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Bad Arguments

[ 48 ] May 13, 2015 |


In the world of libertarian economists, Bryan Caplan really isn’t the worst, but arguing that the Shah was “strong on civil liberties” is about the dumbest thing one can possibly say about the history of Iran.

Strong on civil liberties, weak on economic liberties – it almost seems like American liberals should have liked the Shah.

Herpty derpty. What did actual Iranians say about the Shah’s glorious civil liberties? From a 1979 piece written by Iranians in the Harvard Crimson:

SAVAK conducted most of the torture, under the friendly guidance of the CIA. which set up SAVAK in 1957 and taught them how to interrogate suspects. Amnesty International reports methods of torture that included “whipping and beating, electric shocks, extraction of teeth and nails, boiling water pumped into the rectum, heavy weights hung on the testicles, tying the prisoner to a metal table heated to a white heat, inserting a broken bottle into the anus, and rape.”

From Muhammad Sahimi:

The Shah’s regime responded violently in kind, establishing the infamous Joint Committee to Fight Terrorism, which was headed by Sabeti in practice, though it always had a military officer as its figurehead chief. “By 1970,” writes Dr. Abbas Milani in The Persian Sphinx, Sabeti’s “power permeated all facets of Iranian life.” Torture, beatings, show trials in military courts, executions, and even extra-judicial killings were all normal modes of operation for the SAVAK and the Committee. For example, Mehdi Rezaei, an MKO member, was arrested in April 1972 and executed that September at the age of 20, after enduring horrific torture. Ali Asghar Badizadegan, one of the MKO’s founders, was forced into an electric oven according to his comrade Lotfollah Meysami. He was burned so badly that he became paralyzed, and the SAVAK refused to turn over his body after he was executed in May 1972. As Ali Gheissari writes in Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, under Sabeti the Committee was also “responsible for the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture of many university students during that period.”

Two classmates of mine, Mohammad Ali Bagheri, a pious Muslim, and Hamid Arian, a secular leftist, were lost to the political violence of the era. We were all students at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran, having been admitted in 1972 after passing the national entrance examination, or concours. Bagheri was executed by the regime, while Arian was killed in an armed clash with the SAVAK. Four other good young men that I personally knew, all secular leftists, who were a year or two ahead of me in the engineering department, were also killed: Mahmoud Vahidi and Saeed Kord were poisoned in the notorious Evin Prison, while Mansoor Farshidi and Mahmoud Namazi were killed in an armed clash. Numerous other students, including many friends in the engineering department, were imprisoned, beaten, and given long jail sentences.

To comprehend the atmosphere of terror that dominated the political arena at that time, consider the following. The house of a student friend of mine was raided by the SAVAK, and an engineering book was found there that he had borrowed from the engineering department library. In those days, the borrower’s name would be written on a card attached to the back of the book. One of the students who had previously borrowed the book was Nastaran Al-e Agha, an engineering student and a major figure in the Fadaian who was killed on June 22, 1976, in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK. Because the book had been borrowed previously by Al-e Agha, my friend was held in jail for months, just to make sure that there was no connection between the two. Such was the state of terror in the days when Sabeti was at the helm of the Committee and the leading figure in the conflict between the opposition and the Pahlavi regime. His name was identified with a host of brutal acts. He would appear on national television and talk about what had happened every time the regime declared a “victory” against the opposition, and in particular the “terrorist” MKO and Fadaian.

From Darius Rejali:

I remember one distinguished expert who reviewed my work said,
basically, how can Rejali say torture is part of modernity? If that was
true, America would torture too. It really was amazing, in retrospect,
how willfully blind people wanted to be. I grew up in Iran at a time
when the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, did not hesitate torturing
Islamic and Marxist insurgents. No one thought torture was something
incompatible with cars, fast food, washing machines and other parts of
modern life. I remember talking to a high-ranking SAVAK officer years
after the Shah was gone, and he certainly felt he played an important
role in modernization. It wasn’t the last time I’ve heard torturers say
how important they are in making their country safe for economic

Another point: Everyone forgets that the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979
was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as
a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is
talking, the man who tortures. This was powerful rhetoric for
recruiting people, then as it is now. People joined the revolutionary
opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who
installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the US so,
all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture
in Iran. Torture not only shaped the revolution, it was the factor that
has deeply poisoned the relationship of Iran with the West. So why trust
the West again? And the Iranian leadership doesn’t.

