August 25, 2007


For first time visitors, this blog generally covers fairly serious issues during the week. Weekends are generally reserved for the commentaries of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we once again welcome Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY), our official film critic.

We must remind the reader that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he as sometimes been know to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nonetheless, we believe that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

This weekend, Mr. Sege will discuss Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet. It is our hope that features such as this will promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


OK, so this movie is from this old play by a guy named Shakespeare who lived a long time ago and probably wore funny hats. Sometimes Moomus puts funny hats on me, like the one in this picture.

So Hamlet is this prince guy but he's not happy. His father died and his mom married his uncle right away.

Then he really freaks out when he sees his father's ghost. Who's he gonna call?

It's gotta be ghostbusters. They are like these guys who are scientists who lost their job and live in a firehouse.

His father's ghost becomes this giant marshmallow man who tells him that his uncle killed him.

So Hamlet and the ghostbuster decide to put on a play to see if his uncle did it. The play they put on is about Bruce Willis fighting all these bad guys who took over a building.

Bruce wants to dance, but nobody at his new school dances because everyone thinks it's bad but he shows them it's not.

I don't think Hamlet's uncle really understood much about the play. The next big thing that happens is when they all go to this island and bring back a giant ape who climbs up the Empire State Building with this woman in his hand, who is really Hamlet's mother. The ape is like a symbol of Hamlet's uncle.

So the symbolism is about the fight between the giant marshmallow man and the giant monkey which is like the duality of human nature or something.


August 24, 2007


This week, El Cabrero is on another ancient Greek jag. The theme is the tragic Peloponnesian War which brought about the end of Greece's "golden age" as documented by Thucydides (died around 400 BC), the first "modern" historian.

One would hope that it's not too late to learn from that tragedy. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

As is the case with most wars, both sides predicted a short fight and an easy win. When the Spartans invaded Attica, the Athenians gave up their countryside and retired within the walls of the city, counting on sea power for provisions and victory.

Plague came in the wake of the overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions:

people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later.

That was just the warm up. It got really nasty after that. The worst was the feeling of despair and isolation:

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. This was especially the case with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honor made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends' houses, where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disaster.

Thucydides sums it up this way:

Words indeed fail when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure

All this happened in the year 430. There were 26 more years of war to go...

But there was another plague as well: the plague of habitual brutality as the war dragged on and led to other revolutions and civil wars. Thucydides again:

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mare of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect...

Revenge was more important than self-preservation...

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out.

There's a lot more to it but you get the idea...

WV AHEAD OF CURVE ON MINE SAFETY. In the wake of the 2006 mine disasters, the state of West Virginia didn't wait for federal action. It moved quickly to enact new safetly legislation which became a model for the MINER Act. This is from USA Today:

West Virginia passed its own mine safety law last year after an explosion at its Sago mine trapped 13 miners, all but one of whom died. State mining officials followed with an ambitious plan to get the best communication devices available now to miners quickly. The state is using combinations of older technologies to provide systems that can work deep underground. One uses miles of cable antennae run through a mine's tunnels along with wireless radios, much like the ones used by police and firefighters, for individual miners. Another system uses an adaptation of Wi-Fi.

The state required operators to submit plans for using the devices by last month. Mines will start getting the devices this year. By the end of 2008, 170 underground coal mines can be equipped for $150 million, according to Randall Harris, engineering adviser to West Virginia's mine safety director.

In other words, West Virginia is doing the best it can for miners right now, while the federal government is spending years looking for a perfect solution. Robert Friend, the deputy assistant secretary for the federal mine safety agency, says West Virginia is "trying to get out in front and be proactive. I wouldn't criticize them for that." Even so, he believes that the federal approach encourages development of a better, fully wireless system by 2009.

Unfortunately, waiting for a perfect system can mean more dead miners.

(I imagine our "Unleashing Capitalism" friends would prefer all this to be left to "the market.")

KATRINA: A "GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY" FOR CONSERVATISM. As we pass the second anniversary of the Katrina debacle, here's a good one by Rick Perlstein about how the hard right hoped to cash in on the disaster.

TAX CUTS: WORKING FOR WHOM? This snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute challenges supply side dogma about growth, employment, and cutting taxes.


