Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Partisanship and Holy Communion

Over at Alternet, David Morris wrote an article criticizing some American Catholic bishops politicization of the sacrament of eucharist. I've written on this before. I pointed out that although the Catholic Church's teaching on state-sponsored murder is that cases where the death penalty is necessary are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent" yet no pro-death penalty politician, to my knowledge, has been denied communion for that reason.

Morris wrote: Traditionally, Church leaders have left the decision to participate to the individual. As Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore recently observed, "Catholics have a responsibility to examine their own conscience and see if they are in a state that is appropriate for the reception of the sacrament." Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. adds, "As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand."

Those who favor a more active intervention argue that if the Church does not sanction violators it, in effect, condones their behavior. This undermines the integrity and moral authority of the Church. For them the question is not whether to sanction, but when and for what type of behavior.


He points out that in practice, such decisions seem to have a decidedly partisan aspect.

So far sanctions have been applied in a decidedly partisan manner. While Catholic Democratic Governor [James] McGreevey [of New Jersey] was sanctioned, in part for his support for abortions, Catholic Republican Governor Pataki of New York, who holds similar views on abortion, was not. Sacramento Bishop Wiegand chastised Catholic Democratic Governor Gray Davis for supporting abortion rights and recommended that he refrain from taking Communion. But he has issued no warning to Catholic Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also supports abortion rights.

Though in fairness, Pataki's case may be related to the fact that the bishop of Albany, Howard Hubbard, is significantly less strident and confrontational than some other bishops. I do not believe he denied communion to Pataki's predecessor, the equally pro-abortion rights Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Morris notes that US bishops recognized the danger of such partisanship. In a join resolution, the bishops warned "the polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends."

He points outs that The Pope has clearly and consistently spoken out against abortion. But as Reverend Reese has noted, in a private Mass in 2003, the Pope himself gave Communion to Tony Blair, a pro-abortion Episcopalian. [emphasis mine] U.S. Catholic bishops would be well-served if they were to emulate the example of the head of their Church.

English disease not quite eradicated yet

There are many reasons why I dislike England's national football (soccer) team, even though I support the English club team Leicester City. But most of those reasons revolve around English fans. They make the same pathetic jokes about American soccer, but what's worse than them all making the same lame jokes, each thinks they are being the most witty and creative observations in the history of the world.

It's nearly impossible to read or hear and English fan comment on the sport in the US without making some lame reference to the fact that we refer to the game as soccer, not football. They act as though the United States is the sole linguistic rogue that uses the singularly bizarre term. For example, BBC pundit Gary Lineker summed up the US' 2002 World Cup performance as follows: Americans aren't supposed to like football - sorry "soccer" - let alone be able to play it, but they reached the quarter-finals playing some great stuff. He also made a similiar boring observation in his preview (where he brilliantly predicted the US would go nowhere).

Now I'll cut Lineker some slack. He was brilliant not only as a Leicester City player, but he helped save the club from financial oblivion in a year and a half ago. That said, even someone of his calibre is prone to this childishness.

I admit that 'football' is a more accurate term for the Beautiful Game than our gridiron version, since you rarely use your feet in the latter. But so the f* what? This petulance ignores the fact that many other countries also refer to the game primarily as soccer. Canada, Australia and New Zealand spring to mind. It's also commonly used in places like South Africa and Ireland. We Americans, and half a dozen other countries as well, call the sport soccer. Get over it!

My suspicion is that English fans are annoyed at their team's constant underachievement, despite fancying themselves as the inventors of the game. England won the 1966 World Cup, which they hosted. That was the only time in history they came close to winning any major trophy, world or continental. Somehow making fun of the Americans makes them feel better about their own perpetual disappointments. Too bad that the US has now won more major trophies (2-1) than they. This doesn't mean the US team is better than the English team. We're not quite there yet, though I'd love to kick their rear ends in the World Cup. But it means we're moving in the right direction. For all their big clubs and talented young players, they still disappoint their fans.

But another reason I can't support England is simply because of the idiotic behavior of some of their fans. YES, I know they are a small minority. YES, I know most fans are good, decent people who support their team the right way. But the fact remains that the English hooligans, whatever their true number, cause far more havoc, on a regular basis, than thugs from any other country. There were a few problems in England itself during this month's Euro 2004 tournament (hosted in Portugal). There were bigger problems with England fans in Belgium (Euro 2000) and France (World Cup 1998). And this was long after the country had supposedly addressed the problems from the dark days of the 1980s.

From the sublime. Agence France Presse was one of many news' sources to report that a photo of England captain David Beckham in a London art gallery was defaced. "Somebody has gone in this morning and written across the Beckham image 'You loosers'," said David Grob, the curator of the photographic exhibition of the world's greatest living footballers at the Royal Academy of Arts in central London. Although Beckham is the second most overrated soccer player in the world today, it's patently absurd for someone call another a loser if they can't even spell the word.

Then the ridiculous. I read in The Guardian that following his controversial decision to disallow a late England goal in the quarterfinal against Portugal, Swiss referee Urs Meier has gone into hiding with police protection after receiving death threats and hate email from England fans in a backlash fuelled by the Sun. It's certainly no surprise that a Rupert Murdoch tabloid like The Sun would fuel such hysteria; they regularly run obscene, jingoistic covers whenever England play Germany.

Mr Meier, 45, said he had been forced to leave his home in northern Switzerland after a torrent of media abuse that followed within hours of him disallowing a goal by Sol Campbell in the dying minutes of normal time in the game. Swiss police are now guarding the referee day and night after advising him to go into hiding following the death threats.

[...]

The paper claimed the nation was "robbed" by a "half-wit" referee who made a "heartbreaking decision".
This was followed over the weekend by reports in the Daily Mail and the Sun, revealing that Mr Meier had left his wife, Franziska, with whom he has two children, for referee Nicole Petignat. The papers published details of where he lived and worked.

The Sun followed this up early this week by sticking a huge St George flag outside his home in northern Switzerland. By then Mr Meier had already closed his office and left his home.


But though it would be nice to portray this as limited to the yellow press, The Guardian noted:

The media were not the only ones to take umbrage with his decision to disallow Campbell's goal, however.

Last Friday supermarket chain Asda offered Swiss nationals a special free eye test in any one of its 68 optical stores.

"Lets face it, we were robbed," David Rutley, the director of financial services at Asda, was quoted as saying in the British media.


And most disgustingly:

The wave of anti-Swiss feeling among England fans claimed its first victim on a Greek island, when a Swiss girl was kicked to the ground and left with a broken arm by England fans after they spotted her wearing a Swiss football shirt.

Manu Peyer, 22, said she had been wearing the t-shirt, showing the red and white Swiss national colours, in a bar on the island of Zakynthos.

Ms Peyer, who is a big England fan, said she had been just as upset as the English over Mr Meier's refusal to count a goal that might have secured the game for England.

Three English hooligans, who were furious when they saw her t-shirt, watched her as she walked home to her holiday apartment before attacking her.

"One of them hit me in the face with his fist and I fell to the ground because of the force of his punch," said Ms Peyer.

The shaven-headed attackers then began kicking her as she lay on the ground.

When the ordeal was over, Ms Peyer had a swollen eye, a squashed nose and a broken arm. She had to go to hospital for treatment. She has also been forced to take leave from work.

"I think they beat me up because of Meyer's ominous call on the goal," Ms Peyer told Swiss radio after she had returned to her home town of Zurich.


Again and again and again you read this sort of thing about English fans. Nigerian fans and Argentinian fans and Mexican fans are just as passionate as English fans, if not more so. Yet they can travel abroad without these sort of scumbags causing problems practically every single time. The Scots and Irish can drink alcohol yet support their side in a civilized way. Yet something in the otherwise restrained English culture seems to almost sanction this sort of excess as long as they call it soc.., er, football-related. I'm sorry but thuggery is thuggery.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Un-democratic Party, state-sponsored murder halted in NY and other observations

Last weekend, the Green Party endorsed David Cobb as its presidential candidate, rebuffing Ralph Nader. It was a blow to Nader's campaign, because it denied him automatic ballot spots in over 20 states. Cobb said he wanted to help build the party and would campaign for Green candidates in all 50 states but also said he would avoid campaigning for himself in states where the race between President Bush and Sen. Kerry was close. "If you're trying to build a political movement, you don't turn your backs on people who happen to live in so-called close states," Nader said.

But what interested me in the same article: Now that space will go to Cobb, leaving Nader the task of getting his name on those ballots one state at a time, a time-consuming and potentially expensive effort, particularly when Democrats have suggested they would be scrutinizing Nader's every attempt and would not be shy about filing legal challenges.

This shows how deliciously hypocritical the Democrats are. They spent the last four years sniveling like infants about what happened in Florida instead of standing up to the Bush administration's extremist agenda. They whined incessantly about Americans being denied blah blah blah and how the spirit of the law demanded yada yada yada.

