Friday, April 23, 2010

Confederate plagiarism

Neo-Confederates are a dismal bunch. Lurking somewhere above Holocaust revisionists on the hierarchy of petty pseudo-history niches, the neo-Confederates find ways to obfuscate the nature and origins of the Civil War in order to champion a sanitized version of the Lost Cause and anti-federalism as a viable political ideology. Chief among proponents are the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who host a sordid website, replete with lesson plans, detailing the true causes of the Civil War. Poor writing aside, the scholarship of the site is a testament to the scholarship of the neo-Confederate movement, and indeed any pseudo-historical fringe movement: academic incest. Run-of-the-mill neo-Confederates lack even the pretense of scholarship that conspiracy theorists like Mattogno or David Ray Griffin engage in. With the exception of Thomas DiLorenzo and a handful of others, the bulk of their research is relegated to Internet backwaters and re-hashed arguments from The South Was Right!.

The up-and-coming Confederate Congress, which literally seeks to register voters for a proposed June 2010 Confederate congressional election, is rife with articles about the Civil War. This piece is about them. Most of their history pages are taken from a SCV page that is copyright 2007 by John K. McNeill SCV Camp # 674 (hereafter McNeill). As CC representative Chris Crigger told me in a personal e-mail, "We decided to use this on our page (after giving proper credit) as the articles and information were well written and presented extremely well. We are not attempting to plagiarize these works, only offer another forum for their presentation, again giving credit where credit is due." What we need to examine, then, is McNeill's allegedly original research. I will be using the CC pages as reference, simply because their presentation is easier to read and navigate.

So, in the course of a few minutes, we can witness how the plagiarists behind the SCV seamlessly mash opposing sources together to create their own interpretation of how things transpired.

1. The article on compromises, which mirrors the SCV's take, includes the line: "By 1818, Missouri Territory had gained sufficient population to warrant its admission into the Union as a state. Its settlers came largely from the South, and it was expected that Missouri would be a states right state," which is lifted directly from the Columbia encyclopedia, with one notable exception: the Columbia entry says slave state instead of "states rights state." Later mention of Alabama is made as a "states right state" when in fact Columbia says slave state. Evidently McNeill, the apparent originator of the plagiarism, could not be bothered to attribute his sources, nor transcribe them with fidelity.

2. The line on the Nullification Crisis, "The nullification crisis of the 1830s was a dispute over Northern-inspired tariffs that benefited Northern interests and were detrimental to Southern interests," appears to have come from this site originally.

3. The introductory paragraph for the SCV and CC on compromises contains the lines, "Significant strains to national unity had erupted in earlier times, notably during the Missouri statehood crisis (1820-1821), the nullification controversy (1832-1833), and the aftermath of the Mexican War (1849-1850). On each of these occasions, political leaders managed to find a compromise that dissipated the danger. Inevitably, compromise proposals were now offered to avert this new possibility of civil war," which is lifted directly from Tulane University's page on compromises, part of their background on Fort Sumter.

4. The pages both contain, "The annexation of Texas to the United States and the gain of new territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the close of the Mexican War aggravated the hostility between North and South concerning the question of the extension of states rights vs federal regulation into the new territories, of which extension of slavery, protected by the constitution, was an issue," which is adapted from Columbia Encyclopedia Sixth Edition. I will bold the differences in Columbia's piece:

"The annexation of Texas to the United States and the gain of new territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the close of the Mexican War (1848) aggravated the hostility between North and South concerning the question of the extension of slavery into the territories."

5. Take this SCV line on Bleeding Kansas: "By some it was played up to be another bitter sectional controversy over the extension of slavery into the territories, further complicated by conflict over the location of the projected transcontinental railroad. Again Northern industrialists wanted to play all the cards with regards to control and profiteering from the railroad," which is an adaptation and plagiarism from the Columbia original, which reads:

"It was, however, irrevocably bound to the bitter sectional controversy over the extension of slavery into the territories and was further complicated by conflict over the location of the projected transcontinental railroad. Under no circumstances did proslavery Congressmen want a free territory (Kansas) W of Missouri."

6. The page on servitude and slavery, again mirroring the SCV, contains the passage:

"By the early eighteenth century, indentured servants played only a marginal role in the plantation districts. Thereafter, they were concentrated in a few industries in the Mid-Atlantic region demanding particular skills such as iron making, shipbuilding, and construction and in colonial towns where they worked in various service trades or at artistic crafts.

