Monday, January 31, 2005

'Freedom' and 'liberty' in action

The detention center (or whatever euphemism the US government uses) at Guantanmo Bay has long been the focus of criticism. Mainly since many detainees are held there without trial for as long as the government fees like it. Perhaps the SUSPECTS are indeed guilty of some crime. It's hard to say since the government can hold doesn't ncessarily have to prove that they are a threat of any kind and the detainees aren't necessarily given a chance to answer charges, since charges don't have to be brought. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because evidence against some detainees wouldn't have a chance in Hades of standing up in anything vaguely resembling a normal court setup.

For example, four British men who were held at Gitmo were sent back to Britain. There was a deal between Washington, who insists the four remain a threat, and London, who agreed to monitor the four's activities. Shortly after the four returned to the UK, they were questioned by British police and released without charge.

It's worth noting, they weren't acquitted of any crime by a judge or jury. They weren't acquitted because it never had a chance to get that far. The suspects, or perhaps they should be called hostages, were released because the authorities didn't have enough evidence to even bring them to trial in the first place. In other words, once the suspects/hostages were subject to the rule of law and the normal legal proceedings of a civilized country, they were released almost instantly.

Isn't that the 'freedom' and 'liberty' President Bush speaks so breathless about? Or perhaps that only applies when convenient for the president's rhetoric.

Update (1 Feb.): Related article -- Federal judge faults government on trial without due process, International Herald Tribune

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Global gimmickery

Although French President Jacques Chirac was right about the Iraq war, he is indeed a slimeball. Not for the reasons war supporters gave, but he is a slimeball nonetheless. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the other hand, was wrong about Iraq but is not a slimeball.

Blair has made attacking poverty in Africa one of his goals for this year. His government is one the provided the so-called Marshall Plan for Africa. As I I wrote earlier, it would be a good idea if it placed more emphasis on democracy, human rights, rule of law, respect for private property and good governance. But its heart is in the right place and, with some tweaking, might actually have a chance of badgering some African governments into fundamental change.

Jacques Chirac, for his part, was not happy about being upstaged by Blair. Africa has always been France's plaything, much like Latin America has always been the US' plaything. The French have never wanted the Anglos to gain too much influence in Africa, which is why the Paris backed the francophone genociders in Rwanda against the anglophone rebels.

So Chirac decided to combat Blair's legitimate plan with a gimmick. He wants to institute a global tax on financial transactions to fight global poverty. It would only be a tiny fraction of each transaction, but multiplied by millions of transactions a day, it would be a lot of money.

Or perhaps I should say "He proposes to institute..." because I'm not really sure if he wants to or not. It seems more like a gimmick to gain brownie points and look like he cares about Africa than a serious approach. It's unworkable and Chirac knows it. Who would collect the tax? Who would distribute it? To whom would it be distributed? Besides, Washington, who's approval would be necessary for such a scheme to work, would never ok it anyway. Nor should they.

Prominent African leaders, for their part, continue to insist that opening European markets to African goods would do far more than aid given with countless strings attached or only for disasters.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Tough time for free speech

It's a tough time for freedom of speech. Not only here in the US, but in many places around the world.

The blog Ornicus passes along an interesting story from Colorado. A Denver woman, with a 'F--- Bush' bumper sticker on her car, was in a shopping mall. A man confronted her at the mall saying the bumper sticker was objectionable

Now this would ordinarily be a case of one person's speech countering another's.

Except the man then flagged down a police officer. The police officer "said, 'You need to take off those stickers because it's profanity and it's against the law to have profanity on your truck,' " according to the woman. "Then he said, 'If you ever show up here again, I'm going to make you take those stickers off and arrest you. Never come back into that area.' "

A journalist who happened to witness the altercation said the officer wrote down the woman's license plate number and then told her, "You take those bumper stickers off or I will come and find you and I will arrest you."

What about this 'freedom' President Bush keeps talking so breathlessly about?

Then in Zimbabwe, a man was convicted for 'denigrating the president.' His crime? He'd said the country's dictator Robert Mugabe had "printed useless money." At a Christmas party, the man apologized to his staff for not giving them bonuses because of the dictator's policies; inflation is 149% and unemployment around 80%, according to the BBC.

The man pleaded guilty to a violating a law which bans insulting the president. This is apparently an actual criminal offense in Zimbabwe, rather than implicit one as in Denver.

Yet freedom of speech is also under threat from well-intentioned, but misguided, proposals. Take France, for example.

According to the UK Guardian the country's center-right government is proposing legislation that could lead to year-long jail terms for anyone found guilty of insulting homosexuals or women.

Adding that Proferring an anti-gay insult, including any remark "of a more general nature tending to denigrate homosexuals as a whole", in public - meaning on air, in print or at a public meeting - is also an imprisonable offence, while private sexist or homophobic taunts between individuals could incur fines of up to €375 (about US$490).

There are people with the inexplicable belief that homosexuality is wrong, but they should be free to believe whatever they want. No one benefits from thought control. That's the stuff the Theocracy Brigade and Patriotic Correctness crowds advocate.

The incredibly vague definition of 'denigration' is no help either.

Gay rights' and women's groups applauded the move, noting that the number of violent acts against gays doubled to 86 in 2003.

Yet, aren't there already laws in place to deal with violence against anyone? Homophobic speech may be morally wrong, but only certain actions should be criminalized.

Besides, the way to fight homophobic and misogynistic mentalities is not through legislation but education and social pressure. Making the bigots into martyrs will only make things worse.

Still in L'Hexagone, the French justice minister called for a preliminary criminal investigation into comments by far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The leader of the neo-fascist National Front said* "In France at least, the German occupation was not particularly inhumane, even if there were some excesses, inevitable in a country of 550,000 square kilometers."

[*-"en France du moins, l'occupation allemande n'a pas été particulièrement inhumaine, même s'il y eut des bavures, inévitables dans un pays de 550 000 kilomètres carrés".]

Perhaps what remains of the country's Jews might take issue with Le Pen's comments, though that would hardly be a first. But are his comments criminal in anything other than their insensitivity?

But before anyone gets smug in their France-bashing, our buddies in Britain aren't much better. Tony Blair's government is proposing to scrap the country's ancient blasphemy laws while creating a new offense of incitement to religious hatred. Another deliciously vague crime.

"It will have a high threshold and we envisage that it will only capture a very few cases a year because it prohibits stirring up hatred against people defined by reference to their religious beliefs (not the religion itself), and not simply causing offence or hostility," said a spokesman for the British Home Office (which is a bit like the US Department of Homeland Security but more powerful and without the florescent magenta alerts).

But comedians, such as Rowan Atkinson, have suggested films like Monty Python's Life of Brian would not have been made had the laws been in place at the time.

Some aren't waiting for the abolition of the blasphemy law. A Christian group is to bring a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC after the corporation screened Jerry Springer - The Opera on Saturday... The musical, which has been in London theatres for three years, features Jesus, Mary and God as guests on Springer's TV show and up to 300 swear words.

Christian Voice national director Stephen Green said: "If Jerry Springer - The Opera isn't blasphemous then nothing in Britain is sacred."

"[Jesus] proclaims he is a bit gay, he has this shouting match with the devil - it's just foul-mouthed tirades against the devil and against his blessed mother," Mr Green said. "The damage that must have done to impressionable young people is incalculable."

Incalculable damage? Oh dear.

Worthy of condemnation? Perhaps. Worthy of legal proceedings? Give me a break.

And finally, these things always come back at some point to America's Theocracy Brigade.

An Alabama legislator introduced a bill that would ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that "promote homosexuality". [State legislator Gerald] Allen does not want taxpayers' money to support "positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle".

Which begs the question: if a legislator, whose salary is paid by tax dolars, makes a "positive depiction" (another fantastically vague phrase) of homosexuality, is he or she violating Allen's legislation?

A Guardian journalist writes, I asked Allen what prompted this bill. Was one of his children exposed to something in school that he considered inappropriate? Did he see some flamingly gay book displayed prominently at the public library?

No, nothing like that. "It was election day," he explains. Last month, "14 states passed referendums defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman". Exit polls asked people what they considered the most important issue, and "moral values in this country" were "the top of the list".

In other words, he's proposing a law to rectify a 'problem' that doesn't exist.

But ultimately, Allen wants to "protect Alabamians."

Which is odd because I keep being told it's the LEFT that supposedly treats people like children and it's the right who trusts people to make their own decisions.

The journalist persists: I ask him [Allen], again, for specific examples. Although heterosexuals are apparently an endangered species in Alabama, and although Allen is a local politician who lives a couple miles from my house, he can't produce any local examples. "Go on the internet," he recommends. "Some time when you've got a week to spare," he jokes, "just go on the internet. You'll see."

