Monday, June 30, 2003

POWER PLAYS AND PARTNERSHIPS
I see now that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has supported a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

This is in reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision that Texas’ anti-sodomy law (and by extension those of other states) is an unconstitutional violation of the right to privacy.

In Orwellian fashion, Sen. Frist was quoted as telling ABC’s This Week, “I have this fear that this zone of privacy that we all want protected in our own homes is gradually — or I'm concerned about the potential for it gradually being encroached upon, where criminal activity within the home would in some way be condoned.”

Strangely, he doesn’t have the same level concern for government bureaucrats regulating in which hole men stick their penises. (I’m sorry to put it so crudely but that’s fundamentally what the laws boil down to).

Of course, the right to privacy protects citizens precisely from that which Sen. Frist fears. If you don’t want criminal (or any other) activity in your house, you don’t have to accept it.

Anyways, it will present conservatives with an interesting dilemma. Many of them slammed the Supreme Court decision not because they supported anti-sodomy laws but because they felt it was not the decision of the federal government to regulate that which sovereign state legislatures choose to undertake (even if those actions are unconstitutional).

Yet the amendment supported by Sen. Frist would do exactly that: regulate that which sovereign state legislatures choose to undertake. The feds want to seize the states’ authority to regulate marriage. This from the leader of the party that supposedly stands for a smaller federal government. Why are some federal power grabs ok but not others? What happened to the “Washington should mind its own business” ideology? Do states have enforceable rights but not individual citizens? What exactly is the message Sen. Frist and his colleagues are sending?

If the state is going to remain in the business of marriage recognition, then the equal protection clause should apply. Although personally, I wonder why it needs to get involved in the first place?

Several places, like France, Vermont and Quebec, have systems where couples can register partnerships. It becomes more a contractual thing in the eyes of the state. This doesn’t diminish the sanctity of marriage. If you want maintain the spiritual aspect of marriage, you can still get married in a Church or your preferred house of worship. But some want to co-habitate without the “until death do us part” obligation (not that this obligation isn’t already shirked by the pseudo-religious). They want the state recognition because their partnership can have practical legal implications, such as those related to taxes, pension, insurance, property and child custody.

It’s not really a question of the state “endorsing” such relationships. Not anymore than the state “endorsing” a person who marries for the fourth time after divorcing their three previous spouses. It is being neutral. The state is simply recognizing the reality of the relationships so that legal considerations are clearly known.

That way, the state gets out of the business of marriage and leaves it to religious institutions where it belongs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

WHY IS IT THAT...
...when the Jayson Blair scandal erupted, some people reflexively attributed it the New York Times diversity policy (Blair is black) but when Mike Barnicle was fired from The Boston Globe for repeated instances of fabrication, Barncile’s status as a white male wasn’t an issue?

...many of the conservatives who demanded that anti-war people shut up and blindly support the president in Iraq among Pres. Clinton's most vicious opponents in Kosovo? Why is it some of them abhorr any anti-war person "disrespecting" the president (and by extension, in their minds, the troops and the country) but used equally hostile language in referring to Clinton?

...some parts of the African intelligentsia who’d raged at our conquest of Iraq are now insisting that we intervene to stop the war in Liberia due to our “historical links” to that country?

...people in the west still think that all Africans are interested is getting foreign aid handouts when countless African presidents and cabinet ministers say it is far more important for their countries’ development to lower western trade barriers and subsidies?

...the Democrats think that whether Bill Gates’ estate should pay the death tax is so critically important they must scream from the rooftops but whether the president imposes a dangerous and radical foreign policy merits little comment and whether the attorney general scraps the Constitution he (and Congressmen) are sworn to defend is not a big deal?

...that George Steinbrenner took so long to attack Joe Torre? Steinbrenner’s been fairly quiet since the beginning of Torre’s reign and the manager has replied by winning 5 pennants and 4 world series’ titles in 7 years. There was a great sigh of relief in Red Sox-land about the recent Boss’ latest outburst. The equation over the last 20+ years is pretty straight-forward. George opens his mouth = Yanks don’t win. George behaves = Yanks win. We Boston fans thank you George. Your restraint had us worried.

...soccer’s Toyota Cup is referred to by the European media as the World Club Championship even though it involves only the European and South American champions? And Europeans think Americans are presumptuous when the NFL, NBA and MLB winners refer to themselves as “world champions.” The answer is because some people in the soccer world don’t realize that the sport is played outside Europe, Brazil and Argentina.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

THE CARROT OR THE STICK?
A state legislator* has proposed instituting a "fax tax" here in New York state. An article in our local paper noted that the tax would amount to an extra one percent on "junk foods, video games and television commercials."

I'm afraid this is a bit ridiculous. Even if it were a good idea, the tax is so small as to be irrelevant; it's only 1 pecent. Do you seriously think that anyone is going to be deterred from buying a candy bar because it costs $1.08 instead of $1.07? It's nothing more than a money grab.

