Saturday, April 19, 2003

Castro, Again
I guess this is what happens when you get a link from Atrios.

I hadn't planned to deal with this again. When I set out to blog the one thing I promised myself was that I would not touch the Cuba issue. Why, you say? Why bother? Those of you who dislike Castro will continue to do so without encouragement from me; those of you who love him will continue to think that I am one of those crazy Miami Cubans who hate Castro because he took away their stuff. But the one thing I can't stand is that kind of American, left or right, who experiences the world only in comparison to how he feels about America. So here goes.

I go this letter today:

I've got to ask -- what's so bad about Castro? Compared of course to all the other Latin American countries, I mean. Where do you supose Cuba ranks in quality of life? Things that are really important to most of us? There is universal health care, complete literacy, no real poverty. No death squads, no sweat shops, no under paid child labor.

First. Poverty is dire in Cuba. There are two economies: dollar and peso. The government has set it up that way, quite deliberately. If you have a relative in the United States, you can afford a lot of things totally out of reach to the rest of Cubans. The government likes it for two reasons: first, they get dollar revenue, which is the only thing they can use in the international market; and second, they get a divide in the population that is easily exploitable. Inevitably the dollar economy is invading the every day life of most Cubans; it's now easier to pay a repairman or a craftsman in dollars than in pesos.

Food is not the question, per se; it's a farming island, and people still remember how to grow things, and you can trade or buy with dollars. It's the other things: soap, underwear, dress fabric. Women don't stop being female because they are communists: one of the biggest gift items Cuban-Americans take when they visit is costume jewelry or inexpensive perfume. Fifty dollars worth of junk jewelry that you can buy in the Miami fashion district in lots of twelve for ten bucks can give a Cuban family trade goods for six months.

There is in fact almost universal literacy; except there's nothing to do with it. Government workers make up the bulk of the population (remember, no private ownership of anything except small farms). They are paid a month less than what I make in a day, and in pesos, which is damn useless. I have personal knowledge of at least one teacher who taught during the day and prostituted herself at night to European and Canadian tourists to get the dollars in order to buy food for her family. Hey, three tricks a week and she could buy baby food and pampers at the dollar store. I'm not criticising her in any way; she did what she had to do to survive, and, like the man said, you know what you have to be in order to throw the first stone; but this is as real a fact of Cuban life as universal literacy.

There is in fact universal healthcare, and Cuban doctors are first class; there is just no medications and no equipment except in a few hospitals that cater to the tourist plastic-surgery trade and government officials. While my grandmother was dying we sent medications to Cuba every month; when my cousin got sick, we had to send TYLENOL. This is one of the reasons I hate the stupid embargo.

No, there are no death squads; the government calls them the police and the courts. There are no sweat shops; there's no work other than for the government! My relatives would LOVE sweat shops that paid what a Hialeah garment factory pays an Cuban-American worker and would work their asses off.

It is hard to explain to the children of plenty and freedom what it's like to live in a world created from scarcity and total control; maybe someone who survived soviet Russia understands. Maybe someone from the inner city, or a reservation, or rural Appalachia understands what it is to live in a world where you know there are better things out there--it's rubbed right in your face by the tourists and the party apparatchiks--but they are forever out of your reach as you struggle to survive the daily grind. Jesus, why do you think the biggest problem in most communist countries was ALCOHOL ABUSE? It's the hopelessness of standing in line for hours hoping to get a half-dozen eggs only to be told when you get up front that they are out; of knowing that the only way you can get your clothes clean is by boiling them in your cooking pots with slivers of soap you have been saving from your bath. It's the sheer emotional exhaustion of knowing that you have a brand new degree and will never be able to use it to earn the money to buy a house for your family, or even to fix the roof of the home you share with your parents, your brother, and his three kids.

No freedom of speech you say. True, but most people really don't care about that now do they? Those who were executed last week comitted a real crime -- now they really didn't deserve execution, but I would be willing to be that most Americans would approve of executing all high jackers whether or not they took a life. And let's face it, I didn't hear about Castro making fun of them begging for their lives.

Where do you get off telling other people that they don't or shouldn't care about freedom of speech? You live in a country where it is taken from granted; take a walk around the blogosphere and see how many people are ranting about this administration secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to knock on their door in the middle of the night. At least not yet. Why are other people not worthy of this? I suggest a thought experiment: how would you like it if you had to live in silence or risk death ALL THE TIME?

Also, setting aside the inability to know exactly what Castro does in private, where is it written that we should tolerate foreign dictators because our president is an asshole? I don't like Mr. Bush--I think most of you have gotten that point over the months--but one man's behavior does not excuse another's. EVER. EVER. EVER.

