Thursday, December 14, 2006

Notes From the Day After Yesterday

Keeping the Priorities of Political Junkies Straight. It looks like Sen. Tim Johnson's condition is very serious. I had brain surgery myself as an infant and three people I know have had brain surgery in the last two years. Johnson has my best hopes. As for a Democratic majority in the Senate--it matters a lot less than Johnson's life and health.

The First Idea That Lead to Defeat. During his news conference yesterday, President Bush said he had heard some ideas that would "lead to defeat." The main idea leading to defeat was that it would be a good idea to invade Iraq in the first place. The rest of the bad ideas just flowed from there.

Death to Plagiarists. One thing I can say in President Bush's favor is that his administration did not steal their disastrous ideas about invading Iraq from others. The same can't be said for my students. I've had three plagiarism cases with my final exams this week and I'm not very happy about it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It Could Be Worse Than Staying the Course

I was glad to see that President Bush has put off his "New Way Forward" speech until January. Like the rest of the country, I want to see a change in American policy in Iraq. But I'm also convinced that the Bush administration wants to change policy in a way that would make the situation in Iraq much worse. In other words, the Bush administration wants to forge a new governing coalition, bring in 20,000 more troops, and then launch an all-out attack on al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Why they see that as a winner is beyond me. The Sunni population did not stop resisting once the American military had overcome large-scale units. Given that the Shiites won't stop resisting either, the U. S. is going to be faced with two insurgencies when we actually can't handle one.

My new slogan--Stay the Course: Don't Make It Worse.

The Sixers Cover Up Their Failures

All the initial press about Allen Iverson's trade demand was about controversy--missed practices, conflicts with Larry Brown, skipping a bowling event, not getting along with Mo Cheeks, and diddly things like that. Of course, the media has a template in which what is newsworthy about players like Iverson, Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neill, Kevin Garnet, and Ben Rothlesberger are their controversial incidents and failures rather than their importance to an organization.

What exactly does a guy like Iverson do for an organization?

In the case of the Philadelphia 76ers, they've known for eleven years that they had a very special player in Allen Iverson. When there is an Allen Iverson on board, the problem for management is to create an environment where Iverson's special efforts have the best opportunity to produce team success. That means bringing in coaches, complementary stars, role players, trainers, and other people who can complement, play off, assist, or otherwise team up with the special players or players in order to win games and contend for championships.

The problem for ownership is to bring in a management team that can put all of these pieces together in an effective way. The Chicago Bulls of the Michael Jordan era had enormous success in bringing in coaches and players who played off, worked well with, complemented, and helped Jordan. The Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons are great examples of recent success. They've put presidents and general managers in place who had a nose for the trades and draft choices that worked with their players.

The Sixers management has failed pretty miserably. Nathaniel Friedman of Slate tries to develop a case that Iverson's talents don't mesh well with other players. How would anybody know? Allen Iverson has been in Philadelphia for eleven years and the Sixers have yet to bring in a power forward or center who has any prime time left in them. Say what you will about Jerry Krauss, but he did draft, sign, or trade for Scotty Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and John Paxson while getting some good mileage out of Bill Cartwright. The Sixers have traded for long-past-their-primes Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber while making almost singularly undistinguished draft picks. Their best pick-up was Derrick Coleman while neither Kyle Korver, Andre Iguodala, nor Samuel Dalembert could start for any other team in the NBA. Iverson has grown as both an offensive and defensive player but neither ownership nor management have done their jobs well enough for the Sixers to give their Hall of Fame guard really fruitful employment.

The deep irony of the situation is that the Sixers have been so anxious to get rid of Iverson now that he's expressed a desire for a trade. They won't let him play, wouldn't let him shootaround, took his nameplate off his locker, and seemed to efface all evidence of Iverson around their facilities. Management seems to think that banishing Iverson will mean that they will no longer be reminded of their own failures. Their next losing streak will disagree.

Deeper Into the Wilderness

Obama v Bush. The rise of Barack Obama is further evidence that American politics is more unsettled than it's been at any time since the sixties. Obama's admirers view him as a person who can get the country out of the intense partisanship of the Clinton/ Bush years. However, I would like to suggest that the Obama boom is fueled by the dream of a world without the right-wing--an America without the right's viciousness and arrogance, an America without the drumbeat of wedge issues, an America without the Iraq War, and an America that is more at peace with itself. Obviously, the Obama surge is bad news for Hillary Clinton, but it might be even worse news for the future of the Republican Party. If the Bush administration is not careful, the war in Iraq could keep the Republicans in the wilderness for the next generation as the nation lurches away from the era of right-wing government.

The Nightmare Option. One of the real dangers of the present is the disconnect between the Bush administration and the American public. The Bush administration has conducted the war so poorly that large majorities of the public have given up and want to withdraw. As a result, the U. S. no longer has a government that is credible with the American public. Ironically enough, it looks like the Bush administration is preparing reckless new initiatives in Iraq to re-establish a credibility that was lost because of their arrogance and recklessness. The outlines of President Bush's response to the Iraq Study Group are emerging and it looks like he wants first to reshuffle the Iraqi government to exclude Moqtada al-Sadr and then to attack Sadr's Mahdi Army in the Sadr City slum of Baghdad and other cities in Southern Iraq. The idea is that the removal of Sadr and his militia will make it possible for Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd politicians to form a government of real national unity.