The journalist did. Since Allen couldn't give me a single example of the homosexual equivalent of 9/11, I gave him some. This autumn the University of Alabama theatre department put on an energetic revival of A Chorus Line, which includes, besides "tits and ass", a prominent gay solo number. Would Allen's bill prevent university students from performing A Chorus Line? It isn't that he's against the theatre, Allen explains. "But why can't you do something else?" (They have done other things, of course. But I didn't think it would be a good idea to mention their sold-out productions of Angels in America and The Rocky Horror Show.)

And as if trying as hard as possible to conform with every northerner's cariciature of Alabama: Cutting off funds to theatre departments that put on A Chorus Line or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may look like censorship, and smell like censorship, but "it's not censorship", Allen hastens to explain. "For instance, there's a reason for stop lights. You're driving a vehicle, you see that stop light, and I hope you stop."


The journalist did a great job letting Allen show himself for the fool he obviously is. Allen claims he is acting to "encourage and protect our culture". Does "our culture" include Shakespeare? I ask Allen if he would insist that copies of Shakespeare's sonnets be removed from all public libraries. I point out to him that Romeo and Juliet was originally performed by an all-male cast.

"Well," he begins, after a pause, "the current draft of the bill does not address how that is going to be handled. I expect details like that to be worked out at the committee stage. Literature like Shakespeare and Hammet [sic] could be left alone." Could be. Not "would be". In any case, he says, "you could tone it down". That way, if you're not paying real close attention, even a college graduate like Allen himself "could easily miss" what was going on, the "subtle" innuendoes and all.

But this is merely a warning shot about what the Theocracy Brigade wants to ram through. So he regards his gay book ban as a work in progress. His legislation is "a single spoke in the wheel [emphasis mine], it doesn't resolve all the issues". This is just the beginning. "To turn a big ship around it takes a lot of time."


Forty years ago, the American defenders of "our culture" and "traditional values" were opposing racial integration. Now, no politician would dare attack [U. of Alabama dance professor] Cornelius Carter for being black. But it's perfectly acceptable to discriminate against people for what they do in bed.

"Dig a hole," Gerald Allen recommends, "and dump them in it."

Of course, Allen was talking about books. He was just talking about books. He never said anything about pink triangles.

Or about gays. He didn't need to.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Debate, secrecy and statistics: all in a day's news

I was listening to NPR last night and a few things caught my ear.

First, they aired some Republicans sniffing about how the Democrats insisted on debating whether Condoleeza Rice should become secretary of state.

Some Democrats complained that Rice was a principal architect of the Iraq invasion mess and therefore should be held accountable. Republicans dismissed Democratic objections as playing politics (which is unheard of in Washington).

"We are talking about the safety and security of this country, so I very much and very quickly want to move with Secretary Rice," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said earlier while criticizing the delay caused by the debate.

To which I respond: we are talking about the safety and security of this country, which is PRECISELY why such a high profile nomination, the head of America's diplomacy with the rest of the world, should be debated thoroughly.

Frist was probably just taken aback by the Democrats actually showing a spine. They haven't done that much since Frist became Senate leader.

Rice's nomination was eventually approved. What was the result of the horrific delay Republicans were screaming bloody murder about?

Rice sworn in as secretary of state yesterday evening, instead of yesterday afternoon. Oh my goodness, the terrorists might have struck again in those extra few hours!!!

Say what you will about Rice, at least she tried to defend her dubious policies before the Senate. Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales, on the other hand, was incredibly evasive in his Senate hearings.

Gonzales, who wants to become the nation's chief law enforcement officer, refused to answer many questions or could not recall. Particularly regarding to his opinions as White House counsel on the legality of torture.

How 'the legality of torture' even became an issue in a country whose Leader crusades on themes like 'freedom,' 'liberty' and 'ending tyranny', who was elected by voters who supposedly prioritize 'morality' and 'values,' is a question for another day.

Defenders will say Gonazles was merely offering an interpretation of what the law allowed, not necessarily his own personal opinions. But his lack of openness before the Senate on what WERE his own personal opinions did not sit well.

"In his answers to the committee, Alberto Gonzales obfuscated more than he clarified," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was a strong supporter of Condoleeza Rice.

"Time and time again, he voiced the president's policies instead of his own philosophy, and relied on technical interpretations of the law. I wanted him to show something of his own personal values and judgment, but he did not."

Gonzales is associated with controversial policies of questionable legality. Personally, I'm a bit curious to know how and if the nation's top LAW-ENFORCEMENT officer is going to, uh... enforce the law.

Again, some will defend Gonzales' actions. But shouldn't he be able to do that himself? Or perhaps as smart as he is, he's not talented enough to defend the indefensible.

This is all in perfect harmony with the long-standing Bush administration policy of secrecy beyond what could be justified as reasonable, contempt for public discourse, objection to straight-forward exchanges, dismissiveness of the legislative body (taking the imperial presidency to a new level) and emphasis on personal loyalty over the greater good.

Secrecy is the enemy of democacy and good governance. And it's always been that secrecy that's bothered me about the Bush administration more than anything else. Even more so than their actual policies, if for no other reason than the secrecy casts doubt on the sincerity of their intent. Simply put, you aren't that secretive unless you're hiding something. Secrecy makes people assume you're guilty of something.

Finally, I heard about a story about the day's events in Iraq. I've never been one of those people who's been furious that the US military doesn't keep track of how many Iraqi civilians have died. Knowing that the civilian death toll is 'exactly 14,235' rather 'a whole lot' doesn't make me any more or less outraged. I don't need concrete numbers to know the whole thing stinks.

And besides, it's perfectly reasonable for soldiers in the heat of battle to worry more about keeping safe and, I trust they do, trying to minimize civilian casualities. Those things are slightly more important than becoming a statistics bureau.

That's what I used to think, until yesterday.

While the US military has no idea how many Iraqi civilians have been killed by American troops, NPR ran comments by a general who could tell us EXACTLY how many Iraqi civilians have been killed by insurgents. I think the number was three-hundred-something.

So it begs the question: does the military really have better information about what the enemy is doing than about what their own men are doing? Or do they only collect statistics when they're useful for propaganda purposes?

Or do they only release them when they're useful?

Good luck with that

While far right Republicans are certainly in the ascendancy in the party nationwide, Northeast Public Radio reports on efforts by some New York Republicans to attract more moderates. Wise move since extremist Republicans generally don't do well in New York state. Even the fairly conservative upstate is receptive more to traditional conservatism than to the big government policies and in-your-face belligerence preferred by Republicans in some other parts of the country.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Bill Gates

Many people, including myself, criticize the excesses of corporate America. So it's only fair that I give someone plaudits who earns it. The foundation of Microsoft boss Bill Gates made a donation this week of $750 million to address the shortage of vaccinations in poor countries. This was after the foundation made a similar gift in 1999.

Like any well-crafted large donation, it spurred other donations. Notes The Washington Post, Over the past five years, the Vaccine Fund [created by the original Gates' donation] has raised $580 million from other sources, notably $219 million from the United States and $150 million from Norway. Yesterday the announcement of a second Gates grant was accompanied by a promise of a further $290 million from Norway.

Some will dismiss this as merely public relations, as a controversial figure trying to improve his image. As cynical as I can be sometimes, I frankly don't care. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt simply because of the good it's doing. Besides, it's an awful high sum for it to be merely a PR expense.

Thanks to the Vaccine Fund, an extra 42 million people have already received the hepatitis B vaccine, and vaccines for yellow fever, influenza and other killers have also had their reach extended. As a result, an estimated 670,000 deaths have been prevented.

So to Bill Gates: nice job. You've got a ton of money and you're using some of it to help millions of people around the world. I'll tip my cap to that and hope it spurs more people do the same.

Thoughts on the 'freedom fighters'

Some of my fellow Iraq war opponents romanticize the Iraqi insurgency in a way I can't really accept. It's one thing to say the insurgency is understandable. This sort of thing was always inevitable. It was one of the neo-conservatives' greatest errors (aside from the actual aggression itself) that they failed to anticipate this. It's one thing to say that if the US were invaded, even anti-Bush people would rally behind him. It's certainly true that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

But to say something is understandable is an entirely different proposition that to say it is entirely admirable.

Some people seem to be under the delusion that just because the insurgents oppose the occupation that they must be saints. That the insurgents would become Churchill and Lincoln rolled into one if only the oppressive occupation were ended. That it's ok that for the insurgents to behead aid workers and other non-military people or to attack wedding parties. Real heroes!

(Admittedly, this mentality is aided an abetted by the contemptible assertion by some on the right that what aid workers are doing and what occupation forces are doing are morally equivalent)

Some are also under the delusion that just because Bush is wrong, then anyone who opposes Bush is automatically right. That our administration's own dubious motives somehow proves the morality of the insurgency.

