Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Last week, I wrote an entry entitled "RIP Christopher's Dad" about an area man who killed in Iraq. The local paper published a large front page photo of his little 9 year old boy, in a shirt and tie, wearing his father's bars, breaking down in tears. This morning, the paper's editor was on a public radio show talking about the story and reaction to it. The decision to publish the photo was controversial as some people felt it was like an invasion of privacy. Although the funeral was public (and had military honors), the decision to publish wasn't unanimous even within the newsroom. The photo certainly evoked powerful emotions. Even after having read the paper the first time in the morning when I looked long and hard at the photo, I picked it up again at the coffee shop that evening and just stared at the photo for a few minutes. It was the saddest thing I've ever seen published in our paper.

In other photos of the funeral that ran in the local section, the caption read something like, "It was the homecoming of a former basketball hero. But first and foremost, of a soldier." I disagreed with that. The front page image, and even those photos the caption was referring to, drove home that he was first and foremost a father and husband. A soldier was his job, and one he apparently performed with honor and courage. But who will have stronger memories of him, someone at the Pentagon or his wife? Will his little boy remember him as "staff sergeant" or as "dad"? I bet the little boy thought of him as a hero long before he was in Army.

Maybe if we considered our combat troops are not just "heros" and "troops" but also someones' sons, husbands and fathers, we might be less casual about where and in what circumstances we volunteer them to risk their lives. And to extend that further, maybe if we thought of civilians caught in the crossfire of conflict not just as "collateral damage" but as someones' children, spouses and parents, then war might rightly lose some of its glamor. The photo reminds us that the consequences of war affect not just far away lands and people with funny sounding names.

At times, war may be necessary, but we should never be enthusiastic about it. To get psyched about something that will inevitably result the death of unarmed civilians is sickening and obscene. Say that you think we have no other option, but don't be happy about it. Don't be excited to "kick [insert demon]'s ass" because the demon is always going to be the least likely to get hurt. Get all gung ho about the Super Bowl, not about making people refugees dependent on foreigners' charity. Not about making orphans.

We should celebrate creation, not destruction (even if we think that destruction is a necessary evil). Maybe one day, people who dig wells in Burkina Faso or work with street children orphaned in Guatemala will get their ticker tape parade down central Manhattan.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

A soldier from a nearby (~25 miles away) town was killed in Iraq this month. They had the funeral yesterday. In a small area like this, the story not surprisingly dominated the front page of today's newspaper. There was a very sad picture on the front page of mourners. In the center of the photo was the soldier's young son, 9 years old, wearing his father's bars on his shirt and having broken into tears. At times like this, you put aside your opinion on the war or on the pre-war diplomacy or on the protesters or on the UN/France/Germany. You don't praise or blast the president. You simply pause to respect the town's and especially the family's grief. I know not everyone will agree with that. But it's hard to look at the picture of that little boy's tears and immediately return to partisan sniping without missing a beat. I can't do it. Not today.

I honestly hope that the deceased sincerely believed he and we were doing the right thing over there. In practical terms, it doesn't matter. Even if you join the military because you want to defend your country, you do so knowing you may risk, or even give, your life for some purpose other than that. Whether you think the purpose is noble or not, you have to do it. That's the way the military works and you know so going in.

But for his and his family's sake, I hope he thought he was serving a just cause. I hope he thought the circumstances in which he found himself were something worth risking the possibility that his son grow up without a father. I hope he believed that because it might offer his family and friends a tiny solace in these difficult times.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Last week, the Zimbabwean dictatorship shut down the country's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News (see previous entry for more details). The newspaper was in violation of the country's strict media regulation and registration laws.

The Bush administration rightly condemned the attempt to stiffle journalism that embarasses Zimbabwe's government. A truly free and independent press can expose wrongdoing and help hold authorities accountable, which is precisely what autocratic Mugabe and his cronies fear. That is why they've not only shut down The Daily News but effectively barred the BBC and all foreign media from (overtly) reporting inside the country.

"We call on the government of Zimbabwe to permit the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday to resume publishing at once and to cease intimidation and harassment of the independent media," said Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman for the US State Department. "These actions are unwarranted infringements on press freedom and they are the latest incidents in a pattern of intimidation and violence directed against the local media,"

Today, Iraq's governing council is reportedly planning to expel journalists from the Arab networks al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, according to the BBC (which is not banned in Iraq... yet). A member of the governing council, handpicked by Washington, claimed "Inciting violence is what these channels proclaim. They show men in masks carrying guns and call them 'resistance'. They're not resistance, they're thugs and criminals," He also "told the BBC that clear guidelines for reporting would be set out." It remains to be seen what form those "guidelines" will take.

The networks have defended their reports by saying they are committed to giving both sides of the story.

Given their (proper) condemnation of Mugabe's closure of The Daily News, it will be interesting to see the Bush administration's reaction to the measures against al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya in the new Iraq governed by "freedom and liberty."
Last week, the Zimbabwean government shut down the country's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, a move roundly condemned by southern Africa's nascent independent press. Today, the dictatorship arrested the entire editorial staff of the newspaper for working illegally, according to the BBC, which is banned in the country.

A judge had previously ruled that police should allow the journalists to work, but the authorities ignored the judiciary, as they've so often done in the past. The newspaper's ownership group "had failed to meet the requirements of the law," according to the country's media and information commission, calling for respecting the law without the slightest hint of irony.

The shutting down of The Daily News is only the most recent episode in the rampaging mis-rule of its dictator Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. Although media harassment and eviction of white owners of large farms have gained greater attention in the American and British press, ordinary peasants and workers have suffered most from the regime's viciousness, incompetence and outright contempt for humanity. A recent documentary by Radio Netherlands, also banned in the country, detailed the horrors of Zimbabwe's so-called National Youth Service Training program.

Supposedly created to instill patriotism and provide job skills, the camps have turned into "re-education" centers where young people are trained to be militiamen loyal to Mugabe and where they are [o]ften drugged or intoxicated, noted the doucmentary. The camps are "brainwashing [young people] into Mugabe's party ideology so that these young people become like robots," observed the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city and in the heart of opposition-dominated Matabeleland.

Earlier this year, the regime was accused of manipulating distribution of international food aid in Matabeleland to punish political opponents. While Mugabe's cronies are brainwashing people and trying to extinguish free thought from the country, nearly 4 million Zimbabweans need food aid to survive.

One victim of the brutality of the re-education camps testified, "They started assaulting me, accusing me of selling them out to the MDC [the main opposition party who Mugabe and his thugs accuse of being stooges of Britain]. They beat me. And then they hit me with an axe. They were aiming for the back of my skull, but I turned, so they hit my eye. I lost my eye, but I think it's God who did that for me. It's better to lose an eye than your life."

