Friday, May 30, 2003

It was announced over the winter that our professional baseball team had decided to leave town and move to Bangor, Maine. I was certainly sad when I read the news, but it hasn't really hit me until lately. Especially, last Monday night when I was biking home from work. My work is kitty corner to the baseball field. It was warm. As I was biking down the little road from my office toward the main street, I saw the park in the background. There was a smell in the air. I can't exactly describe the smell, only that it was the same one I smelled at the ballpark countless nights over the last several years. Not a smell of hotdogs or popcorn, but the smell of a languid summer evening. A languid summer evening where being at the ballpark seemed the most natural thing in the world. As I got closer, I half expected to see the illuminated floodlights at the stadium. With that smell, it only seemed obvious that there should be a game. But it was pitch black. There was no light. There was no game. And then it hit me. There will be no baseball anymore. And I was sad.

Baseball is not my favorite sport. That honor goes to soccer and then to hockey. But, baseball is different than those other sports. Hockey is frantic and energetic. Soccer may not always be fast-paced, but the action is constant and you'd better pay attention lest you miss what might be the game's only goal. Baseball is different. It is calm, relaxing. It's not just about the game on the field, it's about being in the park. Baseball is a crappy game to watch on television, but it's an incomparable experience at the ballpark. Different than the adrenaline rush of a hockey or football crowd, but exquisite in its own way.

Going to baseball games had become an integral part of my summer. They played about 40 home games a year, of which I typically attended anywhere from 15-25. So their departure will fill a void in three months of the year. I was sad, but not surprised. Attendance was not good. There are too many things to do in the summertime in this area, too many things to spread around the entertainment dollar. Baseball had to compete with amusement parks and swimming and boats and hiking and biking and concerts in the park and.... I attended numerous games on gorgeous Sunday afternoons where only a few hundred fans showed up; I went to too many of those games to blame the management. They did as much as they could. They won 2 championships and were in the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years, yet attendance was never good. They stuck with my town for 8 seasons and tried to make it work, but it just didn't. I don't blame them. I don't blame them, but I'm still sad.

I'll miss the summer evenings in the fresh air. I'll miss the race around the bases between the mascot and a randomly chosen little kid; this was wonderful because although the mascot lost every time, he seemed to find a different way to lose each time and you paid attention even though you knew who was going to win. I'll miss the rush toward the concession stands every time the "beer batter" struck out (half priced alcohol!). I'll miss free hot dogs and hamburgers in the 8th inning of the last game of a homestand. I'll miss singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame (which, fortunately, was only occassionally replaced with God Bless America). I'll miss being able to go to a baseball game, eating dinner and having the whole night cost $15 or less. Most of all, I'll miss the experience of going to the ballpark anytime I wanted.

Adirondack Lumberjacks: 1995-2002. RIP.


So in the honor of the Adirondack Lumberjacks 8 seasons, here are the my most compelling memories of Jacks baseball (bearing in mind that I missed almost all of the '95 and '96 seasons in Africa)...

1) Game 5 of 1999 quarterfinal at Albany. The deciding game was delayed for over 2 hours by rain but they got it in. It was masterfully pitched and had awesome defense, considering the conditions. The game ended after 1 AM and I listened to every minute on the radio, collapsing in deflation after the final out. It was the most compelling game I've ever listened to on the radio.

2) Game 3 of 2000 finals vs Duluth-Superior. The park was jam packed. The Jacks completed a 3 game sweep of the heavily favored opposition, thus demonstrating that old baseball axiom that awesome pitching beats awesome hitting. Reinforcing the down-home atmosphere is outfielder Keith Goodwin who, after the trophy presentation, goes into the stands and high-fives fans as they leave.

3) Late August 2002 regular season game vs Quebec. This game was different from the others in that hardly anyone was there. The game's start was delayed for 2 1/2 hours because of rain. But because it was in the heat of a pennant race, the management was determined to play the game come hell or high water (pun intended). They didn't want to lose a playoff spot by 1/2 game because of an unplayed contest. So I watched the game, with about 25 other people. The game went fast because the ump had a big strike zone because he was cold and wet and wanted to go home. We could hear every word that was said not only in the stands, but on the field, including the Quebec manager's constant bitching and eventual tirade that led to his ejection. Even though there were at most two dozen other people in the stands, even though it was only a regular season game, even though I was wet and cold, or perhaps BECAUSE of those things, I never felt more a part of a community of fans than that soaked evening.

4) Game 5 of 2002 quarterfinal vs Quebec. The game was back and forth but the climax was incredible. The home side led by a run with 2 outs in the top of the 9th in this deciding Game 5. Men on second and third. The batter hits a line drive to the gap. The center fielder dives. If he makes the grab, we win the series. If not, the other team takes the lead. He makes the catch. Not just any catch, but a highlight reel catch worthy of Sportscenter. We advance and it leads to...

5) Game 5 of 2002 semifinal vs New Jersey. We were banged up, they were healthy. They had the largest budget in our division and we had the smallest. They had great pitching, ours supposedly lacked depth. They drew huge crowds, we drew small ones. It was expected to be no contest. And when the bad guys won the first two games in New Jersey, everything seemed according to script. Except we won the next two games at home, including Game 4 against one of their former major league pitcher. Game 5 had all the drama worthy of a series decider. NJ's other former major league pitcher had spun a masterful game, but our 23 year old rookie, who'd missed an earlier start due to injury was even more so. He had a shut out going into the 9th, with us leading 1-0. He walked the leadoff batter in the 9th and was replaced by our theretoforth brilliant closer. Our closer got two outs but was rattled by the umpire's erratic strike zone ("Hey ump, nail down that plate. It keeps moving on you!") and walked the next two batters to load the bases. The count was 3-2, the pitch was a fastball. The batter connected. It went into the gap in left-center. Except this time there was no Sportscenter-esque catch. 3 runs scored. The air was let out of the balloon. We didn't score in the bottom of the 9th. They won the series, and eventually the championship. It was as emotionally drained as I've ever felt after watching a sporting event.

