Saturday, February 28, 2004

In a previous posting, a reader asked why I seemed to have an obsession with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. There are probably groups who do worse things than Mugabe's ZANU-PF cult, but they tend to be rebel groups. Mugabe and his cohorts have the benefits of diplomatic niceities, ambassadorships and invitations to official conferences, to say nothing of unlimited access to the state treasury. He also has the high profile, public backing of otherwise respectable and democratic leaders like Olesegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa respectively. Although other thugs may be a bit worse, none of them are considered an 'emminence grise' or grand old man of their region, let alone a would-be spokesman for developing countries (a misnomer when applied to Zimbabwe).

Perhaps the most galling thing is that Mugabe and his thugs probably couldn't destroy the country any faster if it was their conscious plan to do so. When acceeding to independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had great infrastructure, good schools and roads and a solid economy. Although Mugabe imposed some pretty horrific repression in the south of the country (opposition territory) in the early 80s, eventually he co-opted them. They also built decent educational and health systems. There was some corruption and harassment but basically the social situation was fairly decent when Mugabe and ZANU-PF were unchallenged masters of the land.

But in the late 90s, people started getting sick of economic stagnation and political asphyxiation. Mugabe tried to ram through a constitution that would legally give him near dictatorial powers but the opposition united and amazingly, the constitution was rejected. I say amazingly because usually even an actual No vote would normally be transformed into a Yes result by, um, creative vote counting. But they expected to win so handily that they didn't bother to rig the results beforehand.

The defeat infuriated Mugabe and he's been on the rampage ever since. Mugabe's critics called him a Marxist, but really his tactics are more Stalinist. Sheer terror. Little to do with economics and everything to do with maintaining power at any cost. Although his seizure of white owned farms has gained the most publicity in the west, this only scratches the surface of the nightmare that is Zimbabwe.

They have indoctrination camps set up to brainwash young people. The regime stands accused ofmanipulating international food to punish political opponents. This along with more "garden variety" crimes like torture, intimidation and surveillance of nearly every independent political and social organization and a war against what little remains of the local free press. They effectively banished all international media from the country, since they obviously want no foreign witnesses to the nightmare. Despite this, the BBC managed to make a documentary about the regime's torture training camps.

And excellent article detailing the horrors of Mugabe can be founding by clicking here. It's an interview with Samantha Power, the excellent author of the must-read book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

So the reason Mugabe infuriates me is because, more than nearly any other basket case in the world, Zimbabwe could be so much better. Even if its rulers were merely negligent.

By all accounts, most Zimbabweans are so good-natured and resilient that they deserve 1000 times better. Living in Africa is how I learned that patience is not always a virtue. One of the reasons many African countries are in such bad shape is because Africans tend to be (and I know this is a huge generalization) very good at adapting to whatever situation arises. In one sense, this is an ability without which they wouldn't survive or would at least go crazy. However, the fact that they rarely reach the boiling point means that they put up with too much. They, the ones not doing anything wrong, who adapt rather than the thieving thugs who call themselves rulers. The people rarely get so pissed off that they just throw the bums out. To a certain extent, there's something to be said for good old fashioned Western impatience.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

I heard on NPR that the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make an attack on a pregnant woman as two separate crimes (the Associated Press article on the story can be read here).

This essay is not to say the bill is not to say the bill is good or bad. It's a pretty tricky issue. From a legal standpoint, it's hard to justify an attack on a pregnant woman as two crimes particularly if the woman is not obviously pregnant. Intent plays a role in the law. On the other hand, it's hard for me accept that the fetus is merely an appendage the same way as an arm or an ear. I remember the case of a local woman who gave birth to a drunk baby. That kid was born quite possibly with fetal alcohol syndrome and brain damage. The effects were suffered by an undeniable human baby even if it was done before the baby was born. Can you imagine telling him 15 years later, "Hey kid, we're sorry you had permanent brain damage but cheer up, it happened back when you were legally worthless"? Saying a fetus has the same status as a toe doesn't work for me. I wish a good solution, aside encouraging pregnant mothers to act responsibly. [For more on this, see my essay What about the baby's rights?]

Critics charged that the bill was a backdoor effort to undermine abortion by giving fetuses distinct legal status.

Supporters denied this charge saying that language in the bill specifically protects legal abortion.

Although this was an attempt to appease abortion rights activists, it makes the bizarreness even more evident. The bill makes illegal to INJURE a fetus but protects efforts to TERMINATE the fetus altogether. It's like saying "It's ok if you kill someone, just don't break their nose."

Of course, such absurdity is at home in an American legal system. The state torturing a prisoner is an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment, but the state actually murdering that prisoner is perfectly acceptable.
The BBC* reported that Guantanamo detainees may still be kept in detention, even if they are found not guilty by a military tribunal, according to Pentagon officials.

In other words, even if the government rules that they didn't do anything, the detainees will remain incarcerated.

And there still those who think anti-Americanism flourishes because foreigners hate freedom and the rule of law. If keeping people judged not guilty by the government's own invented process is part of what the president calls "a fight for freedom," then maybe I'm not in favor of that kind of 'freedom' myself.