Now all of a sudden, Democrats have veered sharply away from the SPIRIT of democracy toward the LETTER of the law, which they so eagerly criticized Republicans for clinging to in Florida. They are going to lawyer Nader to death, just as they accused the GOP of doing to Gore in Florida. It shows how devoid of substance they are. Rather than engaging Nader on the issues, rather than being a progressive party so as to make Nader's presence irrelevant, the "pro-choice" Democrats are promising political machinations to deny the voters another option. If they lawyer Nader or Cobb or anyone else off the ballot here in New York, I guarantee you hell would freeze over before I voted for Kerry.

In a not totally unrelated story, WAMC radio reports: A challenge has been filed with the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Committee arguing that the way Vermont's delegates were chosen for the 2004 convention violates the rules, and favors party insiders over grass-roots activists. The same party that attacks Republican strongarm tactics and cronyism.

The party has proven yet again that Democrats and democrats are two totally separate things.

***

The Canadian election was held last night. But one of the stranger mini-controversies was when a Quebec sovereigntist leader claimed that people should vote for the Bloc Quebecois party because it would give the independence referendum movement a big boost. Other parties tried to make this into a big deal, which was a bit disingenuous. The independence referendum can only be called by the Quebec PROVINCIAL government while the Bloc Quebecois is a party that runs candidates only in FEDERAL elections.

But it was interesting to read that Bloc party leader Gilles Duceppe was forced to scramble to distance himself from the comments. It was strange because the Bloc is the national cousins of the provincial Parti Quebecois. Both parties are devoted to Quebec independence. I'm not sure why Duceppe was flustered by these comments. Everyone knows that the Bloc is a separatist party. I'm not sure what kind of damage could be done by someone saying what everyone already knows.

***

State-sponsored murder has been halted in New York, at least temporarily. The state's highest court effectively struck down New York's 9 year old death penalty law. The Albany Times Union reported that the court said a provision on jury instruction violates the state constitution. Before sentencing, juries are advised that they can choose between life in prison without parole, or death. If the jury is deadlocked over the sentence, a judge must impose 20 to 25 years to life in prison with the chance of parole, an option that could free the criminal in fewer than 20 years.

Unfortunately Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno issued similar statements of confidence that the problem will be corrected.

Perhaps the only note of optimism in all this is that state legislature is so dysfunctional that agreement may prove elusive.

***

In The Atlantic, PJ O'Rourke wrote an interesting essay entitled I Agree With Me, where he touches on frequent complaint of mine.

Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, has gone out of fashion with conservatives. The formats of their radio and television programs allow for little measured debate, and to the extent that evidence is marshaled to support conservative ideas, the tone is less trial of Socrates than Johnnie Cochran summation to the O.J. jury. Except the jury—with a clever marketing strategy—has been rigged. I wonder, when was the last time a conservative talk show changed a mind?

Of course, the same could be said of liberal yapping heads, who feel they need to fight whiny, bullying conservatives by being just as whiny and bullying.

"Activist judges": rule of law not quite dead yet

Just when you thought you were going to see the rule of law's picture on the obituary pages, a bunch of "activist judges" stepped in to save the day. The US Supreme Court ruled that although President Bush has the authority to hold a US citizen as an 'enemy combattant,' the man could use American courts to argue that he is being held illegally.

The Court also ruled that foreign-born men held at a Navy prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can also have their day in U.S. courts.

In the majority opinion for the first case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor summed it up quite nicely: As critical as the government's interest may be in detaining those who actually pose an immediate threat to the national security of the United States during ongoing international conflict, history and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others who do not present that sort of threat.

The Guantanamo case was just as important. The administration had argued that Gitmo wasn't actually American territory so it didn't have to extend the protections of American law or the Constitution to detainees. This was actually a pretty strange argument. Traditionally, American military bases, like American embassies abroad, have been considered American soil. That's why everyone got so upset when Iranian radicals invaded our embassy in Teheran. Furthermore, if you are born on an military base abroad, it is considered the same as being born in America proper; it wouldn't, for example, prevent you from running for president.

The argument was even more bizarre when you consider the alternative. If Gitmo isn't subject to the jurisdiction of American courts, then what is it? Cuban territory? If the administration's argument had prevailed, shouldn't they have been forced to turn over the suspected terrorists to Castro's regime as the logical result of their argument?

The Court passed on the Jose Padilla case, on a technicality. The court sidestepped a third major terrorism case, ruling that a lawsuit filed on behalf of detainee Jose Padilla improperly named Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld instead of the much lower-level military officer in charge of the Navy brig in South Carolina where Padilla has been held for more than two years.

Padilla's lawyer commented, "Today the Supreme Court did not rule that the president has the authority to detain an American citizen on American soil. What they did was delay the inevitable -- that Padilla must be charged with a crime."

And that's really what all these cases are about. Does one man, the president, have the unilateral authority to detain people indefinitely, without charge, without having to produce evidence and without the detained having any recourse other than the good will of the man in the White House? All this just because the president thinks they might not be very nice people, but without being forced to prove it? Is the Constitution totally scrapped during times of war, real or imagined, declared or undeclared, simply on the say so of the one man who happens to be president?

Fortunately, the Supreme Court and its "activist judges" ruled that war is not a TOTAL blank check for destroying all that separates us from the terrorists.

Marriage, divorce and 'religious' America

The furor over gay marriage and its phantom threat to the so-called American way of life has provoked a bitter debate in this country. The reason Americans oppose gay marriage more than Europeans is because Americans are a more faithful people, more willingly to let "traditional values" guide their lives.

US News and World Report did a cover story last week entitled Defining America. One page listed some interesting numbers. By far more Americans than any other Western country said that "religion plays a very important role in their lives."


PEOPLE WHO SAY RELIGION PLAYS A VERY IMPORTANT ROLE IN THEIR LIVES
US 59%
Britain 32%
Canada 30%
Italy 27%
Russia 13%
Japan 12%
France 11%

DIVORCE RATE PER THOUSAND (15-64 years in 2000)
USA 6.2
Denmark 4.0
Canada 3.4
Japan 3.1
Spain 1.4
Italy 1.0

So nearly twice as many Americans than Canadians said religion plays a very important role in their lives, yet the divorce rate in the US is nearly twice as high as in Canada. More than twice as many Americans as Italians said religion is very important, but the divorce rate in the US is more than 6 times as high.

Of course, it's really hoe-moe-sex-uals who remain the primary scapegoat, er threat, to the institution of marriage.

Monday, June 28, 2004

I don't like Mike

I haven't seen Michael Moore's controversial new movie Fahrenheit 9/11 and I don't intend to. Not for any political reasons, but for the simple fact that Michael Moore has never interested me. Given that and all reviews I've read, professional and amateur, I have no reason to believe I'm going to learn anything from the movie or enjoy it particularly. It's very rare that I consider something worth parting with $8.50 of my money in an overpriced cinema (excluding popcorn or soda) so my standards are pretty high. For $8.50, I could get a baseball ticket AND hot dog AND a soda AND a 50-50 ticket. So a glorified rant isn't likely to blow me away.


As most people who read my essays know, I could be described as a progressive. Some use slightly more colorful descriptions but I think most would agree that I'm left of center, politically. Given that, many people are surprised that I don't genuflect to Moore in the same way the far right act like Bush is Jesus Christ risen. People seem to assume that I would bow and kiss Moore's feet if he were in the same room just because we both think the president should join the unemployment rolls.

Michael Moore is a screechy, whiny, loudmouth. He has a knack for playing the oppressed martyr for the purposes of self-promotion. Fundamentally, he's no different than Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter, except they've come in contact with a comb in the last three years. They don't impress me and neither does Moore.

The director was lauded at the Cannes Film Festival simply because Fahrenheit 9/11 was anti-Bush, Moore is vociferously anti-Bush and most Europeans are anti-Bush. Giving Moore the Palme d'or was a political statement, not a cinematographic statement. Now I'm all in favor of opposing the president, but the actual film was almost incidental to the whole proceedings.

I'll give Moore credit. He, like O'Reilly and Coulter, is brilliant at self-promotion. I mean, he was right to embarass Disney for not releasing Fahrenheit 9/11 after they led him to believe they would. He did what he had to do, as a businessman. Though when he agreed to work with Disney, he should've known better than anyone that big corporations are allergic to anything vaguely resembling risk. I was just a little insulted by his insinuation that their refusal to do so was somehow on the same level as Robert Mugabe's thugs bombing the printing presses of Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper.

The far right's demonization of Moore is predictable. They demonize ALL criticism of Bush/the war/the troops/the country (which they conveniently morph into one thing). One critic, for example, said that Moore is "damn lucky we aren't allowed to hang people like him," which pretty much encapsulates the mentality of a certain segment of the American population and how much they value dissent's role in democracy. (If dissent were unpatriotic, we'd still all be singing God Save the Queen). This is the model these folks want America to set for Iraqis and Afghanis. Still, people like Moore do a disservice to the progressive cause because he gives moderates the image that everyone on the left is as incoherent as he.

Simply put, I find Moore tiresome and uninteresting. He doesn't challenge me. Well, I mean he does in a way. It's challenging to suffer through one of his screeds from start to finish without flipping the channel or surfing to another website. But he doesn't persuade anyone who's undecided. He doesn't tell me anything that I didn't already know. He doesn't give me anything that I can't get in a far more rational form from a dozen other places. Moore's political rants don't engage anyone's brain so they're pretty much a waste of my time.

