Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A New Hope

"It was a no-brainer"

Sunday, July 15, 2007


10. Marijuana Decriminalization. A 2007 poll conducted by Zogby International indicates that a slight majority of Americans favour the abolishment of criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses: “Forty-nine percent of respondents, including 57 percent of men, said they would support “a law in Congress that would eliminate federal penalties for the personal use of marijuana by adults and allow states to adopt their own policies on marijuana.” Only 48 percent of those polled said they oppose such a law; three percent were undecided. The poll has a margin of error of ±3 percentage points.” 1 Growing numbers are also in favour of outright legalization with 41% agreeing that “the government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol: it should regulate it, control it, tax it and only make it illegal for children.” 2

9. Universal Health Care. Various polls 1 2 find that Americans want significant changes to the current medical system, including guaranteed government coverage even if it means paying more: “Americans across party lines willing to make some sacrifice to insure that every American has access to health insurance. Sixty percent, including 62 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans, said they would be willing to pay more in taxes. Half said they would be willing to pay as much as $500 a year more.”

8. Stricter Campaign Finance Laws. A large majority (66%) of Americans support an increasing of regulations on how politicians obtain and spend money. 1 Regarding the 2000 election: “Nearly three-fourths of the voters participating in the survey said Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s $70 million fund-raising tally is ‘excessive and a sign of what’s wrong with politics today.” Similarly, 40 percent said Bush is the presumptive nominee because of “the amount of money he raised.’” 2

7. Equal Aid to Palestinians and Israelis. Increasingly dissatisfied with the mid-east peace process, Americans want more results for their high levels of aid money to Israel. “in polling conducted 2002-2003, majorities supported the US withholding or reducing its aid to Israel and the Palestinians, as a means of pressure to influence their behavior”. 1 Americans also favour increasing the levels of aid to the Palestinians contingent on acceptance of a negotiated peace proposal: “Asked in a May 2003 PIPA poll “if the Palestinians come to terms with Israel in a peace agreement, do you think the US should equalize the amount of aid it gives to Israel and to the Palestinians,” 67% indicated they would support an equalizing aid to Palestine.” and “In the same 2003 PIPA poll with a different sample, respondents were told how much aid is currently given to Palestine, and were then asked to provide their own assessment of how much aid should be given if Palestine were to make peace with Israel. The median response was to increase aid to $1 billion, more than 14 times the $70 million provided at the time. The average response indicated a willingness to increase aid to $2.37 billion (somewhat lower than the amount indicated for Israel).” The terms of peace are overwhelmingly accepted by the Palestinian population: “A total of 72.1% of Palestinians support the Taba or Oslo B Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.” 2

6. Reducing Military Spending. When Americans were asked in a 2005 poll how they would structure the Federal budget, the answers could hardly have been more clear: “Defense spending received the deepest cut, being cut on average 31 percent — equivalent to $133.8 billion — with 65 percent of respondents cutting.” This does not indicate an unwillingness to support the troops however: “respondents particularly preserved spending for troops, including for salaries (82%), the overall number of military personnel (61%), and development of new equipment for infantry and Marines (64%). Spending relevant to fighting terrorism was also preserved, such as for intelligence (62%), troops for special operations (58%), and advanced communications systems (69%). Also preserved was spending on capabilities for conducting peacekeeping (58%), fighting insurgents or guerrillas (56%), and work on new types of high-technology missiles and bombs (55%).” 1

5. Increased Social Spending. The same poll showing American’s interest in cutting defense spending also pointed to areas where spending would increase of people had control over the economy: “The largest increases were for social spending. Spending on human capital was especially popular including education which was increased $26.8 billion (39%) and job training and employment which was up $19 billion or a remarkable 263%. Medical research was upped on average $15.5 billion (53%). Veterans benefits were raised 40 percent or $12.5 billion and housing went up 31 percent or $9.3 billion. In most cases clear majorities favored increases (education 57%, job training 67%, medical research 57%, veteran’s benefits 63%), though only 43 percent of respondents favored increases for housing.” 1

4. Acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol. By a wide majority Americans agree that the United States should participate in the Kyoto protocol: “In June 2005, PIPA simply asked “based on what you know, do you think the U.S. should or should not participate in the Kyoto agreement to reduce global warming.” A strong majority of 73% favored participation. This was up a bit from September 2004, when only 65% favored it. Only 16% in June 2005 and September 2004 opposed participation.” 1 2

3. A Diplomatic Solution with Iran. Only 20% 1 - 40% 2 of Americans support a military strike against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities. Diplomatic action backed by sanctions is supported by about 60% of Americans: “This ABC News/Washington Post poll finds sanctions the preferred option across the political spectrum.”

2. Pulling Troops out of Iraq. Both the American citizenry and armed forces support a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq: “Most Americans support the U.S. House provision setting a timetable that calls for most U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by September 2008, said a survey released on Wednesday. According to the CBS News poll, 59 percent of those surveyed favored the provision while 37 percent opposed it.” 1 Perhaps even more telling is the strong opposition to the war from within the army itself: “An overwhelming majority of 72% of American troops serving in Iraq think the U.S. should exit the country within the next year, and more than one in four say the troops should leave immediately, a new Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey shows.” 2

1. The Impeachment of George W. Bush. Majorities of Americans think that George Bush should be impeached for one of two possible crimes: unauthorized wire-tapping of the public and/or misleading the people in to a war with Iraq. On the matter of wire-tapping: “The poll found that 52% agreed with the statement: “If President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge, do you agree or disagree that Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.” 43% disagreed, and 6% said they didn’t know or declined to answer. The poll has a +/- 2.9% margin of error.” 1 On the issue of Iraq: “The poll found that 50% agreed with the statement: “If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable by impeaching him.” 44% disagreed, and 6% said they didn’t know or declined to answer. The poll has a +/- 3.1% margin of error.” 2

Runner Up.

Jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court. “Americans are at least twice as likely to agree as to disagree that the United States should participate in the International Criminal Court (53%-22%)” 1

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Birthday, America!
Of American Culture

Among philosophers, the question of what creates and defines culture has always been a topic of debate. Those with a good understanding of how culture develops within civilization know that defining a culture, that is, explaining its essence for members of that culture, is always, even in non-democratic societies, a democratic event. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revised, debated, accepted or dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging (the same and the different), hierarchies of value to be specified, discussed, debated and settled (or not).

Moreover, each culture defines its enemies; who stands beyond it and threatens it. For the Greeks, as chronicled by Herodotus, anyone who did not speak Greek was automatically a barbarian, an outsider to be despised and fought against. The French classicist François Hartog, in his book The Mirror of Herodotus, painstakingly illustrates how deliberately Herodotus, civilization's foremost historian, set about constructing an image of a barbarian outsider from the Scythians, more even than from the Persians. It is not coincidental that, throughout history, conquering warlords often sought to wipe out any trace of another culture's existence.

Culture, technically, belongs to institutions, priests, academies and the state. It provides definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries and what might be called "belonging". It is this quasi-official culture that speaks in the name of the whole, that tries to express the general will, the general ethos and idea, that inclusively holds the official past (the founding fathers and texts, the pantheon of heroes and villains) and excludes what is foreign or different or undesirable in the past. From it come the definitions of what may or may not be said, those prohibitions and proscriptions that are necessary to any culture if it is to have authority.

It is also true that besides the mainstream or official or canonical culture there are dissenting or alternative, unorthodox, heterodox cultures that contain many anti- authoritarian strains in competition with the official culture. These can be called the counterculture, an ensemble of practices associated with outsiders - the poor, immigrants, artistic bohemians, rebels, artists. From the counterculture comes the critique of authority and attacks on what is official and orthodox.

The contemporary Arab poet Adonis has written a massive account of the relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Arabic culture and shown the constant dialectic and tension between them. No culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official; to disregard this sense of restlessness within each culture, and to assume that there is complete homogeneity between culture and identity is to miss what is vital and fecund.

In the United States the debate about what is American has gone through many transformations and sometimes dramatic shifts. To justify Manifest Destiny, American media depicted Native Americans as evil, heathens to be tamed or destroyed. They were called "Red Men" and insofar as they had any function in the culture--and this was as true of films as of the writing of academic history--it was as a foil to the advancing course of white civilization; an enemy of justice and Christian values. Today that has changed completely. Native Americans are seen as victims, not villains, of the advance of the US into the Wild West.

There has been a change in the status of Columbus and even more dramatic reversals in the depictions of African-Americans and women. Prominent African-American author Toni Morrison noted how in classic American literature there is an obsession with whiteness, as Melville’s Moby Dick and Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym eloquently testify. Yet she says major male, white writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, men who shaped the canon of American literature, created their works by using whiteness as a way of avoiding, curtaining and rendering invisible the African presence in the midst of society. That Toni Morrison writes her novels and criticism with such success and brilliance now underscores the extent of the change from the world of Melville and Hemingway to that of Dubois, Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Morrison herself.

Which vision is the real America, and who can lay claim to represent and define it? The question is complex and deeply interesting but cannot be settled by reducing the matter to a few clichés.

A unique perspective of the difficulties in cultural contests whose object is the definition of a civilization can be found in Arthur Schlesinger’s book, The Disuniting of America. As a mainstream historian, Schlesinger is understandably troubled by the fact that emergent and immigrant groups in the U.S. have disputed the official, unitary national fable as it used to be represented by great classical historians such as Bancroft, Henry Adams and, more recently, Richard Hofstader. The disputants want the writing of history to reflect not only a nation conceived of and ruled by patricians and landowners but one in which slaves, servants, laborers and poor immigrants played an important but as yet unacknowledged role.

The narratives of such people--silenced by the discourses of Washington, the investment banks of New York, the universities of New England and the industrial fortunes of the Midwest--have come to disrupt the slow progress and unruffled serenity of the official story. They ask purposeful questions, tell the experiences of social unfortunates and make the claims of "lesser" peoples - women, Asians and African-Americans and other minorities, sexual as well as ethnic. Will their threads not be woven into the fabric of America?

Whether one agrees or not with Schlesinger’s cri de coeur, there is no disagreeing with his underlying thesis: that the writing of history is the royal road to the definition of a country, and that the identity of a society is in large part a function of historical interpretation, which is clouded by contested claims and counterclaims.

With American history open for revision at the hands of powers unknown, is it a surprise that American culture has become as devoid of identity? Ask yourself: what does the world know of America other than excess, frivolity and exclusion? If it is best left to America to define its own culture, what will you hear, other than millions of voices--silenced?