Tuesday, December 30, 2003

HOW POLARIZED IS AMERICA?
A poll released Monday indicated that the most admired man and woman in the United States are President Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton.

It's a testament to how polarized the United States is that the two most divisive political figures of the last decade are the country's two most admired people.

Are there any non-abrasive people Americans can look up to? I mean, President Bush was most admired by 29%, Sen. Clinton was named by 16%, the Pope only got 4%.

Monday, December 29, 2003

HE WHO LIVES BY THE MESSIAH COMPLEX...
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under fire the last few days. Heck, he's been under fire ever since he joined President Bush's campaign to conquer Iraq. But he's taken a particular amount of heat recently.

First, he was criticized by two senior leaders of the Church of England. The archbishop of York warned that the prime minister would have to answer before God for collaborating in the Iraq invasion. The bishop of Durham compared the American and British leaders to "a bunch of white vigilantes" while noting "This is not to deny there's a problem to be sorted, just that they are not credible people to deal with it."

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have pursued the Iraq conquest with a troubling messianic certainty. The kind that surpasses mere self-confidence or decisiveness and approaches fanaticism. Self-assured people have the confidence to listen to others. Leaders LEAD, not pull, drag, bully, coerce, threaten or slander. It's good that these religious leaders spoke out against these two heads of government who lace their language so liberally with religious references and justifications. Pro-war people don't have a monopoly on wisdom or morality.

The Independent also noted another setback for Mr. Blair, who critics diagnose as being afflicted with Bush's Syndrome (primary sympton: playing fast and loose with the truth). The prime minister had claimed "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" had already been uncovered in Iraq.

But this was countered by Iraq viceroy Paul Bremer. "I don't know where those words come from, but that is not what David Kay [head of the Iraq Survey Group] has said. I have read his reports, so I don't know who said that.. It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me. It sounds like someone who doesn't agree with the policy sets up a red herring then knocks it down."

The paper then noted Mr Bremer was forced to backtrack after being told that Mr Blair had made the claim, in a Christmas broadcast to British troops in Iraq.
SOME DEBTS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
The Bush administration is now asking Japan and China to reduce Iraq's debt, insisting that such reductions are essential to re-starting the Iraqi economy. Years of activism in favor of reducing or cancelling the debt of African and Latin American countries to help them economically has made little headway. Perhaps the only way debt relief for developing countries can get on the agenda is if Washington invades the entire Southern Hemisphere?

Monday, December 22, 2003

THE CANONIZATION OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
I was reading a newspaper article which included a great quote. The quote inspired this entry that I've been meaning to write for a long time.

Many people, notably libertarians and strict constitutionalists, will inject to nearly any debate: "So-and-so is bad because the Founding Fathers wouldn't have wanted it." They almost inevitably cite passages from the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, to justify inertia. If it was good enough for the people of 1788, it should be good enough from here to eternity.

To these folks, the Constitution is not something that should reflect the evolution of society. It is something akin to the Ten Commandments, something written in stone. I think the Founding Fathers (I think Joseph Ellis' phrase Founding Brothers is more accurate but that's another debate) were a bunch of fairly intelligent and very wise men who deftly negotiated a document to address the particular problems facing the country in the late 18th century. But the strict constitutionalists think the Founding Fathers [FFs] were a group of secular saints, whose every word shall be revered and taken as Gospel now and forever more. Preachers may quote from the book of Luke, strict constitutionalists from the book of Madison.

Yet this canonization of the FFs is dangerous. It prevents the Constitution from evolving. Now, the document shouldn't be changed willy nilly to incorporate every fad du jour. But the document is designed to be extremely hard to change. It seems like we should be able to debate certain things on their merits. But some people simply invoke the words of an FF as though merely mentioning a name is enough to trump the argument. Saint Jefferson wanted it, therefore it is so. The end.

For example, I've long argued for the elimination of the Electoral College [EC]. I believe is archaic and un-democratic. But the FFs knew it was un-democratic when they designed it. THAT was the point. To be a check on the democratic will off the population. It may have served a useful purpose in 1788, but is it still relevant today? The trouble is that canonization of the FFs makes it so we can't even ask the question! No one would ask if Jesus' Good Samaritan tale was still relevant today because, after all, he was Jesus. No one (save a few people deemed 'sore losers of the 2000 election') questions the continuing validity of the EC.

I believe the EC promotes divisive regionalism. I doubt it even accomplishes its primary (original) goal of getting attention for small states. Yet some people won't even engage in a debate of this nature. If it was good enough for Jefferson and Madison, it is good enough for them. That the EC was a last minute compromise to save the Constitutional Convention, many of these people probably aren't aware of and probably wouldn't care if they were.

The point of the Constitution, our Constitution, is to serve the country and its people. It was designed in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Nothing was said about it being the final draft. They weren't trying a perfect union, but a MORE perfect union. The FFs were wise enough to know they didn't know everything. They were wise enough to know that their solutions were the best they could do for current problems but they trusted their children and grandchildren to be able to deal with future problems as they arose. They knew the Constitution needed the flexibility to adapt to a changing America; that's why they gave it provisions for amendment.

And I leave you with the following words:


Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them . . . too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment . . . [As] manners and opinions change with the change of circumstance, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilised society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
--Thomas Jefferson.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

TWO VICTORIES FOR THE RULE OF LAW
...and defeats for the Bush administration.

First, a federal appeals court ruled that authorities do not have the power to detain an American citizen arrested on US soil as an "enemy combattant." The panel added that the administration was free to transfer him to civilian courts.

We are as keenly aware as anyone of the threat al-Qaeda poses to our country and of the responsibilities the president and law enforcement officials bear for protecting the nation, noted the US Second Court of Appeals. But presidential authority does not exist in a vacuum. [emphasis mine]

Later in the day, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that detainees at Guantanamo Bay should have access to lawyers and the US court system. 660 people are being held indefinitely and without charge at the base as "enemy combattants."

The court declared, Even in times of national emergency... it is the obligation of the judicial branch to ensure the preservation of our constitutional values and to prevent the executive branch from running roughshod over the rights of citizens and aliens alike.

Hopefully, neither of these verdicts will be overturned by the US Supreme Court.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

SECULARISM DOESN'T MEAN ERADICATING RELIGION ALTOGETHER
In the United States, there are regular battles on the fine line between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The generally accepted line is that the state is not supposed to actively promote one religion or even religion in general but that individuals are free to express their religious beliefs. Agents of the state are free to express their religious beliefs outside their job but are severely restricted in the workplace.

In France, they are going much further: any religious expression in a state-sponsored institution, even by those who aren't state agents, is about to be outlawed.

The French government is about to pass a law banning 'conspicuous religious signs in schools'. Although skullcaps and large crosses are also affected, the primary target of the bill is the headscarf worn by many girls and women of France's large Muslim population. 'Discreet' medaillons would be allowed.

French society is much more vehemently secular than American society. A French politician leading regular prayer breakfasts would be denounced. American polticians. The last French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was an avowed atheist, something that no high-ranking American elected official would ever admit. The 1904 French law enshrining the separation of church and state was the fruit of a century-long bitter struggle to diminish the political influence of the Catholic Church in that country.

As a result, secularism means something different in the US than it does in France. Here, separation of church and state simply means the state should be neutral, that it shouldn't take sides. In France, separation of church and state means the state should actively promote secularism and discourage overt displays of religiosity, even by individuals.

But the looming French ban on headscarfs, supported by more than 2/3 of the population, is too much. Naturally, it's perceived as being a slap in the face to the French Muslim community; no public furors have erupted from skullcaps or crosses being worn to school. More fundamentally, it is against the spirit of a liberal, democratic society.

I also wonder how the ban squares with European and international law.

Title 1, Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states:

Section 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.


And Article 18 of The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Imposing a state religion or religion in general on a diverse populace is wrong. But attacking the right of individuals to quietly express their faith is also wrong. Secularism means preventing religion from dominating politics. It doesn't mean eradicating religion altogether.
BAKER AGREES WITH BONO AND THE POPE?
I was reading an article on presidential envoy and former cabinet secretary James Baker's visit to Paris. During the trip, he tried to persuade the French government, so smeared by the administration this year, to reduce Iraq's debt. The "cheese eating surrender monkeys," whose paratroopers rescued hundreds of Americans in the Ivory Coast a few months ago, agreed to the reduction.

Baker justified the appeal by stating "The French and the U.S. government want to reduce the debt burden on Iraq so that its people can enjoy freedom and prosperity."

Perhaps the US, France and other western countries can also write of the crushing debts of African and Latin American countries as well so that they too "can enjoy freedom and prosperity."

