Friday, October 16, 2009

Great Movie: No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti

A film that I suggested for the Film Columbia festival, “No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti” (“I Can’t Live Without You”), will be shown next week. Despite its Spanish title, the movie is from Taiwan, the story of an impoverished dock worker who tries to provide for his young daughter after the break up of his marriage. I saw a rough cut of the film during a visit to Taipei last December and was deeply moved by it. The writer/star/producer, Wen-Pin Chen, gave me a DVD copy that I passed on to the Chatham Film Club. Wen-Pin will fly in, stay with us and be there for the showing -- Saturday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. at Morris Memorial – to answer questions.

A tender story about love and its troubles, the movie also offers a striking portrait of layers of social and political inequality. It’s Taiwan’s submission to the Academy Awards this year.

Here’s the trailer:

- Langdon

Friday, October 09, 2009

Thoughts on the Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama came as a shock to many people, especially in the U.S. “But what has he accomplished?” the TV pundits complained. “It’s just too soon for him to be recognized in this way!” Much of the grumbling, in my view, badly misunderstands what the prize is all about and what it has become in recent years.

The story is long and complicated, but one turning point stands out. For many decades after its founding in the early 20th century, the Peace Prize Committee gave the award to presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and official international organizations. It was basically a way to recognize notable achievements in peace negotiations, including treaties, service to the U.N. and the like. Then, in 1973 the committee gave the prize to Henry Kissinger (of all people!) and also to Le Doc To for their efforts to end the Vietnam War. Whatever the opinion of this decision may have been around the world, it brought a fire storm of criticism in Norway because many people there regarded Kissinger as a war criminal for his policies of U.S. bombing in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The ensuing shake-up in the Peace Prize Committee gave it a new a tone and focus. If you look at the list persons and organizations that have won the Peace Prize since the Kissinger debacle, you’ll see an emphasis upon human rights and environmental activists along with humanitarians, often those whose work has become a major irritant to authoritarian political regimes. Yes, there are still prizes for heads of state and diplomats who’ve taken significant steps to lessen tensions and resolve conflicts within the community of nations. But the general thrust of the prize has been to recognize voices and strategies that promise long term improvement in human relationships and prospects for a healthy biosphere.

In that light, the Peace Prize is unlike those given in the sciences and literature. The accomplishment need not be evident in any tangible form. What is valued is the spirit of a body of work that moves the world in positive, humane directions. According to the criteria that govern the selection, the prize should be given to a person who has done the most to promote world peace during the previous year. This time the Committee’s statement simply affirms that Barack Obama deserves recognition “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." I don’t think there can be much quarrel with that judgment.

My own understanding of these matters stems from conversations with my friend and colleague, Norwegian historian Francis Sejersted, my host at a University of Oslo research center in the early 1990s and who was at the time Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. While he couldn’t discuss any specific deliberations about prize winners, he was fairly open about the general processes and sentiments that surround the operation. For example, he was greatly amused by the costly but ultimately futile public relations campaigns that try to promote particular candidates for the prize. “You’d be amazed at the stacks of materials that arrive at our door each day.” About Henry Kissinger he noted that the atmosphere of protest about the award evidently prevented him from coming to Oslo to receive it or to give the customary Nobel prize winner’s address. “But he did cash the check!” Sejersted said with a wink.

Over lunch one day I decide to poke fun at Francis about the direction and character of some of the recent decisions. “So let me see if I understand the process. You five guys in the Peace Prize Committee sit in a little room in downtown Oslo and ask: ‘OK, which nasty, brutal dictatorial regime shall we knock off this year?’ That’s how it works, right?”

Sejersted smiled and told me a story. “After the announcement of an award to a human rights advocate in South Asia, the president of the country in question asked angrily: ‘What difference does it make that a little group of Norwegians decide to give somebody a prize?’”

“He was perfectly right, of course” Francis agreed. “It shouldn’t make any difference that a group of people from a little country like Norway gives a prize!” Then he chuckled and said, “But is does make a difference. And the interesting thing is…no one knows why."

- Langdon Winner

Monday, September 28, 2009

Global citizens deliberate and vote on Global Warming policies

(from the organization's web page)

"On September 26, 2009, World Wide Views on Global Warming (WWViews) organized the first-ever, globe-encompassing democratic deliberation in world history. WWViews enabled roughly 4,400 citizens citizens from 38 countries all over the world to define and communicate their positions on issues central to the UN Climate Change negotiations (COP15), which take place in Copenhagen from December 7 – 18, 2009.

