Friday, August 27, 2004

Darfur 'belongs to Arabs now'

The genocide continues unchecked in Darfur, eastern Sudan. At least against those few who are left. African peacekeepers are expected to arrive in this week, none too soon.

Janjaweed Arab militias are engaging in a throrough campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur's black population (which, ironically, comprises mostly fellow Muslims; though if so-called Christians can kill each other in Northern Ireland, why should I be surprised?). The Janjaweed are almost universally believed to be armed and supported by the Sudanese military junta. Not surprisingly, the regime denies this but the genocide campaign has involved aerial attacks by bombers and helicopter gunships, things that are a little out of the price range of your everyday rag-tag bandit militias.

One British official who has been working in western Darfur told journalists the region remained largely "bandit country" in which the Janjaweed were "doing what they want, where they want, when they want to the non-Arabs".

Having driven the farmers from their villages into makeshift refugee camps, the Janjaweed were keeping them there by continuing the beatings and sexual attacks, he said. This ensured that the militia was free to do as it wished in the rest of the country.


One refugee summed up the widely believe sentiment: "The government of Sudan doesn't want blacks, they want only Arabs. Before the first attack, some Arabs in the region came to tell us: 'We're going to send you blacks away and claim this land for ourselves.'"

In one typical attack that was documented by Human Rights Watch in July, a group of women and girls were stopped at a Janjaweed militia checkpoint in West Darfur. Militia members told them that "the country belonged to the Arabs now and, as they were there without permission, they would be punished." All of the women were then beaten, and six girls aged 13 to 16 were raped.

HRW added: In response to the Security Council's demand that Janjaweed militia members be disarmed, the Sudanese government has instead begun to incorporate them into official state security units such as the police and semi-regular forces such as the Popular Defense Forces.

Mugabe: #3 African of all time?

Jonathan over at The Head Heeb is disappointed in the decision by Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to boycott future elections until "real" democratic reforms are implemented.

Jonathan notes that as frustrating as life is for the MDC, it's far from irrelevant. And it's boycott could actually be more dangerous than helpful.

He writes, The MDC lacks the power to block most ZANU-sponsored legislation, but it acts as a pro-democracy voice on the international scene, and as recent events have shown, it retains leverage through its ability to block constitutional amendments. The party doesn't have a serious chance of securing a majority next year, but if it competes in the election, it has a good shot of retaining the 50 seats necessary to prevent unilateral constitutional change. If it doesn't compete, then Zimbabwe will return to the pre-2000 days when ZANU answered to no one, and the MDC will sacrifice what power and moral authority it still has.

The boycott is a foolish, and perhaps ultimately fatal, decision by the MDC. Opposition boycotts only work in countries where the regime is concerned about its image. It only works where the regime feels international pressure to have something vaguely resembling a "normal" political situation. It's clear that strongman Robert Mugabe is comfortable in defying western pressure. And it's also unlikely that Thabo Mbeki, president of regional power South Africa, will soon cease his role as head of Mugabe's apologist brigade.

The MDC would be much wiser to participate in elections and then protest the results. Or organize another general strike. I admit this is a tough deicsion, considering the regime's repression. But a boycott makes them irrelevant.

Speaking of Zimbabwe, a survey by the London magazine, New African, recently named Mugabe as the third-greatest African of all-time. He was behind only former South African President Nelson Mandela and Ghana's iconic leader Kwame Nkrumah. South Africa's The Daily Mail and Guardian reported: Mugabe, widely criticised outside Zimbabwe for stifling dissent and crippling the economy of his once-prosperous Southern African nation, is an "interesting" choice because "a high-profile campaign in the media has painted him in [a] bad light", the New African wrote.

Are some Africans' expectations THAT low that they admire so highly a guy who destroys his country, its people and its economy so thoroughly? It shows how a little appeal to reflexive nationalism/patriotism can block nerve receptors in the part of the brain that deals with logic

Abiola, at Foreign Dispatches, isn't quite as worried as he pointed out the ranking should hardly be considered definitive.

This would indeed be very worrying if it were some sort of representative cross-section of the African populace we were talking about here, but the very fact that it's a write-in survey ought to be enough to suggest that the anxiety might be a tad overdone. For one thing, the people who get to even hear of the survey aren't going to be a random sample to begin with, as every publication in a marketplace will necessarily skew to one demographic or another.

While I don't accept the New African's write in survey as some definitive sounding out of the entire continent (especially since it's surely read by a lot who live outside Africa), it's clear Mugabe's appeal to many Africans isn't a figment of anyone's imagination.

I guess it's much easier to admire Bob and his thugs when you're living in London than when you're living in Harare or Bulawayo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The issues: beside the point?

I write a lot of essays concering Ralph Nader and some readers wonder why. It's not because I think he's a demigod. It's not because I think he's the best thing since sliced bread. It's not because I think he's perfect or flawless. It's simply because I think he's the best candidate for president in 2004. And that's how I determine my vote.

Nader has a lot of critics, some fair, some unfair. This is predictable since any politician worth his salt is going to have critics, some fair, some unfair.

But one thing that's different about Nader's critics is the nature of their criticisms. Kerry's supporters criticize Bush for advocating reckless policies or policies that impoverish people. Bush's supporters criticize Kerry for not offering a belligerent enough foreign policy or for opposing theocracy.

What's different is that the most virulent criticism of Nader comes primarily from people who would otherwise be his ideological ALLIES. What's different is that most of his critics are assailing him not for the positions he takes, but from the mere fact of his candidacy.

This is why I'm quick to defend him or, more accurately, debunk the feeble criticisms. I can accept people not liking his ideology. I know people who can give plenty of reasons they think Nader is an evil Marxist. Their conclusions may be dubious but at least they try to back them up. At least their target is Nader's positions. That's the way politics should be: driven by issues. Though sadly, this is all to rare nowadays.

But when people can only criticize the fact of Nader's candidacy, it bugs me. Those critics think they're smarter than the voters, that voters should only consider the choices that they (the "smart guys") think are serious. They should focus on the REASONS for Nader's candidacy, not the FACT of his candidacy.

Some people suggest you not 'waste' your vote on a smaller party candidate. The 'wasted vote' argument is not really an argument. It's something people say when they have nothing else to go on, when their intellectual tank is dry.

The only reasons not to vote for a candidate are because you think s/he wouldn't do a good job or that they don't represent what you want done or that they're not the best candidate. If you base your vote on "who's likely to win," just like bettors at the race track, then you're more likely to get a horse's behind than a thoroughbred.

Whether or not candidates are 'viable' should be determined by voters, not by columnists, yapping heads or bloggers. This should not be determined by polling agencies or conventional wisdom or samples of 0.02% of the population. And this should be determined on Election Day at the polls, not in the media in August.

If you believe otherwise, then why have elections? Why not model everything on a computer and save a lot of money?

One thing his critics ought to realize is that Nader is not going to withdraw his candidacy. The sooner they accept this reality the better it will be.

Those people are better off trying to convince folks like me that their guy is better instead of trying to convince me that Nader shouldn't run or that I'd be 'wasting my vote' on him or pusing the demonstrably false statement that a 'vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.'

I will no longer debate the fact of his candidacy. This question is superfluous and irrelevant.

And to anyone Democrat, ABBer and/or Kerry-supporter, I offer this challenge: if you can name four things Ralph Nader advocates (based on his stated positions) that you vehemently disagree with, I will not write another essay about him for a month.

Most pro-Kerry critics of Nader I know can't do this because Nader's positions on the issues are beside the point.

A candidate's stances on the issues should never be beside the point; they should be the heart of the point.

Your 527s are evil, unlike my 527s

So the biggest current talking point of the two major presidential campaigns and punditocracy is what did or didn't happen over three decades ago.

