Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Jena 6 -- What They All Missed

Last week, the news was full of stories about the so-called 'Jena 6'. There was a huge march in the town of Jena too. The TV networks were all there. As often happens with such news, there was a predictable outbreak of chatter on blogs about the topic, including the usual predictable drivel from the usual suspects.

There are a number of important points that the mainstream media and the bloggers all missed. I will fill this lacuna here.

Yes, the story of the Jena 6 is clearly about racism. Yes, it is horrific to hear such things can still happen in this, supposedly, more enlightened age. Yes, the situation is intolerable and something should be done about it. This is not exactly news. These observations have been repeated again and again to the point that they are now platitudes. What few have considered less is that there are underlying causes over and above the manifest racism.

Here is a question: Why were the police and the authorities involved in these incidents that occurred at a school at all? When I was in school, there were occasional fights. Sometimes a person would get hurt in these fights. Back then though, nobody felt a need to call the police, when a fight occurred. Nobody wanted to put a cop into the school, because of such incidents. Yet, in this day and age, this now seems to be a reflex action.

Do not get me wrong, there were serious incidents at my school occasionally. On one famous occasion, a student pulled an air pistol on a teacher. Even then though, nobody felt the need to call in the SWAT team. The head of the department was called. He took the gun. The student was punished (severely). That was the end of it.

The police have enough to do, without being given responsibility for acting as referees in school yard spats. To make matters worse, cops are not trained to deal with school kids. Yet, they are invited in, with all their tools (pepper spray, guns, handcuffs, dogs, etc.), for the most minor infraction that occurs in a school. This policy is now a favorite amongst school boards, who wish to be seen to be being tough, but it seems to me to be counter-productive. 'Zero tolerance' may make a fine election slogan, but it makes very poor policy. Let me cite a couple of examples I know of, that occurred in Louisiana.

A child was found with a lighter. Shock horror! In my day, nothing would have happened to them, although the child would have been under suspicion of being a smoker. A lighter is not a deadly weapon. Indeed, lighters have legitimate uses (lighting candles, finding a key hole in the dark and so on), yet in this case the mere possession of the lighter was treated like the child had been in possession of a loaded weapon. S/he was charged and even had to go to court, all for having a lighter. What a waste of time and resources. This might be called 'zero tolerance', but to me it sounds like zero common sense.

On another occasion, a child was found in possession of a (roll the drums), a drum stick! It turns out the child was bringing the drum stick to a friend who had left it behind after a sleep over. What happened to this hardened drum stick wielding 'criminal' though? They were charged with possession of a weapon by the ever so wise cops who attended in response to a call from the Principal. They were then expelled from the school. How much sense does this make? I would say none. Perhaps I missed something -- are drum sticks the latest terror weapons deployed by al Qaeda?

You see, the reported events concerning the Jena 6 occurred in a context in which paranoid thinking is considered normal. Had a wise teacher or administrator handled the whole initial set of incidents in a sensible manner, my bet is that this issue would have never reached the point where it made the news. However, in a climate which is suffused with the insanity of zero tolerance, this common sense approach would be denounced as irresponsible.

This kind of climate breeds certain kinds of madness. In some senses, it is a bit like the silly people who spend their lives claiming that they are being verbally abused, by anyone who disagrees with them, or detecting putative abuse, when there is none. It is some societal version of crying wolf. To make matters worse, adding the emotionally charging effect of the police into such situations can only make matters worse. Furthermore, when the police get involved, they are trained to deal with hardened criminals and they too are likely to have an effect of increasing the trauma. Now, if the small town police officers are themselves none too bright and are perhaps a little racist, then the results are predictable. Once matters have gone this far, the local prosecutors are going to wish to play their part too. It is for these reasons that the events in Jena are not really a surprise.

In fact, there is clearly plenty of blame to go around. If the initial events are typical of the kind that happen in most school yards, then none of the students will be entirely without some guilt. Antagonism between groups, be they cultural groups, racial groups, or whatever, often leads to ill considered actions by teenagers. The teachers at the school could have handled the matter in a low key manner, but instead decided to get the authorities involved. They had the option not to ('just following orders' is not a sound defence). The school board, who by their policies may have forced the hand of the teachers also have some culpability. The police, the prosecutors, all have some role in creating the horrific situation that has played out now in the public eye. No group can be entirely without blame.