I used to think Robert Mugabe was merely a garden-variety dictator. Loud-mouthed, corrupt, occassionally harassing political opponents; unquestionably greedy, certainly power hungry and egomanical, bad but not evil. And perhaps he was. But he has clearly evolved into something much worse. His small group of fanatical, and well-armed supporters, truly believe that Mugabe is the country's Savior (capital S). In the eyes of his zealots, that Mugabe overthrew the racist Rhodesian regime gives him license to commit crimes against humanity that even Ian Smith would never have dreamed of.

And the South African government's policy of pandering to Mugabe should make its president Thabo Mbeki ashamed to look himself in the mirror. While the South Africa leader's "constructive engagement" may have had merits in the short-term, it's clear that the policy has been a miserable failure in stopping the rampant state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe. If things are getting worse, not better, then the policy clearly isn't working. How much more suffering do Zimbabweans have to endure before President Mbeki realizes this?

Thursday, September 18, 2003

If you're one of the 69% of Americans that thinks Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you should take note. Even President Bush has now explicitly conceded there is no evidence of such involvement. "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11," Bush told reporters yesterday. Vice-President Cheney said "It's not surprising" that so many Americans believe in the Saddam-9/11 link.

Of course it's not surprising. It's administration itself that created this perception or, at best, allowed it to flourish. The president recently called Iraq a "central front" in the war on international terrorism and has liberally mixed in Saddam Hussein with rhetoric against al-Qaeda, the 9/11 plotters and other international terrorists. Naturally the American people, who instinctively want to believe and trust their leaders on questions of national security, are going to mis-comprehend things. If the people are presented incomplete information, naturally they are going to arrive at flawed conclusions.

It's nice the president got around to explicitly denying the Saddam-9/11 link. But isn't convenient he didn't state this, oh I don't know, in the State of the Union address or have Sec. Powell does so in his presentation to the United Nations? This little detail was omitted because this public mis-perception a cheap way to gain support for an Iraq invasion whose true goals were so dubious on their own merits. If the president had said, "Although Saddam wasn't involved in 9/11, we should still invade anyway because x, y and z," do you think pre-invasion support for the conquest would've dropped at least some? If it wouldn't have mattered, then why didn't they level with us beforehand?

Of course, if you were paying close attention and sifted through the bombast, machismo and borderline slanderous attacks on the patriotism of those who opposed the war, you knew that there was no tie between Saddam and 9/11. Even the president himself said there was no imminent threat posed by Saddam but that we must invade because we know he had bad weapons a long time ago and because he might conceivably, possibly pose a theoretical threat to Americans in one or five or 100 years.

We had an incredibly deceptive Democratic administration (though at least its primary deceit was about oral sex rather than war and empire) and it has beeen followed by an even more deceptive Republican administration. Isn't it time to explore other options?

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

During his state of the union address in January, some people lauded President Bush for his promise to spend $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS in Africa. At the time, I said they were nice words, but that I'd withhold plaudits until they money was actually spent and programs actually implemented. Experience has shown me that state of the union addresses (like state of state) are about grand rhetoric, with few of the always numerous proposals truly followed through upon with the full weight of the White House. This has been the case regardless of who's president. Presidents want to get the spotlight of feel-good press and hope that people will forget about it once the shine of the moment is off. The AIDS promise was always going to have trouble sticking in the public's memory because they were followed by the more dramatic (to us) part on Iraq. The non-governmental organization Africa Action issued its assessment of the president's promises on AIDS-HIV and how that's translated, or not, into reality. Since there's been little media follow-up on the issue, it's useful to know how this has played out, lest the president get undue credit for his words rather than his actions.

From Africa Action

Since his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush has
reaped great public relations benefits by parading himself as a
compassionate conservative, committed to helping the people of Africa
defeat AIDS. But the reality is very different.

When he traveled to the continent in July 2003, Bush repeatedly emphasized
how much his Administration was doing to fight the AIDS crisis. And on the
domestic front, the President has said that his Administration remains
committed to confronting AIDS in the U.S. But President Bush's track
record on AIDS policy reveals a litany of broken promises and betrayals.

The President has misrepresented the actions of his Administration. He has
misled the American public, and he has failed the people of Africa. Bush's
broken promises are costing thousands of African lives every day.

The following talking points include quotes from the President, promising
leadership in the war on AIDS. These are followed by facts about the
reality of his Administration's policies.

Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (2003)


"To meet a severe and urgent crisis abroad, tonight I propose the Emergency
Plan for AIDS Relief, a work of mercy beyond all current international
efforts to help the people of Africa...I ask the Congress to commit $15
billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new
money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of
Africa and the Caribbean." (State of the Union address, January 28, 2003)

"Next week, I will go to Africa to meet with leaders of African countries
and with some of the heroic men and women who are caring for the sick and
are saving lives...They deserve our help, without delay. And they will
have our help." (White House news conference, July 7, 2003)


* The AIDS plan announced in the State of the Union address in January
2003 was not an emergency plan. President Bush requested NO new money for
this initiative for the entire year of 2003.

* President Bush promised $15 billion over 5 years, or $3 billion a year,
for his new AIDS initiative. But in his budget request for 2004, unveiled
the week following his promises, Bush asked for less than half a million
dollars ($450 million) for next year for this initiative.

* Instead of the $3 billion per year over 5 years that was promised, most
of the money for the AIDS plan will not even be requested until 2005 and
beyond. This is after Bush's term in office will have ended, so there is
no guarantee this will be requested at all. Even more importantly, this
deadly delay will cost millions of African lives.

* The focus of the new AIDS initiative is not really on Africa and the
Caribbean. The White House has clarified that the $15 billion will include
all U.S. funding for AIDS globally. In July 2003, President Bush said the
initiative he announced in January was to fight AIDS abroad , breaking his
own promise that it would be for Africa and the Caribbean. This means that
whatever amount of money is appropriated for AIDS, Africa will get far less
than promised.

* In July 2003, the White House specifically asked Congress to limit AIDS
funding for next year. President Bush intervened during the budget process
to urge Congress not to spend the $3 billion that was being considered at
that time. This was after Bush had returned from Africa, where he had seen
first-hand the devastation caused by AIDS and where he had repeatedly
promised U.S. support for African efforts to fight AIDS.

The Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria


"The devastation across the globe left by AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and
the sheer number of those infected and dying is almost beyond
comprehension...The United States is committed to working with other
nations to reduce suffering and to spare lives. And working together is the
key. Only through sustained and focused international cooperation can we
address problems so grave and suffering so great." (Rose Garden Ceremony,
with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nigerian President
Olusegun Obasanjo, May 11, 2001)


* In 2001, President Bush supported the creation of the Global Fund to
fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But his Administration has
consistently undermined the effectiveness of this important vehicle by
refusing to pay the U.S. fair share, leaving it severely under-funded.

* The U.S. has contributed only an average of $200 million a year to the
Global Fund since it was created in 2001. An equitable contribution to the
Global Fund from the U.S., based on the U.S. share of the global economy,
would be $3.5 billion per year. In contrast, the U.S. is spending more
than $1 billion a week on the war and occupation in Iraq.

* President Bush said in January 2003 that the U.S. was committed to
leading the world in the fight against AIDS. But he continues to neglect
the best way to address the AIDS crisis -- the Global Fund to fight
HIV/AIDS. Bush has pledged only $200 million per year over the next 5
years to the Global Fund as part of his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief .

* U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, is chair
of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund. Yet the Global Fund is
running out of money because the U.S. is failing either to contribute its
share of resources or to act responsibly as Board chair and implement a
fundraising plan for this crucial vehicle.

* To coordinate his new AIDS initiative, President Bush is creating a new
U.S. government bureaucracy that will compete directly with the Global
Fund. This bilateral approach breaks Bush's earlier promise to support
multilateral efforts to fight AIDS. This new U.S. agency will take money
away from the Global Fund. It is also less efficient, with ten times as
much overhead , or administrative costs, as the Global Fund. It is to be
headed by a former Drug company executive, Randall Tobias, of Eli Lilly & Co.

* While President Bush's AIDS plan is unlikely to be up and running until
at least 2005, the Global Fund is already operational and it can save lives
NOW. U.S. contributions to the Global Fund will leverage billions of
dollars from other donors. By refusing to support the important work of
the Global Fund, President Bush is undermining international efforts to
defeat AIDS and betraying those on the frontlines fighting this pandemic in

HIV/AIDS Treatment


"Anti-retroviral drugs can extend life for many years. And the cost of
these drugs has dropped from $12,000 a year to under $300 a year -- which
places a tremendous possibility within our grasp." (State of the Union
address, January 28, 2003)

"We'll work quickly to get help to the people who need it most by
purchasing low-cost anti-retroviral medications and other drugs that are
needed to save lives." (White House Ceremony, announcing the appointment of
the new Global AIDS Coordinator, The Roosevelt Room, July 2, 2003)


* In 2001, the member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO),
including the U.S., adopted the Doha Declaration, which declared that
patents on drugs should not be allowed to hinder poor countriesaccess to
essential medicines. But since this time, the U.S. has consistently
blocked efforts to relax patent rules and facilitate African
countries' access to anti-AIDS drugs and other essential medicines. The
agreement reached in Geneva in August 2003 still imposes extremely
complicated procedures designed to protect patent rights, which leave
enormous obstacles to overcome before affordable medicines are actually
made available in Africa.

* The Bush Administration's close ties to the pharmaceutical industry have
meant that U.S. policies continue to support the interests of the powerful
pharmaceutical lobby to keep their profits high. This betrays the efforts
of African countries to secure affordable access to essential HIV/AIDS
treatments for their people. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the
largest contributors to the Republican party.

* President Bush named a pharmaceutical executive, Randall Tobias, as the
Coordinator of the new AIDS initiative that was announced earlier this
year. Tobias has no experience in public health or international affairs
he represents the pharmaceutical industry, which has sought to deny
Africans access to essential drugs. One prominent example of such was the
lawsuit brought against Nelson Mandela by several major pharmaceutical
companies in the 1990s, which sought to prevent the South African
government gaining access to essential anti-AIDS treatment for its
people. This suit was only withdrawn in 2001 under international pressure.

* The choice of Randall Tobias by Bush reveals his allegiance to the
pharmaceutical companies and breaks the promise he made that the U.S. would
promote low-cost anti-AIDS drugs.

* In June 2001, the Administrator of USAID, Andrew Natsios, said that AIDS
treatments would not work in Africa because Africans don't know what
Western time is. He used this racist and ignorant logic to oppose the
provision of essential treatments to people living with HIV/AIDS in
Africa. Africa Action wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell
(Natsios' boss) to demand a retraction, and to call for
Natsios' dismissal. But the Bush Administration issued no retraction or

* The Bush Administration continues to stall on providing low-cost AIDS
treatments to African countries, claiming that inadequate infrastructure
means that funding for treatment must wait. But treatment programs
throughout Africa need money now. The solution to weak infrastructure is
urgent investments to improve capacity. These delays in extending
treatment access are costing thousands of African lives every day.

* The Bush Administration supports conservative measures that undermine a
comprehensive response to the AIDS crisis in Africa. These include
emphasizing abstinence-only measures, prioritizing prevention over
treatment, and opposing the use of condoms. This emphasis on
fundamentalist ideology over science and public health represents a
dangerous step backward in the fight against AIDS.

Domestic HIV/ AIDS Programs


"We have confronted, and will continue to confront, HIV/AIDS in our own
country." (State of the Union address, January 28, 2003)


* As the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. continues to grow, the Bush
Administration is failing to show leadership to address this urgent
situation. For the past 3 years, the Bush Administration has essentially
flat-funded domestic HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs.

* The CDC has stated that there are more than 40,000 new HIV infections in
the U.S. each year, half of these under the age of 24. A 2003 study from
Emory University has said that failure to reduce HIV infections by 50% in
the next two years could cost this country more than $18
billion. President Bush's budget request for 2004 cut $4 million from
domestic HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

* The 2004 budget request flat-funded the Minority AIDS Initiative, which
provides essential funding to organizations addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis
in communities of color across the U.S. There is a growing demand for
funding for this initiative, but the Bush Administration continues to
ignore this reality. More than half of all new HIV infections in this
country are occurring among Black people.

* President Bush's budget request for 2004 proposed only a small ($5
million) increase in the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA)
program, although the demand for this program has grown dramatically, and
more funding is needed urgently. The CDC estimates that there are
currently 900,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. The total number
of people living with HIV domestically increased by 33% between 1996 and

* The 2004 budget request contained an inadequate increase (only $100
million) for the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP), but this is far less
than what is needed. Already 13 of these programs around the country have
had to limit access to anti-retroviral treatments or close enrollment to
new clients altogether because of inadequate funding. Another 7 programs
have reported they are likely to have to undertake similar measures in the
next year.