In the northern colonies, where the indentured immigrants served mostly as house servants and apprentices, they were usually treated fairly. After becoming freemen, they usually had every opportunity to succeed. A good example was Paul Revere, whose father had come to Massachusetts as an indentured servant.

By 1770 the colonies found it cheaper to hire native-born youngsters as apprentices, rather than pay the passage for indentured servants. As a result, and particularly after the Revolution, with its emphasis on equality, the system gradually died out and by the early 19th century had virtually ceased to exist in the North. Isolated cases of indentured servitude among European immigrants appear as late as the 1830s, but the institution was unimportant in the United States after 1800."

The italicized portions are taken without attribution from The Reader's Companion to American History. The non-italicized passages are likely original work of the SCV, where, without supporting evidence, they seem to imply that indentured servitude was relatively benign. Whitewashing servitude, after all, seems to be a past time of neo-Confederates as much as plagiarism.

7. The CC's section on Reconstruction, as well as the SCV's, contains the line, "The 14th Amendment was a radical departure from the original letter and spirit of the Constitution," which is taken directly from The South Was Right!. Hobbling together arguments by taking un-attributed lines is no way to make an effective argument.

8. Overall, this section is probably the most egregious in its offense, due to the very nature of its deception. The CC levies charges that Reconstruction was unduly horrible on the South, exemplified in the following passages:

"Abraham Lincoln, while the war was still in progress, had turned his thoughts to the great problems of reconciliation and devised a plan that would restore the South to the Union with minimum humiliation and maximum speed. But there had already emerged in Congress a faction of radical Republicans, sometimes called Jacobins or Vindictives, who sought to defeat what they felt was too generous of a reconciliation program. Motivated by a hatred of the South, by selfish political ambitions, and by crass economic interests, the radicals tried to make the process of reconstruction as humiliating, as difficult, and as prolonged as they possibly could. With Andrew Johnson’s succession to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination, the old Jacksonian Unionist took advantage of the adjournment of Congress to put Lincoln’s mild plan of reconstruction into operation.


In December of 1865, when Congress assembled, President Johnson reported that the process of reconstruction was nearly completed and that the old Union had been restored. But the radicals unfortunately had their own sinister purposes: they repudiated the government Johnson had established in the South, refused to seat Southern Senators and Representatives, and then directed their fury against the new President. After a year of bitter controversy and political stalemate, the radicals, resorting to shamefully demagogic tactics, won an overwhelming victory in the congressional elections of 1866.

Riding roughshod over Presidential vetoes and federal courts, the U.S. Congress put the South under military occupation and formed new Southern state governments. The South, decimated by the war, was powerless to offer resistance. Not satisfied with reducing the South to political slavery and financial bankruptcy, Congress even laid their obscene hands on the pure fabric of the U.S. Constitution. They impeached President Johnson and came within one vote of removing him from office. Congress denied the power to raise state militias of their own to all of the former Confederate states."

Sounds pretty draconian, right? Well, not really. This is actually lifted without attribution -- and seriously relevant context -- from the essay Tragic Legend of Reconstruction by pre-eminent Reconstruction historian Kenneth Stamp, from the essays Myth and Southern History: The Old South. Stamp's scholarship worked to change the historiography of the Reconstruction away from the Dunning School of interpretation, which prevailed until the 1950s. The Dunning School argued that Reconstruction was mostly a botched affair that burdened the South and made little headway. It ignored real political developments for freed blacks and the systemic terror and disenfranchisement propagated by unrepentant Confederates and Southerners that marred the fragile political landscape. In fact, Stamp's scholarship reversed long-held beliefs that slaves were actually happy and docile. Here is the original Stamp passage in full, with added commentary from the essay:

"A synopsis of the Dunning School's version of reconstruction would run something like this: Abraham Lincoln, while the Civil War was still in progress, turned his thoughts to the great problem of reconciliation; and, "with malice toward none and charity for all," this gentle and compassionate man devised a plan that would restore the South to the Union with minimum humiliation and maximum speed. But there had already emerged in Congress a faction of radical Republicans, sometimes called Jacobins or Vindictives, who sought to defeat Lincoln's generous program. Motivated by hatred of the South, by selfish political ambitions, and by crass economic interests, the radicals tried to make the process of reconstruction as humiliating, as difficult, and as prolonged as they possibly could. Until Lincoln's tragic death, they poured their scorn upon him- and then used his coffin as a political stump to arouse the passions of the Northern electorate. The second chapter of the Dunning version begins with Andrew Johnson's succession to the Presidency. Johnson, the old Jacksonian Unionist from Tennessee, took advantage of the adjournment of Congress to put Lincoln's mild plan of reconstruction into operation, and it was a striking success. In the summer and fall of 1865, Southerners organized loyal state governments, showed a willingness to deal fairly with their former slaves, and in general accepted the outcome of the Civil War in good faith. In December, when Congress assembled, President Johnson reported that the process of reconstruction was nearly completed and that the old Union had been restored.

But the radicals unfortunately had their own sinister purposes: they repudiated the governments
Johnson had established in the South, refused to seat Southern Senators and Representatives, and then directed their fury against the new President. After a year of bitter controversy and political stalemate, the radicals, resorting to shamefully demagogic tactics, won an overwhelming victory in the congressional elections of 1866. Now, the third chapter and the final tragedy. Riding roughshod over Presidential vetoes and federal courts, the radicals put the South under military occupation, gave the ballot to Negroes, and formed new Southern state governments dominated by base and corrupt men black and white. Not satisfied with reducing the South to political slavery and financial bankruptcy, the radicals even laid their obscene hands on the pure fabric of the federal Constitution. They impeached President Johnson and came within one vote of removing him from office, though they had no legal grounds for such action. Next, they elected Ulysses S. Grant President, and during his two administration, they indulged in such an orgy of corruption and so prostituted the civil service as to make Grantism an enduring symbol of political immorality."

The bold portions were omitted from the SCV and CC's version of events. Why? Because Stamp is illustrating the historiography. The essay continues to validate some original assertions of the Dunning School (i.e., political corruption), but overall it criticizes the Dunning interpretation for what it is: intrinsically and inextricably racist and xenophobic. To wit:

"Here, then, was a crucial part of the intellectual climate in which the Dunning interpretation of reconstruction was written. It was written at a time when xenophobia had become almost a national disease, when the immigration restriction movement was getting into high gear, when numerous Northern cities (among them Philadelphia and Chicago) were seriously considering the establishment of racially segregated schools, and when Negroes and immigrants were being lumped together in the category of unassimilable aliens.Several other attitudes, prevalent in the late 19th century, encouraged an interpretation of reconstruction that condemned radical Republicans for meddling in Southern race relations. The vogue of social Darwinism discouraged governmental intervention in behalf of Negroes as well as other underprivileged groups; it encouraged the belief that a solution to the race problem could only evolve slowly as the Negroes gradually improved themselves.


As ideas about race have changed, historians have become increasingly critical of the Dunning interpretation of reconstruction. These changes, together with a great deal of painstaking research, have produced the revisionist writing of the past generation. It is dangerous, of course, for a historian to label himself as a revisionist, for his ultimate and inevitable fate is one day to have his own revisions revised. But that has never discouraged revisionists, and we may hope that it never will, especially those who have been rewriting the history of the reconstruction era. One need not be disturbed about the romantic nonsense that still fills the minds of many Americans about their Civil War. This folklore is essentially harmless. But the legend of reconstruction is another matter. It has had serious consequences, because it has exerted a powerful influence upon the political behavior of many white men, North and South."

McNeill has taken a summation of the Dunning School and used it in their arguments for the Confederacy is not only indicative of sloppy research, but of real, visible racism. No legitimate scholars consider the Dunning School to be definitive in this modern era, so by selectively copy and pasting highlight reels from a bygone historiography he is willfully misleading his readers and engaging in ideology for the sake of ideology.

The tactics employed by McNeill follow certain trends. Instances 1, 4, 5, 6, and 8 either misconstrue slavery's role or downplay its evils, plagiarizing and adapting legitimate historical sources along the way. Points 2 and 7 are possibly plagiarized from like-minded sources without citation. Example 3 plagiarizes directly from a historical source and uses it as a lead in, but does not change the fundamental meaning.