And it's simply absurd on its face. The principle of informed consent dictates that people should be allowed to make personal choices for themselves, after given sufficient information. Everyone knows that junk food is bad for you... thus the name JUNK food. It's different if your actions might affect others. Getting drunk is not illegal; getting drunk and then driving a car is against the law. If I eat a Big Mac, I am not risking harm to anyone but myself. The government doesn't provide me (nor most other people) with health care so if I get a heart attack, I pay the bill.

There is a legitimate public interest in promoting good health, but a punitive (and miniscule to the point irrelevant anyway) tax is not the best way to do so. The carrot is almost always a better option than the stick... even if the stick has a lot fiber. :-)

NYS Assemblyman James Tedisco seems to agree with me. Rather than punishing people for hurting themselves, Tedisco wants to encourage people to be healthy. To that end, he has proposed a bill that would give "residents income tax credits for making healthy lifestyle decisions," reports The Post-Star. "[T]axpayers could receive as much as $500 in income tax credits for joining health clubs, purchasing fitness equipment or enrolling their children in a youth sports league."

I've long called for some sort of incentive to encourage people to use public transportation, to walk or to bike to work, as a means of enhancing air quality and reducing congestion. But the latter two would also encourage healthier lifestyles. I walk or bike to work most of the time, even in winter. I don't like heavy traffic or dirty air, but public policy choices have made driving to work an imperative for some people. We shouldn't punish those who have no choice, but we can encourage those who could go either way.

Encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles is a noble and important goal. But a punitive, but too-miniscule-to-have-an effect, fat tax is not going to make a bit of difference. Giving people a positive incentive just might.


*-Incidentally, this is an example of media carelessness not boding well for its credibility. The AP article refers to sponsor of the fat tax bill as state Rep. Felix Ortiz. New York state does not have a House of Representatives. Its lower house is called the Assembly thus it should've read Assemblyman Ortiz.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

TWO STRIKES ON THE EVIL SCUM
A cease fire to the Liberian civil war was signed yesterday. The most notable condition was the agreement that the current dictator, indicted war criminal Charles Taylor, not take place in the transitional government that will organize elections. The announcement was greeted with mass scenes of "popular joy", according to Le Monde as well as the BBC.

When I read yesterday that Taylor would step down, I nearly choked on the potato chips I was eating. It is, of course, fantastic news to hear that one of the world's most despicable dictators is going to resign. The truly fabulous news will occur when the man most responsible for the instability of an entire sub-reigon of a continent, actually steps down. Taylor's thuggish history requires one to be highly guarded to anything he actually says. The phrase "actions speak louder than words" was coined precisely because of scum like Taylor.

What also remains to be seen is Taylor's future. He was recently indicted by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, as a result of his active sponsorship of that country's sickeningly brutal rebel group (from which he profited personally by getting a cut of the illicit blood diamond trafficking). He is also widely believed to be behind the most hardline faction in Ivory Coast's war, which is now in cease-fire. None of Liberia's neighbors have been spared by Taylor's expansionist meddling for profit.

It is important that he face trial and end up behind bars for the rest of his life. He did not simply destroy his own country, he destroyed an entire region. And it's an ongoing destruction that will outlast Taylor’s sordid regime. Taylor's faction practically invented the insidious concept of child soldiers as a policy. Sure, young soldiers have used in other conflicts. But never before had child soldiers been used with such SYSTEMATIC planning. Never before had they been a PRIMARY aspect upon which warfare depended. Never before had so many children been forcibly conscripted at such a young age; many child soldiers in Liberia hadn't even reached their 10th birthday. Warlords loved these SBUs (Small Boys Units) because young children soimetimes think they're invincible and are easily intimidated by those older than they. And when the boys showed reticence, they were drugged. I was reading an article in The Guardian where one boy spoke of how when he was afraid, his superiors cut his arm with a razor blade and smeared cocaine onto the wound, into the bloodstream, to make him “mad enough to fight or to chop people's limbs off.” This is evil Taylor conceived, and he exported it to other countries.

Now, there are large hordes of armed young men and boys who've known nothing but war throughout their lives. When one country signs a peace accord, they move on to another. This is the most important and most tragic legacy of not-yet-convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. This is why Charles Taylor's resignation and indictment will not solve the problem. But you have to start somewhere. You have to at least stop the hemoragghing before healing can begin.

Taylor was "elected" president in six years ago based on intimidation, coercion and threats. Le Monde recalled his 1997 campaign slogan: "I killed your mother. I killed your father. Vote for me so there will be peace." Now, hopefully all of West Africa can be rid of him so there is the slightest chance for peace.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

GOOD NEWS FOR THE MEDIA OLIGARCHY
If you follow the news, you're probably aware that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently relaxed rules concerning media concentration. Now, giant media conglomerates can own an increasingly larger percentage of the nation's media. No-regulation-no-matter-what ideologues applauded the decision by the Republican-controlled commission, despite overwhelming public comment against the relaxation of rules.

I tend to prefer other ways of solving problems than regulation. As a general rule, I think government intervention should be the last solution only because it's such a blunt instrument. However, I believe the news media is an exception. Obviously the CONTENT of the news media should not be regulated, except for libel, slander, etc. But there should be a fair diversity of views in the news media.

