Sunday, September 30, 2007

Thinking about The Clash, Popular Music and Social Change

I was excited to find at my front door the other day a copy of music journalist Chris Salewicz’s new book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, which I will soon be reviewing for PopMatters. As the late lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash (as well as a solo artist later in his career), Strummer was both an excellent songwriter and a gifted lyricist, finding ways to incorporate political and cultural subjects into a variety of musical contexts without sounding preachy or redundant. The result was albums like London Calling (1979)—widely considered to be one of the best albums of rock history—and the commercial smash Combat Rock(1982). Yet as Salewicz alludes, Strummer sometimes felt disillusioned about his (and others’) ability to actually affect social and political patterns. In a September 1989 interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker, he expressed his frustration about the end result of the decade, where “[British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher became God, [and] ninety percent of the papers are right-wing and brown-nosing” (454).

Strummer’s comment allows us to consider what has become a familiar question: can popular music truly bring about social change? There are some legitimate arguments suggesting that this is possible. As an example, my former professor and thesis adviser contends that the underground music scene in Indonesia (particularly the heavy metal subculture) played an important role in creating the social pressure that helped end Suharto’s authoritarian presidency in 1998. Moreover, there are plenty of examples where successful bands and artists find themselves in a position to try to enact social changes outside of music: Bono’s highly visible efforts are one example, while a slightly less noticed endeavor that is just as critical would be Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine’s humanitarian organization Blood:Water Mission.

In considering The Clash’s relationship to social change, I would suggest that it’s fruitful to remember that while they may not have been able to do much about the British political climate during the 1980s, they nonetheless were among the vanguard of the punk movement and contemporary rock culture. As John Nichols of The Nation and John Lewis of The Guardian both argue(among numerous other sources), the band became an indispensable musical and lyrical influence for two generations of bands within punk and other genres, many of whom chose to emphasize social and political concerns in their work. It’s also reasonable to assume that at least some of The Clash’s fans over the past thirty years that didn’t start their own bands have used London Calling and the band’s other albums to consider particular social or political issues in a different manner. While this process is too diffuse to form an argument along the lines of “The Clash (direct cause) = social change (tangible effect),” it allows us to consider how certain other bands and musical trends can slowly create trends that (when combined with other contextual factors) serve as catalysts for change, whether on a local, regional, national, or global level.

Salewicz documents an early interview that Strummer gave where he admitted that punk rock probably wouldn’t bring about large-scale change, “ ‘[b]ut after saying that—and I’m just saying that because I want you to know that I haven’t got any illusions about anything, right—having said that I still want to try to change things’ ” (185). The Clash may not have been able to stop what they saw as regressive social and political policies in Britain and the U.S., but in their own way, they ultimately did “change things” in a manner that few other popular music bands ever have. Accordingly, they provide an excellent example of how music can impact our thinking about society and culture.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Judge Rice rejects Internet Porn Law

On Tuesday, Federal judge Walter Rice rejected a state law that restricts the dissemination of sexually oriented material over the Internet.

The law prohibits people from sending communications that are harmful to minors over the Internet if the sender knows or should know that the recipient is a minor.

In his decision, Rice said the law violates the First Amendment because it was too broadly written and could have ensnared adults having sexually frank discussions with other adults in chat rooms. In those cases, there is no way to ensure that minors are not part of the conversation, Rice said.

The judge also said the law violated the First Amendment by failing to target only people who intended to disseminate sexually oriented material to children with the intent to lure them into sexual activity.

Rice's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2002 by organizations representing booksellers, book publishers, music and video retailers and newspapers.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann said that the state is reviewing the decision and considering its options.

For more on this issue from Media Coalition, the group that organized the lawsuit, click here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Portions of Patriot Act Found Unconstitutional

Judge Anne L. Aiken of the Federal District Court in Portland held Wednesday that portions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional; specifically, she found that portions of the Act which allow searches without probable cause violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The case centered on a Portland lawyer who was arrested and jailed after erroneously being linked to a March 2004 train bombing in Madrid. The lawyer was put under surveillance only after the Federal Bureau of Investigations, having previously been unable to match fingerprints on the scene, had enhanced the prints to match twenty potential suspects; this surveillance began even though Spanish officials apparently had doubts about the evidence. Allegedly adding to the F.B.I.’s suspicions were the facts that the Portland lawyer had converted to Islam and had previously represented a suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban member.