The main objective of WWViews is to give a broad sample of citizens from across the Earth the opportunity to influence global climate policy. An overarching purpose is to set a groundbreaking precedent by demonstrating that political decision-making processes on a global scale benefit when everyday people participate."

I observed the process at the meeting in Boston on Saturday. It was very well organized and exhilarating to behold. The results of all sessions can be found here, presented in ways that make comparisons across countries and regions very easy.

My initial impression of some of the results will, I hope, go up on the "experts blog. Meanwhile, here they are:

The meeting I observed in Boston was a far better example of citizen engagement than the Congressional town hall meeting on health care that I attended this summer. The World Wide Views model of public deliberation is a good one and should be used in a wide variety of issues that concern the global community of nations. While people’s views are fully expressed and respected, the meeting format does not allow obnoxious venting and grandstanding. [Sorry, Fox News.]

The results showed a very strong expression of concern about global warming. There was an overwhelming sense of urgency for achieving a strong climate agreement. In addition there was a pungent message that politicians in all nations must heed the deal made in Copenhagen this December and see that its provisions are put to work in practice.

Perhaps the strongest result was that 89% participants affirmed that short term reductions of carbon emissions in developing countries be reduced by 25-40%. This will come as a shock to world leaders who are aiming at targets much lower than that in the immediate future.

At the same time within the aggregate results, there were some themes that I found moderately worrisome.

A total of 43% of participants world wide seemed to say that a rise of 2 degrees Centigrade or higher is actually permissible. Reading the same figures, however, it’s also true that 89% of participants overall said that no more than 2 degrees increase would be acceptable. [Is the glass half empty or half full?]

2. Another unsettling feature was that among some national groups, raising the price of fossil fuels was not uniformly popular. Some 32% of U.S. participants said no price rise was desirable. Evidently, many Americans want the Age of Happy Motoring to continue. A substantial number people in the groups from Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and UK were also opposed to price hikes on fossil fuels.

3. Finally, I was interested in the data from question 2.4 about whether punitive sanctions should be applied. In the combined groups from the U.S.A., 29% said there should be no sanctions or only symbolic ones. This may be a residual expression of the feeling that rules and penalties made in international treaties don’t really apply to the United States. In contrast, some groups from countries in which democratic institutions are relatively feeble voted very strongly in favor of strategies of punishment.

That’s my first pass through this very interesting collection of data. I invite your thoughts on the matter. Send them to me by email:

Friday, August 07, 2009

Right wing intimidation at healthcare town meetings

Widespread attempts by Teabagger healthcare reform protestors to completely disrupt the congressional town hall meetings raise an interesting question. What kinds of conduct are appropriate at public meetings when intense disagreements and angry feelings arise?

Actually, I did a lot of shouting at speakers from the audience during my student days, including government spokesmen who'd come to campus to justify the Vietnam War. I recall one such meeting, perhaps 1966 or so, when William Bundy of the South Asia desk at the State Department spoke at U.C. Berkeley and was greeted by loud shouts and jeers. His host for the lecture, chair of the Political Science Department, scolded the crowd "for not letting Mr. Bundy speak." In fact, Mr. Bundy was able to deliver his whole talk, but with a good number of brief interruptions. At the time there was (usually) an understanding that while lies and deceptions should be answered forcefully on the spot, a speaker should be heard out fully, if not "respectfully."  The same etiquette used to cover (maybe still does) the speakers corner at Hyde Park in London -- a kind of noisy call and response, entertaining political theater. This is altogether different from the persistent Teabagger mob disruptions that try to intimidate people, shut down free speech and eliminate any exchange of views.

Hence, I think both of the following points are true:

1. Respect for free speech does not require us to sit quietly by as a speaker spews forth blatant falsehoods and vile prejudice.

2. Total disruption of public gatherings is contrary to freedom and democracy.

- Langdon

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Depression humor

At the wonderful, but lamentably very wet, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I visited a porta-potty. On the wall was a printed message: "You can rent this unit by the day, week, month."

Just underneath someone had written in felt tip pen: "I HAVE A HOME"

Saturday, July 25, 2009

At Obama's press conference last Wednesday, the main headline concerned an ugly racial incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts involving the false arrest of noted Harvard historian, Henry Louis Gates. But within the larger politics of another issue – health care reform, the very one Obama wanted to feature – there was a far more significant racial conflict brewing. The primary barrier to progress in writing the final healthcare bill comes less from obstructionist Republicans than from their fellow travelers, the "Blue Dog" Democrats who are blocking important policy changes, especially ones that would produce a "public option" in the "reform." In today's NYT it becomes clear that the obstructionist "Blue Dogs" are notably white and "nondiverse."

