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Welcome to The Well Wrought Urn, Lexington KY's least-updated blog.

The New(est) Dispensation of Kentucky’s Domain of Greed, Power, and Corruption

My institution, The University of Kentucky, continues to receive national media coverage for the embarrassments that take place on campus and in its administrative meetings.  Our latest shameful news is that the University Board of Trustees met today to discuss whether or not they would accept Joe Craft’s proposed gift of $7 million and the handcuffed obligation to spend it on a new dorm for its college basketball players.  The new dorm, if built, would be required to have the name “coal” in it, mostly because Craft is the CEO of Alliance Coal, LLC.

As expected, the Board of Trustees didn’t spend much time worrying about the ramifications of their decision and quickly voted to accept the gift and move forward with plans to build the new “Wildcat Coal Lodge.” There has been a great deal of buzz on campus the past few days, and now national media outlets are turning to cover the incident, and not without an attitude of condescension and pity either. Read more…

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Rejecting Nobel’s Audacity of Hope

This article appears in North of Center.  I hope everyone in the downtown Lexington area picks up a copy.

Rejecting Nobel’s Audacity of Hope:  Why We Should Not Appreciate Barack Obama’s Peace Prize

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that it would give President Barack Obama the 2009 Peace Prize, I, like many people, reacted bitterly.  Having won a Peace Prize, Obama stands alongside Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Henry Kissinger, political figures and past Nobel Prize winners who have perpetuated military and economic violence in the name of national security.

U.S. citizens should not continue to uphold the Peace Prize as worthy recognition for leaders like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, or Mother Theresa, Nobel Laureates whose legacies of sacrificial reconciliation and peacemaking have been hijacked by an international community who is enamored with Obama’s charismatic appeals to Hope and Change.

The fact remains that President Barack Obama is a warmonger.  I don’t think this is an overly-pejorative term.  Obama has merely taken the Bush-era foreign policy of violence and conquest in Iraq, where the United States military industrial complex sponsored a relentless pursuit of oil, and transferred it to Afghanistan, where we are now waging another amorphous war against terrorism and spending billions of dollars in the name of “national security.”  The Huffington Post reported this week that our exploits in Afghanistan are far more dangerous than the Iraqi campaign has been.  At least 800 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and many more civilians have lost their lives at the hands of U.S. military aggression, which has indiscriminately chased Taliban forces through the rugged Afghani landscape.

President Obama no more deserves a Nobel Peace Prize than does George W. Bush.  Yet so many political pundits and uncritical liberals give Obama (and the Norwegian Nobel Committee for that matter) the benefit of the doubt.  This is a preemptive award, they say, one that may compel Obama to steer U.S. military policy in such a way that would make him a worthy Peace Prize recipient.

I think this is magical thinking.  Since his administration took office, President Obama has selected hawks like General Stanley McChrystal to further entrench the United States in overseas combat.  We may remember McChrystal as one of the brass responsible for the Army’s shameless cover-up after the Pat Tillman friendly fire death.  Obama has increased the troop level in Afghanistan by 33 percent; he has sent an additional 21,000 men and women to fight in 2009 alone.  General McChrystal, whom Omama handpicked to head the campaign in our new rendition of the war on terror, has asked for at least 40,000 additional troops, and Obama, even as he accepted the Peace Prize with humility, refused to rule out the possibility that he would grant McChrystal’s request.

Now, thousands of U.S. soldiers, many of whom have already served multiple tours in Iraq, are preparing for lengthy deployment in Afghanistan, where they face the insurmountable task of creating a democratic order ex nihilo.  According to the Nobel Committee website, the Peace Prize is bestowed upon those individuals who “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and prnobel coinomotion of peace congresses.”  Obama has precipitously increased the standing army of the United States, and his actions have encouraged other world leaders to do the same.

We should not be proud of our President as he accepts this award.  His unwavering financial support of Israel’s military aggression has not fostered peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Obama kept his critic (and former Peace Prize winner) Jimmy Carter away from the convention and allowed him only a brief video message.  Obama’s underlying fear was that Carter’s role in Middle East peacemaking would cost him votes.