In finding the surveillance under the Patriot Act unconstitutional, Judge Aiken stated “a difficult balance must be struck in a manner that preserves the peace and security of our nation while at the same time preserving the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Americans.” Judge Aiken in her opinion examined the history of the USA Patriot Act and the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act; in authorizing surveillance if the government finds that a “significant purpose” of the surveillance is to gather foreign intelligence, Judge Aiken found that Congress’ intent was “to break down barriers between criminal law enforcement and intelligence gathering.” She found that such motive violates the Fourth Amendment, creating “extraconstitutional authority” which “is prohibited, as well as ill advised.”

Once again, this is an instance of the government taking action to prevent potential acts of terrorism, but at the cost of Constitutional freedoms guaranteed to U.S. citizens. Much like the electronic surveillance discussed here previously, the government (in this case the F.B.I.) is attempting to gain information in violation of the Fourth Amendment. While in this case, the F.B.I was attempting to gain information on a particular suspect, rather than just monitoring to prevent a general threat such as illegal immigration or “data mining”, their evidence in the case seems suspect at best. Only through enhanced digital fingerprints, with a match unconvincing to Spanish authorities and thus unlikely to meet probable cause requirements, the F.B.I. took it upon themselves to run surveillance on this Portland lawyer in violation of his rights and the rules set forth in the U.S. Constitution. While ensuring that crimes such as the train bombing in question are solved and prevented, the cost of doing so should not be the rights of the people.

Following up on …

-- The removal of religious texts from prison libraries: it is being reported that, in response to pressure from religious groups, items that had not been on the list of approved texts created by the Bureau of Prisons will be returned to the library shelves from which they were taken. Due to criticism from such groups as Republican lawmakers and liberal Christians, it has been decided to return these books that had originally been removed due to potential threats to incite violence amongst inmates.

Even though these items are being returned, it is not assured that all of these previously “banned” items will remain permanently on the libraries’ shelves. The Bureau of Prisons continues to work on a list of religious items approved for prison libraries. Until such a list is completed, the items will reportedly be returned starting immediately.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bono, Humanitarianism, and the Question of Results

Although it’s two-plus months old, the published exchange between TCU associate professor of religion S. Brent Plate and journalist Jeff Sharlet on The Revealer (an excellent source for analyzing media coverage of religion) offers not only an engaging debate about Vanity Fair’s July “Africa” issue, but also raises the important question of whether U2 lead singer Bono’s extensive humanitarian efforts over the past several years have produced much in the way of tangible results. Is this an exercise in bad faith and/or judgment? After all, it’s a legitimate argument that he’s utilized his status in a manner unlike practically any other rock star in history: partnering with Bob Geldorf on several fundraising projects (notably the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts); helping spearhead the Make Poverty History and ONE campaigns; meeting with President Bush and other world leaders to advocate increases in foreign aid to Africa; and, most recently, serving as a spokesperson for corporate-oriented PRODUCT (RED). But Sharlet raises a valid criticism:

“I remember riding around with Senator Sam Brownback a couple of years ago, talking about some bulls*** ‘free market’ solution for Africa. His aide says, ‘Let's get Bono!’ Brownback says something to the effect of, ‘Bono can sell anything.’ ”

In other words, at what point does Bono’s advocacy become a problematic sort of salesmanship? Sharlet and Plate’s argument about Bono making Africa “sexy”—involving potentially negative cultural and racial implications—is a good starting point for forming a critique. So too is the Catholic journal First ThingsMarch article on Bono and (RED)’s pro-consumerism approach. While Ryan Anderson’s argument generally sticks to the journal’s roots in theological (and often political) conservatism, one of his central points mirrors Sharlet’s above concern:

“…there is something wrongheaded—even repulsive—about the approach. Turning the life-and-death plight of an entire continent into just another advertising strategy. Making charitable giving a matter of satisfying consumerist desires. Attempting to solve African need by Western greed.”

Is Bono therefore responsible for the irony that Anderson identifies in the last sentence, where buying an iPod for oneself becomes an act of giving towards others? There aren’t easy answers to this question, and I think it would take several posts to fully explore the topic, as it involves contextual issues that are bigger and more complicated than just Bono. For now, I think it is fair to contend that while we can hardly fault him for his enthusiastic humanitarian efforts, he is also capable of choosing or forming campaigns that are less dependent on consumer patterns ( (RED) ) and fashion statements (the white bracelets of ONE and Make Poverty History), both of which are ultimately ephemeral and require virtually no change in both thought and action on our part. We should, of course, be willing to make such changes regardless of celebrity advocacy. Yet it would be refreshing to see Bono use his earnestness as a means of encouraging us to our better selves rather than to more or less stay the same, for even if the end result wouldn’t fully provide what Africa needs, it would at least provide a firmer foundation for positive change.