Most galling is that the announcement that innocent detainees may remain in custody indefinitely came on the same day as the State Department issued its report on human rights around the world. I guess human rights doesn't begin at home.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

*-thank heavens for the BBC. I didn't see or hear anything about this story on CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or NPR, though the latter did manage to find time for pieces on Martha Stewart and the resignation of the head of the National Zoo.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I read a poll on MSNBC that 2/3 of Americans surveyed support the idea of televising executions. Over a fifth said they'd pay to watch Osama bin Laden get fried and 11% would do so for Saddam Hussein.

Let me get this straight: a comfortable majority of Americans (polled) believe that state-sponsored and -implemented murder being televised is a grand notion but that the idea of Adam and Steve saying "I do" to each other is abhorrent and a slap in the face to decent civilization. And don't even mention Janet Jackson's nipple.

"...with liberty and justice for all... er, some, provided it's not too unpopular."

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

As expected, Ralph Nader's introduction to the presidential field has been met with fury, primarily from establishment Democrats. They trot out the tired old line that Nader "stole" the election from Al Gore in 2000. They imply that Gore had and every Democrat has a God-given right to every left-of-center vote in the country.

If Nader hadn't run, Gore might've won. And he might not have. If Buchanan hadn't run, that would've affect the vote totals too. If Gore hadn't stopped campaigning in Ohio (a state he lost by a small margin) several weeks before the vote, he might've won. If Gore had won his own state, he would've won. (The fact that the people who knew him best didn't vote for him isn't exactly a great vote of confidence)

Of course Nader's campaign had an effect on the race. That's one of the reasons you run a campaign. Ralph Nader didn't run for the purpose of electing Al Gore. Though ironically, it's been reported that Al From, chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, wrote in Blueprint Magazine (1-24-01) that according to their own exit polls, Bush would have beat Gore by one percentage point if Nader hadn’t run in 2000.

Who knows? And who cares? Every second that's spent on the fact of someone's candidacy is a second not being spent on the issues that candidate is trying to raise. The Nader smearing is a smokescreen. Yes, Democrats don't like his candidacy. They shouldn't. He's going to point out all the ways elected Democrats have been delinquent in their duties.

I'm quite certain that Al Gore's presence took far more votes away from Ralph Nader than vice versa. If all the people who thought Nader was the guy actually voted for him, his vote total would've been a lot higher. But again, why should anyone care? The reason you should care is because such scenarios are not inevitable.

The Green Party has a lot of artists and other free sprits. Soaring sentiments usually trump concrete plans. The Green platform is more like a 3rd grader's wishlist to Santa or a declaration from a UN Conference than a serious plan for action. They have the vision but the intellectual rigor is something they need to work on.

One of their excellent ideas, though, is something called instant runoff voting (IRV). According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, IRV works as follows:

Instead of just casting one vote for one candidate, voters rank the candidates: 1,2,3, etc. (hence, the motto, "it's as easy as 1-2-3."). If no candidate receives a majority of the #1 votes, the candidate with the least total of #1 votes is eliminated. The second choice votes from these ballots are then transferred to the other candidates. The ballots are recounted, and candidates are eliminated in this fashion until 1 winner emerges with a majority of the vote.

Although voting your conscience should always be the first option, IRV would all but eradicate the demonic 'lesser of two evils' argument so complicit in the explosion of political apathy in America.

Other benefits, according to the Center include:

When there are more than 2 candidates, it ensures the winner has a majority. It will decrease negative campaigning. IRV saves money.

IRV would have the inadvertant benefit of making life difficult for the pollsters, the punditocracy and others who make it their job to tell us how to think.

Monday, February 23, 2004

I flipped the TV on and it was on CSPAN. They were showing the Republican governors meeting. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was at the podium talking on his cellphone to God. Yes, the Lord and Creator of the Universe had nothing better to do than talk to a political flack at a partisan get-together.

Gov. Huckabee had a conversation with God, into the cellphone and microphone, in front of a few dozen governors, the president and a national television audience. A two-way conversation, it seems, the contents of which the governor shared.

God apparently told him to support families and strong leaders. Though, Gov. Huckabee assured God, "I know you can't take sides in the election." He kept a straight face while saying this.

I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry. So I did both.

The scary part is that, I swear to Huckabee's God, I'm not making this up.

It's one thing to let your beliefs guide your political actions. It's another to crassly exploit religion for a few extra votes.

I half expect the president to explain us why Jesus explicitly ordered him to invade Iraq.
With Ralph Nader entering the presidential race, predictable howls of outrage from the Democrats have been defeaning.

Nader's candidacy "is terrible if he goes ahead because it's about him, it's about his ego, it's about his vanity and not about a movement," sniffed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, assuring us that John Kerry and John Edwards and anyone else running for president have no ego or vanity whatsoever.

Nader denied such nonsense noting that his candidacy was about changing the whole political system, not just removing the corporate shill in the White House with a slightly less messianic version. Bush is taking the country to pot at 80 mph and replacing him with someone will take the country to pot at 55 mph isn't acceptable enough.

To his detractors, he noted, "It is an offense to deny millions of people who might want to vote for our candidacy an opportunity to vote." After all, if the Democrats had spent the last decade or so acting like Democrats, then Nader wouldn't have gotten enough votes to "cost" Al Gore the 2000 election (as the myth goes).