This is not an purely aesthetic question. Rather, it is an issue fundamental to health of the republic. Our democratic system relies on citizens who know what's going on and are motivated to participate in improving the country and society. I also believe in the concept of informed consent. That government should generally not micromanage the lives of individuals; give them the information and let them make their own decisions like adults. However, the concept of informed consent is useless without the "informed" half of the equation.

Everything we do both as citizens in a basically free country and as consumers in a basically free market is dependent upon access to information.

"But the new changes will allow an unprecedented diversity of consumer choice," insist the critics. Not necessarily. If we go from 70 channels owned by 5 different corporations to 1000 channels owned by 4 different corporations, is that really an expansion of choice? McDonald's can expand its menu to include 400 different items but it's still McDonald's. If you MSNBC gives you Vice-President Cheney, CNBC gives you Condoleeza Rice and NBC gives you Secretary of War Rumsfeld, is that three fundamentally different choices or three different versions of vanilla?

Do not be confused. Competition is almost always good for the consumer. De-regulation is usually irrelevant to the consumer. De-regulation does not necessarily lead to increased competition. One only needs to know basic history for this. For most of the 19th century, there was next to no regulation of business and industry. The natural tendency of business is monopoly. Monopoly is bad for the consumer. Anti-trust laws were put in place PRECISELY in response to the monopolistic tendencies of big business which harmed the consumer. Sometimes de-regulation is good for competition, other times it's bad for competition. It's not an automatic link.

I work for one of the big media corporations that will benefit from the FCC's changes. In addition to working for them, I also own stock in them. So as a shareholder, I suppose I should be happy that the changes will strengthen my company's position within the small media oligarchy. We can buy out smaller independent papers and television stations and, if we want, make sure they tow our corporate line. Fewer independent voices means more predictable, more sterile "debates."

The often screechy argument about if the media is liberal or conservative is totally missing the point. The media oligarchy is part of the corporate establishment. The New York Times is liberal, but liberal establishment; that distinction is important. The NYT ran virulent editorials not against Ralph Nader's positions but against his mere candidacy; Ralph Nader is as anti-establishment as they come. The Washington Times is conservative, but conservative establishment. Do you think someone with non-establishment positions would ever get a regular column in the WT? Corporations, by their natural instinct, insist upon that which is safe. Sometimes things need to be shaken up.

Sure, the NYT will also have their token "conservative" columnists and the WT their token "liberals" just so they can hold them up as facile "proof" of their fairness. But no one is going to be fooled by any of this. Besides, the true bias of the news media is not in the columns but in the news. Not in HOW the news is reported, but in WHAT news is reported and what isn't. How they decide what gets reported in the first place is far more dubious. And that's where the media concentration has its most nefarious effect.

Friday, June 13, 2003

CHARLES TAYLOR IS EVIL SCUM
Not my usual understated title, eh? Nor is it the usual understated entry, when it comes to one of the most despicible human beings on the planet.

Liberian rebels groups (LURD is the primary one and MODEL) are on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia. Their only stated revindication is the removal of the head of state, indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. A cease-fire has been agreed between the parties while peace talks take place in Accra, Ghana. The peace talks are complicated by Taylor's indictment; the warlord has indicated he will not leave office voluntarily unless the indictment is lifted.

I really don't know how LURD would govern Liberia. As I said, their only stated ambition is the removal of indicted war criminal Taylor. Little is know about the groups, although LURD is widely believed to be sponsored by neighboring Guinea. There is little love lost between Taylor and Guinea's leader Gen. Lansana Conté. Conté backed one of Taylor's rivlas in the first Liberian civil war in the 1990s. Taylor is assumed to have been behind the cross-border attacks into southern Guinea in late 2000 that cost dozens of lives and much material damage. With Sierra Leone devastated and Ivory Coast on the brink, Guinea is the only one of Liberia's neighbors that has not been at least partly destroyed by Taylor-backed forces.

LURD has no real political program other than removing Taylor. If it has a focal leader, he is hardly known. But I wonder if that's a good thing. If West Africa, rebel factions tend to form around charasmatic leaders, whose goal is little more than self-enrichment. Perhaps LURD's lack of a strong personality means that it will be more disciplined about governance.

But especially in West Africa, it's hard to be optimistic about any "regime change" that results from a civil war. Unfortunately, such conflicts are basically a circle of hell from which it is almost impossible to exit. Sometimes the the circle's spinning pauses for a breather, but it's never really broken. Once their civil wars started, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been in and out (mostly in) of civil war intermittently. What such conflict does is create large groups of people who don't know how a civil society is supposed to function. Especially children. The child soldier phenomenon is well-documented. The opening of that pandora's box is what have condemned Liberia and Sierra Leone to instability for the foreseable future.

The use of child soldiers is especially demonic because it's self-perpetuating. It creates a culture of war. Thousands of young Liberian and Sierra Leonian males have grown up knowing nothing but war. They are used to having adults cower to them because they hold Kalashnakovs. Often, they were forced to rape or kill relatives and burn down their own village FOR THE SOLE PUPORSE of shredding the pre-existing social order, essentially forcing the boys to sever all links with their previous lives. Repairing this incomprehensible damage is infinitely more difficult than signing a peace treaty and divying up ministries.