So right, strong on civil liberties.


Obama at Nike

[ 92 ] May 12, 2015 |


I get that President Obama is frustrated with Democratic opposition to his beloved Trans-Pacific Partnership. But his behavior shows just how out of touch he is with the party base on economic issues. First, holding a big TPP event at Nike offices in Oregon is outrageous, but also quite telling. For Obama, Nike is a success story because it creates a lot of high-paying jobs in Oregon while sending all of its production to Vietnam and other Asian countries.

But there are huge problems with the Nike model, even outside of how it treats its workers and the fact that it was a pioneer in outsourcing shoe production. Virtually none of those jobs in the US are blue collar jobs and these are the people most in need of decent employment opportunities. While quite a bit of middle management, design, and other jobs actually could be outsourced (and I suspect will be quite rapidly) probably most well-educated upper middle class Americans are going to do OK going forward. These are Obama’s success stories because there is so much emphasis in conventional wisdom speak about spurring economic creators and innovators. But none of this does anything for the poor. Had Obama spoken at a New Balance factory, which at least makes some shoes still in the U.S., he would come across as less indifferent to the lives of working class Americans who did not benefit from NAFTA nor the many other trade deals of the last 50 years that shipped most blue-collar jobs overseas. Obama doesn’t seem to get that this is where job creation needs to take place, not with the innovators.

Core to the problem here is that while Obama keeps saying the TPP has stronger trade and environmental provisions than previous trade agreements, there’s no evident reason to take this claim seriously or believe it meaningful. First, we still don’t know what the specifics of these provisions are, but we won’t know before fast track is voted on so we have to go with what we have. Second, it’s far from clear whether all the nations involved are on board with said provisions, whatever they may be. Third, it is almost 100 percent positive that these provisions will not include any ability for workers or citizens themselves to go after companies. Since no trade agreement has ever empowered citizens, my guess is that the so-called improvements will likely consist of little more than vague language, but again, we are going to have to wait and see. Combined with the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts that have a strong likelihood of being used by corporations to override governments from taming corporate behavior, and as many have pointed out, the TPP is really more a pro-corporate interest agreement than a trade agreement per se.

And as Elizabeth Warren and Rosa De Lauro write, once fast track is granted, the ability to Congress to stop the process or make any kind of changes to the deal is basically dead. So the TPP must be stopped now.

What An Asshole

[ 161 ] May 11, 2015 |

Yesterday’s jerk du jour, Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, who wrote an op-ed shaming other professors for not turning on their students to idolize them and discover how real learning happens outside the classroom (and frankly using the type of language that reminds one of a professor justifying sex with students), doubles down today. LD Burnett wrote a response at the U.S. Intellectual History blog. She ended her essay by writing “That ain’t right Bauerlein.” His response:

Finally, I note that you are a graduate student. May I offer you some counsel. It is certainly the case that popular intellectual discourse has slipped into banter and smartalecky-ness. It’s a way of getting noticed, and people take pleasure in cheap shots. We have to accept that in headlines and book titles (like one of my own). But once we get into the meat, you should leave the pseudo-witticisms behind (“du jour,” “ain’t,” . . . and Bloom’s book was not “breathless”). Knowingness is not wisdom They detract from a serious argument, and only level you with the mob of scribbling women and men.

In response, let me throw out a big “fuck you” to Bauerlein. I mean, I know I am only a lowly assistant professor and all so perhaps I should take counsel from the lordly Mark Bauerlein. Personally, I’d take 100 ain’ts over riffing off Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sexist comments about mobs of scribbling women and condescension toward graduate students daring to write in public. I ain’t in no mood to put up with this kind of garbage at all.