To be charitible, it's very faulty logic. It's the same nonsense used by the American right to say that "Because Jacques Chirac opposes the war and he's a crook, then the invasion must be a nifty idea."

Some say the insurgents really want self-determination and nothing else, though it's not clear how beheading aid workers facilitates that process.

This is an example of presumptuously imposing one's values on to a group whose beliefs are wholly antithetical. It goes something like this. "I oppose the aggression and occupation because it's immoral and inhumane and the Iraqis should run their own country. The insurgents oppose the occupation too, so they must do so for the same reasons as I."

Rather than imposing your own personal beliefs on the insurgents, look at what they actually say.

Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the insurgents' ideological models, said earlier this week, "We have declared an all-out war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," adding that saying supplanting the rule of God with that of a popular majority was "infidelity itself."

Self-determination? I'm sorry if I'm not convinced. A theocracy, advocated by folks like al-Zarqawi, is the polar opposite of the ideals I believe in. Theocrats, be they Christian or Muslim, don't believe in democracy or human rights or basic tolerance. They don't believe in equal rights for gays or women or anyone who doesn't share their religion or their particular sect of their particular religion.

The Taliban's repression, bitterly attacked by liberal-minded non-governmental organizations long before they were demonized by the American right after 9/11, are an excellent example of what the insurgency might have in mind. How any so-called progressive, no matter how anti-Bush they might be, could possibly have the slightest sympathy for this regressive, anti-liberal agenda is beyond me.

I'm sorry but I don't care much for the whole inhumanity of war. If an Iraqi sees his son beheaded by the insurgents, do you really think he's going to say, "Hey, at least he was murdered by the 'freedom fighters' not the 'foreign infidels,' so it's ok"? I suppose it's possible but I'd like to see evidence suggesting this likelihood.

Unlike the 'Everything including the bad weather is America's/Bush's fault' crowd or the 'America is always perfect and righteous and we'll bomb the hell out of anyone who thinks different' crowd, I refuse to be an apologist, either intentional or unwitting, for anyone's atrocities.

It ALL sickens me and I will defiantly maintain that revulsion in spite of what ideologues of any side might insist. One side's inhumanity does not invalidate or change the other side's inhumanity.

So excuse me if I don't romanticize this crap even if I don't like the occupation and opposed the aggression in the first place. We're there. Elections are scheduled for this upcoming weekend. Let's do the elections and go from there. You want self-determination? These elections, however flawed, are your best bet to getting anywhere near that general direction. And if you disagree, then as always, I expect to hear viable alternatives.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Won'l someone please think of the children?!

Remember the controversy (if you can call it that) over Spongebob Squarepants? It certainly should've surprised nobody when I said that anyone who saw sexual innuendo in that cartoon was in serious need of a life. Especially since sponges reproduce asexually. Perhaps the Puritans don't know the difference between homosexual and asexual.

Anyways, this article in Toronto's Globe and Mail gives a good insight into the mentality of these people.

The Federal Communications Commission brushed off 36 complaints filed by the so-called Parents Television Council. Their agenda is pretty similar to that of James Dobson, the disturbed man who saw gay propaganda in Spongebob.

So what sorts of hideous filth was the Parents Television Council trying to protect us from?

There were multiple complaints about a November 2003 episode of Gilmore Girls. In one scene, a character's grandfather reminisces about college pranks involving nudity. In another, two college students discuss an incident in which a male student who was nude spent the night in a dorm hallway.

It's worth noting that the episodes apparently didn't show actual nudity, but merely discussed it.

And that's not even considering the absurd proposition that nudity is equivalent to sex.

I wonder if the Puritans take showers with their clothes on.

A complaint over The Simpsons included a scene in which students carried picket signs with the phrases "What would Jesus glue?" and "Don't cut off my pianissimo."

I'm glad someone is thinking of the children.

Signs of progress in southern Sudan

This is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

I noticed this interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor. 'Cellphones, roads, and girls in school. Is this south Sudan?' asks the CSM's Abraham McLaughlin.

As you may have head, a peace agreement was recently signed between the Sudanese central government in Khartoum and the southern SPLA rebel group. This would end one a 20-year civil war.

[Note: this peace deal does not affect the genocide being perpetrated by the dictatorship in the eastern region of Darfur. In fact, some have argued that the peace deal in the south was cynically signed to allow the military regime to concentrate MORE military resources in Darfur.]

Anyways, McLaughlin notes optimistic signs of progress in the de facto southern Sudanese capital of Rumbek. Since the peace deal was signed earlier this month, the first signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back, he notes.

Former Sprint PCS engineer Richard Herbert is trying to develop a mobile phone network in the region from scratch. Herbert's cellphone team is on the leading edge of a developing post-war investment boom. When he arrived last August, he had only a few acres of land and a broken 30-foot satellite dish to work with. He had to charter planes to bring much of the new equipment.
"Most countries, even Afghanistan, have at least some infrastructure," he says. "But southern Sudan - zero."

But that hasn't daunted Herbert. Or the SPLA's head honchos. [S]outhern Sudan's leaders - former rebels who are joining the national government and will control the south - are keen for private-sector help, too. They invited in Herbert's firm, Network of the World.

And it's not merely telecommunication improvements that are coming.

Local markets are improving, too. Most used to be so anemic that they were barter-only: Want a chicken? Better have some salt to trade.

Now traders demand cash. Prices have fallen by about 30 percent in Rumbek. When Muhammad goes to the market, he sees imported items like pink Joe Boxer underwear, Casio watches, and fresh fruit.

You know things are on the upswing when pink Joe Boxer underwear arrives!

Soon, unheard-of products like refrigerators will arrive. Until now, the roads have been too risky for such high-value items.

But Muhammad is proudest that he now earns $375 a month - enough to put all four of his kids in school for the first time. "The children," he says, "they must be in school."

Monday, January 24, 2005

Soccer labor dispute ended... or postponed

The labor dispute between the US Soccer Federation and the players' union has been resolved, for now. The Federation accepted the players' proposal that the players would not go on strike during 2005 and the Federation would end its lockout of top players.

This is good news for US soccer fans, since it means we will be fielding a full strength side for all of this year's upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Though it's clear from earlier statements (by the players and by the Federation) that bitterness will not disappear quite so quickly.

A tiny blow for civility

I was thrilled to read this editorial in The Chicago Tribune about the demise of the CNN show Crossfire.

Crossfire, and shows of its ilk, are the worst in television that passes for public affairs programming. They are not about civilized debate. They are not about advancing the public's understanding of anything. They are about screaming and shouting and name-calling. They are about pandering to prejudices of one side or another. They are about oversimplification and sound bites. They are about noise.

They treat political and social issues in exact same way that ESPN treats sports: as a game, as more about the participants than the issues. Except reforming (or whatever verb you want to use) Social Security is not a game. Insecurity caused by the Bush administration's blunders is not a game.

Quite simply, yap shows like Crossfire are fundamentally no different than professional wrestling or Jerry Springer, but at least the latter two lack the false pretense of useful discourse.

I can honestly say I despise those shows and everything they represent and the way they've destroyed reasonable debate in this country. They've made people believe that passionate debate and civilized debate are mutually exclusive.

[Incidentally, the editorial noted In an ABC News survey, 85 percent of respondents said that the world would be better if we said "please" and "thank you" more. If people actually believed this, then would yap shows and Springer have such large audiences?]

The end of Crossfire is a welcome change to the already way-too-shrill television landscape. Now all we need is for The McLaughlin Group, The Capital Gang and a majority of the programming on Fox News and MSNBC to follow.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

UN panel calls critics' bluff

Remember all those people in favor of the Iraq invasion who swore on their mother's life that one of the reasons we had to invade Iraq was to protect the integrity of the United Nations? To make sure that when the UN said something, its word was backed up? Many of those people are now orphans, of course.

No one actually believed that they gave a whit about the UN's reputation; that was only useful when it could be manipulated to advance their pet causes and expendable otherwise.

But it will be interesting how those "The UN must act" people (who are many of the same folks who ordinarily rail against 'one world government') react to the UN's new plan for structural reform.

[A]mong the panel's main findings are calls for a peace-building commission to be established to monitor potential trouble spots, offer help and advice, give warnings and prepare the way for armed intervention as a last resort, reports the BBC.

The panel wants member states to accept a new obligation - a "responsibility to protect" their own citizens.

If they failed to do so, then intervention by the Security Council would be much more likely than under current UN procedures.

Many advocates of the Iraq aggression demanded the UN act to make sure its resolutions (only the ones on Iraq, I should say) were enforced. If this plan is successful, they will get a UN with more ability to act. They should be thrilled that the supposedly anti-American UN acted on the concerns of American conservatives. Yipee!

Additionally, Among the other main findings, the panel suggests threats to international security should be defined widely and should include poverty, pandemics like Aids and environmental disasters, not just threats from weapons of mass destruction, wars and failed states.