And that's pretty much the left's fatal flaw. They think they need to counter Coulter and her ilk by being as rabid and irrational as her. They think they need to pander to the lowest common denominator as much as the far right. Simply put, the far right are much better at that stuff. The left ought to go back to having both a backbone and a brain, not just a mouth.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

War against Iran? [guest essay]

A New York Times article of June 14th, 2004 discusses the continued tension with Iran over allegations that it is secretly developing a nuclear weapons program. The article reads, in part:

Frustrated with Iran's "changing and at times contradictory" stories about its nuclear program, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded Monday that Tehran provide a full accounting "within the next few months."...The Bush administration welcomed the director general's statement, and officials expressed hope that it would add to pressure from Europe and Russia - as well as the United States - to force Iran to disclose its nuclear activities. They said they would leave open the possibility of seeking action at the United Nations Security Council if current efforts failed."

This standoff about WMDs sounds very similar to the Iraqi situation back in 2003. Do you think Iran is developing nuclear weapons? Do you think the UN and/or US should intervene diplomatically to stop them? Do you think the UN and/or US will intervene militarily to stop them? Finally, what do you think should happen in this situation?

Paul, an acquiantance of mine who's a scientist, wrote a much better essay on this topic than I did so I decided to cross-post it here. Republished with permission of the author.




Here's some background on what's going on: We have what's called the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been signed by over 160 countries several decades ago. I happen to believe this treaty was a clever step towards global disarmament.

Under this treaty, countries without nuclear weapons agree not to pursue these weapons. In return, they get aid from nuclear countries to construct nuclear power plants, so long as they agree to regular facility inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA, a UN agency). Nuclear countries, on the other hand, must devise a plan by which to achieve total nuclear disarmament in the future.

This is a good deal for non-nuclear countries for the following reasons. First of all, although you give up the right to construct bombs, you have some level of assurance that your neighboring countries are also giving up that right, with a reputable international organization enforcing a degree of transparency. Rather than each country trying to develop nuclear power plants and never knowing who is on their way to making a bomb, they have a general idea what other countries are doing. Most countries thought this was a very good arrangement.

For the nuclear nations, this partially eliminates the fear that nuclear weapons will spread to more and more countries. Plus, rather than rely on spy satellites and other intelligence methods, you have inspection teams that are voluntarily allowed into these non-nuclear countries.

It's the equivalent of cowboys agreeing to wear see-through pants, so that everyone generally knows who's armed and who's not.

There are a few notable exceptions, countries that are not bound by the treaty. India, Pakistan, and Israel refused to sign, and have gone on to construct nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, these are nations we'd rather didn't have these weapons. Pakistan and India have had border disputes that almost escalated to war a few years ago (until concerned capitalists in India ordered the government to chill the fuck out.) And Israel, as is its custom, harasses its neighbors and oppresses its Muslim population, knowing that, with nuclear weapons at its disposal, they don't have to fear retaliation from neighboring states as they've experienced in the past. North Korea is a different situation. They withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty last year, and claim to have constructed nuclear weapons, though it's not unreasonable to assume that, since they haven't actually tested a bomb yet, they're just bluffing for attention.

What non-scientists have trouble understanding is that building a nuclear weapon is notoriously difficult. You can have all the equipment you need, the plutonium or uranium, the centrifuges, and the enrichment technology, and still be nowhere near constructing the bomb. North Korea happens to be one of the poorest nations on earth, with people eating grass for lack of food. Their ability to construct a high-tech nuclear bomb is always overestimated. Plus, there's always the question of a delivery system. If making a bomb is difficult, constructing a long-range missile is more difficult by an order of magnitude. The chances of a "mystery missile" suddenly appearing out of North Korea and zapping California are too small to be even worth talking about.

Iran, on the other hand, is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and continues to deny their intentions to build nuclear weapons. But recently, the IAEA has accused their government of not fully cooperating with the inspection teams. As we learned in Iraq, an accusation like this is far from being the smoke that signifies fire. We have no reason to believe, yet, that Iran is trying to make a bomb. All that's happening is they're giving the IAEA some shit, which is not out of the ordinary.

George W. Bush claims, as he claimed (wrongfully) in Iraq, that Iran is on its way to constructing a bomb. After including Iran in his "axis of evil" speech, Bush has also made it clear that he intends on dealing with Iran in the same way that we "dealt with" Iraq.

In other words, where most of us see a potential danger, the Administration sees a chance to get its war on.

A little background on Iran: This is kind of a unique country in the region. Being a non-Arab country dominated by Shiite Muslims, Iran has never gotten along with Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Iranians fear the United States even more than their neighbors, and now that we have replaced the countries on either side of them with puppet governments and large quantities of American soldiers, they have what you could call a cause for concern.

Iran is a bit less predictable than say Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not a dictatorship in the classical sense. The government is far less centralized, with a "Supreme Leader", the Ayatollah Khameini (not to be confused with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who led a successful revolution against the US-backed Shah in 1979), a President, Muhammed Khatami, and three different "armies". The leadership is not entirely contained by a central government, but sort of scattered about through different tribal leaderships, family ties, and business interests. Because of the non-unified nature of the State and the decentralized power structure, Iran's behavior is sometimes inconsistent and difficult to understand.

But generally speaking, Iran is a declared "Muslim nation", with no real separation between Mosque and State. However, the militancy they are so famous for, made so clear in 1979's embassy incident, has been on the wane for years, owing to a rise in capitalist interests and an interesting brand of Persian nationalism that doesn't seem to have expansionist ambitions. And although they are hostile to Israel and the United States, these are the exceptions. In general, Iran has been improving relations with the rest of the world and softening up in considerable ways. President Khatami, while paying lip service to hard-liner Muslim ayatollahs, is actually viewed as somewhat of a reformist, taking the attitude that introducing some Western culture is necessary so that young Iranians aren't taken in by the forbidden mystique of MTV.

Now, I don't profess to understand what exactly is going on with the current inspections situation. This news is just coming out this week, and most of us mere mortals in Washington are still waiting to see what happens. But I would say that we have very little to fear from Iran.

The bottom line is, a country like Iran does not develop nuclear weapons because it wants to start a war with the world's most powerful nation. If anything, they are looking for attention. Having a nuclear weapon is the only way to assure a country, in the age of the Bush Doctrine, that the United States won't attack you for no reason. If Iran is indeed scared that they're next on our list, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush.

The proper thing to do is to have some faith in the IAEA. Why? Because it turns out that everything Hans Blix told us about Iraq was true, and we were absolutely wrong to act on faulty intelligence from our own agencies, when they contradicted everything the IAEA was saying. What we should do is let the IAEA do its job. The last thing Iran wants is a war. They know, just as everyone else knows, that if they piss the wrong way, the United States will smite them to the ground, with or without international approval. What is probably needed right now is a update of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There's what you could call a small loophole that wasn't an issue several years ago, but has become one today. Iran is developing facilities to enrich their own uranium, a process that is just as necessary for nuclear weapons as it is for nuclear power, and because of this, it is still legal under the Treaty. We did not foresee that Iran would want to enrich its own uranium, since it could buy it for much cheaper from another country. But whether it's for national pride, nefarious purposes, or a genuine desire to develop their own technology, this is what Iran is doing. And under the law, this is perfectly legal. If we want them to stop enriching uranium, we need to make them an offer they will accept, as most countries accepted the original Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This is not a time for macho posturing. This is a time for wheeling and dealing. They have something we want, and we have stuff that they want. And neither of us could possibly benefit from conflict. The right thing to do, or at least the courteous and intelligent thing to do, would be to withdraw the "axis-of-evil" statements and try to open up normal relations with Iran. If the idea makes you nauseous, rest assured, it's for the best. Countries like Iran respond to threats, and the threat they sense from the United States is considerable. If we want to actually accomplish something without firing a shot, we need to assure them that we're not getting ready to invade their country.

It is our government's job to prevent wars from happening, and to do everything in our power, diplomatically, to defuse the tense situation in Iran today. It's not only possible, but will probably be much easier than you'd think. Iran does not want to be isolated and attacked. They want normalized relations with the world so that they can start trading and making a few bucks. Who wouldn't?

This is not to say that we shouldn't be concerned with the possible nuclear proliferation of countries like Iran. But we should recognize that hostility is met with counterhostility. If countries are becoming paranoid and wanting to get out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is because we've given them cause for concern.
We must avoid war at all costs.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Greek minnows bounce holders from Euro 2004

Another shock result from Euro 2004. Holders (defending champions) France were outsed by traditional minnows Greece 1-0 in the quarterfinal. Before this year, Greece had never won a game in a major tournament. But in two weeks, they beat the hosts (Portugal) and knocked out the holders.

France were most people's pre-tournament favorites. Some think this was because they were overrated. But none of the other traditional powers looked in form enough to win and France, unimpressive but competent and in the midst of a long unbeaten streak, became favorites almost by default.