By default, the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military should be ineligible for a Nobel Peace Prize, if that award is to signify anything meaningful.  Of course, an award is just an award, and Barack Obama can bring about peace in ways that most world citizens cannot.  But the aftermath of the 2009 Peace Prize award is a familiar echo of an international trend.  We support Barack Obama without holding him accountable for his actions.

The Cost of Replacing Rupp Arena

Several weeks go North of Center published my article on the prospect of a new Rupp Arena.  To my knowledge, IMG/ISG and the UK Athletics Department have yet to release any official news on the project, although those well-connected people have stumbled upon some rumblings.  See Kentucky Sports Radio’s blog post, “Is There a New Arena in the Works?”

The Cost of Replacing Rupp Arena

Corporate Welfare and Lexington’s Basketball Tradition

Every time I watch a home University of Kentucky basketball game that broadcasts nationally on CBS or ESPN, I hear announcers regurgitate the same platitudes about Rupp Arena.  It is a cathedral, a sacred space, the epicenter of the basketball-crazed Bluegrass Region.  Glory, honor, and heritage ooze out of every nook and cranny in the arena.  Rupp’s rafters bear witness to an unparalleled tradition of excellence, and its court has been graced by college basketball’s all-time great players and coaches.  Such reverence from these announcers makes it seem as if Rupp Arena is Lexington’s most functional building, or at least a space good enough for its rabid fan base.

Oh, were it that simple.  Lexington taxpayers should be suspicious next month when the London sports marketing firm IMG/ISG releases a feasibility study to determine whether or not Lexington can replace Rupp Arena, which is now 33 years old.  The study, authorized by the Lexington Center Corporation and endorsed by the University of Kentucky, will detail the logistics behind financing and building an arena that, for many people, seems to be superfluous.  Worse, it smacks of corporate welfare, an all-too familiar scenario in Kentucky, where politicians divvy out tax breaks, subsidies, and preferential treatment to profiteering entities that least need a helping hand.

The prospective new Rupp Arena raises several questions for Lexington, a city whose leadership has shown itself exceedingly willing to spend public money in ways that benefit private enterprises.  Each year, taxpayers in the United States spend over $2 billion on privately-owned sports stadiums and arenas.  How much public money will go toward building a new arena in Lexington?  Who will profit from a new arena?  Can the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG), which faces a $27 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year and is obliged to provide its citizens with infrastructure upgrades, justify contributing any money toward a new basketball arena?

These questions are complex, and since IMG/ISG (the prospective investor) stands to profit from a new arena with luxury suites, more seats, and top-notch amenities, their feasibility study may not address these issues directly or honestly.  UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry have already said that tax dollars will not support a new arena if it were built, but that promise, and the prospect that private financing will come through in a global recession, is fleeting.

To me, building a new Rupp Arena seems like a profound misappropriation of public energy and ingenuity, if not money.  Lexington has many problems that take precedence over upgrading its basketball arena, and they are problems that will require long hours of work to ameliorate.  In anticipation of IMG/ISG’s feasibility study, I offer a tale of three cities:  New York, Seattle, and Lexington.  Each tale provides a radically different example of how a community can decide to treat the relationship between sporting venues, corporate profit, and public assets.

New York

Those who want to finance sports venues with public money have long argued that new stadiums boost local economies by providing jobs and fostering business.  This logic, which has been proven false, dictated financial policy in New York over the past several years, when the city financed two new baseball stadiums.  The New York Yankees and Mets, the two wealthiest baseball corporations in the world, demanded public support for their new venues, and George Steinbrenner, whose Yankees franchise was worth $1.2 billion in 2007, even threatened to move his team to New Jersey if New York didn’t pony up tax dollars to defray the cost of building a new stadium.

After much political posturing, city officials, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, approved New York’s stadium projects.  The Yankees seized land in the South Bronx and began building on a plot where Macombs Dam Park once stood.  The park, a recreational area where many of the poorest residents in the Bronx played tennis, basketball, and baseball, was sacrificed so the Yankees could benefit.  The stadium construction project included plans to replace Macombs Dam Park, but when the city announced that a lack of funds would delay the park’s relocation, Mayor Bloomberg downplayed the hiccup by telling reporters that “you don’t have progress unless you inconvenience a few people.”