Thus, despite all the rhetoric about race and the Jena 6, there is a deeper cause that needs to be recognised too. In saying this, I do not mean to diminish the culpability of the racists. Hopefully, they will be exposed and punished. My goal rather is to draw attention to the combination of Neanderthal attitudes and policies that lie at the root of the whole sad situation. Just one person, very early on, could have prevented the escalation that has resulted in ridiculous charges and at least one child spending over nine months in jail, when that child should have been completing their education. It is a damn shame that no such sensible person was available in Jena.

The CP

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Free Speech

There are so many topics that I would like to blog about, but have been too busy to do so. One in particular, the Jena 6, I especially wish to write about. However, as time is short, I will address another topic today: Freedom of Speech.

Today, one of the big news stories concerned an address given by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, at Columbia University, in New York. The University President, Lee Bollinger, made some pretty caustic remarks prior to Ahmadinejad speaking. His remarks were far from polite, or kind.

Of course, Ahmadinejad has made some pretty inflammatory claims himself. This inspired all sorts of objections and protests from New Yorkers. It also all made great copy for papers in New York, Washington and elsewhere. However, beyond all this hype and hyperbole, there is an important point that seems to have been overlooked.

Freedom of Speech is a constitutionally important right in the United States. Organizations like the ACLU continue to work very hard to defend this right in the courts, not least in the face of the silent war against free speech and thought that has been waged by the Bush administration. However, there is a further important issue that needs to be brought to the fore in the current context. This concerns the importance of free speech in an academic context.

Although there are many philosophical theorists that I believe to be wrong, misguided and (occasionally) insane, it is still important that I be able to hear their point of view, in order to be able to show the errors in their positions. To just pre-judge, without considering the evidence, is academically irresponsible. While occasionally moronic academics (like my chair), may do this kind of thing, it is not the kind of behaviour that should be condoned in a serious academic environment.

So, I salute Columbia for their courage in letting Ahmadinejad speak. Perhaps a more interesting perspective can be gained by considering the following lines,

"[T]he life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord, with the knowledge that the statistic speaks of the death and displacement of the millions of human beings because of that, especially in Africa. This greatest of plagues and most dangerous of threats to the lives of humans is taking place in an accelerating fashion as the world is being dominated by the democratic system, which confirms its massive failure to protect humans and their interests from the greed and avarice of the major corporations and their representatives."

Who said this? Fidel Castro? A Greenpeace spokesman? Al Gore? Actually, it was none of these, it was Osama bin Laden in one of his recent video messages (a transcript is available here). Of course, this was not a part of the message that made the evening news. However, it is not an entirely insane, or problematic set of sentiments.

The point here though is that if we permit the news organisations to to filter our knowledge of the world, then we run the risk of just learning the message intended by the spin masters. Universities have historically been the places where sober and sane reflection and rational debate can take place. However, rational debate is impossible without hearing the words of those with which we may wish to take issue with. Thus, it is my judgement that Columbia University did a good and important thing today.

The CP

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Too Much!

I feel slightly bad. I have not being paying attention to this blog of late. I have no real excuse, other than the rather generic 'life is busy'. So, let me make a partial amends with an update.

I like to keep projects, especially research projects under control. This academic year, at least thus far, I have not been doing a great job of this. Suddenly a whole bunch of projects are coming due, all at the same time. First, there is the paper I agreed to referee for a journal last week. Then it seemed feasible, now, it is looking more like a bit of a panic. The paper is very technical and 75 pages long. In order to do the paper justice, it will take a big bunch of time on the details. However, just yesterday, I discovered that a paper I submitted quite a while ago has been accepted for publication. I am very excited about this one. This is the result of a research goal I set nearly a decade ago. The talk version of the paper has now been through seven major revisions. The final result is nothing like I had initially imagined. However, it is a solid and significant set of research results. I am very happy that it has been accepted, in a good place, with only minor revisions.

The minor revisions though are mostly bibliographic. Given our somewhat sad library, getting access to the relevant literature could be a challenge. I only have four weeks to get it all done. As they say in comic books, 'Yikes!'.