For us, it was our team's last game, even though this wasn't officially confirmed until months later (although most of us knew it was possible). We were one strike away. I'm a Red Sox fan so that feeling isn't unfamiliar. But as painful as 1986 was, at least Red Sox fans had 1987.

'News' is, by definition, new. By that standard, very rarely does 'news' every come out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or at least that's the conclusion I've come to. Palestinian terrorist bombing kills innocent Israeli civilians. Outraged Israeli authorities respond by targetting terrorists and causing "collateral damage" or by closing the borders to all Palestinian workers. This provokes even more outrage and anger among the Palestinians. Young Palestinians who are not only pissed off but, due to the border closure, can not get to their jobs in Israel proper; they thus become pissed off young men with a lot of time on their hands. Etc, etc, etc. Really, hardly anything ever changes. It's the same cycle. The "leaders" on both sides always read from the same script. Only the names of the places targeted and the names and number of victims changes from incident to incident. It's an infernal cycle.

But worse, there is little hope of anything changing in the foreseable future. The only possiblity for real change is if both of two things occur...
1) Arab governments stopping the use of the problem as a smokescreen to deflect their domestic population's attention away from their own repression and corruption
2) A mass case of collective amnesia across Israeli and Palestinian socieities (or the arrival of the local equivalents to Mandela and DeKlerk or a mass uprising against the leaders who insist on brute force to solve problems, even though brute force hasn't fundamentally changed anything there in three decades)

Progress would require BOTH, not just one, of these things to happen. Sadly, neither seems likely, especially the first. And getting rid of the first is critical because it fans the flames of the second. I honestly believe that if the conflict were simply between the Israelis and Palestinians, free of outside pressure, that they'd come to an arrangement. Then, even if you get leaders who have the courage to take a gutsy stand, they risk getting assassinated by extremists in their own country like Rabin or Sadat.

Yet the area goes on and on with nothing really changing and innocents dying and the ordinary people just wanting to live regular lives but unable to because they are misled and betrayed by their so-called leaders, be they elected or self-appointed. Both extremes are convinced that it is the conciliators who are causing the problem; to them, their lack of success is not due to the failure of violence but due to the failure to use ENOUGH violence.

All this while most people just want to be able to travel to find a job without facing AK-47s pointed at them at a checkpoint or go to a restaurant with their family without being afraid a bomb will blow them to bits. It's really sad because most people, anywhere in the world, don't want.much more than that. If war is hell, then what does it say about the people who instigate war.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

I saw a movie at the library tonight called The Pinochet Case by the Chilean director Patricio Guzman. It was a documentary partly about the judicial procedure that lead to the house arrest in London of the former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and partly interviews with victims and relatives of victims of Pinochet's regime.

I will not bother speaking of the acts committed under his regime. Much has already been written about these things far more poignantly than I could muster up. But I will comment on some of the stuff I heard during this film.

The documentary mostly interviewed torture victims of Pinochet's regime, relatives of victims as well as lawyers who fought for Pinochet's indictment in Spain and extradition from Britain. But the director also interviewed several prominent British Pinochet supporters and showed large extracts of their comments.

One of the points most often made by the Pinochet supporters was that heads of state and formershould be immune from such proceedings. In fact, that diplomatic immunity was the foundation of Pinochet's defense against the charges. Leaders of countries have diplomatic immunity, so do former leaders.

This struck me as both bizarre and telling. Telling because they didn't argue his innocence, that he didn't do what he was accused of doing, that he wasn't responsible. Pinochet's apologists instead contended that he shouldn't have to answer. That he's not accountable for anything he may or may not have done or been responsible for.

Pinochet's supporters argued that no head of state or former head of state should have to answer for crimes they may have committed or been responsible for during their rule. Being or having been a head of state gives you immunity. This is bizarre and totally antithetical to any concept of rule of law.

Ordinary citizens have to obey the law or else they have to answer in court for what they've done. The head of state is the chief executive, responsible for making sure the laws are fairly executed. Unlike the ordinary citizen, the head of state swears an oath to protect the constitution, faithfully execute laws, etc; if he’s a military man, like Pinochet, he takes another oath as well.

By taking that oath, the head of state is promising to hold himself to a HIGHER standard than the ordinary citizen who swears no such oath. Simply put, how can a head of state demand that the laws be enforced if he is unwilling to subject himself to those same laws himself?

While one might conceivably argue that current heads of state must have temporary immunity so that affairs of state are not put behind personal litigation against the president, there is no such public interest in protecting former heads of state. Just because you instigate a military coup and violently seize control of a country, that gives you lifetime immunity from any prosecution? I understand why the coup leaders favor such laws because it's criminals like them who need such immunity. What's less compelling is why countries supposedly committed to the rule of law go along with such things.

Universal jurisdiction is the principle that certain crimes are so odious, so much of affront to humanity, that any country should be able to try those crimes. These are typically the worst offenses like genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” torture and other crimes against humanity. In this case, a Spanish judge contended that accusations that Pinochet was responsible for torture in Chile should be heard in a Spanish court, because Chilean courts refused to hear them. The Spanish Supreme Court agreed and asked Britain to extradite Pinochet (who was in London for medical treatment). The case was bolstered by the fact that many of Pinochet’s victims were Spanish citizens and, if I remember well, his regime was suspected of targeting Chilean opposition figures exiled in Spain.

