Archive for January, 2010

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They call me the N.O. capo

January 25, 2010

If you’re wondering about the title of that last post, direct your attention to the Wikipedia* article on the subject’s extensive history:

Who dat? is the name of a chant of support by fans of the New Orleans Saints, an American football team. The entire chant is: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”

[…]

The chant of “Who Dat?” originated in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was then taken up by jazz and big band performers in the 1920s and 30s.

The first reference to “Who Dat?” can be found in the 19th Century. A featured song in E.E. Rice’s “Summer Nights” is the song “Who Dat Say Chicken In dis Crowd”, with lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.[1] A common tag line in the days of Negro minstrel shows was: “Who dat?” answered by “Who dat say who dat?” Many different blackfaced gags played off that opening. Vaudeville performer Mantan Moreland was known for the routine.[1] Another example is “Swing Wedding,” a rarely shown 1930s Harmon-Ising cartoon musical, which caricatured Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ethel Waters, and the Mills Brothers as frogs in a swamp performing minstrel show jokes and jazz tunes. The frogs repeatedly used the phrase “who dat?”

In the swing era, “who dat” chants back and forth between the band and the band leader or between the audience and the band were extemporaneous. That is, there was no one specific set of words except for the two magic ones.

More here.

*I’m usually very wary of Wikipedia, but this is too interesting to pass up.

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Who dat?

January 25, 2010

If ever there were a game to convert you to the pleasures of American football, it was tonight’s NFC Championship contest between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. The match up between an entertaining team from a hurricane-ravaged hard-partying Southern city with an infectious level of hometown pride, against a  solid yet unexciting band of interlopers led by an aging turncoat of a quarterback (fans of his previous team, the Green Bay Packers, are none too happy about his Vikings’ contract), made for a contest in which  even a novice could delight. That the two teams were matched touchdown for touchdown, field goal for field goal, heartbreaking fumble for heartbreaking fumble, made for the kind of epic drama that makes it seem not-so-silly to get worked up about two packs of armor-clad grown men smashing into each other for a few hours on a Sunday night.

Because, really, I’m not usually a fan of any kind of sport. I make an exception for the NFL, and watching this game in a noisy Virginia sports bar, where even the wait staff would halt their work and cheer on the major plays, was an absolute delight. That this game was the kind that was won with a field goal prised in an overtime period the Saints gained only through a last-second Vikings fumble made it even better.

In two weeks time, the New Orleans Saints will face off against the Indianapolis Colts in Miami for Super Bowl XLV. Millions of Americans will tune in, many of whom will be watching solely for the big budget commercials and the cultural experience; I will be watching for the football as well. It’s tough to see the game in Australia due to the time difference (it will kick off mid Monday morning in Sydney), but if you get a chance to watch, give it a look. The big budget spectacle of football is one of America’s great and unique joys, and seeing the time-tested, superstar-led Colts face a New Orleans playing the franchise’s first Super Bowl promises to be an excellent experience. I’ll be eating chili, drinking a few Buds, and cheering on the Saints. Y’all should join me.

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What not to do in a courtroom, part II

January 22, 2010

I’ve always felt the criticisms about the role of money in American politics were overrated; after all, we in Australia have far less strict requirements regarding disclosure of and limits on donations. That was until the Supreme Court handed down its latest decision on campaign finance law today, which said that, under the First Amendment right to free speech, the government cannot ban corporations from spending money for candidates.  Politico explains:

The Supreme Court on Thursday opened wide new avenues for big-moneyed interests to pour money into politics in a decision that could have a major influence on the 2010 midterm elections and President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

The long-awaited 5-4 decision overruled all or parts of two prior rulings by the court that allowed governments to restrict corporations and unions from spending their general funds on ads expressly urging a candidate’s election or defeat. But the decision upheld disclosure requirements for groups like the one that brought the case.

The case deals with an obscure film titled Hillary: The Movie, produced by a conservative group advocating against the 2008 Presidential campaign of the titular Clinton. But while the roots may be trivial, the effects are not. Like the New York Times says:

The ruling represented a sharp doctrinal shift, and it will have major political and practical consequences. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision to reshape the way elections were conducted. Though the decision does not directly address them, its logic also applies to the labor unions that are often at political odds with big business.

At stake in this case, essentially, were two interpretations of the First Amendment. One held that individuals had a First Amendment right that forbade the government from limiting their freedom of speech, particularly in regards to political thought. The second one, which actually prevailed, held that the First Amendment guaranteed free speech, regardless of who – or what – was making it.

Both positions seems equally logical to me, though the latter seems far less valid within the context of American law, society and precedent. The US constitution is indeed absolute in this regard, saying government shall “make no law” (my emphasis) restricting freedom of speech, but it gives no indication as to whom it applies. To say that this should necessarily apply to legally-created entities, and not just human beings within the court’s jurisdiction, should not be seen as anything but a radical step (it appears to derive in part from a misreading of the reporting of this case), regardless of what one thinks of the decision. This strikes down the philosophy that corporate political speech is fundamentally different from individual political speech, an idea that has been upheld within the American system for nearly a century.