I also have a big conference talk to get together, for the middle of next month. Most of the basic research is complete, but there are details that are proving problematic. I wanted to cite a rather obscure work. It now seems that just to borrow the book though ILL will cost $40. I have not come across this before. It seems insane to me. However, I need to get the talk done and it also has to be good. The place where it has been accepted will have a large number of people there who are friends. A half-arsed job will thus not be acceptable. I need to get working on this too.

These are not the only professional obligations. Some time ago, I signed a contract with a major publisher in my area, which is due by the end of the year. I need to finish writing this stuff also. Suddenly, it seems that time is getting short and the academic obligations are mounting.

To add to the time crunch, my chair is out of control. S/he makes arbitrary and stupid choices and needs to be handled. While s/he is favoring their catamite (our unqualified new hire -- no publications, but a buddy of the Chair, need I say more), they are doing very bad things to our program. As the only senior faculty member who is still engaged in this kind of situation (there is another senior person, but they have been totally out of it, for the last several years), I believe that it is my responsibility to try and get things back on track. However, this too is time consuming.

This then is (at least part of) the life of The Combat Philosopher, currently. These are also the reasons why posts have been few and far between of late. Sorry. I hope that I will be able to get back ahead of the curve. In the meantime, please forgive the indolence. Oh yes, if anyone has any good ideas on how to best manage such multiple time crunches, then suggestions would be very welcome. I am actually drowning a little bit, currently, with quite a heavy teaching load in addition to all this. Oh well, time to get back to work...

The CP

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tropical Storm Humberto -- Here We Go Again...

So, although 2006 was a quiet year in the Gulf of Mexico for tropical activity, it seems that the tropical 'fun' is back with us. As I write, Tropical Storm Humberto is about to pay a visit to Louisiana and Texas. We are back in the storm track again. The current radar tracking can be found here. It looks like things are going to get wet. Of course, where will get wet, will have to be seen. It is not a serious threat from winds and storm surge, but there will be a great deal of rain.

Further to the East is Tropical Depression 8. It is too early to tell where it will go as yet, but we have learned in this part of the world to keep a weather eye. Over the years and the storms, I have learned that some weather sites are better than others. My personal favorite is The Weather Underground. Jeff Master's Blog is especially worth reading.

So, as I work on the paper I have under contract, the talk I have to give next month, in addition to teaching my classes, I will be keeping an eye on the weather. This is life in Louisiana at a University (or at least, a 'university style' institution) during the late Summer Hurricane season. I love the research. I quite like the teaching. I am somewhat hot and cold on the incompetence of many administrators and all too many of the faculty. However, at least the weather is interesting. Let us hope that it is not too interesting. In New Orleans these days, when wandering around and taking to the locals, they have a saying -- "Katrina has a sister." A visit from a powerful hurricane would be one way of spelling 'too interesting'.

The CP

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Time, Publishing Politics And A Quandary

It seems that I am becoming an indolent blogger. It seems like ages since I posted anything. Let me say 'sorry' for this. This is turning into a very busy semester. It is also the case that other things going on in my life are permitting me less time to blog.

My topic today though concerns the politics of publishing. This is a topic that I have mentioned before. It seem that academic publishers have themselves a new lobbying and marketing organization, called PRISM which is dedicated to help 'educate' folks about the 'evils' of Open Access publishing. Naturally enough, the claims made by the people at PRISM are laughable. In a more agricultural arena, their claims might simply be rejected a 'bollocks'. Unfortunately, in the arena of business, where money talks and common sense (which seldom has many dollars to spare) gets pushed aside, organisations such as this have a bad habit of making head way, despite the complete lack of virtue of their position.

It seems that the large academic publishers are indulging in a strategy of what is sometimes called 'FUD' (short for 'Fear, Uncertainty, Dread') about how Open Access to academic work will mean the end of peer review, a decline in academic standards, the sky falling in, and other utter rubbish. Of course, the publishers are just trying to defend the status quo, in which we academics do research, write it up and submit it to journals, without asking for a penny for our labors. The journals then have other academics referee the submitted works (again for free). Finally, when papers are accepted, the journals then get to charge huge amounts for access to work they never paid a thing for. Of course, for them this is a nice deal. They get to make money off the work of others, without paying for it. No wonder they see open access as a threat (to their bottom line) and are consequently prepared to say (and spend) anything to defend the situation.