Monday, September 24, 2007

California Proposal for Allocation of Electoral Votes

In preparation for the 2008 Presidential election, a petition, the Presidential Reform Act, is being circulated in California that could change the manner in which the state’s electoral vote is apportioned. Instead of a “winner-take-all” apportionment, this petition is seeking to apportion California’s electoral votes in a manner that would divide them among the state’s Congressional districts and award the votes based on the candidate that won each such district. By apportioning the votes in this manner, all of California’s fifty-five electoral votes would not necessarily be cast for a single candidate.

According to some, this petition is being circulated by Republicans in the states in preparation for a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election in which the Republican candidate failed to win the popular vote but won via the electoral vote. With the current opposition to the ongoing war in Iraq and an economic slump with a Republican President, there is a feeling that the Republicans will have a difficult time winning the popular vote.

Under the current system, a loss of the popular vote in California would mean a loss of fifty-five electoral votes; under the plan being proposed by Republicans, it is expected that Republicans could gain approximately twenty of these votes, “the equivalent of winning the state of Ohio”. As seen in previous elections where Ohio’s electoral vote became so important, gaining these electoral votes could be sufficient to sway the victory away from a Democratic candidate and towards a Republican candidate.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, while not condemning the measure, has indicated that this reapportionment plan is a form of “dirty pool”. Others point to the fact that Republicans are not attempting to do similar reapportionments in states such as Texas, another state with a large number of electoral votes but seemingly supporting a Republican candidate and President.

It is expected that Republicans will not have trouble obtaining a sufficient number of signatures to have the measure placed on the June ballot. If this occurs, it is almost certain that Democrats will raise legal challenges to the measure. As one expert states, “this clearly violates Article II of the Constitution, which very explicitly requires that the electors for president be selected ‘in such manner as the Legislature’ of the state directs”; in the matter at hand, the change is being sought by the electors, not the Legislature.

With the Presidential election just over one year away, we have already begun to see concerns related to ensuring confidence in the voting process and the election outcome. In previous cases, the issues related primarily to the technology and rules regarding voter identification. In this case, we are seeing what appears to be a blatant attempt by Republicans to provide their candidate with an improved chance of becoming President. While it is arguable that the electoral vote does not necessarily represent the popular vote, this has been the method in place set by the Constitution, and methods for altering the process have also been delineated within the Constitution. By skirting these rules and defying the Constitutional provisions, attempts such as the Presidential Reform Act merely reinforce the opinion of many that there are problems with the current election process and a problem of “dirty politics”.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Annalee Newitz on Digitization, Part II

In addition to her dismantling of the “universal digital library” myth, Annalee Newitz recently addressed the concept and viability of “paperless archives” in her AlterNet column. In outlining her current position as an archivist for the nonprofit organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Newitz again finds that the issue of “scale” severely hamstrings the desirability of an all-digital archive, but also identifies “redundancy” as an equally important factor: “I love online archives as much as the next geek, but what happens when the servers blow out? When we stop having enough power to run data storage centers for progressive nonprofits?”

Redundancy certainly doesn’t sound all that exciting when we consider just how much library technology (and correspondingly, the role of libraries in general) has shifted in the past fifteen to twenty years. I have a personal reminder of this whenever I attend to our library’s microfilm and microfiche collection. Both seemingly scream out for digitization: they require heavy cabinets that take up precious space, and their machines are not only cumbersome and sometimes temperamental, but also fail to provide the kind of benefits (such as instant gratification and image quality) that characterize digitized documents. Nevertheless, our microfilms and microfiche collections contain document records that are not—and may never be—digitized, thus fulfilling a crucial historical role. Moreover, while those particular technologies have remained more or less the same since their inception, they also are cheap, relatively easy to store, and provide an impressive amount of information for their size—all without requiring virtually any upkeep for the microfilm rolls and microfiche themselves.

Newitz’s claim that “even if digital disasters don't strike, history is preserved through redundancy” offers a practical guideline of sorts that calls for integrating digital technology with—as opposed to displacing—traditional methods. The Internet, virtual storage methods, and scanning equipment may leave us with a sense of wonder about their potential uses, and as someone who remembers spending my childhood and adolescence leaning about the card catalog system, I think that type of reaction is understandable. Yet no technology is perfect, and while paper, microfilm/microfiche, and older recording methods lack a certain “wow” factor, they remain indispensable for not only the retention of history, but also for patron research that ranges from casual interest to academic books. Forgoing either “new” or “old” technologies for the other guarantees a lack of proper perspective, and ultimately compromises the core of what libraries and archives have been and continue to be about.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" by Jeffrey Toobin

There is a fascination with the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States because their word is the last word on an issue . . . should the states be able to regulate abortion? Should race be a factor in determining college admission? What’s the power of the executive branch? . . . these are the questions that come before the Justices.