Republicans have spent the last several years canonizing all soldiers. They've spent the last several years convincing people that people that the only way to serve your country meaningfully is to wear a military uniform (or to be a Republican president or vice-president). They've made exceptions to those rules for John Kerry, Max Clelland and John McCain. Suddenly, the Democrats decide to co-opt that line

Kerry, back in 1971, accused American soldiers in Vietnam of war crimes. Pro-Bush groups say that these accusations smeared soldiers, that they undermined morale, that he's unfit to lead. Indignant outrage abound. None that I've seen say the accusations were false.

Former Sen. Bob Dole pooh-poohed Kerry's wounds, calling them "superficial." Apparently, it's not a REAL injury unless you lose use of a limb; though that hardly explains Republican smears against Max Clelland who lost three limbs.

Basically, some people think it's horrible to accuse American soldiers of actual war crimes, but ok to accuse them of suffering only "superficial" wounds.

If Republicans are going to fetishize the miltiary and deify soldiers as a group, then they'd better be prepared to do it across the board.

The Democrats are only slightly less disingenuous. Kerry himself accused Republicans of "misleading the American people, hiding behind front groups, saying anything and doing anything to avoid the real issues that matter, like jobs, health care and the war in Iraq."

This is a pretty astonishing charge since some left-leaning groups, most notably MoveOn.org, have made it their primary mission in life to run an attack campaign against the president and his allies. They're not FORMALLY affiliated with the Democratic Party or Kerry campaign, any more than the Swift Boat attack group is formally linked to the Republicans or Bush campaign.

MoveOn.org has raised and spent millions of dollars on this objective. They just don't FORMALLY coordinate with Kerry's representatives; but they don't have to because it doesn't take a genius to know what the Kerry-ites want MoveOn to say. The Kerry campaign is depending heavily on those ads to do his dirty work.

I think these groups coarsen the debate, if that's possible. But I have no legal problem with these groups. They have the right to do these things (unless they violate libel/slander or defamation laws) just as sane people have the right to ignore them or to criticize them.

But it's telling, as I said in the beginning, that the focus is yet again on what happened several decades ago instead of how these two men plan to lead our country from 2005-2009. This is yet another reason why neither deserves to lead this country. Let them argue about what happened in the 60s and 70s and leave the presidency for serious candidates.


Tuesday, August 24, 2004

'Banning' Nader

"Mike," a visitor to Abiola's excellent Foreign Dispatches blog, has some interesting observations on Ralph Nader's independent presidential candidacy.

Nader knows that he does not stand a chance so he might just quit. Why waste our precious votes? Besides who said that there was any true democratic process, after the 2000 election you guys still believe?

and

My point again desperate situations call for desperate measures; I also understand that if we start of on the wrong foot we can go justifying every atrocity committed....But I think that we need to apply some kind of 'moral relativism' here. In the face of the atrocity we stand to commit by "banning" Nader I think that Bush's re election for a second term in office will definitely constitute a bigger evil... Remember there, sometimes, shades of grey involved in contentious issues such as this one.

Though surely not unique in intent, "Mike" is surprisingly candid. There is no "true democratic process" so therefore it's ok to commit "the atrocity" of "'banning' Nader."

"Mike" thinks it's a bigger atrocity to ban someone from the political process than to risk George W. Bush getting elected under a democratic process. And it's Bush who is the biggest threat to democracy?

I think "MIke" would feel more comfortable if he moved to Tunisia or North Korea or Syria. They don't have to worry about complications like multipartyism or anything vaguely resembling a "true democratic process."

Attorney General John Ashcroft's mentality is that we must sacrifice liberty in order to save it. "Mike" and his ilk believe we must trash democracy in order to save it. Is either worth saving under these conditions?

I've said it before and I'll say it again. People like "Mike" are one of the primary causes of political apathy in this country. Having principles and actually standing by them is considered the bigger evil, in their eyes. No wonder so Americans are disillusioned with the political process.


[Update: "Mike" adds:

Of course an ignorant individual like your self would not understand that the war in Iraq lacks any justification.

Actually I do understand this, unlike his man Mr. Kerry. The Democratic candidate doesn't undestand what my "ignorant" self does. And yet according to him, Kerry still deserves to be president.]



[Update 2: Further comments from "Mike" to me

For all the wrong that you guys are responsible for, the Florida vote scam, the unjustified parading of John Kerry, a war hero as a fraud..... I think we ought to get even. You justify and support the senseless killing of young Americans in Iraq, yet you are supporting those who will question a proven war hero? Is this not another example of manipulating events to suit your motives? You will turn back tomorrow, and question the credibility of soldiers who have fought in Iraq if you deem it necessary. As a patriotic American I am proposing treason as the charge against these shameless individuals who engage in this act. Are you willing to support that (conservative DOLT)? You guys did the same thing to McCain. My medicine is alright I think; it's about time you and your gang of loonies checked.

"Mike" is obviously under the delusion that I'm a Republican or Bush-supporter or Iraq war supporter. There are few things that leave me speechless. This is one of them.]

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Olympics

I can't stand the Olympics.

Really!

You'd think as a sports fan, I'd eat this stuff up. But really, the Games are insufferable.

The only sports I watch in the Olympics are soccer and ice hockey. And that's because they are soccer and ice hockey, not because they're in the Olympics.

The Olympics, especially the summer version, are the triumph of pomp and hype and nationalist hysteria over sport. I can appreciate the grace of synchronized swimming or the sheer energy of the 100 meters, but not when it's accompanied by insufferable announcers imploring me to realize that I am witnessing the greatest performance in the history of humanity.

In addition, you have some people with the audacity to suggest that supporting anyone other than American athletes and teams is, get this, unpatriotic. It shows how the word 'patriotism' is so overused almost to the point of being meaningless if it can be invoked in the context of a sporting event.

You hear all this self-aggrandizing nonsense about the Olympics are all about humanity coming together as one people, blah blah blah. This is the biggest myth of all..

If it's about humanity coming together, why is it that, at the medals' podium, they raise three national flags and play the national anthem of the winner? Why is unity represented by separation?

If it's about humanity coming together, why is that announcers (regardless of where the coverage originates) always say, "The USA wins the bronze medal in the skeet shooting" instead of "John Smith wins the bronze medal in the skeet shooting"? Did the whole USA wake up at 5 AM and spend hours every day doing grueling training? Was it the whole USA who performed under pressure and fended off stiff competition? No. And to suggest otherwise is to deny the individuals their due credit.

If it's about humanity coming together, why does the press make huge deal about the medals' tables? Is Australia a superior country to Chile just because they have more Olympic medals? Again, it's about the country trying to steal credit away from the individual athletes who succeeded.

If it's about humanity coming together, why, following a controversial officiating decision, do people feel as though the official personally insulted the entire country?

And let's be honest, if the Olympics were all about humans uniting as one people, then would the Miracle on Ice really have been so special? If that game had been against anyone other than the Soviet Union in 1980, would it have had so much social significance?

Oh, and I don't care a whit about the USA men's basketball team so I wish ESPN, Fox Sports and the rest of the sports media would stop yammering on about it. The rest of the world has gotten better so maybe our basketball players should realize that tatoos and fancy dunking no longer cuts it.

I take that back. I do care about the USA men's basketball team. I hope they lose. It's mainly because I despise the NBA. But I also can't stand arrogance in athletes. And the NBA pretty much incarnates that. Thank you Puerto Rico and Lithuania. Maybe now, the 12 year old basketball players will realize that their 14 year old brothers play with a better understanding of the game's fundamentals than any man wearing a USA or NBA jersey.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

What the Swift Boat ad did NOT say

I'm not a huge fan of John Kerry, but I'm even less of a fan of shameless smears. I don't like the left's juvenile taunting of President Bush, for example (see previous entry).

I saw the infamous Swift Boat ad, where some Vietnam vets attacked John Kerry. Or one of them, I'm not sure how many ads there are.

Basically, the vets in the ad attacked Kerry for his early 70s Congressional testimony accusing American troops in Vietnam of war crimes.