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

HEY DICTATOR LOVING SURRENDER MONKEYS, CAN YOU PLEASE HELP US OUT HERE?
I see President Bush's envoy, former cabinet secretary James Baker, is in Paris asking the French to write off Iraqi debt. The visit occurs only days after the administration announced that France, among other countries, could not bid on reconstruction contracts for Iraq.

Translation of the administration's message: "You're a bunch of craven dictator-appeasing idiots, now could please give us a hand here?"

Still further evidence that they just don't get it. I don't know if they could be more obtuse if they were actively trying to anger the rest of the world.

Monday, December 15, 2003

'NO PECULIARLY AFRICAN HUMAN RIGHTS'
I read an interesting article in South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian concerning the Zimbabwe situation* entitled Tutu 'baffled' at Zimbabwe debacle. In it, Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn't think the decision to continue Zimbabwe's exclusion from the Commonwealth was unjustified (a point now academic, due to Zimbabwe's withdrawal from the organization).

He disagrees with his country's president, Thabo Mbeki, who claimed that Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was treated badly. President Mbeki even reportedly suggested that Mugabe's seizure of white owned farms was "perhaps inevitable" (even though this is perhaps the least direct of his many crimes). The South African leader also suggested the Commonwealth's decision was designed to protect "white, settler, colonial kith and kin" thus deflecting attention from the miserable failure of his so-called 'softly softly' policy for gently persuading Mugabe to become a warm and fuzzy teddy bear. You'd think President Mbeki would be leading the charge to pressure Mugabe since Zimbabwe's collapse has a direct effect on South Africa's economy; further, Mbeki's spirited defense of a thug like Mugabe is at odds with the South African leader's vision of an 'African renaissance.'

Archbishop Tutu, for his part, noted:

"We have great expectations of the peer-review system of the African Union but it will be a futile exercise if we are not ready to condemn human rights violations unequivocally without fear or favour whatever the struggle credentials of the perpetrator. Human rights are human rights and they are of universal validity or they are nothing. There are no peculiarly African human rights. What has been reported as happening in Zimbabwe is totally unacceptable and reprehensible and we ought to say so regretting that it should have been necessary to condemn erstwhile comrades."



*-For more on the domestic situation in Zimbabwe, see Mugabe to cede favorite scapegoat? Unlikely..
'ANYONE CAN BECOME PRESIDENT IN AMERICA. THAT IS A PROBLEM'
I was reading some of the Christmas cards and letters my parents received. Instead of a letter, one of the families sent a little questionnaire thing where each member of the family answered a dozen or so questions. Like favorite movie of the year, favorite place to be, etc.

The 14 year old of this family noted...

Scariest moment: Learning that anyone can become president in America. That's a problem.

And it struck me as a profound observation. I mean, we're taught lots of earnest pieties in school (as Ralph Nader noted, "we're taught to believe, not to think"). Most of these pieties bear little resemblance to reality. Like the way a bill becomes a law.

But it turns out that one of them, that anyone can become president, is actually true. And it makes you feel warm and fuzzy and proud. Until you realize the implications. Being president is a damned hard job. I consider myself a fairly intelligent person but I sure as hell couldn't do it. But if anyone, any ordinary joe with few qualifications, can become president, what happens when he finds out how bloody hard the job is? When he discovers that he's in over his head?

That's the irony of our fascination with "ordinary" politicians. Even patricians like Howard Dean, George W. Bush and John Kerry have to prove they can suck down a beer and shoot the breeze with Joe Sixpacks from Bangor to Cheyenne. A politician who spoke more of Beethoven than NASCAR, who watched PBS or the History Channel rather than Joe Millionaire or American Idol, they'd be dismissed as, gasp, an ELITIST!!

We venerate politicians who are ordinary people, or who at least play them on TV. Then we expect them master distinctly un-ordinary situations. Joe Sixpack may wax lyrical on the finer points of Dale Earnhardt Jr once he's sucked down a few Buds, but do you really want his finger on the nuclear trigger?

Sunday, December 14, 2003

ON SADDAM'S ENCAPURATION
A combatative neo-conservative guest on the BBC pontificated on the potential effect of Saddam's 'encapturation.' Apparently, right wingers worship of the president extends to language. Imaginize that!

Said guest insisted that even if we didn't find weapons of mass destruction, the war was still a wonderful thing because "24 million Iraqis were liberated."

I'm sure it'll be great for the Iraqis, once they get water, electricity and other basic services restored. It'll also be good for international justice, assuming he's given something vaguely resembling a fair trial. Hopefully, this will bury once and for all the notion that a former head of state has some sort of imm/punity for crimes against humanity.

Yet I personally don't feel any different. The weapons of mass destruction are still unaccounted for and they were supposedly the primary reason we went to war.

If we can't find them, then this means one of two things. Either a) they're still out there, unaccounted for, possibly still in the hands of `cbad guys or b) they never were there to begin with, in which case the war was based on either an overt lie or horribly inaccurate intelligence.

Bye bye Saddam. One dictator down, a few dozen to go.

Incidentally, was it just me or did dissheveled Saddam bear a striking resemblance to the Unabomber?

Friday, December 12, 2003

THE VALUE OF FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
I read how Haliburton was criticized for overcharging the US government to the tune of $61 million for gasoline imported from Kuwait to Iraq. Haliburton is a corporation formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney. The company is not accused of profiting from the overcharge. It reportedly paid too much money to a subcontractor in Kuwait and will probably have to eat the loss. However, the real eye-opener here is that the vice president's former company was award the $15.6 billion (15,600,000,000) contract on a non-competitive, no-bid basis.
PASSING OF AHMADOU KOUROUMA
I was saddened to learn of the passing of the great writer Ahmadou Kourouma at 76 years. Native of the north of Cote d'Ivoire, he lived in exile after having angered the regime of the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny and more recently, of the current head of state Laurent Gbagbo, Houphouet's sworn enemy. His first work is considered one of the great classics of African literature. Published in 1970, Le Soleil des indépendances (The Sun of the Independances) addressed the sensitive topic of what had become of the newly sovereign African states. He also received literary prizes for his excellent book En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Waiting for the Vote of the Savage Beasts) which skewered the autocratic party-state system and for the powerful Allah n'est pas obligé (Allah is Not Obliged) on the tragic life of a West African child soldier. I strongly recommend all three.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

GREEN NEARLY ELECTED MAYOR OF SAN FRANCISCO
Interesting story from northern California. Democrat Gavin Newsom was narrowly elected mayor of San Francisco is a tight runoff with Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, who heads the city's board of supervisors. The near-win by Gonzalez, who reportedly got a majority of votes cast on the actual runoff Election Day, is amazing considering what he was up against.

San Francisco is an overwhelmingly Democratic city with about 54% of registered voters belong to that one party. Gonzalez spent about 1/9 of the $3.6 million spent by the Democrat. Newsom received ensorsement from both of the city's major newspapers, the outgoing Democratic mayor and nearly every high ranking Democratic official in California as well as Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But despite Greens only accounting for 3% of San Francisco's population, Gonzalez received 47% of the total vote and, as mentioned earlier, a majority of votes cast on the actual day of the vote.

Christopher Scheer, of AlterNet, wondered, How many times must the public send the message before the Democratic Party decides to stop shooting the messenger? The Gore-Bush contest of 2000, the 2002 mid-term elections, the California recall, and now the astonishing near-defeat of Gavin Newsom in San Francisco's mayor's race, each contain the same crystal-clear message: choosing Republican Lite-weights to represent the Democratic Party makes a lousy political strategy.

But the Democratic establishment would rather blame Nader and the Florida freaks. Blame Arnold and the Recall Repubs. Blame last-second progressive S.F. mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez and his hipster horde. Blame "Mean" Dean and his Internet machine. Blame 9/11, late-night GOP roll-call votes ... anybody, in fact, but itself.

The sad, mostly unacknowledged fact is that in the shadow of Bill Clinton's enormous charisma and political brilliance, the Democratic Party has been steadily receding in influence across this country for more than a decade. Congress, gubernatorial races, city elections – you name it, and they've lost it. And the reason is simple: because the Democratic Party is too busy raising money to connect with the American people.


Gonzalez's near win in one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic cities in the country certainly puts a large dent in the myth that Greens should make themselves disappear from the political spectrum because are "unelectable."

In a related note, a USA Today/Gallup poll released in October found that 23% of those surveyed felt that Ralph Nader should run for president in 2004. The same poll also found that 52% rejected the idea that Nader's 2000 run cost Democrat Al Gore the election (vs 41% that agreed) and that 28% said they've voted for an independent or third party candidate for president. I'm sure some will focus on whether Nader should run in 2004 and others, especially Democrats, will continue to look backward and whine about 2000, but this is missing the bigger picture.