If you’ve ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes at the Supreme Court, and among the nine people who decide the law of the land, then this is the book for you. Based on exclusive interviews with Justices themselves, The Nine tells the story of the Court through personalities.

The Nine also looks at how political views play a role in how the Justices decide cases. In the book, Toobin reveals that Justice Souter was so upset about the Bush v. Gore (531 U.S. 98 (2000)) decision that he almost resigned, and when he thought about the case, he wept. Interestingly, Bush v. Gore still haunts some of the Justices.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Today is Peace One Day

Jeremy Gilley founded Peace One Day (POD) in 1999 to document his efforts to create an annual day of global ceasefire and non-violence with a fixed calendar date. In 2001, POD achieved its primary objective. United Nations General Assembly resolution (A/Res/55/282) was unanimously adopted by UN member states, formally establishing an annual day of global ceasefire and non-violence on the UN International Day of Peace, fixed in the global calendar on 21 September – Peace Day.

This non-profit organization is hoping to raise global awareness of Peace Day, and encourage action that creates a united and stable world.

Click here to make a commitment to Peace One Day.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Proposed Measure to Aid Illegal Immigrants

The New York Times is reporting on a Senate measure being considered that would allow illegal immigrants, who have graduated high school, an opportunity to gain legal citizen status. Immigrants who had come to the United States prior to reaching the age of sixteen, graduated from high school and agreed to either attend a minimum of 2 years of college or enlist in the armed services would be able to obtain citizen status.

The stated intention of the measure is to aid those who are illegal immigrants purely due to choices their parents had made. Supporters of the measure claim that the requirements put in place would solve the recruitment issue currently being experienced by the armed services. Opponents of the measure claim that the measure is a “blatant deception on the part of the Senate to get a massive amnesty passed”.

Discussed in the article is the experience of at least one immigrant who would be positively affected by this measure: he had come to the United States with his parents under legal visas (which have evidently expired); he graduated high school and had expressed interest in enlisting; due to his lack of citizenship status he was unable to enlist or obtain gainful employment; and, he could not apply to college or scholarships as a state resident. Should the measure pass, persons such as this would have the opportunity to both enlist, as this individual had desired, and have the ability to pursue employment opportunities available to U.S. citizens.

It would seem that this measure would be of benefit to a great number of people. Should those who are eligible enlist in the armed services, the recruitment problems faced by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines would seemingly be lessened. Should instead those who are eligible choose to follow the path of pursuing a college education, they would then be able to pursue gainful employment, allowing them to positively contribute to the growth of the economy. Either way, they would be rewarded with legal citizenship status.

While many may argue that this would crowd the already crowded employment market with a larger number of persons competing for the same jobs as U.S.-born citizens and legal immigrants, the alternative is to have a large number of illegal immigrants unable to contribute by either obtaining gainful (legal) employment or serving in the armed forces. It is unlikely that the problem of illegal immigration will ever be completely remedied, as the number of illegal immigrants to the U.S. continues to grow each year (additional information can be found here). Accordingly, it would seem that this measure would allow these immigrants, at least children immigrants brought along with their parents, to be productive and contributing members to both the economy and national defense, while allowing them to become legal citizens of the United States.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nigeria, Christianity, and the Elimination of History

Associated Press reporter Dulue Mbachu presents his account (via the Philadelphia Inquirer) of how newly converted Pentecostals in Nigeria are engaging in the destruction of shrines, carved figures, and other iconographical items from their past traditional religious practices. Unsurprisingly, Mbachu finds that the result is a negotiation between old and new forms of worship and belief:

“Most converts are in constant tension over how much of the old beliefs can be incorporated into their new faith, said Isidore Uzoatu, a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa affiliated with Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria.

‘Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival,’ said Uzoatu.”

Having previously volunteered for a vacation Bible school class that centered on missionary efforts, I can attest that Southern Baptists have made the same theological arguments as Pentecostals (along with other theologically conservative churches and denominations): any “rival” to God is idolatrous, and therefore an evil that is best “destroyed.” In Africa, this destruction is, as Mbachu indicates, often quite literal. Yet the byproduct is a costly elimination of history that is otherwise incredibly difficult to preserve and document. While most modern Western historiography (particularly American history) can largely utilize written primary source material to clarify large-scale trends and small-scale events, African historiography is more reliant on oral history, art, and other cultural artifacts. The Pentecostals’ post-conversion actions therefore represent a dual loss: on the one hand, items that help comprise their historical memory, and on the other hand, the types of sources that are critical for documenting history on a larger scale.