NYU: An Institution Whose Leaders Lack Basic Morality

[ 46 ] May 11, 2015 |


Housing for the workers building the NYU campus at Abu Dhabi

NYU has come under significant criticism for the terrible conditions of the workers building it’s Abu Dhabi campus. Here is an excellent discussion of the connections between a single NYU trustee and the treatment of those workers.

Khaldoon Al-Mubarak sits on the NYU Board of Trustees. He is also the CEO of one of the main construction companies building the school’s forthcoming outpost in the United Arab Emirates.

That company, Mubadala, was named in a recently released 72-page report detailing how a third of the workers at the construction site were systematically exempted from the higher labor standards NYU had promised in its “Statement of Labor Values.” The statement was designed to protect workers from the harsh conditions migrant laborers typically face in the UAE.

The decision to build the campus in Abu Dhabi came on the heels of a $50 million donation to the university from the government of Abu Dhabi, and Al-Mubarak was installed as a trustee after plans for the campus were announced, according to the New York Times.

“He was central to this whole exemption scheme,” said Hugh Baran, a first-year student at NYU School of Law who was one of several people to confront an administrator about the issue last week. “Given that this is his company, he surely had some knowledge [of the labor conditions].”

The damning report outlines an investigation by a firm hired by the government of Abu Dhabi, Nardello & Co., that ostensibly aimed to verify media reports of substandard labor conditions at the site.

The construction companies, including Mubadala, had established an “exemption” that excluded short-term employees from the guarantee of improved working conditions promised by NYU, according to the report. This exemption could also be applied to lower-cost contracts.

The report found that some people affiliated with NYU “said they were aware of a time threshold” that allowed different working conditions for short-term employees.

Oh I’m sure they were aware and totally fine with it. This NYU deal is about nothing but cash for top university administrators and their friends. It is utterly corrupt and the fact that its own professors can not enter Abu Dhabi to report on these labor conditions shows just how debased this deal and the administrators who support it have become.

Is there anything the modern university president won’t do for money?

The Perils of Indonesian Domestic Workers Abroad

[ 15 ] May 11, 2015 |


Indonesia is a very poor country. So their young women are recruited to work as domestic servants for the wealthy in Hong Kong and especially in the Arab world. The Saudis, UAE, and other wealthy Gulf states treat labor like garbage. The almost entirely foreign workforce has third class status, is often beaten and starved, and has little ability to resist regimes that simply don’t care if they live or die. It’s gotten so bad that Indonesia has now banned its citizens from work as maids in pretty much the entire Middle East and North Africa. Too many deaths. 40 Indonesian maids currently are facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, mostly for resisting sexual assault or physical violence.


Union Busting in Bangladesh

[ 7 ] May 11, 2015 |


Please read this Human Rights Watch report on union busting in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Two years after Rana Plaza, conditions have changed slightly for the better because of pressure from western activists, but workers demanding the power to fight for themselves are brutalized. I want to present you two quotes from the report’s summary.

I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant. I was called to the chairman’s room, and taken to the 3rd floor management room which is used by the management and directors — and there I was beaten by the local goons… There were other women who were called at other times, and they were beaten the same way as well. They wanted to force me to sign on a blank piece of paper, and when I refused, that was when they started beating me. They were threatening me saying ‘You need to stop doing the union activities in the factory, why did you try and form the union. You need to sign this paper.’

This is what happens when workers try to organize to ensure they have a safe place to work. The companies order them beaten. The western contractors like Walmart, Gap, Target, and other exploitative companies can completely wash their hands of this kind of behavior because of the contracting system. Yet they are in fact indirectly responsible. A garment factory owner told Human Rights Watch

Factory owners want to maximize profits, so they will cut corners on safety issues, on ventilation, on sanitation. They will not pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries. They push workers hard because they don’t want to miss deadlines and end up paying for air shipment which can destroy the viability of the operations. Workers have no unions, so they can’t dictate their rights…. Some of this can also be blamed on the branded retailers who place bulk orders and say ‘Scale up production lines because it is a big order, and improve your margins.’ Even 2-3 cents can make the difference, but these companies don’t want to factor in [labor rights and safety] compliance into costing.