It’s hard to see the progress in New York, though.  In the end, the New York Independent Budget Office calculates, city and state taxpayers contributed over $528 million to the new Yankee Stadium and at least another $234 million for the Mets’ new park, Citi Field.  A good deal of that money comes from tax exempt bonds and other inscrutable subsidies programs, which means that the Yankees and Mets can take the city and state taxes they’ll owe New York and use that money to pay off their construction debt instead.  Because of the stadiums, the city and state will not receive millions in much-needed tax revenue over the next decades, and so far, the new stadiums have generated little to no new jobs or economic growth.  Meanwhile, Steinbrenner and Mets owner Fred Wilpon reap the profits that come with their new digs.  The entire New York stadium episode shows how far a city will travel to assist private corporations that do business in it, regardless of the economic and social cost to the community.

Seattle

In Seattle, a much different ethos has prevailed over time.  There, the NBA’s Sonics played in the undersized KeyArena (built in 1995).  When Howard Schultz, the billionaire team owner (and co-founder and CEO of Starbucks), could not procure tax funding for a larger arena, he sold the team to other local investors.  Voters denied Schultz because they were already frustrated that the Seattle Legislature had committed over $800 million to new baseball and football stadiums during the 1990s.  So when the Sonics came looking for money, Seattle residents formed a task force called Citizens for More Important Things, a group that turned public opinion against subsidizing billion-dollar sports corporations.

Finished with doling out money to already-wealthy sports franchise owners, Citizens for More Important Things focused efforts on getting funding for healthcare, education, and affordable housing initiatives.  On their website, they ask a compelling question: if city officials can pay for stadiums, why can’t they pay for the things Seattle needs.  Today, Seattle has an ethic of separation between sports and public money so stringent that the city recently passed a federal rule forbidding its publicly-funded Metro Transit from running direct shuttles to and from baseball and football games.  Seattle citizens hardly blinked in 2008 when the Sonics, under new ownership, asked for money once again and threatened to leave if they did not get it.  When taxpayers refused to subsidize a new hoops arena, the Sonics packed up and moved to Oklahoma City.

Lexington

Lexington is not like New York or Seattle because its team, the Wildcats, is a collegiate franchise, not a professional one.  The Wildcats are not privately-owned like the Yankees Mets, and Sonics, and Big Blue fans do not have to worry about the team relocating to another state at the whim of greedy entrepreneurs.  However, in many ways, Lexington parallels New York and Seattle.  We stand to learn a great deal from how these cities financed sports and entertainment venues.  Lexington faces, like most U.S. urban areas, significant financial challenges and social inequalities, so stories like what happened in New York and Seattle may be able to help us hold our leaders accountable as we try to figure out how they spend public money.

My tale of three cities is complicated by an entangled web of allegiances and financial interests that links UK basketball to Lexington’s government and businesses.  UK is not unique among top-tier college programs in that it lets external corporate entities profit from its most lucrative product, athletics.  Television companies generate billions from advertising revenues, clothing outfitters make millions from merchandise licensing agreements, and the list goes on.  However, UK is virtually unique among colleges in that it does not own its own arena.  Most universities own on-campus venues, where they play the majority of their games, but UK pays rent to the Lexington Center Corporation, a non-profit 501 c4 corporate agency of LFUCG.

Until the mid-1970s, UK played in its on-campus arena, but downtown merchants, in search of revenues, strong-armed the university administration into signing a lease at yet-to-be-built Rupp Arena.  As Betty Boles Ellison claims in her book, Kentucky’s Domain of Greed, Power, and Corruption, “The practice of protecting downtown Lexington at the university’s expense is so ingrained and incestuous that it continues today.  Few people ever give it a thought, and if they do, surely ask no questions.”  Ellison estimates that since moving into Rupp Arena in 1976, UK has lost millions of dollars in advertising and concessions revenue.