The ad mentioned a lot of things. Those featured said Kerry's testimony gave ad and comfort to the enemy; this is a common charge by who don't understand that democratic dissent will always please autocrats who view this as a sign of weakness, instead of what is really is. They said Kerry dishonored his country. They asked how can we respect him after he said those things.

There is one thing the ad didn't say.

That Kerry's accusations were untrue.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Iran endorses pre-emptive strikes

Reuters is one of several news organizations to report that Iran might launch pre-emptive strikes to protect its nuclear facilities if they are threatened, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said in remarks broadcast on Friday.


"We won't sit with our hands tied and wait until someone does something to us," Shamkhani told Arabic channel Al Jazeera when asked what Iran would do if the United States or Israel attacked its atomic facilities. Words that sound like they were lifted for a President Bush speech.

I understand the Iranian mentality. After all, my president said that pre-emptive strikes against countries that aren't an imminent threat were the best idea since sliced bread. And certainly the US is more of a threat to Iran, than Iraq ever was to the US.

I personally thought the whole concept of pre-emptive strikes was terrible and reckless. But apparently my president was successful in convincing others that it was a great idea.

Bravo, Mr. President.

Is Bush a moron?

It's fairly common nowadays to read liberal or left-wing rants calling President Bush a moron, idiot or otherwise deriding his intelligence. This trend is extremely juvenile and says more about those doing the whining than it does about their target. If the left's solution to change its invertebrate status is to out-snivel Coulter and O'Reilly, then it deserves as much scorn as the other guys.

But this childish verbal assault on the president's intelligence is also counterproductive.It's counterproductive because it inadvertantly lets the president off the hook. It turns him into a rube who's well-intentioned but not too bright. Think about it: who could hate Forrest Gump?

I'm not going to go so easy on the president. I don't give a rat's behind what Bush's IQ is. I don't care if he hasn't read War and Peace in the original Russian. I care what he's done, doing and plans to do for this country. Or more accurately, to this country.

I'm not going to vote for him based on that criteria alone. And no one else should either.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Why Nader must run [guest essay]

I've written several essays on the topic. Here's another view. It's unfortunate that the Democrats refuse to engage Nader on the issues and try to make the topic the mere fact of his candidacy. It's not really surprising though. The Democrats really don't have any kind of coherent agenda aside from getting rid of President Bush. Engaging Nader on the issues would be fatal to Kerry-Edwards because it would shine light on how the ticket is trying to run to the right of Bush on several issues, on how embarassed they are to have to share a party with a few progressives. Engaging Nader on the issues would provide a counterpoint to Kerry's pro-Conquest, pro-Patriot Act positions, pro-war on civil liberties, pro-corporatocracy positions. He knows engaging Nader would threaten his strangehold on the ABB vote and possibly push some members of that group to realize the huge internal contradictions of their own position.



An essay by Mark Kamleiter of the Florida Green Party. Republished with permission of the author

American Politics - "Unsafe At Any Speed"

By Mark S. Kamleiter

The question is always the same. Why support Ralph Nader, if he cannot win? This sophomoric question is asked by seasoned journalists as often as by political neophytes. It is as though we are picking teams in a football game. The answer is simple. Nader must win his objectives.

As he has done all his life, Ralph Nader is fighting to protect people from danger and corruption. He refuses to accept a political system that has deformed and corrupted democracy. His campaign is a challenge the rules of that system. Ralph Nader is taking on the most significant reformist battle of his life, the daunting task of re-democratizing American politics, and he must
win.

His conviction that democracy has been stolen from Americans is a driving rationale behind his candidacy. In speaking to the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, Mr. Nader laid out his case. He pointed out, that through the complicity of the major parties, 95% of congressional elections are not seriously contested. Furthermore, unfair ballot access rules prevent third-party candidates from presenting alternative choices. Without a choice, there is no democracy. The Electoral College shamefully nullifies millions of votes in every presidential election. There is no democracy, when votes do not count. Without serious electoral finance reform, only candidates with significant corporate financing are able to compete. When corporations control the candidates, there is no democracy.

Democracy has been reduced to two corporate-controlled parties, who provide an empty parody of democratic form, without substance. This election is a reflection of what is wrong with our electoral system. Watching the sad charade of the Democratic presidential primaries makes one yearn for meaningful political substance. From the beginning millions of grassroots Americans rallied energetically and passionately around populist peace candidates. Public events had massive groups of Dean and Kucinich supporters, while only handfuls of Kerry supporters were apparent.

Then the corporate powers spoke. The priority changed, from issues and substance, to which candidate can amass the corporate money to win. Although the majority of Democrats are against the war in Iraq, the Kerry campaign runs on a pro-war plank. Peace activists are physically thrown out of the Democrat convention. There is no more talk of universal health care. A candidate, who voted for Iraq, the Patriot Act, GATT, and No Child Left Behind, becomes the
standard bearer. Winning becomes the issue.

The Democratic Party not only muted its own progressive voices, it is determined to silence independent and third party voices. Its conduct toward Ralph Nader has been ugly, viral and an absolute contradiction of democratic principles. Nader is not attacked on the issues, but for having the audacity to even present himself for election. Beyond their vicious attacks, there has been a concerted effort to prevent Mr. Nader from appearing on the ballots of many states. In the process, millions are denied their right to vote for their candidate. Then, in complicity with the Republican Party, third party candidates are denied access to the presidential debates, intentionally preventing citizens from hearing alternative voices. This is not democracy.

Even as his candidacy is an undeniable exposé of the present lack of democratic electoral process, Mr. Nader is taking effective, direct action to force open the duopoly to meaningful, democratic participation by third party and independent voices. After being locked out of the 2000 debates, he filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), alleging that the
Commission engaged in partisan politics against third party candidates. The Federal District Court has found that the CPD's conduct was illegally partisan and ordered the FEC to remedy the situation.

In 2000 and now in 2004, Nader has filed lawsuits against state ballot access laws, which create a barrier against third party and independent candidates. Furthermore, Ralph Nader told the St. Petersburg Times that he was investigating the persistent dirty tricks and attacks on his ballot access and he promised that he would pursue remedies against those who have engaged in such
illegal and undemocratic conduct. Whenever Nader wins one of these lawsuits, he opens the door to independents and third parties. Because Nader's campaign effectively threatens the duopoly, it is a force for other election reforms, including, doing away with the Electoral College, institution of Instant Runoff Voting, and electoral finance reform.

Ralph Nader must win his struggle to reestablish democratic processes. This is not a fight that can be put off to a better time. The undemocratic, contrived electoral duet now being played out by the Democratic and Republican Parties is not a unique aberration. It is the result of a long-term complicity between the two corporate parties. At every election this country sinks further under the two-party, one-choice, monopoly. Only a steadfast, determined electoral effort, will pry open and re-democratize our electoral system. As Fredrick Douglas said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Soccer: linguistics, referees and the Olympics

For the longest time, English soccer had the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th divisions. Then in the early 90s, the top flight was renamed the Premiership/Premier League, the second level became the 1st Division and so on down the line. Now, the lower divisions have been renamed yet again. The second level is now known as The Championship, even though 2004-05 winners Leicester City will be only the 21st best team in England. The third and fourth tiers become League One and League Two.

I've ranted before on how enamored English media outlets are with making snide remarks about how Americans call the sport 'soccer' ever time they write about the Beautiful Game in the United States (even though such jabs are never made about the half dozen other countries that use the word). And each jab is made to sound like the most creative insult imaginable.

It seems to me that any country that calls its THIRD best soccer division "League One" has no business sniveling about other country's linguistic choices.

**

Speaking of the obnoxious press, Swiss referee Urs Meier has hit back at English tabloids who vilified him following a controversial decision he made in the England-Portugal Euro 2004 quarterfinal. Meier disallowed a late English winner due to a foul committed on the Portugese goalkeeper. Meier's personal telephone number and e-mail address were published in the days following the match and the referee was branded a love rat for leaving his wife for a female referee.