Iterations of the SCV's claims are not found only on the Confederate Congress website. Indeed, they can be found on Facebook groups, Internet comments and other neo-Confederate websites, such as The Southern Messenger and The Southern Parties Southwest. That neo-Confederates will warp history should not come as a surprise, but it is indicative of the dishonesty that plagues the movement on the most base level. These instances of plagiarism were only found courtesy of Google books and Questia. It is unknown how many more instances of plagiarism McNeill has engaged in beyond what is available to verify online only. At this rate, it is likely that a large body of his work is not his. Despite this, you can order CDs of these lessons for a mere $10.

Ultimately, neo-Confederates have little to prove, because they are so fringe. But in an era of a resurgence in "states rights" and other such nonsense, it bears keeping in mind the levels to which people can twist established notions for their own nefarious purposes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Uncertain outcomes

The uprising in Kyrgyzstan represents the largest political development in Central Asia since Sting played a concert for the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. All kidding aside, the spontaneous rebellion that overthrew the established government is likely to make regional players reconsider their positions, possibly jeopardize the status of the U.S. military base (but not likely – this is not a huge focal point of opposition nor a major issue on the ground) and could lead to sweeping changes for the mountainous republic – or a slow retreat toward authoritarianism. At the moment the future is as wide as the steppes that buffet the countryside, but this won't likely last for long. Bishkek has been looted (pictures), the prime minister has resigned and opposition forces have formed an interim government. President Kurmanbek Bakiev, however, has vanished – presumably to the south of the country – and refused to resign, claiming he is still in control.

There are a few ways this could play out.

Kyrgyzstan will undoubtedly be contested in part of the region's New Great Game. China, Russia and the U.S. all have stakes here, and backroom dealings around Manas Air Base are likely why the Kyrgryz parliament essentially rescinded its original vote to close it in 2009. The U.S. will ensure its retention. Eleven hundred NATO soldiers are not going anywhere any time soon. This represents an opportunity for China to fill a vacuum it has left relatively untapped. While Chinese companies explore Africa with fervor, they have neglected emerging on the Central Asian energy scene. The cultism surrounding hydroelectric power in neighboring Tajikistan gives an idea of how important energy independence is in a region where oil smuggling is still a career. China could use this as an effective in, but it would be a blatant attempt to undermine Russia's established sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia has historically used issues such as commodity prices as leverage in disputes in ex-Soviet republics, and Bakiev did not demonstrate the resistance that Belarus' Lukashenko is willing to muster. That Kyrgyzstan was excluded from a Russian trade agreement, thus increasing duties on oil, shortly before utility price hikes in the nation is evidence to some observers of Russia punishing Bakiev for his acquiescence to U.S. demands in regards to Manas. Putin has since recognized the opposition government, and a Russian official intimated that Russian opinions on Manas remain unchanged. That Russia has dispatched two companies of paratroopers to protect Russian citizens and promised opposition leader Rosa Otunbayev with humanitarian aid clearly shows where Russia has its eyes.

The interim government, spearheaded by a social democrat and former foreign minister, shows promise. If it allows open and fair elections, allows for the re-opening of previously banned newspapers and stops the over-handed oppression of the deeply religious it will stand a chance. Of course, negotiating down utility prices will be its litmus test – one that could push it more toward Russia. Revolutionaries named Rosa may not have good fortune, but Otunbayeva seems to be well positioned to steer the nation toward greater democracy and transparency. Bakiev's nepotism will be all but erased, which leaves us with a trying question – what is Bakiev's next move? Ferried away to the south – his ancestral home and base of support – he could mount an armed resistance. This is highly unlikely, but Bakiev will likely leverage the country's long-stand north-south divide to his benefit, a divide that at least one prominent Kyrgyzstan observer and anthropologist suggests has been artificially inflated by those in power to maintain their hegemony. In Kyrgyzstan's world of clan politics, this is not outside the realm of possibility in the least. The opposition, too, could try to oust Bakiev, but this would be a dangerous proposition. Claiming to hold four of seven regions is likely sufficient for now – actually mounting an invasion against Bakiev's territory would be a gamble for the revolutionary government.