It’s almost impossible to tell whether or not citizens of the Commonwealth are getting screwed over because UK rents space at Rupp Arena.  Basketball revenues are funneled into the Athletics Association coffers, not general education funds.  Ellison’s bombast journalism notwithstanding, it’s likely that UK’s arrangement with Rupp is mutually beneficial—the city and its non-profit corporate arm make money they wouldn’t otherwise generate, and the university doesn’t have to worry about maintaining its own facility.

Similarly, it’s almost impossible to say who benefits from a new arena, and to what extent.  Rupp Arena is currently backed by the Lexington Center Corporation, the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corporation, and other abstruse hierarchies who benefit financially from UK basketball.  And if IMG/ISG has its way the University of Kentucky would become the first major collegiate program to have a privately-financed stadium.  IMG/ISG therefore stands to become the next foreign corporate conglomerate that makes money off of Lexington.

It could be that the cost of a new Rupp Arena should be measured in what would get ignored in Lexington, not how much tax money (if any) gets spent.  I’ve found that such an opportunity cost analysis is much easier to work though than figuring out the trail of public and private dollars that flow in and out of Rupp.

In 2007, when rumors surfaced about a new Rupp Arena, Mayor Newberry suggested that the project would be funded by TIFs (Tax Increment Funding).  When Kentucky Legislators approved the TIF model for all counties within the Commonwealth, they intended to legalize a funding mechanism that allows cash-strapped municipalities to revive blighted urban areas and decaying infrastructural systems.  TIFs offer the illusion that we can create money out of thin air; they are breaks that excuse businesses of the tax they would owe if the value of their property were increased.

All too often, when TIFs are used to fund sports and entertainment venues, they turn into tax breaks for corporations.  TIFs are a ruse, a way that politicians and arena proprietors can claim that the public won’t have to pay for a new arena.  The truth is that the public does pay, often for 20-30 years after a new arena is completed because local governments lose out on tax revenues.

Until IMG/ISG releases its feasibility study, we don’t know whether TIFs will be part of the new Rupp Arena equation.  But we can ask, however, whether a new arena the most appropriate implementation of the TIF model.  Should we not use our imaginations and establish a project that helps local affordable housing programs get off the ground or revives substandard city sewer systems?

Sources

For estimates of the amount of public money spent on stadiums and arenas, see Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan’s Field of Schemes:  How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.  I obtained information on the LFUCG budget deficit from Eric Patrick Marr’s Ace Weekly blog story on the Lyric Theatre (Feb. 17, 2009).  The worth of the Yankees and Mets is as reported in a 2007 Forbes story.  Mayor Bloomberg’s comments on the stadium come from a report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines reporter Jeremy Schaap. All information about IMG/ISG’s involvement in Rupp Arena comes from press releases that are posted on their company website.

Sports and Patriotism

Last week I went to see the anticlimactic “Rumble in the River,” a preseason-esque 42-0 University of Kentucky drubbing over Miami (OH) in Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.

It could be that the game’s most interesting moment for me took place before the game commenced.  As per usual, I chose to remain seated during the performance of the national anthem.  Rather than supporting an uncritical linkage between sport and state by standing and singing our nation’s paean to victory achieved by violence, I use the time when the anthem is playing for private spiritual reflection.  What is our nation’s relationship to violence today?  What attitude toward the state should I espouse as a Christian and member of God’s Empire?  And, most importantly, why are organized sports so often exploited as a vehicle of forced patriotism?  (As a refresher, I’ve previously referenced Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on sports, which he says exude a fervor that is easily co-opted for the sake of national allegiance, and the Mennonite Goshen College’s ambivalent relationship to patriotism at its home athletics events).

While I was sitting in my seat last week, one fan from several rows above yelled down at me—I’m presuming at me because I was the only person sitting in my section—and said, “Hey hippie, why don’t you stand up? Do you love our country, or are you anti-American?”  I share this story not to cast myself as a victim.  It’s only a way to say that pro-American rituals, forced patriotism, and nationalistic zeal have crept into our nation’s sporting venues in ways that are damaging to all parties involved.