"This kind of intimate hostility and aggression, reaching right into the private sphere, has only really happened to footballers and pop stars but never to a referee before," he told the website of FIFA, soccer's international governing body. He said his ex-wife "was quoted as saying I cheated on her the same way I cheated England. The English press were looking for a scapegoat after their team was knocked out," which is in stark contrast to their usual conduct.

Before American readers who may dislike soccer get too smug, they should remember the treatment* meted out to the Chicago Cubs' fan blamed for costing his team their first pennant in 58 years by trying to catch a foul ball.

(*-Media outlets, led by one of Chicago's main daily newspapers The Sun-Times, reported his name, place of employment and even his university alma mater. After the incident happened, The Chicago Tribune noted, As security guards struggled to impose order, the din around [the man] grew louder and meaner. Many in the stands shouted they wanted [the man] dead, and one later shouted "Lynch him!")

**

Iraq's Olympic soccer team continued its astonishing run by becoming the first team qualifying for the tournament's quarterfinals, when just making the Olympics was a major achievement. After stunning medal favorites Portugal 4-2 in their first game, the Iraqis beat Costa Rica 2-0 to advance to the last eight. Though if they lose their final group match against Morocco, they'll likely face gold medal favorites Argentina. Nevertheless, it's been a fantastic tournament so far by the minnows who are apparently playing far more compelling soccer than the most recent Cinderellas (Greece, Euro 2004 winners).

Monday, August 16, 2004

Why Albany is so unaccountable

I've written several entries pertaining to the dysfunctional nature of New York state government. WHY is it so broken? Lack of competition.

I've heard it reported that the NY legislature has a higher incumbent re-election rate than the communist Chinese National Assembly. This article was one of many this weekend to put offer some numbers. It noted that 14 Republican Senators out of 37 will have no Democratic opposition. That means that a little less than half of the Republican majority will run virtually unopposed.

This pathetic situation is due primarily to the de facto gerrymandering of legislative districts. Rather than showing solidarity with their Republican counterparts in the Assembly, Senate Republicans align with Assembly DEMOCRATS to draw as many districts in as uncompetitive a way as possible. (And vice versa, obviously). Most districts are either overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration or overwhelmingly Republican.

This discourges the other party in the district from even bothering to field candidates. And even if they do, the party doesn't want to spend resources on races it feels confident of getting massacred in.

The result is that even though the legislature hasn't passed an on-time budget in 20 years and even though the current legislature has done almost nothing this year and even though only 26 percent of New Yorkers think the legislature is doing a good job (according to a Quinnipiac Univ. poll), most legislators will get re-elected, if by default.

This is why smaller parties need to play a bigger role in New York state politics. It's clear that neither the Democratic majority in the Assembly nor the GOP majority in the Senate has any desire to shake up the status quo that so favors them. Unfortunately, it's that very status quo and dubious electoral laws that preserve it which put smaller parties at such a huge disadvantage.

Whiny businessmen

One thing I don't have a lot of sympathy for is whiny businessmen. For example, in my city, the businessmen love to complain. The city needs to do more promotion. It needs to beautify our downtown. Businessmen want the city to waste $3 million on a parking garage to "solve" downtown's mythical parking problem so people have to walk 10 fewer feet to the few shops that remain. And since those two things obviously won't cost any money, they whine about needing lower taxes too. They need all this because they have to compete with the main Mall, the strip mall and the numerous shopping plazas in the neighboring town.

One thing the businessmen don't mention is what the real problem is. They don't mention it because it's the one thing the city CAN'T control: hours. Most shops downtown (excluding restaurants and bars) are closed by 5 PM. Stores in the Mall and the plazas stay open until 9 PM or later.

Now, I'd prefer to shop at small, downtown businesses. I'd prefer the profits to stay with the local owners and the sales tax to stay within my city, to fund the library, the parks, etc. I really would prefer to shop in my city. But there's one simple logistical problem: the stores close at 5 PM and I work until 5 PM.

The shops downtown are operating as though the 1950s social reality is still the norm. While there are certainly stay-at-home moms, most families either have 100% of the adults working. People that work a normal day shift simply can not shop downtown because the shops refuse to be open at that time.

Some time in the 90s, I remember there was a hockey memorabilia shop located right near our Civic Center arena. It sold hockey cards, jerseys and stuff like that. Each week in the wintertime 5000-8000 hockey fans walked by that shop. But it went out of business. I'm sure they'd blame the mayor or taxes or some other boogey man. But I point out one fact that's probably more pertinent: the shop closed at 6 PM. Hockey games started at 7:30 PM. They didn't stay open later on hockey nights.

I'm not going to tell people how to run their enterprises, but they need to face reality and not blame others for situations that are fully within their control.

I was reminded of this when I read an article in the Times-Union of Albany.

Last week, the New York state legislature actually did something.

I'll wait a few minutes for shocked readers to be revived.



They actually passed a budget. Sure, it was over four months late, a record for tardiness. Sure, that lateness was pooh-poohed by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno; I'm sure the school district superintedents who had to make their own budgets based on zero knowledge of what state aid would be would love to have a little chat with Sen. Bruno. Sure, Gov. George Pataki may veto parts of it. Sure, many legislators bemoaned not having enough time to read what they were approving, an annual complaint. But at least legislators finally did their most basic job.

Contained within the budget was a provision to allow liquor stores to be open seven days a week. For the longest time, liquor stores were required to be closed on Sunday. Last year, the state said they could be open on Sunday if they wanted but would have to close some other day. They had to report to the state what days and hours they be open and closed and stick to those hours. Now, they can be open seven days a week. (Incidentally, New York still bans sales of liquor in supermarkets, though there is a lobbying campaign to change that)

You'd think this change would be popular. No longer would they have to submit paperwork to the state regarding their hours. No longer would the state be limiting their operations. To me, this makes sense. There was no compelling reason to force liquor stores to close one day a week so they got rid of this arbitrary requirement.

But as usual, not everyone is happy with what seems like a common sense decision for the government to cease meddling in business, something which small businessmen ritually moan about.

"I have one day to myself, to rest and do personal things," said Lina Kouchpileava, who owns Diana Discount Wine & Liquor on Grand Street in Albany. "Now, when stores can work seven days, I have competition and have to open seven days because I don't want to lose my customers."

She HAS to open seven days??? You'd think they'd put a gun to her head if she doesn't.

I'm sorry but balancing between work/money and family is something everyone with a job has to do, especially someone who owns their own business. Freedom to run your own business entails freedom to make your own decisions.

You can't complain about government meddling generally and then demand they protect you from having to make a tough decision by imposing that decision on all of your competitors.

"The people who are making these decisions, they don't know real life," Ms. Kouchpileava said.

In real life, you don't demand a law requiring everyone else take a day off just because you want one.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Au revoir Zizou

I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that French midfielder Zinedine Zidane announced his retirement from international soccer. I started following the sport in 1994, so I just missed the exploits of sublime players like Van Basten, Guillit and Platini. Diego Maradona was a bloated, drug-addicted shell of his former greatness. Simply put, Zidane is the best player I've ever watched. He was not the fastest player or the purest goal scorer with the hardest shot. But he was a magician. When he ran, he could twist his body in bizarre ways and the ball just stuck to his foot. His passing and vision were truly inspirational.

His retirement makes sense. France's old-guard, which won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European championship, is, well, old. At least by the standards of international soccer. For the most part, France has not found younger players to match the former quality of the Zidanes, Laurent Blancs and Lizarazus. France exited disappointingly early of the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004.

Still, it's worth noting Zidane's impact on France. Since the beginning of his international career 10 years ago, Les Bleus only lost 2 competitive matches with Zizou in the lineup.

If there's one player I would still pay a lot of money to see in person, it's Zidane. I'm not sure there's any player in the world today who's as beautiful to watch.

