Friday, December 28, 2007

Update on the St. Tammany Six

Here's the latest on the St. Tammany Six. The St. Tammany Six are the group of undocumented migrants that have been detained in St. Tammany Parish Prison illegally for the past 8 months. They were held as material witnesses in a murder trial. Three of the six were released a few weeks ago and turned over to immigration authorities. The remaining three appear likely to be freed imminently as well. They're likely to be deported, but that's fine with them. Because of their incarceration, for the past 8 months they have been unable to earn any kind of living for their families. No matter what you think about undocumented migrants, it is immoral, not to mention illegal, to keep them locked up without charges thus causing such hardship and harm to their families.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

To The Showers, Boys ...

Saints 23, Eagles 38 - "Da Boys" are, for all intents and purposes, eliminated from the post-season playoffs.

Probably for the best, given that almost the entire running game has been decimated by injury. First Deuce, then Reggie, and now Aaron. And still one more game left to go. At this point, I think the Saints would be better off playing the reserves next week. It would give the ailing starters a chance to heal their wounds, and would protect the current starters from any last minute injuries that could jeopardize next year's season, too.

Pack up the black and gold, folks, and break out the purple and gold.

Geaux LSU!

Is Waterboarding Torture?

If you're not quite sure, read this.

[Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Malkintrina's Wrath

Batten down the hatches! You knew it was coming, didn't you?

Good job, Times-Picayune, look what your "reporting" has done to New Orleans. Hope you're happy.

The T-P's big mistake is assuming that folks around the country, many of whom already think NOLA should be nuked, aren't going to try to distinguish between the Jaspers of the world and the rest of us in the City. You'd think that these very same people would be celebrating the "courage" of the mixed-race City Council's unanimous vote to demolish the public housing complexes. But you'd be mistaken. These people only want to disparage NOLA. They'll take Sharon Jasper and equate her with all the worst that they want to believe about us. Maybe these NOLA-phobes and NOLA-haters would have done this anyway. After all, it's not the T-P's fault that Sharon Jasper is who she is. But the T-P could have thought a bit more about the long-term consequences of its "reporting." It didn't need to throw gasoline on the flames.

One word on this whole big mess: @$#!&%!!!!

"Happy Holidays" Scrooges

Hey, to all you nice people who go around wishing holiday joy and happiness to people, watch out for those Christian scrooges who will scowl at you for your sincere expression of cheer and goodwill because you didn't wish them a Merry Christmas. If you come across one of these spirit-crushing, un-Christ-like, holiday season scrooges, just refer them to this column by Christine Bulot:

Why are so many people uptight about a genuine friendly greeting?


There are so many real problems in the world that these "greeting wars" are nothing in comparison.

People spend so much money on full-page newspaper ads and waste so much time grousing about "greetings" -- they eclipse the real meaning of the season: Love, generosity, compassion, peace.

But I see no peace in the greetings wars.


If you're troubled because someone wished you a happy holiday, please go home and pray to find peace for yourself and peace in the world.

Pray for everyone to see how silly they are complaining about something so insignificant in the scheme of life.
Amen! And Happy Holidays!

The St. Tammany Six To Be Freed

After almost seven months of illegal detention and incarceration, in clear violation of US law, six undocumented migrants are finally being freed. Here's part of the report filed by Times-Picayune reporter Benjamin Alexander-Bloch:

After sitting in jail since spring as material witnesses to a friend's fatal shooting, three illegal immigrants were told Friday that their testimony wasn't needed and that they soon will be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.

Three others testified about the Slidell-area killing at a court hearing Friday, and the court will decide next week whether to release them to the feds.

The six men, all illegal immigrants from Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador, have been imprisoned for eight months, for the most part without representation, possible bond or knowledge of why they were being held, and with no means of communication.

On Friday, state Judge William J. Burris allowed the witnesses' testimony to be videotaped so that they could return home as soon as possible.

"The law does not include the constitutional right to hold people for a long period of time in jail without trial," Burris said.

"They did not even commit a (state) crime," he later added. "They have been arrested, but they have not been convicted of anything."

The hearing was the first time the six witnesses had stepped in court since their detention on April 29. They were imprisoned for six months without an attorney. They do not speak English, and they recently told their attorney and consulate officials that they had no understanding of why they were being held in St. Tammany Parish jail.

Many of the witnesses thought they were being held as suspects in the shooting, said officials who have since talked with them.

All they want to do is go home, to be deported, said Warren Montgomery, the attorney assigned to them last month.
Emphasis mine. So, what do they want? To be deported! I wonder how anti-illegal immigrant blowhards -- you know, the Deport. Them. Now. crowd -- think of that: folks from another country who have done nothing wrong other than to cross an imaginary line in the earth are forcefully prevented from being deported by the authorities? What a topsy-turvy world we live in. The lesson: Deport these lawbreakers now! Unless we can use them! In that case, it's o.k. for us to be lawbreakers ourselves! Quite an example we set, no?

In any case, I'm glad these folks will finally be freed and granted their wish of being deported. Lou Dobbs should be celebrating! Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Hardy Boys

As a kid, I read some of the Hardy Boys books, though not religiously and certainly not without any kind of methodical obsession. And I remember none of them.

However, as I am approaching middle age, and pondering my mortality, that has changed. I have decided that it would be a great regret of mine if I were to check out out of this world and head to my heavenly reward without having read all of the original Hardy Boys mysteries. So, over the past three years, I have been working my way methodically through the Hardy Boys, starting with #1 of the series and reading them up the chain. I am currently up to #53 of the original series, which is The Clue of the Hissing Serpent. I guess this averages about 1 book every three weeks or so.

I found after the first three or so books that the basic plot lines and character descriptions are always the same, which tends to make the reading experience not as exciting as it could be. In fact, the stories are absolutely predictable. Nevertheless, I would say that I have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) reading the books. Probably more so because, with every book completed, I am that much more at peace and less regretful of unfinished business before dying. Nevertheless, I'd be curious if any of you have had a Hardy Boys reading experience. If so, I'd be interested in hearing your reactions to this experience, to the Hardy Boys series generally, and, if you have a favorite of the series, which one it is and why.

As for me, one of my recent favorites was #45, The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge, probably because it went the most off script by having Fenton Hardy, the famous, and usually unassailable detective father of the Hardy Boys, so completely taken in and hammered by the bad guys that he spent almost the entire story in the hospital very badly off and with a seriously scrambled mind. I also think I liked this story because the bad guys used a very specialized prison gang slang in their conversations that made for some humorous scenes when the Hardy Boys themselves did some "slumming" with prison gang slang conversations of their own.

Anyway ... let's hear from you.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

NOLA - Plowing the Sea: Variation on a Theme

Observing the brou-ha-ha over public housing in the N'awl over the past weeks, I thought this:

"New Orleans is ungovernable. Working for revolution here is like plowing the sea."

[Hat Tip: Simón Bolívar, source of the original.]

WWL 870AM Mouthmook and the NOLA Public Housing Controversy

We all know the outcome of the New Orleans City Council's vote on the motion to allow HUD to proceed with the demolition of four of the City's public housing projects. 7-0 in favor of demolition. No real surprise there.

I'm not here to talk about the what this means and to try to give some in-depth analysis of the impact this decision will have on the city. No, I'm here to present to you an example of a media Yahoo whose self-righteousness and faux indignation while commenting on the situation really ticked me off.

I was listening to WWL 870AM Talk Radio this afternoon while I was wrapping Christmas presents. The pathetic dude on the radio was filling in for Garland Robinette. This guy, whose name I can't recall (and whose name I don't think merits trying to remember in the first place), was obviously a pro-demolition and anti-protestor conservative imbecile. He kept referring to the agitated and emotional comments by poor public housing residents about the impending demolition of their homes as illogical and essentially stupid. His pompous dismissiveness and borderline mockery of the worth and intelligence of poor people venting out of frustration was rather sickening to hear.