In fact, what happened to me pales in comparison to an incident in the old Yankee Stadium a year ago, where a man was harassed and eventually ejected from the stadium for attempting to use the restroom during the seventh inning stretch singing of “God Bless America.”  For the man, this treatment constituted religious and political discrimination.  Yankee Stadium had been the extreme for MLB venues in that its ushers often chained off aisles to prevent people from leaving their seats during the song.  However, since that lawsuit, which was settled when the city of New York agreed to pay $10,000 to the aggrieved party, the Yankees have refrained from chaining aisles.  Still, forced patriotism has not gone away.  (And, by the way, it’s still unclear why New York taxpayers had to foot the bill for something harmful done by the New York Yankees franchise).

Just this past weekend, another incident has emerged.  The sports blog Field of Schemes reports that a minor league franchise owner forcibly removed three teens from the stadium earlier this summer because they refused to stand during the rendition of “God Bless America.”  According to the write-up by the local New Jersey paper, Thomas Cetnar, a disgraced police officer and part owner of the franchise, noticed the men sitting during the seventh inning ritual, approached them furiously, and instructed security guards to escort them out of the park.  In Cetnar’s own words,  “Nobody sits during the singing of ‘God Bless America’ in my stadium.  Now the get the (expletive) out of here.”

Field of Schemes astutely points out that Cetnar has nerve calling the Newark Bears’ park “my stadium” when it in fact was paid for with tax dollars.  And, to add an additional layer of irony, Cetnar’s appeal to American loyalty is especially problematic, given his prior improprieties as a defender of United States citizens (he embezzled drug money).

To some, standing during the national anthem and “God Bless America” is a “matter of etiquette,” as the Star-Ledger‘s Sharon Aldaro puts it.  But what if one doesn’t believe that God exists?  Or, how do we respect the experience of those who enjoy sports and athletics, but believe that God and nation should not be confused?  People, like myself, who balk at singing patriotic anthems at sporting events, do so because of deep religious convictions about the way God operates in earth and the way that God’s followers should posture themselves as the live within earthy structures of power.  And we also like baseball, basketball, and football.  Sadly, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that the imperial nature of sports and nation cannot be separated easily, despite my wishes.

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to hold my Anabaptist precepts about war, God, nation, and peaceful protest, but I do hope that these recent stadium incidents and the subsequent lawsuits will open a new national conversation about that it means to be a citizen and a sports fan.  Some people are already working in this territory.  But we need more.

* Update:  An extended version of this essay will appear in North of Center.  Stay tuned.

Two Plugs: Sheehan and Pease

This weekend, famed voice for peace and activist Cindy Sheehan will visit Lexington.  She’ll be available at various events and locations this weekend, including a free talk at Transylvania University on Friday, September 12, 7:00 pm, and an appearance at Morris Book  Shop on Southland Drive (the next day, Saturday, between 3 and 4 pm).  Sheehan’s son Casey was killed in Iraq, and in the years since, she’s been an unrelenting voice for peace and reconciliation.  More importantly, she’s made many people aware of the human costs associated with war—costs that our media tries to obscure whenever possible.exceptionalism

My second plug, for those so inclined, is to anticipate a second book, The New American Exceptionalism, by Donald E. Pease.  The book will be published toward the end of October, and it examines various state fantasies that uphold our new manifestation of America’s post-Bush regime.  I’ve heard and read parts of this book, and I can vouch for its relevance and importance.  It includes, among other things, a suggestion that Sheehan has usurped the role of patriotic grieving mother and turned this ideological space on its head.

The violence in Iraq has not ended, nor has United States foreign policy shifted in any substantial way with Barack Obama’s election.  Sheehan and Pease demand that we grapple with their message.

When Washington Lobbies Pony Up for Budding Photojournalists

The past few days I’ve been in Washington DC at a Campus Progress training summit.  We’ve been talking about effective journalism, writing good ledes, weighing the ethics of journalism against the challenges of being a college student, and other important facets of the profession.