**

In one of the great upsets in Olympic history, Iraq's soccer team shocked heavily favored Portugal by 4-2 yesterday. That Iraq even qualified for the Olympics was a surprise. The country was devastated following the American invasion and the Iraqis had to play all of their "home" qualifying games in Jordan. Fans were hoping that Iraq might win one game, but hardly anyone expected them to win this particular game. Portugal is one of the favorites to bring home the gold medal, with fantastic young players like Luis Boa Morte and Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo. They were hungry, following the senior national team's loss in the Euro 2004 final to, ironically, Greece.

But the Iraqis were not to be denied, despite an early own goal. What's even more impressive is the scoreline. Most major upsets tend to be 1-0 or even 2-0. Huge underdogs rarely score 4 goals. Bravo Iraq!

**

I was a little saddened to read of the imminent demise of the St. John's Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League. The American Hockey League affiliate will depart Newfoundland's capital after next season and will relocate to Canada's largest city. It was done for economic reasons. The parent club wanted the affiliate closer to Toronto and it will now be in the same city, if not the same arena. Also, St. John's situation became untenable when all the other AHL teams left Atlantic Canada (Cape Breton; Saint John, NB, Halifax, Charlottetown).

Still, I'm a little sorry to see them go. I have fond memories of the Adirondack Red Wings' classic 1992 Calder Cup finals against the Baby Leafs. It was one of the best series I ever watched, with some brilliant hockey. Future Toronto goalie Felix Potvin dueled with former Toronto netminder Allan Bester. Each game, one of them was fantastic. Potvin stole Game 6 in Adirondack with a magnificent 50 save performance; Bester answered in Game 7 with 47 of his own.

I'll always remember being in the Civic Center's Heritage Hall with a few hundred fellow Wings fans watching Game 7 from St. John's Memorial Stadium. It was one of my most memorable experiences as a sports fan, especially when Gary Shuchuk scored on a breakaway with 2 minutes remaining to seal Adirondack's fourth, and final, Calder Cup.

Even on the radio, the Memorial Stadium sounded deafening. I'm sure the AHL will be poorer for the loss of St. John's.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Hey, at least his injuries weren't politically motivated

While some think democracy (or lack of dicatorship) is one of the basic requirements for living a decent life, simple personal security is higher on the list. Whoever's running Iraq would do well to remember this.

Kenya is generally seen as a free and safe country, especially after last year's election of then-opposition leader Mwai Kbaki. His NARC coalition's victory ended over three and a half decades of often-autocratic dominance by the KANU party.

The country's capital, Nairobi, is so frought with crime that it has the reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. The election of Kbaki and NARC and the arrival of democracy didn't change that overnight.

This reality was discovered by Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o. The reknown author of several prominent and politically charged novels had rejoined his country only days ago, after 22 years in self-imposed exile.

It was exactly what pan-African intellectuals dream of: one of the continent's best and brightest sons returning to help contribute to the development and improvement of his native land. He obviously had faith that things in Kenya had improved.

His faith was rewarded when armed men stormed the Nairobi apartment of Thiong'o and his wife. The Nairobi police chief said they burned Ngugi with cigarettes, beat him with the butt of a gun, and hurt his wife Njeeri while they ransacked their home for money and valuables.

I suspect Mr. Thiong'o will find little consolation in knowing that police don't consider his attack politically motivated.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Kerry's bad idea, less poorly executed

Recent comments by Sen. John Kerry are sure to warm the hearts of Ralph Nader's campaign and further tax the mental contortions of much of the ABB crowd. The Democratic presidential nominee said that he would have voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq even if he had known all he does now about the apparent dearth of unconventional weapons or a close connection to Al Qaeda.

"Why did he rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth?" he said. "Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war? Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way that we deserve it and relieve a pressure from the American people?"

"I believe if you do the kind of alliance-building that is available to us that it is appropriate to have a goal of reducing our troops over that period of time," he said. "Obviously, we have to see how events unfold. The measurement has to be, as I've said all along, the stability of Iraq, the ability to have the elections, and the training and transformation of the Iraqi security force itself."

It's true that a truly multilateral intervention would've made for a less messy occupation. It would've inflamed anti-Americanism to a less significant degree. It would've been less counterproductive. But it still would've been unjustified.

And that's the crux of the matter. Iraq was a bad idea, poorly executed. Kerry is arguing for a bad idea, less poorly executed.

At the current time, that's the best we can hope for: the least disastrous of a several bad options.

But it's another thing entirely to argue that he still would've supported the Conquest even if he'd known (assuming he didn't really know it in his heart) that Iraq posed no real threat to the United States. If he'd simply said, "I was wrong but we have to get on with it," I would've had a shred of respect.

He's trying to have it both ways. He's afraid to tell the comfortable majority of the American people who supported the war that he (and by extension they) was wrong. So he fudges this issue. "I was duped," he said. "I trusted that the president would do things the right way."

Even before April 2003, what evidence did Kerry have to believe that the president would act in an internationalist manner?

The Iraq Conquest isn't a disaster just because France and Germany weren't on board.

Just as the lesser of two evils is still an evil, a bad idea less poorly executed is still a bad idea.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Darfur/Europe: see no evil...

The New York Times was one of many news outlets to report on the European Union's announcement on Sudan. The EU said that it had found no evidence of genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur despite widespread killings, but that there were few indications of government efforts to protect civilians.

This is in contrast to the US Congress, which recently passed a resolution declaring Darfur to be genocide.

An EU spokesman was quoted, ""We are not in the situation of genocide there. But it is clear there is widespread, silent and slow killing going on, and village burning on a fairly large scale."

Whew! Only silent, slow killings and villages burning (and the "worst humanitarian situation in the world", according to the UN). But not genocide. That's a relief! I thought it was serious.

So the question is this: why is the EU wasting its time and resources investigating whether or not Darfur is technically genocide? Is this really the most appropriate thing to be doing right now, while the killings continue unabated, the Khartoum government sits by disinterested (or perhaps worse) and over a million people are at risk of dying of starvation or disease?

The Sudanese regime has promised to send in security forces to Darfur allegedly to control the situation. Though few objective observers would be reassured by such a promise/threat, the BBC explains why. "The government of the Sudan is responsible for... summary executions of large numbers of people," UN investigator Asma Jahangir said in a report.

Jahangir said it was frequently impossible to distinguish between the army, the Popular Defence Force and the Janjaweed militia which has been widely blamed for massacres.
The report says the Sudanese government appears oblivious to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and described the persistent denial of the disaster by most government officials as "shocking".

"Such a reaction despite the huge international outcry would appear to indicate either complete disrespect for the right to life of the population of Darfur, or, at worst, complicity in the events," she wrote.


To show their good faith, Khartoum is now reportedly arresting or harassing civilians who talk to foreigners.

Amnesty International said in a report Sudan had rounded up scores of people who spoke to journalists and foreign leaders, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, on recent visits to Darfur.


One woman from Western Darfur state told Reuters she was imprisoned several times and routinely harassed after she translated for a recent visiting group of foreign diplomats.


"Nineteen security officers jumped down from two trucks and threatened me with weapons," said the woman, who was too frightened to give her name.


"They took me back to the headquarters and threatened me saying that they had scorpions and snakes and accusing me of mistranslating for the diplomats," she said.


Another woman, who works in development and declined to be identified, said authorities threatened to make her disappear one day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Darfur.


Security officials told Reuters people were being questioned and some had been detained but that it was a matter of security and not a reprisal for speaking to foreigners.


For their own good [wink]

In a related, and hardly surprising, development, the Arab League has announced it opposes sanctions in the Sudanese regime even if it refused to disarm the Janjaweed militias who are carrying out the genocide. The hypocrites pointed out that sanctions "would only result in negative effects for the whole Sudanese people and complicate the crisis in Darfur." I'd be curious to know what's more negative than mass murder.