If there is an upside to this decision, however, it is that the Court clearly has decided freedom of speech is an issue about which it can make radical pronouncements. That, hopefully, is a good sign for another case that will shortly come before it. That case regards the rights of individuals – in this case, the celebrities Cher and Nicole Richie – to have their obscene language broadcast by American television networks. If non-people can say whatever they like about political figures — as nastily as they like and expensively as they like — let’s hope the Court at least extends its commitment to liberty to allowing actual people to utter a few stray cuss words. One of these cases concerns a far greater threat to American society, and it’s not the potty-mouthed singer.

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What not to do in a courtroom

January 21, 2010

Let’s hope this isn’t to be a continuing series, but I do feel it is necessary to convey this dry piece of reportage in today’s New York Times to you. It’s nice that, no matter how regular most things seem here, the United States of America can still prove itself to be be a very, very strange country:

The second Georgia case, Wellons v. Hall, No. 09-5731, ordered the federal appeals court in Atlanta to reconsider its decision that there was nothing legally amiss in two edible gifts the jurors in a capital trial gave to court personnel — a chocolate penis for the trial judge and chocolate breasts for the bailiff.

“Judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect,” the unsigned majority opinion said.

The decision instructed the appeals court to reconsider the case in light of Cone v. Bell [PDF], a Supreme Court decision from last April clarifying how federal courts may take account of state court rulings in habeas corpus cases.

The Supreme Court buffs amongst us will be interested to hear that Justices Scalia and Thomas said the case made them feel like school masters grading their homework. In Justice Alito’s dissent, however, he merely described the gifts as “strange and tasteless,” as well as “facially troubling.” Perhaps this is why everyone I meet here seems to be going to law school?

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Interview: Robert Hill in Copenhagen, part III

January 12, 2010

In the dying hours of the COP15 Conference in Copenhagen last year, I called up the USSC’s Robert Hill for the third of our series of chats about climate change and the process of negotiating a means to address it. At the time, no one knew quite what the end result would look like, but the outcome was beginning to take shape, and Mr Hill was kind enough to give us a look into the end game. See the view from inside below, and look back over part one and part two to get a sense of the feeling within the negotiations earlier in the week.

Jonathan Bradley: I guess first up, how was the Earth Hour event you went to Wednesday night? How was Secretary-General Ban [Ki-Moon]?

Robert Hill: It was fantastic, except Secretary-General Ban couldn’t go at the last minute.

JB: Disappointing.

RH: So he was represented by Vijay Nambiar, who’s his Chief of Staff. Bearing in mind [Earth Hour] started in Australia, and it’s now a large global business. It was really extraordinary. So – a good idea. I was talking to the organizers afterwards, who had the original idea in Australia, and they confessed when they started doing this thing they were very nervous, and now it’s built up a momentum that’s turned it into something of global significance.

JB: They have them all over the world now, it seems. I’m interested that in Copenhagen it seems to be very much a cultural event as well as a purely political one.

RH: The whole of… what’s happening here?

JB: Yes, it seems there’s a lot of cultural stuff happening in conjunction with the negotiations.

JB: Do you think that all these events do have an impact on the actual negotiations, or are they entirely a sideshow, and the real work happens inside the meeting, and the negotiators are unaffected by what’s happening outside?

RH: I do think that they affect the dynamics, and it’s not just what’s happening in Copenhagen right now, but it’s what’s happening all around the world. I go back to the meeting that the Secretary-General had in September in New York too, there was an enormous amount of supporters’ community activity. And I think it does reinforce to governments perhaps more than the individual negotiators that are focused on more finite challenges. But to governments, there is a broad-based constituency, that this is not a narrowly-based issues, that people really do see this as critical to their lives, and to the future of their children and grandchildren. I do think it does affect the overall dynamic, yes I do. It’s one of the reasons, I think, [for the] significant changes [that have] occurred in recent years. I think one of our earlier discussions I mentioned the fact that none of this was occurring a decade or so ago, and I think it’s the energy that’s been provided by civil society that’s significantly driven the process.

JB: Definitely. Turning to one of our previous conversations, last time we spoke, on Wednesday, you said you were optimistic, but you said we’d see how things had changed by Friday. How are you feeling now?

RH: Well we’re in the last few hours now, the final strait, and it is proving to be very difficult I have to say.

JB: More difficult than you expected?

RH: I think I probably said also before that nothing is agreed until everything’s agreed, and everyone holds their final bid until the last possible moment. But we’re almost past that point. I think the bids are pretty much on the table, and it’s now down to a hard slog to get the mass of states on side. Also we said on the last occasion they were back-pedalling a bit to an accord rather than an agreement. I’ve seen some drafts tonight, and it’s hard to know whether they’re the last draft. And, they’re not too bad, but they’re clearly having trouble getting everyone on side. So I think it’s going to be a long, hard slog tonight. I said to the people that I’m working with you might as well go off and have dinner, because I don’t think anything’s going to happen for some few hours. Later tonight I think the picture will become clearer. I still think they will reach what was going to be an agreement and they’re now calling an accord. And I think it’ll have some significant targets by developed countries and significant measures by developing. It seems that they will include forest in it, which is a good move forward. They’re talking about 30 billion dollars in a short term fund, leading up to a 100 billion a year for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. These are significant outcomes. The outcome may not, for some people, match the science and therefore be inadequate to achieve the goal, but it still tonight could add up to a significant step forward.