It seems though that a backlash is developing. Mike Rossner, Executive Director of Rockefeller University Press recently issued an open letter to The American Association of Publishers asking them to curtail the PRISM related silliness. This is even a topic that has been covered by Nature (but guess what, Nature want payment to read this article, unless your library has a subscription -- bloody typical) . So, things seem to be heating up.

I have been a fan and an advocate of Open Access for years. Back in the 1990s, I was involved in an outfit that aimed to make philosophy research available for free. I have also served as editor for an entirely free on-line journal, that permitted authors to retain their own copyright on their works. However, I fear that I too have allowed myself to fall under the sway of the big publishing houses and their dubious habits.

Just last week, I agreed to act as a referee for a major journal in my field. I will have to read, comment upon, and make recommendations on a 75 page paper within the next three weeks. For this I will get paid nothing. I also just signed a contract with one of the major supporters behind PRISM. The whole situation raises a quandary. Should I break the contract I have just signed? This will take some thinking about. Suggestions would be welcome.

To make matters worse, I am sure that all this smoke on the topic of publishers will be used by my less than productive co-workers as their latest justification for publishing nothing. Their profound lack of productivity will now be justified on quasi-'political' grounds, that they are refusing to submit, not because they have no original ideas, have nothing to say and are generally bone idle, but rather as an (ersatz) political actions against the evils of the major publishing houses.

Given this circumstance, it is a small wonder that academia is in such a mess. Active academics such as myself have to think carefully about how we interact with important publishers. In the meantime, the deadwood 'I publish Zero' style pseudo-professors will have been given yet another excuse for their sloth. Should I decide to take a stand and break my contract with the publisher, I will run the risk of sounding like one of the bone idle types, unless I can find an alternative venue for the contracted work. So, the situation is a bloody mess! No wonder I have had so little time to write this blog of late.

The CP

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Off Coke

If you were to hear that people involved in the Colombian coke industry engaged in kidnapping, murder and torture, there is a reasonable chance that you may not be surprised. There would be a hidden assumption in such an inference, however.

Many people tend to forget that the term 'coke' suffers from a three way semantic ambiguity. The term 'coke' can refer to an overly sweet fizzy drink, with a secret recipe, that is notorious for it's tooth rotting properties. It can also refer to the favorite 'nose candy' of certain types of yuppies, which is the main ingredient of Crack-Cocaine, which is currently the plague of inner cities. Finally, 'coke' can also refer to a type of coal based solid fuel.

The apparent lack of surprise about the activities of persons involved in the Colombian coke industry derives from the fact that people tend to assume that the term 'coke' in this context has the second meaning. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the fizzy drink purveyors may have learned a thing or two from the operatives in the similarly named, though less legal, version of the coke industry.

The website lists a number of cases where, according to the website, the management of Colombian Coca Cola company bottling plants, in conjunction with paramilitary thugs, has behaved towards union leaders in a manner more usually associated with drug cartels. Needless to say, the company has vigorously denied these allegations.

An interesting character in these allegations is the strangely named Douglas Daft, who was formerly CEO of the corporation. Some time ago, Daft left Coca-cola, with a $36 million pay off. During Daft's tenure, a bottling plant in India was forced to close, in the face of allegations of stolen water and polluted land. The company also had to pay out $192 million in a race discrimination case. In 2004, at a Coca Cola annual meeting, under Daft's watchful eye, a protester called Ray Rogers was put into a choke hold and wrestled to the ground by security staff, when he tried to address the meeting about the corporations labor practices.

Fortunately, also in 2004, an 'independent' report 'exonerated' the Coca Cola company from any complicity in cases of attacks on Colombian trade unionists. However, according to published reports, this report was prepared by the law firm White and Case. It just so happens that White and Case was the same firm that defended Coca Cola in a lawsuit brought against it by supporters of Colombian trade unionists. So, that's all right then.

In the meantime, Douglas Daft has been appointed to the ethics committee of arms manufacturer and dealer BAE Systems. One wonders where Daft gained the experience for such a post? Perhaps now would be a good time to switch to Jolt, or Pepsi for all one's carbonated caffeine needs, if one prefers a more ethical personal stance. One should also avoid the over-priced tap water that is marketed as Dasani. However, finding a replacement for Fresca, which actually tastes quite good, will prove a little more difficult.

The CP
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