One of the arguments against universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity is that it’s a violation of national sovereignty. Yet blanket immunity for former heads of state is a violation of the most basic principles of the rule of law, ie: that the law applies equally to everyone. Further weakening the sovereignty argument is that most countries have voluntarily and of their own free will agreed treaties promising not to tolerate these worst practices.

The present system of international tribunals for specific wars has been much maligned as a precursor to the despised, by the pro-sovereignty folks in this country, International Criminal Court. That many of these pro-sovereignty folks see nothing wrong in violating the sovereignty of other nations is, to them, beside the point. Nevertheless, it is ironic that those tribunals have functioned precisely BECAUSE of the willful cooperation of the countries involved.

The International Tribunal for Rwanda and the government of Rwanda have worked together to try genocide suspects, even if the government has become impatient with the slowness of the tribunal. The War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone was set up in cooperation with the authorities in Freetown. Even in the case of the International Tribune for the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic was not sent to The Hague by NATO Troops but by the Serbian government.

The most vocal supporters of this concept of immunity for current and former heads of state have been conservatives. The most vehement pro-Pinochet supporters in Britain have been Margaret Thatcher and other Conservatives close to her. Pinochet has his supporters in this country as well, not many of the left I’m certain.

Yet, those people were not screaming about “head of state immunity” when Pres. Bush the elder invaded Panama to arrest its dictator Gen. Manuel Noreiga. They weren’t screaming “head of state immunity” when Ken Starr was pursuing Bill Clinton. And I GUARANTEE you no one in this country or in Britain will be screaming “immunity” if Saddam is ever found alive.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

I've come to truly believe in the adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." It seems like some of the worst ideas come not from those people who are totally ignorant about what's going on. Rather they come from those who know a little more than the ordinary person but far less than what is necessary to make a coherent analysis and remedial proposition (ie: solution to fix the problem).

I've already expounded on my critiques of the anti-war movement. I didn't criticize them as much as the pro-warriors for the simple reason that I believe the justifications given for war were not only disingenuous but insufficient even if they were taken at face value. Nevertheless, if you've been reading this FOD, you know I've called both sides on their intellectual shortcomings, oversimplifications and hypocrisy. I call it as I see it.

Most of the anti-war activists were a little more aware of some of the more sordid aspects of American foreign policy history than the average person. A caveat: I am speaking exclusively of those in my area that I know personally (although I suspect it applies to the movement in general). As a result, they used these nuggets of information in their opposition to the war. They felt more informed than the "ignoramuses" on the other side and made sure their smugness did not go unnoticed.

We supported Saddam, after all. After all, there was that infamous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand in the early 80s. Somehow, this "proved" that the war was a bad idea. I really didn't follow the logic. Geopolitical alliances change all the time.

We supported this, that or the other bad guy during the Cold War, my anti-war friends often pointed out. These are legitimate points in response to specific assertions. For example, if someone said "We're getting rid of Saddam because America always supports liberty and freedom," it would be fair to ask how exactly Pinochet, the Shah, Mobutu and apartheid South Africa fit into that scheme. Nevertheless, what happened during the Cold War did not prove or disprove the perceived need to invade Iraq.

While these events may cast doubt on America's credibility as the guardian of paragon and virtue, the question of invading Iraq should be examined on its own merits. Would a unilateral invasion of Iraq be bad if done by the US but ok if done by Iran or Russia or China? The justness of the invasion failed on its own merits because its sole real purpose was one country arbitrarily deciding on "regime change" in and conquest of another that had done nothing to it or any of its allies (Kuwait was not our ally when Saddam invaded and Iran was our enemy). Even the alleged reason of weapons of mass destruction has yet to be vindicated by events.

But this essay is more about the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" principle.

During the Iraq war, when they were all supposedly angered about the effect of the invasion on Iraqi civilians, I circulated several emails/essays about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka: DRC or Congo-Kinshasa) amongst my progressive/environmentalist friends. I did this to point out that Iraq was not the only place in the world where civilians were suffering but it was the only place in the world where my activist friends were pissed off (supposedly) about civilian suffering.

I often told them, "If you're concerned about the effect of the Iraq war on civilians, then also be concerned about the effect of the Congolese war on civilians there too. Or the Liberian war or the Sri Lankan war." I did this to gently underline out the hypocrisy of their position. Mainly though, it was to point out that in reality, they were protesting not against the impact of the war on civilians, but against the Bush government. The US isn't involved in the DRC war so they didn't seem too upset about civilians there and it annoyed me. Sure, they said the DRC situation was "unfortunate," but they weren't screaming about it on the streets or in letters to the editor. If I couldn't make them care about the fate of civilians in central Africa, I wanted them at least to be honest about what they were protesting.

Apparently I got through to at least one person. At the last meeting of our local Green Party, our chairman had invited the husband of a friend to speak. He was a refugee from the Republic of the Congo (aka: Congo-Brazzaville); it borders Congo-Kinshasa but suffered through its own civil war (for oil) in the late 90s. Our chairman wasn't sure the speaker was going to be able to make it due to scheduling reasons. But we budgeted a spot for him just in case.

One of our members is EXTREMELY far left and bitches about EVERYTHING. Because he knows some of the more sordid aspects of American foreign policy history, he therefore thinks he's superior to the "ignorant idiots" who populate this town (of which he speaks disparagingly all the time, much to my agitation).

