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Archive for August, 2009

Today is a big day: my brother Jake crosses over into teenagerhood, it is Lyndon Johnson’s 101st birthday and Glenn Beck has done something that made the copy editor in me smile.

I’ll be back with more substantial content … umm … soon.

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I’m only 30 minutes into this, but it is well worth it.

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Diplomacy

Poor Hillary has been getting some negative press lately after her intemperate remarks in response to a question from a Kenyan student about her husband’s foreign policy views (by the way, since when doe NPR host “partner content” from National Review Online? Probably for much longer than I’ve realized). It was an undiplomatic, though understandable, reaction to what appeared at first blush a belittling question, but which may have just been a big misunderstanding.

But anyone who thinks that Hillary is incapable of responding diplomatically to offensive situations should note this tidbit: a Kenyan farmer has offered her 40 goats and 20 cows for her daughter Chelsea’s hand in marriage. Her response? “My daughter is her own person. I will convey your very kind offer to her.”

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This is where late night boredom+wikipedia leads you. It might be the most horrifying insect I’ve ever seen, but, as a lifelong hater of cockroaches, I sort of appreciate that there are creatures like this out there. I’m pretty sure this is going to give me nightmares when I eventually fall asleep.

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My Life as a Cat

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I think this weekend marks, for all intents and purposes, the end of summer for me. Yesterday, my folks drove me back here to Austin, and I spent my first night back in my beloved Goodall Wooten staying up late with friends, catching up on everything I’ve missed while away.

When I left town in May, I talked the manager into making my room the building storage room so that I wouldn’t have to move my things out. It worked out well enough … until now. You see, the people who have stored things haven’t moved back in yet, so I am making do as well as I can in a room that is stacked floor to ceiling with other people’s things.

It is habitable enough: there is a path from the door to the bed and from the bed to the bathroom, but mobility (and access to my stuff, which is buried under cascades of everyone else’s) is pretty limited. So I have spent a lot of time down in the lobby, reading, chatting with people and generally wasting time in the absence of anything productive to do.

Showering this morning presented some unique challenges, though. First of all, my shower supplies were packed away in difficult-to-get-to places, and only after I had disrobed did I realize that I didn’t have any shampoo. I spent a few futile minutes climbing, naked and catlike, over the teetering piles of boxes, in search of my shampoo before admitting defeat and washing my hair with soap (which worked pretty well, actually). Only after the shower did I realize that I didn’t have any toothpaste, either.

I have stocked up on the necessary hygiene equipment, and am confident that in the next few days, as people show up to claim their belongings, my life as a cat can draw to a close.

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wilson damI am still slogging my way though Robert Caro’s monstrous biography of Lyndon Johnson: I am now a little over 500 pages into the 800-page volume one of four, The Path to Power. Caro is pretty great- just when I’m getting tired of reading about LBJ, he will spend a chapter or two following a tangent- chronicling in miniature the life of someone who impacted, or was impacted by, Johnson. In the last few chapters, I have gotten a mini-bio of Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the Texas and later the US House who guided Johnson’s political ascent from congressional secretary to whiz kid congressman, Alice Long, the high society hostess with whom Johnson had his first affair (and who, 30 years later, burned the love letters he had sent her over the years so that her “granddaughter would never know that she was associated with the man responsible for Vietnam”) and a vivid description of the hardships of life in the Texas Hill Country pre-electricity and running water (in lieu of toilet paper that was too expensive for impoverished farm families, pages from Sears & Roebucks catalogs-and corncobs-were commonly used).

I have also gotten a short history of the dispute over the building and ownership of the Wilson Dam in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a struggle which, in the 1920s and 30s, lay at the heart of the question of ownership of public resources and the question of what imperative to public service the private utility monopolies had, if any.

Work on the Dam was begun during the early stages of the first world war to provide electricity for nearby factories that were producing nitrates for ammunition and explosives.

Caro writes:

The dam, with its associated factories, cost a total of $145 million, and after the war the question arose as to who was to receive the permanent benefit of this government investment: private utilities or the valley’s impoverished inhabitants, of whom only two in a hundred had electricity.