More than likely Bakiev will remain an ambiguous, neutered force, but the ensuing stalemate does threaten further violence. While we're certainly unlikely to see stretches of violence as pervasive as the horrific Tajik civil war of the '90s, the Kyrgyz people must remain calm and vigilant to guarantee that violence does not become the de facto way of solving disputes. Bakiev must concede defeat, or at least attempt to re-enter politics through legitimate channels, such as a coming election (assuming the interim government honors such an idea). Any other option would only further inflame the sensibilities of an already fragile situation.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Disregarding history

Hearings have occurred over the past two days at the State Board of Education regarding statewide social studies curriculum. The elected board members have the authority to amend and alter educational standards as they see fit, which has thrown them into the spotlight in the past for good reason. The Texas Observer has a pretty thorough live blogging for those with extra time, but for those who missed it, here are a few highlights:
  • Salvadoran peace activist and priest Oscar Romero was removed from curriculum. Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was added, leading to an opposing vote on the basis that “they just voted to remove someone of Hispanic heritage” to which board member Terri Leo responded, “Well, we're adding a Jewish woman.”

  • Students must now “explain three reasons why socialist central economic planning collapsed in competition with free markets at the end of the 20th century.” True for maybe Czechoslovakia, but untrue for Europe's relatively stable and prosperous social democracies.

  • The scholastic BCE and CE have been replaced by the antiquated AD and BC.

  • Students no longer must explain “Enlightenment ideas” but must explain writings of that era. Budding theocrat John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas – two religious leaders – have been added to the roster of thinkers of the Enlightenment. This is part of the board's effort to undermine the influence of Enlightenment ideals on the founding fathers and play up Judeo-Christian influence.

  • “The student understands the importance of the expression of different points of view in a democratic republic,” has been changed to “analyze the importance of the First Amendment rights to petition, assembly, speech, and press, and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” This was done specifically to emphasize the importance of gun ownership as an element of good citizenship.

This is not the first time this year the board has made changes to social studies educational standards. In January, the SBOE changed all references of American “imperialism” to American “expansionism,” among other lamentable changes, ignoring that the two are not entirely synonymous. While practices such as Manifest Destiny were expansionist as well as imperialist, the fact that at one point in the early 20th century the U.S. dictated the foreign relations of Cuba, ran Haiti's finances and colonized the Philippines is a pretty thorough indictment of American imperialism.

In other news, the Montrose Land Defense Coaltion has amended its goals to reflect a broader purpose, abandoning the park idea and instead seeking “a development solution for this valuable tract that will best benefit businesses and the communities that surround it.” It's more practical, but it's vague and open-ended. Its unlikely such a movement will make appreciable success with such a nebulous purpose, although the presentation on its website proposed by unnamed architects is appealing. The city certainly doesn't have the funds laying around to make any appreciable contribution – indeed, the very construction of the University line, arguably the light rail system's linchpin – is now in doubt.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Kuperman's Sudanese spin machine

Alan J. Kuperman is perhaps one of the most disingenuous scholars to grace the editorial pages of The New York Times in the past few years. What can we expect, after all, from an academic who uses car and banking insurance as simile in regards to genocide?

His argument to bomb Iran has already been thoroughly demolished, but his 2006 piece on Darfur warrants briefly revisiting. The gist of Kuperman's argument is that Darfuri rebel groups, reluctant to sign peace accords with the Khartoum regime, have propagated needless violence by refusing to lay down arms. Other nations, Kuperman supposes, shouldn't give indication that they'd ever intervene on behalf of such groups, in order to discourage rebels like those in Darfur from taking up arms in the first place. His incendiary claim that the Save Darfur movement has emboldened the rebels to sacrifice their own civilians is used as further evidence but presented without support. Blatantly ignoring Carl Sagan's maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Kuperman's editorial is mostly an ill-informed missive against Darfuri victims:

“Darfur was never the simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations. The region's blacks, painted as long-suffering victims, actually were the oppressors less than two decades ago — denying Arab nomads access to grazing areas essential to their survival. Violence was initiated not by Arab militias but by the black rebels who in 2003 attacked police and military installations.


America, born in revolution, has a soft spot for rebels who claim to be freedom fighters, including those in Darfur. But to reduce genocidal violence, we must withhold support for the cynical provocations of militants who bear little resemblance to our founders.”

Kuperman's ultimate thesis resides in his “moral hazard hypothesis.” Chiefly, according to Kuperman, marginalized groups have been willing to engage in armed rebellion and sacrifice their civilian populaces to entice foreign – presumably Western-backed – intervention, which results in genocide against the rebelling population. It's a morose and cynical thesis, and one he frequently trots out while bending the very fabric of history.

