Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« January 2010 | Main | March 2010 »

28 posts from February 2010

February 19, 2010

Of course it was terrorism

I can't believe people are seriously debating whether yesterday's suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin was an act of terrorism. If the manifesto attributed to pilot Joe Stack and published on his website is authentic, then he was a terrorist.

This passage should remove all doubt:

Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough).  In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws.

I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand.  It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants.  I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after.  But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change.  I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.

I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less.  I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.  Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.

A classic definition of terrorism is using force, or the threat of force, to coerce a civilian population to advance a political or ideological agenda.

Stack wasn't politically-motivated in the sense that his agenda fits any recognizable political philosophy. His manifesto isn't liberal or conservative, it's a paranoid incoherent mishmash of populism, rage, and self-pity.

Still, Stack thought he was striking a blow against a tyrannical government. He wasn't like the disgruntled postal worker who decides to destroy all the supervisors who made his life miserable. Stack said he hoped that his spectacular act of violence would galvanize others to rebel against the government. Those are clearly political motives.

Sure, he wanted revenge, but he intended for his act of vengeance to have broader repercussions. Stack's attitude wasn't so different from a Palestinian suicide bomber who hopes his martyrdom will inspire others. It wasn't a totally irrational idea. Within minutes of the crash, Stack fan sites were springing up online.

In his manifesto, Stack explicitly articulated a motive often attributed to terrorists: Goading an adversary to overreact, thereby fueling a backlash. Osama bin Laden hoped that the 9/11 attacks would provoke the U.S. into declaring war on a Muslim country. Stack hoped to provoke the U.S. government into further unpopular restrictions on personal liberties.

Terrorism isn't a natural kind. It's a somewhat arbitrary category that is supposed to encompass a broad spectrum of behavior. The best definition is the one that draws the most illuminating distinctions.

The most interesting hallmark of terrorism is the use of spectacular violence for psychological leverage. The terrorist knows that a big enough atrocity will force us to pay attention to him, and by extension, his political agenda. Stack was in no position to lead an insurgency against the U.S. government, but he could own the news cycle for a day or two. By this definition, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan was a terrorist. He apparently wanted to strike a blow for his version of Islam against the U.S. military. 

There are gray areas, of course. Real life is a lot messier than the neat categories we create to make sense of it. There's probably a continuum between terrorists and mass killers with more personal motives.

Was ultra-misogynist gym shooter George Sodini a terrorist according to the leverage through spectacle criterion? Arguably he was because he went on a shooting spree to draw attention to his alleged grievances against the entire female gender, and no doubt to intimidate or coerce women in general. Though he didn't make any specific political demands, his spree definitely had a strong ideological component.

Contrast Stark, Hasan, and Sodini with Jiverly Voong who gunned down 14 people at an immigration services center in Binghamton, New York. Voong was lonely, unhappily unemployed, and furious at the world, but it seems unlikely that he went on the rampage to draw attention to the plight of people like him, or some social or political condition that he blamed for his misery. 

Terrorism has always been a tool of asymmetrical conflict--a tactic used by the weak against the strong. But in an age of mass media, terrorists gain ever more power over us. Any attack anywhere is national news for days. We live in fear, not that we're going to get blown up, but that someone, somewhere is going to blow himself up and the whole world will go crazy. It's the crazification we should be afraid of.

Terrorists, and the demagogues who gain power by promising to protect us from terrorists, are exploiting our inability to reason objectively about risks. Terrorism has never killed as many Americans as automobile accidents. Yet the U.S. reshaped its entire foreign policy and legal system in response to terrorist attacks.  Whether counter-terrorism real motive is irrelevant. The point is that large numbers of people decided the terror threat dire enough to Change Everything.

So it's no surprise that future disgruntled zealots who hope to Change Everything will look to terrorism.

February 18, 2010

Governor Paterson, you have piqued my interest

Today, the Times published what is arguably the best quote ever from a New York governor:

“This latest kind of bashing of me is a depiction of me in what is, in my opinion, a racialized, hypersexualized and more or less dissolute context,” [Gov. David Paterson] said, adding, “I resent this sort of, in my opinion, and I’ll be frank with you, kind of profiled way that it appears that all I’m doing is drinking, chasing women, doing drugs.” [NYT] 

Okay, Governor, what else?