This is the definition of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Because he (we'll call him Morally Superior Guy) knows 1/3 of the story, he thinks he's a genius because most other people know 1/5 or less. He's 23, which is not surprising since it's often people that young who have such a large superiority complex.

Bearing in mind that our group is entirely white, the conversation went something like this...

CHAIRMAN: Unfortunately, it looks our invited speaker was not able to make it today.

MORALLY SUPERIOR GUY: If I were him, I know I'd be afraid of a bunch of white guys too given what they did to his country.

ME: Perhaps, but the Congolese have a pretty fair job of killing themselves.

MORALLY SUPERIOR GUY: Yeah, but they're doing so for western oil companies.

Bear in mind that Morally Superior Guy probably couldn't tell Congo-Brazzaville from Congo-Kinshasa from Ethiopia on a map. Morally Superior Guy also probably couldn't tell you the name of most prominent oil company in Congo-Brazzaville is, even though he invoked oil in his argument and even though that company is implicated in what is likely the biggest corruption trial currently going on in the world today. Morally Superior Guy probably couldn't even tell you what country that oil company is from. Morally Superior Guy certainly couldn't tell you who is the Congo-Brazzaville head of state or when it became independent or anything about its history. But Morally Superior Guy doesn't need to be bothered with such details that might trouble his pre-conceived notions. He's an angry young man and something like ambiguity might only complicate his fury.

I guess it's because I've actually been to and lived in Africa that I don't see things in such comfortingly black and white terms. The place is neither an irredeemible hell hole nor an Eden trampled only by the evil westerners. Of course, reality has a way of interfering with comfortable generalizations. Morally Superior Guy doesn't understand this yet. Hopefully he will someday.

-Congo-Brazzaville is in central Africa, separated from Congo-Kinshasa by the Congo River. It is on the west bank of the end of the river.

-The main oil company in Congo-Brazzaville is Elf, presently implicated in a huge corruption trial in France. (I'll refrain from ranting about the evils of Elf)

-Congo-Brazzaville's dictator is Denis Sassou-Ngeusso, who was in power from 1979 until, I believe 1991, when he was succeeded by Pascal Lissouba in democratic elections. Although an elected civilian president, Lissouba's most famous remark on his concept of democracy was, "You don't organize elections in order to lose them." Lissouba was also hostile to Elf and wanted more national control of the oil industry, which did not endear him to Paris. A civil war between the two erupted in 1997 which was eventually won by Sassou's forces.

-The country has been legally independent since 1960, when it ceased being a (formal) French colony.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

I was reading a review today in Foreign Affairs of Fareed Zakaria's new book The Future of Freedom.

According to the review, one of the two theses of the book is Zakaria's contention "that many developing societies initially fare best under what he calls 'liberal authoritarian regimes'..."

The review observes:
Zakaria argues that the best way to turn developing countries into liberal democracies is by fostering constitutional liberty rather than democracy. If electoral democracy is established in a society before it has achieved constitutional liberty, it is likely to either end up as an "illiberal democracy" (like Russia) or degenerate into fascism or populist authoritarianism (as Germany and Italy did between the world wars). He speculates that if elections were held now in many Middle Eastern or North African countries, they would be won by fundamentalist parties that would proceed to destroy whatever modicum of liberty exists and probably eliminate future elections as well.

Of course, in this context, "liberal" is used not in the American sense (left of center) but in the classical sense (promoting personal and economic freedom).

It's really an interesting argument. And one not entirely without merit. Zakaria is right that a truly democratic Middle East would likely place in power anti-democratic Islamists. I've long been troubled by the paradox of what happened in Algeria. After a long period of one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN) followed by military rule, the generals allowed free elections in the early 1990s. The fundametalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of a landslide election victory when the military cancelled the poll. The Islamists responded by launching a brutal guerrilla terrorist civil war that's claimed tens of thousands of lives, both in Islamist attacks and army retaliatiatory excesses. (Ironically, it's the kind of war the ruling FLN had successfully waged in expelling the colonial French)

This is the ultimate paradox of democratic liberalism. What happens if the people freely and democratically choose a group whose stated objectives are unfree and anti-democratic? I'm not exactly sure what the solution is. My best guess is that maybe a compromise is something along the lines of what goes on in Turkey. Basically, they have a fairly free political system with both democracy and constitutional liberty. But the military acts as a check on extremist tendencies. For example, in 1997, the army pressured the elected Islamist government to resign because the military felt the government was straying too far from the vehemently secular principles of the Turkish republic.

Such military paternalism is not a particularly satisfactory solution. It is certainly has to potential to be very problematic for reasons which you don't need a PhD in political science to envisage. But in some circumstances, it may be the least unpalatable compromise. Is such a system the only medium between a brutal military dictatorship and a repressive or omnipresent (initially popular) theocracy like Taliban Afghanistan or Khomeni's Iran?

Nevertheless, I find two gaping flaws in Zakaria's argument. He contends that many societies may initially fare better under liberal authoritarian regimes. First is the definition of liberal authoritarian. That he cites Pinochet's Chile as an example seriously undermines his assertion. Cote d'Ivoire under Félix Houphouët-Boigny or Tito's Yugoslavia might be better examples of what he intends; this is further bolstered by the state of those two countries a decade after Houphouët's and Tito's deathes respectively.

The other hole in the argument in the premise "many societies may initially fare better under liberal authoritarian regimes" is the word initially. This is based on the dubious presumption that the benevolent dictators will be wise enough (and modest enough) to transition to democracy when appropriate. It's a naively optimistic assumption at best; dangerous at worst, especially if policy will be based on this.