The movement is about expanding political participation. When you have choruses of "pragmatic" people demanding we vote for the lesser of two evils (who's still an evil), no wonder so many Americans decide to opt out of voting altogether.

The 'lesser of two evils' crowd is directly complicit in provoking the widespread political apathy in this country. They've demanded we lower our standards. And most of the voting population has chosen to cower to those demands. Or they've simply tuned out in disgust. Conversely, if the voters decide to take their anger and use it to buy a backbone, then things just might have a shot of getting better.

I'm going to say something that I never thought I'd say: I no longer object to people not voting. I believe people should vote their conscience. Always. This is not a luxury. It's the only reason we engage in voting. If I forego my principles, then what's the point of the exercise?

Some people don't vote because they don't care. Why should they cast an uninformed, disinterested vote? Others don't vote because the "mainstream" candidates are so uninspiring or compromised and voting for a smaller party candidate is a "wasted vote," according to so-called conventional wisdom. Others believe the system itself is so messed up that no individual candidate can change it so why lend legitimacy to a process that has none in their eyes.

I don't agree with this logic, but I understand it. And I can even respect the choice. I think if you look at the candidates and say "All of these guys stink," not voting is a better expression of conscience than saying "well the Democrat will screw up 15% less often than the Republican and the other candidates 'don't matter' so the Dem's got my vote."

I'd still encourage such people to look at smaller party candidates (actually I encourage this for all people) or even to write in someone's name. But I'd rather have someone act on their principles by not voting than to throw their principles in the trash just for the sake of some perverted notion of short-term expediency. So I actually have more respect for someone who makes a decision to uphold their conscience by not to voting than for someone who corrupts himself and the system by settling for someone he detests slightly less them someone else.

If you really like or support Kerry/Edwards or Bush, then by all means, vote for him. If you don't, vote for someone else. Don't hold your nose. Ever. It makes a mockery both of your principles and of the exercise of voting.

At some point, you have to make a stand, even if so-called conventional wisdom perpetually insists "it's not the right time."

Sunday, February 22, 2004

I know this will probably get me into more trouble than if I wrote an essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but here goes...

My thesis is pretty simple. I respect soldiers. I oppose their canonization. I know this is a patriotically incorrect thing to say but it needs to be addressed.

One of the functions of soldiers* is to defend our country against foreign invaders. Fortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Only twice in the last 100+ years have we fought wars against someone who's attacked us and their supporters: World War II and Afghanistan. My grandfather got a Purple Heart in the former.

Whether the other countless wars we've been involved with since then were justified or not is another issue. But very few wars have been a question of defending Americans' freedoms. I think this is a good thing because the alternative doesn't leave you much margin for error. Yet I think there needs to be a little intellectual honesty in the discussion.

[*-for the purposes of this essay, I'm referring to active soldiers, not to National Guardsmen, who generally serve a different role. The regular military has been used in an imperial manner for a long time. Some say the United States' imperial era started with the Spanish-American war; others say it was outlined as far back as the Monroe Doctrine. Thus, anyone who voluntarily decides to join the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines should become informed as to how America's foreign policy is likely to affect them. It's neither new nor a secret. Anyone who joins the active military must make themselves aware that history (and the present) shows they are far more likely to be used in an imperial excursion than in defending American freedom. If you know what you're getting into beforehand, there's less room for the "just following orders" response after the fact. They have a moral duty to know what they're getting themselves into beforehand and figure out if the way the government will use them corresponds or conflicts with their beliefs and reasons for joining. If this happened, there'd be less bitterness and anger when they are used in the way they were always likely to be used.]

One thing rankles me is the way society treats soldiers as though they are not only honorable, but exceptional in that way. It can be an honorable profession, when government policy doesn't prevent it from being so. Yet, it is not the only honorable profession out there. No one wears 'support our cops' ribbons, even though some of them serve in de facto war zones. If a firefighter dies in the line of duty, does it evoke the same outpouring of emotion as a military death?

I think it has to do with the macho American culture. We're awed by shows of strength. Building is something we're not quite as good at, since it requires a little more patience, diplomacy and (toughest of all) subtlety. The Occupation Forces in Iraq are finding all this out.

I was in the Peace Corps for two years. Very few people would consider that "service to our country" and almost no one would consider it service to our country in the same way as joining the military and going to war. That's fine with me. When I served in West Africa, I didn't have guys shooting at me. So I realize there's a difference.

Although some people don't think much about the work done by Peace Corps volunteers (mushy, soft, touchy-feely), I'm glad I did it. Many people see Americans as a giant imperial behemoth. They see Americans as the guys who invade weak countries to get their oil or because they're anti-Muslim. This may not be true, but it's the perception many people around the world are left with and denying that this perception exists is dangerously self-deceptive.

Humanitarian and development volunteers make a contribution in countering that perception. People like Peace Corps volunteers and related workers are in the front line in combating anti-Americanism. It might be slow, it might not be sexy or macho and there are no guns involved. But it's the most important and most effective way to prove to foreigners that we mean well. Unfortunately, these slow and painstaking efforts are often undermined by reckless government decisions.