This is why it's so important for the nascent Ivory Coast conflict to be stopped in its tracks. This is why it's even more important to prevent this Dantean nightmare from spreading into Guinea.

This commerce in chaos is doubtless the most demonic aspect of Charles Taylor's reign. But since he was chummy with Col. Gadaffhi and reportedly had links to al-Qaeda, no one should be surprised at the depth of his malovolence.

I am not confident that the LURD will run Liberia substantially better than indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. At best, LURD may stop the bleeding and stabilize the country a tiny bit. At worst, at least LURD will only destroy Liberia rather than taking the entire West African sub-region with it. How tragic that things have descended that far. How tragic that, thanks to Charles Taylor, a group that might limit its destruction to its own country is seen as the lesser of two evils. Charles Taylor is one of the most sickening individuals living today. He is one of the men who's directly or indirectly responsible for destroying more lives than nearly anyone else on the planet. Saddam would envious of some of things Taylor's men (mostly boys, actually) have done. In condemning this slime, I apologize only for not using stronger language.

Although some insist that Taylor should be arrested and put on trial before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, I am open to an alternative for him and his buddy Foday Sankoh (whose troops were responsible for the infamous process of hacking of hands and arms of their victims). I say, release them. Release Taylor and Sankoh into the central market areas of Monrovia and Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone) respectively. Release them into the markets ALONE AND UNARMED. Then take bets on how long they survive. I put the over/under at 5 minutes.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

www.missing.org/democrats
As I was making my cereal for breakfast this morning, I SWEAR I saw a picture of the Democratic donkey on the side of the milk carton. Something about how they went missing in late September 2001 and haven't been heard from since. They even had the donkey digitally aged to show what he might look like now if anyone spots him.

I was listening to the BBC last night. They were talking about how it was the one year anniversary of a speech by President Bush to West Point graduates which introduced his new radical philosophy of pre-emptive deterrence. They did an interview with Michigan Sen. Carl Levin who said that now he thinks that radical philosophy might not be such a good idea. BRILLIANT OBSERVATION SENATOR LEVIN... too bad you didn't think of it nine months ago.

This is pretty much the story of the federal Democrats during most of Bush's term. They say nothing when the neo-conservatives are jamming their radical program through Congress (one those occassions when they actually deign to deal with Congress in the first place). Usually during this process, Democrats fall over themselves to show how they are good, acquiescent little soldiers. Then later on, when they need an issue, they re-visit that which they so eagerly supplicated themselves earlier and slam the president on it.

It makes me sick when I hear a Democrat who voted for the Patriot Act saying that some of its provisions are broadsides against basic civil liberties. Why didn't they saying these things during the deliberations on the Patriot Act in the first place?! Did they even read what they were voting for? Oh wait, they were hardly any deliberations on the Patriot Act. In that case, they should've insisted on such debate. But they didn't because they were afraid to be seen as "unpatriotic."

This is why the federal Democrats are irrelevant. It's bad enough we have Congressmen who are attacking civil liberties; the last thing we need in that situation if for other Congressmen to cower in fear instead of standing up for what's right. Several people have noted a variation of the quote, "All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing."

Next year, Democrats will tell you not to vote for Ralph Nader or whomever the Green candidate will be. They will say the Green will "steal" votes from the Democrats thus re-electing Bush (and company). They won't tell you what they'll do if they get elected because it will make them sound eerily similiar to the moderate Republicans (unless hell freezes over and an almost progressive like Howard Dean gets the nomination). But when they try to sell you this line, don't buy it.

Ask them what they did in opposition for the last four years. Ask them if they stood up to Bush/Cheney's and Ashcroft's excesses when they had the chance. Ask them if Democratic elected officials upheld their constitutional duties and their oath of offices or if they were too afraid to be called "unpatriotic." We don't need cowards in Congress or in the White House. We need people who are interested in being leaders, not if their primary goal in life is to be considered "electable."

Those elected officials in power have a record they can be judged on. Those in opposition do as well.


[Incidentally, if Bush wins the 2004 popular vote by a double digit margin and Ralph Nader (or whoever the Greens run) only gets 4 or 5 percent, I wonder who the Democrats will scapegoat then. Certainly anything to avoid having to look in the mirror.]
CONSERVATIVES UPSET AT PROGRESSIVE NGOs FOR USING SIMILIAR TACTICS
According to an article from One World via Yahoo, there was a conference yesterday on theme, "Nongovernmental Organizations [NGOs]: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few." It was sponsored by the unelected American Enterprise Institute [AEI], a conservative think tank .

"NGOs have created their own rules and regulations and demanded that governments and corporations abide by those rules," was the AEI's shocking denunciation. "Politicians and corporate leaders are often forced to respond to the NGO media machine, and the resources of taxpayers and shareholders are used in support of ends they did not sanction."

It must be galling to the right that non-conservatives, like humanitarian NGOs, are using their same tactics. NGOs pressure entities to do what they want? NGOs act to advance their agenda? NGOs try to influence government policy? NGOs praise those that act in accordance with their goals and criticize those who don't? OH THE HORROR!