Two of the countries cited by Zakaria as models of liberal authoritarianism's success are Chile and South Korea. Yet the South Korean regime accepted democratic elections only AFTER massive protests made pressure on them unbearable. In 1988, Chile's Pinochet held a referendum on whether or not he should remain as head of state; a yes/no vote. He lost the referendum. But before he could declare the results of the poll meaningless, he was pre-empted by the head of the Chilean air force (I believe) who expressed his support for the transition. If not for this uncharacteristic break in military solidarity, Pinochet almost certainly would've ignored the plebiscite. This certainly does not auger well for Zakaria's assumption of liberal authoritarism being temporary and such benevolent dictators knowing when the country's "matured" enough for democracy.

He makes a compelling argument that illiberal democracy is not better than liberal authoritarism. Russia, Pakistan (under civilian rule) and other places certainly demonstrate that there's more to a democracy than just election day. What's less clear is whether Zakaria's liberal authoritarianism will ever have the limited shelf life he intends, without public pressure.

Nevertheless, the book looks worth a read if you have time. It many not be entirely on the mark but it seems to make many individual points worth considering. If you don't have time, the review nicely sums up his principle arguments.
... or else we'll flee to Oklahoma.

Earlier this week, the Democratic members of the Texas House of Representatives fled (literally) to Oklahoma to block the legislature from acting on a re-districting proposal. It was dubbed by The Daily Show as "Austin Powerless."

If Texas is anything like New York, the state re-districting process is a joke. Cynics refer to it as "the incumbent protection plan." It's nothing less than legalized gerrymandering. In NY, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate Republicans collude to draw districts that protect each chamber's members so as few competitive districts are created as possible. Assembly Democrats are more than happy to screw their fellow party members in the Senate and Senate Republicans do the same. I've heard it said that the New York state legislature has a lower turnover rate than the Chinese parliament. If Texas' process is half as bad as New York's, it's a bad joke.

What should be done everywhere is what Iowa does. They set up a statewide commission to draw fair legislative boundaries. It is not a coincidence that Iowa has more competitive Congressional races than California, despite having a fraction of the number of seats. But this takes too much sense and transforms re-districting into a process which benefits the voters rather than the politicians. Naturally, the politicians aren't keen on this.

The situation shows that the worthlessness of the Democratic Party is not limited to the federal version. Much like their comrades in Washington, Texas Democrats choose to abandon their constitutional responsibility rather doing their job. The only difference is that when Texas Democrats flee their duties, they do so literally.

The Texas Democrats have made themselves into a satire of themselves: humorous, but irrelevant. But the federal Democrats have been like that for years... except not nearly as amusing. They long ago prostituted their principles for a semblance of electoral success; now they don't even have that. They've proven they are not up to the task of being an effective opposition party. It's time to get rid of them and give others a chance to uphold the Founding Fathers' desire for checks and balances.

The Texas farce is emblematic of why we need to break the two party duopoly. One party tries to do bad stuff. The other party sits by (or runs away) rather than trying to stop them. Vote Green. Vote libertarian. But for heaven's sakes, don't waste your vote on the invisible Democrats or enable the Republicans to piss off the three countries in the world we haven't yet alienated.

Democrats will counter the pro-third party argument by saying that if they'd been in power, they wouldn't have done the bad things in the first place. This is pretty far-fetched. The Texas Democrats controlled that state's House of Representatives since after the civil war. This means that they've almost certainly gerrymandered for almost the last century and a half to the same degree as the GOP is doing now. They're just pissed off they have to cede access to the honeypot to the other party for a little while.

And even if you accept the argument that "if the Dems been in power, they wouldn't have done the bad things in the first place," it's still a big indictment of their total lack of any sense of duty. An elected official has the obligation to do his job regardless of whether his party is in the majority or minority or somewhere else. If Democrats are going to stay in the corner and pout just because they lost the election, does that really inspire your trust? It's even more contemptful since they've cravenly stood by idly while the administration arbitrarily invades strategically-placed banana republics and pursues a war against civil liberties.

Vote for the Spongebob Squarepants Party for all I care, but don't perpetuate the two parties who've choked off the once vibrant political life in this country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Today, I read an article in The East African*. The paper is run by the same group that publishes Kenya's prestigious Daily Nation. The piece opened, "Japan and the United States, the two countries providing the largest sums of development aid, rank last in the actual helpfulness of their aid policies, according to a new index+ measuring rich nations’ generosity toward Africa and other poor parts of the world." This fascinated me because it considered not only how much aid countries were spending, but also the impact of other policies on development.

Anti-aid campaigners argue that aid is ineffective because governments receiving it are corrupt. There is certainly an element of truth to this charge and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Those campaigning for more transparency from recepient governments are correct to do so. Everyone agrees on the importance that aid actually benefit the people it's intended to help. Some of the continent's more enlightened leaders have realized that fundamental change can not take place without improved self-governance. That is why three leaders (Abdolaye Wade of Senegal, Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki) are pushing the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) plan which envisions a new relationship between Africa and the west, along with continental self-policing on issues of transparency and good governance.

However, it's equally disingenuous to argue that corruption and bad governance are the ONLY factors in Africa's underdevelopment (and let's be frank: even an Africophile like myself has to concede that the continent's problems dwarf those of any other region).

Botswana, for example, is almost universally acknowledged as a political and development model student in Africa. It has a decent economic system. A free and fair political system where the losers gracefully concede defeat, an achievement quite rare on the continent. And it has been that way since independence in the 1960s Yet in the UN's Human Development Index, Botswana ranks only 126th. Just ahead of rogue state Myanmar (Burma). Behind states that not long ago suffered devastating civil wars like Guatemala and El Salvador.