Still, it's hard to hate Americans when some of them are giving you vaccinations or teaching your son mathematics. In the country where I served, 80% of the people were Muslim, yet Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism was pretty much non-existent. With programs like these, Americans become real human beings with flesh and bones rather than a vague abstraction. Americans become a people rather than a government with a military.

And it's not just Peace Corps. The people I admire most are those who go into war zones to deliver food or house refugees or give medical care. These are people who really do risk their lives to help other people. They could be living comfortably in Europe or North America, but instead they are dodging bullets and negotiating with drugged up 12 year olds with Kalashnakovs. Sure, some of them may be adrenaline junkies, but the fact is that many innocent people are still alive because of them. They risk life and limb for the sole purpose (and sole effect) of helping others. I happen to think there's something noble about it, even if no one throws them a parade or makes a movie-of-the-week about them or puts signs in front lawns in their honor.

Even ostensibly anti-war people inadvertantly contribute to this sense that soldiers' opinions are worth more than anyone else's. Some say, "George W. Bush wouldn't have been so casual and reckless about sending our troops to war if he'd experienced it himself." Yet I've read of some veterans who take the opposite opinion than the hypothetical quote above. They say, "Hey, I've done my duty, now it's time for you to do yours," as though duty exclusively means war.

The "only soldiers know what war is" statement implies that only warriors understand how devastating war is. War is devastating but not only for our boys, which is all most people here care about (ironic, since Iraq was supposedly a selfless war). It's also brutal on civilians in the war zone. Civilians are the people most affected by war but, without weapons, are the least able to affect its course.

I've never fought in a war. I have, however, visited a region devastated by war. I have visited a refugee camp. I know people who are refugees, whose lives and families and homes and societies have been destroyed by war. I don't need to pick up an AK-47 and get into a firefight and kill people to know how bad war is. Lots of people haven't even had my experience and they know war is horrible too. War may be hell, but it's immediate aftermath is often worse.

What I most oppose about the canonization of soldiers is that it creates a separate class of citizenry. Soldiers are better than non-soldiers. Their opinions are more valid. Their position on war and security can not be challenged by "mere civilians." Sometimes the self-righteousness and self-importance borders on vulgar.

A Marine, Father David O'Brien, reportedly wrote a famous essay in which he stated:

It is the Soldier not the reporter, who has given us Freedom of the press. It is the Soldier not the poet, who has given us Freedom of speech. It is the Soldier not the campus organizer, who has given us the Freedom to demonstrate. It is the Soldier not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the soldier, who salutes the Flag, who serves beneath the Flag and whose coffin is draped by the Flag, who allows the protester to burn the Flag.

This perfectly demonstrates the canonization I'm talking about.

There is a reason we live in a civilian republic. There is a reason why the Constitution mandates the president (commander in chief) not be an active military person. Why? Because what's most disturbing about this quote is its implications.

If the soldier gave us freedom of the press, the soldier can take it away at his whim. If the soldier gave us freedom of speech, he can take it away at his whim. If the soldier gave us the freedom to demonstrate, the right to a fair trial and the right to burn the flag, he can take them away at his whim.

Although I oppose the blanket canonization of the Founding Fathers as well (see earlier essay), a lot of things they said are still valid. Father O'Brien's comments are antithetical to those expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The soldier didn't give us these freedoms. Our Creator did. All Man can do is take those rights away. Freedom is the default position, not given to us because guys with guns felt like being generous. He who giveth can just as easily taketh away. This is not ingratitude. It's the truth.

Soldiers are infrequently called to defend our freedoms, but they don't give them to us. Thanks soldiers but don't canonize them.

And remember, other people, like humanitarian workers or mentors or people who work in the social domain, do a lot to make the world a better place too. I'd like see one of them on the cover of TIME one of these days.
I was reading an essay by a local liberal columnist. He added to the myth that Northeasterners are "unelectable" as presidential candidates. Being from this region is "the kiss of death" according to him. I'll skip the idea of being "unelectable," which is one of the most insipid and vacuous phrases in present political discourse.

The myth simply doesn't square with those pesky fact thingies. The major party losers in presidential elections in the last 55 years and their regions and states are as follows:

1952: Midwest (Stevenson, IL)
1956: Midwest (Ditto)
1960: West (Nixon, CA)
1964: West (Goldwater, AZ)
1968: Midwest (Humphrey, MN)
1972: Midwest (McGovern, SD)
1976: Midwest (Ford, MI)
1980: South (Carter, GA)
1984: Midwest (Mondale, MN)
1988: Northeast (Dukakis, MA)
1992: Wherever GHW Bush came from
1996: Midwest (Dole, KN)
2000: South (Gore, TN)

In the last 13 elections, only one (Dukakis) major party loser came from the northeast. Two, if you accept that George Bush the elder came from Connecticut. In more than half of those elections (7), the loser came from the Midwest. Yet the stereotypes go: the Northeast is a bastion of liberalism and intellectual snobbery and the Midwest is the heartland, with its traditional values. Northeasteners are out-of-touch elitists while the Midwest is home to good old fashioned Middle America and the so-called "swing voters" politicians lick the boots of.