Assuming the representativity of the poll (which is always questionable), this suggests that about 1/4 of voters feel the need to look outside the two biggest parties. 1/4 feel that smaller parties have something to offer that Democrats and Republicans do not. Instead of smearing these people or minimizing their relevance like the Democratic Leadership Council types would do, perhaps the two major parties would do better listening to the views of these folks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

LESS PREACHING, MORE LISTENING
I see now that the US government is now going to formally ban from reconstruction in Iraq businesses from any country that didn't fully support the conquest. This just proves how much the Bush administration doesn't get it.

Deputy Secretary of War Paul Wolfowitz said that contracts were being restricted to protect America's "essential security interests." Which is as believable as when the movie theaters ban you from taking in backpacks for "security" reasons.

From a purely emotional standpoint, this is sensible. I mean, they didn't lick the president's boots, so why should they get any part of the booty? But as with most things, the administration is penny-wise and pound foolish (or cutting of its nose to spite its face; you have your pick of aphorisms).

This could be a perfect opportunity for the administration to show American magnamity. To show that Bush is not the bloodthirsty warmonger so many people in all parts of the world think he is. To show we didn't conquer Iraq to enrich American corporations.

(I wonder how banning companies from bidding on contracts fits in with the adminstration's free trade ideas)

But although the snitfit may be emotionally satisfying, it's infinitely counterproductive.

-It does nothing to boost anyone's trust that the conquest was done for benevolent reasons and gives a further boost to those, especially Arabs, who say the motive for the invasion were purely economic.

-When the Bush administration pleads for international cooperation in re-building Iraq or addressing the humanitarian, what incentive are "dissenting" countries going to have to listen? Canada, a large contributor to Iraq reconstruction, has already said it would be difficult for them to keep donating money if such a ban remains. To exclude Canadians just because they are Canadians would be unacceptable if they accept funds from Canadian taxpayers for the reconstruction of Iraq noted the country's deputy prime minister.

-When the Bush administration pleads for more non-American troops in Iraq, what incentive are "dissenting" countries going to have to listen? There's talk of bringing NATO into Iraq to relieve the burden on American troops. But governments of key NATO members France, Germany and Turkey all raised questions about the manner of the invasion.

-When the Bush administration pleads for more international cooperation and non-American troops for Afghanistan (remember that place?), what incentive are "dissenting" countries going to have to listen? Do you think the Germans appreciate how much they've been smeared on the Iraq question after they dutifully contributed large number of troops to the Afghanistan cause at the request of President Bush? I wonder how Germans can be ok for American security in Afghanistan but not Iraq?

-When the Bush administration demands cooperation on fighting international terrorist groups, will "dissenting" countries return the snub back to Washington? For example, has the government in Paris received any kudos from either Washington hawks or the sensationalist press for the numerous arrests of al-Qaeda suspects in France? No, but the French arrested the suspects anyway. Fortunately, they weren't put off by the 1st grade level insults from the other side of the pond but the administration's legendary ability to lose friends and influence people against it does not bode well for it or for us.

The people of this administration just don't get it. They gratiutiously piss off our allies then have the audacity to ask those same allies for help. They preach "the spread of democracy" to the Arab world but rage against European governments for representing the democratic will of their people. They limit contracts to cohorts and then get indignant when anyone suggests it amounts to conquest for plunder. They anger the rest of the world with obtuseness, bluster and self-righteousness and then are truly surprised at the anti-Americanism that ensues.

So much of our foreign policy ills could be rectified if we did a little less preaching and a lot more listening. We don't do that very well. Maybe we should learn.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

NOVEL IDEA FOR ISRAEL-PALESTINE, MORE CHICKEN LITTLES AND RALPH NADER
-An article in the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on the visit to the country of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for his role in the May 1968 general strike in France. Anyways, "Danny the Red" offered an intriguing idea for the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to him, The United Nations should vote on the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, deploy an international force in the region and make Israel part of NATO.

To me, this seems like reasonable The real question is whether those opposed to a fair resolution (notably Israel's far right and most Arab states, both of whom need scapegoats) will continue to hold sway.


-Since the hasty adoption of the USA PATRIOT act by most Congressmen who didn't even read the bill, the legislation has been under fire from civil liberties groups who question the very constitutionality of many of its provisions. These critics have been derided as 'chicken littles' and 'unwitting terrorist appeasers' by some and as 'decrying phantoms of lost liberty' by the attorney general of the United States. However, the latest 'chicken little' to express concerns about the government's anti-terrorism policy is none other than the chief architect of the Patriot act, a former top assistant to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

- A poll published in October reported that nearly a quarter of those surveyed wanted Ralph Nader to run again for president in 2004. The 23% number is surprising since Nader received only 3% of the vote in the 2000 election. Although it's doubtful all 23% would actually vote for Nader but it suggests that many voters are looking for someone else to vote for besides Democrats and Republicans. The poll also reported that a majority rejected the notion that Nader's 2000 candidacy cost Al Gore the election. 28% of those surveyed said they'd voted for independent or smaller party candidates, thus demonstrating that a notable percentage of voters appreciate having more than two choices.

Monday, December 08, 2003

'MOST PRESCRIPTION DRUGS DON'T WORK ON MOST PEOPLE' ADMITS GLAXO VP
An article in the British paper The Independent carried a startling admission. A senior executive of GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharamaceutical giants, has admitted that most prescription medicines do not work on most people who take them.

Dr. Allen Roses noted The vast majority of drugs - more than 90 per cent - only work in 30 or 50 per cent of the people. I wouldn't say that most drugs don't work. I would say that most drugs work in 30 to 50 per cent of people. Drugs out there on the market work, but they don't work in everybody.

Most pharmaceutical giants defend their huge price increases, which go up much, much faster than the rate of inflation, by saying they saying they need to recoup the cost of research and development (even though they reportedly spend far more on advertising). This is also the same reason big pharmaceuticals oppose the development of reasonably priced generic AIDS drugs to fight the greatest scourge of humanity. Sadly, Dr. Roses' admission may bolster domestic African critics who say AIDS drugs do more harm than good or that they're a waste of money.

So this begs the question, if most drugs don't work on 50-70 percent of the people, then how effective is this R&D? And why are the prices so high for something that's so ineffective?

Friday, December 05, 2003

A WASTE OF TIME IN ABUJA
So the present meeting of the Commonwealth (former British colonies) in Abuja, Nigeria, is being dominated by the question of Zimbabwe. The Southern African state was suspended from the organization last year because of rigged presidential elections.

Although it's land "re-distrbution" policies (which seizes land owned by white farmers and gives it to high-ranking officials of the ruling party) has gotten more press in the west, its the least of most Zimbabweans' concerns compared to the government's horrific human rights' record. Church leaders in the country have accused Robert Mugabe's regime of running "re-education" camps and harassing those religious leaders who speak out. It also stands accused of using food aid as a political weapon. Its attacks on protest marches, its war (literally, not just figuratively) on what remains of a domestic free press and its banning of foreign journalists seem mild by comparison to these other things.

Whatever decision is taken on Zimbabwe's Commonwealth status is going to have no impact on the appalling conditions in the country. Suspending it hasn't changed anything. Southern African leaders' "softly softly" approach of flattering the rogue only massages his huge ego and hasn't changed anything either. Mugabe has said he would rather leave the Commonwealth than cede any of Zimbabwe's independence (ie: his absolute personal power).

Although I understand no one likes their neighbor to be criticized by outsiders, Southern African leaders vehement defense of Zimbabwe's apartheid state is shameful. They should be in the forefront of pressuring the dictatorship since it is their countries, not Britain or Australia, who are most directly impacted by Zimbabwe's collapse into chaos. How can these leaders demand the west do more to help suffering Africans (AIDS, peacekeeping interventions, malaria) if they serve as apologists for a brute like Mugabe whose causes a great deal of suffering for Africans?

Thursday, December 04, 2003

THE POWER OF SYMBOLISM
An article in British paper The Observer noted, "Israel has been described as the top threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, by an unpublished European Commission poll of 7,500 Europeans, sparking an international row. The survey, conducted in October, of 500 people from each of the EU's member nations included a list of 15 countries with the question, 'tell me if in your opinion it presents or not a threat to peace in the world'. Israel was reportedly picked by 59 per cent of those interviewed."

It's not often that a news article can leave me truly speechless, but this one did. You don't have to agree with the policies of the Israeli occupation or the Sharon government, and I detest both. But for 59% of Europeans polled to think that Israel represents a threat to world peace is dumbfounding. And a telling example of the power of symoblism, rhetoric and political exploitation. This is how what's really nothing more than a local territorial dispute far less bloody than dozens of conflicts elsewhere in the world has become THE worldwide cause celebre and conduit for the fury of those thousands of miles away.