The bottom 27 states on the index are all African. Several of those bottom 27 have democratized (to varying degrees), as pressured by the west, and scrupulously followed the International Monetary Fund's economic fiats. Such countries include Mozambique, Senegal, Zambia and Uganda. They've done what they're told but they're not seeing much in the way results. Sure, it's easy from a macro-economic perspective to say "be patient." It's even easier if you're well-fed and work in a nice air-conditioned office in Washington, New York or London. Macro-economics is not an edible commodity, nor will it protect you from the weather.

The article points out some of the hurdles that even the relatively well-governed states have to face. And it also shows that while increasing foreign development (non-military) is a good idea, it will achieve very little progress without systematic reform to the outside structural obstacles faced by even well-intentioned leaders of developing countries. Specifically, the biggest one being the imposition of homogenized fundamentalist free trade policies (with loopholes only for Europe and North America).

More aid money would help. But if given the choice, I think most developing countries would rather have the same amount of aid (or even less) with much fairer trade policies.

+-"In addition to the amounts of foreign aid they provide, countries are evaluated in terms of their trade, environmental, investment, migration and peacekeeping policies. The index rewards hospitable immigration policies, generous contributions to peacekeeping operations, and sizable direct investments in poor countries.The index penalises financial assistance to corrupt regimes, prohibitive barriers to imports from developing countries, and policies harmful to the global environment."

*-If the link has expired by the time you read this, go to the paper's archives, go to 5 May '03, click on the features' section and look for the article, "Japan, US ranked 'least helpful' to poor countries.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

A follow-up to my last entry.

Everyone knows cigarettes are bad, even those who smoke them. Many politicians can get huge brownie points for attacking smoking itself, Big Tobacco or both. So why is it that they just don't ban cigarettes?

Except for elected officials in a few states, it's not loyalty to Big Tobacco. That loyalty went out the window with the big lawsuits initiated by states' attornies general. It's not that they're afraid to impose their big government morality on what's essentially an exclusively self-destructive vice. They have no compunctions about banning marijuana.

Why won't anyone ban cigarettes? The answer is simple: it's an addiction thing. States are ADDICTED to the revenue that sales tax on cigarettes generates. Huge amounts of money pour into the states' coffers because of this tax. If cigarettes are illegal, then their buying and selling is unregulated and thus untaxed. That's the cruel irony of these public health, anti-smoking campaigns. If the campaigns actually fully succeeded and everyone stopped smoking, states would suffer financially.

Remember the lawsuits against Big Tobacco. The propaganda justifying them was that states had to recoup costs associated with tobacco's ill effects. One would logically assume that the settlement money would go into anti-smoking campaigns, quit smoking programs and other stuff related to... cigarettes. But as we all know, the money is going into the general fund to get spent on whatever pork projects legislators want. I think our county is spending some of its tobacco money on improving the bike trail.

If states filed a lawsuit alleging that a product was so INHERENTLY damaging that it required billions of dollars in compenstation, then it should logically follow that this product should either be made safer (which isn't really possible in this case) or made illegal.

Instead, states filed a lawsuit saying that product is inherently damaging and after they got their money, states let the industry continue to produce, unchanged, their inherently damanging product.

But we all know that banning tobacco won't happen, because states are unable to kick the cigarette habit.
Recently, New York state enacted a ban on indoor smoking in most buildings. Although the law exempted places like cigar bars, hotel rooms private residences and places staffed by volunteers (like a lodge hall), it mainly targeted bars and restaurants. Like other similiar bills, it was justified not on big brother grounds of regulating private vices, but on the premise that the EMPLOYEES of bars and restaurants should not be forced to inhale second-hand smoke. Essentially, the law was based on the concept of workplace safety.

I am torn on this issue. Personally, I despise smoke-inundated places. Our local Greens' chapter has fundraisers in bars, because one of our leading members is in a band and can organize local bands to participate. I usually can't stay more than an hour or hour and a half because the smoke is so thick. I can tolerate being in a room with one or two people smoking, but when there are dozens lighting up, I can only go so long before I have to leave. As a result of the smoking ban, I will be far more likely to frequent bars and spend longer amounts of time (and thus money). Because I can breathe, I'll go more often.

In that sense, I think the law will probably end out as a wash for some bar owners in short term. They'll lose some diehard smokers, but they'll gain people like myself who avoided the place because of the smoke. In the end, it'll probably end up as a boon the bars because many smokers won't stop going to bars (as doomsdayers predict) but will simply smoke less and go outside for five minutes when their craving hits. Most people don't go to bars simply to drink alcohol (which they could do at home more cheaply), but also to be in the bar atmosphere.

A local 24 hour a day restaurant decided some months ago to go entirely non-smoking. Although there were initial complaints from smokers, the restaurant owner noted that he gained even more new customers, many of whom said they'd avoided the place previously because of the smoke.

I think the law is a bit unfair to other restaurants, many of whom went to great lengths to keep smokers and non-smokers separate in order to comply with the previous law. Some invested in ventilation systems to facilitate that process. Now, it turns out they wasted their money.

As much as I'm happy bars will be smoke-free, this is not a good law. I do think it's ironic that targeting cigarettes is politically acceptable, but no one dares target alcohol; in other words, ruin your liver, but not your lungs. Glad we have that cleared up.