He also kept referring to the out-of-town protestors in very demeaning ways, too. One of his mantras regarding these out-of-towners, which he repeated multiple times on the radio (as if he thought it were some brilliant observation), really revealed his own prejudices in the matter. He kept saying about the out-of-town folks who protested the demolition (and I'm paraphrasing this from memory): "Where were you before now? Why weren't you here tutoring kids in the projects? Why weren't you here giving workshops to folks in the projects on how to balance and keep a checkbook?" His implication in all of this was to say that those who came to New Orleans to protest the demolition of public housing as a gesture of solidarity out of concern for the poor and marginalized former residents of these projects was that their concern was disingenuous and their motives were selfish. In fact, he even said point blank that he thought it was nothing more than a publicity stunt and a chance for such out-of-towners to get their names in newspapers and their images broadcast on TV. They didn't really care about the poor on whose behalf they protested. And every time this imbecile kept saying this, I kept thinking to myself: How does this mouthmook know anything at all about what these folks have done for the poor? Furthermore, I kept wanting to ask him where was he when kids in the projects needed a tutor? Where was he when someone could have used some help figuring out how to balance a checkbook? I kept thinking that this fool measures someone's genuineness and their real concern for the poor by very specific actions, actions which I would venture this dude himself never undertook. In fact, he kinda differentiates himself from advocates for the poor by his not having advocated on their behalf in any way! This fool, by setting up a dichotomy that pitted him (as a demolition proponent) against them (the out-of-towner demolition protestors), revealed his own antipathy towards the poor and the marginalized in the process. And what's worse (and even more embarrassing for him) is that he smugly thought himself so clever for having "exposed" what he saw as the fraud of these out-of-town protestors.

Think about it. This guy is saying that those out-of-towners couldn't possibly care about the poor and the marginalized because they weren't here to tutor their kids and to help raise them out of poverty by other actions. They were only here to, supposedly, stand with them in protest of the demolition of their homes. And yet, he's part of a contingent that not only didn't do these things themselves, but also doesn't even value the act of standing in solidarity with the poor regarding their demands for affordable and readily available public housing. In other words, he thinks these out-of-town protestors are opportunistic pretenders who don't care about the poor and marginalized. But what he doesn't realize is that he sets himself up as someone against the poor, and whose virtue is that at least, unlike the out-of-towners, he doesn't pretend to care about the poor, to be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.

I want this mouthmook to come back on the radio and to tell his listeners what, specificaly, he has done, according to his own sense of proper work on behalf of justice for the poor, to improve the lives of these former public housing residents. I want him to show concretely how he cares about the poor and the marginalized in ways that set him apart from the out-of-towners. I want him to show that his concern for the poor goes beyond a desire to "help" them by demolishing their homes.

And if he can't live up to his own standards of real, true, and proper activism on behalf of the poor, then at least we'll have a clue as to the real reason why he supports demolition of the public housing units [Hint: It's not because he thinks it's good for the poor.] No, what I think this man's attitude reveals about the poor (and what I think is an attitude shared by many who have NEVER stepped foot in the projects or who have NEVER walked with the poor at all) is that he'd like to see the poor and marginalized demolished (figuratively) along with their homes. For these mouthmooks, what drives the desire to demolish the projects is not concern for the well-being of the poor (for they've never been concerned about the well-being of the poor, and never even pretended to be so), but rather a deep-seated hate and resentment for the poor. There is something that resonates about Bill Quigley's remark that this whole thing smacks of a hate crime against the poor.

By way of concluding my rant, let me declare: The day this man himself tutors a child from the projects, or the day this man volunteers his time to help teach a young mother from the projects how to balance a checkbook, or the day this man does anything for the poor beyond putting $10 dollars in the poor box on Sunday in his wealthy suburban Church, is the day I take seriously this man's criticism of anyone who actually holds hands with the poor and takes the time to get to know them beyond an emotional meeting at City Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Public Housing in NOLA

The Huck Upchuck has been very quiet on the very problematic issue of affordable public housing in New Orleans and what to do about it. Why? Because I haven't been able to make a commitment to one side or the other. And, frankly, I get ticked off that I think this is what it has come down to: that one has to declare his allegiance in what is becoming an all-or-nothing controversy.

I have certainly been devouring all the news and spin and analysis of the controversy. I've even participated in some heated exchanges with some of my own immediate family members about the whole situation.

In general, my inclination is to try to come at this with a nonjudgmental mind and to be attentive to what the poor and marginalized are trying, in the midst of all the polemics, to convey, for it is the poor and the marginalized who are the subjects and objects of this debate. Being true to Catholic Social Justice teaching, my desire is to make a preferential option for the poor. And the voices of the poor and the marginalized need not only to be heard, but to be truly listened to. Carefully, compassionately, and empathetically.

What I hear the poor trying to convey is a frustration rooted in a fear of abandonment. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in confrontation and antagonism in how the poor interact with authority. And for those of us who aren't the poor and who haven't been subject to a systematic and structural marginalization, there is a tendency to misinterpret this expressed frustration as impertinence and arrogance.

Regardless of how well-constructed the existing public housing units are, the reality that everyone clearly knows is that the housing projects are places where violence and fear and hard living have been the norm. Even public housing residents themselves aren't shy about admitting this. No one has ever said that living in the projects is a dream. But what often gets lost in this emphasis on the negative aspects of life in public housing in New Orleans is the reality of the negative's co-existence with a world of positives, too. Poor people in the public housing projects don't always live in fear and violence. They find joy and happiness and fond memories in their lives, too -- even while living in fear and in the midst of horrible violence. And it's a big deal (at least to them) when others decide unilaterally to take that away from them, even with the promise of a better future. So, I understand that public housing as it has existed in New Orleans has some elements about it that I would not wish for anyone to have to live. I don't think any of those protesting the scheduled demolition of public housing would (or could) contest this point. Because of this, I am open-minded to new ideas for public housing that can give the poor a dignified home and can try to eliminate some of the aspects of the public housing environment that diminish their capacity to experience a more joyful and happier life.

But I am reluctant to declare this hope because as soon as I do I will become tossed into the antagonisms of the issue. Protestors of the demolition might see this opening of mine to alternatives as a sellout of the poor. I am also reluctant to declare this fully because I really think there is something of substance to the positions of the protestors. I see the protestors as representing a very legitimate beef. And I see this beef as not really being about housing per se, as much as it is about the uncertainties the poor and marginalized have of the intentions of the authorities and the promises they make. I understand all too well that when the authorities plan changes that directly affect the poor and marginalized, the postive outcomes of such changes, all promises to the contrary, never seem to come to fruition. What I hear the displaced public housing residents conveying when they complain and protest is a kind of suspicion and lack of trust of the intentions of those in authority. In the midst of all the screams and chants and shouts and angry outbursts, I hear them wondering: Are they being sold a bill of goods by sweet talkers? Are they being patronized? Are they once again going to be beaten down by a system that has done nothing but beat them down from the beginning? The pleas to keep the public housing units open, to let folks come back to a renovated space, are so strong because the people for whom these units exist know these units are there. They can see them. Touch them. Smell them. They're palpable. They can clean them and mend them, if necessary. The alternative is just the promise of a better future, a future of mixed-income housing for all who want it, ready for them to enjoy at some indeterminant moment down the road. These promises sound nice; but the poor have seen this game before. They know that a promise is just that: a promise -- empty and meaningless and insubstantial. Even worse, it's a promise by the authority. Well-educated people with good salaries, nice clothes, and fancy words. People who are often so far from the experiences of homelessness, marginalization, and poverty so as to make their promises nothing more than a fleeting disturbance of the air. For people who have heard many promises and who have been routinely disappointed by the failure of such promises to materialize, who can blame them for longing for the tangible, the known, the real -- that which bears real memories for them? It's almost like it's better to take the devil you know, knowing that there are angels in the midst of that hell, than the wistful dream that, if history is any indication, is likely to turn into a greater disappointment, if not a worse hell, than the one before, with no promises of any angels at all.

This is what I hear missing in the discussions. I hear people yelling at one another. I hear charges of racism and greed and unscrupulous development on one side. And I hear charges of lazy, good-for-nothing, welfare queens, drug-addicts, and gun-toting hoodlums on the other side. I hear people talking past each other instead of to each other.