Although he is correct asserting that the rebel groups are poorly misunderstood in the West, Kuperman evidently falls victim to ignorance himself. As part of his disinformation campaign, he fires a cheap salvo by claiming that today's victims were yesterday's oppressors while failing to provide much-needed context. While in past decades tribal skirmishes had made life difficult for some “Arabs” (a term often used for political enemies in Sudan among non-Arabs), these were likely the result of numerous external factors, including desertification and rampant water shortages. Territorial disputes over resources were rife preceding the conflict and further exacerbated by a government-led Arabization campaign in place since the 1970s.

Kuperman presents the 2003 uprising, which began with the occupation of Gulu by about 300 rebel fighters, in a vacuum. In reality, it was the culmination of years of systemic oppression against ethnic Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribe members. To complicate matters, Khartoum engaged in a regional power restructuring throughout the 1990s that stripped powers from the Masalit hereditary chief, appointed northern Arabs with Arabization-driven agendas into positions of power in Darfur and routinely jailed and tortured Masalit community members. Such state-led oppression led to the authorship of the Black Book, a work of 15 Darfuri political activists drawing upon sensitive state records and published in 2000, alleging that Sudan intended to keep Darfur economically disadvantaged through government measures – a claim that has since vindicated by Oxford economist Alex Cobham. Nor does Kuperman mention that the notorious janjaweed militia existed before the Darfur rebellion even began. Sudanese civil administrators operating from Khartoum were fielding the proxy militias as early as 1996, even recruiting and arming 20,000 volunteers from neighboring Chad. These militias looted Fur and Masalit farms and villages throughout the 90s, forcing tribes to create self-defense militias – the very militias that would evolve into the Darfuri rebel groups of the 1990s.

Ultimately he urges the U.S. rescind any support – material or otherwise – toward groups that allegedly sacrifice their own people for political ends. This is a fair supposition on its face, but one that bears no relation to either Darfur or other genocides, and instead allocates blame on the victims themselves. The rebellion was a direct result of Sudanese government oppression, and the genocide was undertaken directly by Sudanese state agents and their malicious proxies as a method of further eroding Darfur tribal groups. To ignore the root causes of the issue is to misconstrue the issue itself. Kuperman is right suggesting Darfuri rebels bear little resemblance to America's founding fathers, because the tyranny they faced paled in comparison to the systemic terror imposed on the Fur and Masalit during the late 1990s and early 2000s in western Sudan that gave birth to the Darfur rebellion.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Building woes

The legacy of the Wilshire Village apartments speaks volumes about Houston building practices. Constructed in 1940, the art deco-derived garden apartments opened for business in the heart of a soon-to-be-defunct streetcar suburb lurching toward inner-city status. As time passed, the apartments slowly fell into disrepair while the surrounding neighborhood gradually hemorrhaged its structures and residents and swapped them for new. The demolition of Wilshire Village last year, following a series of convoluted business dealings (including a possible allegation by the owner that his paid tenants were squatters), surprised few. Its destruction marked the passing of a slightly spooky New Deal-inspired neighborhood icon, which was the home of my newlywed grandparent's first apartment as well as the last Federal Housing Administration-backed site.

Rumors have swirled for years whether the lot will give way to a residential high-rise, a grocery store or some other development. News that H-E-B is closing a deal to put in a grocery store – directly across from a long-standing Fiesta – has generated little goodwill in the community, some members of which have banded together to form the Montrose Land Defense Coalition. The Coalition would rather see a park in its stead, a sympathetic but ultimately untenable position. The property, valued at a minimum of $11 million but likely worth in excess of $20 million, would cost the city nearly 1 percent of its fiscal year 2010 general funds solely for the land purchase. Menil, Mandell and Dunlavy parks are close by, and the money would be better invested in literacy programs for the Fondren or Gulfton areas than they would in greening an area that's already relatively green.