This is why the Bangladeshi workers’ struggle must be our struggle. We must demand that corporations are held accountable for violence against organizers, terrible working conditions, pollution, and other unacceptable behaviors.

And yet the Bangladeshi workers are scared that they will lose their jobs from all this bad attention on their industry as the apparel companies move production to Cambodia, Indonesia, or some other new country that has not received negative attention in the West. Then they can start this exploitative process all over again. That cannot happen and that’s why we must create international standards for working conditions and union rights if companies want to sell products in the United States. If they are American companies or if American companies are contracting with suppliers, they need to be held legally responsible in American or European courts. And that will only happen if workers have the power to initiate these struggles. Otherwise, companies will move and move again in the global race to the bottom, leaving the world’s poor just as poor as they were before.

In short, we need to adapt the ideas of the Trans Pacific Partnership to create international courts that would protect corporate rights and make them protect the rights of workers and citizens to basic dignity.

In related news, I am speaking tomorrow night at the Workers Unite Film Festival in New York. Come on out if you are around. I will be signing books as well. And remember to preorder Out of Sight if you have not. It comes out for real on June 2.

The New Military Urbanism

[ 90 ] May 10, 2015 |


Bryan Finoki has a good article on how cities have redesigned spaces in order to declare a low-level war on the homeless, or as Steven Graham call it, “the new military urbanism.” By erecting barriers that prevent the homeless from sleeping, the cities make themselves friendly for corporations and the image of a smooth run enterprise without the messiness that corporate leaders might not like. But this is fact a version of class warfare. Finoki:

Because of the homeless’ permanent existence in the outer public domain, they are particularly prone to architecture as something that has been designed to be specifically hostile to them, yet camouflaged into the normal fabric as permanent barriers. The post-9/11 makeover of the urban environment only served to justify the intensification of this process under a new name. For the homeless populations struggling to survive in the neoliberal city, urban design translates into an infinitely inhospitable surface; a brutal run-away edge that they can neither penetrate nor separate themselves from.

While the conditions of homelessness are the result of many complex and largely misunderstood—and misrepresented—sociocultural underpinnings, they partially thrive within the inhumane trappings of the built environment’s architectural surfaces themselves. For those who are pushed towards the outside, the city is a colossal mega-structure that sustains only their permanent exteriorization. It is a city designed to ensure the near impossibility of their inhabitation. Between the vitriol of those who wish to see the homeless simply disappear and the militancy of advocates devoted to homeless rights and resistance, the policing of homelessness pushes them ever toward the city’s edge. The homeless are essentially being made into anti-monumental ghosts—ghosts of an architectural surface that makes them disappear.

Effectively, he’s describing the city of the New Gilded Age, a space where the poor are driven away, where class is erased by eliminating those who would remind us it exists and where billionaires can be comfortable. In other words, welcome to global Bloombergville.


[ 8 ] May 10, 2015 |


This is a good piece on the problems facing the Andean condor, the world’s second largest bird. Basically, even though condors, like other vultures, do the ecosystem a tremendous amount of service by eating carrion, South American farmers see them as enemies and shoot them. Populations are in decline in most of its range. This can change. It takes an active government effort. Among the many effective government actions in U.S. history for instance was the creation of hunting laws, hunting seasons, hunting licenses, and other actions to eliminate the hunting commons that was the entire U.S. up to the late 19th century. This prevented deer, elk, bear, bison, and other large animals from extinction. It’s hard to believe today that deer were extirpated from many states in 1900, but it is true. Bolivia and Peru could do the same thing and protect these animals by vigorously prosecuting their killings. Will they? Unlikely.