And what pains me the most is that the poison infects people whom I admire and whose sensibleness generally is enough to frame discussion. I have seen people who are normally hardcore advocates for the poor call for the razing of public housing with a glint of uncharacteristic intensity in their tone of voice. I have watched the NOLAbloggers split on this issue, sometimes viciously, with lots of acrimonious words hurled out there, which, I must say, has caught me somewhat off guard. (Just read the comment thread for this posting at Your Right Hand Thief for an example of this.) Passions are high and intense on this subject, and, from my perspective, it's doing no one any good. I agree with this posting by NOLAblogger Schroeder at People Get Ready, which he so perfectly titles: "Civil Spaces before Housing Spaces." What we need are the space and the inclination to listen, to truly listen, to one another -- without getting the hackles up or chanting revolutionary slogans or throwing out dismissive bromides about people's character or issuing grandstanding moral platitudes. And as we listen, we need to be willing to bend ourselves towards one another, with the goal of preserving and maintaining human dignity and promoting social justice for all individuals and for our community in the process.

Caroling for Obama

Please, whatever you do, don't let this Christmas video change your preference for Obama! Take it in the spirit of the season and remember that Obama didn't necessarily approve of this message, even though I'm sure he appreciates the thought, if not the aesthetic quality, of the performance!

My favorite line: "And Biden thinks he's clean."

[Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hitchens, Huckabee, and the Myth of Christian Persecution

Christopher Hitchens writes a scathing piece, full of the snark for which he is famous, about the whiners who complain about the "unfairness" of deciding one's vote because of the religious beliefs of candidates. Apparently, it's in response to some kind of meme circulating about how deciding one's vote on the basis of a candidate's religion is somehow against Article VI of the Constitution. Well, Hitchens has a field day with that. The part that hit me the strongest, and which resonates with my own feelings about the myth of Christian persecution in this country, is this:

Isn't it amazing how self-pitying and self-aggrandizing the religious freaks in this country are? It's not enough that they can make straight-faced professions of "faith" at election times and impose their language on everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to the currency. It's not enough that they can claim tax exemption and even subsidy for anything "faith-based." It's that when they are even slightly criticized for their absurd opinions, they can squeal as if being martyred and act as if they are truly being persecuted.
Ouch! Now, I can do without the dismissive snarkiness of Hitchens' attitude towards believers, and I certainly think my faith isn't an "absurd opinion," but I think his saying and believing this about me doesn't diminish my faith in the least or make it any less true. I am certainly not being "persecuted" by his atheistic rants. In fact, Christian believer that I am, I think Hitchens is absolutely 100% right-on-the-money when he exposes the vacuousness of the "persecuted martyr" meme that gets thrown around so casually these days, especially by many Christians who get their feelings hurt when Hitchens declares them to be fools for their beliefs, or when the cashier at the Wal-Mart doesn't wish them a Merry Christmas. What is even more ironic is that those who would say that it is unfair (and even unconstitutional) to pooh-pooh Huckabee's candidacy, and believe him to be unfit for the Presidency, because of his religious convictions, are also those very ones making his religious convictions the precise reason to vote for him in the first place.

[Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan]

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Warrantless Blogtapping Program

Issue: Misrepresenting Critics of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Cassy Fiano is a conservative blogger who constantly parrots the most reactionary conservative talking points regarding global warming and climate change. Cassy Fiano, who constantly refers to Al Gore in a belittling way as the "Goracle" (but who couldn't handle my referring to her as an acolyte of conservative blogger John Hawkins - even though that's exactly what she is), as far as I can tell, has absolutely ZERO background in the science that shapes the global warming and climate change debates. Because of that, she is reduced to dealing with the issue exclusively from an unscientific and irrational ideological point of view. Consequently, her commentary on global warming and climate change is almost always ideologically hyperbolic; and her interpretation and understanding of the positions of environmental scientists, even those scientists she considers to represent her own views on the subject, are often mistaken. Cassy Fiano seems to be a nice-enough person, but she is an uncritical and uninspiring thinker. Unlike her sharp and smart mentor, John Hawkins, owner of the conservative Right Wing News blog, Cassy Fiano is, in my view, not all that smart. I have strong opinions about John Hawkins, his ideology and politics, and what I think is his cowardly behavior toward his critics, but there's no denying that he is a smart, intellectually sharp, well-informed, and critical thinker. The same can't be said, I'm afraid, of Cassy Fiano. In the end, Cassy Fiano's deficits in the critical thinking department, when coupled with her ideological fundamentalism and rightwing rigidity, make for some sloppy blogging. This posting, for instance, references an open letter written by the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI) to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Cassy Fiano, however, doesn't actually link to the letter written by the SPPI, though she does post a pretty long section of this letter on her website. Instead, in a "Hat Tip" afterward, she links to a posting on the SPPI's open letter from a website/blog called "Moonbattery." Nothing wrong with that, I guess, except that she uncritically parrots the Moonbattery assessment of this letter as a demand by the SPPI to the United Nations IPCC to "stop pushing the global warming hoax." She doesn't stop to think whether "Moonbattery" got it right. And, in fact, a closer reading of the SPPI's open letter reveals something quite different than what either "Moonbattery" or Cassy Fiano argue. The way Cassy Fiano writes this posting indicates to me that she either doesn't have the mental faculties to read the SPPI's open letter correctly, or that she actually has no interest in doing so without superimposing an ideological position that isn't there on the content of the SPPI's letter.

Before I show you specifically what I mean, let me step back and declare my own "bias," if you will, on the subject. First off, I am not an environmental scientist, so I make no claims to speak as an authority on the subject. Moreover, I recognize that there are dissenting viewpoints within the scientific community on the subject of global warming and climate change, especially when it comes to the impact of human behavior on such processes. However, I also personally believe that behaving in ways that help to preserve our physical environment is commendable and advisable. What's wrong with recycling? What's wrong with reducing one's carbon footprint? To listen to folks like Cassy Fiano, one would come to the conclusion that there is nothing humans do that can negatively affect the earth's natural environment. That just flies in the face of common sense, if you ask me. But, that's neither here nor there. My point with this posting is to show how Cassy Fiano is a sloppy blogger, driven more by ideology, in how she misinterprets the "science" of global warming and climate change and how she, in point of fact, misrepresents the content of the SPPI's open letter to the UN.

Let's start with how Cassy Fiano starts her blog posting. She writes:

