'/> Uncommon Hours: April 2010
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Our Planet Needs the Humanities

It’s not a big leap from, say, the decline of humanities education in the U.S. and the surge of anti-intellectualism best personified by (though not restricted to) the Tea Party movement to the seemingly unstoppable collective suicide we’re committing by ravaging this planet.

In Kansas, the same legislators who defend coal-fired utility plants and annual prairie burning just voted to slash education budgets statewide, while nationwide, we’re looking at 150,000 to 300,000 teacher layoffs.

President Obama, who is holding firm on offshore drilling even as a massive disaster in the Gulf tragically illustrates the many ways this approach to energy independence is wrong-headed, has also taken the side of those who see education as predominantly serving to enhance corporate competitiveness in a global world rather than as a vital component in the preservation and enrichment of our democracy. His stated opposition (at once both politically shrewd and toothless) to the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporate citizenship and to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s decision to hack that much farther into the civil liberties of Americans notwithstanding, Obama’s intensified standards for No Child Left Behind continue to denude our classrooms of any function beyond test preparation, which in turn deprives students of the humanistic knowledge and thinking skills needed to challenge the militant anti-intellectualism of the Palins, Becks, Limbaughs, and Bushes, who are waging a successful campaign against civility, learning, imaginative & critical thinking, and ultimately our democracy.

I found this piece by Troy Jollimore stimulating, as it addresses first causes and leads one to ask whether environmental sanity isn't directly connected to students having the opportunity to read widely in literature, philosophy, and history, and whether they will have teachers with the preparation, dedication, and resources needed to guide that reading and raise meaningful questions about it.

"Why Democracy Needs the Humanities"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poet Ted Kooser appears at the University of Kansas

Ted Kooser, the nation’s 13th Poet Laureate, is as understated as his poems. He appeared last evening at the University of Kansas, in conjunction with National Poetry Month, where he read from his poetry and responded to questions from an audience of about 150.

He is a slender man with receding gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, who finds humor and poetry in the objects and people that surround us but seem to have little or no dramatic interest – an elderly couple sharing a sandwich in a restaurant, a woman tossing dishwater from the back porch, the sound of a plane overhead in the middle of the night.

Kooser described his preference to be “outside the poem, like the spy in the hotel lobby.” Most of his poems are short lyrics of observation, but he brings to them refreshing and precise metaphors that remind us of why poetry matters, why we need poets to aid us in seeing the world clearly.

In “The Rainy Morning,” for instance, we watch as “the wind turns the pages of rain.” The old man in “Two Men on an Errand” has “white hair fine as a cirrus cloud.” And the skater in Kooser’s poem by the same name lands her jump on a frozen Nebraska pond, “smiling back at the woman she’d been just an instant before” – a metaphor that suggests not only her movement through time, but her success at landing the jump, previously anticipated, yet to be accomplished, with failure a prospect, and all of that immanent in the image.

During the questions, he was asked what advice he had for aspiring poets, and his response was simple: read.

“Read one hundred poems for every one try to write,” he said, adding, “Reading is the most important thing you can do.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

'Oil companies 1, Environment 0'

From SocialistWorker.org:

The Obama administration has given the go-ahead to offshore oil drilling--despite the risk to the land, water and wildlife along hundreds of miles of U.S. coastline.

April 7, 2010

WASN'T IT Barack Obama who, a year and a half ago, mocked rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin for the frenzied chants of "Drill, baby, drill" at their rallies?

"What kind of slogan is that?" Obama told a Flint, Mich., crowd. "I can see if you're cheerleaders for Exxon Mobil, but that's not a vision for the American future."

Now, Obama is president, and he's announced his own version of "drill, baby, drill": Plans to open up the U.S. shoreline--from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, and the north coast of Alaska--to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the very first time.

"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," Obama said last week. "But the bottom line is this: given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

However heavily considered the decision was, the Obama administration has given the go-ahead for what could be a tremendous danger to millions of acres of U.S. coastlines.

In just the past decade, an estimated 1 billion gallons of oil has been spilled into oceans around the world. Plus, the areas on the north coast of Alaska that were opened to drilling by Obama--the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea--are especially vulnerable to climate change right now. Drilling would only worsen the impact.

Not only that, but the White House used the goal of "energy independence" to explain its giveaway to the oil industry--the same language used for years by conservatives to justify policies that put the interests of Big Oil first.

According to political commentators, Obama's decision on offshore drilling is a tradeoff. The administration hopes to gain support from Republicans for energy legislation under consideration in Congress. Apparently, it's worth opening up millions of acres of formerly protected shoreline to drilling if that means supposedly progressive policies in the energy bill, like caps on carbon emissions, would get through Congress.

But the administration's pro-market "cap and trade" proposal means leaving the polluters to trade the right to pollute, with no guarantee that this would result in any significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, environmentalists doubt that the cap-and-trade system will produce significant reductions in greenhouse gases, even if it works as promised.

And if the one-sided negotiations during the writing of the health care law are any indication, Republicans won't be moved by the Democrats' surrender on offshore drilling to sign on to the energy bill as a whole.

In fact, it appears that Obama's announcement was aimed more at Democrats. The climate and energy bill drafted by the bipartisan team of Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham would open up 600 million acres of coastline for drilling, and would reportedly let states decide whether to permit drilling within 35 miles of their coasts. States that opt in would get a cut of the profits.