The workplace safety argument doesn't hold up in my opinion. Many occupations have hazards distinct to that particular job. If you're a roadie with a rock band, you'll be exposed to extremely loud levels of noise. If you have a bad heart condition, don't be a skydiving instructor. If you don't react well to stress, there are lots of jobs you should avoid. And everyone knows that if you are sensitive to smoke, don't be a bartender. It's one of the hazards of the job, just as other jobs have other hazards. Some find those risks acceptable and take the job; others find those risks unacceptable and find work elsewhere. I'm not sure why this is so hard. Smoking is not illegal so I'm not sure why the government is intervening.

Fortunately, most of my friends who smoke are polite enough to ask me first if I mind. If I'm in their house and they insist on smoking, I either suck it up or go outside for a while. If I'm in their car, I'm going to leave smelling like smoke even if they don't light up on that particular trip. It's part of the deal.

It seems like the smoking issue should be left up to each individual bar. I can easily see a bar becoming non-smoking marketing that feature to those who may have avoided bars for that reason. And it could equally market itself to those employees who would prefer working in a smoke-free environment. It all works itself out in the end.

I really despise cigarettes. I'm happy that bars will be smoke-free, but I'm not pleased about the way it happened. Ultimately, cigarettes are a legal product, a legal DRUG, at least right now. Either make them illegal or give people a reasonable, non-intrusive license to smoke their legal drug in public.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

...or perhaps only 45.

Click here to see pictures of Saddam's statue in Baghdad being toppled by the "masses." The images give a somewhat different perspective than the ones shown on CNN and company.

Of course, I've writte quite often about public opinion is manipulated by the corporate media. Or perhaps more accurately, how public opinion is shaped by the corporate media who is manipulated by the political and economic establishment. It goes beyond simplistic labels of "liberal" and "conservative." Progressive voices are just as likely to be ignored by the corporate media as libertarian voices.

This is due primarily to changes in the media. The "mainstream" American media, particularly television, has become largely worthless when it comes to the public service of informing people. Now, this isn't necessarily the case in other countries. I find myself left challenged whenever I read The Globe and Mail (Toronto) or Le Monde (Paris) or The Independent (London) or if I listen to the BBC or Radio Netherlands' English service. The Christian Science Monitor is certainly the fairest newspaper in the US that would come close to the mainstream, but few people have ever heard of it.

But I am left annoyed whenever I watch the American networks, even CNN (the least bad of the so-called news services). Their war coverage has been universally decried (from objective sources) for overly sanitizing things. Even at the few press conferences I watched, all the American reporters were tossing softballs at the spokesmen; they were tripping over themselves to fawn. Only the BBC people asked serious, challenging questions.

Even outside of war coverage, they are equally superficial. On a domestic issues, for example, they take someone a standard "liberal" and a standard "conservative" to get appropriately predictable quotes or to simulate a contrived encouter they call a debate.

Most often, however, it is worse than that. Most of the time, outside of war, they talk about micro-issues that have little effect on the average person. As compelling as the Laci Petersen and Elizabeth Smart cases may have been as human dramas, do they really have an effect on your life? I could countenance them getting a brief mention in the news summary or perhaps a few minutes of discussion from time to time. But do/did they really merit this orgy of national media attention, speculation and analysis? The answers are no and yes. No if it's defined in terms of informing the public; yes if it's defined in terms of ratings and money.

The American media is good an entertaining people. It is good at getting people all riled up. It is no longer good at informing people, simply because it's more difficult and more expensive than the other two things. So from a corporate standpoint, which is how such decisions are taken: why bother? Some will justify this as "just business," but let's not pretend it isn't true.

Friday, May 02, 2003

...oh where oh where can they be?

The search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq continues. So far, the occupation forces haven't really found any.

Don't forget, WMDs were the main reason we went into Iraq... at least according to the administration's rhetoric. Sure, they belatedly threw in the smokescreen about Saddam's phantom links with al-Qaeda and the great ruse about us liberating the Iraqi people and the time-honored American tradition of "regime change" abroad. But the overwhelming majority of the pro-war people support the effort based on the premise that Saddam had WMDs and this represented a threat to us.

Remember the president's own words said that Saddam and his WMDs might not be a threat to us now, but he might be a threat to us in one or five years and we shouldn't wait. That threat was so dangerous, so compelling that we needed to destroy the international order that we'd been instrumental in patiently crafting over the last half century so that we might get rid of the WMDs and Saddam.

It's fair to say that most Americans would've opposed an invasion simply to "liberate" the Iraqis or overthrow Saddam. Links between Saddam and al-Qaeda were so far-fetched even the CIA didn't believe them. Americans supported the war only because the president and his team scared the public into believing that Saddam's alleged WMDs were a clear danger to America. That was the deal.

So where are the WMDs? Administration people are saying it really doesn't matter if we find the WMDs, so long as Saddam's gone. Suddenly, there tuned has changed. I've already pointed out the irony of the Americans adopting the position "we need more time to find the WMDs." I've had one friend who's gone so far as to say that "If they find WMDs, Bush is a hero. If not, he should be impeached."

Frankly, I think it doesn't matter. I think the course of events already proven the hollowness of the administration's claims about the danger Saddam posed to Americans.

Let me examine the three possible scenarios...

a) Saddam didn't had WMDs
b) He used to have WMDs before but sanctions made them impossible to maintain or made them useless
c) He had effective WMDs but decided not to use them

In case a), then the administration's case for war was most obviously based on a sham.

Case c) is almost impossible to believe. The idea that he would hold back for some inexplicable reason, against the evil Americans, is mind boggling. I've heard it advanced that he didn't use them so as to embarass Bush. One thing has been clear during his reign, Saddam will do anything, ANYTHING, absolutely anything to maintain himself in power. The only thing he cares more about than hating Bush is preserving his own power. He's a selfish dictator first, not a suicidal ideologue.