* The Bush Administration remains committed to an abstinence only policy
when it comes to education about HIV/AIDS and STDs. Many AIDS advocacy and
AIDS service organizations have expressed grave concerns about an approach
that places political ideology over science and public health. Public
health experts emphasize that a comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS
prevention must include education about condom use.

* The federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs denies thousands
of injecting drug users in the U.S. access to a lifesaving medical
intervention. Access to sterile needles can help prevent thousands of HIV
infections ever year. At present, injecting drug users account for more
than one-third of all new HIV infections in the U.S. Federal funding for
needle exchange programs is needed to expand these programs to control the
spread of HIV and save thousands of lives.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Note: I received a recent email from an acquiantance of mine. She served in a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, like me; though my service ended in 1997 and hers much more recently. Although we lived in different places, the same man was sous-préfet (local administration) of each of our villages. She asked me how my readjustment had gone. Below is my response (edited for context).

A few points of reference: Beindou is the tiny village I lived in. Kissidougou is the city I visited weekly, since it was about 7 miles from my village. Conakry is the capital of Guinea. NZerkeore, Dalaba, Kankan, Labe, Mamou, and Gueckedou are all medium/large cities in Guinea. A 'gros camion' is a huge truck used to transport goods and people from one open air market to another across the country; wares are shoved in the cab of the truck and the people sit on top of the wares... extremely dangerous, especially on bad roads.

* * *
My readjustment was somewhat atypical in some ways and probably normal in others. Two days before I was to leave Beindou, I stepped into a hole (long story but I WAS completely sober :-) and bruised my thigh quite badly. Normally, I might have gone to Conakry immediately, since it required some sort of attention. But the villagers and sous-prefet had organized a goodbye party for me on my last night, the day after I hurt myself. Since they'd gone to the trouble of setting up this party, I sucked it up my last day there. But because I was injured, I was not able to go around the village and say my goodbyes to everyone in the way I'd planned. The party was really cool, and quite touching, but since I could move only with great difficulty, I only stayed for the essential part and left when they started dancing. As a result, when I left, I felt as though I was leaving without a sense of closure, so to speak and I felt bad.

It bugged me so much, I had to go back. I saved for the next 18 months and got enough to buy a plane ticket back to visit. That year and a half was really tough. There was the usual readjustment stuff they talk about, which is bad enough. When they went on about reverse cultural shock in those seminars, I thought it was psychobabble baloney. I figured, I'm going back to the place I've always lived, so what's the big deal. Except I wasn't the same person as I'd always been. I found out the reverse culture shock was real. Then you add to that the sense of unfinished business and it was a rough time. And obviously no one really understood. I think my family tried as much as they could. They couldn't fully understand what I was going through but at least they realized there was more going on than they could really wrap their heads around. Because of this, they didn't try to diminish what I felt or act condescendingly. That made a big difference.

But even well-meaning friends didn't have a clue. To them, the Peace Corps was like visiting a great museum. A great experience and very educational, but when you get back, you go on with your life as though nothing major had happened. Something like the PC is a life-transforming experience for many of us who do it. One or two friends implied that I should just get over it and move on. I lost a bit of regard for them.

In the beginning, my readjustment was really hard. I remember once, shortly after I got back, I visited an old college professor of me. She was talking to her husband at the time, going on about the shape of their garden and how they were never going to win the village's garden competition or something like that. I remember being struck at how superficial it was. About how irrelevant were the things we obsess about so much. In the year or so after I got back, I was somewhat harsh like that in my assessment of people.

In time, as you might expect, I've become more accomodating. When I took off my rose-colored glasses, my memory reminded me of a few things. I remembered the times when Guineans would argue on forever about who played what position in a soccer game. Taxi drivers would spend 20 minutes arguing about which car should go first on the ferry that took maybe 10 minutes to cross the river. Many people (especially those imbued with liberal guilt) think such self-indulgence is unique to the decadent western world. When I stopped being so judgemental, I comprehended that everyone, rich or poor, argues about irrelevant, superficial crap, including me. For better or worse, it's part of humanity.

When I did finally go back, I did find the closure I was looking for. I said goodbye to everyone. I said what I had to say to my three best friends that I might never see again for the rest of my life. By the time I left, I was content. And things have been a lot smoother since then.

Of course, I still miss Beindou. I still remember about sitting in my doorway during a rainstorm watching little kids streak through the puddles and trying to hear BBC's Focus on Africa program through the rain pounding on my metal roof. I still reminisce about sitting on my porch, at night, chatting with my friends, with cooking fires, kerosene lamps and obscenely bright stars the only illumination. I still remember about playing Lido (which is similiar to the board game Sorry) with the local little kids on a hot afternoon. I'm still grateful to my next door neighbor who once lectured me about closing my windows when I spent the night in Kissidougou, even though theft was almost non-existent in my village. I still laugh that my house's fancy metal roof leaked but the grass-thatched roof of my friend Benjamin's family hut did not. I wonder what's become of the then-little tree in my backyard that is quite literally the fruit of orange seeds I spat out there one February afternoon. And sometimes, when I get pissed off at home or stressed at work, I think of myself sitting on the sous-prefet's porch playing some clapping game with his little boys or debating African (but not Guinean) politics with him or having his wives chastise me for being too thin (I was then a svelt 200 pounds); you can't do that and not end up relaxed. I remember being shook up on the first trip I ever took where we drove by a 'gros camion' on the Kissidougou-Kankan route that had just tipped over on the badly potholed dirt road. I remember the vibrancy of N'Zérékoré, the hot dustiness of Kankan, the green of Labé, the majestic beauty of Dalaba, the refreshingly cool weather of Mamou, the oppressive humidity of Conakry that made it hard to breathe, the disgusting dirtiness of Guéckédou, the homey familiarity of Kissidougou. Next Wednesday, I think, will be the 8th anniversary of my swearing in as a volunteer. And I still remember. Thanks for reminding me to remember.

The sensational collapse of World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico was a historic first step in trying to implement a fairer global trading system.

For the first time, developing countries formed a united bloc against the against the bullying of developed nations and allied with a few middle income countries like India and Brazil. By walking out, developing countries prevented the imposition of an agreement which would've done nothing to help alleviate poverty at home. Better no agreement, they contend, than a terrible agreement. By showing the power of their unity, they sent a message to the developed countries that their needs have to be taken into account too. In an organization run by consensus, such polarization was fatal to this round of talks.