I also have an Andean condor story to tell. In 2008, I traveled in Bolivia for 5 weeks, one of the most important experiences of my life. I’ve talked about this before in terms of the impact of mining on the nation and its people. Toward the end of the trip, I was on the eastern slopes of the Andes, a couple hours west of Santa Cruz. We had a day to kill and so the guy we were staying with said he’d take us on a hike. He didn’t really say what we would see except a waterfall. As these things go in much of the world, the trail was straight up the mountain. So after huffing and puffing to this overlook (and seeing a quetzal (either a crested or golden-headed, both of which are pretty cool but I’m not sure which) which I had seen before in Costa Rica but is still a jaw-dropping bird no matter how many times you see them), we just stopped and waited. We were getting bored. After about 45 minutes, all of a sudden all these Andean condors started flying in from all directions to bathe in the waterfall! There were like 15 of them. They were flying the wind currents which were right above us. So here the second largest bird in the world is maybe 15 feet above my head. It was, to say the least, amazing. Perhaps the best wildlife experience of my life. These are some big birds.

Anyway, some of it is personal to me, but I very much hope the Andean condors get saved. I wonder how many of the birds I saw that day were later shot by farmers. Probably most of them. Very sad.

Those Lazy Professors

[ 91 ] May 10, 2015 |


Another day, another old professor at an elite institution bloviates about how professors just aren’t like they used to be. He decides by talking to Todd Gitlin for some reason that professors are just service providers today, that they don’t challenge their students, and that professors are in part responsible for the change in student culture that sees education as hoop to jump through to make money. The last point is of course just dumb. As for the other points, let’s go to The Tattooed Professor:

It’s easy to tell your colleagues that they’re too engaged in research, and not enough with students, when you teach at an institution that has a 2-2 (maximum) class load and ample support for research. It’s easy for someone at Princeton to tell us we’re doing conferences wrong because they go to so many that all the annoying things that happen there run together after a while. Oh, they wail, if only our academia was like it Used To Be.

This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment. “What’s the point of a professor,” he asks? Let me tell you one answer.

In my Tiny Liberal Arts College With Professional Programs Too, a professor teaches four (sometimes more) classes a semester. These professors also advise anywhere from 10 to 40 students (unlike large, R1 institutions, we do not use professional or departmental advisors). They sponsor and advise student organizations. Our one-person Theatre Department runs four productions a year, our two-person Music Department sponsors a pep band and a choir that travels across the US and over to Europe, guided and mentored (and chaperoned, and checked into their hostels) by their professors. These professors will knock on a dorm room door if one of their students has missed several classes and is in jeopardy of being on academic probation (this may or may not have been someone who looked remarkably like me). These professors are on the hospital floor for 8-hour clinicals with a cohort of 19-year-old Nursing majors. They help find translators for a Bosnian student’s parents (who don’t speak English) to open up a bank account in town. They sit through interminable afternoon meetings and then teach a three-hour Social Work seminar two nights a week. These professors go to their student’s graduation parties, they get thank-you cards from grateful students (and relieved parents*), they go to former students’ weddings, they are invited to law school commencements for former advisees.They take students who don’t think they’ll ever understand Foucault or Hayden White and help them get admitted to a top graduate program a year later. They tell students who have been told they’re less-than all of their lives that they are capable, and that they can do this thing. And then many of those students go on to do that thing. And as Director of our Teaching Center, I can personally attest to the fact that they TEACH THE SHIT OUT OF THEIR FIELDS in the classroom. Oh, and we still write articles and books and speak at conferences.

We. Have. A. Point.

Moreover, our students know it.

It’s not that a professor at Emory knows nothing about how higher education operates for 90 percent of the professors (not to mention the legions of adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty) and 90 percent of the students that bothers me. He’s in his elite bubble. It’s that people like this then decide to pontificate about the state of higher education and that publications like the Times are happy to publish said pontifications. These sorts of articles then reinforce popular narratives about professors being lazy slackers. Who couldn’t see the people behind the North Carolina proposal to make all professors, even at Chapel Hill, teach a 4-4 every semester finding this extremely useful in making their arguments? Meanwhile, the rest of us, and many far more than myself who am in a relatively privileged position, are publishing, teaching, serving on committees, and going above and beyond anything required in our contracts to give our students the best education possible while staying active in the profession, publishing books, and making the campus operate by serving on committees.