No wonder a siege mentality envelops Israeli society. It's one thing to deal with hatred stoked by neighboring autocracies. It's another to learn of such a staggering level idiocy in the self-professed heart of the "enlightened" western world (in contrast to a crude gorilla like the US or provincial backwaters like Australia).

This might not be a manifestation of anti-Semitism but it certainly defies belief. And it shows that ignorance is truly the greatest threat to peace in the world.

Monday, December 01, 2003

THE GREATEST MENACE TO HUMANITY
Today is World AIDS day. It's a day to inform people about the pandemic which represents by far the greatest threat to humanity. Over 39 million people are presently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. About 14,000 are infected every day.

Susan Hunter, former consultant for the organization UNAIDS, has compared AIDS to the black death that swept across Europe centuries ago, though AIDS has already killed numerically more people. In a radio interview, Hunter did demographic studies which showed that only two other events in the last 2000 years provoked as cataclysmic a loss of life as the present AIDS pandemic: the black death and the European conquest’s eradication of the Native American populations.

Nearly 3,000,000 people have died of the disease this year alone; the Holocaust took several years to achieve death of that magnitude. To put it another way, twice as many people died of AIDS every single day this year as died in the 9/11 attacks. That’s three millions people in a single year eliminated by a disease that’s manageable, if not curable.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that many governments had described AIDS as a security threat but had devoted barely a fraction of the resources used to fight terrorism or search for weapons of mass destruction. I feel angry, I feel distressed, I feel helpless... to live in a world where we have the means, we have the resources, to be able to help all these patients - what is lacking is the political will.

Annan also ripped some African leaders who he said were too timid or embarrassed to confront the disease head on.

Click here for access to a plethora of stories on the topic.

Friday, November 28, 2003

GENERAL CHEST-BEATER SPEAKS
Gen. Jay Garner, the first US-administration of occupied Iraq, spoke to the BBC about some of the errors that were committed in the occupation's early days. The full interview (available on audio from the above link) was refreshingly candid about the pre-war preparations and how higher ups actively refused him permission to surround himself with chosen knowledgeable aides.

Earlier, Gen. Garner made news by suggesting that We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say: 'Damn, we're Americans!'

Perhaps there was a little too much mirror-gazing and protester-smearing and too little preparation.
MUGABE TO CEDE FAVORITE SCAPEGOAT? UNLIKELY
Zimbabwe's ruling thug Robert Mugabe has been excluded from the upcoming meeting of the Commonwealth (basically former British colonies). This has caused a serious split in the rather anachronistic organization. To put it bluntly, western countries want Mugabe punished for his terrible human rights' violations, repression of the opposition and elimination of the rule of law. African countries object.

Some African leaders feel that punishing Mugabe would be neo-colonialism because of his policy of seizing white-owned farms and re-distributing them (to his cronies, of course). Apparently, these heads of state don't care that the overwhelming majority of the victims of his regime's repression are black. Since Mugabe's cabal arrests people for sending emails, attacks protest marches, assaults what little remains of a free press, runs 're-education' camps and uses food aid to punish political opponents, the land "reform" program is the least of the regime's evils.

Other African leaders feel that a diplomatic solution is preferable. Thabo Mbeki, president of regional power South Africa, is the foremost proponent of the "softly softly" approach. They feel that provoking a thug (or "freedom fighter" as some call him, in reference to the distant past) would be counter-productive and would cause a backlash... which only proves how this maniac needs to be stopped. While perhaps a noble attempt from a well-intentioned leader, "softly softly" has miserably failed to moderate Mugabe's brutality or even cause the slightest injection of oxygen into the political process that has been so deftly suffocated by the regime.

Now, Mugabe has said Zimbabwe will leave the Commonwealth if he is not treated as an equal. Since Mugabe has blamed Tony Blair for all of the country's problems, one is skeptical of Mugabe's bluff. Withdrawal might deprive him of his principal scapegoat.

Zimbabweans already hate Mugabe. Whatever brownie points he accumulated in the 1970s independence struggle, he's surely lost (and then some) but the way he's destroyed the country's economy and political system. Evoking 1979 doesn't do much for people who have no food, fuel (petrol) or medicine. One can only hope the military and police's loyalty to Mugabe falters in some way. Only then is there a possibility of success for an Ivory Coast- or Serbia-style popular uprising.
CHARLES TAYLOR TO STAND TRIAL?
Toronto's Globe and Mail ran a wires' story about former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo has said his country will turn over Taylor to face trial if Liberia asks. Taylor, who is exiled in Nigeria, has been indicted for war crimes by the international tribunal in Sierra Leone. At this point, it seems unlikely Liberia will make such a request as its interim leader, Gyude Bryant, fears Taylor's trial would jeopardize a fragile peace in the West African country.

The article also noted how the US Congress placed a US$2 million reward for Taylor's capture and rebuked Nigeria for offering asylum to the indicted war criminal. The Bush administration, who played a key role in negotiating Taylor's departure, distanced itself from the move.

Still, this concept of immunity is interesting. Some people are granted immunity from trial for crimes against humanity simply because they used to be head of state. The US opposed attempts to bring to justice former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The fundamental excuse they used was that Pinochet enjoyed diplomatic immunity because he is a former head of state. Of course, it's absurd to argue that a head of state, the highest law enforcement officer of the land, should be held to a lower standard than the ordinary citizen*.

But no such protestations were made when former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial. Nor for Panama's Gen. Manuel Noreiga, who languishes in an American prison. Do you think Saddam will be granted diplomatic immunity if coalition forces capture him? Of course not. Nor should he.


*-See my essay Immunity is just one letter away from impunity, May 28, 2003.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

FOUR QUESTIONS NOT TO FORGET
The president and his administration are counting on the short memory of the American people come Election Day 2004. While this is certainly not unprecedented nor, probably, unwise, it's the duty of us in the "Treason Lobby" (as Ann Coulter would say) to hold the administration accountable.

*

What about Afghanistan?
Remember there? In case not, it was the first place we took it upon ourselves to invade in order to save them with freedom and liberty. (At least the self-defense justification in that war wasn't totally laughable) We promised to re-build the country, but quickly forgot about it once Saddam replaced Osama and the Taliban as the new boogeyman. Like Iraq, insecurity is the biggest obstacle to any sustainable economic or human development.

But we've been in Afghanistan two years (vs seven months in Iraq) and security is not really improving. International aid agencies operate with great difficulty outside the capital and are often intentionally targeted by militias. The national government is really little more than the Kabul city government. An Afghan woman medical doctor observed that the six years of Taliban extremist and conservative policy has affected our men’s way of thinking negatively, noting that she even knew of literate men who had refused to allow their women to work outside their homes or continue their education.

If you ask an Aghani the simplistic question, "Was Afghanistan a better place under the Taliban?", you might not like the answer. It seems obvious to us from the comfort of our centrally-heated homes and well-policed American streets. But however oppressive they may be, most dictatorships offer a certain degree of security. When forced to choose between authoritarianism and chaos, historically people would rather have the former becuase it at least offers token stability. The key is to not force them to make that horrible choice, to make it so democracy is not seen as the antithesis of security. Why is it America's responsibility to fix Afghanistan? Because this is what we chose.

*

Who outed the CIA agent?
If a "soft on defense" Democrat had outed a CIA agent, there would be calls for inquisitions, impeachments and public hangings. (We do those things to a Democrat just because of his sex life)

Whoever outed the CIA agent (in relation to the Iraq-Niger hoax included in the president's state of the union address) did something patently illegal. They violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which can result in 10 years of prison. Former President Bush, father of the current president, said, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious, of traitors. If so, then the traitor(s) must be found.

*

What about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay?
The detention conditions at Guantanmo Bay was recently condemned by one of the most senior judges in Britain (our leading ally in the "coalition of the willing") who referred to Camp Delta as utter lawlessness and a monstrous failure of justice. He added that the detainees were beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts and at the mercy of victors. You'll note I referred to them as "detainees," not "the accused," because many of them have not even been formally charged with a crime! They can be held indefinitely without trial or access to lawyers and some have been for two years! It's simple. Let the detainees stand trial. If they're guilty, lock 'em up and throw away the key. Besides, if you try them, you can dangle a slightly more lenient sentence as a carrot for divulging information. If they're not guilty, release them some time between yesterday and the day before. This flagrant assault on the rule of law seriously undermines the administration's claims to be spreading freedom and liberty around the world. When you demand others live by moralizing rhetoric, you should be prepared to do so yourself.