It's part of that European elite arrogance that discounted the possibility that an elite team might just possibly lose to a non-elite team. This is why no one considered the possibility of France and Italy losing at World Cup 2002 even though they were playing the African vice-champions and host country respectively.

This is another great result for soccer, that shows no matter how great your pedigree, you still have to win the match on the pitch.

Though my money's still on the impressive Czech Republic, the only team with a 100% record so far, I wouldn't discount the possibility of Greece repeating the feat of Denmark's 1992 team that came out of nowhere to win the European championship.

Time for part-time legislators?

Some people think it's California that has the most dysfunctional state government in the country, because California has bipolar disorder and is prone to violent mood swings. Not many states would elect to the governor's office Ronald Reagan and then, immediately after, Jerry Brown

Others think Texas has the most dysfunctional state government in the country. Texas doesn't have a great reputation in the rest of the country, except for being the state-sponsored murder capital of the nation. Texas state government gave us both Tom DeLay and George W. Bush so that doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence.

In reality, New York has the most dysfunctional state government in the country. Our state pols aren't quite as colorful as the Govern-ator or as dangerous as DeLay. But there's no question about it: casting aside the "defense" industry, Washington is a model of virtue and transparency compared to Albany.

Most people I know hold a lower opinion of Albany than Washington because Albany's dysfunctionality affects their lives more directly. The most egregious example is the state budget. The first and most fundamental thing any legislative body must do every year is pass a budget. Whether you think a government should be large or small, it does exist and needs to be funded.

The law (snicker) says that New York's budget must be adopted by 1 April. New York hasn't passed an on-time budget since 1984. Earlier this week, legislators adjourned until August without having passed a budget. The last time there was an on-time budget, Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president, English soccer clubs did well in Europe and Michael Jackson was black.

That's 20 consecutive years without an on-time budget. It's a neat trick if you can get away with it. Maybe next year, all citizens should refuse to send in their state tax returns until the legislature enacts a budget. If they don't have to follow deadlines, why should we?

Late budgets infuriate school districts and, by extension, local taxpayers. Districts are required by state law to submit budgets for public approval in votes that occur in late May. In order to prepare something that complicated, they need to start working at least month before. Except since there's almost never a state budget in April, school districts have absolutely no idea how much funding they're getting from the state. They plan conservatively and end up raising school taxes higher than perhaps they would otherwise and it causes a public backlash. Some budgets get voted down for that reason. If the legislature could ever pass an on time budget like their job description demands, districts could have more accurate numbers.

Now, a few years ago, the legislators gave themselves a 30-something percent pay raise. But in response to public disgust, they also made it so they wouldn't receive their paychecks after 1 April until they approved a budget. Though unfortunately, they get the full amount once they do so, therefore the incentive isn't quite as great as it could be.

This year, the legislature did absolutely nothing, except give a big tax break to amusement parks, most of whom are based out-of-state, at the expense of local governments. But they passed on the most important issues facing the state. Such as...

-Education reform. The state's highest court mandated the legislature to revamp the state's education funding. The court alleged that New York City schools were allegedly disadvantaged by the current Byzantine funding formulas. The court ordered the legislature to pass a new funding system by 30 July or it would appoint a panel to impose one, though it made clear it was loathe to do so. Our fearless leaders passed on the issue and adjourned until mid-August*.

[*-When the court appoints the panel, you can expect to hear sniveling about "the court usurping the legislative function"... which could be accurate only if the legislature actually functioned.]

-Drug law reform. All three state legislative leaders agree on the need to reform the state's draconian drug laws. But so far, agreement in principle hasn't translated into agreement in action. They seem more interested in being able to tell voters "I support drug law reform" than actually doing reform. As with so many other issues, none of the leaders have shown actual leadership in pushing this issue.

-Medicaid. Another huge issue is state mandates regarding Medicaid (for the poor). Due to the money crunch in Albany, they've placed greater and greater burdens for Medicaid on to the shoulders of county governments. Washington County, a neighbor to my own, provoked a near-revolt by increasing taxes by over 30%, due solely to increased Medicaid costs; county officials said that excluding Medicaid, spending was actually down a few percentage points.

The main problem, it seems, is the personal loathing between the Republican governor and the Democratic Assembly speaker (the Republican Senate leader seems to work with the others better). It doesn't help the Democratic cause that the Assembly speaker is possibly the only person in the country who makes the governor appear charismatic. The speaker not only IS an old-style machine politician, but he comes across as one. The speaker and the governor spend less time energy talking to each other than they do attacking each other through the media.

This is a main reason why I joined the Green Party. I realized that not only had national Democrats forfeited their status as vertebrates, but Democrats in Albany were just as complicit in for the morass in Albany as the Republicans.

So here are my solutions to the mess, in no particular order:

1) Part-time legislators. A friend of mine, with whom I almost never talk politics, made this suggestion. She made it because her husband's a lawyer and knows how many absurd laws are on the books in New York. Her theory is that full-time legislators have more time to pass more inane laws than part-time legislators. The way I figure, if they're not going to do a full year's work, why give them a full year's pay?

2) The Mom solution. My Mom's solution to the budget impasse is simple. Put all the legislators in a closed room with no windows and poor ventilation. Feed them nothing but rice and beans. Lock the doors and don't open them until they come to an agreement. It won't take months.

3) An independent redistricting commission. This is a huge one. One of the reasons there's a chronic mess in Albany is because legislators aren't held accountable. In too many cases, they CAN'T be held accountable. The legislature gerrymanders so much that almost all the districts are overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican. I've heard the NY legislature has a higher incumbent re-election rate than the Communist Chinese national parliament. Many legislative districts are so uncompetitive that incumbents run unopposed. This commission is likely to never be created precisely because it should. The one thing that legislators ARE competent at doing is protecting their personal interests. Iowa is the only state that has an independent commission to redraw Congressional and state legislative lines. Not surprisingly, they have the highest percentage of competitive races in the country.

4) No B.S. If the Mom solution violates environmental laws, then there's also my No-B.S. solution. If the 1 April deadline has passed and there's no budget, legislators can't discuss anything else. They can't pass anything until they pass the budget, unless there's a state of emergency declared by the governor or president (and even then, they can only discuss stuff related to said emergency). They can't pass Fido's Law, requiring the public humiliation of anyone who doesn't give their dog low-carb cookies. They can't pass a resolution congratulating the East Podunk High quiz team on their progression to the national quiz tournament semifinals. Since they don't do anything substantive, they need this sort of grandstanding and showboating to bring home to voters in the fall.

VP tells senator: "F*ck yourself"

Vice-President Cheney has shown his class yet again. According a The Washington Post article, A brief argument between Vice President Cheney and a senior Democratic senator led Cheney to utter a big-time obscenity on the Senate floor this week. On Tuesday, Cheney, serving in his role as president of the Senate, appeared in the chamber for a photo session. A chance meeting with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, became an argument about Cheney's ties to Halliburton Co., an international energy services corporation, and President Bush's judicial nominees. The exchange ended when Cheney offered some crass advice. "Fuck yourself," said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency.

The Post noted, ironically, that the exchange occurred on the same day the Senate passed legislation described as the "Defense of Decency Act" by 99 to 1.

Tellingly, Cheney's office did not deny that the phrase was uttered.

I understand the vice-president's annoyance. Sen. Leahy is one of the few Democrats who's had the backbone to question the administration's most extreme policies, most notably the war on civil liberties, in the last few years. The emperor and his minions don't like being told they have no clothes.

This comment is consistent with the administration's lack of class and professionalism.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Rule of law and the 'war on terror'

Fox News [sic] Channel*reported that [a]n Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department memo argues that torture — and even deliberate killing — of prisoners in the terror war could be justified as necessary to protect the United States. The memo from then-assistant attorney general Jay Bybee also offers a restricted definition of torture, saying only actions that cause severe pain akin to organ failure would be torture adding ominously Bybee is now a justice on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

[*-In fairness (assuming they haven't trademarked that word) to FNC, I will give them credit that when they publish a news article quoting from various documents, they usually give links to the original of those documents. This allows you to see the original information in entireity and in context, if you wish.]

An article in The Globe and Mail noted: President George W. Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture laws and treaties covering prisoners of war after the invasion of Afghanistan. In a Feb. 2002 memo, the president wrote, "I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time."

While it's certainly magnimous of the president to decline that alleged authority, the legal conclusion he referred to is chilling. In addition to being international law, the Geneva Convention is a treaty that was voluntarily ratified by 2/3 of the United States Senate. I'm curious what on constitutional grounds he or his two cabinet departments claim the unilateral presidential right to override an act of Congress whenever Bush, or any of his successors, feels like doing so.

I'm know separation of powers is in decline due in large part to Congressional subservience, but is it wise to formalize this in pseudo-law? Do we really want to invest that much power into one single person, regardless of who it is?

I guess this shows that Americans are no more immune to the appeal of the strongman than anyone else.

This is why the Jose Padilla case is particularly disturbing. Padilla is accused of planning to set off "dirty bombs." Now normally, when a citizen is accused of such a crime, he'd be arrested, charged before regular courts, get a lawyer have a public trial and be found guilty or not guilty. This process has served the US pretty well for a long time.