In that light, it's hardly surprising that the old 'when it doubt, blame Israel' card has been played. Haaretz reports that the Sudanese regime has accused leaders of a rebel group in its western Darfur region were making regular visits to Israel and ties with the Jewish state had caused a split in rebel ranks. A rebel spokesman denied any link with Israel and said the charge was an attempt to stir up Muslim public opinion.


[World Press Review has a good essay entitled Why the Darfur Crisis Is Likely to Happen Again. Of course it is. The Darfur genocide heated up at the same time as the world was saying piously 'Never Again' at 10th anniversary commemerations for the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan genocide itself started less than a year after the Holocaust Museum opened in Washington, to similiar platitudes of 'Never Again.']

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Darfur: damned if you do, damned if you don't

Earlier, I condemned the UN Security Council's decision to remove the mere threat of sanctions against the Sudanese regime of Gen. Omar al Bashir if they failed to stop helping the genocide in their eastern region of Darfur. The resolution would've imposed sanctions only after giving Khartoum a full month to act. A full month to act on the promises they made a full month before that to visiting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It's hardly surprising that the tighly controlled media in Sudan was able to whip up nationalistic fervor. State TV urged people to come out to a demonstration to protest against western intervention in Darfur. Despite the fact that the resolution that was approved didn't even threaten sanctions, let alone military intervention.

Yet even a letter writer to the BBC World Service's Focus on Africa program, a Ghanaian living in Nigeria, found the modest expression of concern by the Security Council to be too much. He writes:

I am not happy with the Security Council's decision to 'sanction' the Sudanese government if it fails to act 'quickly' within 30 days.

Sanction!Sanction!!Sanction!!! Why economic sanctions? This is not the way out, it is a hasty and unwise decision.

The people are hungry, and sanctions will make everything so much worse.


This is a classic example of how, when it comes to Africa, the west is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. The US was widely criticized for NOT intervening in the Liberian conflict last year, despite being begged to do so both by the former Liberian dictator and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor AND by the rebels.

Many Africans were furious at what they saw as a double standard: invading Iraq allegedly to "liberate" Iraqis from the nightmare of Saddam Hussein, but refusing to intervene in Liberia, at a tiny fraction of committment, in a place where they were invited by all sides. Yet when the US was pushing a more modest course of action in Sudan, sanctions, it's too much. Even amongst ordinary citizens in sub-Saharan Africa.

I understand why the apologists-for-autocrats crowd in Africa loves Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But why the affection for the Sudanese dictatorship that has not only supported genocidal militias killing black Africans, but countenanced Arab slavery of black Africans in the south of the country. Maybe it's less about Mugabe and Bashir and more about George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

Maybe the African intelligentsia is so blinded by their reflexive hatred of anything done by London or Washington (or Paris), that they'll tolerate horrific atrocities. I guess massacres of black Africans are ok so long as the US or British governments aren't involved.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11: the verdict

Last night, I saw Michael Moore's polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 with a friend of the family's. My soccer kids (or their parents most surely) gave me a gift certificate to the local dinner and a movie place. It's the only place around here you can see F9/11, as the mall cineplex avoided it like a hot potato.

I'm not a fan of Michael Moore's style. I've never seen any of his movies or read any of his books. That said, F9/11 was definitely worth seeing.

About 1/3 of the screed is exactly what I expected. Lots of Bush-bashing, some of it unfair, much of it irrelevant. Video and music judiciously edited to present the president in the most pathetic possible light. Not that this was hard. Moore is, in many ways, the left's equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, except worse-dressed and not a druggie. I'm not a big fan of his so it didn't surprise me there were a lot of cheap shots. I think this distracted from the more legitimate points he raises elsewhere.

About 1/3 it addressed psychological aspects of terror/fear, terrorism, war, patriotism/nationalism/xenophobia and the hell of the combat zone. Not much that I hadn't read or thought of before.

But the other 1/3 was worth the $5 charge for the film. He mentioned some things I'd heard before and some I hadn't, but tied them together in a way that was fascinating. He stated that the Saudis, for example, own about 7% of the American economy (investments, etc).

This explains why, despite the fact that both bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, the administration decided to invade a country like Iraq that had nothing to with 9/11 and posed no threat to the United States. This non sequitir ranked as one of the great ruses in American history, along with the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" and the bombing of the USS Maine. Not coincidentally, they were the pretexts for the two previous greatest American imperial excursions.

I like the fact that Moore showed footage of Iraqi civilians and how they reacted to the invasion. Though there may have been some, many Iraqis did not welcome us as liberators, like the recklessly naive (or willfully deceptive) planners of the war contended beforehand. The whole idea that Iraqi national pride would be blown away by "shock and awe" was in defiance of common sense; if some other country invaded America to effectuate "regime change," even the most hard-core anti-Bush people would rally to the nation's defense or, in a worst case scenario, resist the occupiers.

Moore showed footage of the "collateral damage." Body parts strewn all over the place, etc. Sure, it was sensationalist, but sometimes that sort of thing needs to be shown. Seeing it moves it away from the realm of the theoretical into the concrete. It wasn't collateral damage, it was innocent civilians killed. Yes, that will happen in any war. But seeing it reminds us that war shouldn't be entered into casually and on a dubious premise. The images were certainly a counterbalance to the hagiography offered by the corporate media and its "embedded" transcribers, performing a service frequently misidentified as journalism.

Seeing it reminds us that, contrary to political correctness and popular belief, Americans are NOT the primary victims of the violence in Iraq. As tragic as the death of any American soldier is, he's there in some part because of a voluntary choice somewhere along the line (to join the military). He's armed, accompanied by comrades and generally well-protected compared to everyone else in the war zone. Most civilians died not as the result of any voluntary choice they made. They were probably not armed (and if so, certainly not as well-armed as the American soldiers) and far more vulnerable. They certainly didn't ask to be "liberated" by an imperial power.

It's easy to forget them because they're the Eh-rabbs! It's easy to assume that they're all terrorists, like the 3 year old girl (or rather her scattered body parts) shown in the film. It's easy to rationalize that "they" will ultimately be better off us having "liberated" them (whenever that liberation finally occurs). It's easy to forget that war, conquest and occupation are not events, but processes.

One thing I noticed was how young most of the American combat soldiers were. Almost all of them looked under 25. Some of them looked like they could've been on my high school's varsity soccer team. Some of them looked like they didn't even shave yet. They went in gung ho with great enthusiasm to fight the "evil doers." Having believed the administration's b.s., many of the soldiers didn't understand why the Iraqis didn't welcome us with open arms. Except the us wasn't me and you, it was them.

But Moore did one interview with an older soldier, maybe in his early 30s, who'd been in other combat situations. The soldier said something like, "You can't kill someone without losing a part of your soul." The internal conflict he was feeling was clear on his face.

This showed that for all the gung ho and bravo and huah, soldiers are still human beings, with consciences. They live daily with decisions they are forced to make in the heat of the moment. They may have a job to do, but it doesn't immunize them from feeling guilt. That was, perhaps, the most refreshing thing to see. It's easy for a dichotomy to form according to which: "Soldiers are all pure as white snow saints who liberate the miserable" or "Soldiers are all soulless murderers." Even if everything the guy did was reasonable, I'm glad it pains him, I'm glad he thinks about it. It means he's a human being.

I just wish he, my best friends from high school and college, and others like them weren't thrust so regularly into these situations for no good reason.

Ultimately, F-9/11 contains a lot of juvenile taunts. But if you're mentally strong enough to fight through the cheap shots, Moore raises a lot of questions that the American people deserve an answer to.

More network "coverage" of political conventions? No thanks!

I watched or listened bits and pieces of last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston. Not very much. Kerry's and Edwards' speeches. A few others on the radio as I was walking home one night. Just enough to realize I wasn't missing much when I wasn't paying attention.

Media critics have lambasted the networks for the record-low coverage of the conventions. When ABC News' anchor Peter Jennings criticized the conventions for being overly scripted, his PBS counterpart Jim Lehrer said something to the effect, "We're not in the business of telling parties how to run their conventions. We're in the business of reporting news."