One hundred scientists from around the globe aren't drinking the Goracle's Kool-Aid, and have petitioned the UN to stop pushing the global warming hoax, and the hysteria associated with it.
First, the SPPI's open letter never refers to global warming as a "hoax." In fact, the letter notes that global warming does indeed appear to be happening. It does not contest the data indicating as much. What it does challenge are two things: (1) that this global warming is an "abnormal" phenomenon and (2) that human behavior plays (or can play) a decisive impact in reversing this current global warming trend. Its beef with the UN is that it is advocating for policy changes that it believes will have no impact on global warming and climate change and that it believes will waste valuable human energy and resources that would be better spent preparing individuals to deal better with these inevitable changes. Its basic argument is that people would be better-served by policies that give them the means to deal with the consequences of global warming and climate change, and not by policies that seek to prevent global warming and climate change from occurring. In fact, the very text of the letter that Cassy Fiano cites in her own blog posting says as much. Here's one part of the letter that Cassy Fiano cites in full on her blog which should have given Cassy Fiano pause:
The current UN focus on "fighting climate change," as illustrated in the Nov. 27 UN Development Programme's Human Development Report, is distracting governments from adapting to the threat of inevitable natural climate changes, whatever forms they may take. National and international planning for such changes is needed, with a focus on helping our most vulnerable citizens adapt to conditions that lie ahead. Attempts to prevent global climate change from occurring are ultimately futile, and constitute a tragic misallocation of resources that would be better spent on humanity's real and pressing problems.
The places of emphasis in the above citation are mine. Note that the scientists aren't saying climate change is a hoax. Just the opposite. They accept it as "inevitable" and even consider it to be a "threat." They recognize that people are "vulnerable" to climate change. They basically are arguing that climate change is real, it poses danger, and we can do nothing to stop it. To these scientists, the only thing we can do is be as prepared for it as we possibly can. When you think about it, it is clear that their recommendations are predicated on the fact that climate change is NOT a hoax! But Cassy Fiano either cannot see this point or refuses to do so. Instead, she ends her posting without any analysis or interpretation of the content of the letter. She refers to the signatories of the letter as an impressive cadre of scientists as if their names on the list somehow proves her point that global warming and climate change are hoaxes perpetrated by kindergartners imagining things out of thin air. Forget the fact that there are as many respected scientists who arrive at different scientific conclusions about human behavioral factors involved in global warming and climate change. It seems clear to me that Cassy Fiano is not really interested in science. And it's safe to say that she's apparently not really even interested in carefully reading what scientists who critique the conventional wisdom on the subject are saying. No, she just throws out the usual diatribe against the entire establishment that reads the science behind global warming and climate change differently than she, in all her own scientific wisdom and knowledge on the subject, does. Here's, specifically, how she concludes her blog posting:
The list of signatories is impressive. But what would they know compared to the Goracle, a politician who was a C student in science? Besides, abandoning the global warming hoax means abandoning the perfect excuse to inflict socialism and economic ruin on Western Civilization -- and of course, blame the United States for yet another catastrophe. Why would the Goracle and the bureaucrats at the UN possibly give that up, no matter how much the science disagrees with their agenda?
How does one even begin to approach the anti-intellectualism and the chain of non-sequiturs that both constitute this rant and expose the mediocre and unserious mind behind it. What does Cassy Fiano have to say about the scientists with "impressive" credentials who arrive at different conclusions? What do Al Gore's grades in science have to do with his current knowledge of the subject or with the validity of his conclusions? And how in God's good creation does she leap from efforts to address the negative impacts of global warming and climate change -- impacts which even the signatories of this open letter seem to accept as realistic -- to the "economic ruin of Western Civilization" and some sinister global socialist conspiracy? Cassy Fiano throws out science as if the degree of its validity depends on the degree to which it conforms with her ideology. All one needs to do is to observe the "scientific" method Cassy Fiano uses to criticize Al Gore's arguments to know that one is dealing with an unserious charlatan. I will, though, agree with Cassy Fiano on one point -- there certainly is an agenda being pushed here that is at odds with science. And one need look no further than Cassy Fiano's blog posting on the subject to find it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"7 Random or Weird Facts" about Huck

Oyster at Your Right Hand Thief was tagged by Cait at Shrimp Po-Boy or a... with the demand to post "7 Random or Weird Facts" about himself, which he did. He then invited any of his readers to "self-tag" in response. So, I thought I would do so. Here's "7 Random or Weird Facts" about me:

(1) I swoon for Commander's Palace Bread Pudding Souffle With Whiskey Sauce. I think it's the best dessert in the entire universe.

(2) I was strip-searched by Swiss immigration authorities in Geneva after an overnight train ride from Barcelona during my undergraduate Junior Semester Abroad program travels. Given how I looked at the time, I can't say that I blame them. But, truth be told, I was very nicely treated during the whole process. Seriously.

(3) I gave up a full-ride academic merit scholarship for undergraduate studies at Tulane University to pay to go to Georgetown University. I almost gave my working-class father an aneurysm. (You must remember that I am the oldest child of six kids, with the youngest only 7 years my junior. My parents were looking at a steady stream of college tuitions for six kids spread out over 11 years. To his credit, my father now looks back on that decision and recognizes that it was the best thing I could have done.)

(4) I wrote a Sestina in honor of American writer Bernard Malamud. If you want to read the thing, I've posted it in the comments.

(5) When I was about 12-yrs-old, while playing a street version of cricket that we used to call "Cool Can" in my hood, I ran teeth first into a basketball goal post, suffering nothing more than a cracked front tooth. (Don't ask me how that was even possible without a busted lip and stitches, but I assure you it happened.)

(6) I think this is the greatest breakfast cereal of all time.

(7) Many, many years ago I studied ballet. Really and truly. Still thinking I had the ballet chops many years and many fried shrimp po-boys later, in a fit of Mardi Gras (2005) madness, after having disembarked from my float [I ride in the Thoth parade] on Magazine Street (around State Street), so that a flat tire on our float could be repaired, I gave a brief performance, which some of my graduate students captured on video and, to my horror, posted on YouTube. (Be duly advised: I neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of this clip. Also, you click and watch at your own risk).

NOTE: I updated this posting a bit to correct for some grammar mistakes and to take down a link to an online version of my Sestina honoring Bernard Malamud. I am now referring folks to a slightly modified and more recent version of my poem, which I have posted in the comments section.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico

Hat Tip to Andrew Sullivan who calls yesterday's festivities in Mexico celebrating the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe The Catholic Superbowl. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers has some very interesting follow-up commentary on this particular performance and performer in the YouTube clip above.

I have to say that I've been to the Basilica of "La Virgen" many, many times over the years, though never during the big feast day celebrations. I can say from experience that the atmosphere is always festive and celebratory, and seemingly more commercialized each year. I always like going, in spite of all that. If you're ever in Mexico City, it's worth a visit, especially on a Sunday. You're not likely to see Mexican Pop Tarts paying homage in flashy and breathy performances; but you will probably be impressed by the real devotion that this place inspires. And, who knows? You might even be inspired!

The Warrantless Blogtapping Program

Issue: The banning of huckupchuck

I'm not going to harp on the issue, I just wanted to take this opportunity to note that I still haven't been forgotten and that the issue of my banning is still, after some 6 months have passed, on some people's minds. In RWN's regular, bi-weekly Q&A Friday, a commenter, rmiller, thought to pose the following question:

Mr. Hawkins...

I still think it is important to clarify, at least somewhat, why Huckupchuk is no longer posting here.
Care to do that?

Posted by rmiller
December 13, 2007 1:33 AM
All I can do is express my appreciation to rmiller for thinking to ask the question again so as to let Hawkins know that this is not forgotten. I don't think Hawkins will "care" to answer the question; but I am thankful that some people care enough to still ask the question. So, if you ever read this blog, rmiller, please accept my thanks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why We Don't Have a TV in the Home

For the past 9 years, my household has been without a TV. My wife and I made the decision to toss the TV the moment we discovered that we were to be parents. Even though my parents think we're nuts, I am glad we made the decision.

There were many reasons behind our decision, one of which was certainly limiting the exposure of our children to the trash that gets broadcast these days. But that reason wasn't the main reason. The most important reason for our decision was really to help us, me and my wife, to be more present to our children.

As my wife and I know all too well (partly because we are constantly reminded of this by well-meaning relatives), TV does have some wonderful and educational programming. We also know that it wouldn't have been all that difficult to monitor how much TV our children would watch and what programs they would be permitted to see. So, we don't view the TV and TV programming, in and of themselves, as some kind of "evil" that will damage the social, emotional, and even physical well-being of our children. And we don't prohibit our children from watching the TV when we visit relatives (or when they visit their friends) where the TV is a part of that experience.

My wife and I, knowing ourselves and imagining how tiring it would be to have to give attention to our children when they required it and not just when we wanted to give it, saw the TV as a very easy and convenient parent substitute. In other words, we could see ourselves relying on the TV to quiet an upset child, to keep the children pacified while we tended to our own tasks, to short-circuit a brewing squabble between the children, to use as a tool of "rewards and punishments" for good or bad behavior, etc. All of this, it seemed to us, was a kind of abdication of parental responsibility. Sure, sometimes it would have provided us with a needed respite from the challenges of parenting in the wake of over-stressful days. Sure, sometimes it would have forged peace and order out of chaos and disorder. Sure, it would have even created more moments for the intimacies of marriage in the sense of my wife and I perhaps having more time for paying closer attention to each other and sharing more frequently with each other our joys and frustrations. But the flip side of these benefits comes the temptation for a weary or harried or undisciplined parent to not make that extra effort to be present to his or her children even though he or she may be tired, frustrated, or frazzled. And as the practice of relying on the TV for "crisis" moments becomes more habitual, the temptation to rely on the TV as a matter of course or out of pure convenience grows.