But suddenly, the Bush administration decided it didn't feel like following these centuries-old norms. It decided that because of the war on civil liberties, it didn't feel like providing Padilla with these "privileges." It unilaterally decided that Padilla wasn't a citizen, but a so-called enemy combattant.

CBS notes Padilla has been held by the U.S. military since 2002 as an enemy combatant, without charge and with little access to lawyers. The Bush administration has been criticized for denying a U.S. citizen normal access to the courts. The Supreme Court is considering whether the government, in defending against terrorism, has such power.

Now, maybe Padilla's guilty as sin. Maybe he's dangerous. Maybe he should spend the rest of his life in jail. But there's only one way to find out! And it's not by taking Attorney General Ashcroft's word for it.

Let Padilla have a lawyer and a trial, just like every other accused American. His citizenship and rights should not be taken away on the whim of one man, either the president or the attorney general.

Frankly, any government that can arbitrarily deny people the most fundamental rights without giving them their day in court is several orders of magnitude more dangerous to Americans than any one alleged terrorist.

Forza Ceska!

Big soccer summer here. The US recently qualified for the semifinal round of CONCACAF (North American and Carribbean) qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. They beat Grenada 3-0 and 3-2. The next round, they will play two games each against El Salvador, Jamaica and Panama.

I prefer CONCACAF's method of qualification over Europe's. There, they have only one round. Most groups include one powerhouse, one decent team, two midlevel teams, one or two weak teams and one or two minnow. For example, one current European group includes: Spain, Belgium, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina (security nightmare when those two play), Lithuania and San Marino. So Spain might qualify only having to play one really decent team, who they don't even necessarily have to beat.

To qualify from North America, you will automatically have to go through the continent's best teams. If the US qualifies for CONCACAF's final round, they will almost certainly play teams like Mexico and Costa Rica as well as rematches against El Salvador or Jamaica. The weakest opponent will probably be a team like Canada or Honduras, who are a lot stronger than San Marino or Andorra.

I think this system does a better job to ensure that the 3-4 best teams in North America go to the World Cup. It would be a lot easier if the US could qualify without having to have Mexico, but that's not how it works here. It's just as well because US-Mexico matches are hard fought affairs between two countries and two sets of fans who really dislike each other. It's better preparation for the World Cup to play World Cup calibre teams. Plus, it gives us a chance to remind Mexico of what happened when we played them in the 2002 World Cup: 2-0 Good Guys.

Of course, Europe is allotted like 15 or 16 World Cup slots (of 32), so this format isn't really feasible for them. But they could do something to weed out the weakest teams. Even Africa, which has about the same number of countries, has a preliminary round for that reason.

**

Euro 2004 has reached the quarterfinal stage. The European Championship is the planet's most prestigious soccer tournament outside the World Cup. Some of the continents biggest names were eliminated in the first round. Most notably Spain, Germany and Italy.

The elimination of Italy was particularly bitter for me since I support the Azzurri. Though the Italians underperforming in major tournaments has become almost as routine in recent years (save 2000) as Spain doing so. Though traditionally associated with a negative, hyper-defensive style called catenaccio that suffocates all creativity from the play, the Italians actually played some compelling, attacking soccer. They played quite a bit with a 4-3-3 formation (three forwards), which is a very offensive minded formation. They created a lot of chances but couldn't finish.

They have been overreliant of Christian Vieri, who was playing with an injury and was ineffective. Creative midfielder Francesco Totti was suspended for the team's last two games after spitting at an opponent in the opener. Alessandro Del Piero proved yet again why he's quite probably the most overrated player on the planet (and that includes even David Beckham, who can at least cross and take free kicks).

After the elimination, some players disgraced themselves by whining about an alleged fix in the Denmark-Sweden game (a draw in that game would've automatically eliminated Italy; it finished 2-2 on a late Swedish equalizer). Fixed games almost never finish 2-2 on a late equalizer. Plus, Denmark's "reward" is a quarterfinal match against the best team in the tournament so far, something they would've avoided if not for the alleged "fix."

The bottom line is that yet again, the Italians were done in by their inability to beat supposedly inferior teams (Sweden and Denmark). They play with such cavalier arrogance against supposedly inferior teams that they forget that you need to score goals in order to win. They scored a combined one goal in the games against Sweden and Denmark. They have no one to blame but themselves. Not the referee, not the Scandinavians, not penalties, not bad fortune. They didn't get the job done. Again.

With my team out, I have to choose other teams to support. So here are my thoughts about the remaining 8:


England: I can't support England on principle. Every time an English fan or paper refers to the sport in the United States, they always make some snide comment about how we Americans call it 'saw-ker' instead of football. Each time, the person doing it thinks their making the most creative "insult" in the world. They also ignore the fact that about half a dozen other countries in the world also refer to it the same way (never heard anyone make a similiar jab at "Saw-ker Australia"). There are other reasons I can't support England, but this is the most annoying one. I do support an English club team, but they only have one England senior international and he probably won't play in this tournament.

Portugal: Their so-called 'Golden Generation' has consistently failed to produce at the top level, save Euro 2000 (where they did well but disgraced themselves with their conduct in the semifinal). Their arrogance doesn't match their results so I can't support them. They lost to the USA at World Cup '02, which should discredit them in the eyes of soccer's intelligentsia. Though as hosts, I wouldn't rule them out. I'm not sure who to root for/against in their quarterfinal vs England. Maybe I should root for England, just to tease English fans a little. :-)

Greece: No team in the tournament has achieved so much with so little. You can't root against the minnows who work their butts off.

France: When they are clicking, they can play truly brilliant soccer. So far, they haven't really clicked this tournament. Zidane is still master class even at 34 (?) years of age. I hope they do click because when they do, it's breathtaking stuff.

Holland: See France, minus Zidane.

Sweden: (shrug) Nothing special here, save their brilliant striker Larsson.

Denmark: Scandinavian teams aren't known for playing compelling soccer, but all of the Denmark games have been good stuff. Even their 0-0 draw against Italy was filled with attacking soccer and lots of chances.

Czech Republic: The best team in the tournament so far, though ironic since they are not considered one of Europe's powerhouses. They are the only team to win all three 1st round games. That included a game with their 2nd string team where they beat the 1st team of Germany (the most successful team in European Championship history); despite already having qualified for the next round, they still played to win that game. You have to respect that. Not only are they undefeated but they've played some beautiful soccer in the process.


Quarterfinal comments: I'd love to be able to watch the Czech-Denmark quarterfinal. It could be the best match of the tournament. Though Portugal-England should be excellent too.

Ideal final from the perspective of a neutral: Czech Republic vs Holland.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

'Liberators' with a 2% popularity rating in Iraq... and other observations

CNN's NewsNight reports: Then there is this bizarre story about Korean-born businessman and religious leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon. He declared himself the Messiah and was presented with a crown. Trust me on this one, it is quite strange given where it all took place. We'll explain tonight.

Outrageous! Who does Sun think he is? George W. Bush?

**

The Independent (UK) reports on the damning results of one poll. The Bush administration's last remaining justification for the invasion of Iraq has been demolished by a private poll revealing that only 2 per cent of Iraqis regard the occupying forces as liberators.

2%?!

How badly has the administration screwed up if, after decades of Saddam Hussein, the guys who got rid of him have a 2% popularity rating?

**

In a fairly underreported story, A top Muslim official has denounced what he called the extensive backwardness of the Islamic world, notes the the BBC. Abdelwahed Belkeziz - Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference told conferencees, "The powerlessness that the Muslim world is experiencing today and the difficulty of finding solutions to our just causes have been the reason behind the rise of extremism," he said. "Fanatics have seen in this an opportunity to commit odious and reprehensible acts... which is why we must fight this extremism resolutely and determinedly at a time when we are working to correct the tainted image of Islam in the world."

Mr Belkeziz told the foreign ministers from the 57-member states that their countries had a poor record on issues ranging from education and health to economic development. "The aggregate gross domestic product of all our member states remains lower than that of one single advanced country such as France or Britain," he said.

It underlines the need of the West to support moderate reformers both in Islamic theocracies and strongman dictatorships, rather than pushing the military option for every problem (as some extremists are now even suggesting for Iran). Given the recent canonization attempts for Ronald Reagan, these reckless folks would do well to remember the example of the Cold War. The Soviet bloc was brought down not by NATO marching into Prague or bombing the heck out of East Berlin. It was won by the peoples of Eastern Europe, with moral and other support from the West, rising up themselves against the oppression.

Because of this approach, I suspect America's popularity rating in Eastern Europe is significantly higher than 2%. Why should you care? Just ask yourself: who was the last suicide bomber that came from Budapest or Warsaw?

**

In a surprising but happy development, the UN rejected America's bid to exempt its soldiers from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The campaign was considered ill-timed in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. For the last two years it had secured special status for US troops, arguing they could face malicious prosecutions, even though the Rome Treaty (which brought the ICC into force) has many provisions demanded by the Americans to address precisely this fear. The BBC reporter noted that the court is only meant to be a measure of last resort - and that US troops could only be prosecuted if allegations were made against them in a signatory country, and US courts failed to take action themselves.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had spoken out against the US bid for immunity/impunity. "For the past two years, I have spoken quite strongly against the exemption and I think it would be unfortunate for one to press for such an exemption, given the prisoner abuse in Iraq," he said. "Blanket exemption is wrong. It is of dubious judicial value and I don't think it should be encouraged by the council."