One final thing, if Castro had allowed free elections how long do you think it would have taken the U.S. Gov. and multi-national corporations to subvert it? Hell look what they've managed to do to our elections

One question: Do you ever crack open a paper other than your local one? Cuba is the playground of foreign companies; even some American companies do business there through their Canadian and European subsidiaries. Tourist business is up, too, because it's cheap and good and openly advertised everywhere except the United States. Prostitution is winked at although officially it does not exist. There is as much corruption there now as there was during Batista's time. It's just not American corruption. And, much as during Batista's time, some Cubans benefit from it; but instead of being the big bad capitalists, it's the big bad communist party upper echelon.

These are the facts as I know them. You are free to believe them or not. But, on the principle that there's nothing like equal-opportunity offense, let me address both sides:

To the folks on the right: Capitalism often sucks. Try to wrap your brain around what it's like to be an African farmer whose water has been cut off because the local, foreign-owned water company just upped the rates and you can't pay them, and, as you watch your fields die and your children starve, across the river you can see your rich neighbor fill not only his pool but his ornamental ponds with water that could mean the survival of whole villages. And don't tell me about the gods of creative destruction or whatever excuse you have created not to have to think about your fellow human beings as people instead of as numbers in a balance sheet.

Also, America is not perfect and thumping your chest patriotically while telling them furriners how lucky they are to have America around to set them straight only makes you look stupid.

To the folks on the left: Money is not an evil, in and of itself. The Bible quote is the love of money is the root of all evil. Capitalism is not an evil, on and of itself. One of the things it does better than any other system is to create jobs for people to improve their lives and provide for their families. Try to wrap your brain around what it's like to be a Cuban nurse that spends her whole work day trying to help people with nothing, and then walks past shop windows full of food and everyday goods an American takes for granted, and she will never be able to afford any of it, unless she sleeps with a foreign tourist. Maybe if there were a nice private hospital offering a decent salary, she wouldn't have to. And don't give me any crap about the greater good that gives you an excuse to treat your fellow human beings as cogs in a machine.

Also, America is a still a damn good place to live, and thumping your chest in ritual horror and giving a free pass to every tinhorn leftist dictator because, after all, your government has done terrible things too, only makes you look stupid.

To all of you, of every stripe: the author of this letter writes And yes Castro is only ok when you compare him with others who now rule, but then we do live in a real world. I have noticed a tendency in political discussion to bring in the real world whenever it would benefit the speaker's particular hypotheses. That's exactly what rightists say when they talk about supporting people like Pinochet all these years. That's exactly what leftists say when talking about people like Castro. It makes you all sound like Henry Kissinger.

You either have principles or you don't, but you can never make them conditional. That is outright hypocrysy, and that is how it will be judged.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Books About....Books!
A long time ago (less than four months) when I started this blog, I intended to talk about books, music, things like that. Somehow I got sucked into the whole political thing, and bob's your uncle.

Well, no more. Tonight we are talking books. Specifically, we are talking about books about books.

Which can only mean the latest Oak Knoll Press catalog is out.

Oak Knoll sells books about books. Wonderful, rich, elegant books about books; and about writers, typesetters, printers, and libraries. They publish books on printing history, bookbinding, illustration, book collecting, and forgery(!), among other things. They are also distributors for all the good book folks like The Bibliographical Society(UK) and the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society, and Martino Fine Books.

To those of us who love books, the thin black, white, and red catalog is...well, the closest thing to chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream you can get without a spoon.

Here's a little taste:

Rosenblum and Finley, Chaucer Illustrated: Five Hundred Years of the Canterbury Tales in Pictures, tracing the history of pictorial renditions of Chaucer since the Ellesmere Manuscript (c.1410).

Journeys Through the Market: Travel, Travellers, and the Book Trade, a series of historical essays on the influence of travel and exploration on the publishing business.

Isaac and McKay, The Mighty Engine: The Printing Press and Its Impact, the proceedings of the Seventeenth Seminar on the British Book Trade (and if you think that's not important, think about this: for centuries authorities have tried to control printed matter and its distributors. Can anybody spell Patriot Act II?)

Stoddard, A Library-Keepers' Business, the memoirs of Roger Stoddard, head of Rare Books of Harvard's Houghton Library.

Premchand, Off the Deckle Edge: A Papermaking Journey Through India, a travelogue through Indian papermaking villages. This books includes seven bound-in-full-page samples of Indian hand-made paper.

Jannet, Bibliotheca Scatologica ou Catalogue Raisonne Des Libres Traitants Des Vertus Faits et Gestes de Tres Noble et Tres Ingenieux, a reprint of the 1849 edition of the only extant bibliography of...dirty books.