In saying this, it is not my intention to evaluate the other cultural (as well as theological) elements that are a part of missionary practices like what Mbachu discusses. Rather, I simply find that the elimination of any culture’s history carries detrimental consequences, even if the members of that culture wish to escape their past in some form or another.

Monday, September 17, 2007

New Election Problems in Florida

With the upcoming November election less than two months away, the Miami Herald is reporting today on yet another issue that may end up disenfranchising a large number of voters in the state. Specifically, in Florida, there is a law requiring that a person’s name on a voter registration list be matched up against their driver’s license number or Social Security number; failure to do so will disallow the person from voting.

As is the case with many of these issues, the people most affected seem to be minorities, specifically Hispanics who “have additional names that may not show up in all databases, leading to the conclusion that someone's number does not match the name listed on a voter registration form”. Outside of the affect on minorities, issues may arise in situations where a woman still has her maiden name on her driver’s license or Social Security card, but is registered to vote under her married name. There is also the very real possibility that a simple keystroke error may disallow a person from having their identification properly matched up with their registration entry. Such administrative errors may wrongfully disallow many registered voters from properly exercising their right to vote.

Unlike issues with voter identification requirements, the issue at hand in this case does not focus on the unavailability or difficulty in obtaining the proper identification. What makes this potential disenfranchisement perhaps even more upsetting than these voter identification issues is the fact that a single keystroke or other computer entry error may prevent a person from voting. As Justin Levitt, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, has expressed, the state is relying on a “magic number” to determine whether a person is eligible to vote or not; however, the “magic number” in question may be affected by a large number of variables, any one of which may cause a person’s registration to be deemed invalid. The reliance on such a number that can be altered in any number of ways, either intentionally or unintentionally, by presumably any number of people responsible for entering data shakes a person’s faith in the reliability of the system. The fact that this system may prevent a person from exercising their right to vote makes it even more worrisome.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Progress for the Jena 6

After several months and a steady burgeoning of activist support and national attention, one member of the Jena 6 finally received a notable legal victory on Friday. Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune (who was among the first within mainstream media to cover the story) reports that Louisiana’s 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the conviction of Mychal Bell on charges of aggravated battery, finding that Jena prosecutors improperly tried him as an adult. Bell was originally scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday after being charged with aggravated battery, consequently leading to a slight shift for the organizations that planned to demonstrate in Jena:

“Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group that was the first to notice the Jena case, said he expected the reversal of Bell's convictions will turn next Thursday's protest into a ‘celebration’ of the power of public opinion to influence the Jena 6 case.

“ ‘People across the country, both black and white, conservative and liberal, were just appalled by what had happened in LaSalle Parish and the embarrassment factor weighed in very heavily for the appeals court,’ Bean said. ‘I don't think the state of Louisiana wants this travesty to go on any longer. I'd be very surprised if any of these other cases comes to trial.’ ”

There are plenty of questions and potential obstacles that remain. As Witt notes, there is a possibility that Bell will now face trial as a juvenile, and the remaining five defendants, while free on bail, will still face trial as of now (Bean’s confidence notwithstanding). Yet the overturning of Bell’s conviction is significant, for it indicates the effects that Friends of Justice, the NAACP, Color of Change, and other groups are creating through their efforts. Moreover, as Friends of Justice writes in a recent blog entry, the case now has national and international attention, thereby increasing pressure on Jena prosecutors.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Peer to Patent Project: Community Peer Review of Patents

This new online system, which went live on June 15, 2007, enables the general public to review pending patent applications and provide feedback and information based on their own expertise. Ultimately, the patent examiner makes the final decision on the basis of legal standards, but it is an opportunity for many to now participate in the administrative decision making process. In this author’s opinion, this is exciting and long overdue project.

For more on the Peer to Patent Project, click here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

New Orleans Post-Katrina: Race, Class, and History -- 15th Annual Humanities Symposium at the University of Dayton

Next Friday, September 21, 2007 (7:30 p.m.) the first of a four-part series, New Orleans Post-Katrina: Race, Class, and History, will feature the Rev. Inman Houston, director of the Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village, and musician J.D. Hill at Sears Recital Hall on campus at the University of Dayton. The evening will include a discussion about the role of faith communities in reconstructing New Orleans. Several critical questions about New Orleans' future will be raised at these events.

As I was looking into the current state of New Orleans for this post, I was surprised that many of the city’s problems are not being blamed on Hurricane Katrina, but rather on problems that existed long before the storm. With the current population of New Orleans at less than half its pre-Katrina size, many economists predict that it will never climb back to a population of 444,000. Even before the storm, New Orleans was already losing 1.5% of its population every year, the economy was stagnant, and one quarter of the population was living in poverty. There was a staggering rate of unemployment . . . as many as one in five were jobless or not seeking work at all.