That's just it. The convention wasn't news. It was a glorified infomercial. One to which the taxpayers "contributed" about $14 million (the Republican shindig in NYC will get the same public booty). This despite both parties drowning in corporate brib...er, "donations."

CSPAN covered the entireity of the convention speeches uninterrupted. PBS offered 3 hours a night of coverage. I think ABC's digital channel did as well. Speeches were so tightly scripted and the convention platform was drafted in advance by Kerry's people, there was no reason for the networks to show anything other than the speeches of the two members of the ticket.

This isn't like 1952. Why were CBS, ABC and NBC being reproached for not showing exactly the same things in the same quantities as was available on several other media outlets such as CSPAN, PBS, NPR and the Internet?

And considering what coverage WAS provided, it hardly begged for greater quantity. Convention coverage on the networks as well as on cable channels like CNN and Fox News [sic], was pretty pointless. It exemplified everything that's wrong with American political journalism these days. The "reporting" was dominated by journalists taking to each other. It was dominated by commentators talking to yapping heads. It was spiced up with breathless reports of Ben Affleck and Michael Moore sightings. It was Entertainment Tonight, but for politics. The coverage from the Fleet Center was so agonizingly self-referential as to be irrelevant to citizens in the outside world.

Another problem I had was something else that's endemic in political journalism today. Instant pseudo-analysis. I watched Kerry's speech and before he was even off the stage, I had three yapping heads arguing with each other about how spectacular/horrible the speech was. Before I even had a chance to reflect and digest his words, a bunch of self-important yahoos were telling me what I should think.

If this is how they are going to cover political events, then the networks did us a favor by not subjecting us to it. At least their "reality" shows don't pretend to be anything more than they are.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Are the president's pants on fire?

The security threat level for New York City and Washington was downgraded recently from flourescent lime to hot pink. It's now reported that some of the information used to issue the scare alert is years old.

The BBC was one of many organizations to report on this.

The US administration admits that new warnings of attacks on American cities were based on information gathered by al-Qaeda up to four years ago.

Security was tightened around US financial institutions earlier this week after raids in Pakistan recovered documents reportedly naming them.
Homeland security adviser Frances Townsend said some of the information recovered was collected in 2000/2001.

But she added: "It appears that some of it may have been updated as recently as January of this year."

And she denied that the alert was prompted by political considerations in the run-up to November's presidential poll.

[...]

Her [Townsend's] comments followed reports in leading American newspapers that US officials were unsure if Osama Bin Laden's network was still conducting surveillance on the sites named as potential targets.


I really hope this is all legit. I hope there's some twist, some rational explanation, that I'm just not seeing. One that isn't related to the fact that the Democratic National Convention ended only a few days before the scare alert.

As much as I can't stand the president, I really want to believe this. It's a very dangerous situation when the commander in chief is seen as the boy who cried wolf. What happens if there's a real threat and no one believes him because he's wasted his credibility?

I want to believe the president wouldn't do such a thing. But with him, there's not much benefit of the doubt left to spare.

Monday, August 02, 2004

'No longer a soccer backwater'

It's a great time to be a soccer fan here in the US. Major League Soccer held its annual All-Star Game this weekend. It was a game between all-stars from the league's Eastern and Western Conferences. The matchup was a bit disappointing since the contest was widely expected to feature an MLS Select XI against Real Madrid, arguably the most prestigious soccer club in the world. Apparently, this was all but a done deal; MLS even rearranged their schedule to host the Spanish giants. Except Real tanked at the very end of their league season in the spring and was forced to play European Champions League qualifiers in early August, thus precluding a visit to the US.

Normally, I hate all-star games. Regardless of the sport. Simply put, all-star games bear no relation to the particular sport. For example, it's not uncommon for NHL (ice hockey) all-star games to see both teams reach double digits in the goals column. MLS all-star games often end up with scores like 8-6. All-star games suck because no one plays defense. If players can score at will, it's as boring as heck. Good defense brings out the best in the attacking players. And that's what fans want to see. Not uncontested goals every 2 minutes.

Another reason I hate all-star games is simply because the matchups are totally uncompelling. I mean really. Who can get excited about an East vs West contest? MLS had it right in recent years when an MLS XI played Mexican champions Chivas (2003) and the US national team (2002). They had the right idea bringing in Real Madrid this year, which would've generated big publicity for the league and guaranteed a sellout in any stadium in America. Hopefully, they will do whatever possible to avoid contrived East-West games.

As it was, this year's all-star game was actually pretty good. I saw it because there was nothing else going on and a friend invited me over to have some burgers and watch the game. If it matters, the East won 3-2. But it was a good watch simply because it wasn't 9-8 or some farce like that. Both teams played defense. Not like it was the World Cup final, but enough to force good skills out of the attacking players.

There is also the big Champions World series. Eight of Europe's big clubs are touring the US and Canada in a series of pre-season friendlies. AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Celtic, Galatasaray, European champions FC Porto and the next champions of Italy, AS Roma.

As a columnist in the UK paper The Guardian noted here, The US is no longer a soccer backwater. Though the sport may never be as big in this country as baseball or NFL football, soccer is not going to disappear from the sporting landscape anytime soon. Despite the protestations of many "congoscenti" in our tired, self-referential sports' media establishment.

The columnist sums up my beliefs perfectly in these two paragraphs:

Contrary to popular belief, the US is a country where the people involved in the game have a sophisticated enough appreciation of it to know exactly where they stand on the bigger stage. They are under no illusions about the quality of their own domestic league (steadily improving midway through its ninth season), are justifiably proud of the national team (currently seventh, a place ahead of England, in the Fifa rankings) and fully appreciate that the arrival of some of Europe's leading clubs for the ChampionsWorld tournament this week is all about them cashing in on the game's increasing popularity here.

and

Apart from the huge numbers of expatriates that should turn up at all venues, there is an average American soccer diehard out there who is far more knowledgeable than given credit for. With organised leagues catering for children as young as four, these fans have probably played at least as much football growing up as their British counterparts have; and on any given Saturday from August to May they get to take in televised club matches from England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.

After Champions World ends, World Cup qualifying gets in high gear in the next few games as the US visits Jamaica (18 August) and hosts El Salvador (4 September), in a game I expect to attend with some friends.

Returned Peace Corps Vols for a sane foreign policy

I received this email on an Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) listserv I'm on.

July 29, 2004

Dear Friend,

We are writing to you in the belief that you share our distress at the way our country's foreign policy has been evolving. Since the end of the Cold War, we have been gradually drifting off course.

Today, major changes are needed. To achieve these changes, we Americans must elect men and women to Congress who will lead us in the right direction. Considering your connection to the Peace Corps, we believe that if anyone is to share and understand our concerns, it would most likely be you. If in fact we are correct in this assumption, please consider the information below and join us in supporting the solution offered by Voters for New Global Policies.

The idea of cooperative solutions to global problems is a concept shared by a multitude of U.S. non-governmental organizations. Through their educational activities at home and their operations abroad, they are working for a better and safer future. But none of these groups is established with the single goal of influencing U.S. elections. There is a critical need to mobilize American voters and to support Congressional candidates who wish to work for cooperative solutions.

By exercising our rights as citizens, we can help shape the way the U.S. defines its role in the world. You may have already heard of Voters for New Global Policies, a bipartisan Political Action Committee concerned with U.S. foreign policy. If you are hearing about it for the first time, we invite you now to learn about this important new initiative, which seeks to elect members of Congress who have a strong commitment in building a better and safer future through global cooperation.

In the upcoming November elections, much is at stake with regard to our country’s global role. We need to elect individuals who understand the importance of cooperative engagements over a range of issues. Voters for New Global Policies will endorse candidates for Congress who meet a set of criteria listed below. It will focus on open seats and candidates in highly competitive races. Incumbents will be judged upon their past performance while challengers will be evaluated on their stated policy stances.