The three main blocs of developed countries are the United States, Japan and the European Union. They all offer large subsidies to their farmers, which is at the crux of the issue. Developing countries can't afford these subsidies and thus can't compete. Negotiations "reaffirmed their commitment to moving towards the objective of reducing the farm subsidies of industrialized nations, without setting timetables or targets for doing so," noted The Inter Press Service. And that's the problem: developing countries don't trust such vague promises.

And can you really blame them? Europe and the United States lecture them piously on the importance of free trade, on the economic problems caused by government intervention in the economy (like subsidies) and on how they must slavishly adhere to every letter of International Monetary Fund fiats; these fiats in the name of economic liberalization (supposedly the cure for all ills) can even ruin domestic industries and put thousands of people out of work, as was the case for cashew nut workers in the southern African state of Mozambique. So developing nations are calling the bluff of the Americans and Europeans by asking, "If fundamentalist free trade is so great, why don't you try it to?" Developed countries aren't used to being told to practice what they preach.

It's been reported, for example, that the average European Union COW is subsidized to the tune of over $2 a day, the average American cow nearly $3 per day and the typical Japanese bovine receives fully $7 a day in subsidies. The BBC notes, "Economists estimate that the world's poor countries lose a total of $24 billion a year because of subsidies paid to farmers by rich nations."

Not surprisingly, everyone tried to pass the buck. But the real problem is that Europe, Japan and the US want free trade in theory, but don't want the sacrifices required for that to occur. They want exceptions for themselves, but not for anyone else. Not surprisingly, this fuels broad resentment of the whole concepts of economic liberalization, freer trade and globalization as a whole. When globalization becomes synonymous with "free trade" that's not really free (or fair), people in poorer countries begin to question the whole concept of globalization.

I think more freer trade and more transparency will help developing countries far more than increased aid. The West has been giving out development aid for decades and things haven't fundamentally changed in a lot of countries, especially African ones. Things haven't changed largely because what the West has been giving with one hand (aid), it's been taking away with the other (unfair trade rules). While we shouldn't slash development aid for now, fairer trade rules will benefit everyone. The economic rise of western countries was fueled by an exploding middle class. Increasing the size of the middle class in places like Ghana or Sri Lanka will fuel their economies too.

But one key thing is worth noting. Western countries became developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries using methods that would be TOTALLY unacceptable in 2003. Child labor, deplorable working conditions, no overtime or vacation time, no workers' compensation, no minimum wage, anti-trade union repression, high tariffs. The West industrialized by taking actions that would be roundly condemned today. Today's poorer countries don't have the same shortcuts available that western countries did. That's why they're finding development harder and slower.

The main developed countries aren't as committed to free trade as their rhetoric suggests. Japanese farmers love their huge subsidies. European farmers have an influence that is probably disproportional to their numbers. Washington would rather negotiate bilateral trade agreements on smaller scales so they can more easily bully individual countries into accepting American conditions.

The collapse of the talks was not good for anyone, least of all the developing countries. The status quo is clearly doing them no favors. Hopefully, the unity of developing countries will send a message to developed countries. "This is the first time we have experienced a situation where, by combining our technical expertise, we can sit as equals at the table," observed South Africa's trade minister. Hopefully from this collapse, a better deal will emerge the next time around.

One fear, however, was underlined in an essay in The Guardian (UK) by Adriano Campolina of Action Aid's international food rights' campaign.

He wrote, However, there is now a real danger that having failed to impose their wishes on developing countries at the WTO, rich countries will try to get their way by brokering deals on an individual or regional basis. As we have seen with NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, involving Mexico, US and Canada), developing countries rarely fare well in these kinds of agreements. The elite usually manage to take the lion's share of any profits, while the poorest communities are left with nothing.

American and European rhetoric is right: freer trade will benefit developing countries, create wealth and help alleviate poverty. The question is: are the American and European leaderships willing to do what it takes to truly impelement freer trade rules? So far, the answer has been no.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Attitude and team spirit are two of the things that have the most effect on whether or not a sporting team is successful. Talented teams can suck if these things are bad. Mediocre teams can achieve far greater than the sum of their parts if these things are good.

A local weekly, The Chronicle, celebrated its 1000th issue this week. In his column, the editor/founder reminisced quite, which is understandable given the circumstances. Among the memories, he made an excellent point. He noted that so much in life flows from the simple choice that we all make: whether to be a fundamentally positive person or a fundamentally negative person. And he's right on.

The soccer program I coach at his four teams. Traditionally, or at least in the last few years, the top team in that pyramid has had players with crappy attitudes which has led to non-existent team spirit. Not coincidentally, I'm doubt if they've won 10 games in the last 4 years. It's so bad that a friend of mine told me he was going to quit that team because his teammates were showing him such overt disrespect. As both a player and a coach, I know that little can be achieved if the players don't respect each other. They don't have to be best buddies with each other (or with the coach), but they have to have a respectful working relationship. My friend feels this is totally lacking and he's right. A lot of his teammates do have crappy attitudes.

I coach the team at the bottom of our program's pyramid and one of my missions has been to reverse that rot. The negativity at the top has served for me as an anti-model, ever since I got involved with the program. It's something the other middle school coach also believes strongly in. I think the head coach at the top of our program also believes in it but, since it's his first year in charge, it's a challenge for him to try to reverse the rot immediately without expelling 3/4 of his team.

With that in mind, an interesting event occurred in my practice today. (Bearing in mind that I coach 12-13 year olds). During practice, two or three of the kids came over to me and said, "Hey coach, something's wrong with so-and-so. We asked him what's wrong and he said nothing, but he's crying." So I went over, took the kid aside and talked to him for a while. "I'm so tired it hurts," he said. And, after I calmed him down, he went on to explain that he gets out of school and immediately comes to soccer. Then two days a week, he goes to karate immediately after. Then he goes home and does homework.

Now, I don't think this had anything to do with the particular practice I was running because we were just doing light warmups when this happened. But I talked to him, spent several minutes trying to calm him down and get him just to breathe and relax. I told him that if he was so tired it hurts from all his activities, something is not right and I made him promise to talk to his mom and dad. I have to follow up with him tommorrow to make sure he did.

But later on, I remembered to thank the kids who pointed so-and-so's situation because with the fast pace of warmups, it's not something I would necessarily have noticed. I'm also going to mention it again tommorrow how proud I am of them. Myself and the other middle school coach have talked a lot about being one team, about how we have to support each other, about how these are the guys you are going to be your teammates for the next six years. Those kids have taken it from the realm of theory and put into practical application. One of their teammates had something wrong and they let me know. They didn't tease or make fun of him, they were truly concerned. They were watching out for each other. That's what good teammates do for each other. I'm happy that they've bought into this philosophy. I hope they continue.