Admittedly, being labeled "out of the mainstream" is hardly the worst thing one can be accused of. Especially considering what's mainstream nowadays. But can't the "accusation" at least have some basis in reality?

This would make another interesting essay topic: how myths become accepted simply because they're repeated often enough.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

This election is about jobs.

So goes the conventional wisdom. This is how the yapping heads explain the fall of Howard Dean. The punditocracy says that when Dean's campaign started to rise in stature, Iraq was on the front burner. But it's faded and now people are more concerned about jobs and the economy.

Job creation is the message John Kerry and John Edwards are hammering away at. The economy has lost 'x' jobs under President Bush. The subtext is, of course, that it's the president's fault. Except that it's not.

President Bush can be blamed for many things. I am far more concerned about his reckless and dangerous foreign policy actions as well as the assault on civil liberties. Although corportacracy and its role in corrupting good governance have long been problems, they've become much more blatant and shameless under this administration. These are far more important to me than the president's role in stimulating the economy. Why? Because the president doesn't really create jobs. If the economy has lost jobs, it's not primarily his fault. I may not be fond of what he's doing but you have to be fair.

One immutable law of politics is that the sitting president almost always gets too much credit when the economy's going well and he almost always gets too much blame when it's not going as well as expected. When the economy happens to go well, the president's a genius for doing nothing much. When the economy happens to hit a downturn, the president's Herbert Hoover II if he's not seen as doing much.

People think that the head of state can merely snap his finger and create a ton of jobs. This might happen from time to time, like when President Bush invented the Department of Homeland Security or when his foreign policy choices means we need more manpower in the military. But these are one-off deals. And the president doesn't create private sector jobs.

Sure, the government can do little things that will help. But these are small things that will have, at most, a small effect. The economy (both domestic and international) is so huge, intricate and interconnected that one leader can't affect it too much. Frankly, this is a good thing. Can you imagine if the whole world economy's stability hinged on the judgement of the American president?

But this also means that there are no magic bullets.

There is the question of trade policy. But if you gathered 300 experts, 100 would say "hurrah for fundamentalist free trade", 100 would say "protectionism today, protectionism tommorow, protectionism forever" and 100 would advocate some melange between the two. Some say NAFTA has cost us jobs, which is surely true in specific places. Others respond that the agreement has CREATED jobs if you look at things in net terms. If you lost your job at a company that moved its factory to Mexico, you'll likely see things in a different prism than if you work for a company that now exports a lot more of its products/services to Mexico.

Even so, trade policy is complicated and anything the president's team negotiates has to wind its way through Congress. So, the credit and the blame for such agreements can't be aimed solely at the White House.

This election is in fact about jobs. It's about the jobs of the people who would work in a Kerry/Edwards/Bush White House, their cabinet departments and various agencies. It certainly has to do with the jobs of American soldiers and how often they'll be sent on foreign excursions and crusades (though this may only vary slightly depending on who wins). But it has little to do with the jobs of the overwhelming majority of American citizens.

When John Kerry, John Edwards or George W. Bush says they will create jobs, they don't mean jobs for you and me. They mean jobs for themselves.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

"Letting gays get married does not harm anyone else's marriage."

-Some guy interviewed on NPR (possibly paraphrased)


50% of heterosexual marriages break up. And yet some people think the real threat to the institution is group of gays so committed to the institution of marriage that they are willing to fight and sacrifice for their inclusion. They are the true enemy.

I'm sorry but this fails the 'gimme a break' test.

Though as I've said before, get the govt out of the marriage business and give everyone civil unions. Leave marriage to the churches, who can marry or not marry whomever they wish.

Considering the fact that government licensed marriages are already nothing more than de facto civil unions, the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Some things just leave you speechless.

Rank shared by Jesus Christ and Bill Clinton among "the greatest Americans of all time," according to Americans: 13

Source: Harper's Index

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

How evil were the one or two percent who spent the last 14 years destroying Liberia? For many reasons, the recruitment and gratitutious use of child soldiers is the most insidious and destructive aspect of the Liberan and Sierra Leonian wars.

BBC journalist Mark Doyle, a West Africa veteran, described the conflict in the following way. Entering the world of Liberia's child soldiers is a disturbing experience. Normal moral values are put to one side. Children as young as eight or nine are forcibly recruited, or in some cases volunteer to avenge violent deaths in their own families. They fire rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles, often killing other children in rival militias.

A report from the group Human Rights Watch has extensive testimony from the estimated 15,000 children who have been engaged in combat. They include children who used war names derived from their actions, names like "Laughing and Killing" or "The Castrator". During a recent trip to Liberia, I came across a group of former teenage fighters boasting about their exploits in a marketplace in the eastern Liberian town of Zwedru. They had fought for a rebel group against the government of the now exiled President Charles Taylor, many saying they used powerful assault weapons like AK-47s.

One youth gave his fighter's name, "Bread and Butter". I asked him if he had killed any of Taylor's forces.
"Yes, I fired them immediately," he said, laughing.

"How many did you kill?" I asked.

"I killed many."

One youth gave his fighter's name, "Bread and Butter". I asked him if he had killed any of Taylor's forces.

"Yes, I fired them immediately," he said, laughing.

"How many did you kill?" I asked.

"I killed many."