The criteria to be considered by Voters for New Global Policies when evaluating candidates for endorsement are evidence of support for:

1) The concept that US national security is closely aligned with the safety, security and well-being of people around the world.

2) Using and strengthening the United Nations and other international organizations as significant forums and umbrellas for addressing global issues and problems.

3) The US turning first to existing international law and the appropriate international umbrellas to resolve a threat to international order prior to the use of military power.

4) Initiatives that reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and the spread of other weapons of mass destruction.

5) A vigorous development assistance program, with a particular focus on global poverty reduction, based both on US national interest and US humanitarian values.

6) Programs and initiatives that explicitly benefit all countries’ long-term prospects, such as environmental protection, universal education, meeting critical global health needs like HIV-AIDS, and advancement of the participation of women in political and economic life.

7) Consistent, coherent approaches to trade, finance/debt and assistance policies that promote equitable development.

8) Policies that consistently demonstrate US values of support for the rule of law and the promotion of human rights and democracy, and for policies that exert maximum pressure on governments who act in a manner contrary to these values.



Voters for New Global Policies is now in the process of applying these criteria in a number of important races. Among the first candidates who are receiving endorsements are Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona), Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-North Dakota), Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut), Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota). We will be endorsing additional candidates in the weeks to come.



We hope you will agree on the importance of giving electoral support to those leaders who demonstrate an understanding of the necessity for global cooperation in resolving problems and meeting challenges. If you do, we ask you to join us in making a financial contribution to Voters for New Global Policies, by visiting its website at www.voters4newglobalpolicies.org and contributing online or by sending a check made out to Voters for New Global Policies at 1730 Rhode Island Ave, NW, Suite 712 in Washington DC 20036.

As we will be attending the National Peace Corps Convention in Chicago from August 5 to 8, we ask that you please stop by our booth if you will also be present. Your support will make a difference in improving the quality of Congress as it deals with the global issues that confront our country.

Thank you for your consideration.


Sincerely,

Thomas Fox
Deputy Director in Togo, first Country Director in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Deputy Regional Director for Africa, 1965-1972



David Scotton
Chief of Staff to Director Loret Miller Ruppe, 1981-1989

Sunday, August 01, 2004

NY Business Council: keep the working poor on govt handouts

Earlier this month, the New York state legislature actually did something. That itself was news.

Though it didn't adopt a budget, due four months ago, it did pass a bill that would've raised the state's minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.15 by 2007. Unfortunately, Gov. George Pataki vetoed the sensible bill that would've put minimum wage workers a little closer to a reasonable standard of living.

For those of you without a calculator, a 40-hour week at the current minimum wage (bearing in mind that a lot of workers at that wage level don't get 40 hours) translates to a mere $206 dollars a week... before taxes and other mandatory deductions.

The governor's professed objection to the bill is that it should've been done at a national level and that it allegedly put New York at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states. Apparently he feared that all the McDonald's and Wal Marts would flee New York's suburbia for Vermont and New Jersey.

Both houses of the legislature approved the measure overwhelmingly, including the Republican controlled Senate (51-8). It remains to be seen if they will attempt to override the veto.

The most obscene defense of the veto came from Robert B. Ward, the director of research for the lobbying group, the Business Council of New York. According to The New York Times, Ward called the veto a victory for struggling small businesses that would have been forced to pay additional Social Security and unemployment taxes. He said workers would actually be hurt by an increase in the minimum wage because it would endanger their eligibility for earned income tax credits, food stamps and, in some case, health benefits.

In other words, Ward objects to the bill because it would've allowed poor, WORKING Americans to pay for their food with their own money rather than relying on government handouts. How ridiculous!


As for it being a "victory" for small business owners, a friend of mine, who owns and runs his own small business, doesn't quite share Ward's gushing enthusiasm. The next entry is a guest essay written by him on the topic.

'Stop using me to justify opposing minimum wage hike' [guest essay]

As a small business owner, I wish to express my absolute disgust with George Pataki for his decision Thursday to veto the recently passed Minimum Wage Bill. Pataki, as is usual for his ilk, cites concern that "small business" will suffer. What small business is it he is citing that pays people $5.15 per hour? Perhaps, he has small business owners confused with WalMart and McDonald's? Perhaps, he thinks the NFIB speaks for businesses in NYS and doesn't realize that it is just a huge fake lobby group that consistently works against any intelligent reform that might better the workers' standard of living? Perhaps, he thinks that farmers are to blame? He often claims they will be terribly hurt by any increase in the minimum wage. I can only say that maybe if he would support the increasing of wholesale milk prices to reasonable levels, they wouldn't have to struggle so!

I, and many other business owners I know, are extremely tired of being used as scapegoats by politicians who serve their big business constituents by denying some basic truths about the state's minimum wage. The lowest allowable wage is usually paid by huge businesses that benefit already from suckling at the taxpayer's teat with preferential economic development deals, tax discounts, subsidized payroll and other state-provided, tax-based benefit programs. In other words, after Walmart moves in to an area, many real small businesses close. WalMart then hires the displaced, previously well-paid employees and teaches them how to get state benefits so that these poorest workers feel that their new employer is providing for them, when in fact they have both just become part of the corporate welfare system. This is unconscionable!

I own Rock Hill Bakehouse, a small European bread bakery in Glens Falls, New York. We employ more than 40 people. Not one of them has ever been paid the minimum wage while working for me. I know many business owners and am not aware of a single one that would pay their employees the state-proscribed starvation wage. I have also met very few unemployed workers in my lifetime who would be willing to accept a job for $5.15 an hour, even if one was available. A minimum wage earner currently working a forty hour week is living almost $4,000 dollars below the federal poverty level. Why would anyone want this job? Work at this wage wouldn't even cover a family's health insurance premiums!

Perhaps, it is time to develop a reality TV show, called "Survivor: The Minimum Wage". In it, we could watch our unbelievably arrogant "public servants" live on the minimum wage for a couple of months. In this manner, perhaps they can show we silly members of the working class how painfully simple it to survive and feed your kids on $892 dollars a month. Perhaps, Elmer and our state representatives could show us by example how it's possible to rent an apartment, feed and clothe our children, provide health care and transportation to and from work on such a paltry sum.

As a business owner, I am often asked why I so aggressively support an increase in the minimum wage. Am I some kind of "do-gooder"? I guess that I could plead guilty or trying to be but the argument is not only about altruism and a sense of justice, it is also good business on two other extremely important levels. One, small business is regularly forced to compete with recipients of corporate welfare. This allows for an unleveled playing field. Huge competitors then use our own tax money to set up shop and use it again to economically enslave a workforce while providing taxpayer-provided benefits to those they enslave. Sounds kind of like a socialist state, doesn't it? As an American and as an ardent fan of regulated capitalism, I am fine with competition, but it needs to be fair. Second, Henry Ford was once asked why his workers made so much more to build Model T's than other similar factory jobs paid at the time. He responded that it was his vision that every worker on his assembly line would be able to afford to buy and drive an automobile. he understood that workers are also consumers.
I
In vetoing this legislation, Pataki reveals that, far form being the upstate farmer (as he likes to represent yourself), he is in actuality a staunch member of the ruling class and part of the "I'll do anything my big corporate sponsors tell me to do" club. The interests of our country's largest corporations and our nation's poorest workers are ultimately not reconcilable, but an increase in the minimum wage could hardly put a dent in corporate profits. The average CEO in this country makes 512 times what their poorest worker makes. Our governor has revealed that he is on the side of those who represent a new kind of greed that borders on cruelty and stupidity.

Please sign the wage increase, Mr. Pataki. If you're not going to do so, I demand that you stop using me and my colleagues as an excuse for your lack of vision and compassion. Small business not only supports an increase but welcomes one and recognizes that it is long overdue.

Sincerely,

Matt Funiciello

Owner / Baker

Rock Hill Bakehouse