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Cops Who Get It

[ 47 ] December 29, 2014 |

Nashville police chief Steve Anderson, with an epic response to right-wing citizen of the city who wanted the cops to crack the heads of anti-police violence protestors.

Tweet of the Day

[ 40 ] December 28, 2014 |


Violence and Nonviolence

[ 274 ] December 28, 2014 |

I do not “believe in nonviolence” as a principle. Violence in resisting oppression is often justified. However, violence is almost always a terrible tactic for a social movement that significantly contributes to disaster. Sometimes it is central to a social movement. There’s little question that the Black Panthers and Black Power movement more broadly were morally justified in defending themselves against police violence. But what did that violence get the Black Panthers? It got them COINTELPRO and the assassination of many of their leaders. The IWW talked about violence in their rhetoric. Even though they rarely followed through on that violence, the rhetoric gave government and corporate forces the justification they needed to crush that movement during World War I.

Sometimes this is committed by some deranged individual outside the structure of an organized movement. This is what we saw in 1892 when the anarchist Alexander Berkman took it upon himself to assassinate steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after he brought in Pinkertons to crush the Homestead Strike. Berkman’s failed assassination attempt moved public opinion significantly away from the strikers, even though he had no connection to them. Similarly, the murder of the two New York City police officers has gone far to undermine what was an increasingly powerful movement against police violence toward people of color in this country. Even though the murderer was evidently totally unconnected to any of the protests, it has already deactivated the anti-violence movement while giving the cops an open field to attack anyone they perceive as their enemies, such as Bill DeBlasio. Of course police violence isn’t going to go away, but how many people have to die and how much time has to pass before the movement reorganizes? That the dead officers are Latino and Asian only shows how stupid random acts of political violence can be.

It’s just hard to see what violence is going to accomplish within the American context. Even if violent resistance can be morally defended, tactically it can’t be defended.

Cary Nelson: Embarrassment

[ 26 ] December 28, 2014 |

Cary Nelson continues to embarrass himself through his attacks on Stephen Salaita. One time AAUP head and supposed defender of academic free speech once again decides that free speech only counts if he agrees with the person. Otherwise, Nelson takes it upon himself to decide who an American Indian Studies program should hire and engages in intellectual gymnastics to explain why if Salaita was already at the University of Illinois, that would be fine but as a potential hire, he had to step in.

What a jerk.

Book Review: H.H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

[ 5 ] December 28, 2014 |

H.H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book using the Book of Job to frame both environmental change over the long period of human history and how we are transforming the planet’s ecology today. Shugart’s major goal is to bring the insights of religious studies to those of science to create a conversation between scholars of religion and scientists. While I’m not totally convinced there is a particularly useful conversation to have there, Shugart has written a very good book explaining both short and long-term ecological change in plain language while placing it all within a valuable historical context.

The Book of Job is well-known, even among the non-religious, for its story of the plight of a good man who God decides to test by taking everything from him. Shugart points out that this story is actually pre-Biblical, probably adapted from earlier religions to the Jewish context. Some of the Book of Job is God speaking to Job through a whirlwind, asserting his superiority to Job through challenging him on the knowledge of the world. Shugart takes a couple of verses from the whirlwind speech to frame each of his chapters explaining global ecological change over the history of humans.

Take for example Chapter 4, which explores how humans have affected species distribution around the globe, from extinctions to intentional introductions of animals that become pests. Shugart starts the chapter with three verses from Job 39:

Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.