Though in comments that might please anti-interventionists, the US deputy ambassador the the UN warned that the US would in future "need to take into account the risk of ICC review when determining contributions to UN authorised or established operations".

**

In politics, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader chose a Green Party running mate. The choice of California social justice activist Peter Miguel Camejo makes it more likely Nader might receive the endorsement of the party (different from its nomination, though don't ask me how) at its convention this weekend. The endorsement would give Nader's campaign access to ballots in an additional 20 states.

In an interview with The American Conservative, Nader explained why he thought conservatives disillusioned with the president should support him.

**

Italy's lunatic prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (think Rupert Murdoch but with control of the parliament) is at it again. The man with an effective monopoly over Italian domestic media is now crying fraud on the part of the opposition in recent European elections. Berlusconi's Forza Italia party suffered a showing as disappointing as the national soccer team the party was named after. "They (the left) have an army of professionals who manage to make fools of the amateurs on our side, and put extra vote after vote into their count and fewer into ours," Mr Berlusconi said, noting that his party has "a lot of naive people."

It's common for opposition parties to cry foul in elections. But it's rare that the government, who administers the elections, does so. Berlusconi's sore loser whining is just as pathetic as the babies amongst the country's national soccer team players who blamed their elimination.from the European championship on a phantom conspiracy between Sweden and Denmark rather than on the team's inability to beat either of those sides.

**

Reaction to Bill Clinton's comments on his newly released book and a few other more important stories tommorow.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bush opposes something that he took credit for after having opposed it

One of the main arguments of pro-George W. Bush people is that the president is a decisive leader with a clear vision. Love him or hate, supporters of the president say, at least you know what you're getting with Bush. Publius, over at Legal Fiction, offers one of many examples that give lie to that argument.

Let's see . . . first, Bush opposed the Texas law that allowed patients to sue HMOs in state court:


Bush initially vetoed the bill in 1995, then let it become law without his signature two years later, saying, "This legislation has the potential to drive up health care costs and increase the number of lawsuits. I hope my concerns are proven wrong."*

Next, he took credit for that bill in a debate with Gore in October 2000:


"If I'm president," Bush said, "people will be able to take their HMO insurance company to court. That's what I've done in Texas, and that's the kind of leadership style I'll bring to Washington."*

Finally, Bush filed a brief opposing this same law that he took credit for during his campaign. This law was overturned yesterday by the Supreme Court, which means that Bush's position won:


At the Supreme Court, the Bush administration filed a brief arguing that allowing state lawsuits would undermine ERISA, and that the benefits to patients are outweighed by costs to managed-care companies -- which, passed on to employers, "could make employers less willing to provide health benefits."*

Now Bush and the Court might both be right on the merits. But the real question is honesty.



[*-links to excerpted work are provided at his site]

Robbing Peter to pay the lawyers

Abiola over at Foreign Dispatches comments on a story of sheer lunacy. A group of South Africans is suing their government for reparations over apartheid-era injustices. South African firms are being sued for "genocide, expropriation and other wrongful acts." But the government is also being sued allegedly for "continuing to allow companies to exploit victims". The lawyer said the government was being targeted "because of its failure to fulfil its obligations and its conspiracy with specific companies to violate these people's rights". He wants the government and the corporations to set up a $20 billion "humanitarian fund".

In case you're confused, the current African National Congress government was not only not complicit in the apartheid-era crimes, but they were actively fighting to bring down apartheid and minority rule. If the government loses, money will be paid from the South African government's general fund, and will thus take money away from programs for education and health and housing and public transport. Programs that benefit millions of South Africans who... suffered under apartheid.

Robbing Peter to pay, er, Peter... except with American lawyers getting a nice hefty cut.

Abiola hits the nail on the head when he writes: I have a sneaking suspicion that, like the civil actions against Microsoft for "overcharging", the real motive power behind this lawsuit lies not with the victims supposedly being "represented" by Ed Fagan and his accomplices but with the lawyers themselves; a bunch of sharp Ivy League law-school grads cotton on to some piece of plausible grimcrackery to hit the financial big-time and then set about rustling up victims they can use to further their legal entrepreneurialism in court. And short of a certain Godwin's Law invoking ideology, what more appealing cause could there be to ride to legal riches than apartheid?

I'd say the suspicion should be more than sneaking.

Monday, June 21, 2004

UN to hold anti-Semitism conference

I read an article in Haaretz that the UN today is holding its first ever seminar devoted to anti-Semitism. A few years ago, the UN held a more general anti-racism conference in South Africa but, perversely, it degenerated into an Israel-bashing forum.

It's interesting that they're holding a conference devoted solely to anti-Semitism. The US logic with regard to UN resolutions is that it will never criticize even the most extreme actions of the Israeli government unless it's "balanced" by a condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. I'm wondering if some participants will turn this logic on its ear and refuse to attend the anti-Semitism conference unless it also explicitly condemns Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories.

Anyways, it's good that they're having this conference, even if such conferences are notorious for producing little more than high-minded declarations of intent that are never followed up. Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories certainly deserved to be condemned, mostly notably the horrible burden placed on Palestinian civilians with the collective punishment and arbitrary closing of the borders. The fact is that Israel's conduct in the Occupied Territories is no less atrocious than Morocco's occupation of the Western Sahara; the main difference.is that Western Sahara is not a cause celebre amongst the European or American left. Governments like Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia (nor anyone who thought Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a wonderful chap) are in absolutely no position to criticize the human rights record of Israel or anyone else.

European criticism of Israel is fairly disproportionate. Not unjustified, but disproportionately frequent compared to all the outrages out there. They claim that it's not really anti-Semitism, just anti-Ariel Sharon. But Israel was a lightning rod even before Sharon was prime minister, even with the left-wing Ehud Barak.

They claim that they're tougher on Israel because [holds hand over hearts] it's a western country so they have higher standards. Their disingenueity borders on repulsive.

But of course, Israel is a proxy for the United States, so the European intelligentsia (and parts of the American left) feels comfortable in criticizing Israel disproportionately while pay relatively miniscule attention far worse atrocities like ethnic cleansing in Darfur or the disaster in Eastern Congo. Those man-made tragedies don't have an ideologically convenient scapegoat, do they?

Save the environment... and money

NPR reports on another significant, if underreported source of pollution: computers.

Computers and computer monitors in the United States are responsible for the unnecessary production of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In U.S. companies alone, more than $1 billion a year is wasted on electricity for computer monitors that are turned on when they shouldn't be. EPA officials say emissions could be drastically reduced if companies and individual computer users would follow a few energy-saving guidelines.

The complete audio version of this story can be accessed by clicking here.

So if you unnecessarily leave your home computer on while you're asleep or at work, don't whine about SUV owners killing the ozone layer!

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Hunger-threatened Ethiopia to export corn

Two headlines earlier this month grabbed my attention.

The first, from The Addis Tribune, was: Ethiopians Hunger for the World's Help. Not really surprising for a country long viewed as an mismanaged basket case whose economy largely depends on foreign aid. After two years of drought, the crops are growing this year in Ethiopia. Some relief agencies insist that is precisely why now is the time to dedicate and target money to development aid. Progress is easier when people aren't starving, they say... A year ago, Ethiopia was a dust bowl and 14 million people needed food aid. But when Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' food agencies, traveled to Ethiopia in April, he found that some emergency feeding centers for children were actually closing because the crisis had eased.

Hunger is a persisent problem in the East African country. As recently as last year, famine appeared on the horizon. Ethiopia represents a "compelling case for attention," according to a Bush administration document produced in advance of the G-8 summit and distributed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

So after reading this, I was fairly surprised to read this headline in The Addis Fortune newspaper: Ethiopia to Export Maize [corn] to Southern Africa. Ethiopia may be looked on by the world as a food aid recipient, with close to four million people at risk of hunger in any given year [emphasis mine], so it is very difficult to think of it as a food-exporting nation. However small the quantity, the Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise, a state owned company with a workforce of 1,700, will be contributing to that lesser image by exporting 100,000 quintals of maize to Southern African countries. Now, I don't know if maize/corn is a staple food in Ethiopia, but if there's enough to export, maybe it should become one.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Reputation and artistic works

Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. June 16, 1904 is the day on which James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses is set. On popular and academic surveys, Ulysses is generally regarded as the best novel of the 20th century.

Dublin, where the novel is set, is planning a huge festival to mark the centenary of Bloomsday. The organizer of the festival told the BBC that, "I have to confesses that I've never waded my way through Ulysses, but I'm hugely proud that we have produced a writer who's esteemed internationally."

I was really atonished by that comment. That the organizer of a huge festival in honor of a book has never actually read the book in question. But that doesn't stop her from being proud.

It made me wonder why some things are held in such high esteem almost on reflex. Finnegan's Wake is another book, also by Joyce, that enjoys a fantastic reputation even though most people who praise it will admit to not having read or finished it.

