt. Such women, however, were unsexed or sexually grotesque. Historian Robert Dean points out that The Ugly American, for example, “warned [that] women could subvert the imperial project from two directions: from within, as indolent luxury-loving ‘Moms,’ and from without, as alien sexual temptresses” (29).
The Communist line on gender may also be relevant to an understanding of the story, as Communists regarded female empowerment within the constraints of capitalist institutions as no success at all, a goal of bourgeois feminism (today we would call it a Third Wave approach). An attentive Communist would also have been aware of (albeit not necessarily in agreement with) Popular Front era arguments about “sexual servility” like Rebecca Pitts’s, which is also relevant to “It Walks in Beauty”:
To get a husband (even lovers, even admirers), [woman under capitalism] must please the dominant male –“normally” an undeveloped egotist who regards her as a means to his own pleasure. It becomes her business, therefore, to arouse desire; to play by means of sex-allurement, dress, and personal charm upon male ego-sexuality. Instead of being a rounded, creative personality, she is warped and twisted . . . It is proof of a strong urge in woman that so many really do –in spite of this terrific pressure from bourgeois society –lead creative lives. (324)
Pitts does not use the word “business” casually; she is consciously in a tradition of criticizing the commodification of Sex Appeal. And while Chandler Davis seems loath to depict any woman as unconsciously “warped and twisted,” his work is remarkably aware of the sexist pressures that Pitts and other thoughtful Reds described.

So “Adrift on the Policy Level” is the work of an author whose stories have begun, perhaps thanks to the political persecutions or social changes he is observing, to grow more caustic and satirical; and it is the product of a creative mind that has already, in “The Aristocrat” and “Share Our World,” shown the ability to circumvent SF conventions concerning the position of empowered women. Unlike Davis’s earlier stories, “Adrift” cannot offer a character who is conscious of its society’s problems and points the way toward freedom. The premise of the satire –that The Corporation is a total institution, exercising all of its hegemonic powers to preserve the status quo– obviates the possibility of a liberating figure. Instead, the story does its political work by burlesquing the ideological norms of mid-century US society and fiction. If the emotional labor and inauthentic “other-directed” poses that the managerial world requires are “feminizing,” it asks, wouldn’t the perfect corporation have them done by women using the skills of “manufactured femininity”? If the tools of the sexual temptress are so powerful, wouldn’t female agents of authority use them, rather than being starchy and schoolmarmish termagants? Isn’t gender and the ability to perform it in the hope of manipulating one’s superiors something that men have also, such that Mr. Demarest’s style of masculinity can change “from Viking to Roman” as the occasion demands? And, pace SF traditions, how likely is it that a corporate-political functionary under capitalism can use her “active, vigorous” character and her suasive powers for anything other than being a Company Woman and maintaining the institution’s homeostasis?
And from the concluding section of Josh's intro:
Chandler Davis’s fiction is, like his accounts of Red Scare survival and his nonfictional broadsides against conservative views of human nature, a model of hopefulness. Demystifying the processes by which oppressive structures are naturalized and legitimized exposes those structures as contingent and reversible. If history has been purged by human beings, it can be recovered by human beings; if we have lost sight of the human origins of ideologies, we can regain it; if the forces of reaction create alluring new subject positions for people, so can the forces of liberation; and if subjection to ideology does not mean that people are stupid, they can change their minds.
Heirloom Books is about not only preserving past pleasures in danger of being lost, but also about recovering the history that matters to feminists. Canons are useful, but as we all know, they never tell the whole story.

Heirloom Books to Launch at WisCon

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Aqueduct Press will be launching a new series, Heirloom Books, at WisCon next month. This new series aims to bring back into print and preserve work that has helped make feminist science fiction what it is today—work that though clearly of its time is still pleasurable to read, work that is thought-provoking, work that can still speak powerfully to readers. The series takes its name from the seeds of older strains of vegetables, so valuable and in danger of being lost. Our hope is to keep these books from being lost, as works that do not make it into the canon so often are.

The first title is at the printer now, and the second title is about to be sent to the printer. It Walks in Beauty: Selected prose of Chandler Davis, the first title in the series, is edited by Josh Lukin, who also provides three meaty essays about Chandler Davis and his work. The second title, Dorothea Dreams, is a novel by Suzy McKee Charnas, originally published by Arbor House in 1986; Delia Sherman provides a lively, insightful introduction for this volume.

Anna Tambour designed the template for the series's covers. Here are the covers for the first two:

I'll be posting more about each book shortly.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Another Small Step

Here's some great news (in case you haven't yet heard):

The Washington Post reported today that
President Obama mandated Thursday that nearly all hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and respect patients' choices about who may make critical health-care decisions for them, perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.