The Daily Beast's Top 25 Lefty Journos


Blogger Ezra Klein, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

The Daily Beast ran a list of its Top 25 Lefty Journalists, as ranked by Tunku Varadarajan.

The good news: Jessica Valenti, Ezra Klein, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jane Hamsher, Markos Moulitsas, Rachel Maddow, Eric Alterman, and a host of other lefty luminaries.

The bad news, they used my photo of Ezra Klein without asking permission.

[Update: I emailed the Daily Beast to ask for a credit and they immediately set things right. So, more good news.]

The list probably should have been called "The Liberal Establishment's Top 25 Public Intellectuals/Pundits/Media Personalities, Including Several Journalists." I mean, Arianna Huffington made the list. She's a media entrepreneur, but not a journalist.

Best Of lists are always wildly subjective and it's generally stupid to make strong prescriptive arguments about what should have made someone else's list.

It all depends on how you define your terms. By "top" do you mean the most influential or the most excellent, or maybe some weighted combination of the two? Who's on the left? Varadarajan is a fellow of the Hoover Institution, so I imagine his definition of left is quite different from mine. Is it enough to be personally left-wing, or does the politics have to come through in the work itself?

Instead of arguing about what should have been on Varadarajan's list, here are some names that didn't make his list, but would have made mine: Sy Hersh, Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein, Ken Silverstein, Jeff Sharlet, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jane Mayer, Dahlia Lithwick, Tom Geoghegan, and Harold Meyerson. Update: I can't believe I forgot Amy Goodman.

I don't know if Michael Pollan self-identifies as a leftist or a journalist, but he makes my list because his work has galvanized an entire generation of lefties.

Matt Taibbi probably doesn't qualify because he's more of a nihilist than a lefty, but it's a tough call. In terms of sheer influence, you could make a case for Malcolm Gladwell, though I'm also unsure whether he counts as a man of the left, or even the left of center.  Nick Kristof is more of a neo-liberal than a lefty, but he does great work on women's issues and poverty. 

You can play along at home. Please do.

February 17, 2010

Bayh-partisanship = Giving your seat to a Republican

In this week's Pulse we look at the implications Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-IN) decision not to seek reelection. As an incumbent, he could have easily won another term. But Bayh says he's fed up with partisanship in Washington. So, he's quitting and handing his job to a Republican. Blue Dog bipartisanship in a nutshell.

Maybe the Senate Democrats will snap out of their stupor and resolve to do something with their dwindling majority before it's too late. They're scared because they're unpopular, but they're unpopular because they're too scared to pass anything.

February 15, 2010

In defense of Y Tu Mama Tambien, or at least, why Luisa is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Amanada argues that Y Tu Mama Tambien is a lousy movie because the character of Luisa is the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I'm not going to mount an unqualified defense of the film, but I've got to resist that characterization.

The Onion defines the MPDG as a "sentient ray of sunshine sent from heaven to warm the heart and readjust the attitude of even the broodiest, most uptight male protagonist." The MPDG is the free-spirited stock character whose main function is as a psychological tonic or crutch for the nice guy male lead, i.e., the full-fledged human whose fate we're supposed to care about for its own sake. Natalie Portman plays an archetypal MPDG in Garden State.

Onion AV writer Nathan Rabin coined the term to describe Kristen Dunst's character in a scathing review of Elizabethtown:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.

We feminists roll our eyes at the MPDG character for obvious reasons. It's an annoying form of objectification most commonly perpetrated by male writers who are smugly convinced of their own progressive sensibilities. They think they're better than the guys who leer at pinups, but the MPDG doesn't have any more depth. The MPDG is wish-fulfillment for all those nice guys out there who just want someone conventionally beautiful to see their inner beauty and appreciate their mix tapes. The writer doesn't want you to doubt that the guy totally deserves her--maybe not in the sense of being handsome, successful, or charming. But, see, those are bullshit social norms that are keeping our hero down, which is why he needs a crazy girl to truly appreciate him in ways that shallow cheerleaders cannot. Lazy writers think that if they make the girl a little daft, they can skip the part where they explain what she sees in him. She's whimsical, that's why!