Some people might not like that last part since acknowledging some problems is, to them, tantamount to 'minimizing' their preferred problems or 'appeasing' their demons du jour.

But any serious person realizes that resentment is the greenhouse that terrorism requires to flourish. Even President Bush, no bleeding heart liberal, pointed out, "Persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can be havens for terror."

Inclusion of these other threats in the security realm is therefore indispensible to any comprehensive plan against insecurity.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

"Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen"

I was reading the transcript of the inaugural address President Bush gave on Thursday. This is pretty much the only way I can consume a Bush speech anymore.

He managed the neat trick of sounding like a Messianic Crusader while mentioning the actual word 'God' (by my count) only three times.

There was one passage that caught my eye, however:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

If implemented, this would mark a radical change not only in the Bush administration's policies, but in the methods of American foreign policy that long pre-dated Mr. Bush.

If this new vision actually occurs, it would mark an astonishing new direction in America's relations with the rest of the world.

"America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling" would certainly be a change from over a century of US history.

If "the policy of the United States [becomes] to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture [emphasis mine]," it would be a noteworthy change from the previous policy of opposing democratic movements and institutions that were not sufficiently pliant to American commercial and/or military interests.

American history in general and the Bush administration's history in particular makes informed people very skeptical that such an enormous transformation will actually happen or be allowed to happen. But in the extremely unlikely event that it does, I will be the first to unabashedly praise the Bush administration for putting its noble words into action.

If "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," applies to the whole world, and not just to America's enemies, then it would be a great start!

Friday, January 21, 2005

Fun with foreign languages

NPR had an interesting story on intriguing words in other languages. It was from a book entitled In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World.

My personal favorite foreign word is the French 'entarter.' It's a verb that means 'to hit someone in the face with a cream pie'... usually done as an act of social or political protest against someone seen as pompous.

A few cited in the piece:

ilunga (Tshiluba) [ee-Iun-ga] (noun)

This word from the Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo has topped a list drawn up with the help of one thousand translators as the most untranslatable word in the world. It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.



litost [lee-tosht] (noun)

This is an untranslatable emotion that only a Czech person would suffer from, defined by Milan Kundera as "a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery." Devices for coping with extreme stress, suffering, and change are often special and unique to cultures and born out of the meeting of despair with a keen sense of survival.

Far right attacks 'pro-gay' Spongebob

Some people are in desperate need of a life. Some people have nothing better to do than look for demons behind every tree. Some people are so miserable in their own lives that they feel compelled to bring everyone down with them.

For example, US conservative groups are up in arms over a music video featuring children's TV heroes such as the cheerful cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

Focus on the Family and other groups say the video - a remake of the Sister Sledge hit, We Are Family - is a vehicle for pro-gay propaganda
, reports the BBC.

This is beyond bizarre. Especially since, the character Spongebob is about as good a model for decency and ethical behavior as you'll find on television. Things that the conservatives ritually decry a lack of.

I'm certainly a proponent of gay rights and I'm a big Spongebob fan as well. I've watched the show countless times and it never occurred to me for one instant that the show had anything to do with sexual orientation. It's just a nice show that promotes decency and ethical behavior in children. You'd have to have a pretty creative or perverted mind to see sexual innuendo in that program.

It just goes to show it's the parts of the conservative "Religious" Right, not the so-called liberal hedonists, who see sex in every nook and cranny of life.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A perfect division

Dispensing for a moment my usual disdain of polls as substitute for real news, I was amused to read an excerpt from this article at

Forty-nine percent of 1,007 adult Americans said in phone interviews they believe Bush is a "uniter," according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday. Another 49 percent called him a "divider," and 2 percent had no opinion.

So if 49% hold one opinion and the same percentage hold the opposite opinion, doesn't that make him, by definition, a divider? In the most precise implementation of the concept?

Anyways, the whole point of the poll question is really unclear to me. President Bush is what he is and people love him or despise him accordingly. That the country is divided about him is hardly an Earth-shattering revelation worth whatever money those organizations spent to commission the poll.

Bush has a particular style of leadership which is different than, say, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's. Blair's approach to Iraq war critics was, "I understand your criticisms and here's why they are misguided." Bush's approach to Iraq war critics was, "I know I'm right. If you don't like it, bugger off." One leads by trying to convince the skeptical. The other decrees fiats and gives the finger to those who question his Divine wisdom. Then again, a majority of voters just re-elected the Crusader while the guy who actually tried to lead is increasingly unpopular with his public.

Educated idiots

I read that Harvard President Larry Summers has stepped in it. Bill Clinton's last treasury secretary claimed that women have less 'innate ability' in math and science than do men.

He argued that argued one group [men] outperformed the other because of genetics, not just experience adding that that the shortage of senior female academics was partly because of child-minding duties.

Which begs the question: are child-minding duties genetic or social?

Dr Summers said the theory that men were more naturally able at sciences was based on research, not his own opinions.

but added in a statement after the controversy erupted:

My remarks have been misconstrued as suggesting that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science. I did not say that, nor do I believe it.

That clears things up.

If women have less 'innate ability' than men at math and science, doesn't it logically follow that schools should steer girls away from those specialities? Is that what Summers is advocating?

In such controversies, I usually prefer seeing the original transcript, rather than paraphrasing. But I could not find the transcript of Summers' original speech, or even excerpts, on the Harvard website, but his "clarification" was.

The more interesting question is not whether Summers' assertion is true, but why the president of arguably America's most prestigious university would want to go out of his way to alienate half of the country's population? What purpose, academic or commercial, do his comments serve? To prove that the embodiment of 'liberal academia' can be just as politically incorrect (ie: gratiutiously obnoxious) as those they would deem rednecks?

I suspect qualified female science professors will think long and hard before seeking a post at Harvard over its competitors.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

On 'Not One Damn Dime Day'

There's a protest movement out there called 'Not One Damn Dime Day' (website). Esssentially, it calls for people to not spend a single dime tomorrow, Inauguration Day, in order to protest all the things liberals and progressives want to complain about... mostly the Bush administration as you might expect. The ostensible point is that by boycotting the entire economy, it will send a message to everyone about how powerful consumers could be when they act collectively.

I've seen variations of this protest before, particularly as related to gasoline. Now, you will find few people who object as strongly as I do to this country's overdependence on cars and pampering of motorists to the exclusion of other forms of transportation. And I'm clearly no fan of the Bush administration either. But I've always thought these one-off protests were more self-indulgent than substantive.

Essentially, it's a way to make you think you're doing something substantive when you're really not. I often think if it's not worse than doing nothing at all because at least then, you're under no illusions. It's protest chic, the fast food version of activism, rather than anything with any hope of being transformational. But people like it because it's quick and easy with little of the committment necessary to effectuate actual change.

When the local Greens organization was meeting regularly, they decided to do something called Whirl Mart. It's described as performance art. Its website explains: It is a ritual during which a group gathers and silently pushes empty carts through the aisles of a superstore. Whirl-Mart utilizes tactics of occupation and reclamation of private consumer-dominated space for the purpose of creating a symbolic spectacle.

The point, I was told, was to get people thinking about the culture of consumerism. The spectacle, by itself, didn't catch my fancy, but thought it might be useful if we could add on to it. I proposed developing a list of products sold at the Big Box along with locally-owned businesses who sold comparable products. I figured that way, once we got people thinking, they would have concrete suggestions on how to act differently.

I proposed this because it's my longstanding belief that you can't simply tell people to say No. You have to give them something to say Yes to. This is why the ABB argument failed in November; Democrats said, "Bush is evil, vote for us" instead of "Bush is evil, vote for these IDEAS." This is also a reason why a group like the Greens have so much trouble getting people to pay attention to them. Part of it is, of course, because the corporate media doesn't pay attention to alternative ideas on any side of the political spectrum. But part of it is also because Greens are so focused on telling you how bad the two-party duopoly is, they forget to tell you what they themselves stand for. When they do tell what they believe in, it's often phrased in the negative. We oppose this, we object to that.

Not only did no one agree to help me with my proposal to provide people with alternatives (which wasn't a surprise), but no one even seemed to think it was a good idea for me to pursue. "I don't care. Do it if you want," one told me.

I didn't do it because there was so little enthusiasm from everyone else and it was their pet project. And I also didn't go to the spectacle, done at the local Super K-Mart. It just seemed like a waste of time to me. Even if they were successful at getting people to think about it, what inevitably happened was people would say, "Yeah, this sucks, but there's nothing I can do about it." So lack of alternatives presented meant the desired change in comportment did not occur. I spent the afternoon at the basketball courts, where I was under no delusion of transforming society.

The 'Not One Damn Dime' Day is the same thing. Instead of buying gas on the 20th of January, people will buy them on the 19th or 21st. Unless people fast on the 20th, they will eat food they've purchased from the consumer economy at an earlier point. Businesses won't notice any overall difference on their weekly balance sheet. Money will be shifted around, like a shell game.