NGOs are not inherently good or bad. The AEI is as much an NGO as the Red Cross or Oxfam. NGOs are simply private organizations (neither corporate nor government) trying to advance a particular agenda. Some are good, some are not. The article pointed out, "Former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso is expected to recommend the adoption of guidelines or other mechanisms to ensure that NGOs recognized by the UN are transparent and accountable." This is an entirely reasonable proposition.

But many conference attendees were not simply calling for more NGO transparency. "To them, the international NGOs are pursuing a leftist or 'liberal' agenda that favors 'global governance' and other notions that are also promoted by the United Nations and other multilateral agencies," noted the article.

"Big shareholders are getting embarrassed to be associated with some companies," said GWU Professor Jarol Manheim. To which I say AMEN.

If you're running sweatshops, you should be embarassed. If you're using de facto sharecroppers to cultivate West African cocoa, you should be embarassed. If you persecute those who want modest pay and humane working conditions, you should be embarassed. If you're oil drilling destroys the way of life for people in a river delta, you should be embarassed. All of those things may be legal in those countries. Fine. But if these facts embarass you in the court of public opinion, maybe legality is not the only thing to consider. If it takes NGO protests to make you realize this, so be it.

There is a reason these NGOs target companies like Nike and Nestle rather than companies like Microsoft and Tribune. Think about it.

I believe that formal government regulation should usually be the last option. I think that enlightened self-interest should be exploited to the fullest before pushing for formal government intervention. Why? Simply because once you get a label in the court of public opinion, it's harder to buy back a good image. It's easier for them to manipulate Congress or state legislatures. To that end, I am fully in favor of naming and shaming those corporations who act immorally. If they don't like bad PR, all they have to do is stop doing bad things.

The 80s and 90s, conservatives were very intelligent and creative in developing effective ways of implementing their agenda. It is not surprising they resent it when progressives wise up and adopt some of those methods. But fortunately, their whining will not stop NGOs from holding governments and corporations accountable. Somebody has to.




Monday, June 09, 2003

AN UN-'BIAS'ED REMINDER

The cartoon Mother Goose and Grimm had an interesting cartoon today. If you click on the previous link today (June 9), you'll see it. It has a picture of a guy holding a bowl of cereal, standing next to an open fridge door filled entirely with milk. The character says, "Honey, where's the milk?" The caption reads, "Hans Blix at home."

From a pure humor standpoint, it was funny. I laughed out loud when I read it.

I realize, of course, that these strips are drawn well in advance of their publication date. Still, I find it ironic. Could he have replaced "Hans Blix" with "American weapons inspectors" and had the same effect?

It's been almost two months since Americans and co. conquered the country and there've been no "smoking guns." Excluding, of course, Leaks that the Pentagon reported that did not have enough 'reliable information' Iraq was amassing chemical weapons, a report issued during the president's push for war. But that's surely not the kind of smoking gun the president and Prime Minister Blair were looking for in any case.

The lead story on Yahoo News was an Associated Press article noting that, "U.S. military units assigned to track down Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have run out of places to look and are getting time off or being assigned to other duties, even as pressure mounts on President Bush to explain why no banned arms have been found."

Yapping head apologists like Ann Coulter will shriek that it doesn't matter (and trust me, when you read Coulter's columns, you wish the text came with a volume control button) "We don't care!" read the title of one of her recent screeds, not exactly clarifying who is the 'we' she is presuming to speak for.

She went on to insist, "Liberals also have to pretend that the only justification for war given by the Bush administration was that Iraq was knee-deep in nukes, anthrax, biological weapons and chemical weapons -- so much so, that even Hans Blix couldn't help but notice them. But that wasn't the Bush administration's position. Rather, it was that there were lots of reasons to get rid of Saddam Hussein and none to keep him."

Obviously if you recall the situation without "Bias", you'll know that WMDs were not the ONLY justification given for war, just the PRIMARY justification for war... that is, if you ignore the unstated reasons. As Deputy War Secretary and the administration's leading neo-conservative radical Paul Wolfowitz noted, "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."

[Just a reminder to any new people. My position was that Iraq's having or thinking of having or formerly having weapons of mass destruction was, by itself, not a reason for the United States to unilaterally invade.]

You have to admire Coulter's moxy. In her next column, I wouldn't be surprised if she insisted that the United States intervened in World War II (in 1942) for the purpose of liberating Western Europe (mostly conquered by 1940) from original Axis of evil and to save the Jews from Nazi gas chambers (where they'd been sent since the late 30s).

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

AT LEAST JUSTICE IS POSSIBLE FOR SOME OF THEM
If you heard me singing Ode to Joy this morning, it was because I read of that Charles Taylor was indicted by the UN-backed War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone. Who is Charles Taylor? Taylor is a war criminal and former warlord who’s become dictator of West African state of Liberia. It is a good day for humanity, though not as great as the days when he is arrested and put on trial.

Liberia is known by many as the country settled by freed US slaves. These Americo-Liberians, as they are known, promptly set up a system to ensure their social superiority over the “indigenous” folk. This apartheid like system held until 1980, when a group of “indigenous” military officers led by the sadistic Samuel Doe led a coup to oust the civilian government. One of Doe’s top civil servants was Charles Taylor, until the two fell out and Taylor fled to the US. He was arrested, pending extradition to Liberia for embezzlement, but he managed to escape from a Massachussetts jail and eventually found his way to Libya.