Whatever else you can say about Y Tu Mama, and it's not a flawless movie by any means, Luisa is no MPDG.

NB: If you have not seen this movie and think that you might ever want to do so, stop reading now. Massive spoilers follow.

Here's the basic plot: Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) are best friends, graduating seniors from Mexico City who find themselves at loose ends when their steady girlfriends leave for a summer in Europe. At a country club wedding, they meet, and are smitten by Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a beautiful woman in her late twenties who is married to Tenoch's even older cousin. In a bid to impress her, they invite her on a road trip to a fictional beach paradise called la Boca del Cielo. She initially blows them off. Later on, in the throes of an existential crisis, she decides she wants to go after all. So, the three of them get in a station wagon and set out for the beach.

One of the things that's bothering Luisa is that her husband recently confessed to being a serial philanderer. Revenge alone would explain why she decides seduce her brother's pissant cousin and his BFF. Again, stop if you don't want to hear the spoiler... We later learn that Luisa decided to leave her husband and take the road trip after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, a fact she never shares with the boys.

Granted, the fact that Luisa's reaction to her diagnosis manifests itself in a desire to sexually educate immature 17-year-olds who love jerkoff jokes should raise our MPDG index of suspicion. But Verdú's performance is rich enough that you never doubt that she's getting off on the whole process. Partly she's rebelling against having been a good girl all her life. Maybe she wants to leave some sort of legacy by giving these guys an initiation they'll never forget. Luisa's character is outwardly charming and free spirited, Verdú's performance still hints at a certain amount of manipulative creepiness that you don't see in a MPDG.

By definition, a MPDG is a foil for a sensitive but misunderstood hero. Tenoch and Julio are neither sensitive nor misunderstood. They're both relatively popular guys who are cheating on their beautiful high school girlfriends. Tenoch and Julio have a few "alternative" pretensions, but they're more budding frat boys than anything else. Luisa doesn't see their inner beauty, she sees them as likable but easily manipulated. They are a means to her self-actualization, not the other way around.

Moreover, their pathetic self-centered horniness is the central joke of the movie. Time and time again, the joke's on them because they assume that Luisa is an MPDG who thinks they're special, only to be disappointed because her desires only sometimes coincide with theirs and because, unlike their girlfriends, she feels no compunctions about bruising their egos. Eventually she lures them into a threeway. The next morning, the boys wake up with horrible hangovers and gay panic. By this point Luisa has already ditched their sorry asses, having gotten exactly what she wanted: A sexy road trip and a ride to a beautiful beach. They never see Luisa again.

If this was a MPDG movie, the caper would have been win-win. But Y Tu Mama shows the episode exacts a real toll in the guys. The boys, who were once as close as brothers, can't face each other again because they're weirded out by having transgressed a macho taboo of actually touching each other--even though we've seen throughout the movie that they're perfectly comfortable jerking off together, sharing sexual fantasies, having sex in the same room (IIRC), and doing basically everything but having sex with each other. At one point, Luisa even sarcastically points out this homoerotic undercurrent in their relationship.

A MPDG character would make these boys into better people, but Tenoch and Julio don't learn anything. In the end, they allow homophobia, jealousy, and class differences to erode their friendship. A MPDG would have given them a special adventure to cherish for the rest of their lives, or at least some kind of lesson to live by. At the end, they still don't get it.

It's only well after Luisa's dead that they realize she didn't just sleep with them because she was a free spirit. She was a dying woman working out psychological issues they never guessed at, and couldn't have grappled with even if they had known.

We're supposed to think that Luisa grasped what was really important and seized it for herself at the end of her life. At the end, she defies convention and dies happy and while the boys are poised to slouch into boring, conventional adulthood.

Olympic officials ignored risks before fatal luge crash

My latest post for Working In These Times takes a closer look at the death of 21-year-old luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run on Friday.

Luge is a risky sport, but there's no excuse for how the Olympic organizers and the International Luge Federation (ILF) managed the risks.

The president of the ILF, the official governing body of luge, warned that the Whistler Sliding Center track was too fast back in 2008. At the time, he recommended capping maximum track speeds at 85 mph for future tracks. Yet for whatever reason, ILF president Josef Fendt failed to sound the alarm in 2010, even though sliders were clocking well over 90 mph in practice.