A pair of articles, in different nations' papers, caught my eye today because their lead paragraphs were strikingly similiar. Draw your own conclusions. I report, you, uh, make up your own mind.

From Austrlia's The Sydney Morning Herald

Intelligence given to Australia before the Iraq War warned that the terrorist threat would increase if military action was launched against Saddam Hussein, contradicting repeated assertions by the Prime Minister [John Howard].


From Britain's The Guardian

Tony Blair was warned on the eve of war by his intelligence chiefs that an invasion of Iraq would increase the danger of terrorist attacks, which they considered by far the greatest threat to western interests.
...is sharing a cover with a pseudo-celebrity.

I used to get upset at people who would spend hours going on about OJ Simpson or Monica Lewinsky or other insufferable trivialities that barely merited seconds of our attention (today's equivalent would be Kobe Bryant; yesterday's would be Laci Petersen) while two-year olds were having their hands amputated in Sierra Leone or religious riots were causing havoc in India. If you're going to sweat the small stuff, at least sweat the small stuff that might affect you or people you know.

I don't object to people worrying about comparatively small stuff when it affects their daily life. I get angry when I read about what's going on in the DR Congo but I still motivate my kids to play better soccer. I still go to the tennis courts and try to win every match. I still watch Seinfeld. I don't let my knowledge and concern paralyze me.

But I also try to keep things in perspective. I don't bask in willful, conscious ignorance, which probably is the worst kind. My mother may not follow world affairs as closely as I do, but when she does learn about something in the newspaper or television, she is interested. Sometimes she'll ask me questions about it if it's something in Africa. She may not be consumed by that issue, but she's paying attention. Her humanity doesn't shut down when she sees starving kid. I don't begrudge people who don't know everything about what's going on in the greater world: I do begrudge those (adults anyway) who don't want to know.

That said, how people prioritize the news has a lot to do with how the news is reported and presented. I was reminded of this when I saw in the library last week's issue of the Canadian magazine MacLean's. It is Canada's primary newsweekly, their equivalent to TIME (but less pompous). Perhaps it's closer to Newsweek, because both magazines are increasingly fluffy and focused in on "infotainment." An example:

MacLean's main cover story was an article entitled "RED HOT AND COOL" whose caption read "Canada's under-30s know what they want, and have the spirit and the smarts to make it happen."

Just above it was a teaser for a report from Liberia penned by Alexandre Trudeau, son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot. Trudeau's piece is entitled "'The worst place on Earth'" detailing the hell-hole that is the West African state.

Surely a report from the 'worst place on Earth' merits a slightly higher profile than an article entitled "Red Hot and Cool" in a publication that bills itself Canada's Premier NEWSmagazine.

Sons of ex-heads of government seem to be MacLean's forte. The most recent cover story is an article about Ben Mulroney, son of former Prime Minister Brian. Mulroney fils is apparently one of the judges in Canadian Idol, the true north strong and insecure's version of the American version of the British show. This important cover story took precedence over the second part of Alexandre Trudeau's series on 'the worst place on Earth.'

Unfortunately, the North American media, especially non-newspaper, makes it increasingly difficult to be informed. It's very hard to know what's going, at least about stuff that actually matters. You have to go out of your way to find stuff that is important. Well-intentioned people with busy lives, kids, careers or all three may not have time to do the digging. So they make their decisions and develop their opinions based on incomplete or partial information. I've always said the media is most influential not in how they report stories, but in which stories they choose to report. I shudder to think how little I'd know about what's going on in the world I'd be if I didn't have access to the Internet.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

My brother sent me a piece from The New York Times on the film "The Battle of Algiers." According to the article, the Pentagon is studying the film for "the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans."

I read a book some time ago on the Algerian War and it's totally fascinated me since. The Algerian war was fought between nationalists who wanted the evict the French colonials and make Algeria an independent country. The guerilla war, which lasted from 1954-62, was very bloody and culminated with Algerian independence. It was a seminal war in French history as it pretty much led to the end of France as a world and imperial power. French African colonies were granted independence so the French state could put its resources into maintaining French Algeria, since the North African territory was legally considered part of France proper, just like Normandy or the Riviera.

The war was a disaster for France. Basically, Algeria was France's Vietnam (or more accurately, considering the timeline, Vietnam was America's Algeria). It divided French society bitterly. Algeria showed how a relatively small group of guerillas could defeat a much greater military power. France had far more impressive military force but the Algerian nationalists had home field advantage.

More importantly, the nationalists had a psychological edge. They were defending THEIR territory. While Algeria may have legally been a part of France proper, psychologically most French didn't really think of it as such. As a result, the nationalists had a much higher tolerance for casualities and fought with a greater ferocity because they were defending their homeland. The French had a much lower tolerance because after a certain point, they didn't think it was worth it to shed so much blood for mountains and sand. French society soured on the war much more quickly than the nationalist community. The nationalists had the stomach for a long fight; the occupiers did not. The nationalists didn't have to win the war decisively. They just had to not lose it. They could inflict by a thousand cuts. And they did. And it worked.

This is pretty much the same thing that happened to America in Vietnam a decade later. A nationalist guerilla movement fighting for their homeland against a foreign power from another continent. The Viet Cong didn't so much beat America as outlasted us. Americans lost the stomach for a fight because, after a certain point, it became too costly for something that wasn't really our fight. In combat between a nationalist movement and a foreign imperial power, the nationalist movement is going to almost always win a war of attrition. Not because they have more resources but because they have more incentive to go the last mile.

This is why empire is so difficult, so expensive and requires so many resources, human and otherwise, to maintain. This is why the Europeans got out of the business of physical empires and went to the much less taxing economic-only empire business.

The film 'The Battle of Algiers' is fascinating, though difficult to follow if you're not familiar with the basica outline of the history. The Battle of Algiers was a French crackdown on FLN (nationalist) militants in the Algerian capital in 1957. It was brutal (and the FLN was an equally brutal enemy) and ended up being an example of the phrase "winning the battle yet losing the war."

There was a lot of torture which the French justified at the time as being necessary. Though it's interesting to note that nearly 45 years later, the French general who oversaw the Battle of Algiers, Jacques Massu, told the French newspaper Le Monde that Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well. Which certainly calls into question whether torture is "necessary" for extracting vital information or if it's just an excess indulged upon by captors out of an understandable anger or desire for revenge. I've heard former torturers argue that torture is actually counterproductive because you don't know if the information extracted via that method is actually reliable, or if the victim is merely telling you what you want to hear so the torture will stop.

Bizarre, though probably accurate, paragraph from an article in the British paper The Independent.