This is not to say that other things, such as the computer or the portable DVD player, can't take the place of the TV. But surely the TV is the "elephant in the room" when it comes to such things; and, besides, what's the harm in eliminating anything that can be a convenient substitute for parenting? Maybe a household without a TV and a computer and a portable DVD player is ideal; but certainly a house without a TV, but with a computer or a portable DVD player, is arguably better than a household with all three!

After 9 years without a TV, I can tell you that my kids don't miss it or even whine about not having one. To them, our house has always been a place without a TV. It's really a non-issue for them. As for me and my wife, we feel rather liberated. 10 years ago, I'd say we had a bit of TV addiction. Now, my wife and I also don't think of TV at all when we're in the house. You know that urge to turn on the TV once you arrive home from work? Not present at all in my life anymore. You know the alignment of a home's furnishings in the living room that all point towards the TV? Not so in my house. The sofa, the lounge chair, the coffee table, the chairs, etc., in our house are all focused around the communal space -- where the children play with their blocks or where they put on their plays or where they perform their dance recitals. Bedroom furniture and layout? Same thing.

It's been great on so many levels. And I'm sure my wife and I would agree that we're better parents for it.

Joining the Christmas Video War

Seems like I am late in coming to the Christmas video war among some NOLA bloggers. Scout Prime at First Draft has some real doozies. Hard to compete with that. virgotex takes up the challenge with a fine sally. Oyster at Your Right Hand Thief counterattacks with this. I have to say that Scout Prime, especially after unleashing her secret weapon from the reserve vaults, has the upper hand in the battle so far. Here's my humble sortie in the war:

Maybe not up there with Scout Prime, Oyster, or virgotex, but I think I can hold my own with this submission, and leave some bruises in my wake!

UPDATE 12/12/2007 12:40PM: Even though he apparently "doesn't want to fight," Celsus is now in on the brou-ha-ha with his shot across the bow. And Leigh C., not to be outdone, makes this seasonal holiday battle an ecumenical one with this Adam Sandler classic!

UPDATE 12/12/2007 5:10PM: Celsus regroups and makes a truly impressive second assault. As does Scout Prime. And let's not forget virgotex, who makes quite a find. Oyster's gag-inducing, self-declared winning knock-out blow is still lightweight, if you ask me. In the end, I think Greg's blitzkrieg over at Suspect Device: The Blog has to be the winner. Hands down. I'm raising the white flag of surrender and won't even try to compete anymore. I'll just leave you with this Christmas ditty, courtesy of the worst of the best of 1980s British Pop:

The music, lyrics, and fashion are bad enough as it is; but when you add the many layers of racial, class, and gender patronization wrapped up in this whole Band Aid enterprise (Ugh! Even the title of "Band Aid" offends!), how can one not get that profoundly sick feeling deep down in the recesses of one's being. Man, as someone who came of age in the 80s, I feel soooooooo cheated by everything about Popular Culture of that decade.

Oh, and, by the way, Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Immunity for Private Contractors Can Do In Iraq

Any sentient human being has probably heard of the horror stories of atrocities committed by Blackwater, a private security contractor employed by the U.S. Government in Iraq. What is particularly troublesome about the Blackwater case is what it reveals to us about the unaccountability and legal immunity that such contractors have in Iraq. Apparently, because Blackwater is not part of any official U.S. agency or department, such as the State Department or the Defense Department, it is not subject to the laws that govern the behavior of these governmental entities and it is exempt from prosecution for its misdeeds and crimes committed abroad. Furthermore, because Blackwater is a foreign entity in Iraq it may also be exempt from prosecution by the Iraqis according to Iraqi domestic law. In essence, Blackwater and other similarly-positioned contractors in Iraq seem to have de facto legal immunity against criminal prosecution for what they may do in Iraq.

But, as the tragic case of Jamie Leigh Jones demonstrates, this problem not only applies to non-security contractors such as Halliburton/KBR, but also even when crimes are committed by employees of such contractors against their fellow workers. The ABC News report, linked above, writes:

A Houston, Texas woman says she was gang-raped by Halliburton/KBR coworkers in Baghdad, and the company and the U.S. government are covering up the incident.

Jamie Leigh Jones, now 22, says that after she was raped by multiple men at a KBR camp in the Green Zone, the company put her under guard in a shipping container with a bed and warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she'd be out of a job.
Read the whole sad story. As you mourn what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones, and as you stand shocked and stunned by the brazenness and unaccountability of Halliburton/KBR and its employees, ponder the conditions and the enviroment that made such a thing possible. I challenge any of my readers and war supporters to come up with any scenario in the United States where such an incident would be tolerated.

I suggest to you that the whole sick culture of anti-terrorism warfare cultivated by the Bush administration, ranging from the suspension of civil rights contained in the Patriot Act to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib to the sanctioning of "harsh interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding (otherwise known as torture), leads to this kind of sick behavior where U.S. citizens employed by a U.S. corporation contracted by the U.S. government can brutally rape a fellow U.S. citizen and then keep her locked up in isolation in a container without having to face any repercussions or without being held accountable at all for this outrage. Now, I certainly am willing to concede that this incident is certainly not the norm and that the vast majority of the folks working in Iraq with subcontractors such as Halliburton/KBR are honorable people doing good work. But I will also declare emphatically that one case like that of Jamie Leigh Jones is one case too much; and that any culture of warfare that makes it possible for such atrocities to happen without accountability and justice is not a culture of warfare that we should accept.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spiritual Leaders, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture

Once again, with The Golden Compass now showing in theaters, the debate over popular cultural production's supposed hostility to religious faith (and particularly Christianity) is again rearing its ugly head. The pattern is all too familiar. People of faith, particularly Christians, meet such cultural productions with claims of religious intolerance, if not persecution. And it is all the more stark around Christmas time, when some Christians feel particularly persecuted because cashiers at Wal-Mart don't wish them a Merry Christmas as they pass through the checkout line. But I digress ... the subject I really want to get into is the role that religious leaders play in the so-called "culture wars." It seems that whenever a controversial cultural production, such as The Golden Compass, or Harry Potter, or The DaVinci Code enters the mainstream of our society, some religious leaders feel it incumbent to their duties to dictate how their flock should approach such productions. Should we read the His Dark Materials Trilogy (the first book of which is The Golden Compass), the Harry Potter series, the DaVinci Code novel? Should we see the movies based on them? Usually, such religious leaders never refrain from offering their opinion on the subject, sometimes going so far as to declare a spiritual mandate of sorts on what a "good" Christian must do. And, generally, these mandates are exhortations that we avoid these dangerous books and films and that we keep our children away from them, too.

The irony of such kinds of mandates from religious leaders, as I see it, is that someone has to read the books and see the movies in order to be informed enough to know whether or not to discourage the flock from reading and/or viewing them. I have a number of reactions to ministers/priests when they do this. First, I am always somewhat insulted that they presume to know better (or can know better) than I as to what constitutes appropriate book reading and movie viewing. Second, I get put out that they seem to think that it is somehow o.k. for them to read controversial books and watch controversial movies. And third, I get especially huffy if they haven't read the book or seen the film, and yet still presume to tell me that I shouldn't do either on the basis of some secondhand reaction.

I know that most religious leaders are well-intentioned, but I'd rather that they restricted themselves to doing their jobs in the pulpit in interpreting the meaning of scripture, and then let us decide through our God-given minds and critical thinking skills, and based on the meaning of scripture they provide, what is appropriate to consume in our popular culture as opposed to what is not appropriate to consume.

Cold/Heat Miser: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Performing

Remember this from the Classic Rankin/Bass Production, The Year Without A Santa Claus? It was (and remains) one of my favorite Christmas cartoon experiences of all time. This particular YouTube clip nicely matches the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy version of the tune with the actual scene from the original film. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Who is Huck_Martha?

