Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

So, whenever I travel, as I did to Chicago this weekend (congrats to the married couple), I need to read or I go nuts.  This is particularly true on airplanes where my claustrophobia hits high gear (actually, that's not true: women's clothing stores is where my claustrophobia is the worst), and I need something to occupy my mind.  Usually, I read sci-fi/fantasy.  But this time, I purchased Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, which is all about the Native American Tribe of the Comanches.

This is some pretty spectacular stuff - the Comanche were the first of the Native American Plains tribes to fully grasp the usefulness of the horse.  While other tribes, like the Apache used horses, the Comanches were the first to fight on horseback, the first to breed horses, and so on.  And by all accounts the Comanche were spectacular horsemen -for instance, it was required that a Comanche warrior be able to pick up a fully grown human being at a full gallop.  Moreover, the Comanche were able to travel and attack by moonlight - something no one else was able to do.  Their effective range was hundreds of miles.

Of equal interest is that the Lipan Apache were essentially kicked off the Plains by the Comanches, and that as a measure of protection, the Apaches sparked a war between the Comanches and the Spanish specifically as a way to protect themselves.  The Spanish, too, used the Comanches as a buffer zone from French incursions.  No tribe held more territory than the Comanches - and it was their use of the horse that transformed the Comanches from a land-based hunting-gathering culture to Spartan-esque warrior culture.  Even as a general consumer of history, I had no idea of how influential the Comanches were - ask me who the most powerful Native American Tribes were, and I'd probably say the Sioux or the Apache. 

The book itself is a pretty good read, but limited by its source material.  I don't blame the author so much, because the Comanche weren't exactly writing down their history.  As he gets later into the events, particularly regarding the wars between the United States and the Comanches, his sources become more even-handed.  Yes, the Comanches were horrific murders who used psychological warfare against everyone by killing their victims in horrific manners.  But they were incredibly kind to their families, democratic, and got royally shafted by the United States in the years after the Civil War. 

To that end, the author pays special attention to Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche war chieftain and the most famous Comanche kidnappee in Texas history - Cynthia Ann Parker - who was kidnapped by the Comanche at the age of 8, saw her family brutally murdered, but was adopted into the tribe, and when later given the chance to leave she refused (and eventually had to be brought kicking and screaming into the white world).  Anyway, her son, Quanah was one the last holdouts among the Comanche, and one of its fiercest warriors.  When he decided to surrender, though, he worked hard to see that he and his fellow tribe members assimilated into American culture, ultimately becoming the last chief of the Comanches.

Its a compelling book, a great read, and definitely worth a read to get an idea what the West was like.  If you are from Texas, you'll especially want to read this book - it has great information about the Texas Rangers (who were created specifically to deal with the Comanches), and about the creation of Texas.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

On Tuesday night, something very interesting as far as the death penalty debate happened - Georgia executed Troy Davis, a person who's guilt was in doubt, and Texas executed Lawrence Russel Brewer, the douchebag who dragged James Byrd, Jr. from the back of his truck until Mr. Byrd died for no good reason other than Mr. Byrd was African American.

What's interesting about this event is that my emotions to these events are pretty much how everyone feels about the death penalty - I was saddened by Troy Davis' death, and a bit horrified that Georgia may have executed an innocent man. But with Lawrence Russel Brewer's execution, I felt a grim sense of satisfaction - justice has been done.  And I think most people feel the same way.

Now, there are arguments about the death penalty, from all sides, but let me knock out one of them right now - the deterrence effect.  The death penalty does not deter anyone from committing murder anymore than life imprisonment does.  Or rather, killing criminals by way of lethal injection is no more of a deterrence than taking their lives away through imprisonment.  What is a deterrence, though, is increasing the chances of getting caught. 

So let's dispense with the deterrence argument - the real reason people support the death penalty is because we want to see justice be done.  There are horrific crimes that we want punished to the extreme.  The torture and killing of a man for no good reason, a la Lawrence Brewer, is such a crime. But if the death penalty is about punishing the worst of the worst, then we're all shaken when the state executes the innocent, children, and those with severe mental disabilities. 

Troy Davis fits into those fears.  He was convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony - which is highly unreliable when people testify about seeing someone they don't know.  To that end, 7 of the 9 witnesses retracted their testimony against Mr. Davis.  Now, I don't know if Davis was innocent or not, but knowing that 7 of 9 witnesses retracted their testimony is enough to give me pause.  Granted, if the other 2 knew Davis intimately, then all bets are off.  And so we're bothered by this because if there's a good chance that Davis was innocent, and Georgia killed an innocent man.