The ass of the Book of Job was the onager, a now nearly extinct oversized donkey of the Near East. Shugart explores the archaeological evidence on the animals, showing Syrian paintings of onager-drawn chariots from 3000-2800 BCE to demonstrate they were probably domesticated. But the onager exists only in tiny populations today. The horse, an animal originating in modern-day Kazakhstan, replaced it after what seems to have been a genetic mutation leading to its ability to be bred in captivity and its rapid expansion by 2000 BCE. Onagers began to disappear from Sumerian writings around the same time. Today, most of the prehistoric horse-like creatures are either critically endangered, in decline, or already extinct. This was a choice by humans to favor the horse and humans are the ultimate keystone species, controlling the ecosystem in which they live. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans have done this for thousands of years. From rabbits in Australia to starlings in the United States, humans have spread species around in order to fulfill their aesthetic desires, creating major transformations in the animal world and ecology at large. If God asked Job “who has set the wild ass free,” Shugart finds similar questions in “who has set the starling free” in New York or “who has set the smallpox free” in Native America after 1492. Whether done by God or humans, rapid ecological change can certainly have such radical and rapid transformation as to make one thing the gods have turned against you. And more broadly, people are transforming a planet they do not understand.

Shugart supplies similar histories and insights to issues including bird migration, winds, climate change, and oceans. Each of these things have long been observed by humans and most if not all civilizations have attempted to understand them. Like people through history, Polynesians attempted to understand the stars, eventually developing navigation systems based around this. They used their ability to read the stars in order to spread across the Pacific. In doing so, they brought new animals to places that created widespread extinction and transforming the plant ecology of the region. Understanding the planet does not just have long-term or deep time implications, but helped shape recent history as well. Both the English and Germans were developing tide prediction machines in the early twentieth century that influenced World War II. Rommel was so certain that he had prevented an Allied invasion in June 1944 because of his understanding of tides that he was in Berlin celebrating his wife’s birthday when it began, dates decided in large part by Eisenhower because Rommel’s tidal defenses meant the Allies needed a low tide with a late rising moon.

In thinking about weather, Shugart notes “It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence.” Peoples throughout history have indeed tried to influence the weather and continue to do so today as we try to figure out ways to deal with climate change. In doing so, he provides succinct descriptions of both historical attempts to control the weather (including Congress actually funding some theory that the battles of the Civil War led to more rain) and the science behind attempting to mitigate climate change today. This is useful stuff, not so much for the specialist or even the religious person interested in environmental issues, but rather its greatest value lies in effectively explaining historical ecological change to a lay audience.

This review has largely focused on some of the scientific and ecological discussion rather than the religious side of proceedings, which often get left behind outside the introduction and conclusion to the chapters. I think it is an open question whether the insights of religion really have that much to say to scientists. Is it useful for scientists to understand that their attempts to understand the world have a long history? Sure. I’m not sure what they then do with that however. Perhaps they could reach out more to religious leaders over issues of wildlife protection and climate change to tap into those theological histories, but then we also know that Christian churches in the United States are going to have a, well, varied perspective on these issues as well. In the Book of Job, God knows that humans don’t understand the world. Humans have acted upon the world without understanding it, despite their attempts to do so. As Shugart says, “We must find better answers than we have. Our future depends on it (255).” This is undoubtedly true. Whether religion can help us answer those questions remains debatable, but Foundations of the Earth is at the very least a good primer to the long history of global ecological change.

Water Use and the Rio Grande

[ 61 ] December 26, 2014 |


The Rio Grande, May 2003

Nothing drives comments like discussions of water use in the West, so let’s go down that path once more so I can link to this excellent series from the El Paso Times on water use in the Upper Rio Grande basin. Basically, there is way too much groundwater being used in a drought-stricken area with enormous population growth. If you think this is an unsustainable recipe for disaster, you are correct. This is just one quick bit from this 5-part series:

The Upper Rio Grande Basin, which stretches from southern Colorado to Hudspeth County, has been gripped by drought for most of the past decade, forcing cities and farmers to pump water from the ground quickly.

Because of that, the levels of groundwater, on which residents and farmers depend, have dropped in the El Paso area as much as 200 feet since 1903, an expert said.

The precipitous drop in the water table is especially disturbing because it is taking place in an area where it recharges too slowly to make up the loss. Worse, many experts predict a future in which even less water in the river will mean even more pumping.

“It’s like a bank,” said Zhuping Sheng, a hydrologist at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research and Extension Center in El Paso. “And we’re withdrawing more than we deposit.”