With all the negativity around the devastation from the hurricane and the focus falling on the poor response from the federal government, it made me stop and wonder if Hurricane Katrina wasn't the spotlight that New Orleans needed to shine a light on problems that many had chosen to ignore. Perhaps now, the city and its people will see some positive changes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Capital Punishment in Non-Murder Cases

On Tuesday, Patrick Kennedy filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court asking them to overturn his death penalty conviction in a child rape case. Relying on the fact that the United States Supreme Court has historically allowed the death penalty only for the crime of murder, Mr. Kennedy, claiming that he "is the only person in the United States who is on death row for a non-homicide offense”, is asking that his sentence be reduced.

Under Louisiana law, the rape of any individual under the age of 13 (12 at the time of Mr. Kennedy’s conviction) is a capital offense. In challenging this conviction, Mr. Kennedy and his lawyers are claiming that such a sentence is cruel and unusual under the circumstances and that the sentence imposed by the Louisiana court “flouts the overwhelming national consensus that capital punishment is an inappropriate penalty for any kind of rape".

According to ScotusBlog, this case, if accepted, will provide the Roberts’ Court with their first opportunity to consider the application of the death penalty to crimes other than murder. Based on previous rulings in death penalty cases by the Court – barring capital punishment for juveniles and mentally retarded individuals – the Court may look at how other countries apply the death penalty in child rape cases. If they do use such a comparative law approach, Amnesty International reports that “more than half the nations that still have the death penalty do not impose it for child rape”; within the United States, it appears that Louisiana is the only state that asks for the death penalty in child rape cases, even though it is available in four others.

The matter in which the Supreme Court handles this case, or chooses not to, will be interesting to follow as a case such as this may not only have ramifications on death penalty issues for non-murder cases, but may also provide a view into the Court’s approach in handling future similar matters. A decision not to hear the case may signal that the Supreme Court is not ready to take these decisions out of the states’ hands. A resolution of this case in the Supreme Court could open (or close) doors on capital punishment for non-murder cases; additionally, a reliance on comparative international law in deciding this case may point to further application of the same in the future. The Court has already relied on international comparative law in handling two previous death penalty issues; according to ScotusBlog, it will not be surprising if the Court continues to do so in deciding this case and other capital punishment litigation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Annalee Newitz on Digitization, Part I

In my first non-introduction post on University of Texas archival director Tom Staley and his traditionalist stance on digitization, I mentioned what I feel is one of the most readily apparent benefits of incorporating digital archiving practices: the potential to vastly increase public access to archival material through the Internet. Yet in her column for the online magazine AlterNet, self-described “surly media nerd” Annalee Newitz has outlined why an overly positive approach to digitization may lead us to place the proverbial cart before the horse. For this entry, I want to briefly consider the arguments she raises against the concept of a “universal digital library”, with a separate entry on “paperless archives” to follow.

Newitz is correct to identify the dangers of imagining a library that is “universal” and entirely digital, and her arguments against the concept—cost and maintenance, deciding what constitutes human knowledge, and the impossibility of including “everything” within a single collection—are sound. Anything that requires such a remarkably positivist view of computer technology and the ability to quantify and index human knowledge should always make us suspicious. Yet bearing in mind the potential benefits of access and democratization, this still leaves us with the question of experience: would using an entirely comprehensive and digitized library trump the combination of paper, “tactile” (for lack of a better term) and digital material that libraries and archives currently offer?

No. For one, libraries and archives may not collectively represent all of human knowledge, but they commonly offer quite a bit, and many of them do it for free. The latter aspect is incredibly important, for it is nearly impossible to imagine that a universal library could and would logistically operate on a free basis. Even if we set aside almost all logic at this point and conceptualize a free universal library, Internet access is often quite costly (not to mention scarce in many parts of the world), and thus adds a qualifier—one that negatively impacts the potential benefit of democratic access.

Moreover, while it is a given that Internet users read stories, articles, and shorter pieces of information online, most people still prefer to read book-length documents in the form of a book that they can purchase or borrow and ostensibly take just about anywhere with them. In my opinion, this says as much about the viability of books—one of the most incredible success stories of mass media history—as it does the inherent limitations of digital formats. To illustrate this in closing: last Wednesday, Apple introduced the iPod Touch, a $299-$399 device that will allow the user to not only play back music and video, but also browse the Internet through any accessible Wi-Fi network—making it one of the more affordable forms of portable Internet access on the market. This means that I could potentially read a public domain book that is available online through an iPod Touch, provided that I can find free Wi-Fi access. Or, I can find the same book at my local library (or purchase it) and have virtually no restrictions on where I can take and read that book. As good as the iPod Touch may be at some functions, it still doesn’t supersede the benefits that the traditional book format offers in terms of experience and accessibility—nor does much else, for that matter.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Religious Texts Being Removed From Prison Libraries

The New York Times reports today that a large number of U.S. prison libraries are removing religious items from their shelves. In response to instructions to remove items from their libraries that are not on an approved list, a large number of religious texts, compact discs and videos are being purged from these prison libraries; in some instances, this has included the removal of “thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups”.