* * * * * * * * * * *

[Henry Waxman, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee:]

"We have to take up the legislation next week or acknowledge the fact that Democrats do not control the committee any longer," Mr. Waxman said. "I will not allow Blue Dogs to turn over control of the committee to Republicans, which they have threatened to do. I am troubled that some Democrats would rather align themselves with Republicans than work out their problems with fellow Democrats."

Representative Charlie Melancon, a Blue Dog Democrat from Louisiana, said passions were running high because "Mr. Waxman decided to sever discussion with Blue Dogs who are trying to get a bill that works for America." ….

The intraparty dispute had racial overtones. One African-American Democrat, Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia, pointed out that the seven Blue Dog Democrats holding up the health care bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee were "a nondiverse group" of white men.

"They should be more concerned about people who are dying than about their basic philosophy, which involves simply money," Mr. Johnson said. "Which is more important, money or live human beings with flesh and blood running through their veins, who cannot get health care?"

* * * * * * * * *

Of course, the real source blocking genuine reform in healthcare is big money: the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and other "medical industry" companies that buy votes with campaign funds to the Blue Dogs and others. I regret to say that among the Blue/Cross/White Dogs is my own congressman, Scott Murphy from upstate New York. I worked to get him elected, a terrible mistake in retrospect.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Healthcare in sane countries

An interesting post in Daily Kos, "WORDS YOU'LL NEVER HEAR IN THE CANADIAN HEALTHCARE SYSTEM," describes understandings and practices that many American would find utopian. But Canada is not the only example.

Over the years I've lived in Europe and Scandinavia for extended periods.  Each time my family and I were covered by health insurance provided by universities in the U.S.  What was notable, however, was the way in which extracting payment was not part of the drill over there.  When I'd say "We're covered by ..." they'd often say not to worry, that the charge was nominal anyway, and it was.  During a stay in Norway sixteen years ago we took our three young boys to clinics with a variety of minor illnesses.  When we'd ask, "How much do we owe you?" the doctor or person at the desk would say most emphatically, "Children don't pay!"  They were offended by our asking.

The difference comes in defining health care as a public good, equally available to all as a basic right, in contrast to the American understanding that has crept in over the past several decades that health is a profit center for the sellers, a consumer good for those able to pay.  I rank this "industry" second only to our military-industrial complex as a fount of deranged priorities and policies.

- Langdon

The wisdom of Confusedius

Insurance companies are to today's health, as leeches were to medieval medicine.

Just one example.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Apollo 11 Moon landing: a hollow anniversary

It’s fully predictable that the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission would be cause for widespread celebration, especially in the U.S.A. The basic accomplishment – flying a rocket ship 238, 800 miles to let the first human to set foot on the Moon – still ranks as a fascinating milestone in human history, something to place on the list with the first visit to the North Pole or the running of the first four minute mile. But while in July 1969 just about everyone agreed with Neil Armstrong’s proud proclamation that he’d made “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” today we’re entitled to ask: Exactly what great leap was that? And what wonderful consequences for humanity followed?

It strikes me that the passage of time has revealed how hollow and unfulfilling the moon landing turned out to be. While media pundits and politicians wax eloquent about a great turning point, no one moves on to list any specifics. The sad fact is that the Apollo mission was predicated on Cold War competition with the U.S.S.R. and embodied some highly suspect underlying obsessions -- nationalism, militarism, technological triumphalism, and the goal of conquering nature. Along with the three astronauts, this was the ponderous cargo the space capsule carried on its journey. But once the basic entry in the record book had been written, the promise of manned space flight faded rapidly.

Yes, the Hubble and other orbiting telescopes, along with robot journeys to Mars and to distant parts of the solar system, have made valuable contributions to scientific knowledge and provided new images and perspectives for human imagination. And yes, the Space Shuttle and Space Station have logged in some noteworthy achievements. But the part of the story that involved sending living astronauts on missions of “exploration” and “conquest” to the Moon or beyond seems increasingly vain, costly and (given notable problems on Earth) unreasonable. Perhaps that is why political support for NASA dwindled when the Apollo program ended, why the agency’s funding has been steadily cut. Although not a topic for polite company, a silent question about space travel hovers in the strosphere: What good is it really?

In his recent NY Times essay, Tom Wolfe laments the fact that America never produced a philosopher to define a better understanding of space travel beyond its tawdry Cold War narrative. The only plausible candidate he mentions is ex-Nazi rocket scientist and U.S. space program guru, the late Wernher von Braun.

“The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

“It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.”