Under heavy pressure from the federal government, Canadian Olympic organizers disgraced the entire country by allowing the home team to monopolize the luge run. Medals are great, but putting guests at risk for the sake of a competitive edge is the absolute antithesis of everything Canada is supposed to stand for.

Luge performance depends critically on practice. So much so that one excuse for not retooling tracks is that it would be unsafe to force athletes to learn new courses. When Kumaritashvili died, on the final curve of his final practice run, he'd only gotten in 25 runs at Whistler, over half of which had been abbreviated. By contrast, the average Canadian slider got 250 practice runs before the competition. 

Within hours of Kumaritashvili's death VANOC and the ILF put out a smarmy joint statement placing the blame squarely on the dead kid. The did adjust the track and move the starting line to slow the sliders down after the accident, but officials told the New York Times that wasn't for safety, that was just to make the "emotional" athletes feel better.

February 14, 2010

The Vancouver Olympics isn't fooling anyone

Nick Paumgarten sees right through the pretensions of my beloved, but hopelessly insecure hometown:

It was a dispiriting day, for the hosts. The horrific death of a Georgian luger, on a dangerously fast course on which the Canadians had limited everyone else’s practice, to give themselves an advantage come Gamestime, had, fairly or not, exposed the seamy side of their medal-accumulation ambitions, which they’d been uncommonly open about. The Canadians want so badly for these Olympics to go off clean, and for their own athletes to clean up, that the show may have been fated to start off with an awful mess. Gottesstrafe, as the Germans say—God’s punishment. Tragedy aside, the torch-lighting snafu and the lousy weather—rain, fog, and unseasonable warmth, which have already postponed Saturday’s showcase event, the men’s downhill ski race, and Sunday’s women’s combined—are examples of the kind of bad luck that befalls overanxious wedding-planners.

Bravo to Vancouver Poet Laureate Brad Cran for boycotting the Cultural Olympiad. He wouldn't sign a contract promising not to criticize the Olympics.

February 11, 2010

Conservatives want to stick it to the weather hippies

The northeast is facing the snowiest winter in living memory. New Jersey and Delaware have already spent their entire budgets for snow removal and we're not even halfway through February. State budgets have already been slashed to the bone and states can't borrow extra money to make up for the shortfall. 

So, there are two options: i) Write 'em off until spring thaw; ii) Send in FEMA with snowplows. President Obama, like any reasonable person, has chosen the latter. The alternative would be to let the economic powerhouse of the northeast grind to a halt.

Predictably, the conservative Heritage Foundation is railing against a "snow bailout". As far as they're concerned, the U.S. taxpayer shouldn't have to subsidize losers who live in states with weather. Enterprising and upright Americans live somewhere free of snow, sleet, hail, hurricanes, heat waves, ice storms, dust storms, typhoons, tornadoes, floods, droughts, severe hoar frost, and other climactic upheavals.

If you want to live in a state with weather, go ahead, but don't expect Uncle Sam to subsidize your edgy lifestyle. As far as they're concerned, New Jersey is a moral hazard. Admittedly, they have a point, but not because of federal snow removal.

As Amanda points out, these spending scolds get to have it both ways. They know perfectly well that Obama isn't going to let snow paralyze the economy. So, they can score political points, secure in the knowledge that their roads will be plowed.

February 10, 2010

What is the appeal of home birth?

I've never understood why anyone would choose to give birth at home, rather than in a birthing center attached to a hospital. a) Why not go somewhere where you don't have to wash the sheets? b) If there's even a remote chance that you need emergency surgery, why not arrange to be seconds away from an operating room rather than minutes, or longer? 

I know that childbirth isn't a disease. On the other hand, if I had a non-disease where there was a small chance that I'd need emergency surgery within the next 72 hours, I'd prefer to park myself as close to an OR as possible. 

I understand that every woman has the absolute right to make her own decisions about where and how to give birth. I'm not trying to influence anyone else. (Hivemind, be nice to each other, okay?)

Just to reassure people, like my mom, who might be following along at home, this is a purely academic question for me. I ask because Jill & Emjaybee's blog is thought-provoking.

Snowpocalypse 2010


Snowpocalypse 2010, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.