Bear in mind that we're not talking about young men who are 15 1/2; we're taking about boys who are 12 or 10 or sometimes as young as 8. Bear in mind that the use of small children as soldiers in these two wars was not an accidental byproduct of a long war. It was a conscious strategy by warlords.

These brutes recognized the natural invulnerability that most children feel. They exploited this by drugging or brutalizing the boys so they could be better molded into efficient, fearless and (critically) mindless killers.

War is by its very nature destructive. By making young children complicit in the savagery, it increases the social destruction exponentially. Those who promoted the active use of small boys as soldiers should be put in the dock faster than you can say "Saddam Hussein."

To learn more
-Radio Netherlands' dossier on child soldiers in Liberia
-Radio Netherlands' dossier on child soldiers in Sierra Leone
-Human Rights Watch campaign against the use of child soldiers
-War Child, an organization helping rehabilitate child soldiers

Monday, February 09, 2004

I am now convinced that America is likely to be condemned to four more years with Mr. Bush as its president. The Democrats are almost certain to choose Sen. John Kerry as its nominee. While I suspect Gen. Clark, Sen. Edwards or even Gov. Dean would've given the president a difficult time, Sen. Kerry is likely to lose convincingly to Pres. Bush unless something dramatic happens.

This is ironic since Kerry presented himself as the "pragmatic" choice to Democrats who were attracted to Dean's straight-forwardness but thought his temperment was a liability. Now, instead of the firebrand, we've got the cure for insomnia.

It would be nice to believe personality doesn't matter in politics. It would be comforting to believe that issues were the only thing that mattered. Except reality is otherwise. The policy differences between most of the Democratic candidates really isn't that great. What separates them is style. Kerry is wooden (or presidential, depending on whom you ask). Dean is tempermental (or passionate). Lieberman was self-righteous (or resolute).

Personality is linked to credibility. And credibility is an essential part of leadership. Leadership is not just saying the words, but making people believe you. LEADership means LEADing. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan had very similiar positions on matters of policy. Yet one was able to convince people to entrust him with the presidency of the United States and the other wasn't.

President Bush's governing style is highly personal. It's not based on him spending a lot of time trying to convince you he's right. It's based on trusting his judgement. If you do trust him, you think he's great. If you don't trust him, you think he's awful. If you trust him, he's strong and has resolve. If you don't trust him, he's inflexible and has a Messiah complex. The personal style doesn't leave room for middle ground.

I don't see that John Kerry has the credibility to challenge this president. When the consumate political insider like him promises to root out special interests, it sounds hollow. Just like when then-candidate Al Gore used his phony "the people vs the powerful" line in 2000. He was vice-president of the United States; he was a US senator and a son of a US senator. He WAS the powerful. This helped lose him credibility and votes.

Kerry voted for the invasion of Iraq but is now criticizing the president's handling of it all, which could be fair under other circumstances. But Kerry claims he was mislead by the president into supporting the war. If true, this means Kerry is gullible. It means his judgement is little better than the president he proposes to replace. If not true, then it means he cast his pro-war vote for tactical reasons. It means he was opportunistic which hurts his credibility even more.

The Democratic nominee needs to be able challenge the president's policies, positions and actions and to present a compelling alternative. If he doesn't have the credibility to mount that challenge, he has no chance of winning in November. I'm afraid Kerry doesn't have that credibility.

For years, we've been told to support the lesser of two evils come election time. The lesser of two evils is still an evil. If you settle for the lesser of two evils, that's all you're ever going to get. This is why we've been rewarded with is continual mediocrity. Because we choose to accept it.

For years, we've said we wanted politicians to be straight with us, but those who've done so have been rewarded with electoral defeat or public humiliation. Americans said we wanted smaller government, but when Newt Gingrich tried to give it to us, he was burnt at the stake. Don't you think other politicians got the lesson?

Thomas Jefferson said, "People tend to get the kind of government they deserve."

Unfortunately, he was right.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The high court in Massachussetts ruled that gays have the same right to marry as straights, at least in marriages sanctioned by the government. Predictably, this provoked outrage on two fronts.

The first is from those who simply don't want anything to legitimize homosexuals and homosexuality. They may grudgingly acknowledge that such things as exist but don't want homosexuals to be given any victory that might legitimize that existence.

The other outrage comes from people who don't like the ruling but don't think of themselves as homophobic (and frequently aren't). Their primary argument is pseudo-legalistic, not based on vitriol against gays. They contend the ruling smacks of (and this must be spoken with the greatest indignation) JUDICIAL ACTIVISM. To these folks, the ruling is tantamount to the courts "legislating." The job of making laws is for the legislature, not the courts.

The job of the judiciary is not to legislate. And the Mass. court is not legislating.

The Massachussetts' constitution states, "All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights."

If straights can get state-sanctioned marriage but gay are not, then the two groups are not equal. If the Massachussetts' legislature passed a law that doesn't respect the constitution and the courts can't say so for fear of being labelled "judicial activists," then why have a constitution in the first place? What's the point of something if it's not going to be respected?

The alternative solution, which hardly anyone mentions, is simply for the state to get out of the marriage licensing business. That would leave marriage exclusive to the churches who could constitutionally discriminate however they wanted. There isn't really any compelling reason why the state has to license marriage, except perhaps as a revenue source.