*

Where are the weapons of mass destruction?
Some will immediately dismiss this as after-the-fact whining or as "fighting the last war." Some will say that only Saddam-lovers would ask this question. But this is really the most fundamental question that needs to be answered.

The present failure to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction means one of two things.

a) Saddam did not have any at the time of the invasion. If this is the case, the war was predicated upon false information. Whether this information was patently falsified or manipulated or simply outdated, we need to find out why. My suspicion is some combination of latter two. But whether it was an honest mistake or intentional one, an investigation should be held. Hopefully this will discredit the already dubious concept of "pre-emptive" war, since "pre-emption" requires darn good intelligence.

b) The other possibility is that the weapons of mass destruction are still around. If this is the case, then it is imperative for us to find them. If they're still floating about, then we need to account for them before they fall into the wrong hands.

So accounting for the weapons of mass destruction is crucial, because until that time, we're left with two unpalatable scenarios. Either we were misled about the war or the weapons of mass destruction are still out there to threaten Americans and others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD
The energy bill failed to clear the Senate, though Republicans promised to bring it up next year.

Regardless of the content of the energy bill, the way in which it was devised should have immediately made you suspicious. It was done by Republicans almost entirely in secret, as was Vice-President Dick Cheney's "consultations" with energy industry officials on the bill.

When Hillary Clinton was devising her health care plan back in the 90s, the GOP lambasted the secrecy in which it was done. They noted that a plan that would impact such a huge portion of the American economy and affect the lives of nearly every American should be done in public, with thorough debate and consultation. The mere fact of the secrecy overshadowed the actual content of the bill. After all, Republicans said, if it was such a great bill, then why can't it be defended in public? They were absolutely right.

The energy bill is also a plan that would impact a huge portion of the American economy and affect the lives of nearly every American. It should also have been done in public, with thorough debate and consultation. Thrusting an enormous bill on Democrats literally on the eve of the vote does not qualify as consultation. Maybe next year, Republicans will operate with the openness they called on Democrats to use a decade ago.

Secrecy is the enemy of democracy. It was in 1994 and remains so today.
ENOUGH ABOUT LIFE AND DEATH, REMEMBER HIS SEX LIFE!
I read last month how former President Bill Clinton brokered a landmark AIDS drugs deal. The BBC noted Four companies that produce generic Aids drugs have agreed to reduce the cost of the drugs for millions of people in developing countries and Nine countries in the Caribbean, as well as Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania will receive the low-cost medication. Interestingly, it added Analysts say the companies are able to provide the drugs at cheaper prices by cutting marketing and distribution costs because the treatments are so well known there is no need for them to be advertised.

As much as giant pharmaceuticals say they can't may their medication affordable because of "research and development," I'd love to know how much they spend on advertising versus R&D.

And when there is R&D, it's on drugs for "western" (rich nation) problems like Viagra rather than on "southern" (poor nation) problems like malaria and tuberculosis. This market-driven approach is not likely to change, absent a campaign of public pressure. This is why there needs to be better public funding of international research on "southern" diseases, since purely leaving it in the hands of the market is going to do nothing for the sick of the "southern" world.

Anyway, this is the sort of thing Bill Clinton is doing in his ex-presidency. But hey, it's important to keep things in perspective. Remember, he boinked an intern!!

The New Internationalist magazine did an expose on some of big pharma's practices.

Monday, November 24, 2003

ENEMIES' LIST 2003
I read a Reuters article about how the FBI is now spying on anti-war protesters. Surprisingly, some anti-war groups use civil disobedience to make their point. Some of these groups uiolent tactics like blocking traffic and tape recording the police arresting protesters.

Certain 'chicken littles' don't like this because of their pathological mistrust of the incorruptible government. According to Reuters, these wackos "expressed concern that monitoring protesters could signal a return to the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director and agents routinely spied on political protesters including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Sen. Edward Kennedy said the Bush administration had gone to extraordinary lengths to attack lawmakers who question the White House policy on Iraq. This is evidenced by a recent GOP commerical criticizing those who "are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." Kennedy called this mentality a fundamental flaw of the administration and asked How could we be fighting abroad to defend our freedoms and diminishing those freedoms here at home?

Strange country we live in. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton because he deceived the nation about getting oral sex from an intern. But when it comes to stuff like a war on civil liberties or deceiving the nation about something trivial like going to war, then the GOP is "rah rah GW!" At least Clinton's indiscresions only truly affected him and his family.

I see this as a bizarre way to prioritize but it must be because I'm young and naive. Or possibly unpatriotic.

Incidentally, the Democratic establishment opposes Howard Dean (and Dennis Kucinich but they don't think he has a chance to win) because the establishment fears it's going to be "another 1972" if Dean is nominated. That's a reference to the election where the perceived extremist (ie: he was a decent person and wanted to end a disastrous and grossly unpopular war) Sen. George McGovern was slaughtered at the polls by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

The country should remember the rest of the story about 1972. It was the only national election in American history where both members of the winning ticket resigned amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

Friday, November 21, 2003

WHICH IS THE REAL SATIRE?
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the best show on television. Not just the funniest, but the most informative. I feel like my brain has gained more watching 20 minutes of monologues and feature skits from The Daily Show than I do watching an hour of CNN (or three hours of the any of the other US news networks). I wonder what it says when a spoof of the news asks tougher questions than the real news.

The reason The Daily Show is more informative than the "real news" is simple: it gets to the heart of the matter. No obfuscation. No pained neutrality. No fear of retribution.

In my essay "Fair and Unbalanced," I wrote about how and why the establishment media takes great pains to nibble around the edges, rather than shooting straight to the core. It doesn't want to lose its prized access. A comedian like Stewart has no access to lose, so he no reason to fear making pointed, unvarnished observations. He asks the questions that the average person wants to know but high-powered journalists are afraid to ask.

For example, last night, he made same great comments about the gay marriage controversy. He pointed out probably seven or eight politicians (about half of whom were Democrats, incidentally). All of them either critized the recent state court ruling that legalized gay marriage in Massachussetts or pushed the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" in 1996. All of these rabid defenders of the venerable and sacred institution of marriage pointed out by Stewart were... divorced. Except for the man who signed the "Defense of Marriage Act": then-President Bill Clinton... who's respect for the sanctity of marriage is legendary.

Would Wolf Blitzer or Tom Brokaw have pointed this out?

When comedians are asking tougher and more revealing questions than journalists, maybe it's time for the Fourth Estate to do a little soul-searching.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

FAIR AND UNBALANCED
I've often written about how little the establishment media does to inform us, due in large part the unwillingness of many journalists, especially prestigious ones, to sacrifice their most prized commodity for truly revealing story: that most prized commodity being access. (What exactly is the point of such great access if you're not going to use it?) I've also written on the difference between objectivity and neutrality in journalism, two principles who are commonly, but falsely, equated.

Briefly, an objective report is one that fairly reflects the reality of the situation. A neutral report is one that gives equal weight to both or all sides of the issue. Objectivity is not always neutral.

This conundrum is often talked about by reporters who covered the wars in the Balkans. Most independent groups have established that about 90 percent of the atrocities in the Balkan wars were committed by Serb forces. This overwhelming preponderence was well-known by independent observers even during the fog of that war.

Yet, when journalists tried to OBJECTIVELY reflect this reality, many were told by their editors that is was not NEUTRAL. Thus, many of these reporters were compelled to actively search out cases of alleged malfeasance, no matter how small by comparison, by Bosnian forces. That way, a neutral balance (think a scale) would be maintained. Even though it did not fairly reflect who was doing most of the bad stuff.

The Clinton administration used this same tack to avoid taking any decisions about that war. "The massacres are terrible," you heard almost daily, "but atrocities are being committed on both sides." Some war crimes were committed by Tutsi rebels in Rwanda but taken in totality, how do they stack up against the nearly 1 million murdered by Hutu extremists in the genocide? Should Tutsi war criminals be punished? Of course. Should Tutsi war crimes be put on the same footing as the genocide? Absolutely not.

Think of it this way. A neutral report would give equal weight to the attacks on civil liberties by Attorney General Ashcroft and the human rights' situation in Saddam's Iraq. As odious as I find both the Patriot Act and the attorney general, I don't think an objective report would equate them with Iraq under Saddam. I vigorously condemn the war on civil liberties, but there is no objective comparison here. Contrary to what the slogan of Fox News [sic] implies, balanced is not always synonymous with fair.

