Monday, April 21, 2014

Why should you pay money for newspapers?

Glancing at a copy of The Post-Star in Stewart’s today, I got a good insight as to why the industry is struggling. 

Grand pooh-bahs like Ken Tingley, so eager to pat themselves on the back, intone that newspapers are still valuable because of one thing: editorial judgment. You can get news for free in countless places. But what distinguishes the newspaper from the “Internet” is editorial judgment. That vaunted editorial judgment of the paper allegedly ensures that’s what's published in a newspaper is not only accurate and verifiable but also relevant to its audience. Editorial judgment is why they charge you a dollar.

The editorial judgment of the local Post-Star deemed worthy of front page coverage four stories today. One was about whether 4/20 should be a legal holiday in Colorado. One was the Vatican welcoming an Easter crowd. And one was about the Zimbabwe regime seizing land.

This is what the paper’s leadership thought would be relevant enough to entice upstate New Yorkers to view their product as good value for money.

The only local story was about a historic clock in Saratoga Springs.

Suffice it to say, I did not view this as worth a dollar of my hard earned money.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How hideously inefficient is our health care system?

How hideously inefficient is our health care system? 

As this graphic from the Wall Street Journal illustrates, over 22% of the taxes you pay goes to health care. 

And most Americans are required to find money on top of this to pay for private insurance (now mandatory, a historic first, under Obamacare) as well as treatment. 

At least if we had Medicare for All, our tax money would be spent in a far more rational and efficient way.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Responding to disasters in urban areas vs rural ones

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here.

The IRIN news service has a good piece about how responding to the devastation wrought by disaster in urban areas offers very different challenges than responding to disasters in more rural areas. Worth a read.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

When 'Never again' happened again

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide during which at least 800,000 people were murdered. It was one of the world's worst atrocities of the century and certainly the worst to be covered during the age of cable news television. It occurred a year, almost to the week, after politicians and dignitaries in Washington solemnly promised 'Never again' while inaugurating the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2004, I wrote a long series of essays on the occasion of the 10th anniversary which gave a lot of information and background about the genocide.

They are as follows (yes, I know the images do not work):

-Ten years later (an intro)
-Pre-genocide history
-How the genocide unfolded
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 1)
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 2)
-The genocide's orphans
-Hate media and their role in the genocide
-International law and American law on genocide
-Post-genocide justice
-The post-genocide government
-Lessons and conclusions

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Happy birthday Peace Corps

Today is national Peace Corps Day. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 53rd anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive no further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.

Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa, as I did, are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elegies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.

(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)

The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Update: Just a reminder that in the history of the Peace Corps, 296 men and women have died in service, at least one in every year (except 1986) that the Peace Corps has existed. A website has been devoted to them.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Confrontation is central to human rights movements

With Martin Luther King day coming not long after the death of Nelson Mandela, the fundamental essence of these two heroes has been saccharinized into something that completely misrepresents their struggle and that of their movements.

They both rejected or came to reject violence. But they both recognized that confrontation was essential to any sort of fundamental change. It would've been nice if they could simply have gotten on their knees and pleaded to their masters for basic humanity dignity, as the comfortable chastised them for not doing. But, as King rebuked them in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, this doesn't work in the real world.

Confrontation of injustice - those who tolerated it as much as those who inflicted it directly - was central to these movements and human rights struggles in this country and around the globe. It'd be nice if 'please' alone worked in these situations. But it never does.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who's not welcome in Emperor Andrew's New York

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been in hot water lately for his administration's apparent role in a bridge closure debacle and its alleged role in denying disaster aid to a mayor, both based on a political grudge.
New York's own Andrew Cuomo has the same arrogance problem as Christie. It makes you wonder when Cuomo’s Bridgegate will explode.

Just last Friday, Emperor Andrew told the public broadcasting show Capital Pressroom, speaking of conservative Republicans, “Who are they? Right to life, pro-assault weapons, anti-gay — if that’s who they are, they have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” Not surprisingly, he quickly ran away from his reckless words.

Readers of this blog know that I am as harshly critical as anybody of right-wingers and their extreme positions. But to suggest they should be purged* from the state is pompous and despicable. Not quite as despicable as blaming autism and dementia on anti-bigotry efforts, but highly irresponsible for someone with presidential aspirations.

People have criticized me for describing him as Emperor Andrew. But until he realizes that his job is to represent all New Yorkers, including the ones he would rather discard, then the label will fit.

(*-I’m not suggesting Cuomo would actually engage in the sort of actual purge that Vladimir Putin is stirring up in Russia or Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria. But when you say they have ‘no place in the state,’ it is leaves just enough rom for interpretation.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Human rights and war are antithetical

Al-Jazeera America had a good essay on so-called military hawks for human rights. I was once a proponent of humanitarian-based military intervention until I realized its fundamental flaw. Its premised upon a scenario that never actually happen in reality. 

Human rights groups may want action based on moral principles but countries always and only act in self-interest. The fact that countries act in this sort of amoral fashion is not inherently bad but it also means that the utopian principle on which humanitarian intervention is based does not happen. Liberal hawks may say, "Who cares about an impure motive if it causes a moral result?" The problem is that the impure motive makes the moral result far less likely to occur and, in many cases, may even result in a bloodshed and destruction worse than what was there before - a 'cure that's worse than the disease' scenario.

Once countries launch military interventions based on self-interest, it affects both how they act and how their actions (and thus perceived motives) are received by the domestic populations. When their motives are questioned, this compromises a 'humanitarian intervention's' chances of achieving even the self-interested goals, let alone the moral ones.

An impartial United Nations' army would be the only chance for the humanitarian intervention principle to be successfully achieved, but such an international army will never be formed in the real world.