August 23, 2007


El Cabrero is on another ancient Greek jag this week, with a special focus on the tragic Peloponnesian War that ended the "Golden Age" of Athens (there's also lots of stuff on current events).

If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

The two principle powers that collided in that 27 year long war provided a huge contrast. Sparta was a warlike, aristocratic,conservative, fairly closed society. To their credit, they were not particularly acquisitive after wealth or a large empire. Athens was creative, chaotic, democratic, and imperialist. As mentioned yesterday, Athenian imperialism was the main cause of the war, although the Spartans were the first to invade their rival's territory.

Early on in Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, a Corinthian ambassador describes the contrast to the Spartans:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine: your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger then is no release. Further, there is promptitude on their side against procrastination on yours; they an never at home, you are never from it: for they hope by their absence to extend their acquisitions,you fear by your advance to endanger what you have left behind.

The Athenians were bold, even reckless:

They are swift to follow up a success, and slow to recoil from a reverse. Their bodies they spend ungrudgingly in their country’s cause; their intellect they jealously husband to be employed in her service. A scheme unexecuted is with them a positive loss... they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their lives, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life. To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.

In a word, they could be dangerous not only to their enemies but to themselves.

(Uhhh, do they sound like anybody we know? I didn't think so.)

AFSC CALLS FOR STRONGER MINE SAFETY LAWS. In the wake of the Utah mine disaster, the American Friends Service Committee calls for stronger mine safety rules:

Congress should move swiftly to pass recently introduced legislation that, among other things, immediately requires mining companies to use systems that can track and communicate with miners," says Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee West Virginia Economic Justice Project. "The law would also require companies to upgrade to better communications systems as they become available."

That legislation, HR 2768 and 2769 and S. 1655, introduced in June of this year by Representatives George Miller (D-CA), Nick Rahall (D-WV), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), and Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Patty Murray (D-WA), would improve health and safety in U.S. mines and immediately require companies to use the best available technology to stay in contact with miners.

THE COAL INDUSTRY'S BEST FRIEND. The NY Times reports that the Bush administration is about to issue a regulation expanding mountaintop removal mining, a practice that literally blows their tops off and fills in valleys with debris. El Cabrero is of the opinion that this is not what Isaiah was talking about when he said that every mountain should be brought down and every valley exalted.

CHILDREN'S HEALTH SMACKDOWN. This post from the AFLCIO blog asks a pertinent question: "If Stomping on Children’s Health Care Is OK, Why Do Bushies Bury News on Weekend?"

INEQUALITY GONE WILD. Does this sound good?

The top 10 percent of income earners in the United States now owns 70 percent of the wealth, and the wealthiest one percent owns more than the bottom 95 percent, according to the Federal Reserve. In 2005, the top 300,000 Americans enjoyed about the same share of the nation's income -- 21.8 percent -- as the bottom 150 million.


August 22, 2007


It's sad to realize that ancient Greek civilization self destructed at the height of its creativity, but that's pretty much what happened.

Fifty years after diverse city states united to fend of the massive Persian invasion, a war began between Athens and Sparta and their allies which would rage off an on for 27 years between 431 and 404 BC.

That was a long time ago but there's something modern about the war. It also had the first "modern" historian, the Athenian general Thucydides, who attempted to write a neutral and objective account of the debacle, although he died before he completed it. He was aiming for posterity, writing in it that

My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.

I don't know about the "forever" part but it has done pretty well for the last 2,400 years.

The story of this extended goat rope is long and complicated. Interested people not inclined to wade through Thucydides 600+ pages may want to check out some novels about it, such as Mary Renault's Last of the Wine and Steven Pressfield's Tides of War.

People often imagine it as a conflict between democratic Athens (the good guys) and authoritarian and militaristic Sparta (the bad guys), but that doesn't work very well. Both societies owned slaves. To the extent that Athens was democratic, it was very democratic, but Sparta itself had a mixed government that combined two kings with republican features such as a council of elders and a citizen's assembly. Spartan women were probably the freest in all Greece.

Athens was democratic but imperialist. Its empire began as a league against the Persians, with allied states contributing ships and men. It became an extractor of tribute. And while the Athenians often supported popular governments, they were not averse to massacring and enslaving those who resisted them.