I concede that this puts journalists and editors in a difficult situation. If a fair report effectively blames one political side, that side will accuse the journalist of bias or of conducting an anti-[insert party or ideology] witchhunt. It's even tougher when said target is conservative, since the "liberal media" canard has been repeated so often, it's now unquestioningly accepted as fact even by many moderates. Still it's worth noting that a hatchet job is not any more objective than being assiduously neutral.

Maybe if these moderates were exposed to some of the left-wing or progressive arguments that aren't covered, they'd feel differently, but that's exactly why the "liberal media" charge misses the point. Individual journalists may be liberal, but the institutions they work for (their employers) are first and foremost establishment. The more corporate the organization, the more establishment it will be.



All this came to my mind again this morning while I was listening to an NPR report on the energy policy conceived in secret by the Republicans. (As an aside, it's worth noting that the same Republicans who, rightly I might add, slammed the secrecy of Mrs. Clinton's health care deliberations are taking the exact same closed-door approach with something as critically important as energy policy)

The NPR report included sound bites from Republican legislators defending the plan and sound bites from Democratic legislators attacking it. Both groups said exactly what you expected them to say. But rather than analyzing the various statements and assertions, the NPR reporter simply concluded by summarizing what the politicians said and noting how the pundits think the vote might turn out. Taken as a whole, the report was neutral, impartial... and thoroughly un-informative. (And it's even more damning if you consider that, in my opinion, NPR is the BEST domestic news broadcast organization. Though it's worth noting that the Gingrich Republicans attacked NPR funding when they came to power, so perhaps the public broadcaster has been cowed into de-fanging itself?).

And this formulaic equation governs how politics and government is generally covered today by the establishment media. Give x seconds or column issues to quote the standard liberal. Give the same number to quote the standard conservative. Throw in a sports' analogy by a yapping head. Have the journalist re-state said positions. The end.

This is less informative reporting than a summary service for the politicians.

Monday, November 17, 2003

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE
Commonly-heard statement: Terrorism is the biggest problem in the world today.

Fact: Excluding other parts of the world, an average of twice as many Africans died every single day of 2002 because of HIV-AIDS than were killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Source: UNAIDS.
LET'S SUPPORT OUR TROOPS... FOR REAL, THIS TIME
Last night, 60 Minutes did an interesting story about the impact of the farcical "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. After 19 years and 51 weeks of exemplary service (as noted in his performance reviews), a distinguished was expelled for "homosexual conduct" only eight days before he could collect his pension. As a result, he estimates he will lose a million dollars in pension money over the next twenty years. This despite the fact that he never declared his sexual orientation, which is what "Don't Ask Don't Tell" supposedly targeted.

One apologists for "Don't Ask Don't Tell" explained that the policy was necessary because it protects the heterosexual soldiers right to privacy. As though the mere fact of having a homosexual colleague is a prima faece intrusion of privacy. But the argument is even more ridiculous for one simple reason. When you choose to join the military, you are volunteering to give up a certain degree of your rights. Men and women in uniform do not have the same free speech rights as civilians. Nor the same freedom of movement. If absolute privacy is a priority for you, don't volunteer for an organization where you have to share barracks, tents and showers with total strangers.

So despite 19.98 years of brave service, two bronze stars (one for heroism) and a Purple Heart, the military suddenly decides he's unfit to be a soldier because of his private life that he took great pains to keep private.

His service had to count for something. If he had killed the private [with whom he'd had a relationship], his service would've counted for something noted retired admiral John Huston, a former judge advocate general of the Navy who thinks "Don't Ask Don't Tell" should be ended.

Admiral Huston continued You can be openly gay, right now, and serve with the FBI, DEA, Secret Service. You can serve in the police departments and the fire departments in major cities across the country. You can serve in the military of Great Britain, Israel, Australia, Canada, France, Germany. You cannot serve openly and honorably in the armed forces of Belarus, Croatia, Russia and the United States of America... I think that we have the opportunity now. We've matured as a society. We're more sophisticated now in that we can change. And if you can change, then I think we have the moral imperative that we must change.

Maybe instead of simply mouthing the words "Honor our Heroes" and wearing ribbons to "support our troops," we should demand the military actually take concrete measures to do those things.

The full transcript of the 60 Minutes segment (what I posted earlier was a preview) can be found here.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

ANTIWAR LEFT MUST CONFRONT TERRORISM OR RISK IRRELEVANCE
...says the director of Amnesty International USA.

This backs up my longheld belief that if the left in general, and the Greens in particular, want to make an impact, they mustn't content themselves at simply whining about the odious Bush administration and leave it at that. Progressives must present concrete, POSITIVE alternatives to neo-conservativism before it destroys America and the world.

One thing that I've learned in following politics is that extremism requires a vacuum to survive. As bad as the neo-conservatives' policies are, it's something. They believe in something. Because the Democrats have been paralyzed by cowardice (and the Greens are too seized by fury, at this point, to offer a positive agenda), there is no counter-weight to it neo-conservatism right now. People will usually chose something good over something bad. But they will almost always chose something, however catastrophic, over nothing.

The anti-Bush opposition is primarily negative. We mustn't do this, we mustn't do that. This is understandable, consdering how dangerous the current policies are. But the policies are reacting to real problems. Until the anti-Bush opposition comes up with real alternatives, it will flounder. And the country and world risk being stuck with this administraiton for four more years. We can't afford the left's self-indulgent sniping any longer.

More than two years into the Bush administration's lurching war on terror, William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, is aiming some of his sharpest criticism not at the White House, but at the American political left. His message: Take on the terror threat, or risk irrelevance.

Read the interview at: Salon.com.

Friday, November 14, 2003

'IF WE CAN'T DO EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE, THEN WE MUST DO NOTHING ANYWHERE'
I'm presently reading the excellent book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. It addresses genocides in the 20th century and America's (non-)responses to them. I just finished the chapter on Bosnia and am just starting the one on Rwanda.

I've read a number of works about the Rwandan genocide but it still angers me. Although it's less historically reknown/notorious than the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide is by almost all accounts the most evily efficient slaughter in history. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million dead in 100 days, as though numbers can really do justice to the magnitude of the horror.

In the book and her appearances on TV book shows, Power has made one pointed repeatedly about the greatest obstacle human rights activists come across when trying to get the America to fight genocide and other massacres: the false either-or choice.

Basically, those who don't want to intervene frame the situation this way: either we risk tens of thousands of American* troops in an all out ground invasion of [place where genocide is occuring] or we do nothing. Since risking American lives, especially for something that's "only" a humanitarian mission, is never a vote-winner, the president of the day and his team always want to avoid doing anything.

[*-As foreign powers go, the French government's hands were far more bloody in the Rwandan genocide, as their culpability was dangerous close to active. But I refer to American govt and public here because Power concentrates on her adopted country]

This is a myth because there are always more than the two choices presented. There is always more than one way to intervene.

For example, there was a small UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda when the genocide started. Their mandate almost emasculated them, forcing them to be nothing more than "witnesses at a funeral" as one person put it. This was demanded by a gun-shy Clinton administration, still scarred from the experience in Somalia.

The genociders captured 15 UN peacekeepers, 10 from Belgium and 5 from Ghana, unable to fight back due to the absurd rules of engagement. Then the genociders executed a plan that would have a huge impact on the international reaction to the massacres. They released the West Africans but murdered the Belgians. Their plan was to scare the Belgians and other westerners to withdraw or weaken the UN mission, thus imitating the Somali warlords who scared the Americans out of the Horn of Africa. That way, they could remove even the powerless witnesses from their slaughters.

Belgium asked for the Security Council to reinforce the mission, without which the Belgians would pull out. The head of the peacekeeping mission, Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, asked the Council to double the size of his force, since he estimated the larger contigent would deter the massacres. Instead, the Council, under pressure from the US and France (each for different reasons), slashed the size of the mission by 90 percent. The Belgians and others pulled out. The genociders took their cue. Around million men, women and children were murdered.

The Clinton administration claimed that since committing US ground troops was inconceivable, there was nothing they could do. But this either-or, as always, was a sham. A convenient smokescreen. A few of the options, not involving US troops, that Clinton could've pursued were:

-The US could've pushed for the strengthening of the UN mission in Rwanda, rather than actively opposing it

-The US could've used jamming equipment to disrupt the broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines. This "hate radio" was broadcasting names, addresses and license plate numbers of those to be slaughtered. If the hate radio's broadcasts had been jammed, the genocide couldn't possibly have proceeded with the same ruthless, mechanical efficiency. It's likely that hundreds of thousands of lives would've been spared. When the deputy US ambassador to Rwanda (who, ironically, was ambassador to Kenya during the Nairobi bombing) suggested the jamming to her superiors in Washington, she was chided as naive. ""Pru, radios don't kill people. People kill people!"