The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters Thursday night while he was at a fundraiser in Miami.

Administration officials and gay activists, who have been quietly working together on the issue, said the new rule will affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding, a move that covers the vast majority of the nation's health-care institutions. Obama's order will start a rule-making process at HHS that could take several months, officials said.
The article mentions that Obama was touched by a particular case in which visitation by a partner of eighteen years was refused:
Officials said Obama had been moved by the story of a lesbian couple in Florida, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, who were kept apart when Pond collapsed of a cerebral aneurysm in February 2007, dying hours later at a hospital without her partner and children by her side.

Obama called Langbehn on Thursday evening from Air Force One as he flew to Miami, White House officials said. In an interview, Langbehn praised the president for his actions.

"I kept saying it's not a gay right to hold someone's hand when they die, its a human right," she said, noting that she and Pond had been partners for almost 18 years. "Now to have the president call up and say he agrees with me, it's pretty amazing, and very humbling."

Civil Rights, Social Justice, and the Midwest

This conference and call for papers looks interesting:

Civil Rights, Social Justice, and the Midwest


Hilton Milwaukee City Center
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 28-31, 2010

Milwaukee in the 1960s and 1970s was a key site for civil rights marches, particularly around the open housing movement. From 1897 through much of the 20th Century, the city was governed by a succession of Socialist mayors, elected on their platform of practical, "sewer socialism." And Wisconsin itself and its Midwestern neighbors have long been home to experiments in intentional community.

We encourage papers, panels, presentations and performances on literary, political, social, and architectural aspects of the civil rights struggle, intentional communities, and practical socialism with a Midwestern focus for the 2010 conference. We also welcome papers on other aspects of the utopian tradition - from the earliest utopian visions to the utopian speculations and yearnings of the 21st century, including art, architecture, urban and rural planning, literary utopias, dystopian writings, utopian political activism, theories of utopian spaces and ontologies, music, new media, or intentional communities.

* * *

Milwaukee has a rich array of museums, restaurants, theaters, parks, and universities for conference attendees to visit. The city boasts the first U.S. commission by Santiago Calatrava, at the world-class Milwaukee Art Museum; Frank Lloyd Wright buildings; an excellent opera company; microbreweries galore; award-winning chefs; 19th Century beer baron mansions; Lake Michigan, and more.

Please send a 100-250 word abstract by June 1, 2010 to:

Brian Greenspan
Department of English
1812 Dunton Tower
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON, Canada K1S 5B6

Or e-mail submissions to: (please put "sus submission" in the subject line). As you submit your abstract, please indicate if you have any scheduling restrictions, audiovisual needs (overhead projector; DVD/VHS player), special needs, or a need for a written letter of acceptance of your proposal.

For information about registration, travel or accommodations, please contact the Conference Coordinator, Peter Sands, at: sands@UWM.EDU

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coots that aren't old

We had a little taste of bird-watchers' heaven, today, at the Lake Washington wetlands near the UW Botanical Gardens, which the University of Washington has been slowly restoring. Sure, we saw plenty of families with wild toddlers wielding sticks and running riot with their excited dogs. But mostly we encountered single persons and couples armed with binoculars and cameras boasting impressively large, long lenses. (To tell the truth, I'm within epsilon of becoming one of those people myself. We've got the binoculars already; all I need is a load of the right books and I'll be ready to go.)

Of course, I still don't know what to look for. On our way out, we came upon a woman standing rooted in the path, watching a nest of bush tits, whose young were sheltered within what looked like a thick, rotting piece of wood hanging randomly from the branch of a small-ish tree. (Interesting kind of nest, no?) Baby birds would pop in and out of tiny holes in it, taking the food their parents were bringing. But neither Tom nor I had recognized that that strip of old wood was actually a nest when we'd passed it going in the opposite direction. I did recognize the warblers, though. And the osprey that swooped low. We saw, as usual, a zillion kind of ducks, of course. (Though none of the turtles or blue herons we often see there.) Someone had posted on the noticeboard that they'd sighted some Eurasian wigeons in the cove, but we did not see them.