One of my assignments is to take some digital photographs and construct a brief blog post on the best three of them.  I am not a good photographer.  But I have learned a few basic tactics that might help me to take better pictures in the future, or at least recognize when a photo might be worth saving and circulating.DSCN1077

I stepped outside of the Center for American Progress headquarters and ambled down a few blocks toward the White House.  It’s always good to be in close proximity to Mr. Obama when one works with such progressive movements.  Today the weather is clear, medium humidity, and sunny, but in prior nights we strolled across 1600 Pennsylvania and saw Barack out on the White House front porch smoking a cigarette (his last remaining vice) and staring wistfully into the night.DSCN1070

Today, the Obamas are gone, on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, and so DC housekeepers are busily working.  Late summer cleaning includes a good pressure wash of the White House exterior.

Walking on, I ran into several protesters, of specious origins, who have camped out in front of the White House.  There are voices for peace, voices for war, and voices that cannot be discerned.

One man was shooting (a picture) his friend in front of the White House.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity, thinking of it as a great juxtaposition with the backdrop of peace advocates.  Note how aggressively he documents his achievement, as if he’s a test case for Walker Percy’s model tourist.  I’m using the rule of thirds here, which apparently is good for the human eye:DSCN1072

A few blocks later, I paused for a meditative reflection on nature and culture.  In the foreground rests a tree, carefully cultivated on a street across from the United States Treasury.  Will the financial policies of our nation lead us to ecological ruin?DSCN1086

And finally, I returned to my hotel, which rests a few blocks from St. Matthew’s Cathedral.  It’s front boasts an incredibly sharp image of the pilot of the Galilean Lake.  It reminded me that we live in a nation that badly needs Matthew’s message of radical separation between God’s Kingdom and earthly kingdoms, of which the entire city of DC boasts.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, he says, with his index and middle finger extended, a sign of teaching authority.

DSCN1062

Wolfe Island Wind Towers

Northern New York is obsessed with wind energy.

During the past 3-4 years, Lewis County farmers leased sections of their land to energy corporations, who constructed a series of wind towers on spaces in between their pastures.  Last year the Associated Press ran a story, “Windmills Split Town and Family,” about a local man who suggests that the towers are an abomination.  According to windmill detractors, this renewable energy resource damages the Lewis County skyline, makes haunting noises at night as they turn slowly in the breeze, and ruins the small-town family based community that holds Lewis County together.  All of this should make us ask, is wind energy sustainable?  In particular, do wind towers integrate natural systems with human patterns in such a way that honors continuity, place-making, and existing social structures?

That question seems to have resurfaced this week, when longtime Watertown Daily Times Managing Editor Bob Gorman wrote a half-assed piece about the imposition of wind towers on the Watertown skyline.  The column itself doesn’t warrant much attention because it’s so clumsily written, but I want to focus on it because it is an important example of why rural America’s perception of what is “natural” and beneficial for our continued living on this planet matters.

A view of Watertown from the outer-Washington Street hill.  NNY locals appear nervous about changes in the landscape.  Photo by Colleen White

Even if you’ve read through Gorman’s emission, you’ll need some extra context (which he fails to provide).  This context is particularly important if you’re not from the north country.  First, let’s start with the picture that is the grist for Gorman’s mill.  It’s a view of the Watertown skyline.  The tallest building, the State Office Building, only looks so imposing because the photograph is taken from the top of a hill to the south of town.

Gorman’s article really doesn’t say anything.  It implies that we should be startled and angry about the fact that we can see wind towers from Canada in the distance.  It’s main point is that the wind energy issue in Upstate New York “isn’t one that should be decided by as few people as possible.”  Or, more directly, wind energy is something that should be settled democratically, since it “affects” everyone.  This seems like another instance of people in NNY being frustrated about their changinging environment, specifically, their “compromised” vista.

I’m not sure what Gorman’s problem is.  The towers are located on an island that belongs to Canada.  If anything, they should be a reminder that our northern neighbors are being proactive about creating sustainable solutions to our energy crisis, while here in the United States, people waffle over whether the technology is efficient.

If the problem is environmental change, perhaps Gorman should examine the impact of rapid development on Arsenal Street and outer-Washington Street.  Watertown is propped up on an artifical economy that hinges on the 10th Mountain Division’s continued build-up and deployment.  Perhaps the increased houses and buildings will soon be abandoned.