And here's where the Death Penalty opponents have a decent argument - as long as we have the death penalty, we're going to run into these problems.  Yes, imprisoning someone for life is bad, but there is time to correct mistakes (actually, probably not).  Plus, because we are so determined to only execute the truly guilty, the appeals process takes forever and is costly.  Moreover, the evidence is pretty clear that the justice system fucks up on a regular basis, especially along racial lines. 

At the same time, we get guys like Lawrence Russell Brewer, who kinda got what they deserved.  And that's why the death penalty will never, ever be resolved completely.  Its our heads (the cost-benefit analysis of the death penalty) versus our hearts (retribution against the bad guy). 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rating the Contendahs: GOP Presidential Candidates Part 87

Okay, okay, this isn't the 87th installment of my GOP Presidential contenders post, but I've lost count, and am too lazy to look it up.  From a political science perspective, this primary is interesting because it will be the first time GOP primary voters will pick someone to go head to head with Obama.

Now, you might say to yourself, "Wait, wasn't McCain the nominee in 2008?" Well, yes, but the GOP voters picked McCain not just because it was his time (a la Bob Dole in 1996), but also because they felt that McCain would be the best matchup with Hillary Clinton - who the voters presumed would be the nominee.  After all, Hillary had all the firepower going into the election, she looked good on television, and she's a hell of a candidate.  But what the GOP voters failed to realize at the time is that Obama's campaign would be so well organized and so smartly run, and the depth of anger in the Democratic base over Iraq (I really need to have post on that one of these days).  Now, that's not a big surprise, because they weren't close enough to the campaigns to see what was what. And the shock of Obama still hasn't worn off for many GOP voters (OMG he's an African American with a Muslim name!).  Hell, the list of debunked Obama on is crazy.

Of course, it has occurred to me that, like the GOP voters in 2008, I am not privvy to the inside information on a fair number of candidates.  In the topsy-turvy world of Presidential politics, things like campaign organization and money matter as much as policy positions.  But hey, if I paid attention to that, I wouldn't bother to write anything at all, so without further ado:

Mitt Romney: We all know who he is, and most of us don't like him.  But, he has money, he has the organization (spent the past 4 years running), and if he catches fire with the base, he takes the nomination easy.  He'll get a solid 20-25% of every primary, and probably kill at the caucuses outside of Iowa (because of his organization).  As a Democrat, I'm scared to death of the guy because he is a good match-up to Obama, but as a realist, I doubt he's conservative enough for the Tea Party.

Rick Perry: He's the candidate with that new candidate smell.  He's telegenic, has clever marketing, and being from Texas, is used to running a large political organization.  He's also well in line with the Tea Partiers (except for the HPV vaccine thing).  But, he thinks that Social Security is a ponzi scheme, that Ben Bernanke is a traitor for doing his job, and generally reminds people of George Bush.  As a match-up with Obama, I like Perry on the Social Security issue alone.  As a patriot, the chance that he might be elected President scares the hell out of me.  The question right now is whether or not Perry can whether the storm, and whether or not his organization is up and running.  His debate performances have been terrible, but his presence has made everyone else step up their game. 

Michelle Bachmann: Speaking of organization, Bachmann has none.  For her entire political career, she's been a district-based legislator, and has never run state-wide for anything.  This bodes ill for her future.  Not surprisingly, with Perry in the race, her campaign has virtually collapsed, and Bachmann is up to her old tricks - stating that the HPV vaccine that Perry ordered every Texan girl to get caused mental retardation.  (Note: even Rush Limbaugh thinks this is nuts).  She's still a darling of the far-right wing, but electability problems abound.  And heck, if those problems are dogging Rick Perry, who's serving his third term as Governor of Texas, they're going to dog Bachmann, who is a crazy Congresswoman from Minnesota.

Ron Paul: With libertarianism being in vogue in the GOP as of late, its a good time to mention Ron Paul.  He opposed the Iraq War, opposes all governmental spending, and is anti-tax.  All are high points for Tea Partiers and the youth vote.  On the other hand, he's pro-life (not very libertarian), and willingly accepts that if government spending is cut to the point he wants, people will die.  Also, like Romney, everyone knows who he is, and his poll numbers are still low.  He has no chance at the nomination.

Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain: Going nowhere fast.  Of the three, Cain represents the most troublesome match-up with Obama because he has the potential to split the African American vote (at the top of the ticket, if he's VP, the African American community will vote for Obama).  No one cares about Gingrich, including Gingrich (based on his lethargic campaign).  As for Santorum, well, he tries.  But Santorum is an obnoxious troll, and everyone knows he's an obnoxious troll.  At this point, I think he's running for President just to knock Dan Savage's website off of its first on Google perch.  That's not a bad reason to run for President*, but it won't get you anywhere.

Jon Huntsman: He has no chance whatsoever to win the nomination.  None.  But, he could affect the outcome of this election, depending on how big his balls/ovaries are.**  If he drops out of the race for GOP nomination, and runs as an independent, he's got a shot at making headway, and a chance at winning.  I don't know if he does.

Overall, bold prediction - Romney is going to take the nomination.  Perry is up big now, but he has too many liabilities going for him right now. 

*The best reason to run for President is, of course, to become President and improve the lives of every day Americans.  But for those candidates who had no chance whatsoever of winning, Dennis Kuchinich had the best reason to run for President - to get laid.  And, as a result of running for President, the Congressman ended up marrying a smoking hot model about twenty years his junior.  Seriously, check this out.  Well done sir.

**We really need a feminine equivalent of "balls." Steel labia doesn't work because being a ball buster (emasculating presence) is completely different than being ballsy (having audacity).  Also, labia, ovaries, etc., are too scientific sounding. Saying a woman has "brass balls" works to some degree, but is somewhat negative towards over women (since it implies that a woman has to be man-like to be audacious).  Let's get on this internet!

Thoughts on 9-11

To be honest with you, I don't really want to write this post, but in a round-about way, that's the reason why I should write this post.  Ten years ago, we were attacked by 18 guys armed with box cutters, who commandeered airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center.  In the intervening years, we've seen the U.S. Government openly commit war crimes (torture of terror suspects*), invade Iraq for no reason, and finally, under Obama, see the U.S. engage in dismantling Al Qaeda.

On a personal note, 9-11 was a very scary day for me.  My aunt works for New York City and worked out of the World Trade Center.  We spent most of the day trying to find her, and thankfully, she was not in either Tower when the planes hit.  I also had to find my friend and old college roommate, Dave Kirkpatrick, who dubbed me "Phat Jim," my cousin Suzanne, and luckily, everyone was safe.  Still, it was a close call, and scared us all.

But what has changed since 9-11?  To be honest, I don't think it changed much outside of the tri-state area. Yes, airplane travel became a bigger pain than it was before, but my life hasn't changed as a result of 9-11.  And I think that's more of a survival mechanism for people in general.  We live our lives the best we can, and try not to get bogged down in the details.  Do I know more about Islam than I normally would?  Yes, but the whole line that "9-11 changed everything" is total and complete bullshit from anyone who didn't lose someone (or come real close to losing someone) on that day.  Everyone else have moved on.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why Liberals and Progressives are Consistently Frustrated with Obama

I'm stuck on brief writing duties today, so I'm keeping this post relatively short.  Obama and members of his Administration, have become increasingly aware of discontent by members of the "Professional Left" - um, I guess that means bloggers, but given that we don't exactly make a lot of money from blogging (except for Josh Marshall and Kos, of course), and have day jobs, I guess they just mean Progressives and Liberals.  So, in an effort to educate those who are surprised by our continuing discontent, allow me to explain my discontent in four simple words.

I. Told. You. So.

Almost every time the Obama Administration does something on the domestic policy side, legions of liberals like myself comment on the strategies of the Administration, and without fail, we're always right.  During the Stimulus debate, we told the Administration that the Stimulus was too small and too focused on tax cuts.  Unsuprisingly, the Stimulus helped only somewhat, and its benefits have been subsumed by cuts in the government spending at the state and local level. 

During the health care debate, we told the President to push for single payer as a bargaining position, and then allow it to be pushed a bit further to the right.  Instead, the President started with a relatively moderate plan, and it turned into a center-right bill. 

During the debt ceiling debacle, we told the President to chastise the GOP for threatening the country's economic health during a time of war, and instead, he tried to negotiate in good faith, and was steamrolled.

The list goes on and on.  Rather than listen to us, the President goes his own way.  Now, I don't have a problem with this if going his own way got results.  And in areas like foreign policy, it clearly does.  But in the domestic arena, Obama consistently fails - either from a gross misunderstanding of his opponents, or gets too influenced by the make-believe world of D.C.  The whole thing is maddening.  So Mr. President, just one time, one time, can you prove me wrong on economic issues?