Most intriguing, for me, though, were the waterfowl known as "American Coots." Since Lake Washington is one of their favorite habitats year-round, I've probably seen them many times without noticing-- further out on the water. But a whole gaggle or covey or whatever of them were close to the marshy shore, hanging out in the reeds (where perhaps they'd built some nests). The strangest thing about them, besides their distinctive coloring, is the way they move. Here's what a birding site says about that:
American Coots are noisy, gregarious members of the rail family. They propel themselves through the water by pumping their heads back and forth. Flocks often forage along the shore or on lawns. They also dive for aquatic plants. To become airborne, they must scramble across the water with wings flapping vigorously. Coots will aggressively defend nesting territories, attacking each other with their feet.
I took their vigorous flappings of wings as wariness at my getting too close. Obviously I misunderstood! When Tom said he'd try to sneak up on them to get close enough (for my bottom-of-the-line camera) to get a picture, I was skeptical. In fact, though, he did creep up on them, and got surprisingly close. (I've seen him do this before, with blue herons.) I watched, in the meanwhile, through his binoculars.

So, if you've ever wondered what a coot (from which, presumably, comes the expression "old coot") looks like, here are a couple of pictures from this afternoon.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wikipedia saves the day

Those of you who've been thinking they're going to have to break it to me just how passe my last post was: worry no more! Once again I've discovered just how far behind in popular culture I am. (Is that the appropriate rubric: popular culture?) As we walked the two and a half mile circuit around Seward Park this lovely spring afternoon, Tom informed me that the people besieging funerals have been doing this for years, as anyone who ever watches television news shows would know. And also, that this gang of "hate-based Christianity" are the same people who vilely picketed at Mathew Shepard's funeral. (I hadn't realized they were the same people, given that neither soldiers nor miners nor accident victims ordinarily rub Christian fundamentalists the wrong way.) Checking out the wikipedia entry on them, I see that they also picketed Jerry Falwell's funeral. And they have chanted "1,2,3,4, God hates the Marine Corps" at Camp Lejeune, NC. Moving right alone, I wasn't at all surprised to discover that they've recorded a song called "God Hates the World." Or that they hate Mormons and Jews, too.
Phelps also claimed Jews were "one of the loudest voices" in favor of homosexuality and abortion and that “[Jews] claim to be God's chosen people. Do you think that God is going to wink at that forever?” Phelps concluded by stating, in an apparent reference to the Book of Revelation, that all the nations of the world would soon march on Israel, and that they would be led by President Barack Obama, whom she called the “Antichrist.”[37]
Of course, they're apparently not alone in thinking the POTUS the antichrist: a recent Harris Poll reported that 24% of Republicans think that the President of the United States may be the antichrist.

And how could I have missed their activity in my own home state in December 2008? I think that was the year that Seattle got shut down with snow, so maybe I have an excuse. On the other hand, fusses about holiday displays have been going on for so long, that they all tend to blur in my memory. (And of course no local protest about holiday displays can, in my memory, compete with the uproar that resulted in the removal of murals based on classic Greek mythology decorating the State Capitol on the grounds that they were "obscene.") The wikipedia entry also notes that six months later, at Seattle's best-known high school (about a mile from my house), they surpassed themselves. (I was out of town during that incident.) Hundreds of students, happily, responded with slogans like "Don't Hate on Our Youth."

And then there was this:
On April 10, 2008, a 6-person representation from the Phelps group picketed at the University of Wisconsin–Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin—only 15 minutes into their scheduled 1 hour picket, the group retreated from the campus with a crowd of nearly one thousand students marching behind them shouting "go home, go home." According to the group's primary website, the picket was spurred by a recent house fire that occurred in Menomonie killing 3 students. The deaths were labeled as "fires sent by God" by the group who claimed that parents were to blame for "teaching them to be whores and bastards".[37]
They seem to especially hate young people. Maybe because they believe young people are enjoying life too much? That they're not feeling the divine hate as they ought to be? Because apparently, it's really all about the hate:
In the BBC documentary The Most Hated Family in America, filmmaker Louis Theroux questioned Shirley Phelps-Roper as to whether she had considered that Westboro's technique of protests were more likely to "put people off the Word of Jesus Christ and the Bible."

In response, Phelps-Roper said as to the purpose of the protests, "You think our job is to win souls to Christ. All we do, by getting in their face and putting these signs in front of them and these plain words, is make what's already in their heart come out of their mouth."[44]

Later in the documentary, Phelps-Roper agrees that the $200,000 the church annually spends to fly to funerals to protest was money spent to spread "God's hate."[44]

Do you s'pose that in their Bibles they've redacted every passage that quotes Jesus? Or is it possible they consider everything but the Book of Revelation worthless? You know, I feel sure it'd be possible to find sects resembling this one in pre-Modern European history. They'd've been called heretics, of course... And they wouldn't have lasted beyond a single generation. (If that.)