Hmmm. I was reading the comments to this posting over at the Right Wing News blog and I noticed this comment:

I'm curious. Who do you consider the "founder" of Christianity? Emperor Constantine ?

Posted by Huck_Martha
December 8, 2007 9:00 PM |
I don't know who the heck this "Huck_Martha" person is, but I can assure anyone from RWN who might wonder, it is certainly not I. (As proof, please know that I would never write "Who do you consider ..." Such bad grammar. The correct thing to write, which I would always do, is "Whom do you consider ...") Still ... I think the person who posts under the numerous "Martha" reincarnations is a certifiable nutcase. And it angers me that this person would create such a username knowing full well about my history at RWN. I would expect anyone who knows of my history at RWN to keep any part of my identity out of what s/he does. And this "Martha" character has been around RWN long enough to certainly know about me. I only hope the "Huck" part of the "Huck_Martha" signature comes more from the rise of Mike Huckabee and not because "Martha" is somehow harking back to me when I posted there as "huckupchuck." (Aside: The rise of Mike Huckabee, especially his collaboration with Chuck Norris on a well-known campaign ad has really been a kind of curse for The Huck Upchuck.) Back to "Huck_Martha" ... I don't know how long "Huck_Martha" has been posting at RWN, but I hope that account is banned forthwith.

Because It's Sunday: Jorge Aragão performing Ave Maria

Jorge Aragão, one of Brazil's renowned samba and pagode composers and performers, gives us a stirring rendition of the Ave Maria, pagode style.


From the Archives: Why We Won't Homeschool Our Children

[NOTE: I wrote this a few years back. I've edited it a bit simply to update some of the time relevant parts, but thought I'd post it again because the basic content and gist of it still reflects my thinking on the subject.]

My wife and I seriously considered home schooling for our children. Ultimately, we decided against it; but for a reason that is a bit different than what one normally hears from home schooling critics, though the reasons most often listed by this group (social skill development concerns, etc.) certainly helped to inform our decision as well. But, I also agree with those who say that the social skills argument against home schooling is not a very convincing argument on its own. In my experience, home-schooled kids are perfectly capable and pleasant social beings, they just socialize in a way that we don't usually associate with conventional child social behavior. The problem my wife and I ultimately had with home-schooling can be gleaned in this comment by a home school advocate and practitioner, which I find to be fairly typical for homeschoolers:

There are so MANY options out there now for kids outside of school for this involvement in some form of greater supervision. A variety of sports, boy/girl scouts, karate, drama and dance, church involvement..and normal hanging out with other kids (again, homeschool families network like crazy and go out of their way to plan "get togethers.")
In my mind the two cautionary elements in this comment have to do specifically with the phrases "greater supervision" and "to plan 'get togethers.'" Both detract from a child's ability to have his or her "own" learning/life experience. All aspects of such a child's life are planned, supervised, and guarded. And all activities that such children do are tinged with parental sanction and approval. Not that this is bad, necessarily, but it certainly is a "conditioned" experience. And in my mind, this leaves little room for children to learn to deal on their own with self-control, moral behavior, and difficult problem-solving - minus the watchful, protective, sheltering gaze of the protective parent (or parental figure).

I think it is true that the most important teaching about social interaction and even the process of learning comes in the context of the home and in the way parents raise their children to think and behave ... BUT, children need an opportunity to put their discerning abilities to the test WITHOUT the umbrella of the parental and "home" cocoon. And the classroom of a good, respectable school (whether private or public) is, in my opinion, the best place for kids to come into their own.

In the end, my wife and I are sending our children to a good public school. It's not without its challenges, but it's worked great for our children so far. They are developing strong independent identities and are becoming very self-confident.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Our President and His Legacy

This is what we've represented to the world over the past 7 years:

Great role model for this:

Ahem ... well ... at least we can give some props to the young woman for being beautiful and some slack for being young. What's Bush's redemption and/or excuse?

[Hat tip to Drive-By Blogger for introducing me to the Bush clip.]

Top 10 Christmas Movies

Here's The Huck Upchuck's Top 10 Christmas Movies of all time:

10. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey -- This may not be on par with some of the better full-length feature films that treat Christmas, but I have always adored this little 22 minute Bass/Rankin animated Christmas story. I guess it's thematically of a piece with the classic "Little Drummer Boy" Bass/Rankin animated short, but I like it better because it's not as well known and gives the animals of the Christmas story their moment. And who can forget: "Ears, Nestor!" :-) This is the only Bass/Rankin animated production that I'll include in my list, though there are certainly some more classics in this bunch of Christmas shorts that entertain the little ones every Christmas season. Honorable mentions in this category of "claymation" Christmas classics include The Year Without a Santa Claus, which features the Heat Miser, the Cold Miser, and Mother Nature, and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

9. Barbie in the Nutcracker -- Given that I have two young daughters, it's hard not to find room for something like this in the Top 10 list. However, I have to say that this is actually quite a very impressive digital computer animated adaptation of the Nutcracker story. It's the first of these Barbie movies, and I remember thinking how graphically stunning it was at the time. The music and the dancing scenes in this version of the Tchaikovsky-scored Ballet are also quite good. None of the many subsequent Barbie animation movies compares in both production quality and plotline development as this original one. If you can overlook the whole Barbie culture and how it crafts an unrealistic and idealistic notion of female beauty, you can find a little gem of a Christmas movie here.

8. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas -- This charming muppet musical Christmas story from Jim Hensen conjures nostalgic Christmas memories for me. It is filled with all the great Christmas themes of selflessness, love, family, and friendship. It's not as technically slick as some of our modern day animation and muppetry, but it was a masterpiece of its day. I just love the sweetness and wholesomeness of this lovely little story, and the tunes are catchy and fun. Heck, even the bad guys in this story, the Riverbottom Boys Gang, have their own redeeming charm. Another little interesting tidbit to note is that the actors who provide the voices for Emmet Otter and his jug band friends also provide the voices for the characters in the Riverbottom Boys gang. It's fun to try and identify the alter egos in these two groups. Yes, there are times when the puppetry is so noticeable that it distracts from the story, but I am always struck by how few these moments are. For families with kids 12-yrs-old and younger, this Jim Hensen masterpiece should be a Christmas standard.

7. The Nativity Story - While I found The Nativity Story to be a bit superficial and overly simplistic, it is perhaps the best effort that I've seen to portray the nativity story on film with somewhat of a realistic feel, even though I think its pretensions to realism cynically mask what is essentially a romanticized and imaginary representation of history. The script is perhaps the weakest element of this movie, and the plotline is thin and incomplete in parts; and, unfortunately, the scene where a laboring Mary and Joseph arrive at Nazareth and make their way to the manger for the climactic birth of Jesus is so surreal that it almost sinks the realist believability of the whole movie. Nevertheless, it gets my recommendation for effort and for its undeniably impressive cinematography, not to mention the subtle beauty of actress Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary and the wonderful performance of Ciaran Hinds as Herod.

6. The Polar Express -- This slick, cgi animated telling of the classic train-to-the-north-pole story merits a place in my top ten because it is visually stunning cgi animation. The storyline is 100% pure Christmas spirit -- of giving, friendship, and faith. I originally thought that the movie would be too saccharine for me and would wear off after the initial viewing and captivating animation "honeymoon" period. However, I found this not to be the case. Every time I'm in a room and this show is on the TV screen, I find myself drawn to it, less so for the visuals and moreso for the storyline. Most of the kids are slight caricatures, and it really is an unabashed feel-good movie, but it all tends to work in the end. I think this movie will become part of the classic Christmas movie lineup.