I don't like disparaging people who are trying to do something, no matter how small. But this protest doesn't send a message. And if it doesn't send a message, what's the point? Is it doing something for society or is it the illusion of doing something? Wouldn't the effort, energy and promotional skills be better focused somewhere else?

And this article at the left-wing site AlterNet asks: Not One Damn Dime Day has good intentions -- it's meant to send an anti-war message. But can local businesses survive this kind of solidarity?

In addition to doing nothing positive, protests such as this harm the working class. If you don't go out to eat tommorrow, the president won't be even notice, but the cook and wait staff on sub-minimum wage might be. Way to stick up for the little guy!

Skip the 'damn' boycott, go to a diner and leave a big tip.

At (nit) wits' end

One of the more annoying stories during the present English Premier League soccer season is the feud between Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, managers of Arsenal and Manchester United respectively. Those two clubs have dominated Engish soccer for the last decade.

I won't go into much detail about the long history of ambivalence between England's two leading managers; you can read here and here to get an idea.

I know mind games are part of any sport, especially in soccer. The lack of playoffs in most top divisions (in Europe anyways) means that every regular season game, even in the first few months of the season, ultimately matters. This places the pressure on managers for a longer period of time than in North American sports, where the heat only ratchets up in the late regular season and playoffs.

Ferguson has always been English soccer's master provocateur. Much was made of his successful rattling of Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan during the 1996-97 campaign, which some attribute to Newcastle's late season collapse. This was contrasted to the previous season, where Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish did not respond at all to Ferguson's provocation and ended up winning the championship.

The spat between Wenger and Ferguson used to be amusing. There used to be a certain intriguing subtlety to their jabs, which made it interesting. This has been replaced by naked hostility. Ferguson claims Wenger called his players cheats. Wenger claims Ferguson brought the sport into disrepute.

It's all quite tedious now. This mentality is something you might except from 7 year olds, not England's two most successful managers.

The person most enjoying this spat, outside tabloid editors, is José Mourinho. His Chelsea side is 10 points clear of Arsenal and 11 ahead of Manchester United. Having conceded only 8 goals in 23 matches, it seems highly unlikely that Chelsea will be caught by either of the sore losers. Perhaps Wenger and Ferguson would be better off improving their sides' frailties than whining about the other.

Update 1: José Mourinho has just committed the cardinal sin of declaring the championship has already been effectively won by Chelsea 10 points in mid-January is a very comfortable lead, even more so the way Chelsea is playing. But that Mourinho would go so far as to declare the title his so early is mind-boggling error in judgement.

Update 2: Now police are warning that the spat could incite crowd violence.

When the elephants fight, it's the ants who suffer

The cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season has to be imminent. The owners have locked out the players and apparently even the players' union is encouraging them to look for work elsewhere. I've been asked who I support. Intellectually, it's hard for me to support anyone but the players since the owners' fundamental contention is that they need to be saved from their own recklessness. (Read here for more)

However, supporting them intellectually doesn't mean supporting them emotionally. The season's about to be ruined and I can't say I actually feel sorry for either side.

But wait, there's a third side I DO feel sorry for. Those who make their living off the millionaires and billionaires. The official manufacturer of NHL pucks has laid off half its staff due to sharply reduced demand for pucks, both gameworthy and souvenir. How much money has been lost by bars and restaurants and souvenir shops around the NHL arenas? What about the folks who sell popcorn and programs at the games? What about front office staff, like the sales crew, the equipment manager or the Zamboni driver?

As always, when the elephants fight, it's the ants who suffer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Canada must use its coercive powers against gays: Catholic bishop

Though the Theocracy Brigade is much smaller and less influential nationwide in Canada than it is in the United States, it certainly exists.

The Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary (one of the main cities in the western province of Alberta) sent out a pastoral letter purporting to attack gay marriage, but attacking homosexuality in general. That itself isn't news since the Catholic Church isn't fond of either.

The letter might not be especially noteworthy except that it stated : Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the State must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.

The key phrase: The State must use its coercive power against homosexuality.

The bishop, who has never been afraid to court controversy, played himself off as a courageous warrior. Like many people who say idiotic things, he defended himself by saying he was proud to be un-PC.

"There aren't many people who stand up and say, 'I'm tired of political correctness.' And because I'm tired of it, don't try to silence me every time I open my mouth by telling me I'm a hatemonger."

This train of thought has it that being politically incorrect or being controversial is a virtue in and of itself. Certainly Osama bin Laden and the Ku Klux Klan are also against everything that the 'politically correct' advocate. Does the bishop consider them role models?

Another trait he shares with people who say idiotic things is the belief that any unfavorable response violates his freedom of speech.

"I'm just trying to speak the truth as I see it," he sniffed. "And I should be accorded the freedom to express my opinions and try to influence people to see things as I see them."

If the bishop is free to express his opinions, shouldn't he be so gracious to accord critics the same freedom to express theirs? It's a two way street, Your Holiness.

Calgary's Anglican bishop, Barry Hollowell, asked who gets to define the nature of the common good, and said the use of the state's coercive force rarely produces a common good.

Ironically, Bishop 'Coercive Power' authored a column this summer in The Calgary Sun entitled Courtesy crucial in material world.

Note: the transcript of the pastoral letter can be read here.

Bring them home... not necessarily now

As anyone who's read my essays knows, I was an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning. I fully accept that the war was a terrible idea. I accept that the war and occupation were badly conceived. I accept that the motives of its authors were questionable and, more importantly, were always likely to be seen as dubious by those supposedly intended to be helped by this 'liberation.' I accept that the designers of the war were so blinded by a willful ignorance of human nature that the occupation couldn't possibly have gone well given these deeply flawed assumptions. I accept that the Iraq war was a shameful aggression that should never be repeated (but probably will). Nevertheless, I've never been convinced by the arguments of many other anti-war folks that we need to withdraw all our troops from Iraq immediately.

Simply put, the war was a terrible idea badly executed. But we're there now and we have to deal with it. As Colin Powell said, "You break it, you buy it." Or as my mom always said, "If you make a mess, clean it up." It's irresponsible to leave before we've introduced a modicum of stability to the Iraq where we introduced so much chaos. And it's counterproductive.

Some say that it's America's presence that's causing the instability and insecurity. I think there's merit to that assertion. Contrary to the implicit arguments of the neo-conservatives, no one likes to be occupied by foreigners. However, this argument implies that if all coalition troops just up and left tommorrow, the insurgency would simply disappear and the insurgents would suddenly turn into Churchills and Washingtons. I think that assumption is recklessly naive. If the insurgents had any political ideology other than power, wouldn't they have issued demands by now, like a normal 'liberation' group?

A hasty withdrawal of American troops is a bad idea. Not because it would 'hand the terrorists a victory.' But because it would leave Iraq in a worse state than the one we found it in (that would be the real victory for regressive al-Qaedaism). Progressives have an interest in seeing a future Iraq that is at least moderately democratic and respectful of human rights, just like they've advocated those things for Tibet and Pinochet's Chile and apartheid South Africa.

As you can infer, I've been disappointed by the lack of nuance... though not surprised considering that the vitriol and 'either you with us or with the terrorists' demagoguery was always like to provoke defensiveness. I've been frustrated by the insistence of that there are only two positions to hold: "Support the Leader/troops/war" and "Bring the troops home yesterday."

So I was interested to read an article over at Alternet, a left-wing website, arguing for a more nuanced approach than immediate and full troop withdrawal. Many anti-war Americans support one simple plan for Iraq: bring the troops home. There's been very little discussion of the fallout of such a strategy on the grounds that the very fact of removing the U.S. presence from Iraq will be an improvement per se. In other words, whatever the consequences - for Iraqis, the Middle East, or terrorism - it can only be better than what we have now, writes Lakshmi Chaudry.

We can't simply turn our backs on the millions of Iraqis - who lack basic necessities like water, electricity, food or medical care - just because many of us didn't vote for the man who caused their suffering. Is it moral for us to leave them to die in the crossfire of a violent civil war, fueled by extremists that we created? Chaos creates a political vacuum that is almost always filled by the power-hungry and the ruthless. So what will a Taliban-style regime in Iraq mean for Iraqi women? What effects will it have on the rest of the Middle East, which is already a tinderbox waiting for the careless spark of instability? Will an unstable Iraq really improve hopes for a genuine and just peace in the Middle East? These are not questions that we can afford to shrug off in the heat of anti-war rhetoric. Taken together, they constitute a giant question mark about the connection between our politics and our values.