In opposition to the removal of these items, two inmates – a Christian and an Orthodox Jew – have filed a class action lawsuit based on their freedom to exercise religion under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In defending the actions of the prisons, a spokesperson states that the removal of these items is in response to reports that recommend such procedure in order “to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups”.

Prison chaplains and prison ministers agree that such action may be excessive, especially due to the fact that they feel that the removal of religious items from the libraries prevents prisoners’ from accessing these materials, when the focus of rehabilitation for a number of prisoners relies on religious-based solutions to social problems. Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship is quoted as saying, “It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer”, believing that the such mass purging is the result of a small number of items which some feel present an extreme religious point of view.

The Bureau of Prisons, with the assistance of experts, has created a list of approved religious materials covering a wide range of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, no additional funds are being provided to prisons, meaning that many of these libraries are unable to purchase the approved materials and replace the items they are being asked to discard.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Capital Punishment in America . . . will it always be around?

The death penalty is not a new issue. In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States revoked the death penalty declaring it unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment (see Furman v Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). The ban was short lived. In 1976, a separate set of justices reversed the earlier court’s ruling and handed the issue back to the states (see Gregg v Georgia, 428 U.S. 153). The Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is not a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Ever since, the states have handled the issue on their own. Twelve states have no death penalty. Of the remaining 38, some employ it frequently, while others never do. Texas is by far the leader; it has executed 401 people since 1976.

A life sentence without the possibility of parole has changed the way many Americans feel about the death penalty. In the past, juries worried that a life sentence would allow a murderer to be free in a decade or two to kill again. Now that “life without parole” really means that a person may never go free, people are more comfortable with that option.

Even the arguments for and against capital punishment have changed. The cost of housing prisoners was always used; however, it is now more expensive to have someone executed than it is to guard and feed him for the rest of his life. That is contemptible to most Americans.

Capital punishment abolitionists argue that juries make mistakes. If someone is given a life sentence and it turns out the wrong man was convicted, he could be set free and compensated. If he were executed, then it is too late.

Deterrence isn’t the answer either. The chance of being executed in the United States is so low that most feel it is not a significant deterrent. Many other factors influence murder rates—unemployment, the probability of getting caught, the availability of guns.

Capital punishment in the United States will probably always be a hot button issue and more than likely will always be an available option. States may use it less frequently, but as long as emotional pleas for justice from victim's families continue, Americans will want to have it as a choice.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Reliability of Electronic Voting

Yesterday, a New Jersey judge ruled that the state has eight days to correct problems with their electronic voting technology. In attempting to comply with state law, requiring that all electronic voting machines to have attached printers to allow for verification of votes, three tests by the New Jersey Institute of Technology have found that printers from three different vendors have failed to provide the accuracy required by the law.

Being informed that additional testing would take an additional six weeks, Judge Linda Feinberg of the Superior Court is requiring that Deputy Attorney General Jason Orlando provide suitable alternatives to the existing electronic voting equipment. In response to this order, it is expected that voting rights activists will continue their push for optical scan ballots which would provide paper ballots that could be hand counted if necessary and are readily verifiable by voters.

New Jersey is not alone in experiencing reliability problems with their electronic voting equipment. Aside from this incident, there have been reported problems and/or lawsuits in such places as Ohio, California, Florida and Alaska, all related to alleged improprieties in the recording of electronic votes. In August, Dan Rather investigated touch screen voting equipment, adding to the skepticism of its reliability.

Due to the questions of reliability regarding this equipment, at least one race from the November, 2006 election was still being challenged. After nearly ten months, there are still questions related to a large number of allegedly uncounted votes due to allegations of faulty electronic voting equipment. While this electronic voting equipment has the potential of being useful and allowing a larger number of people to vote, specifically handicapped persons as these machines can be set to provide larger print, provide audio prompts and require only the push of a button, so far it seems that this “improvement” in the voting system has only created more questions, doubts and unresolved issues.