Spartans were authoritarian and warlike but they disliked long wars and had no far flung imperial ambitions. They had long ago conquered neighboring Messinians who became an oppressed class of helots which might revolt at any time. Given the choice, Spartans didn't like to be away for too long.

The Athenian position was basically this: we got an empire by fair or foul means and we'd be stupid to give it up--deal with it. As Thucydides narrates it, an Athenian leader put it this way to Spartan envoys seeking a resolution of a dispute involving cities that attempted to revolt from Athens:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so--security, honor, and self-interest. And we are not the first to act this way. It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power.

Attitudes like that are not conducive to conflict resolution. The die was cast when the Athenians rejected arbitration. Sparta made the first military moves, but Athens seems to El Cabrero to be the moral aggressor.

And they would pay a terrible price.


More than half of top U.S. foreign policy experts oppose President George W. Bush’s troop increase as a strategy for stabilizing Baghdad, saying the plan has harmed U.S. national security, according to a new survey.As Congress and the White House await the September release of a key progress report on Iraq, 53 percent of the experts polled by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress said they now oppose Bush’s troop build-up.

Ninety-one percent believe the world has grown more dangerous for Americans and the United States, up 10 percent from February. More than 80 percent of the experts said they expected another major terrorist attack over the next decade. Fifty eight percent of those polled expected that the Middle East would still be reeling from the negative effects of the war a decade from now. Only 3 percent believed Iraq would be "beacon of democracy" in the next 10 years.

WE'LL CROSS THAT BRIDGE. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute focuses on declining investments in infrastructure, which can be lethal.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH DEPARTMENT. A Texas couple arrested for protesting at an appearance by President Bush in West Virginia in 2004 won $80,000 from the White House. What makes the whole thing really interesting is the administration's "sensitive" manual that provides instructions on how to stifle free speech.


August 20, 2007


Caption: Venus, a Latin scholar, says "Sic transit gloria mundi."

El Cabrero is on another ancient Greece jag this week. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

While I am officially in favor of world peace at all times and places, one of the more inspiring stories I know from ancient history is that of the diverse Greek city states that were the cradle of science, philosophy, tragedy, and (admittedly limited) democracy uniting to fend off the vast Persian invasions.

The first was in 490 BC when the forces of Darius were defeated by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. A much larger force invaded ten years later under Xerxes. A small force of 300 Spartans under Leonidas and a few thousand of their allies held off the invaders for three days at Thermopylae before being defeated.

Athens was burned, although the population was mostly evacuated. An oracle from Apollo at Delphi told them that they would be safe behind wooden walls, which turned out to be the walls of their ships. The Greek navies defeated the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis shortly thereafter. The following year, combined Greek armies again defeated the invading force at Plataea.

In the wake of the victory came a period of great creativity. Athens was rebuilt on a much grander scale. This period saw the full flowering of Greek philosophy and art.

It would have been nice to think that the Greek city states would form some kind of federation which would have enabled their culture to flourish for centuries...but that didn't happen.

One should never underestimate the human capacity for self destruction.

Fifty years after the defeat of the Persian invasion, two of the principle Greek cities, Athens and Sparta, with allies in tow, would begin a fratricidal war that would rage off and on for 27 miserable years and would include imperialism, arrogance (hubris), massacres and mass enslavements, plague, an early concentration camp, civil and class warfare, etc. The war wiped out Athens as a major political power in Greece and permanently damaged the Hellenic world.

It's a (literally) classical example of how easily things can spiral out of control. One would hope it's not too late to learn that lesson.

HOW WOULD YOU SPEND IT? We don't know how much wealth the Greeks blew on the Peloponnesian War, but according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his colleague Linda Bilmes, the Iraq war in its first four years has (or will) cost the U.S. $720 million per day. According to the American Friends Service Committee

For that price, the United States could have provided: 34,904 Four-Year Scholarships for University Students; 1,153,846 Children with Free School Lunches; 6,482 Families with Homes and 163,525 People with Healthcare.

The AFSC has set up a new blog called How Would You Spend It?. You are cordially invited to log in and have your say.