But anyway, the walk in Seward Park, which occupies a peninsula sticking out into Lake Washington, was joyous. The water was dark blue and choppy. I saw two blue herons fishing, scores of people out enjoying the day with as much pleasure as we were, leaves unfurling in the trees and green things springing out of the ground. And the frosting on the cake? All the mountains were out, and some of the nearby Cascades were showing fresh snow, which may make the looming drought milder than predicted.

So 2010

I've just been reading about the traveling Baptists from Topeka, Kansas who show up at funerals-- of soldiers, of accident victims, and now of miners-- proclaiming that God deliberately targeted those being buried, in order to punish the US for "immorality." Here's Paul J. Nyden, writing for the West Virginia Gazette-Mail:
The tiny sect, unaffiliated with any other church, routinely sends pickets across the country to carry hateful signs. They parade in front of synagogues, churches, schools, funerals for dead soldiers and other people, including victims of fires, car accidents and, most recently, coal mine disasters.

They say God intentionally killed those people because the United States is an immoral country.
What interests me more than the question of why these people would spend their time and energy intruding on and offending people at an acute moment of loss, is the mix of people turning out to counter-protest their exploitation of the miners' deaths:
Among the counter-demonstrators at the state Capitol on Thursday was Tom Burgt, a retired U.S. Army sergeant who has helped organize Lest We Forget, a family and military group that supports soldiers returning from war.

"We came here to support troops and to see the 'flash mob' dancers," said Burgt, referring to residents who organized a dance as part of the counter-demonstration. "It is more important to bring attention to PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome] and veterans' issues than any of this stupidity."

"I think it is amazing the whole community came out for this," said Linda Sadero, who works with veterans through her group, Helping Appalachian Returning Troops, or HART. Only six Westboro pickets showed up in front of the Capitol [in Charleston], including two men, one woman and three young children. They held up signs proclaiming: "America Is Doomed," "Thank God for Dead Miners," "God Hates Your Tears," "God Hates West Virginia" and "God Hates You."

Local people peacefully overwhelmed the Westboro group. They carried their own signs, including: "I Love Everyone" and "God Bless Our Troops and Veterans."

Others signs had humorous messages: "This is a Sign" and "God Hates Signs."

"We are sending a strong message that we are a justice-loving people in West Virginia, ready to move for positive change," Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the abortion rights group West Virginia Free.

The Rev. Mel Hoover, a minister at Charleston's Unitarian Universalist Congregation, urged people to pray for the families of the miners killed in Monday's explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal, Raleigh County.

Hoover told ralliers Thursday to remember the famous quote that Mother Jones, the legendary coal miners' organizer, put in her 1925 autobiography: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
There's something so of the moment about this that if I weren't running Aqueduct Press would make me drop everything and write a novel about it.

Check It Out

Over at the Lambda Literary site, poet Marilyn Hacker singles out five poets who've been important to her. She begins:
It is hard to restrict myself to only five poets who changed my way of looking at the world, and at language and its possibilities. Given the venue, I’ll limit myself to LGBT poets, which at least helps in making the selection, by no means implying that only the work of LGBT poets has so affected me.
In which we see that a restriction, in such a case, rather than imposing hardship, can, yes, be helpful.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Net Neutrality Isn't Lost Yet

Hmm. What will the D.C. Federal Appeals Court's ruling in favor of Comcast mean for the ordinary user of the internet? Here's an excerpt from ABC's report:
Tuesday's unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel was a setback for the FCC because it questioned the agency's authority to regulate broadband. That could cause problems beyond the FCC's effort to adopt official net neutrality regulations. It also has serious implications for the ambitious national broadband-expansion plan released by the FCC last month. The FCC needs the authority to regulate broadband so that it can push ahead with some of the plan's key recommendations. Among other things, the FCC proposes to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities.
Interestingly, Ben Scott of the public interest group Free Press, quoted in the ABC piece, suggests that the decision in favor of Comcast may backfire:

Scott believes that the likeliest step by the FCC is that it will simply reclassify broadband as a more heavily regulated telecommunications service. That, ironically, could be the worst-case outcome from the perspective of the phone and cable companies.

"Comcast swung an ax at the FCC to protest the BitTorrent order," Scott said. "And they sliced right through the FCC's arm and plunged the ax into their own back."

The battle over the FCC's legal jurisdiction comes amid a larger policy dispute over the merits of net neutrality. Backed by Internet companies such as Google Inc. and the online calling service Skype, the FCC says rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from prioritizing some traffic or degrading or services that compete with their core businesses. Indeed, BitTorrent can be used to transfer large files such as online video, which could threaten Comcast's cable TV business.