Religious extremism, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever, is the antithesis of progressive In the late 90s, a small group of progressives were pretty much the ONLY people attacking the obscene Taliban regime in Afghanistan (this was before 9/11 made demonizing them a cause celebre on the right) and calling for action against them. There should certainly be a plan for the departure of foreign troops; a plan actually based on reality and human nature, not willful ignorance. But a hasty withdrawal could well mean disaster for the Iraqis our Crusaders gave us the sacred responsibility of helping. We shouldn't have taken on the responsibility in the first place, but we did and we need to deal with what did happen not what should have happened.

Arguing for a more sane (and finite) occupation is not the same as justifying the original decision of occupation. It's simply not moral to abandon progressive ideals like democracy, human rights and fighting poverty, merely because of a fear of being associated with militarism or George W. Bush.

Neo-cons have taught us all about the dangers of utopian self-delusion. Progressives shouldn't make the same mistake.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Don't forget other emergencies: WFP

With international focus on the victims of the south Asian tsunami, the UN's World Food Program ('The World's Largest Humanitarian Organization,' according to its website) asks donors not to forget about other crises equally meriting attention.

The WFP urged donors not to forget 1.5 million survivors of recent conflicts in West Africa who are still heavily dependent on food aid.

WFP said in a statement that it needed US$155 million this year to feed nearly a million people in Liberia and over 500,000 people in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone.

It added that it had only received about 10% of that goal and has been forced to slash food handouts as a result.

The WFP's West Africa spokesman warned that disruption of food aid to Liberia could endanger peace and stability in the country, which only emerged from 14 years of civil war in 2003.

"You still have lots of ex-combatants there and they can quickly pick up a gun if they get hungry," he said.

Individuals can donate as well to help the WFP, as I just noticed. Click here to find out how.

Confusing times

I accept that President Bush narrowly won the November election. It's tough knowing I'm stuck having to hear his grating voice for the next four years. It's tough having to listen to conservatives gloat incessantly and then demand I 'reach out' to them. And it's tough listening to the far right whine about how marginalized they are because the president isn't religious enough and how they're being martyrized. But he won. Legitimately, it seems. And this time, America actually deserves him.

But I still get confused from time to time..

The president's supporters say that the Iraq war showed his character (opponents say the same thing, but that's another essay). Yes, the war provoked a backlash, large protests and vehement objections. It made some people truly despise Bush not just as a president, but as a person. But he showed his resolve. He showed his character by holding the line despite the objections and supposed character assassinations. A true leader does the right thing, not because it's popular but because it's necessary. He did the right thing based on his conscience and would be vindicated by history and by the course of events in Iraq and the Middle East, not by the whims of the day. At least according to Bush supporters

Then I read:

"Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election," Bush said. "And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and they chose me, for which I'm grateful."

This was a nice smokescreen by President Bush to a query on why no one in the administration had been held accountable for the WMD fiasco. Of course, the question was why the administration hadn't held ITSELF accountable but the president neatly changed the subject.

Anyways, this begs the question: if the true vindication comes from history and a future democratic Iraq, according to the longstanding contentions of the Bush apologists, why is the president suddenly claiming vindication of his policy from a narrow win in a mere popularity contest? What happened the great statesman who was above mere politics? What happened to history being the true judge of wisdom, rather than the "mobs"?

Confusing times we live in, those of us who try to make sense of this administration.

US military already in Iran?

Some of us thought that the huge difficulties of the Iraq occupation would at least have unintended side benefit: reigning in the out-of-control neo-conservatives. Perhaps such hope was naive.

The BBC is reporting that US commandos are operating inside Iran selecting sites for future air strikes, says the American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

Hersh is the journalist who did the most extensive reporting on the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Hersh says that American special forces have conducted reconnaissance missions inside Iran for six months... The New Yorker journalist adds that President Bush has authorised the operations, defining them as military to avoid legal restrictions on CIA covert intelligence activities overseas.

Additionally, He reports as well that American special forces units have been authorised to conduct covert operations in as many as 10 nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

The White House denounced the report as inaccurate.

Update: War Department spokesman Lawrence Deritta issued a statement that read, "Mr. Hersh's article is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed... Mr. Hersh's source(s) feed him with rumor, innuendo, and assertions about meetings that never happened, programs that do not exist, and statements by officials that were never made." This according to The Boston Channel and other sources (unfortunately I couldn't find a transcript; Fox News, which usually provides transcripts for comments related to their articles, hasn't run a story on this as of mid-Monday afternoon).

Additionally, the statement called Iran's apparent nuclear ambitions and its "demonstrated support for terrorist organizations" a global challenge that "deserves much more serious treatment than Seymour Hersh provides in The New Yorker article titled 'The Coming Wars.'"

A very telling statement. To me, the comments say: "We declare that Hersh's article contains particular falsehoods but we won't say explicitly 'American troops aren't in Iran.'"

Notice the vigorous demonization of Iraq, neatly mixed in with a denial of Hersh's specifics (without an explicit denial of his broader assertion). I suggest that was done to lay the groundwork for something.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Nairobi 2016?

On a lighter note, there's Kenya's bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The absurdity of a country like Kenya thinking it could host the world's largest sporting event is plain to see. Then again, absurd bids aren't rare. Bangkok (Thailand), Cairo (Egypt) and Havana (Cuba) all bid for the 2008 Games.

If the Kenyan government thinks it has the capacity to host major sporting events, it should start with something smaller like the All Africa Games (Olympic-type continental competition) or the athletics' world championships.

Or maybe it could use the billions of dollars (the recent Athens Games cost over $15 billion, according to the UK Telegraph, not including new public transport systems) in a more sensible way like developing a passable infrastructure, fighting the capital's obscene crime rate or building affordable urban housing.

Zambian leader apologizes

I read a lot of news from all different parts of the world. So there's very little that surprises me anymore. But every so often, a headline makes my jaw drop. For example, earlier this week, I saw a headline that read:

I failed Zambia, says president

Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa apologized to his countrymen for failing to tackle poverty.

"It has not been possible to reduce poverty and I feel sad about it," Levy Mwanawasa said, describing the issue as "one of my failures".

"Unfortunately, if Zambians made a mistake to elect me as president, they are stuck with me," he added.


"Poverty continues to grip our nation. I want to work hard this year so that poverty levels are reduced," he said.

Politicians rarely apologize, except on specific issues for the purpose of diffusing a particular crisis. I can't remember the last time any leader, from any part of the world, apologized for generally failing in his duties.

Such contrition is even rarer in Africa, where the notion of Leader as savior is particularly strong. Let alone a president deciding to serve only one term. President Mwanawasa, who's only been in power for not even two years, has far less to apologize for than much longer serving heads of state like the dictator in Zambia's neighbor to the south, Zimbabwe.

President Mwanawasa's admission was ironic since his anti-corruption campaign has been very successful. Even to the point of putting on trial the previous president Frederick Chiluba, the man who annointed Mwanawasa as his successor.

Knowing when it's time to go is not an easy thing in many professions. It's especially difficult in politics, where power can be so intoxicating. Thus, it was uncharacteristic that last year, after not even than two years in power, Mr Mwanawasa said he was tired of his "artificial" life as president, complaining that everything was done for him.

I dare say President Mwanawasa did quite a great service to Zambia with his forthright admission. In daring to hold himself accountable, he's giving the green light to Zambians to hold all their politicians accountable. Given that poor political leadership is Africa's biggest obstacle to development, I can think of few greater gifts he could've given his country.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

In awe of these heroes

I hate to sound like a typical liberal. In fact, I hate to sound like a typical anything. But humanitarian aid workers, as a group, have my undying admiration. One can save the bureaucracy and politics of aid for another debate. This essay in The Christian Science Monitor reminded me just how amazing these folks are.

Many people lump Peace Corps volunteers, of which I was one, in that group. Though Peace Corps volunteers do good work, humanitarian aid workers are on a whole different level. Most aid workers are people who could have regular jobs in comfortable offices in western countries. They could live in air conditioned apartments, drink filtered water and have easy access to public transportation. They could spend their weekends at the cinema, sipping on lattes at their favorite coffeehouse or cheering on their preferred soccer team. Instead, they spend their time in dusty villages or overcrowded megapolises in the developing world.

Except, they don't spend their time in just any dusty villages or overcrowded megapolises, they do so in the worst ones. They live in war zones, in refugee camps, in places where death and disease are the norm and where clean drinking water is considered a luxury. And they do so voluntarily.

This is not their job, it's their life. At least while they're there. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have no days off where they can slip out to an amusement park or to see an opera. Even when they're not on duty, they're on duty.

And for what purpose? They feed the hunger, clothe the naked, bring water to the thirsty, house the homeless. I'm sure there's certainly an element that favors adrenaline junkies, but there are certainly easier ways to get a high than negotiating for your life with drugged up boy soldiers.