5. A Christmas Carol -- Of the numerous versions of this Dickens classic Christmas tale that exist, and that I have seen, the one that I find to be the most moving, best directed, and most skillfully acted is the 1984 version produced for TV starring George C. Scott. What I love about this particular version is that George C. Scott's Ebeneezer Scrooge is so understated. Unlike the Scrooge one sees in almost all other productions, Scott's Scrooge is not the caricatured heartless and unreflective miser that experiences an over-dramatic conversion. Scott's Scrooge is a troubled and conflicted soul, wracked by regrets, who hardens his heart principally as a mechanism of avoiding pain and disappointment. His greed and vindictiveness are not really central to his character. They exist, but they are sidebars to the real roots of his anti-social behavior. And his conversion does not come from fear, but rather from an awareness and eventual acceptance of his brokenness as a human, and that this brokenness is not unique and can be repaired. What I also like about Scott's Scrooge is that his "converted" character is softer, but still retains some of his gruff and troubled edges. In other words, when Christmas day dawns, he's not a completely different and unrecognizable Scrooge, as is so often portrayed, just a more vulnerable and human Scrooge, willing to open up, share, and smile.

4. Miracle on 34th Street -- I prefer the classic 1947 movie starring Natalie Wood as the little girl and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. There is something about the 1940s that makes the telling of this tale of belief in Santa resonate much more powerfully than the more recent 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough. The simplicity of the Christmas message, the lack of pretense in the characters, the absence of a post-modern angst about the meaning of Christmas all make the 1947 movie such a joy to watch. What is interesting, I think, is that this particular movie takes on much, much better the alienation that has come with the creeping materialism of the holiday season than any other modern efforts. It's a refreshing, clean, wholesome and inspiring film. And its relevance to the contemporary Christmas environment is still very much real.

3. A Christmas Story -- One's top 10 Christmas movies list would never be complete without this classic included somewhere in the list. For me, this story ranks up there with the best of them. Maybe it's because I'm a guy and this film is really about little boys at Christmas. Ralphie's daydreams are hilarious, especially his "A+++++++++++" essay daydream. And who can forget the irony of the "You'll shoot your eye out!" admonition that actually almost happens. As a parent, I can't say that I'm thrilled about the fact that Ralphie creates the whopper lie that "the Icicle did it" when his Red Rider BB Gun almost puts his eye out, and then gets away with it! But, hey, what little boy hasn't gone down this path? I do, however, feel obliged to issue a warning to parents, though. This movie is marketed as suitable for Children, but beware that there are some really rough, uncensored moments of strong profanity here. It's a movie that is very much politically incorrect, so some might find some of the humor a bit much. But, if taken in the right spirit, it can make for an enjoyable film experience.

2. Love, Actually -- I just love, love, love this modern British movie. It's not really about Christmas, but it takes place around the Christmas season, and its theme is about the mundane beauty of love. The different vignettes are wonderfully done, and the cast is star-studded and stellar. What I particularly like about it is that not all of the stories have a happy ending, but all of them are about love in the Christmas season. Bill Nighy's irreverent performance is absolutely fantastic, and the proposal scene between Colin Firth's character and his Portuguese beauty is so classically romantic that I can watch it over and over and over again, and never get tired of it. And the fact that I know a bit of Portuguese helps me better appreciate the moment. Oh ... I get all wound up just thinking about all the dramas in this movie. I could go on and on about it. And, though I could have done without the sappy kiddie-crush subplot, even this, with some screening of the some fo the more adult scenes, makes it something even the tweens could enjoy. I should say, though, that there are some adult moments, and not all of the film is appropriate for young people, even tweens. For instance, one of the story lines features two characters who are stand-in doubles for what is apparently a porn film, and their scenes often involve nudity and sexually explicit actions, though the relationship itself is ironically sweet and innocent, which makes the contrast with the porn thing all the more stark. Overall, though, I think this film is just fantastic, and the message of love, in all its complex messiness and varied context, can't be beat. Highly recommended, but with appropriate caution when youngsters are involved.

1. It's a Wonderful Life -- I don't care how cheesy, overplayed, and overdramatized some think this movie is, it's still the best Christmas story out there. And I still get all choked up every time I see that last scene when everyone shows up and showers George Bailey with more money than he could ever need to resolve his dilemma. As an actor and person, Jimmy Stewart is one of the best. And Lionel Barrymore's portrayal of the villain, Henry F. Potter, is more classic Scrooge than Scrooge himself!

PS: I'll repost this when we get closer to Christmas.

UPDATE 12/7/07 10:30AM: I originally ran this post in mid-November, and thought it time to run it again now.

[NOTE: Hat tip to commenter Good_Ol_Boy at the Right Wing News blog, for suggesting this in a comment thread.]

Faith in the White House

We've heard a lot recently about religious faith and its relevance to the job of President. In fact, religious faith is being used in both positive and negative ways already in the campaigning in ways that I cannot ever remember being so prominent. It seems that religious faith is almost the central defining feature of this primary campaign season.

For instance, Arkansas Governor, and Candidate for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Mike Huckabee, attributes his current rise in the the polls and in popularity exclusively and completely to his Christian God and the power of prayer. Here's a clip of Huckabee, without any hesitation at all, making this bold (and dare I say outlandish) claim in a Q&A session at Liberty University:

Here's a man running for President, just one of any number of believers, mind you (so why would God privilege his campaign over others??), who is claiming a kind of religious mandate for office, yet who said at a Presidential debate that Jesus himself wouldn't be running for President. We can all make what we will of this; but I'm only here to point out how central religious faith is to Huckabee's campaign and how he has inserted this directly into the political space of the Presidential race.

Then there's Mitt Romney, who recently made a major speech defending his Christian religious credentials against the questions being raised about his Mormon faith. It really hasn't been since 1960, when John F. Kennedy gave a speech defending himself against questions raised about his suitability for the Presidency because of his Catholicism. The difference, though, is that now Romney defends himself by using the "America is a country of many faiths" argument, while demanding the requirement of religious faith (of some kind, at least) for the Presidency. Andrew Sullivan has a go at this element of the Romney campaign. Romney's speech is really more for the members of the GOP, and so I'm content to let the right wing punditocracy squabble internally about how much Romney's Mormonism matters. But, again, my point here is not to judge, but simply to point out the centrality of religious faith to the current political Presidential campaign environment.

Then there's Barack Obama. I, myself, have been impressed and inspired by the manner in which Obama embraces and speaks on the subject of religious faith in the political sphere. But, even here, though I think he speaks on the subject in an ecumenical and universalizing way, Barack Obama contributes to the movement of making religious faith central to the political process. Recently, though, Barack Obama has been the subject of the nastier side of this process. He has been cloaked with the mantra of Islam, by his rivals on the right as well as his competitors on the left, as if doing so will tarnish his reputation by affiliating him with the "evil" religion of the terrorists.

Now, what do I think on the subject? Well, I do think there is a place for discussing religion and faith in the public space. And I do think our political leaders should be forthright about their faith. They should not use the legitimate notions of secular government and church/state separation to relegate the importance of their religious faith to the background of their identities. However, that is not to say that religion should be a litmus test for one's suitability to be the President. A candidate can certainly make a good President and also demonstrate a strong faith commitment. There is a line, though, that I believe should divide faith and politics. It is when folks begin advocating the erasure of this line and the merging of these realms of faith and politics that I begin to have problems with it. I think this threshhold is where the candidates sort themselves out. When it comes to what I think is an appropriate relationship between faith and politics, I put Barack Obama, Fred Thompson, and Ron Paul on one side, the side whose candidates don't hide their faith, but who also don't make their faith also the rock base of their political platform; and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee on the other side, the side whose candidates root their politics fully in faith. The former candidates value the importance of faith personally, but see an America where even those without faith of any kind are co-equal citizens. The latter candidates seem to want to cloak America with religion through public policy. And I'm very, very uncomfortable with that.

In the end, and in keeping with the intent of this posting, I should state that I value the inclusion of dialogue over faith in the public and political sphere, but only insofar as it is inclusive, nonjudgmental, and universalizing. We are all Americans, after all. Many of us are people of faith, and so we should be able to talk about this in the public sphere; many of us people of faith are people of different faiths, so this public dialogue should not presume the privileging of one faith over another; and, of course, some of us are not people of faith, which means that our public dialogue over faith as it relates to politics and citizenship should involve all citizens, even those with no religious faith, as equals in the discussion.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Assessment Reform???