Rosenblum, Practice to Deceive: The Amazing Stories of Literary Forgery's Most Notorious Practitioners, all about fakes and the great "literary experts" that were taken in by them.

Tolzmann, The Memory of Mankind: The Story of Libraries Since the Dawn of History, a rewriting and expansion of Hessel's The History of Libraries, including a total rework of the first chapter, due to the discovery of many clay tablet libraries in the ancient Middle East, thus expanding our library history knowledge back 5,000 years.

And, lastly, in honor of a great library that died this week, I'd like to bring your attention to: Staikos, The Great Libraries From Antiquity to the Renaissance.

For those of you interested, Oak Knoll is online. Not the glitziest of websites, but scroll down to the catalogs and play!

Have you been reading the Cowboy? If not, you're missing some of the best blogging around. And he finds the most interesting sites!

This Will Surprise Absolutely Nobody Who Knows Me

So which LOTR Villain are you? Hmm??

made by Michelle at EmptySpace.

Poor God

Reading this morning, I came across this.

Honest to Him, I'm beginning to feel sorry for the Almighty.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Pardon Me, My Naivete Is Showing
In my recent travels through Blogtopia (yscp!), and through several e-mails, I have encountered an interesting variation of the conservative take on the looting of the libraries and museums in Baghdad.

It never happened, they tell me. The treasures were (1)taken by the museum/library staff; (2)by members of Saddam's government; (3)had been sold already by the regime; (4)hidden away so that the anti-American Iraqis could smear the United States. The buildings had been (1)destroyed in the bombing; (2)blown up by Iraqis. It never happened.

I used to believe that the political divisions in this country could be resolved by talking. We could look at the facts, argue about the meanings, examine possible solutions, arrive at a compromise. You know, democracy.

But how do you discuss anything with people who can convince themselves that something didn't happen, in spite of hundreds of eye-witness accounts, many from fairly respectable journalists, not to mention our own army? It would be like arguing with a stubborn three-year-old: "Johnny, did you hit your sister?" "No, I didn't." "Johnny, I saw you hit your sister." "No, I didn't." "Young man, don't you lie to me!" "But Mooooom, I didn't!"

I also used to believe that a fact was, by its very nature, true. You know the old hoary Lazarus Long quote? Well, after I had shuned wishful thinking, ignored divine revelation, forgot what "the stars foretell", avoided opinion, gave up on what the neighbors thought, ignored the unguessable "verdict of history," I thought what I had left was a fact. In the case of this particular news story, it seems pretty confirmed, not only by news reporters from all over the world but by comments made by Mr. Rumsfeld in some of the news shows.

But if the people pushing the "it didn't happen" line can stubbornly ignore fact, how can we ever establish any kind of meaningful dialogue?

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

News from the Financial Times
Working in libraries is sometimes rewarding in odd little ways. At my current place, a professor has categorically refused to accept delivery of his (library-paid) Financial Times. So, for the duration of the subscription, the little sucker is mine, all mine!

FT is an interesting paper. I don't really read the hard-core finance pages--half the times my eyes glaze over when I get to the end of the first paragraph on something like derivatives--but the news and the analysis are first rate. I have been reading whatever I can get free from the online edition, but the print issues have been a revelation.

For one, they carry, in the weekend edition, a wonderful "cultural" section: in addition reviewing theater, music, dance, and fashion, they list major art exhibits in large cities all over the world. Not in the league of The Times or the New York Times, but darn close. For another, it has fantastic single-issue inserts: on April 15th, it dedicated six pages to Uganda and six to Poland. The writing is uniformly good and straightforward, and, unlike the Wall Street Journal, FT keeps its politics tucked safely in the editorial pages.

So, here are some stories. Please note that the comments in bold are my own and not attributable to the always respectable FT.

Did Someone Say Something About The Moral High Ground? White House drops censure of China's Human Rights: The US said yesterday it would not offer a United Nations resolution condemning China for human rights abuses, the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that Washington has not tried to censure the Beijing government...The move comes just two weeks after the State Department's annual human rights report condemned China... Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Institute for International Economics, said the US decision was likely in part a reward for China not playing a leading role in opposing the US war in Iraq...(Weekend Edition, April 12/13)

And Just When We Thought The Few Bad Apples Had Been Taken Out Of The Barrel...SEC may file civil charges against Morgan Stanley:The SEC has been investigating whether Morgan Stanley, as well as other Wall Street investment banks, engaged in what is known as the "laddering" of IPOs...The word of the SEC investigation comes as regulators and leading investment bankers are putting the final touches on a settlement concerning multiple investigations into conflicts of interest in Wall Street equity research and IPO practices...(Weekend Edition, April 12/13)