But what is this to an Emory professor who doesn’t have to do most of these things and who has such a light teaching schedule that he has time to write op-eds in the New York Times about how lazy his colleagues are?

Huckabee on Life of Brian

[ 67 ] May 10, 2015 |


In 1979, Mike Huckabee gave a sermon that included a discussion of Life of Brian.

There was a time in this country when a movie like The Life of Brian which, I just read — thank God the theaters in Little Rock decided not to show, but it’s showing all over the Fort Worth–Dallas area, which is a mockery, which is a blasphemy against the very name of Jesus Christ, and I can remember a day even as young as I am when that would not have happened in this country or in the city in the South.

I wonder if there’s anything else the 1979 version of Mike Huckabee can nostalgically remember not happening in the South of his youth?

But friend, it’s happening all over and no one’s blinking an eye, and we can talk about how the devil’s moved in and the devil’s moved in but what’s really happened is God’s people have moved out and made room for it. We’ve put up the for sale sign and we’ve announced a very cheap price for what our lives really are. We’ve sold our character, we’ve sold our convictions, we’ve compromised, we’ve sold out and as a result we’ve moved out the devil’s moved in and he’s set up shop. And friend [he’s] preying on our own craving for pleasure.

I for one crave catchy songs while being nailed to the cross.


[ 235 ] May 9, 2015 |


Willard Scott as Ronald McDonald

McDonald’s constant gimmicks to reinvent itself are ridiculous and hilarious. Yes, I’m sure breakfast bowls with kale are totally going to revolutionize the chain, bringing it back to the glories of decades past! And I know, what if we reinvent the Hamburglar! This is a brilliant idea because I just learned about Poochie and thought it was a model for how I could totally leverage remaking one of our characters for a corporate synergy!

Now, I admit I am not a corporate hack with a talent for meaningless mumbo-jumbo so what do I know. But if McDonald’s wants to reinvent itself, why not, oh I don’t know, produce a burger that’s not disgusting? I mean, call me crazy. But if you are getting killed by Five Guys, Chipotle, and many other upstarts, maybe you should realize what Five Guys does better than you, which is to produce a burger that is not disgusting. Keep the fries–they’re great! And then combine them with a burger that is not grey and with toppings that have even modicum of character.

Is this that hard to figure out? With all of McDonald’s other advantages either gone or mitigated by changing times–a lack of competition from higher end fast food changes, the decline of the car culture that fueled its early years combined with every other chain having driving through windows, that it is no longer a destination for children, etc–doesn’t it have to compete with its actual product? I suppose it could pull a rabbit from the hat like it did with chicken nuggets in the 80s or like Taco Bell with its Doritos tacos, but one can hardly count on that. And said miracle product is surely not going to be a kale breakfast bowl. Given the incredibly low standards of the product at McDonald’s (again, outside of the fries), it’s not surprising it is becoming the K-Mart of the food industry.

Japanese Whitewashing of the Past

[ 74 ] May 9, 2015 |


187 of the world’s most prominent historians of Japan have written an open letter to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, urging that he stop whitewashing the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. You can read the letter here. Of course, Japanese right-wingers refuse to allow this to happen, denying horrors ranging from the sexual slavery of comfort women to the depredations at Nanking. Abe has been pretty awful on these issues:

Earlier this year Japan took the unusual step of requesting the US textbook company McGraw-Hill to change its account of Japan’s wartime practice of rounding up women in occupied nations and providing them as sex partners for its soldiers. Abe himself has been part of an effort to suggest the women behaved in a voluntary manner in nations like Korea, and that local Koreans organized the military brothels, not Japan.

The 187 historians took exception with that revision:

“The ‘comfort women’ system was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan,” their letter said.

Incidentally, I just watched this documentary on Nanking earlier this week and I highly recommend it, disturbing as it is.

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