Without a guarantee that all electronic votes will be recorded accurately, not be altered by unauthorized persons and be properly counted, people will continue to push for the paper ballots they are familiar with. Although there are still problems with paper ballots, as was seen in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election, it appears that people feel safer and more confident in being able to visually verify whom they have voted for and not having to rely on unproven technology.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Food, Conviviality, and Resistance in Lebanon

Via CHOW’s food media blog The Grinder, the L.A. Times presents a fascinating story about a group of Lebanese chefs and food producers creating their own forms of public resistance in the war-torn region. As Louise Roug writes:

“In a sort of mutiny of the bounty, a small cadre of gourmets and bons vivants has defiantly kept restaurants and produce markets open. They have pulled off a bread festival and held several dinners for visiting Italians with the Slow Food movement, which encourages biodiversity and saving traditional foods around the world.

“ ‘Food is important, but more so is going out,’ Abboud said. ‘It's an act of defiance.’ ”

Two general reactions:

--If there is anything close to a consensus viewpoint in the academic scholarship on food history and culture, it is that food is often central in the formation of communities, regardless of contextual factors. As an example, French historian Jean-Louis Flandrin argues that for the last several thousand years, people have used food to create “convivial” events such as feasts and banquets; Daniel Sack finds that American Protestants have made food a indispensable component of church functions; and folklore scholars have used ethnographic methodology to establish that food allows different groups to express their cultural identities. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that the Lebanese chefs, gourmets, and producers are drawing heavily from their food background as a means of establishing themselves amidst the country’s violence.

--From a historical standpoint, food quality tends to decline within a country that is at war; Britain’s use of Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot as propaganda characters during the Second World War is an apt (not to mention colorful) example. Yet Nemr Abboud and Walid Ataya’s decision to keep their restaurant open, as well as Kamal Mouzawak’s organization of a bread festival, demonstrates how important good food with quality ingredients and preparation can be to the sustenance and spirit of a culture during difficult times. Even with America beginning to reach a rapid phase of growth in its awareness and consumption of organic food, perhaps we all can take heed from this example.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

New Legal Scholarship Blog

The Legal Scholarship Blog is a collaborative service from faculty and staff at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington School of Law. The blog features law-related calls for papers, conferences, and workshops -- with links to relevant websites and papers as well as an event calendar -- along with scholarly resources for research deans and current and prospective law professors.

This blog was previously known as the Legal Conference Watch. If you have that blog bookmarked, please note the change and update the link. That blog will no longer be updated.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

China and the 2008 Olympics: Visibility for the Disabled

Continuing our series on China’s ambiguous social justice record leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing: The Christian Science Monitor presents a thought-provoking article on how the Paralympics—which will begin less than two weeks after the close of the Summer Olympics—may help improve living conditions for China’s disabled population. While the Chinese government is promising improvements in Beijing’s infrastructure to increase accessibility, Simon Montlake finds that cultural attitudes are an equally important part of the equation:

“Perhaps even harder, say advocates for the disabled, is shifting attitudes and curbing discrimination toward an estimated 83 million Chinese living with various disabilities…

“ ‘Disabled people don't want to go outside, because they think ordinary people will be shocked. But if we go out, then people will get used to us,’ says Wen Jun, a paraplegic who runs an online disabilities network. ‘By going out, we say to the government that we're here and we need more facilities.’ ”

This leaves us with some important questions. For example, how much of an improvement will the construction projects actually create in terms of access? Moreover, is it possible to imagine any sort of corresponding improvement in attitudes towards the disabled and elderly as the Paralympics draw closer? Or are cultural attitudes too ingrained at this point to hope for a significant shift? Although we lack concrete answers at this point, we can acknowledge the proactive stance that Chinese authorities have taken on this issue as an encouraging one, while continuing to note concerns about issues such as limits on basic political and civil rights (as Montlake notes in an earlier story).

Saturday, September 1, 2007

NAACP wants bust of first Catholic chief justice removed

A bust of the first Catholic chief justice that is displayed in front of City Hall in Frederick, Maryland may be taken down. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is calling on city officials to take down the bust. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, one of Maryland's most prominent sons, served on the nation's highest court for 28 years, and was responsible for the Dred Scott v. Sanford, (60 U.S. 393) decision that declared blacks to be non-citizens and made slavery legal in all territories. The opinion propelled a divided nation into war.

The movement has drawn a mixed response from the Catholic community, with some leaders arguing that it is wrong to remove a piece of art honoring a historic figure while others said the move could promote a sense of healing.

If the bust is removed would it then be necessary to go around the country and remove all the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were both slaveholders? I don’t believe in excising history. The Dred Scott decision was clearly wrong, but at some point we need to move on and forgive. Justice Taney’s legacy should not rest solely on the Dred Scott decision.