A bridge to the what? How appropriate on the occasion of the anniversary of Apollo landing to be offered a philosophy for space travel that is literally sheer lunacy – a grotesque intellectual moonbeam that envisions options for humanity in a disaster scenario millions of years in the future. It’s lucky we Earthlings don’t have any serious worries for the shorter term.

There’s a perfectly obvious reason why no respectable philosopher has stepped forward to chart a new vision of space as a destination for human aspirations. It’s a total vacuum out there.

- Langdon

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Orwellian Tweets

It's high time. The North Korean government is using Twitter to get its message out. Short URLs take you to longer stories with some hilarious observations and announcements, For example: "S. Korean Puppet Army's Plan for War Exercise Announced"

What a planet we live on!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sarah Palin and Reactionary Politics

While Sarah Palin's resignation may a way to dodge personal and
political scandals, it seems likely that she's positioning herself as an
eventual presidential candidate. Her political strategy fits the “let’s
hope Obama fails” message of Rush Limbaugh and Republican politicians. This posture openly welcomes and may even seek to realize a massive economic collapse and social upheaval for America, seen as a grand opportunity to gain power.

The apparent lack of rational, policy content in right wing rhetoric at
present is, in my view, exactly what the game is about. Republican
demagogues along with radio and TV talk show hosts blather on about
“socialism” and other inflammatory themes, preparing the populace for disaster. If Obama’s policies fail to produce a steady, expeditious
recovery, if the economy continues to sink in ways people find
frightening, if public dissatisfaction swells, then a loose cannon like
Palin could well attract considerable support, precisely because her way of being unhinged matches the gut sense of her heartland audience and the prevailing sentiments of America’s “conservative” corporate media.

There are many examples from the past century in which strategies of
this kind worked supremely well for political extremists. Driven to
desperation, societies sometimes turn to sociopathic leaders able to
focus popular distress, rage and thirst for revenge.

It can’t happen here? Don’t count on it. If the U.S. economy continues
to tank, things could get extremely ugly.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

New Chinese Software: protecting youth from objectionable online material

During my recent travels in China, it was fascinating to notice which web sites were censored (Huffington Post, and Americablog, for example) and which were not (BBC, NY Times, etc.)

Rather than embrace the internet as a source of vitality and positive change, the government of China has launched yet another crack down. From now on every computer sold in the country must install a program that will filter out violent and pornographic web sites. Critics of the development suspect it will also be used to censor political content.

As reported by the BBC, Qin Gang, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, "The purpose of this is to effectively manage harmful material for the public and prevent it from being spread," he said. "The Chinese government pushes forward the healthy development of the internet. But it lawfully manages the internet," he added.


For those who enjoy the names chosen for political initiatives in China, the name chosen for the software is memorable -- "Green Dam Youth Escort".

Sounds like a real innovation to me: an online escort service for young people.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Free marketeers in the toilet in Iceland

These are evidently pictures of bankers who fled Iceland after leading the country into bankruptcy. A restaurant in Reykjavik paid homage to them in this clever way. Could similar tributes be organized in lower Manhattan? Or is the U.S.A. still pissing its future away by indulging the acolytes of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and the fop pied piper, Ronald Reagan? Ask Timothy Geithner.

(photo from the NYT)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

$1.5 billion wind tunnel?

In the first three games at the new Yankee Stadium, there have been seventeen home runs. Yesterdays score was 22-4 with the Indians beating the Yankees. As I watched the spectacle on TV, it seemed that lazy pop flies to right field became homers.

Will this become a chapter in "Great Architectural Disasters"? An appendix to "Form Follows Fiasco?" Will the place have to be re-engineered? Will they have to build a huge screen like the one in the L.A. Coliseum left field when the Dodgers first
moved west?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

After watching Obama’s first “Open for Questions” session

Old political communications model:

Elect a “conservative” president who maintains a sphinx-like presence.

Rely upon “journalists” and pundits acceptable to Rupert Murdock, G.E. and the corporate owned media along with talking heads from bought-and-paid-for right wing think tanks to blather 24/7 cable TV spin on public events.

Call this “democracy.” (Heimlich maneuver may be necessary at this point.)

New communications model:

Elect a progressive president interested in direct contact with citizens and who’s willing to speak AND listen.

Bypass the carefully selected, well paid, reliable corporate spin doctors. Instead, use a variety of means -- town halls, talk show visits, internet chats, and new media – to frame and motivate public deliberation and debate.

Celebrate modest steps toward a revival of citizen-based democracy.

Prepare for blasts of hot air from those who’ve profited from the Old model.

Probably too utopian, but I’m like that.