In an attempt to find ways to cope with dwindling water in the Rio Grande Basin, The El Paso Times has received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and has embarked on a series of stories about the issue.

Sheng and other scientists who study water and the climate make it clear that those living in the upper Rio Grande Basin face a major problem.

Sheng said that in some areas around El Paso, the water table has fallen between 150 and 200 feet since 1903.

With the region locked in a severe drought and with the Elephant Butte Reservoir at less than 10 percent of capacity, the pumping is only expected to accelerate.

Accelerated pumping out of a reservoir that is had 10% of capacity. OK then.

I still maintain that agriculture will be the eventual loser here. Despite its power, it doesn’t have the votes to maintain its water use at the expense of urban dwellers. But really, the entire structure of post-1945 growth in the American West is completely unsustainable and with each drought, that becomes more and more clear.

Ella Baker

[ 30 ] December 26, 2014 |


Now that you’ve had your holiday fun, it’s back to work. Peter Dreier has a biographical piece on the great civil rights leader (and underrated great American) Ella Baker. You should read it. In part:

Baker bristled at the sexism and outsize egos of the ministers (including King) who ran SCLC and treated her as if she were the hired help. She was on the brink of resigning from SCLC when the student sit-in movement began in early 1960.

Baker wrote, and she and King cosigned, the invitation letter to SNCC’s founding meeting. Their letter explained that the purpose of the meeting was “to share experience gained in recent protest demonstrations and to help chart future goals for effective action.” They assured participants that although “adult freedom fighters” would be present “for counsel and guidance,” the conference would be “youth centered.”

Baker expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up. She enlisted as key speaker James Lawson, a theology student at Vanderbilt University who had organized workshops on nonviolence for students in Nashville, Tennessee, and had helped lead the sit-ins in that city. During the conference, folksinger Guy Carawan introduced a new version of “We Shall Overcome,” which soon became the civil rights movement’s anthem. In her closing speech, “More Than a Hamburger,” Baker pushed the students to dream of how their sit-ins could develop into larger efforts to challenge racism in “every aspect of life.”

SNCC might have quickly disintegrated had Baker not nurtured it and helped the students learn to run the organization on their own. She resigned from SCLC and worked as a SNCC volunteer. The volunteer staff put out a newsletter, Student Voice, that helped give the new group an identity and spread the word. One of the first checks sent to help SNCC came from Eleanor Roosevelt.

As Baker guided SNCC’s young activists, she reminded them of her belief in radical democracy: “People did not really need to be led; they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves.” Reflecting on Baker’s talent for listening to everybody and then summarizing what was most important, former SNCC chair Charles McDew recalled, “Somebody may have spoken for 8 hours, and 7 hours and 53 minutes [of it] was utter bullshit, but 7 minutes was good. She taught us to glean out the 7 minutes.”

Imperialist Food Coverage

[ 15 ] December 26, 2014 |

I know The Economist has its roots in the British imperialist world. And I also know that the Chinese eat enough pork to play a not small role in global environmental degradation. However, an article on how Chinese pork consumption “is a danger to the world” that does not mention how European and European settler states consume meat (except for a quick mention of Americans liking beef) and how the people of these nations are and have long been the real driver of worldwide environmental degradation really follows that imperial legacy and is borderline offensive. That does not in any way downplay the point that global meat consumption is an environmental problem, but by pointing at THOSE (brown) people as the problem, this piece reinforces long histories in a variety of genres of writing–economic, environmental, foreign affairs–that worries about a foreign threat while ignoring the privilege of the publication’s own readership.

Christmas Greeting

[ 61 ] December 25, 2014 |


I trust that everyone is having a nice a holiday as the child in this image.

A Christmas Miracle

[ 38 ] December 24, 2014 |

An 80s Christmas.


Why was the Reagan Administration soft on miscegenation?

The Nicaragua Canal

[ 105 ] December 24, 2014 |

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.

A World War II Christmas

[ 19 ] December 24, 2014 |

In 1943, it was a high priority of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get an American Christmas tree on a plane to send to Winston Churchill.

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