I would PREFER that such changes be done via the legislative process. Although the legal legitimacy wouldn't be affected, it would certainly give the result more popular legitimacy. And the main point is to fight bigotry, not win a pyrrhic judicial victory.

I'd prefer it that way, but sometimes courts have to lead the way. Sometimes courts have to say, "This may be tradition, but it's against the constitution. Society may have ignored the contradictions for centuries but that is going to stop." This was done, for example, when courts (not legislatures) struck down bans on interracial marriage.

The federal constitution and, I'm sure, most state constitutions have clauses relating to the equal protection of citizens. I think these clauses should be removed. After all, any time anyone asks that those clauses actually be applied, people scream "JUDICIAL ACTIVISM!!!!!!!!!!"

If we want the government to subject different sets of law-abiding citizens to different standards, then let's drop the pretense of equality.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I was walking by the post office today and noticed the headline of The USA Today: "Kerry leading Bush in new poll." It reminded me of why I object to the media's overreliance on polls.

Media members like to solemly proclaim, "We don't make news. We just report it." The media makes news every time it makes out an issue or a broadcast. I had chicken wings for dinner yesterday. It was an important part of my day. It was news to me. The local paper didn't deem it worthy of publication. Each news outlet decides what it considers "newsworthy" and what it doesn't. It has to. The amount of news is infinite while the amount of space in a publication or time in a broadcast is limited. It don't begrudge it that, but it should be ingenuous enough to acknowledge this fact.

That's how the media decides what it considers news. But the use of polls is a different kettle of fish. The use of polls not only replaces exploration of real issues with discussion of a horse race. But it's a case of the media INVENTING a story out of nothing. A report on a poll which claims 52% of Americans think the president is not doing a good job doesn't explain why or how he should do things differently.

Then there's the whole question of the numbers. Take the afforementioned USA Today article on their poll. Even the phrasing of this sentence demonstrates something. They had no story before so they commissioned a poll and then reported on it. Isn't this inventing a story?

The text of the article read, "Kerry defeated Bush 53% to 46%, a lead outside the poll's margin of error. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards edged Bush at 49%-48%, a statistical tie. Bush bested former Vermont governor Howard Dean by 7 points and retired Army general Wesley Clark by 3."

Yet in the small print at the bottom of the actual poll numbers, "Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 National Adults, aged 18+, conducted January 29-February 1, 2004."

So what people assume is 53% of all American voters would support John Kerry and only 46% George W. Bush. What the poll results actually demonstrate is that 530 Americans would support Sen. Kerry today in race vs Pres. Bush and 460 Americans would support the incumbent.

But "530 individuals support Kerry" doesn't make good copy.

All that this poll proves is that Sen. Kerry is more popular among the 1001 specific Americans chosen for this particular poll. As someone with a math degree and a concentration in statistics, I know all about scientific sampling and all that. But it doesn't change the fundamental fact that people extrapolate too much out of polls.

And even if the poll numbers are accurate in relation to the population as a whole, so what? Knowing that Sen. Kerry is more popular at this very moment tells me nothing about his plans for the country. It tells me nothing about his foreign policy ideas or his character. It tells me nothing about the president's plans for the country either. It tells me nothing about if I should or shouldn't vote for him. The common thread: it tells me nothing. Why should I care about this "fact"? Such numbers are great for oddsmakers but useless to voters. Yet polls are consistently given lots of air time and column inches in lieu of stuff that might inform me.

This is the fundamental flaw of how coverage of politics now mirrors coverage of sports. The focus on personality and entertainment value and fabricated drama. Both sports and politics have their round tables of hyperactive "experts" shouting at each other. The sports' page has standings; the politics' page has its "who's hot and who's not" table, which is an attempt at the same thing. At least we generally give athletes' spouses a break.

This is great for junkies who are more intrigued with the process but of little relevance to anyone else. Besides, at least sports' commentators take pains to emphasize that just because you're ahead in the 1st quarter doesn't mean you're guaranteed to win the game.

Furthermore, as one acquiantance noted "polls force answers on issues people may not care about and they assume the person they ask knows what they're talking about." This is an excellent point.

Let's say 69% of people surveyed think that universal health care is a good thing. It doesn't tell you which of those people vaguely think it's a good idea and which think it's an absolute imperative for the immediate future. Would all of those 69% support universal health care if it meant raising taxes by 5%? By 25%? Would more support universal health care if the actual care remained private and the insurance was universalized? Do all 69% (or even the other 31%) even share the same conception of what universal health care is? If not, do the numbers mean anything at all?

Polls are like Big Macs. They spice things up from time to time but unhealthy if consumed in large quantities.
I'm walking home today and this car stops near me. A girl rolls down the window and asks me, "If I gave you some money, would you buy me some beer?"

For those familiar with my town, it might not surprise to know this occurred downtown on South Street.

I said, "No thanks." Though in retrospect, I should've messed with her and said, "I'm not 21," which is technically true.

But it got me musing on age and perceptions thereof. Perhaps I'm showing my age my using words like 'thereof' but this is another matter.

Whenever people guess my age for whatever reason, they come up with widely varying results.