I don't mean to pick on Joyce. I very much enjoyed Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I've never read Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake so I can't comment on them. Which is exactly my point. How can people who've never read these books laud them as some of the best stuff the 20th century had to offer?

Or maybe the reputations of such books are so high precisely because so few people have actually read them. In some circles, "accessibility" is seen as a crime, as nothing more than lowest-common-denominator pulp fiction. If a book is too dense for most people, then it's almost proof of its worthy literary qualities.

The Peanuts comic strip is another example of an artistic work that's fantastically popular on reputation and I can't understand why. Sure, the cartoons are cute and the characters endearing, but whenever I read a Peanuts' strip, I rarely laugh or am impressed. Their holiday specials were pretty good. But I'm sorry, a Peanuts' strip can't hold a candle to Calvin & Hobbes, which is the most brilliant cartoon ever written. Even a current cartoon like Frazz makes more cogent observations about childhood.

Irishman Roddy Doyle said that Joyce "could have done with a good editor". Doyle is the author of several excellent books; I say his books are excellent not based on some mythical reputation but because I read a few and found them compelling. I find Peanuts fairly pedestrian. And it's almost sacriligeous to say that. Peanuts is an American institution and no one can do anything but sing its unbridled praise. Ulysses isn't the best book of the 20th century just because a few academics, who may or may not have read it, said so.

Reputations should be earned, not given automatically on someone else's say so.

The continent of invisible men

At the risk of being self-referential... Abiola responded to one of my Africans and D-Day essays. He says it all far more succinctly than anything I could come up with.

Shameful, isn't it? There is never a shortage of individuals willing to pile on Africans for their failings, real and imaginary, but when it comes to receiving recognition for good deeds, Africa is an entire continent full of invisible men.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Ungrateful savages

In response to my essay on Africans and the D-Day remembrances, bobochan recounts a very interesting story: Bobo and his wife have lived in various parts of central Africa.

I wanted to comment on this but I have not been able to find anything about it on the web. I was having dinner at a restaurant in N'Djamena [capital of Chad] when a group of Legionnaires came in. They had their dinner and then the whole group started slowly singing a song that I was told was the "Ballad of the African Soldier." It was incredibly sad, saying how they would fight for France but that their sacrifices would be forgotten. I used to run into old men on the streets of Bangui [capital of the Central African Republic] with medals from Dien Bien Phu. The African soldiers have been forgotten, but I think it is almost sadder that they seem to have expected it.

Bobo's story underlines one of the ironies of empire.

African nationalist movements who were agitating for independence, or even the more modest home-rule, were often denounced as selifsh. They were considered a bunch of ingrates who didn't recognize the brilliant munifence of French or British culture that colonialism generously decided to share with the savages, in true selfless Christian spirit.

The real ingrates were, of course, the Europeans. Not only did the colonial subjects fight and die for the freedom of their subjugators (any incidental benefits colonialism brought to the colonized was far outweighed by crass exploitation and the methods used to enforce foreign domination), but the liberated didn't even have the decency to properly acknowledge this contribution.

It's even more ironic that after helping liberate the French from their imperial Nazi oppressor, African soldiers were later used to suppress the nationalist ambitions of other peoples rising against imperial domination, most notably in Indochina and Algeria.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Here We Blow -- Don't Drink the Water

Two soccer stories which don't have much to do with soccer...

The Sun reports that English soccer fans will be allowed to smoke dope before their team's European championship match against holders France on Sunday. Cops in Lisbon plan to crack down on drunk supporters while turning a blind eye to those spotted puffing on a spliff, reports the Rupert Murdoch rag (which I don't read, but a friend forwarded to me).

Quick: which one of those substances is legal and which one is not? And why?

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NPR reports about accusations the Greek soccer club Akratitos put strong depressant drugs into the water bottles of visiting teams.

And some teams just bribe the ref...

Who REALLY brought down the Soviet empire?

There's one myth I've gotten sick of hearing this week.

Ronald Reagan did not bring down the Soviet empire.

He helped. His rhetoric obviously inspired a lot of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But so did his predecessors. So did Western European leaders. Maybe not to the same degree, but Reagan didn't do anything by himself.

But most of all, saying Reagan won the Cold War is ultimately a gross insult to the Eastern European peoples. THEY were the ones who really brought down the Soviet empire.

Reagan didn't personally stare down any tanks. Reagan wasn't thrown in jail. Reagan wasn't tortured by any regime. Reagan wasn't harassed by the secret police.

The people of Eastern Europe brought down the Soviet empire. At most, the Gipper gave them moral support.

Africans snubbed at D-Day remembrances

I was listening to the African music show 'Couleurs tropicales' on Radio France Internationale. The host pointed something interesting in the light of the recent D-Day celebrations. According to Afrik.com and its partner Le Quotidien d'Oran, nearly 42,000 North and sub-Saharan Africans died in the Liberation of France. Yet although the leader of the country that conquered France was a guest of honor, the French government did not invite a single African head of state to the D-Day ceremonies. The site also noted that while 292,000 Americans died in World War II, some 253,000 Africans were killed in defense of their colonial masters. So when the president, at his speech at Normandy tried magnanimously to acknowledge the contributions of other nationalities, "Across Europe, Americans shared the battle with Britains, Canadians, Poles, free French, and brave citizens from other lands taken back one by one from Nazi rule," he forgot an entire continent.

Speaking of irony, I see that South African president Thabo Mbeki was a guest at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, the great "freedom fighter." Mbeki is also leader of the African National Congress, who fought to bring down the odious pro-apartheid regime so arduously supported by the Reagan administration.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The BBC on politicide in Indonesia

The BBC World Service has fascinating series entitled Tiger Tales, which explores several important events in 20th century Asian history. The first episode of the series, Year of living dangerously, deals with the turbulent year of 1965 in Indonesia.

In 1965, plotters attempted a coup against President Sukarno, abducting and assassinating six military generals. The Communist Party, the PKI, was accused of staging the coup. The response was brutal. "It was a slaughter the CIA describes as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century. Unlike other crimes against humanity in the twentieth century, this is a story never fully told, the perpetrators never fully exposed" As General Suharto consolidated the grip of power, a nationwide campaign against the Communists turned into a massacre.

An ironic assessment since the CIA was closely linked with Suharto throughout his three decade rule over the country.

It is believed that as many a million people were slaughtered in the 1965 massacres, some claim even more. This would put it on a scale comparable to Rwanda. But since the purported enemies were allegedly communists, little was reported other than vague references to "civil war" and "turbulence."

I have to admit being surprised by this report. I'd known Suharto was a crook; he was widely regarded as one of the world's most corrupt leaders. I'd also known of the brutal 1975 invasion of East Timor, which some claim then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was informed of but did not object to. But I didn't realize that so many people were massacred in just one year.

Another of the great Cold War victories in the name of 'freedom.'

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Philosophies of coaching youth sports

About five years ago, I went to the local park to play basketball. There was no one at the courts so I decided to watch the rec soccer games at the adjoining field while I waited. One of the games involved a bunch of really little kids, 6 and 7 year olds I imagine. Every time one of them touched the ball, their coach would yell out instructions. "Pass it to Tommy," "Dribble, okay now shoot," "Try and get the ball." I'm not sure if he even paused to take a breath. He was yelling every second. Not angrily, perhaps, but he was yelling constantly nonetheless.

This was a salutory moment for me. I decided then and there that if I ever became a coach, which eventually I did, this guy was going to serve as my model. My model on how NOT to coach kids.

This man, however well-intentioned, was not coaching. He was giving instructions. There is a significant difference. He was not teaching his kids how to play soccer. He was teaching them how to follow orders.

And that, I think, is the fundamental problem with the way we deal youth sports in North America. We put too much emphasis on winning and losing and too little emphasis on the kids having fun and improving as individual players and team players.

Some people think you have to choose between letting your kids have fun and them getting better as athletes. I hold the opposite position I firmly believe that if a kid is not having fun, he will not get better as a player. He will find it dreary and will not be motivated to improve himself. If someone's ordering you around all the time, you're going to get tired of it.

I challenge you to find any great athlete that truly loathed his or her sport or dreaded it. Becoming a great athlete requires a lot of time and committment and motivation. If you come to hate your sport or if you despise going to practice, what kind of motivation do you have? Great athletes become great primarily because of something that comes from inside of them. Not because of coaches and not because of parents. Parents and coaches can help channel the athlete's desire, but they can't make the athlete great if that desire isn't there.

To me, it's imperative that practices and games be enjoyable. Maybe not every single second, but kids shouldn't dread coming. If they are misery, then what's the point of the whole exercise? Enjoyment is the motivation to work hard.

Soccer is a sport. All of my kids are there because they want to be there. In youth leagues, they actually pay to be there. I don't understand the mentality of some coaches that thinks that yelling and screaming and belittling kids (or anyone not being compensated for the task) is going to motivate them. It's one thing to get annoyed once in a while; I think all coaches do at some point during the season. But to consistently be a ranting and raving lunatic... on the off chance it motivates one kid, it's going to alienate the rest.