Regarding a report concerning the anxieties of Americans:

Attitudes towards foreign countries have changed fundamentally [since 9/11/01]. The latest report shows a hardening of negative feelings towards France and, to a slightly less extent, Saudi Arabia. Yet, Americans seem to be engaged in a full-blown love affair with the British. Never mind that anti-Americanism is seen to run far higher in the UK than in France.

Now most of the 9/11 hijackers came from which country: Saudi Arabia or France? Yet who is the prime target of our national temper tantrum?

Monday, September 08, 2003

The Bush administration's jihad against the International Criminal Court [ICC] reached a new low a few weeks ago when it opposed a measure that would've treated attacks on humanitarian aid workers as a war crime. This measure was introduced after the car bomb that murdered over a dozen UN workers in Bagdhad. The US objection was that if targeting aid workers was a war crime, then those who commit such crimes would be subject to the ICC, whose jurisdiction the US rejects. What is unclear is why this matters in this particular case? American troops don't murder humanitarian aid workers. They wouldn't be affected by this measure. The president's opposition is an insult to our disciplined, well-trained soldiers.

The real source of the opposition, of course, is the ICC. If the US accepted this measure, it would be implicitly accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC. With this, the administration has made it clearer than ever before that it doesn't feel international law should apply to the United States. It has taken this policy since long before 9/11 became a pretext for unilateralism in the name of "western civilization." Waging a bizarre jihad against an organ of international justice is more important to the Bush administration than helping protect those who risk their safety to work with refugees or feed starving people.

A poll suggests that 69% of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This despite there being no proof of any connection between the two. (And if there were, you can be sure the president and his team would be repeating that proof about every 10 minutes)

So why do so many Americans believe what is so clearly not the case? I suspect it's because most Americans ASSUME Saddam was involved. They do so not because most Americans are stupid, but precisely because they are logical. Or at least more so than the administration.

If the war on international terrorism began as a result of the 9/11 attacks and if conquering Iraq and toppling Saddam were an integral part of that war on international terrorism as the president insist, then one would logically assume that Saddam must've been involved in 9/11. Otherwise, why else would toppling Saddam have anything to do with the war on international terrorism?

Based on what they were told, Americans logically ASSUMED Saddam was dangerous. Based on what they've been told, Americans logically ASSUME that the International Criminal Court [ICC] is somehow an imposition of one world government. If I didn't know better, I might believe it too. The ICC is set up to try war criminals and other criminals against humanity who can't or won't be tried in their home countries or in the countries where they committed their atrocities. It's for countries where there are no functioning courts or where the courts are subject to political manipulation. The ICC wouldn't apply to Americans because our courts function. If you say that ICC would take jurisdiction away from American courts, you're saying that our courts are dysfunctional and subject to political manipulation. The ICC won't affect us because we have the rule of law.

Those who really have to fear the ICC aren't American GIs but rather people like Kim Jong Il and Charles Taylor. The ICC would be a natural place to try people like Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, since courts in those countries don't function.

Our active undermining of the ICC hurts our international credibility. When the administration speaks of the rule of law and respect for international norms in North Korea or Zimbabwe, those dictators can rightly point out that the US government rejects the rule of international law itself.

The US has been an integral part in setting up ad hoc criminal tribunals after specific terrible wars. Nuremberg for the Nazis. The Hague for the Serbs. Freetown for Sierra Leone. But those tribunals are perceived as "victors' justice" precisely because they are one-off and usually only target the losing party. They are also necessarily inefficient because they have to start from scratch every time. It also fails to act as a deterrent to the war criminals because they are always set up after the fact and only after certain conflicts. A permanent court would be there to try anyone who commits atrocities (and are from countries with dysfunctional courts), they would be more efficient since they would be on-going and they could serve, at least to some degree, as a deterrent.

The Bush administration doesn't realize how much its opposition to the ICC hurts its credibility in calling for the rule of law, justice and respect for international norms elsewhere. In light of the administration's great moralizing and crusading, that credibility is even more critical.

To learn more about the ICC, facts and myths, check out: www.iccnow.org

Friday, September 05, 2003

An acquaintance of mine made a rather interesting argument that the lawsuit by Fox News [sic] against satirist Al Franken had a legitimate basis. The crux of his contention is that since Fox had trademarked the phrase "Fair & Balanced," they were required to defend it against alleged misuse, otherwise they would lose the trademark. He also says the flap is a bunch of whining by liberals who hate Fox. Of course, if the suit had merit, the judge might not have dismissed it so quickly.

He did make many legitimate points. The problem is that Fox didn't. Fox decided to name call Franken for name calling them as name callers. This made it come across as not a high-minded strictly legal argument, but as a loud-mouthed bully throwing a temper tantrum because he can dish it out but can't take it. Further, they advanced the farcical argument that someone might confuse Franken's book as a Fox product. If they'd made my acquiantance's arguments, they wouldn't have come across so ludicrously.

Newspaper headlines satirize trademarked slogans all the time, yet they're not sued. So it makes me wonder how unlimited trademarks are. Not having expertise in that area, I don't know. But according to the US Patent and Trademark office (USPTO), A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

So if I use a trademarked phrase in a context unrelated to that distinguishing/identifying purpose, am I violating a trademark? For example, if I say "Gimme a break" in response to something ridiculous, am I violating Kit Kat's trademark? If Franken uses that phrase in a context unrelated to news' delivery (Fox's goods), is he violating the trademark? If he uses the phrase as part of a longer title, is it a violation? Apparently at least one of these answers is no, since the judge dismissed the suit so quickly.

No one is challenging Fox's right to use "Fair & Balanced" as a trademark slogan, even most of THINK it's totally inaccurate. The question is: how far does trademark protection extend? Does it apply to things unrelated to that which the trademark is intended to protect?

I think this situation is far less bizarre than the lawsuit against Papa John's pizza a few years ago. Papa John's used the slogan "Better ingredients, better pizza." They were sued by a rival (forget which) who said they shouldn't use that slogan because their ingredients and pizza were no better than the rival's. Which begs the question related to my fundamental point, if I say 'my sister makes better pizza than me', am I violating Papa John's trademark?

'Better ingredients, better pizza' is a subjective opinion, just like 'fair & balanced.' Do you expect them to say they have crappier food than Pizza Hut? A news' channel that claims to be objective, are they going to say they're not 'fair & balanced.' That's what promotion is about! Convincing people you're better than your competitors.