This idea is so breathtaking in its foolishness that only the Bush administration could have thought of it. Of course, there wouldn't be much difficulty in defeating the Mahdi Army militarily and either arresting or killing Sadr. The problem is the the U. S. military would have to turn all of the towns and cities dominated by the Mahdi Army into more Fallujahs and Ramadis in order to destroy Sadr's military and social apparatus. Without Sadr, the Shiite militia movement would fragment in the same manner as the Sunni insurgency with Shiite guys from all over Baghdad and the Southeast taking up arms to fight the American occupiers and their Sunni "terrorist" allies. Not only would the anarchic situation in Baghdad get worse, but other Shiite towns and cities would start looking more like Baghdad.

Back to America. Projecting into the future, it looks like the Bush administration and the American right-wing are going to go down swinging in Iraq. This will only compound the current disaster. In many ways, the weak solutions offered by the Iraq Study Group have served as an indication of the extent to which the current American elite is not capable of devising a credible strategy for dealing with Iraq. If the Bush administration goes after Sadr over the next couple of years, the situation will be that much worse when a new President is elected. By that time, Bush will have led our country much deeper into the wilderness.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fly-Over Notes

Where I am. My day job is teaching at one of the nation's real fly-over schools--Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. As a rural, regional state university in a poor state, Morehead State is very low on the educational totem pole. Sure, we're above community colleges and regional state universities in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. However, Morehead has a hard time measuring up even to other regional universities like Western Kentucky and Murray State in Kentucky let alone places in wealthier states like Appalachian State in North Carolina.

Drafting. Today, I piled through drafts of take-home exams and research papers. Unlike places like Oberlin, Morehead State students need to be taught and examining early drafts is one of my most effective teaching techniques. It's a lot of work, but students benefit from having simple things pointed out to them like the need to refer to the assigned readings, the benefits of correlating their ideas, and the beauty of carrying out their arguments to the next permutation. It's simple editing work on my part, but the result is often rapid improvement on the part of students. Interestingly enough, the students have a lot of talent that only needs minor tweeking to come out.

Students. Students at Morehead State generally go to crummy high schools and usually don't have very good skills or much confidence as a result. Even the best students have a hard time believing that they're any good. But there's considerable advantage to that. Being poorly trained, Morehead State students aren't as wedded to the conventional wisdom as students at places like Oberlin which means that they are capable of highly original work. A fair number of Morehead State students burn with new ideas and original perspectives. Students often respond to small pointers or a little encouragement by embarking on first-rate work. Last year, a white student tore through a long paper locating herself within black feminist thought. Earlier this evening I read through an intense and tough-minded feminist reflection on virginity in a world of abstinence.

Needless to say. My work as a professor is usually very satisfying even if it's not taking me to the big time.

The Student Double Shift. Saturday, I took a walk down to the coffee shop where one of my students named Lindsey was working at the counter. That evening, my family went to the little Italian restaurant in town and there was Lindsey again working as a waitress. It turns out that she also has a work study job and baby-sits. Even though she has four jobs, Lindsey carries a 3.6 as a junior in the honors program. That kind of educational heroism is much more routine at Morehead than it is in the Ivy League. Almost 25% of the students in one of my classes work 40 hours a week with no guarantee that it will work out for them at all.

That's one of the reasons why I keep reading their drafts.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Two Shadows Over Bushland

Pinochet is dead. Today, Augosto Pinochet died at the age of 91. I'm sure that I'm not the only one to notice it, but the point needs to be made anyway. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, John Ashcroft, John Yoo, and other Bush administration figures are going to spend the rest of their lives under the same shadow of arrest and trial as Pinochet. Theoretically, all of the inmates at Guantamo, prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and suspected terrorists who were tortured in European and Middle Eastern prisons who have a case against the Bush administration will get to pursue charges. Perhaps the U. S. will still be able to stiff the International Criminal Court, but Bush administration figures won't be able to travel abroad in the future any more than Henry Kissinger is able to travel now.

That might be a long time for George Bush. Given that he'll only be 62 when he leaves office, Bush will be looking at 29 years of criminal liability if he lives as long as Pinochet. Bush and his people better hope that the Europeans never get any leverage over an American government. As discredited as the Bush administration is going to be, handing Bush and his advisers over to international courts might not prove to be that hard in the future.

Syria and Iran. One of the well-known recommendations of the Iraq Study Group was the re-establishment of direct communications with Iraq and Syria. Less well known is the fact that the Iraq Study Group concluded that Iran wasn't much of a threat to the U. S. and that Syria was even less of a threat. As the Iraq mission failed, the Bush administration and their neo-con allies have built up an image of Iran as a Shiite version of Saddam Hussein, armed to the teeth, relentlessly expansionist, and working without scruple to overthrow U. S. interests in the Middle East.

It's all nonsense. The Iranians have a run-down military, they're only able to give chump change of a couple hundred mill to their Hezbollah allies, and they're responding to their Shiite allies in Iraq rather than the other way around. Of course, the Bush administration will continue to pump the "Iranian threat" fantasy over the next couple of years. However, one of the shadows hanging over Bushland is the likelihood that a more credible administration will conclude that Iran doesn't even rate as a paper tiger.