Friday, December 15, 2006

Most Important Protest Ever

Janet Jackson, take heart - a judge in Daytona Beach, Florida ruled that breast-baring was not disorderly conduct and so couldn't be prosecuted. The boobies occurred during a First Amendment protest against public nudity laws. (In fairness, the laws had been used against breast-feeding mothers, so the lady had a point.)

Daytona Beach protested, and likely will continue to protest until they realize that a free-boobie zone in Daytona will draw thousands of new residents.

At least, until the new residents realize that the woman who started this was a 40-something biker chick. Yeesh.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pino Egregio

Recently, I was discussing the death of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet with some friends when I remarked that Pinochet was the kind of person that makes me wish I believed in Hell. Between 1973 and 1990, his murderous regime killed over 3,000 political dissidents, tortured thousands more, and exiled roughly 200,000. Since the downfall of his regime, Pinochet has become a byword for despotism and cruelty and, to the left, a symbol of all that was wrong with American cold war policy (the Nixon administration encouraged the 1973 coup against the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende that put Pinochet in power, and other administrations propped him up against unrest through the 1980s). Whatever he symbolizes, I tend to associate him with that pantheon of leaders whom the world is better off without.

I suppose that I expected everyone to share my sentiments. In fact, most people do. There was much celebration on the streets of Santiago when Pinochet went, and most media outlets have made it perfectly clear that Pinochet was not a figure to be emulated. But I was surprised that Pinochet still had supporters in Chile and elsewhere, even after the truth about the excesses of his regime came out.

In truth, Pinochet was not a genocidal maniac like Hitler. He was no insane power-hungry nut like Idi Amin. He honestly believed that he was saving the country from communism and he was willing to go to gruesome extremes to do it. He often said that Allende was going to turn Chile into another Cuba. Be that as it may, to me that justifies neither the coup he launched nor the havoc he wreaked. But to many people, it does. Hard-liners in Santiago still hail Pinochet as Chile's savior.

It is this fact that, to me, is the most bone-chilling aspect of Pinochet's legacy. While it is hard to imagine a Hitler or Amin taking power in America, you could imagine America getting a leader who is so intent on "saving" our country from one threat or another that he is willing to go to extremes to do it. You could imagine people supporting our strong leader for his brave stance against this threat even as their neighbors get dragged away in unmarked cars, never to return again.

In short, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine an American Pinochet. We may be comparatively short on hate and intolerant of insanity, but we have plenty of fanaticism to go around, and plenty of fear for a fanatic to play on. It wouldn't have been unthinkable for Joseph McCarthy to have been elected President, and how much less extreme would McCarthy have been? How many Americans watch Glenn "How Do We Know You're Not A Terrorist" Beck or read Dennis "Screw the Koran" Prager? And how many Americans would support a general quashing of dissent in order to keep us safe from terrorism?

It is absurd to compare President Bush to Hitler, to Amin, or even to Pinochet. But when people ask me why I rail against the erosion of civil liberties in the name of the "war on terror," and when people ask me why I argue against the use of the legal black hole that is Guantanamo, I will now point them to the torture chambers and death squads of Chile's past. For Pinochet is not a lesson against hatred or genocidal rage, but rather a caution: it is all too easy to support someone who, in the name of defense, crosses the fine line into fanaticism. We must not only be vigilant against threats from without, but we must also be vigilant in protecting our own ideals. If we fail in this latter regard, it is not difficult to imagine a Pinochet as our reward.

Update: Bad week for dictators: Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, the "Butcher of Addis Ababa" who murdered some 150,000 people during his 1974-1991 reign, was convicted of genocide by an Ethiopian court. Mengistu is apparently still hiding out in Zimbabwe under the protection of strongman Robert Mugabe. Interestingly, Mengistu and Pinochet can be seen as almost mirror images - they ruled at roughly the same time, were put in power by bloody coups against popular leaders (in Mengistu's case, he overthrew emperor and national hero Haile Selassie), used as Cold War pawns, and murdered people for their political beliefs. The differences - Mengistu was a lot more murderous, a lot more insane, faced a civil war, and was backed by the Soviets rather than by the Americans. Mengistu also had a racial element to his butchery - he hated the lighter-skinned Ethiopians.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Floridan Who Can Count

Apparently the idea of fiscal responsibility isn't completely lost on Florida Republican Charlie "Jesus" Crist, the incoming governor. He is planning on cancelling his inaugural ball because it costs way too much. His predecessor, Jeb Bush, spent $2 million on the damn thing. Crist has received donations for the ball - they will be returned, and any leftover funds will be donated to charity.

Sure, $2 million is chump change when compared to Florida's state budget. And the cynic in me says that maybe this is just a publicity stunt meant to shore up support after a surprisingly difficult campaign. But maybe Crist is actually serious about cutting wasteful spending.

How he treats anti-poverty programs are bound to be another story. But at least there's someone out there who is attempting to practice what he preaches.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

School Pride Moment

File this under "ridiculously cool": Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladesh economist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microcredit lending to poor folks who otherwise couldn't get any kind of business startup capital, got his Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt. That rules.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Youse Guys Are Insane

Culinary wizard Michael Bloomberg has managed to get a ban on trans fats passed in New York City.

Thanks, Mayor Bloomberg, for assuming New Yorkers aren't smart enough to avoid trans fats on their own. Or responsible enough for their own well-being to not use them. Or mature enough to choose whether or not to eat trans fats. Yes, trans fats are bad for you, but banning them? You gotta be kidding me. Let's hope that in a few months, the enforcers of this ridiculous regulation just, well, fugeddaboutit.

Meanwhile, in Congress, DC is close to getting a vote... stay tuned... it may turn out to be the only useful thing the 109th Congress has done...

Monday, December 04, 2006

White Russians For Everyone!

This has to be the coolest festival ever.

I'm curious about this online church that the article mentions. The church of Lebowski? Do we pray to the almighty bowling ball? On piss-soiled rugs? Is Julianne Moore kind of the not-so-Virgin Mary figure?

Imagine confession: "Your penance: say 'The Dude abides' six times and 'Fuck it, dude, let's go bowling' eight times."