And finally, and significantly, a search of the USPTO shows that Fox News Corp. trademarked the phrase "Fair & Balanced." Franken's book subtitle uses the phrase "Fair and Balanced." Sure, it's a miniscule difference, but law, especially trademark and copyright law, is often based on such miniscule differences. So technically, Franken did NOT violate Fox's trademark.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

No, this is not another rant about the Fox News' [sic] slogan. But I thought about it in relation to Samantha Power's excellent and Nobel Prize-winning A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide which I'm now reading. The current chapter deals with Saddam's genocide against the Kurds.

I suppose there's a lot in the book I could write about relating to current events, but I won't. Mainly, reading this material (written before 9/11) just underlines the bizarreness of the justification for the conquest of Iraq. In the 80s, Saddam was our ALLY in the war against Islamist extremism. By 2003, he was our ENEMY in the war against Islamist extremism. This depsite the fact that the nature of his regime hadn't really changed in that time period.

But what I'm writing about today isn't really about that. Since the Kurdish genocide occurred during the Iran-Iraq war, Power noted that genocide, or at least the magnitude of the horror, is quite frequently masked by the fog of war (Armenians, German Jews, Cambodians, Rwandan Tutsis). Power also observed that American press accounts of Saddam's gas attacks against the Kurds always gave disclaimers. "Iran claims that Iraq is gassing Kurdish areas." These disclaimers diminished the power of the story and American journalists weren't in the war zone at the time; and if they had been, they probably would've died too.

But it raising an interesting point about journalism and the difference between fairness and balance. This conundrum was discussed a lot by those who covered the war in the Balkans in the early 90s. By coincidence, Power got her journalistic start in that war for The Washington Post. The problem faced by Balkans' reporters was that their editors wanted them to be more balanced (neutral) but what they witnessed was the Serbs committing a disproprotionate amount of the atrocities. I don't think this was a new quandry in 1992. Perhaps it became more pointed with the end of the Cold War and its artificial distinctions accepted for so long ("Government X must commit horrible atrocities to save its country from horrible Communist atrocities" as though an innocent victim cares about the politics of his murderer).

One of the stated goals of mainstream journalism to be objective in reporting the news. Most journalists try to be objective. They may or may not succeed, depending on your opinion, but most try. However, even taking the Fox slogan at face value, I think fairness and balance are not the same thing.

Fairness implies objectivity. It involves investigating and reporting a story thoroughly regardless of where it might take you. It involves presenting a story in a way that reflects the totality of what you discovered. If, in a conflict, one of the sides is more guilty than the others, then fair reporting makes this clear. It doesn't say one side is guilty of everything. But it doesn't use qualifiers, disclaimers or other devices which somehow imply an equality of guilty.

Balance implies neutrality. Think of a scale. A BALANCED scale has the same weight on one side as another. Too many journalists think that balance equals fair. That if they quote Bill Clinton, then balance requires them to quote David Duke, because one's on the left of center and one's on the right. However, one's considered mainstream left and the other's considered far right. Is that fair? Further, many journalists think of this balance as a simple numbers game. Three canned quotes from standard "liberals" and three canned quotes from standard "conservatives" makes a fair story, or so we are lead to believe. If you have two decent "liberal" quotes and one excellent "conservative" quote, why play a pointless numbers' game? The goal is to inform, not satisfy an artificial quota.

A balanced account of World War II in Europe might consider stuff like the Holocaust and Nuremburg laws. But since that's two things, the account would have to find two bad things on the other side, to balance the numerical scale. So such an account might read, The Nazis killed 6 million Jews and shredded civil liberties but the Allies firebombed Dresden and some French collaborated with the occupying Germans.

The phrasing implies that these two sides' crimes are, if not equal, at least comparable. This might be neutral but is it objective? It may be balanced but is it fair?

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I was listening to an NPR interview with FBI Director Robert Mueller. The director was asked if the FBI's implementation of the Patriot Act was a threat to civil liberties. Mueller, not surprisingly, said no. He noted that the FBI even sends new agents to the Holocaust Museum to sensitize them about what can happen when intelligence services and other authorities don't follow the Constitution.

Except there's one problem. The Nazis DID follow their constitution. The Nazis came to power under the ostensibly democratic Weimar constitution. That constitution specifically allowed the chancellor (Hitler, before he declared the Reich) to suspend the constitution in case of a state of emergency. When the Reichstag was burned down, an act blamed on the communists though many believe it was done by the Nazis themselves as a pretext, the Nazis had their excuse to suspend the constitution... a suspension which was legal according to that very constitution. The Nuremburg and other acts that discriminated against and persecuted Jews were legal and constitutional.

I understand the point Mueller was trying to make. he was trying to reassure us that there were sufficient safeguards in the Patriot Act, even though most oversight is secret, opaque and non-public. So we have to take his word for it, which is exactly what makes many Americans uncomfortable. If something can't be justified and defended publicily, I'm automatically skeptical. While I don't think the leaders of this administration are a bunch of Nazis, I'm not pleased with the direction some of them are taking us. Learning the lessons of history doesn't meaning waiting until we get in exactly the same situation before we say "Oh wait, maybe this isn't a good idea." The situation doesn't have to be a mirror image to notice unpleasant parallels. It mustn't. By then, it's too late.

In the face of Director Mueller's observation, it's worth recalling Martin Luther King Jr's A Letter From a Birmingham Jail where he noted:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters [in the face of the 1956 Soviet invasion] did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today [1963] I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
I was listening to a piece on NPR (or you can read about it at AFP via Yahoo! news) about the guy to be executed today for murdering an abortion doctor. I won't dignify him by mentioning his name. The convict is hoping that he will become a martyr for the most violent wing of the anti-abortion movement.

I usually don't write about abortion. Because on this issue, more so than any other in this country, civil debate is nearly impossible; with the exception of the Palestinian-Israeli question which, perhaps not coincidentally, also involves men who murder people in the hopes of ending up a martyr.

His execution seems a fittingly bizarre end to this tragedy. The state is going to murder a guy who murdered someone he considered a murderer. In order to send a message about the unacceptability of murder.

The convict murdered the abortion doctor on the principle that it was "justifiable homicide." I wonder where he could possibly have gotten the notion that homicide was justifiable. Where indeed...

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Our lesson of the week comes from Waring Howe Jr., a prominent South Carolina Democrat. Warning against nominating his party nominating former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Mr Howe was quoted as follows by Salon.com.

Some of us may say, `Don't do to us what you did in '88; that is, give us a candidate you liked a lot but who's defeated in November.

So the moral of the lesson is: vote for a candidate you don't like much but who (the establishment thinks) has a chance of winning in November.

Why anyone would want a candidate they didn't like for to win in November was not made clear.