The Road To The EU Is Paved With Unfunny Polish Jokes... Bribery case deepens crisis: Poland is preparing for its referendum on European Union accession in an atmosphere of political crisis...The political scandal broke in December, just after Mr. Miller returned triumphant from the EU Copenhagen summit, when the union's eastward enlargement was approved. "Gazeta Wyborcza", the biggest-selling newspaper owned by the Agora media group, alleged that Lew Rywin, a film producer with close links with Polish state television had, last July, approached Agora with a request for a $17.5m bribe on behalf of "people in power"...(April 15th, special Poland insert)

Good News, YES! Freedom fighters win political clout: Women who carry guns and fight for their country do not voluntarily head back to the kitchen, says a leading member of Uganda's administration...The prominence of women in politics has been buttressed by their gradual economic empowerment, the result in part of the years of turmoil and conflict predating President Yoweri Museveni's regime...It is imagine even the most bullish males reversing the solidarity among women that has built up indenpendently of the political system...a range of women's networks has sprung up from business, religious and professional associations to rural development groups and NGOs pioneering improvements in women's healthcare and attitudes to HIV/Aids. Credit associations have also taken a firm root...(April 15th, special insert on Uganda)

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

The Death of the Word
Someone asked me why I haven't said anything about the burning of the National Library and Archives in Baghdad and the looting of the museums.

Well, first, because someone said it better than I ever could,here and here.

But mostly, because it hurts.

I have a love affair with civilization, but above all, with the printed word. I remember reading a while ago about the daemon that guards each human and carries his or her destiny (I wish I could remember where!). It is the daemon's role to prod the human soul into the full flowering of its powers, and it starts early. One of the stories was about a famous violinist, who, at age three, asked for a violin, and, upon being given a toy model, smashed it to bits and demanded an adult one: it was the daemon, demanding that the child's destiny be fullfilled.

I demanded to learn to read at age two. It took me six months to convince somebody to teach me. I threw tantrums and sulked, whined and harangued. When I was given children's books, I tossed them into a cupboard without looking. Finally, my great-uncle gave in, as I knew he would, and taught me to read. Since he disliked children's books as much as I did--or maybe just so that he wouldn't have to hear me start with the full repertoire all over again--he used The Illiad and The Odyssey as my textbooks.

You don't have to look far to find my daemon.

I can tell you all the rational, intellectual reasons why this is a disaster. I can tell you the archeological, historical, and artistic reasons why this is a debacle on par with the burning of the library at Alexandria. I could fill reams with all the reasons. But that seems too stoic a reaction. I want to punish, not only those who did it, but those who let it happen. Not the soldiers; those poor heroic bastards are doing the best they can with what they have. I mean those who in their arrogant disdain ignored the warnings and pleas for help.

There's an old Assyrian or Babylonian curse that seems particularly appropriate:

He who breaks [this book] or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishlar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth.

UPDATE: To those who have been writing me about my inability to love humanity more than "mere" books, go here and get enlightened.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Dear Matt, You Don't Know Me, But...
Matthew Yglesias, who usually runs rings around me in the thinking department, needs a little help. (UPDATE: Matt had a booboo with his template and it ate a number of his posts. This one seems to be one of them, unfortunately)

Commenting on a series of letters of pro-Castro (or anti-Bush) letters to the LA Times posted by Matt Welch he says: The worst thing about these letters is that they don’t really even try to defend or apologize for Castro — it just can’t be done anymore — instead they change the subject as quickly as possible to the evils of George W. Bush and his man in Havana, James Cason.

Actually, Matt, there is a brand of American liberal who loves to apologize for Fidel. They got their creds during the sixties, when it was de rigeur to bring up Cuba as the communist paradise and Fidel as the hero who defeated Uncle Sam and his CIA minions. There are still some. If you ever want to read a sample of some of the most serious drivel, there was a report written by a committee of the American Library Association a few years ago--here -- condemning the independent libraries in Cuba for accepting books from US-associated groups and exile Cubans (as if they were likely to get them from anyone else).

Fidel is the last great hero of the radical ultra-left. If they ever had to face the fact that he is not what they idolize him for being, they would actually have to think about the bankruptcy of their zeitgeist. As you have learned in the course of your education, thinking about thinking is hard. Some people just stop at some point in their lives. Both the ultra-lefts and their bitter enemies, the fundie-rights, are united by their refusal to face unpleasant facts.

I don't know what drove the letter writers; as you say, they simply jump into the anti-Bush canoe and head downstream. But don't be surprised, when you are one of the actual journalistic voices out there, if you run into the Fidel apologizers. You can spot them by their Che Guevara t-shirts and the wild light of fanaticism in their eyes.