The Coalition would benefit from jettisoning the park idea entirely. Although H-E-B is in its closing stages, greater awareness could generate a more competitive bidding atmosphere over the tract. Virtually any other development – short of a high-rise – would be more beneficial for area traffic and infrastructure. A commercial plot or mixed-use lot would increase the walkability of the area, which will be served by the Mandell stop of the planned University Line. Montrose residents are rightly concerned about the neighborhood's creeping gentrification, but we'll likely see this story repeated time and again until Houston enacts concrete zoning laws and pursues historical preservation measures endowed with some real teeth.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hunting Central Asia's phantoms

The U.S. is set to open a $5.5 million anti-terror training facility in Kyrgyzstan's Batken province, Eurasianet reports. The center, which will match a similar, extant Russian effort, is a continuation of American policy in supporting the Central Asian state in its crusade against perceived terrorist threats. Yet aid should not have an exclusively anti-terrorist purpose. If conditions in Kyrgyzstan are to improve and terror threats are to be stymied, infrastructure development and government transparency must be focal points.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev raised the specter of an Islamic insurrection following a series of small-scale clashes last year. Tajikistan witnessed similar problems in 2009, although the violence is a far cry from the scale reached during the height of the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan's raids of the early 2000s. Bakiev, however, must not take a page from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov's playbook. Karimov, worried about the expansion of the IMU, engaged in an anti-opposition campaign that jailed anyone remotely too Islamic, including members of Hizb ut-Tahir, an international secret society devoted toward establishing a global Sunni caliphate through nonviolent means. Veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid speculated that had Islamic movements been allowed in Uzbekistan's political mainstream instead of actively persecuted, there would have been less room for armed Islamic opposition to be legitimized.

There are signs Bakiev, who was initially hailed as a democratic reformer in the wake of the Tulip Revolutin, may already be doing this. Bakiev has used this specter in part to increase his control over state security apparatuses, while restructuring the government to afford him the power to dissolve parliament as necessary. These have coincided with a spate of violence previously unseen in the republic. Journalists and opposition members have become victims of brutal attacks, some of which have proven fatal. Of recent note is the case of Gennady Pavyluk, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz journalist who was thrown from the sixth floor of an apartment building in neighboring Kazakhstan.

For its part, the proposed base opening represents no shift in U.S. policy. When Russia's bribes threatened the closure of the Manas Air Base, Obama wrote Bakiev a letter praising his contributions to the war on terror – yet his own domestic abuses are seldom mentioned by the U.S. administration. While State Department officials have acknowledged some human-rights violations, the government has taken few active steps in denouncing them. Even so, pressuring Bakiev to change course through incentives with strings attached would likely just push the nation more toward the Russian sphere of influence.

To complicate matters, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced a politically rooted realignment of irrigation channels and power grids in the former Soviet republics, leading to the rapid desertification of the Aral Sea in the 1990s and creating power struggles that have left swaths of people periodically in the dark. Energy woes and water scarcity, compounded by endemic corruption and a lack of basic education and healthcare, could lead to serious destabilization in neighboring Tajikistan, a conclusion recently reached by the International Crisis Group and the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Kyrgyzstan must be prepared to deal with an influx of refugees across its porously bordered Ferghana Valley should that occur, while simultaneously shielding its own populace from the possibility of state failure. Doing this will require constructive foreign aid, government openness and infrastructure improvement, all of which will continue to elude the Central Asian republic should it keep chasing ghosts, be they among its urban civil society or in its rural mosques.

For the benefit of Kyrgyzstan and regional security, international efforts must be made to focus on civilian aid and infrastructure improvement. The U.S. must focus less on countering Russian defensive contributions tit-for-tat, and instead on distributing to Kyrgyzstan the medical, educational and utility-repair and construction resources necessary to ensure a stable civil society. Such improvements will elevate the standard of living while undermining Islamist recruiting clarions. Any long-lasting, significant effort will require government initiative and support. Bakiev must allow for the proliferation of peaceful Islam, which has experienced a noted resurgence in the Central Asian republics since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The democratic entrance of the Islamic Renaissance Party in the political dialog of Tajikistan should be evidence of Islam's possible integration into politics – yet it took a vicious civil war to illustrate this to the Tajik opposition. Hopefully Bakiev will not continue wielding such a heavy hand in coming years, lest his policies provide the breeding ground for an inchoate insurrection.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Out and about

Quotes of the week:

American Couchsurfer: I've hosted people in hostels.

Turkish man: Do you speak English, oder?

Korean woman: Do you speak Turkish?
Me: No.
Woman: Then how are you following this?
Me: I don't know.

Methods of travel used in past four weeks:
Mountain bike
Pick-up bed

Time to slow down.