-The US could've pushed for the expulsion of Rwanda's ambassador to the UN. A symbolic measure to be sure. But the administration barely even bothered with symbolic measures like this or even ritual condemnations of the violence. Rwanda wasn't on their radar screen in spring 1994.

-Gen. Dallaire asked the US to help transport heavy military equipment to the small number of remaining peacekeepers, since the US was one of the few countries with the logistical capacity to offer such help. The US bureaucracy instead haggled over details. Would the UN buy the equipment? Lease it? Who would pay for it to be shipped? If the administration had wanted this to be expedited, it would've been expedited. Instead, tens of thousands of people were being murdered during every week of this stonewalling..

These are only four of the options that could've saved the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Four options that entailed no risk to American military personnel. Yet they weren't done.

They weren't done because of the false either-or choice. The American people were fed the line, "Since America can't do everything everywhere, it should thus do nothing." In an part of the world not familiar to most people here and susceptible to pre-conceived notions, Americans trusted what they were told. They believed the either-or myth.

Contrast this to Liberia, another part of the world unfamiliar to most Americans and susceptible to pre-conceived notions. Although the US did not send ground troops, the Bush administration continuously condemned the country's then-dictator Charles Taylor. The Bush people excerted strong diplomatic pressure on its West African allies to push Taylor out of office. US ground troops weren't committed, but Washington did not side aside silently. Without US pressure, it's likely Taylor would still be in power rather than in exile, possibly facing international war crimes charges. When left to their own devices, the most influential African governments (Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal) tend to be very deferrential to other heads of state and prefer "silent diplomacy" even when it's clearly failed miserably. The example of Zimbabwe is a testament to that.

As Liberia shows, committing ground troops is not the only way to effectively intervene in a genocide or other brutal conflict. Don't let the political establishment tell you differently.

**

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
-The book We Wish To Inform You That We Will All Be Killed Tommorrow With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch is widely considered to be the definitive account on the Rwandan genocide. It is the most powerful book I've ever read. Fergal Keane's Season of Blood is also excellent. Gourevitch's book looks at the bigger picture while Keane's focuses in on the stories of individuals.

-For a briefer account of the Rwandan genocide, Samantha Power published a comprehensive yet concise article about it in the September 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

MR. POSSIBLE FUTURE COMMANDER IN CHIEF: ARE YOU A POWER MAC GUY OR A DELL DUDE? CNN WANTS US TO KNOW
Interesting story from The Washington Post. At a debate hosting the Democratic presidential candidates, a CNN producer reportedly pressured a young audience member into asking a vapid question, instead than the serious one she'd prepared.

The paper wrote, "Alexandra Trustman said [Monday] that a CNN producer called her on the morning of the Boston forum and suggested she ask about the Democratic presidential candidates' computer preferences. Puzzled by the request, she writes in Brown University's Daily Herald, she drafted a more complicated question about how the candidates would use technology."

CNN rejected her serious question and told her to ask the candidates if they preferred Macs or PCs. The 2004 equivalent of 'boxers or briefs?' "Mr. Possible Future Commander in Chief, are you a Power Mac Guy or a Dell Dude? Inquiring minds want to know." [yes, the reference to a certain kind of tabloid was intentional]

Since it was Rock the Vote event with an audience comprised mostly of young people, Trustman was informed that CNN, "thought it would be a good opportunity for the candidates to relate to a younger audience."

Every November, the establishment media ritualistically bemoans the perceived political apathy on the part of young people. But then when young people do try to get involved, they are treated with this sort of breathtaking condescension.

Miffed by the criticism of her softball question, Trustman deplored the media's laziness. Not one person bothered to inquire or find out the truth about the incident, she wrote.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Huge storms are made about the most overt cases of journalistic malfeasance like the Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal. But the media would be better off if it realized the cumulative damage these smaller cases of laziness, sloppiness and pandering do to journalism's credibility.
MAYBE HE SHOULD JUST STAY HOME
The upcoming visit of President Bush to London is wreaking havoc in the UK. The president's people ordered British officials to shut down central London. This angered the capital's mayor Ken Livingstone who fumed The ideas of some American security advisers that perhaps we should shut the whole of central London for three days, ignoring the economic consequences of that, I don't think that's got a chance at all.. The mayor noted that no British prime minister has been assassinated in 190 years so maybe they know something about security.

Officials banned a march that would've gone past Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, insisting it should go on in another part of London far away from the president. As The Guardian described in a piece entitled Bush Visit Set to Paralyse London, "Bush's arrival is likely to follow the pattern of his visit to Australia last month, when he was spirited away from protesters along empty streets cleared of ordinary people."

Livingstone, a staunch leftist, plans on hosting "a peace party" in another part of town with leading critics of the Iraq adventure, which has infuriated the mayor's arch-enemy Prime Minister Tony Blair. The mayor warned the police not to employ tactics similiar to those used when China's president visited in 1989, shortly after the Tianammen Square massacre.

British families of the Iraq war dead condemned the visit as insensitive and ill-timed.

City officials are also miffed that they, instead of the British government, are going to be stuck with the approximately $8.5 million bill... for a three-day visit. Britain's Foreign Secretary cautioned, "People are fully entitled to demonstrate, but what bothers me is the fashionable anti-Americanism that is around," earnestly confusing "anti-Americanism" with "anti-Bushism."

Accompanying the president across the Pond, and I'd love to know how much all this costs:
-Up to 250 Secret Service Agents
-Up to 400 advisors, aides and other bureaucrats
-15 sniffer dogs and their handlers
-5 people to prepare the president's food
-Two identical personal Boeing 747-200s and a third chartered jumbo
-One personal US Marine Corps Sikorsky Sea King helicopter and a second A VH-60N, a VIP version of the Black Hawk helicopter
-Two identical motorcades each made up of 20 mostly amored vehicles, including the president's converted Cadillac Deville
-The "football," a briefcase carried by a military aide which contains the launch codes for America's nuclear arsenal

And this all is for just one trip of only three days.

I don't know for how much longer our friends will put up with thanks like this. If Bush's visits cause so much uproar, maybe he should stay home.

Friday, November 07, 2003

THE 'LIBERAL MEDIA' CHARGE MISSES THE POINT

I was reading a BBC piece on Diane Sawyer's interview with Jessica Lynch. According to the piece, "the 20-year-old criticised the release of false information about her capture by Iraqi forces." And noted additionally, "She said she was grateful to the American special forces team which rescued her but, asked whether the Pentagon's subsequent portrayal of her rescue bothered her, she said: 'Yes, it does. They used me as a way to symbolise all this stuff. It's wrong.'"


Now obviously people can draw their own inferences regarding the Department of War's propaganda campaign. Lynch speaks with more authority than I certainly can. But my observation is this. You'd think that the so-called "liberal" media that has such an supposedly large ax to grind with the Republican administration would make a huge deal out the story. "Rescued soldier said Pentagon manipulated her story" would've been an easy headline, especially for a media allegedly so pre-disposed to hating the Bush administration. Yet the story is only a minor aside on the three network news websites, CNN.com and the Fox site (at least two minutes ago when i checked all of them). Or how about the story of how Saddam's regime made a last ditch offer before the invasion to let American inspectors scour Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Coverage of this in the "liberal media" will certainly lag behind Laci Petersen and Kobe Bryant.


The reason is because allegations about "liberal" bias, even if true in the case of individual journalists, entirely miss the point. Newspapers and newsmagazines, as institutions, tend generally to belong to the liberal establishment. But, they are establishment first and liberal second. When the two come into conflict, the establishment part always triumphs. Witness The New York Times vitriolic crusade against Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2000. A crusade essentially reversing Voltaire's maxim, "I may agree with what you say but will oppose to the death your right to say it."


Television news, as institutions, belong to the entertainment industry and are run as such. They are driven by ratings, not by any political agenda as such. Some would cite Fox News [sic] Channel as a counter but I disagree. FNC is filling a perceived vacuum. A lot of the people who really do believe the media as a whole has a liberal bias flock to FNC. If the perception was of a conservative media bias, FNC or someone else would invent a liberal alternative. It's just business.


The so-called mainstream news' media, print or broadcast, wants easily catergorizable voices. They want "standard liberals" and "standard conservatives" to make a prima face, superficial "balance," even if neither says anything substantive. Challenging readers/listeners isn't a priority and, in some circles, seems to be viewed as a DETRIMENT to ratings. Alan Keyes or Pat Buchanan is as unlikely to be given a fair treatment in a news story as Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky.