Several Democratic senators are jumping at the chance--among them, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska. "It will benefit no Alaskan to slow the advance of climate change's effects if no one can afford to rebuild their eroding village, meet a payroll or heat their home," Begich wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

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EVEN SETTING aside the ecological impact, the Obama administration's offshore drilling policy fails miserably on its own narrow terms--of solving the problem of dwindling energy resources.

According to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "[A]ccess to the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf [offshore] regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." Even then, drilling on the previously protected portions of the outer continental shelf would cut gas prices by just three cents, according to estimates.

As Kate Sheppard wrote in Mother Jones:

"[The U.S.] accounts for 23 percent of total world oil consumption, but has only 3 percent the world's oil reserves within its borders. Drilling off every coast in the U.S. won't resolve that issue. Even the most productive portion of the area opened to drilling, the eastern Gulf, is expected to yield only 3.5 billion barrels of oil. The U.S. consumes 19.5 million barrels of oil per day, which means that these wells would only produce about 180 days worth of oil."

The Obama administration's drilling announcement can't come as too much of a surprise--Democrats have been working up to it.

In October 2008, Congress, with a Democratic majority in both houses, let a decades-old moratorium on offshore drilling expire. Months before, the Bush administration had lifted an executive order--put in place by George Bush Sr.--that banned offshore exploration. Obama could have issued his own order when took office, but he didn't.

In his State of the Union address, Obama--right after vowing to build a "new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants"--declared that his administration would make the "tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

The same "tough-mindedness" was on display in Copenhagen last December at the international climate summit. After promising to rescue of initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions, including in the U.S., Obama arrived at the summit with proposals that fell pathetically short of what's needed to slow global warming.

After Obama's announcement about offshore drilling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar painted the plan as a "compromise," between the Republicans' "drill, baby, drill" mantra and what he called the "unreasonable" stance of environmental groups.

But there shouldn't be any "compromise" on protecting the environment. Instead of pursing truly reasonable policies--imposing tough curbs on corporate polluters, taxing the oil giants, devoting much more money to researching alternative energy--the Obama administration let the oil companies call the shots.

Big Oil's interest is in squeezing every drop they can from the coastlines, no matter the environmental impact, until it isn't profitable anymore.

We should speak out against this giveaway--of the future of land, water and wildlife, from one end of the U.S. to the other--to Corporate America

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Norman Solomon: 'A Bomber Jacket Doesn't Cover the Blood'

A Bomber Jacket Doesn't Cover the Blood

By Norman Solomon
March 29, 2010

President Obama has taken a further plunge into the kind of war abyss that consumed predecessors named Johnson, Nixon and Bush.

On Sunday, during his first presidential trip to Afghanistan, Obama stood before thousands of American troops to proclaim the sanctity of the war effort. He played the role deftly--a commander in chief, rallying the troops--while wearing a bomber jacket.

There was something candidly macabre about the decision to wear that leather jacket, adorned with an American Eagle and the words “Air Force One.” The man in the bomber jacket doesn’t press the buttons that fire the missiles and drop the warheads, but he gives the orders that make it all possible.

One way or another, we’re used to seeing presidents display such tacit accouterments of carnage.

And the president’s words were also eerily familiar: with their cadence and confidence in the efficacy of mass violence, when provided by the Pentagon and meted out by a military so technologically supreme that dissociation can masquerade as ultimate erudition--so powerful and so sophisticated that orders stay light years away from human consequences.

The war becomes its own rationale for continuing: to go on because it must go on.

A grisly counterpoint to Obama’s brief Afghanistan visit is a day in 1966 when another president, in the midst of escalating another war, also took a long ride on Air Force One to laud and boost the troops.

In South Vietnam, at Cam Ranh Bay, President Johnson told the American soldiers: “Be sure to come home with that coonskin on the wall.”

Then, too, thousands of soldiers responded to the president’s exhortations by whooping it up. And then, too, the media coverage was upbeat.

In a cover story, Life quoted a corporal who called Johnson’s visit the “best morale booster Cam Ranh’s ever had.”

The magazine piece, written by an eminent journalist of the era, Shana Alexander, went on: “Certainly the corporal was right and so was [White House press secretary Bill] Moyers when he later compared the day to a sermon, in that so much of the real meaning is not in what the preacher says but in what his listeners hear.”

The article concluded that it had been a “wild and quite wonderful day.”

Fast forward 44 years.

“There’s going to be setbacks,” President Obama told the troops at Bagram Air Base. “We face a determined enemy. But we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something.”

The applause line lingered as the next words directly addressed the clapping troops: “You don’t quit, the American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.”

The president added: “And we’ll be there for you when you come home. It’s why we’re improving care for our wounded warriors, especially those with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. We’re moving forward with the post-9/11 GI Bill so you and your families can pursue your dreams.”

Those words provide a kind of freeze frame for basic convolution: The government will help veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to pursue their dreams.

In the realm of careful abstraction, where actual people are rendered invisible, best not to acknowledge how much better it would be if those veterans could pursue their dreams without suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries in the first place.

But such human realities are for private suffering, not public discourse.

The next morning, the front page of the New York Times reported that the president’s visit to Afghanistan “included a boisterous pep rally with American troops.”

Norman Solomon is national co-chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign, launched by Progressive Democrats of America. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” For more information, go to: http://www.normansolomon.com/.