This girl thought I was at least 21, but I still get ID'd for beer most of the time. In fact, two years ago, a cashier almost wouldn't let me buy beer because she didn't think the photo on the ID looked like me. I was 27 at the time and the photo was of me at 21. Suffice it to say, my face was a little fatter and my hair was a little thinner. Um, I mean, shortly cut. Fortunately, I graduated from school with the shift manager so I ended up with the beer. But it was still strange.

The year before, I went to a high school football game in a neighboring town and the woman asked me if I was an adult or a (high school) student. I was 26 at the time. Admittedly, I was on my bicycle but still...

Part of it might have to do with my very casual style of dress. I usually wear windpants or shorts or sweats. Normally a t-shirt or hoody. Frequently a baseball cap. And almost always a backpack. So I look like I COULD be a student, though by now, at least it's a college student. Though just last week, I was at the local high school for a basketball game and a visiting fan asked me for directions by beginning, "Do you go to school here?"

I remember my 25th birthday. I was feeling a little bummed. My parents were making insufferable "quarter century" cracks (the kind of thing that's vaguely amusing the first time but gets tiresome quickly). The next day, I was walking to work and I passed this little kid, maybe 9 or 10. He said, "Hey kid." I didn't respond, assuming he was talking to someone else. Then a few seconds later, he said louder, "Hey big kid." I turned and asked if he was talking to me. He said yes and wanted to know what time it was or something. I felt good after that.

I guess age really is a state of mind. There are good things about being a kid and good things about being an adult. I miss carefree summer days hanging out in my friends Bob's and Phil's backyards playing wiffle ball and capture the flag. I don't miss having to rake the leaves with my (then) obnoxious brother who spent more time whining than raking. I like being able to go to a hockey game whenever I want. But the frequency means it's no longer the special occasion it once was. I'm glad I know what's going on in the world. It makes me a little less self-absorbed. But sometimes all the crap stresses, angers and/or depresses me. I miss having friends with whom I can hang out without having to book the occasion two weeks in advance. I like the fact that 'fitting in' with my friends is no longer my highest social priority.

Still, many people have bizarre expectations about growing up. They think it means abandoning a sense of curiosity. They think it means treating wonder and enthusiasm as naive and foolish. They see harshness as doing others a favor by introducing them to reality. Being "pragmatic" is the highest virtue. Dreams are a waste of energy. Empathy is weakness. I find this very sad.

The point of this essay is not to tell you childhood and adolesence are bliss. There are parts of it that were great and parts of it that were miserable. Yet if the above is the perverse box I must squeeze myself into in order to be considered a serious "adult," then it doesn't seem worth being.

I find most kids more fascinating than most adults (if for the simple fact of straight-forwardness). If this means that people don't consider me an intellectual heavyweight, so be it. I won't waste my time trying to superficially impress people who don't want to get to know me. Being thought of as some twisted definition of "mature" isn't worth sacrificing my basic humanity.

"To an adult, seeing is believing. To a kid, believing is seeing."
--From The Santa Clause

Monday, February 02, 2004

The lamest argument put forward against Sen. John Kerry is this: he's unelectable because he's from Massachussetts. The yapping heads (you know, the smart guys who had annointed Howard Dean as the nominee four weeks ago) have this law. The law has two parts.

The first is that northeastern Democrats can not be elected president. To them, Michael Dukakis is the be all and end all to this argument. Though one genius columnist also cited George McGovern, who hails from the northeastern hotbed of South Dakota. The theory is that northeasterners are more liberal than the rest of the country so they don't deserve the White House. Anyone with an open mind who visited my region might contest the theory that northeasterners are all raging liberals. Four years ago, we elected a Democratic county treasurer... the first time that anyone could remember a Democrat being elected to any county wide office. And even Democrats around here aren't especially liberal.

The other part of this law is that Democrats can only nominate southerners if they want to win. They note that the last Democrats to become president were southerners. This theory is based on the belief that only southern Democrats have more credibility than other Democrats in invoking God every 9.4 seconds. That Tennessee native Al Gore failed to win any southern states, including his own, doesn't seem to sway belief in this theory. Apparently, the Democratic Party, and the nation as a whole, must be held hostage by born-again Christians, people who think owning an Uzi is an inalienable right mandated by Jesus himself and those who think that failing to execute 11 year olds and the mentally handicapped is inexusably soft on crime.

I have nothing against fundamentalist, gun-totting death penalty advocates. They're Americans. But so am I. Why should the Democratic Party should abandon the little that's left of its principles to pander to them? Am I missing something? Does the vote from someone from Atlanta count more than mine? (Electoral College issues aside) Don't non-fundamenalists, anti-gun people and those who oppose state-implemented murder deserve to have their views represented? If anything, this demonstrates the inadaquecy of the so-called two party system.

The south is to the United States as Quebec is to Canada: The exception is that the south is extremely conservative and Quebec is extremely social democratic. But aside from that, they have a totally different language and culture and tried to secede from the rest of the country. They think the entire country should pander exclusively to their every desire. That a disproprotionate number of heads of government come from the region doesn't prevent them from whining all the time.

I have no particular affinity for Sen. Kerry, but I'm little tired of apologizing for the simple fact of being from the northeast.