The New Republic ran an interesting piece on this very topic. Jonathan Chait, the article's author, notes a point I've made before. The Jayson Blair scandal (and its predecessors) serve as a excuse for the media to avoid true self-critique. They round on the most egregious offenders and pass this off as self-flagellation. When it's really a convenient diversion from the more fundamental problems of how journalism is practiced today. As long as coverage of politics is treated either as either celebrity fluff ("Does the candidate wear boxers or briefs?") or as a horse race ("Who's more likely to win?" rather than "Why we should care if x wins vs y?"), then political coverage will be increasingly irrelevant to the average citizen.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

REALITY CHECKS
News item from The Associated Press: Mauritanian head of state Maaouiya Ould Taya arrested opposition leader Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla on the eve of the Sahel nation's presidential elections for which both men are candidates. The incumbent's campaign officials have accused Haidalla of plotting to seize power if he lost the election. Haidalla was the country's leader from 1979-1984 until he was ousted in a military coup by... Maaouiya Ould Taya.


News item from The BBC: An opposition coalition in Guinea has announced that it will boycott the West Africa country's presidential election scheduled for next month. [Guinea] will end up like Sierra Leone, Liberia or Ivory Coast because if we cannot discuss with the man in power, we will fight him the way he wants threatened opposition leader Ba Mamadou, who insisted he was referring to street protests, not armed insurrection. The opposition insists the vote has already been rigged in favor of the incumbent head of state, Gen. Lansana Conte and that the party in power has blocked the opposition's access to the state media (the European Union concurring with the latter assertion). For his part, the Gen. Conte warned I will never accept that someone comes to power by force. Those who want power will have to wait until the elections and contest it under the banner of a political party. The head of state came to power in a 1984 military coup that overthrew a civilian regime whose members were thrown in prison.

News item from CNN. President Bush signed a controversial bill that would ban partial birth abortions. In remarks at the signing ceremony, the president said he hoped to "build a culture of life." "This right to life cannot be granted or denied by government, because it does not come from government -- it comes from the creator of life," added the president, who was once governor of the state that habitually murders (denies life to) far more of its citizens than any other state.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

WHY DON'T PEOPLE VOTE?
I was reading an essay by my sister about why you should vote. And I totally agree with her. Usually I write an essay of that sort every year. But this year, I thought about why that sort of thing happens. The most common explanation is that Americans are politically apathetic. Which is true, to a certain extent, I believe. However, it's worth asking WHY this is they are are apathetic. Part of it is related to lack of competition. In many areas, one party dominates so much that it suffocates the political process.

For example in my county, there were 11 races yesterday for town supervisor. Nine (82%) were unopposed. The other two pitted a pair of Republican candidates against each other. Admittedly, there were county wide races and referenda on the state constitution, but when so many races present no choice, it's hard to get excited.

Out of 38 town wide races (supervisor, town clerk, etc), only 8 were contested. That means nearly 80% of these town wide officers were elected without any competition. The marketplace of ideas loses some of its luster when most of the products have only one brand. Making a choice implies having a choice to make.

While lack of citizen participation is part of the problem of our not-quite-so-vibrant democracy, it's also a symptom.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

WHAT ABOUT THE BABY'S RIGHTS?
A local woman recently gave birth to a newborn baby with a blood alcohol level of 0.18. That's more than double the state's legal intoxication rate (0.08) for adults. Unfortunately, the sad case of the drunk newborn is pitting child welfare advocates and pro-abortion supporters against each other with the little baby stuck in the middle.

Originally, the Warren County (NY) district attorney wanted the woman to be sent to rehab. But the DA later learned that she'd already had similiar problems in a neighboring county. What I wanted to do was try to get her into in-house rehab, and release her from jail to get the treatment she obviously needs. We learned after she was produced in court, that she had other legal problems in Saratoga, related to similar legal conduct, noted the district attorney. The indication from Saratoga County officials is she was not going to rehab and had refused on a number of occasions with them.

Capital News 9 also reported that the woman "admitted in her sworn statement that this wasn't the first time she had gotten drunk while she was pregnant.

As a result, the district attorney decided to charge the woman with endangering the welfare of a child. Not surprisingly, this caught the attention of advocacy groups. Since the fetus isn't a child, according to pro-abortion forces, causing your fetus to become intoxicated is no big deal. Or at least not a form of child abuse. Accordingly, four dozen advocacy groups have petitioned the district attorney not to press the child endangerment charges against the woman.

The abortion debate is so tricky for one reason. A fetus may not be a full-fledged person independent of the mother, but it's not a body part just like any other. The fetus is the only part of a woman's body that can become its own person. In that way, it's qualitatively different from the tonsils or fingers. If the law does not recognize a fetus as a whole person with the same rights as the mother, then at least it should be given a special status somewhere between that of a full-fledged human being and that of an appendix.

There's just something about this case that seems wrong. Ideally, the woman would realize her mistakes (plural, remember) and voluntarily submit to counselling. But she's already rejected counseling for drinking during her previous pregnancies. And the NYCLU will argue that it's her right to do so. One advantage of prosecuting the woman is that, if convicted, it gives the system leverage to force her to submit to the counseling she so obviously needs. Without that stick, she can get plastered the next time she's pregnant and we're all supposed to feel sorry for her when it's her poor kids who will suffer.

There's one fact that no one can dispute. Her baby was born drunk. The baby was born drunk as a result of conscious actions she made. The baby may or may not have with fetal alcohol syndrome. Or maybe her next one will. Babies with fetal alcohol syndrome can have facial abnormalities, growth deficiency and evidence of central nervous system dysfunction, mental retardation, poor motor skills and hand-eye coordination. They may also have a complex pattern of behavioral and learning problems, including difficulties with memory, attention and judgment. All this because the baby's mom felt like getting plastered and, according to tne NYCLU, there's nothing society can do about it. Except, of course, pick up the tab for the baby's medical care, special education and Social Security disability.

No kid should have to suffer like that simply because the kid was "only" a fetus at the time. If we can't make her to get the help she needs so she doesn't condemn any more kids to that kind of life, then all our incessant prattle about how "kids are the future" will be exposed as a sham. If what this woman did was legal, then there's something wrong with the law.

Monday, October 27, 2003

MY DRINKING WATER IS TOO CLEAN!

In many places, "taxes" is a four-letter word. Especially in places where they are used to find libarys and skools.


In a neighboring community, the Republican town supervisor is about to be ousted because he is not as rabidly anti-tax as his Republican challenger. This despite a booming town economy and overflowing sales tax coffers. The incumbent also has the audacity to, very occassionally, not write blank checks to developers.


Have you ever noticed how the words "taxes" or "taxpayer" are employed as an emotion-triggering propaganda cues? Whenever someone uses the word "taxpayer," you know you are supposed to be outraged about something.


You might hear someone say, "We Americans are proud to support our troops." But on another topic, it might be, "We taxpayers shouldn't subsidize those people who choose to be unemployed."


I have a long essay planned in the back of my mind which I will entitle "The Republic of Consumers." Americans consider themselves first and foremost taxpayers, whereas the French, for example, consider themselves first and foremost citizens. Other countries have had revolutions to overthrow oppressive oligarchies. The American Revolution was a middle-class tax revolt. This paradigm is reflected in the nature of public discourse in those countries.


This is the mentality that subordinates the greater good to the individual good. This is why many Americans hate taxes for its own sake.


Sure, no one actually likes paying taxes. It's losing money that we'd otherwise get in our paychecks. But, the fallacy is viewing out of context. Yes, we pay taxes. But we also get services for those taxes. Debating about which services should be funded by public money is a legitimate question. But removing that context and simply saying "taxes are bad," that is disingenuous. It's like doing a cost-benefit analysis while totally omitting the benefit half.


I've read tens of thousands of opinion columns, editorials and letters to the editor. Hundreds have bemoaned taxes. Candidates and parties base campaigns on lowering taxes.


But of those thousands of pieces I've read, no one's ever complained that their drinking water is too safe. No one's ever cried that their roads are too smooth, that crime is too low or that the fire department responds to blazes too quickly.


In this case, it's the people who are talking out of both sides of their mouthes. In 1995, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the mistake of taking the voters at their word. The GOP ran a campaign based on less government. The people voted for them. The shock occured when Gingrich actually implemented that plan. He shut down the government in his budget dispute with President Clinton. He figured that since his party was elected based on reducing government, shutting it down wouldn't be a big deal.


Gingrich learned a painful (for him) lesson. Americans hate government in theory, but not in practice. They hate "the guys in Washington" but their own guy gets re-elected 90% of the time or more. They hate "pork" so long as it's other people's programs, not their own. They hate taxes but love the programs that are provided with those taxes.


Everyone wants a free lunch, but in the real world, the money always has to come from somewhere.