But broadband providers point to the fact that applications such as BitTorrent use an outsized amount of network capacity.

For its part, the FCC offered no details on its next step, but stressed that it remains committed to the principle of net neutrality.

"Today's court decision invalidated the prior commission's approach to preserving an open Internet," the agency's statement said. "But the court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet; nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end."

In other words, despite the ten-ton gorilla's court victory, there's no telling, yet, how the fight will play out.

See also Xeni Jardin's report on Boing-Boing.

So when is it murder?

Although corruption isn't pervasive at middle and lower levels of the US's social order, at the top corruption is so rampant and tolerated that the average citizen constantly finds herself wondering when deaths resulting from corruption and contempt for human life are, in fact, murder. Reading about the deaths of 25 miners in a mine explosion in West Virginia yesterday and the thousands of fine-incurring violations-- some of them for not properly ventilating methane gas-- that Don Blankenship, the CEO running the mine, had been racking up, I have to wonder, if this isn't mass murder, what is? When is treating human beings as if they were nothing more than disposable machinery a crime? And shouldn't treating human beings as if their lives are of no intrinsic value be morally indefensible?

Without doubt, this guy Blankenship is in every sense a bully. Last November, he threatened to shoot an ABC reporter he then assaulted. (Video of the event can be seen .) Reading about an address he made before the Tug Valley Mining Institute in Williamson, WV I couldn't help but think of Roddey Reid's article, The American Culture of Public Bullying (link via The Pinocchio Theory), which illuminates the public behavior of this man. The bullies that have made the US public sphere what it is today are the direct descendants off the CEO bullies of the 1980s, celebrated by the April issue of Fortune Magazine in this little slogan: "Leadership is demonstrated when the ability to inflict pain is confirmed."

Blankenship seems to have a history of "inflicting pain" (and thus of the "leadership" Fortune exalted). He bullies through abuses in speech, assault, and threats. He costs people their jobs. He likens his critics to Osama bin Laden. Why? Brad Johnson, asking the question "What have the 'atheists' at the Charleston Gazette done that merits Blankenship comparing them to Osama bin Laden?" answers it thus--
They’ve reported on:

The Fatal Aracoma Mine Fire. In the months before the fatal 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, which had 25 violations of health and safety laws, Blankenship personally waived company policy and told mine managers to ignore rules and “run coal.”

Political Corruption. Blankenship has spent millions of dollars to influence West Virginia judgeships and state legislative races, and palled around in Monte Carlo with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard and their “female friends” in July 2006. The state court reversed a $77 million verdict against Massey in 2008.

Mountaintop Removal. Massey Energy is the king of the incredibly destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. The Bush Administration (which includes former Massey officials) overturned Clinton-era rules limiting the practice. Massey now plans to destroy Coal River Mountain despite lacking necessary permits.

Blankenship sits on the boards of the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, who are running multimillion-dollar campaigns to block global warming regulations and fight the Employee Free Choice Act. Blankenship claimed that global warming deniers like himself are being silenced by “greeniacs,” and called Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and Harry Reid “totally wrong” and “absolutely crazy."
He certainly fits Reid's profile of public (and workplace) bullying to a tee. But should he face criminal charges in yesterday's deaths in his mine?

This is from an April 6 AP story in the Houston Chronicle by Tim Huber:
At least 50 citations charge the company with "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials or designating escape routes.

"I've never seen that many for one mine in a year," said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News. "If you look at other mines that are the same size or bigger, they do not have the sheer number of `unwarrantable' citations that this mine has."

Massey has had problems elsewhere, too. In 2006, two miners were killed in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. Massey settled a wrongful death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, and its subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. paid $3.7 million in civil and criminal penalties.

Testimony showed Massey CEO Don Blankenship suggested firing two supervisors for raising concerns about conveyer belt problems just before the belt caught fire.

"Massey has a history of emphasizing production," said Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley, who represented the miners' widows. "I'm concerned that they may not have learned the lessons of Aracoma."
And also:
Operating nonunion mines across southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, Massey more than doubled its profit to $104.4 million in 2009 from the year before, despite slumping demand for coal amid the recession. The company expects to be shipping 2 million tons of coal a year to India by next year.

Massey has managed to push the United Mine Workers union out of all of its operations except for a single processing plant.

Blankenship's hard-driving approach was illustrated in a 2005 memo in which he told mine workers that if their bosses ask them to build roof supports or perform similar tasks, "ignore them and run coal."
You tell me.

ETA 4/7/2010 I've just seen zunguzungu's Accidents seem to happen to Massey Energy a lot-- it's definitely worth checking out.