They choose this lifestyle because they have a burning desire to serve their fellow man. Not to destroy things, not to enrich themselves, not to exercise power, not to shop til they drop but to help people. And not just any people, but those with the greatest need and living in the most miserable conditions.

The word 'hero' is so overused that it threatens to devalue the word itself. I don't use that word casually. I do not consider athletes or politicians to be heroes, at least not solely because of their profession. I do think that humanitarian aid workers merit the appellation.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Reasonable expectations

After militants killed six Israelis at a check point, the government of Ariel Sharon announced that it would cut all contacts with the Palestinian leadership of President-elect Mahmoud Abbas. "Israel informed international leaders today that there will be no meetings with Abbas until he makes a real effort to stop the terror," Mr Sharon's spokesman Assaf Shariv said.

I'm glad to know the Israeli government keeps its expectations of the Palestinian leadership on a wholly reasonable level. President Bush, the most dominant military in the world and its allies can't eradicate terrorism in occupied Iraq. The Israelis and their strong military couldn't eliminate terrorism in the Occupied Territories when they administered that land. But the Israelis expect exactly that of the leader of a pseudo-government who hasn't even been sworn in yet.

More on media credibility

Speaking of media credibility, I forgot to mention how the administration paid a right-wing commentator named Armstrong Williams to promote its so-called No Child Left Behind law. Naturally, Williams made no mention of this connection when promoting it. And not surprisingly, he said he still would've supported the law even without the payoff.

Perhaps. I don't mind partisans promoting their pet causes, but I think they should be straight-forward about it. When the Democratic National Committee chairman goes on TV to bad mouth Bush and talk about Democratic ideas (such as they are), I know he's being paid to promote the Democratic agenda. It's his job. I can take it or leave it based on this knowledge. But full disclosure is important to determining credibility.

Curiously, two Fox News commentators slammed Williams for his alleged indiscresion: making money. A curious thing for conservatives to criticize. In fact, the true crime (quite possibly in the legal sense) was committed by the administration's use of tax dollars to pay off so-called journalists.

The White House says that this was an isolated incident.

Williams himself, said "This happens all the time."

Media credibility and accountability

It's been said that the reputation of a thousand years can be lost by the conduct of a single day. That's equally true for media outlets who try to be objective.

When my mother was in college in the late 60s, TIME magazine did an article on her university. Apparently, a graphic misidentified one or more of the buildings on campus. It had little bearing to the content of the article but my mother was still appalled. She quite logically reasoned, "If they mess up the things I know, how can I trust them to report the things I don't know?" To this day, she refuses to buy or subscribe to TIME, even 35 years later.

This anecdote demonstrates how precarious media credibility is.

The media has had a rough time of it in the last few years. Jayson Blair. Jack Kelley. The failure to be skeptical about the administration's pre-Iraq war claims.

The most recent media hand-ringing has come because of a controversial CBS News on President Bush's service in the Air National Guard.

As CBS itself noted: an independent panel that concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece. The panel also said CBS News had compounded that failure with a “rigid and blind” defense of the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.

Which is interesting since it's exactly the same approach that got the BBC in trouble last year. Always under fire, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, media outlets tend to be hypersensitive. All questioning is dismissed as partisan. This bunker mentality ends up killing them when the criticism has justification.

As is often the case, competitive pressures blinded CBS to basic journalistic standards.

The panel said a "myopic zeal" to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.

Additionally, While the panel found that some actions taken by CBS News encouraged such suspicions, “the Panel cannot conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content.”

The panel, which included former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, also offered four recommendations to prevent a reoccurence. Including [fostering] an atmosphere in which competitive pressure is not allowed to prompt airing of reports before all investigation and vetting is done.

It also brings up an interesting point that my father was raising as far back as 15 years ago. Networks used to not expect that news divisions would make money. They were called 'loss leaders.' They would lose money themselves but they would bring prestige, and thus viewers, to the network which would translate into higher revenues on entertainment shows.

Now, news divisions are expected to make money too. Not surprisingly, the line between news and entertainment is becoming increasingly blurred. That's why the suggestion to reduce competitive pressures, however nice in theory, won't work in practice. Unless CBS is truly willing to commit to quality journalism, even if it means diminished profits for the news division.

Four CBS staffers, including two high ranking ones, were fired. At least some organizations hold themselves accountable when they screw up.

Even liberal called CBS' mistakes "shocking" and "rudimentary."

It baffles me that such a piece, which was sure to be very controversial, would be done in such haste.

I remember a few years ago, CNN started a new investigative documentary series whose title I forget. The first story was on something called Operation Tailwind. For months, CNN promo'd the heck out of the series and this first story. They ran ads for it approximately every 54.2 seconds. I've rarely seen a documentary series promoted so heavily. They ran the first story. It causes controversy. Less than a week later, CNN had to retract the story.

That was serious blow to CNN's credibility. Though CNN is still the only cable news network worth watching even occassionally, I still don't trust it the same way since. Not only did it screw up, but it screwed up on something it had promoted ad nauseum. It had screwed up on something it had based the entire series on. If there's any story where you should be extra sure of its credibility, it's the one you promote that heavily. They put all their eggs in one basket and the basket fell apart.

As I said, media credibility is fleeting. This NPR column points out that 2004 should have been a great year for CBS. It broke the shameful Abu Ghraib scandal in March. It also revealed that a Pentagon analyst passed classified information to Israel. Those accomplishments were quickly overshadowed by the National Guard flap.

Furthermore, the mess harms CBS even on stories that are journalistically solid. As the NPR column notes, another CBS story explored how Bush administration officials were duped by forged documents -- no joke -- when they claimed that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase materials from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction. That link was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

The story was displaced by the National Guard story and hasn't aired since. Even though there have been no journalistic problems reported with the Niger story. Why? Because the Guard story ruined CBS' credibility, on all stories. The Guard story made people believe (or confirm their suspicion) that CBS was liberal or anti-Bush. Therefore, they are hesitant to run another story critical of the administration, even if it's journalistically solid.

The mainstream media needs to be more careful. It's far too important to make itself irrelevant by such bungling. Without the media, we'd never have learned about the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay scandals that were being done in name of America. Without the media here in New York state, we'd know nothing about the corruption and secrecy of our state government.

Furthermore, this incident shows the increasing influence of the blogosphere. It was bloggers who first pointed out questionable aspects of the CBS story. While you can't necessarily take a blogger's word as law anymore than a newspaper's, this doesn't mean bloggers have no value. Bloggers serve an increasingly useful role in this era of media consolidation. They offer points of view that often ignored by the corporate media. And, like in the CBS case, they frequently call mainstream media outlets on mistakes, inaccuracies and other sloppiness that might otherwise get glossed over. Bloggers are now an important part of the Fourth Estate and the media magnates would do well not to brush off their influence with a wave of the hand.

The CBS flap reinforces something I've said all along. If you want to be a truly informed citizen, you can not rely on a single news source. Sorry, there are no short cuts!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Thoughts on tsunami relief

Some people are annoyed by all the attention currently being paid to tsunami relief. How come tsunami victims get all the attention but not victims of [insert person's pet cause]?

I've certainly wondered why some crises get massive public attention and others don't. One theory I have is that natural disasters get more attention than disasters perceived to be man-made.

In natural disasters, there are only innocent victims (at least by most people's standards). So sympathy is easy to give.

In disasters perceived to be man-made, such as wars or genocide, people's sympathy is complicated by the urge to apportion blame. Some people get caught in the 'both sides are committing atrocities' trap. 'Both sides' usually doesn't take into account civilians or the possibility that one side is committing 95% of the atrocities and the other side 5%.

The more interesting case is disasters that are man-made but aren't perceived to be. A great example of this was the huge refugee crisis in eastern Zaire (now DR Congo) that gained much attention in 1996. The refugee crisis was caused by the Rwandan genocide and civil war. The subsequent humantarian crisis provoked by millions of refugees include cholera and other horrible diseases.

The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that Hutu militias (the side that committed the genocide but lost the civil war and fled) had effective authoritarian control of the refugee camps. The militias compelled relief agencies to distribute aid through them... and they surely took a nice cut. A few agencies quit Zaire in disgust, rather than collaborate with genociders. However, most relief agencies portrayed the cholera and general miserable conditions in the camp as a 'humanitarian crisis.' This is a much more neutral term than, say, 'politically- and militarily-provoked humanitarian crisis.'

Another example is in Darfur, eastern Sudan. Aid agencies typically refer to Darfur as a 'humanitarian crisis' because it implies something that simply happened out of the blue. Human rights groups, the US government and anyone else offering a wholly truthful assessment refer to Darfur as a 'genocide,' because that's exactly what's going on.