In Libya, he made friends with the ever honorable Col. Gadhaffi and a Sierra Leonian exile named Foday Sankoh. Having failed in his ambition to become the Arab world’s next Nasser and in international isolation for his alleged role in various terrorist attacks, Gadhaffi turned his eyes toward gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa through bribes, generous donations and military excursions; sadly, he has succeeded quite well in spreading his influence.

Doe terrorized and mismanaged the country throughout the 80s and Liberians didn’t think it could get any worse. Of course, it did. On Christmas Day 1989, Taylor invaded Liberia from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire (I believe he was related by marriage to the Ivorian President Felix Houphoeut-Boigny). He was on the verge of capturing the capital Monrovia when a Nigerian-led West African “peacekeeping” force intervened and pushed Taylor’s forces back. A World War I style “active stalemate” took hold for the next several years, with several other armed factions throwing their hat into the ring. But during this period, some of the most horrific war crimes imaginable were perpetrated, with most of them attributed to Taylor’s NPFL forces. Beheadings, cannibalism, burning people alive, forcing drugged-up young soldiers to rape their female relatives. Even on a continent where terrible violence is far too common, Africans were shocked at the appalling brutality of Liberia’s civil war.

This nightmare was mimicked in neighboring Sierra Leone, particularly by the RUF group led by Taylor’s old chum Foday Sankoh. It is widely accepted that Taylor actively funded and armed the RUF, who not only adopted the same atrocities of Taylor’s NPFL, but made amputation of arms and hands (the gender and age of the victims were irrelevant) its most macabre signature.

In 1997, under pressure, Taylor and the other warlords accepted to hold elections organized by a provisional government. Since Taylor’s forces remained in military control of much of the control, they bullied, threatened and harassed their way to a ballot box “victory.” Upon his anointment as “democratic” leader, he was acted like any other third-rate dictator, arresting human rights activists, muzzling what little there is of a free press, etc. But he has done much worse.

Not content with destroying Liberia, Taylor has set his mind on destabilizing the entire West African region. None of his neighbors has been left untouched by Taylor’s vileness. In addition to supporting the RUF in Sierra Leone, he is also seen as the godfather of the MPIGO, the most intransigent of the rebel groups in Cote d’Ivoire. He is also thought to be behind the cross-border attacks into Guinea in late 2000/early 2001 attributed to a mysterious Guinean rebel group that no one had heard of before nor since.

But perhaps the most damaging long-term effects wrought by Taylor and his proteges is the destruction of social cohesion. That he had young, drugged-up troops rape their mothers, chop off the hands of their grandfathers and burn down their villages was not an accident. It was a quite intentional act whose goal was two-fold. First was to shred the existing social order; iconclasm to an unimaginable degree. The other was to ensure loyalty to the warring faction by provoking the youngster’s rupture with his family and friends. It was sinister beyond belief. Liberian and Sierra Leonian societies now are trying to pick up the pieces from what Taylor and his ilk wrought. Needless to say, it is an mind-boggingly difficult and complex task.

The other effect is that thousands of young males have spent their whole lives knowing nothing other than war. They do not know how a regular society functions. They are used to demanding respect by the barrel of a Kalashnakov. As a result, they are used to getting anything they want when they want. They have no education, no skills other than inflicting violence on others.

There are thousands of these young males in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They can not be demobilized because they have no prospects of anything otherwise. Everything they’ve ever gotten in life was linked to their having a weapon. They are thus loathe to give up that weapon. Taylor knows that these young males can not be demobilized so when he assumed power, he sent them to Sierra Leone. This was a double bonus for Taylor. It helped his old friend Sankoh (and gave him a share of the diamond trade Sankoh’s forces controlled) while simulateneously getting rid of this unstable and rest part of his population. With the bored, restless, armed males gone, Taylor could successfully cower those that remained. When peace came to Sierra Leone, those restless, armed males were bored again and thus a potential threat, so Taylor sent them to Cote d’Ivoire to proceed destroying that country.

There is now a rebellion in Liberia, led by a group whose acronym is LURD, which controls about 60 percent of the country. Given that Taylor has destabilized his other two neighbors, no wonder the Guinean head of state, Gen. Lansana Conte, despises him and allegedly supports the LURD.

Due to this military pressure, Taylor was forced into peace talks with the LURD in Accra, Ghana. Apparently the indictment against Taylor was sealed by the Court several months ago but made public only today. This was quite shrewd since it puts pressure on the Ghanaian government to arrest the despot and hand him over. Taylor doesn’t get out much any more, since the imposition of a UN travel ban on him and his government (although he’s been to Paris, which isn’t surprising given France’s historic relations with African dictators).

Yet, it remains to be seen if Taylor will actually be arrested in Accra. No serving head of state has ever been arrested on war crimes’ charges and the Ghanaian government is surely not excited about setting such a precedent. It also complicates the peace talks.