UTAH MINING TRAGEDY. Here's an article from the Washington Post on the Utah mine disaster. Another tragedy is that the reforms passed in the wake of the Sago disaster had been fully implemented, it would at least have been possible to communicate with any survivors.


Americans earned a smaller average income in 2005 than in 2000, the fifth consecutive year that they had to make ends meet with less money than at the peak of the last economic expansion, new government data shows.

While incomes have been on the rise since 2002, the average income in 2005 was $55,238, still nearly 1 percent less than the $55,714 in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, analysis of new tax statistics show...

Total income listed on tax returns grew every year after World War II, with a single one-year exception, until 2001, making the five-year period of lower average incomes and four years of lower total incomes a new experience for the majority of Americans born since 1945.

Thanks, guys! If you want more evidence of the Bush (mis)administration's class war from above, check out this story on their heroic war...against health care for America's children.



Caption: This isn't one of her better pictures.

El Cabrero is a big fan of ancient Greece. Philosophy, art, literature, politics, history, a pluralistic approach to religion, name it. Unfortunately, the objects of my admiration sometimes had the self-destructive tendencies of the heroes of their tragedies.

They were like the Ziggy Stardusts of the ancient world. They took it all too far, but boy could they play guitar--or kithara, as the case may be.

Back in the heyday, Greece wasn't a unified country like a modern nation or an empire like those of Alexander the Macedonian or the Romans. It was a diverse collection of city-states which took political forms ranging from democracy to monarchy to tyranny to mixed governments. To the extent they were united at all, it was by language, myths, religion, and custom, including the famous panhellenic games which were the forerunners of our Olympics.

They had plenty of shortcomings but one of the biggest was an addiction to strife or Eris,which/who was also a goddess. According to the poet Hesiod in Works and Days, there were actually two goddesses of strife, one good one bad. The bad one led to war and destruction:

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due.

The other, theoretically at least, to led healthy competition:

But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.

In practice, the two often get muddled together, as you may have noticed.

According to another mythological strand, the whole Trojan war grew out of the spite of the vengeful goddess Eris at not being invited to a wedding (although, in my experience, strife is usually at most weddings anyway, invited or not). She makes an appearance in Homer's Iliad with a particularly apt description:

Strife whose wrath is relentless, she is the sister and companion of murderous Ares [god of war], she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides as she walked through the onslaught making men's pain heavier. She also has a son whom she named Strife.

Anyway, strife or Eris, whether personified or not, brought down classical Greek civilization. The fall was long and slow, but a major step on the way was the long and fratricidal Pelopponesian War, masterfully recounted by Thucydides. That will be the guiding threat through this week's posts.

I don't plan on working the parallels between the Greeks and us too hard but I think it's safe to say that this goddess is still with us.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. William Schweke of the Center for Enterprise Development recently published this op-ed about a rational approach to economic development for West Virginia (and elsewhere). He warns that

the state should not be frightened into radical proposals by the dogmatic anti-government crowd to cut regulation, taxation and other responsibilities to the bone.

WORTH READING. The latest edition of Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree is available. Jim, an Episcopal priest (yay team!), is a master of metaphors and this issue is full of them.

UNLEASHING WHATEVER DEPARTMENT. Meanwhile, over at West Virgina Blue, Antipode has published a good critique of Unleashing Capitalism, a libertarian tract that has become the Holy Writ of the WV right wing.

CALLING ALL WEST VIRGINIANS. I've noticed that readers of Goat Rope come from all over, but I'd like to ask those who live in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia to read this and respond appropriately in this economic justice campaign. Short version: please check out the link and contact the legislature (it's easy if you go there) to preserve access to education for welfare recipients. It's the best way for people to permanently escape poverty.

THREE ITEMS. For those who don't get the Charleston Gazette or the Sunday Gazette Mail, there are three items in there I highly recommend. One is an article by Paul Nyden on economist Dean Baker, who will be giving a talk in Charleston today on the theme of The Conservative Nanny State. Another is an op-ed by Perry Mann on a lifetime of reading. Finally, there is the heart-rending story by Tara Tuckwiller about a young girl from WV who is doing her part to stop the war in Iraq. Her mother is about to be sent there.