Aid agencies don't refer to Darfur as 'genocide' because they know that any such usage will immediately degenerate into a pointless academic debate over whether it's legally genocide going on or if it's 'merely' ethnic cleansing, war crimes or other supposedly isolated atrocities. People won't donate money to something associated with controversy, to a disaster where everyone isn't seen as pure and innocent. So they wisely use the more neutral 'humanitarian crisis.' This nuance originates from the fundamentally different roles played by humanitarian relief organizations and human rights advocacy groups.

This article from The New York Times demonstrates why I don't object to the attention paid to tsunami relief, even if I prefer to support less celebrated causes such as War Child (who works to rehabilitate child soldiers).

In reality, the attention to tsunami relief will fade in a few weeks, but the problems will remain for years. Do you remember the flooding a few years ago in Mozambique? Last year's huge earthquake in Iran? Hurricane Mitch's devastation in Honduras? Those were all crises that galvanized the world's attention every so briefly in recent years.

As The Canadian Press reported: Amy Barry of Oxfam said on average countries pay only 50 per cent of their pledges. An Oxfam statement said that even in high-profile disasters like hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, less than a third of the promised $11 billion Cdn [about US$9.2 billion] materialized. "In Afghanistan in 2004, the United States delivered only $200 million of the $450 million it promised," it said.

That's why I was pleased to hear on the BBC World Service that the UN will occassionally release lists of how much donor countries have pledged to tsunami relief and how much they've actually donated. Often times, amounts actually donated to such causes fall far short the amounts pledged. Because, after all, a pledge does nothing in and of itself.

Iraq war officially based on falsehood: WMD search abandoned

You remember Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? You could excused for forgetting since no one in the administration is talking much about them anymore.

But in case you forgot, Saddam Hussein's alleged huge program of weapons of mass destruction was supposed to pose a major threat to American security. So much so that we had to invade, conquer and occupy Iraq, overthrew his regime and rebuild the country. If we didn't, the Evil Doers would've invaded America, pillaged our cities, raped our women and slaughtered our children, we were hysterically told.

In case you forgot, the weapons of mass destruction theory was the absurd premise upon which most Americans supported the aggression against Iraq, a country which had never done anything against us or threatened to.

Now, I read that the US has officially given up the search for those WMDs.

Intelligence officials say US chief weapons' investigator Charles Duelfer has left Iraq and is not planning to return.

Duelfer reported last year that Iraq had no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons at the time of the US-led invasion nearly two years ago.

Additionally, Duelfer said Saddam Hussein had still had the desire to restart WMD programmes.

Which is odd since before the invasion, didn't the administration tell us that Iraq already had active WMD programs?

Just in case you forgot.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Poverty doesn't mean lack of dignity or compassion

African nations have a reputation of being overly reliant on foreign aid. This reputation is not entirely undeserved. But despite the reputation and despite the ofter overwhelming poverty at home, sometimes Africans end up as the givers.

I was interested to read this article at the IRIN news service which reported that a number of West African nations, some of the world's poorest, have donated funds to victims of the Asian tsunami.

This would be hardly surprising to those familiar with the region. I suspect any westerner who's spent any time in West Africa has had the experience of being invited to share a meal or given a bed by an African villager or city-dweller whose living conditions are exponentially more difficult and whose incomes are a mere fraction of their own.

Reform comes to Albany... perhaps

How was NY Gov. George Pataki's state of the state speech received last week? Depends on who you read.

'Speech a hard read: Focus on the past spurs queries on Pataki's future': headline of the Albany Times-Union on the state of the state speech.

'Pataki unveils a bold agenda: Governor plans action on schools, medicaid and economic growth': headline of the Glens Falls Post-Star on the same speech.

'Pataki focus: Achievements, not budget': headline of (Long Island) Newsday.

I'm generally not a big fan of state of the union/state/municipality speeches regardless of who's giving them. Years of following politics have taught me that actions speak louder than words. State of the [entity] speeches are designed primarily to send a message. To the speaker's base supporters. To the political opposition. To the media. But not really to the ordinary people.

State of the [entity] speeches are a laundry list of things the speaker believes or advocates in theory. They have no relationship to the speaker's priorities. These speeches give no indication of which things the chief executive will lobby hard to implement and which things he merely wants the public to think he supports without him actually having to push for.

For example, most of the attention on President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech focused on the half of the speech justifying the impeding invasion of Iraq. However, the first half of the speech dealt with a lot of domestic issues. One of the things the president mentioned was a federal initiative to support research into hydrogen fuel cells.

Shortly thereafter, a Bush-supporting friend of mine wrote me an email saying something like, "A Green such as yourself should be thrilled that Bush advocated this hydrogen cell thing." Implicit in his email was the sentiment, "Why don't you actually praise him in your blog for once?"

As I said before, this is mainly because I give little weight to such speeches, be they by Bush or anyone else. Actions speak louder than words. I told him it was a good thing in theory, but I'd be thrilled to praise Bush when this program was sufficiently funded, supported by the administration and started producing results.

I don't think I've heard the president mention the hydrogen cell initiative a single time since the 2003 State of the Union.

Gov. Pataki's state of the state speech made a number of calls for reform, since pretending to be in favor of reform in Albany is a necessity nowadays. (Though as the blogger NYCO rightly pointed out: Publicly pretending to reform is a big first step toward actual reform.)

As The Times-Union reported: Republican Pataki's speech called for improving accountability and restoring public trust. He called for ending lobbying for state contracts and banning gifts from lobbyists, reforming the budget process to create on-time budgets, capping Medicaid costs for local governments and improving the public authority system.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, a Democrat and Republican respectively, have also fallen over themselves calling for reform.

Pataki, Silver and Bruno have EACH been in power for over a decade, making them the longest serving triumvirate in state history. Needless to say, there's a bit of skepticism at letting the inmates reform the asylum.

The governor also called for an end to 'back door borrowing.' This is another issue that's been in the public eye, thanks particularly to a groundbreaking investigation by the Syracuse Post-Standard.

As that paper explains:

The system works like this: The Legislature creates a pot of money for unnamed projects. Then, Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Joseph Bruno sign a memo in private that splits the money three ways. They direct two state authorities - Empire State Development for the Republicans and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York for the Democrats - to issue bonds for them.

Then the leaders decide who gets grants. Like all pork-barrel spending in Albany, most of the money goes to legislative districts represented by members of the majority political parties.

The state uses its income tax collections to pay off the bonds.

Again, since Pataki's fellow Republicans benefit from the secret slush funds, it remains to be seen how hard the governor will push this issue.

Since 'publicly pretending to reform' has become mandatory, the legislature is getting into the act as well. The Democratic Assembly passed changes to their internal rules requiring lawmakers to actually be present in the Capitol when they want to vote on bills.

In the past, Assembly members would be counted as voting 'yes' on all bills after they signed in for the day, unless they specifically signaled otherwise. Even if they were out to lunch or in committee meetings.

Only in Albany would requiring legislators to be present while voting be considered revolutionary.

The Republican Senate offered retrograde changes that not only weren't reform, but didn't even present the facade of reform. They tried to require senators to be present in their seats only when they vote no, which has the added benefit of requiring their opponents, the Democrats, to hang around all day to try to block the bills that the Republicans bring to the floor. In other words, they were going to the system that the Assembly just scrapped as too arcane.

Though apparently, public outcry at this absurdity was too much and the Republican leadership in the Senate put the changes on hold for two weeks. Amazingly, this was done after the Republican leader met with his Democratic counterpart, in a rare example of a majority party in Albany actually consulting with the minority.

In another unexpected show of bipartisan consultation, both Assembly leaders announced changes that rank-and-file lawmakers get more time to introduce and try to force votes on bills. Allowing rank-and-file lawmakers to introduce bills is another thing that would only be revolutionary in Albany.

A joint rule would require a budget adoption schedule and public budget negotiating committees of senators and Assembly members. Secretive negotiations have produced over 20 consecutive years without an on time budget, to the serious detriment of local school districts.

Though Pataki's speech talked a lot about "bold, sweeping fundamental change," it's interesting what he didn't mention: some of the state government's most pressing issues.

Not once in his 69-minute speech did Pataki mention the state's estimated $6 billion budget deficit or even hint at impending fiscal difficulties. He even called on the Legislature to phase out tax increases passed two years ago in 2005 rather than 2006.

Nor did he address such major issues as looming deadlines in the federal Help America Vote Act, a health care funding bill that expires this year or a multimillion-dollar transportation aid package that must be renegotiated.

Pataki made only passing mention of court-mandated education reform that will likely require billions more in state aid to New York City schools.

Reform that the legislature was supposed to approve months ago, lest it be referred to a court-appointed panel.

I also have to give a major thumbs up to the state's media outlets. Most newspapers, in particular, have been vocal advocates for cleaning up the morass in Albany. Without them, we'd be completely ignorant of the complex chicaneries going on in the Capitol.

Similiar props are owed to advocacy groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause who have beat the anti-corruption drum for years, long before it become the issue du jour.