JB: What’s the difference between an accord and an agreement?

RH: I think that what they’re saying is if it’s an accord, it’s not an agreement in COP language, but I suspect what they’re also saying is that you can have an accord between a number of states that’s less than an agreement of the whole. If that’s what they’re hinting at, I think that would be a disappointment, and I’d almost prefer to have a lesser agreement that everyone signs on to than a better agreement that some sign on to, because this is a global problem, and it’s only going to be effectively addressed by a concerted global response. And I think it’s important to keep everyone in the tent.

JB: I’ve been reading that there’s talk about extending the conference until Sunday even. Is this looking likely or is everyone going to work deep into the night until it’s all done?

RH: I don’t think it will because leaders’ planes are all booked and the engines are running now, and it’s not much point going on after they’ve left. I think it’s a tactic to try and get them to realise the deadline is nigh.

JB: Right, kind of getting them to negotiate…

RH: I think it will conclude late tonight, early hours of tomorrow morning.

JB: And when it concludes, how much will remain for Mexico City?

RH: I think a lot will remain. And it was probably naïve of us to think that wouldn’t be the case. Well, actually, I guess most of us always thought there’d be a lot of left over business; there’s maybe more left over business than some people would like to see. But it is such an enormous issue, and so complex, having to engage 192 nation-states that I think we sometimes underestimate… The fact is, this is going to be an issue that never ends. Every year there’s going to be more work to be done, in terms of the international negotiations as well as the work that’s done on the ground to implement them.

JB: And yet, because of the cultural and civil society aspects that we spoke about before, it seems that it’s not going to go away, that leaders will have to keep coming back to it. Is that accurate to say?

RH: Yeah, I think it’s going to be with us forever, basically. And I suspect it will grow evermore complex and larger. I’ve been thinking about the current growth in size would lead us in 10 years time – the next really big meeting, if we say these things are about once every 10 years – to around about 400,000 delegates. So if you started with about 2000 in Kyoto and about 40,000 here, what’s the situation in 10 years? It’s unprecedented in terms of global negotiations, and it’s really become, in some ways, too big to manage. And I think one of the challenges after this meeting is going to have to be to look at other mechanisms to break it down into workable parcels, which is going to be quite challenging in itself.

JB: How do you create a global agreement without getting the entire globe into the same room?

RH: Well you don’t, do you? But you could be doing bits of it. You could justify a very major meeting on bio-sequestration in itself. And nobody wants to do it because it just means more meetings. But if the meetings are getting to a scale that is unmanageable, then you’ve got to start looking at other options.

JB: So Barack Obama arrived in Copenhagen this morning, and he gave a highly covered speech. Did you see this speech?

RH: No, I didn’t see the speech. I’ve heard a bit about it, but I didn’t see it.

JB: Has it had a lot of impact on the negotiations?

RH: I don’t think these speeches are having a big effect at the moment. They’re giving heads of government the opportunity to put on the record their vision and their commitments, but I don’t think they’re really affecting the negotiation. It’s really down to the nuts and bolts now: How much money are you prepared to put on the table? What targets are you prepared to take? What sort of legal architecture are you demanding to ensure that it’s implemented? Issues like that. It’s almost as if the set speeches are – I was going to say a side-event – there’s two parallel processes. There’s leader after leader marching up to the podium giving their set piece speech, and in the adjoining rooms the hard bargaining is taking place, and they sort of fill in the time, these speeches, but I think it’s the hard bargaining that’s really counting at the moment.

JB: Obama had a meeting with [Chinese Premier] Wen Jibao today – that’s the sort of thing where the real nuts and bolts are worked out, is that right?

RH: Yeah, there’s some suggestions that maybe those meetings didn’t go so well, but I don’t know. The Chinese were upset about some things that were said yesterday, but I haven’t got to the bottom of that.

JB: You haven’t heard much about it?

RH: No. But anyway, I better wind it up, but I do think it is down to the last moment, and it is history in the making, and nobody can be absolutely sure what’s going to happen at the end of the night. There’s still a lot of unhappy people – the island states are unhappy because the target that they want is not going to be included, some other developing countries are unhappy because they don’t think they’re getting the money they need for mitigation and adaptation. The OPEC countries are unhappy because they don’t think their perspective is being understood, and so you can go on. It’s quite a tense and difficult situation, but I think within another five or six hours we’ll know the outcome, and as I said, if you press me, I still think we’ll end up with an accord or an agreement, whatever you want to call it, later tonight. At least we’ll move the process forward.

JB: Everyone will leave with something, is that right?

RH: Yes, well, it’s funny with these things: leaders have to make some hard political calls as to whether they walk away and say they’re unhappy or walk away and say this is an historic moment. They tend to go for the latter; say it’s really hard work, and I mightn’t have got everything I wanted, but what I have achieved is really important. Cause it’s not generally good politics to go home and say that I failed.