But ultimately, I think this indictment is a groundbreaking event. It sends a message to the most vile scum of the planet: there is no such thing as diplomatic immunity for the most horrific crimes. While the world will probably never reach a time when ALL the worst butchers are put in the dock, it is certainly a glimmer of hope to know that justice is possible for some of those who belong in hell.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S LIBRARY
We have an awesome public library here in my town, especially given that our population only numbers about 14,000. I’ve been in towns several times larger which had much crappier libraries. The people of this area are certainly blessed to have such a wonderful institution, which happens to be the heart of our downtown. Still though, it’s interesting to notice how things change over time.

When I was a kid (mid-80s), the children’s room at the library added a few computers. This was way back when only schools, scientists and intelligent but socially challenged teenagers had computers. They were Apple II’s which were pretty nice at that time. By the time, I got back from Guinea (’97), the main area had also added a number of computers (PC’s) with word processor programs and internet access. It was a bit noisy at first, until the librarians figured out to limit the usage to two people per computer at time, instead of having gaggles of 11 year old girls crammed around a screen talking about god knows what in a chat room.

What was really weird, though, was a few months ago when the library added a soda machine. Apparently, the board of trustees felt this would be a nice way to raise revenue. This doesn’t bother me in the least since I’m a soda addict. Still, it was a bit odd, as “no drinking in the library” is one of those things that’s just always been considered a truism. To have the library actually selling soda was strange. Stranger still is that they haven’t yet modified the chart of rules which continues to command “no drinking in the library.” :-)

But the most striking thing hit me on Monday, when I stopped by to drop off a book. On the main door of the library, there are numerous signs. Library hours. Location of the book drop. Time of the next book sale. But recently added was a credit card sign. The library now accepts Visa, MasterCard and possibly, though I can’t remember for sure, American Express. So the next time I owe 75 cents for a late fee, should I whip out my plastic? A brave new world indeed.





THE G-8 VS THE O-190+
The leaders of the G-8 (world’s seven richest countries plus Russia) held a recent summit in Evian, France. There was a large exclusion zone around Evian, forcing protesters to hold court in nearby Geneva, Switzerland. As is the case with most of these summits, nothing much productive happened. In Geneva, progressive protesters protested diverses causes; idiotic anarchists (aka: self-indulgent twits) went around smashing windows of anything they felt like. The leaders themselves met in their fortress smiling and holding photo ops. The story that most interested the news media was the meeting between Presidents Bush and Chirac, their first since their spat over the Iraq conquest. The two held a photo op session where each mouthed noble platitudes while the other held a smile that was about as natural as the meat in a Subway sandwich.

On to issues that actually affect people’s lives. Invited African leaders said they wanted not more aid, but for the west to slash or end agricultural subsidies thus instituting actual free and fair trade between the two for the first time in centuries. European leaders said they were willing to do this but that the Americans weren’t. Pres. Bush said he was willing to do this but Europe wasn’t. The result, shockingly, was that nothing happened. Commerce (and capital) between the west and Africa remains mostly a one way street.

But I guess the most flabbergasting fact is that the G8 countries (USA, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Russia) represent HALF of the world’s wealth. That means that half of the entire world’s wealth is held by only 8 countries. And the other half of that wealth is split among the other 190-something countries (call them the O-190+). Whether you think that’s injust or whether you think it’s “too bad but the way things are”, it’s absolutely astonishing to contemplate.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

MADAGASCAR A LA TOGOLAISE?
Togo went to the polls on Sunday to vote on whether to extend the 36-year rule of Gen. Gnassingbé Éyadéma, Africa's longest serving leader. Éyadema's victory seemed pre-ordained with the exclusion of main opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, whose father was the first president of the country and was allegedly assassinated either directly by Éyadema or on his orders. Yet, Olympio’s Union of the Forces for Change (UFC) party still decided to run a candidate, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, against Africa’s longest serving leader.

According to the opposition newspaper Le Togolais, Akitani and the UFC have claimed victory, despite the 35% that the official partial results have credited him with (against 59% for Éyadema). The UFC alleges massive fraud and vote rigging on the part of the regime. This after Éyadema forced through constitutional changes abolishing the two-term presidential limit. A strong man rigging the constitution and stuffing the ballot boxes, the opposition claiming fraud, sadly this is not unusual in Africa.

What intrigues me, however, is the apparent strategy being followed by the UFC. It is using the non-state media to create the impression in people’s minds that it actually won the election (which may well indeed be true). For example, a CTR press release (the CTR is an umbrella opposition group) thanked the Togolese people for “having fired the despot Étienne Gnassingbé Éyadema” while guarding against “any unseemly triumphalism” and encouraging “all Togolese democrats to put aside their personal quarrels to support, without second thoughts, Emmanuel Bob Akitani, the democratically elected president of all the Togolese.” They added that this was done “despite maneuvers, crimes and frauds of an unlimited nature.” Akitani himself launched “a solemn appeal to the Togolese people, united against one man, to defend our victory.”