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an exposé on how the new property tax assessment system isn't working as the "reformers" had hoped. Apparently, the same kind of "squeaky wheel gets the grease" syndrome is at work, only this time it's the private company subcontracted to handle appeals rather than the assessors themselves. Here's how the article starts:

If most homeowners came away smiling after successfully seeking lower assessments from the firm hired by the city to manage 6,000 appeals, the city's seven assessors were less thrilled with the outcome.

In about one-third of the cases in which they were overturned, the assessors are appealing the appeals. In defense of their original valuations, the assessors have asked the state Tax Commission to review about 1,350 properties that received reductions from the City Council, which acted on the advice of the law firm Frilot LLC.

To some assessors, the privatized process was riddled with the same capriciousness for which assessors have long been criticized. The old system came under fire because it promoted cozy relations between homeowners and the people who decide how much their houses are worth.
Well, well, well ...

"Appealing the appeals" ?!?!?! I wonder how much that's going to cost the taxpayer.

Anyway ...

It appears that some of my fears about the "reform" movement, particularly the principle of "outsourcing" the assessment process to an unelected and unaccountable private subcontractor, which formed a part of the "IQ" or "I Quit" platform, are coming home to roost. The more we outsource or privatize public policy decision-making (such as tax collection) away from the elected officials who are specifically elected by the people to do this job, the measure of accountability goes down a notch. Now, we have a situation where Assessors can claim that they were doing the very difficult job that the electorate demanded of them, but that the outsourcing of the appeals process is resulting in more of the same inequities that previously existed. The difference is, now, that taxpayers are footing the bill not only for the salaries of the Assessors and their offices, but also the costs of this independent and private subcontractor hired to handle appeals that should have been handled by the Assessors themselves. The way the Assessors are talking now, including IQ reformer Nancy Marshall, they'd have us believe that their hands are tied by the City Council and the Tax Commission. And, truth be told, their complaints are justified. They were elected to do a job, which should include handling the appeals to their own assessments, and yet the "privatization" of part of the job to an unelected and unaccountable third party has meant that we can now STILL have gross inequities in the assessment process, but that the assessors, whom we elect for the job, can't be held accountable. That was part of my beef with the IQ movement to begin with. They wanted to "quit," to absolve themselves ultimately of the responsibilities of the job and to use their salaries to pay for a better-qualified, non-political, unelected, professional, and "objective" private assessment authority to fix the problem. Well, they quit part of their job (which is handling the appeals) and look where it got them. Look where it got us.

I sniffed some of these problems out from the beginning. I lamented the fact that the assessment and appeals processes were not transparent and clear. I feared adding another layer of disconnect between the voter and the decision-makers that characterized the IQ movement. I deplored the IQ movement not for its representation of a need for reforming the assessment process, but for its cynical treatment of the democratic process in doing so, for its plans that I saw as an effort to remove assessments even further from elected officials and, thus, public accountability.

So I ask now, especially to IQ movement supporters, when looking at this joke of an appeals process that smacks of institutionalized and privatized cronyism (you know, the softer, gentler side of private sector customer service philosophy, where the customer is "always right") whom do we punish at the polls the next time around?

My recommendation is that we force the Assessors not to "quit" their jobs, not to "quit" even any part of their jobs, but to reclaim the whole kit-and-kaboodle, from determining assessment to dealing with appeals directly, and to do it right and competently according to the expectations of the people who elected them.

There's so much more to be said on this point, and I'll probably say more on this myself in the upcoming weeks, but I'll stop here for now, take a breath to try to cool my boiling blood, and listen to what you have to say.

UPDATE: Tuesday, December 4, 7:26pm: Oyster at Your Right Hand Thief has a different reaction. In fact, we're kinda at strong loggerheads on this point. I think it's because we both are a bit personally invested in aspects of the assessment issue. He's graciously linked to me in an update to his original posting. He also has a much more detailed critique of my posting in the comments section (to which I responded), so be sure to read them. Let me just say that I respect Oyster's position and see the value of his points. He argues that I lack a sense of history and proportion. I don't think so. I think, if anything, I'm too much wracked by a sense of history and proportion. I think Oyster is so invested in the success of the current reform process (and I should note that I, too, hope for the best), that he is willing to overlook the obvious: the same patterns are present, albeit under different "management." He wants to look forward with positive energy to a new game, as do we all, but we still need to be vigilant lest we let our hopes blind us to the process of continuing to exorcise the ghosts that go much deeper than who occupies the assessor's chair. He makes the case that I'm "letting the perfect be an enemy of the good." That's one way to look at it, I suppose. But, as I wrote in a comment to his posting over at YRHT, I'd describe my attitude more as not letting an imperfect better be an excuse for the bad. And, I don't know about you all, but what I read on the front page this morning in the Times-Picayune, especially when coupled with the picture and caption of the recent assessment history of 1442 Nashville Ave., was bad.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

O Amor é um Rock

One of my recent favorites from Brazilian songwriter and musician Tom Zé. Enjoy this rather unique, enigmatic, and philosophical take on the contours of "love."

"O amor é egoista," indeed!

Free the St. Tammany Six!

The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an interesting, but troubling story today of the unlawful detention and imprisonment of illegal migrant workers who are witnesses to a murder. Here's the basic crux of the situation:

Because they were illegal immigrants as well as material witnesses to the April 29 crime, the men were immediately taken into custody and have remained in jail for the past seven months: first in St. Tammany, then in federal custody, then back to the north shore. For the first six months, they didn't have an attorney.

They're stuck in a perilous limbo, in the fissure between state and federal government -- trapped between prosecutors, who need them to testify at the trial of four suspects, and immigration officials, who would deport them if they were released.
Here's my take on the situation. If we are a country of laws, then regardless of what our position is on the illegal immigration question, if we are going to make obedience to the law and its enforcement the cornerstone of our social order, much less as our approach to the illegal immigration problem, we should at least respect the law ourselves. Currently, the law, like it or not, does not allow for the detention and imprisonment of individuals, even illegal immigrants, without formally charging them with a specific crime and beginning the process of hearing the case according to established legal procedures. (Except, of course, if someone is identified as an "enemy combatant" by the President, which could erase even one's basic human rights, but that's another topic altogether and is irrelevant to this case since none of these illegal immigrants, as far as I know, have been declared "enemy combatants" by the President.)

Seems to me that our system of laws, if we pretend to still be a country of laws, requires one of the following courses of action: (1) charging these six individuals with a crime (legitimately verifiable and not trumped-up) that warrants such lengthy detention and imprisonment according to the law, as well as providing them with the corresponding rights to legal representation and due process; (2) releasing them immediately from jail, and accepting that they may be deported in accordance with immigration law and may thus prevent the ability of prosecutors to call them as witnesses in a murder trial that would put violent criminals behind bars and provide for the safety of the general public; (3) making an accommodation with federal immigration authorities that normalizes their legal resident status in the United States that would subsequently prevent their immediate deportation while securing their immediate release from prison. [ASIDE: There is, of course, a fourth option: having the POTUS declare these six people enemy combatants. But doing this would be nightmarish as it would confirm the worst fears of the cynical use and abuse of such authority imaginable -- even though, sadly, unthinkable that this would have been in different times, it would not come as a surprise to me if something like this were done.]

What is unconscionable and illegal is the status quo: keeping these six men, not charged with any crime, locked up in jail without sufficient legal representation (and withouth any legal representation for six months!) and due process of law.

Regardless of any other considerations, if we are a country of laws, and if we expect migrants to themselves obey our laws, this really should be a no-brainer: they should be freed immediately from jail in accordance with our laws. The argument that they don't deserve such privileges because they are illegal immigrants is a non-starter argument. Those who would make such an argument would be doing so on the basis of wishful thinking and not on the basis of sound legal grounding and precedent. For those who think this way, the long term solution is to get legislators to craft laws that would serve justice all around instead of having to carry out (or at the very least tolerate) one injustice and violation of the law in the pursuit of rectifying another injustice and upholding the law. In the meantime, though, it seems to me that the correct and proper course of action in accordance with the law is clear:

Free the St. Tammany Six!