Case b) is the one I tend to believe, if by process of elimination. a) is unlikely and c) is inconceivable.

But frankly, it doesn't matter. The administration's WMD danger claim is already discredited by the simple fact that they weren't used against the invading forces.

Simply put, WMDs are the ultimate deterrence. We had WMDs (nuclear weapons) to offset a perceived conventional military disavantage in comparison to the Soviet Union. We never used WMDs, except in Hiroshima, but they served as a deterrence. WMDs are the main reason no one has invaded Israel in the last 30 years. Had the Soviets invaded the United States, you can be certain we would've used them. If nothing else, WMDs are there to be used in a last ditch effort against foreign invaders.

If Saddam was EVER going to use WMDs, he would've used them as a last ditch effort against the foreign invaders whose stated goal was to get rid of him. It seems as clear as day. The fact that he didn't use them is a damning indictment of the administration. Either a) he didn't had them or b) they were so ineffective as to pose no serious danger. If he didn't or couldn't use them against the invaders, when WOULD he use them? If WMDs were not employed as a final effort to save Saddam's dictatorship, then why should the ordinary American fear they could've been used in Manhattan or DC?

An invasion was the one time Saddam was guaranteed to use effective WMDs if he had them. None were used. You draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

I want to ride my bike. I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride it where I like..."
-From "Bicycle Race" by Queen

I have a strange notoreity among my acquintances for biking everywhere because I don't have a car. This amuses some people, especially my colleagues, to no end. Of course, I work in an office and the industry is TV listings so I guess some people are more easily amused than others.

Anyways, because I am also a stats' geek, I keep a log of how much I ride. I've been keeping this log for about 6 years, but the first three years' logs were erased when my computer crashed.

I just did my stats for 2002 and it was a famous year.

TOTAL MILEAGE BIKED IN 2002: 1,987 miles -- 8.0 miles/day

This total smashes my old record by just under 18%. It is probably due in large part to the fact that because of the mild 2001-2002 winter, I never put my bike away for the season. My 2003 total will probably somewhat less for the opposite reason: I couldn't bring my bike out of storage until mid-March.

I also biked a record 80.9 miles during the week of 2-8 September.

I averaged about 8.6 miles/day on weekdays and 6.7 miles/day on weekends in 2002. This is a reverse from the previous two years when I'd biked nearly 1.5-2 miles/day more on weekends. This change is probably attributable to the fact that since my job relocated to another part of town, it takes me about 2.5 miles (one way) to get to work as opposed to the 1 mile previously.
I've often gone off about the lamentable state of journalism in America. But last night, the full depths to which the press has fallen really hit me.

Last night, I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In his monologue, he mentioned the comment by Gen. Garner, the viceroy of Iraq. [see below for more on that]

Then, there was a skit with one of his sidekicks Stephen Colbert about weapons of mass destruction [WMD]. Basically, it went something vaguely, very vaguely, like this...

STEWART: So where are the WMDs?
COLBERT: I don't know, Jon. We still don't have full access.
STEWART: No access? But don't we control the whole country?
COLBERT: Yes Jon. But these things take time.
STEWART: But I thought that getting rid fo the WMDs was the top priority of the administration?
COLBERT: They need more time. It's a slow, complicated process. More time is needed.

The joke, of course, is that the US is adopting the "finding the WMDs needs more time" line that it viciously attacked as appeasement before the invasion. There is also the irony that the Americans are calling for sanctions against Iraq to be lifted even though the WMDs have not been accounted for. This is also contrary to the pre-war position of the administration.

Tommorrow, I will explain why the WMD situation proves the anti-war movement was right. But for now, I will focus on the media.

The flip flop on WMDs is a legitimate question (although entirely expected). The comments by Gen. Garner show, in my opinion, a shocking triumphalism. Made even more shocking by the realization that this is in fact the driving sentiment of the War Department and other parts of the administration. Yet, were any of these discussed on Fox "News" Channel or CNN or MSNBC? Did "flaming liberal" Dan Rather ask these questions or report on this? I doubt it.

It's a sad commentary on the state of American journalism when you can learn more from satirical programs than on so-called news networks which have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to explore whatever they want. By not cowering in fear about asking tough, substantive questions, are comedians performing a public service and informing us better than the "news media"?

Where have you gone Cronkite and Murrow...

We ought to be beating our chests every day. 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!' --Retired Gen. Jay Garner, American viceroy of Iraq.

I am very upset at Gen. Garner. "Chest-beater" is a phrase I've been using regularly, as a less offensive alternative to "warmonger." I expect Gen. Garner to send me a royalty check... after all, he'll have access to plenty of oil money.

Yet in a sense, I'm thankful for Gen. Garner's comment. It demonstrates quite nicely the mentality of those people who are in charge. None of this "we're sorry we had to do it and we're sorry about the 'collateral damage' but it was unfortunately necessary and our troops did a good job in difficult circumstances" charade of the Garner's War Department colleagues in Washington. Gen. Garner's thinking is the same as Wolfowitz, Perle and company, only he's more honest about it.

If Arabs were pissed about the soldier who covered the face of the Saddam statue with an American flag, let's hope al-Jazeera doesn't notice this comment.

These people still haven't figured out the dangers of this in your face behavior. Of course, imperialists usually consider themselves immune not only to this kind of triumphalism, but immune to history in general. Let's hope it doesn't come back to bite him, or especially us, in the rear.

Source: Reuters via Yahoo! News