This seems in many ways similar to the strategy used by Marc Ravolomanana in Madagascar in 2002. Much like Akitani, Ravolomanana was up against a veteran military leader: Didier Ratsiraka who’d been in power since 1975. Madagascar’s capital was a bastion of opposition support, much like Togo’s Lomé. Ratsiraka, like Éyadema, had become a pariah of the international community. In Madagascar, the opposition used its support in the capital (of which Ravolomanana was mayor) to take control of government buildings and set up a de facto alternate government, to protest the official ruling that it did not receive the majority of the presidential vote. Eventually, it expanded its influence and become the de facto government in much of the country. Once Ratsiraka’s forces collapsed, that status was officialized when the Ravolomanana government was recognized by the international community. It will be interesting to see if Togo’s opposition opts for a similar strategy.

There are a few important differences. Éyadema has tried to counter his pariah status by acting as a mediator in many West African crises. This has bought him some goodwill among neighboring leaders. Furthermore, Éyadema has used that instability in other West African countries as an example as to why he should remain in power: he represents stability and the opposition represents chaos… a classic dictator’s ploy.

Éyadema has also proven even more ruthless than Ratsiraka over the years in cracking down on opposition. Already, two leaders of the UFC have been arrested by the police. Some 70% of the Togolese army come from the same region as Éyadema and the military’s loyalty is not thought to be suspect. And the millionaire Ravolomanana was the charismatic natural leader of the Malagasy opposition. Akitani is the second choice of his own party and it remains to be seen if he’ll be taken seriously as his own man or as be perceived a puppet of Olympio. But if Togolese are as sick of Éyadema’s oppression, mismanagement and corruption as many believe, then it may not matter.

No matter what happens, interesting days are sure to follow in one of West Africa’s smallest countries.
POST 9/11 DETENTIONS SLAMMED
I was flipping around last night and Chris Matthews' show was debate (if you can say those kind of shows ever "debate") whether or not the media is really liberal or conservative. It began with a snip from liberal comedian Al Franken who noted that the news media has many biases. Corporate, sensationalist, ratings, money, get it first not necessarily right, it bleeds it leads, enterainment over information. Of all the biases, liberal/conservative is one of the least important in terms of impact on how the news is presented. This is a sentiment I totally agree with. This liberal/conservative thing may have been important 10-15 years ago, but with increasing emphasis on "info-tainment" and decreasing emphasis on serious reporting, the alleged leanings of individual journalists is less and less relevant. Journalists may report the story, but how it gets edited is not their decision. Which stories they even do is not their decision either. I've always said that the media bias is reflected less on HOW the report particular stories, but on WHAT they choose to report and what they choose not to report. You can say a reported story is biased or not; but when a story is not reported at all, you can't make any such determination.

For example, last night, I heard and read on the BBC a story about civil liberties post-9/11. They discussed a report by the Justice Department's Inspector General criticizing the manner in which thousands of foreigners were detained. It pointed out that many were detained for long periods of time without charge, until the authorities got around to determining they had no connection to terrorists (which was the case for the overwhelming majority). They were guilty until proven innocent. Many were arrested under the guise of violating immigration law, but they were detained far longer than immigration violators should be. Under US law, the government has 90 days to deport or release detainees. Many of these were held far longer, until the authorities got around to determining they were no threat.

Official response was typical: "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said, ignoring the findings of the inspector general that certain procedures were not followed legally. It was also typical in that the most blatant abuses were arrogantly shrugged off: in trying to protecting Americans' freedoms, we can do whatever we want, including assaulting those freedoms, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11.

Anyway, back to my point the media, I heard and read the story on the BBC but the website story was a little thin so I looked around the American media sites. What I found was...

CNN: After several searches, I could not find any article. Apparently, they did not report on this.
MSNBC: Not part of the US news section. I had to do a search for it, only because I knew the story existed in the first place.
ABC and CBS: Story appeared in their main US news' sections.
Fox News: Story appeared in their main politics' section.

I thought this was interesting since Fox is a right-wing station and CNN prides itself on being serious and objective. Yet which one saw fit to run a story on this important report (that happened to criticize the right-wing Justice Department)? Perhaps this is the best argument for preserving a diversity of voices in the media, for ensuring competition in the press. Ironic eh...

See: Report criticizes post-9/11 detentions
...THE HIGHEST DEGREE ODIOUS
I was reading the transcript of an appearance made by Noam Chomsky on a Radio Netherlands call-in show. I don't always care for Chomsky because he's a little too repetetive and strident for me. But he usually makes interesting points if you can fight through the screech. Check out the text of the interview; it's worth a look. Anyway, he cited a comment made by Churchill, which I've verified elsewhere.

"The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgement of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist."
-Winston Churchill, 1943


I thought this was telling. Sure, it's one thing argue for civil liberties during peace time. But Churchill made this comment in 1943, when his country was under a mortal threat and in the middle of the one of the most destructive wars in the history of mankind. The Conservative Churchill was far from a flaming pinko. And by any sane measure, Britain's national security was in infinitely more danger in 1943 than the United States' is right now. Yet, Churchill was wise that there are certain things so absolutely fundamental to a free society, that they should never be sacrified even in the darkest hours. Otherwise, the fight for freedom ceases to be about freedom. I hope President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft and their cohorts will take note.