I push my soccer players to become better at what they do. I believe I do that by sharing my knowledge of the Beautiful Game and showing my love of it. In doing so, I hope they develop the same passion. It's that passion, not me saying they suck just because they make a bad pass, that's going to help them improve. One thing that many coaches don't realize that if a kid doesn't want to get better at a sport, you can't force him. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Americans play a style of soccer that's very dependent on hard work and athleticism and less on ball skills and creativity. It's getting better. American soccer is certainly light years ahead technically of what it was 10 years ago. But we have a century long tradition of disinterest in soccer and that's not going to be overcome in a fortnight.

One of the things I emphasize to my kids, especially the attacking players, is to not be afraid of mistakes. Fear breads caution and caution makes for some boring, ugly soccer totally devoid of any flair. Fear means you play not to lose rather than playing to win. Fear is the enemy of skill.

I remind them that they have only played for a few years, if that, and that they are only 12 or 13 or 14 years old. I assure them that I don't expect them to be Pele or Maradona or Maldini. If they were, they'd be much higher in the system than on my team. I tell my players that if they go through practice without making a mistake, they're almost certainly not trying hard enough.

I never get furious at my kids for anything other than unsportsmanslike behavior. If they make a technical mistake or a bad decision, I explain to them, privately where possible, their mistake and what they should do the next time. I may get frustrated, but I don't get overtly angry at missed shots or bad passes or turnovers. Because if they do those things, it means I need to do a better job teaching them. I want them to respect me. I don't want them to fear me. I think they respect me precisely because they don't fear me.

Sometimes I give general instructions like 'use the wings' or 'keep the passes short,' but I don't yell out specific instructions like who to pass it to or when to shoot the ball or when to overlap. If they make a wrong decision, then I take them aside and say, "Next time, you might want to try x" or "You've got to shoot quickly in the penalty area." Once they've made the mistake, they're more receptive to the correction.

I want them to learn to think for themselves. Any pet dog can follow orders, but I want them to feel the game in their bones. If I can become superfluous during a game except for making substitutions, then I've done my job.

I also give all of my players a significant amount of playing time every game. It's an integral part of my philosophy.Some coaches disagree with this school of thought. But to me, there's nothing more disheartening than watching a soccer game where a couple of kids never play unless their team is winning by a ton or losing by a ton. Playing time is the carrot/stick you use to motivate your players to work hard in practice. If a kid works hard in practice and doesn't do anything else to screw up, then he or she deserves at least a modest amount of playing time. Certainly at the pre-university amateur levels.

Some coaches contend, "They can learn as much watching the game from the bench as they can playing." This rationalization is self-serving garbage. I do agree that you can learn SOMETHING from watching the game for a little while, but that becomes worthless if you never have an opportunity to apply what you learned in a real game setting. Practice is no substitute for what you can learn in game situations. When you play in a game situation, it's the ultimate challenge and you learn about yourself because games have an intensity that no practice or scrimmage can match.

This mentality is also counterproductive for the coach. A coach can also learn something about his players by giving them, even the lesser regarded ones, playing time. And I mean real playing time, not just in the last five minutes of a soccer game when the score is 6-0.

Every season, at least one kid that I don't think will be that good ends up making a far greater impact than I expected. Maybe it's because necessity forced me to play him in a position neither of us thought of using him in. Maybe it's because when faced with the challenge of a real game situation, he rose to that challenge and showed something he didn't show in practice. Maybe he worked so hard in practice and at home, he improved significantly. If I hadn't given those kids much playing time in competitive situations, their talents would've remained hidden and the team would've been weaker for it.

These thoughts occured to me after two events. The first was when I read of an idiot basketball coach in New Jersey who gave one of his players a "Crybaby Award" trophy at a so-called awards' banquet. The kid's heinous crime: always pleading to get into games. Rather than getting brownie points for determination, a love of the game and a burning desire to play, the kid (an honor student) gets humiliated in front of his teammates. The coach, who should never work with kids again, apallingly blamed it on his "lack of experience as a coach and as a teacher." Or maybe a lack of experience as a decent human being?

The other event that triggered these thoughts was my kids' game on Sunday. The other team had a couple of those coaches who were shouting instructions ever 0.56 seconds. It was annoying the heck out of me and I felt bad for their kids. In the second half, one of their forwards had a breakaway and didn't get a very good shot off. The other coach, a master of the bloody obvious, yelled out the most illuminating 'advice' imaginable: "Don't shoot it right at the goalie."

Now that's great coaching, isn't it?

World press review

Some items from press around the world...

Is Europe Falling Behind, asks a piece in The Globalist. The economic evidence seems quite clear: Europe has made virtually no progress over the past 30 years in catching up with the United States in terms of per capita income. But that view is inaccurate, as Olivier Blanchard argues. He finds that European productivity growth has exceeded that of the United States — it's just that Europeans have chosen to use these productivity gains in a different way.

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It looks like Tony Blair is finally getting something (besides grief) out of his previously one-sided subservience to the American president. George W. Bush will back an ambitious British-designed plan for more generous debt relief for the world's poorest countries this week as the White House seeks backing from the G8 industrial nations for the financial reconstruction of Iraq, according to an article in The Guardian. This is good news. Debt relief has the potential to do far more good for African economies than a comparable amount of aid handouts. There are several fairly well-governed countries.hamstrung by repaying debt incurred by previous dictators who were given carte blanche by lenders because they were "anti-Communist." Debt relief would also remove a major excuse and smokescreen of poorly governed, corrupt countries and might lead to them being held more accountable to their people. If the west can provide debt relief for countries it invades, why not for others?

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An eye-opening story from Canada's CBC. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (aka: the Mounties, their equivalent of the FBI) confirmed Wednesday that two fibre optic cables were deliberately damaged, cutting off phone, internet and cable service overnight to 200,000 people in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Much like the blackout of last summer, this incident underlines the fragility of the internet grid, whose supposed virtue is its decentralization. If problems with only two cables can shut down traffic to a good chunk of Atlantic Canada, does this show how vulernable Internet-dependent North American businesses are to mischief, or worse?

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This opinion piece in Lebanon's Daily Star reminds me why the Bush administration's campaign to demonize al-Jazeera is seriously misguided. Ever since pan-Arab stations such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiyya, Abu Dhabi TV, Al-Manar, Al-Hayat-LBC and others have surfaced on the Arab media scene as credible alternatives to CNN, BBC and other Western media outlets, there has been an increased public response in the Middle East to news... Arab satellite stations provided ample room for the Bush administration to present its views directly to Arab viewers. However, from an American perspective the efficacy of such efforts was questionable. Despite airing daily military briefings by American commanders, spokespersons and top officials, the messages did not strike a chord with Arab viewers... US officials interviewed by Arab media could have arguably presented a stronger defense had they described some prison internment problems that never made it into the headlines.

I've always thought the campaign to demonize al-Jazeera was totally counterproductive to the neo-conservatives alleged goal to democratize the Middle East. Al-Jazeera is accused of anti-Americanism. Perhaps this is fair, perhaps not. It's certainly anti-Iraq invasion. Though some people think any not-entirely-gushing coverage of the administration constitutes anti-Americanism, so perhaps this label is meaningless. The reason al-Jazeera smearing is counterproductive is simple: they are an independent broadcast news source in a region than has had very few over the years.

Independent broadcasters will sometimes say things governments don't like. In fact, if they don't say things that occassionally upset governments, they probably aren't independent. Though American focus has been Al-Jazeera's (and other Arab broadcasters') allegedly biased coverage of the Iraq war, they ignore the fact that it ALSO offers critical coverage of Arab regimes. And did so long before al-Jazeera became a household name in the West. Al-Jazeera pissed off Arab regimes with its frank discussion of their many failings long before its frankness pissed off Washington. And since most of the other Arab regimes are the ultimate targets of the neo-conservative camp, the preservation of the fledging broadcast media's independence is critical to the spread of democratization in the Arab world.

If al-Jazeera and its breathren offered sycophantic portrayals of Washington, as critics would prefer, then they would have no credibility when reporting on political affairs in Damascus or corruption in Cairo.

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Chilean courts refused to extradite Carlos Menem, the presumed crook who was president of Argentina throughout most of the 90s. The Argentina authorities want to question the 73-year-old in cases of alleged fraud and illegal enrichment, according to the BBC. The latest extradition request regards investigations about $60m allegedly embezzled from funds for two new prisons.

The house of cards that was built up during Menem's rule collapsed shortly after his departure and was followed by widespread protests, several presidential resignations and political turmoil. Menem's presidency is so fondly remembered that he has lived in Chile with his wife for several months.

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The Christian Science Monitor had an interesting article on bullying in schools. Though bullying is hardly a new phenomenon, the article noted that some see deeper cultural forces at work: a society that condones, even supports, rudeness as a means to get ahead - not just on the playground, but into adulthood ("Office jerks get perks," read a recent newspaper headline.). Though bullies have traditionally been seen as outsiders with low self-esteem, new studies suggest bullies are often the popular kids, protected not just by students, but by teachers and administrators eager to promote "superstars."