Caro writes of the crusading Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska, who fought to keep Muscle Shoals from being transferred to private ownership. Senator Norris authored two bills to authorize permanent government ownership of the dams, and sheperded them through congress, only to have the first vetoed by President Coolidge and the second vetoed by President Hoover, who remarked that the legislation represented “the negation of the ideals upon which our civilization is based.”

During my time in Washington DC this summer, I spent a fair amount of time arguing with one of my fellow GW students about the issues of the day. During an exchange about health care reform, he commented that one danger he sees in the proposed public option would be that it would leave private insurers unable to compete, forcing them to shut their doors. What’s wrong with that, I replied: after all, if the government can provide access to the same quality care for cheaper, all the better for the consumer.

He seemed taken aback by that, and replied that my disregard for the interests of private insurance companies was “so un-American!”

The same discursive elements that undergirded opposition to public ownership of utilities in the 1920s and 30s seems to be undergirding at least some of the opposition to publicly provided health insurance today. Its roots extend back far before Reagan, but he seems to be the most effective anti-government mudslinger, which may be one reason why he has become such a conservative idol (another, surely, must be that boundless charisma). My Republican friend is just another of the countless who have carried that banner into the health care debate- the idea, which I have previously dismissed as a sort of fuzzy libertarianism, that leaving our access to health care in the hands of corporations whose interest lies in collecting premiums from us and denying coverage whenever possible is somehow the best way to preserve our “freedom.” The dismissal of the interests of government as necessarily antithetical to the interests of individuals ignores the potential-and the purpose-of government: to be an advocate for the interests of individuals. Corporate freedom is not one of, as Hoover suggests, the “ideals upon which our civilization is based.” Individual freedom, and the protection of individual rights against both government and corporate interference, is. Government can be wasteful, inefficient and corrupt, but it is also, ostensibly, the voice of the people, made up of the collaborative power of the people to protect the people, and it isn’t, necessarily, “the problem.” If it does become bloated and corrupt, we are better served in fixing it than in abandoning it.

As a New York state Senator and Governor, a young Franklin Roosevelt took up the cause of publicly constructed dams to generate hydroelectric power to provide electricity that could improve the lives of everyday Americans. Caro notes that at the top of a speech attacking “the utilities,” then-Governor Roosevelt scribbled a new introduction: “This is a history and a sermon on the subject of water power, and I preach from the Old Testament. The text is ‘Thou shalt not steal.'” Journalist John Gunther posed the question: “Who and what should own a river, if not the people as a whole?”

Months after he became President, Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which oversaw the building of 21 dams, and, along with Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration, helped to provide electricity to tens of thousands of impoverished farm families within its first few years of existence. Wilson Dam was the first to fall under the authority of the TVA.

It is important to remember-and I suspect that my conservative friends often forget-that the government, the “problem” that they rail against, is ostensibly of, for, and by the people, and it is still, at its best, the most powerful shield that the weak have to protect themselves against the assails of the powerful.

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Back in San Antonio

Well, I’ve made it back to San Antonio, chilling out with my family and fiancée. On Tuesday, I head back to Austin for a job interview, and on Saturday, I head back to start my final undergraduate semester. I have been working at the downtown Parker School Uniform store with my fiancée and doing some work around my grandmother’s house to make some money, as my summer without gainful employment has left me broke.

My blogging will likely become a lot more sparse over the next few months as I have a less computer-centric daily schedule, but I’ll maintain it as best I am able.

But this evening I did find myself with a few alone moments in front of the laptop, and I happened across this excellent post on one of my favorite blogs. It took my a while to get on board, but stick with it, it’s worth it.

One of these days, I’ll have to do a critique of all the marriage/commitment anxiety-themed advertising that has started showing up on my facebook page since I changed my relationship status to “engaged.” Sample text: “When you hear the two words “wedding planning” you want to vomit. We get it. Check out ThePlunge.com. Written by men, for men.”

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