Thursday, March 31, 2005

Lack of responsibility and accountability are grounds for resignation: GOP senator

"His lack of leadership, combined with conflicts of interest and a lack of responsibility and accountability point to one, and only one, outcome: his resignation," --Sen. Norm Coleman, calling for the resignation of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Fortunately for President Bush, Sen. Coleman apparently doesn't hold fellow Republicans to such standards.

Indepedent investigation (mostly) clears UN chief

An independent investigation whose report was released yesterday cleared UN secretary-general Kofi Annan of wrong doing in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. It concluded that Annan was misled by his son about the latter's involvement with a company that was awarded a contract with the oil-for-food program.

The report accused the company of making "false statements to the public, the United Nations and the committee by asserting that Kojo Annan had resigned his consultancy on Oct. 9, 1998," when in fact he had been on a retainer afterward, reports The International Herald Tribune

The report did fault the secretary-general for not sufficiently investigating the scandal before appointing the independent commission. Annan probably should've just appointed the independent commission from the beginning. Conflict of interest is not simply about the actual fact but also about appearances.

Note: I do have an essay in the works about the large reform package recently proposed by Secretary-General Annan.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

How NOT to deal with extremism

There are various ways societies can deal with extremism. They can ignore extermism. They can try to make it socially unacceptable. Some try to crush extremism with brute force. These have varying degrees of success.

One way that usually doesn't work, especially in societies that consider themselves democratic, is to ban extremism. The problem with this approach is that you can't legislate away extremism any more than you can ban hatred or rain or mosquitoes.

Apparently someone never got this memo.

A new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on Monday called on the EU and other member states to ban racist political parties and crack down on neo-Nazism, especially in eastern Germany, according to a report on Deutsche Welle.

Two thiings occured to me when I read the article.

First, what does 'crack down' mean? Usually international organizations are CRITICAL on governments who crack down on political freedom.

But the really astonishing part is that the authors of the report don't realize how counterproductive such measures would be.

Extremists thrive on a sense of persecution. Just look at conservative Evangelical Christians in this country. Not all are extremists, but many are and much of their self-appointed leadership is.

They have more power and influence than any religious movement in any other western democracy. But to listen to them, you'd think they were they were two weeks away from being completely exterminated by secular, Christ-hating heathens. The fact that not all of their political opponents are secular or Christ-hating is glossed over. Leaders of this community know that this siege mentality is absolutely essential to keeping their flock motivated.

So forget that they control the presidency. Forget that they control Congress. They need to keep the focus away from such pesky things as reality and on, say, the judiciary. And even if they get the judges they want, they'll still have the Holy Trinity of boogeymen: Hollywood, Hillary and homos.

Neo-Nazism also requires this perceived persecution in order to flourish. The sense that "real" Germans are being swamped by immigrants, mainly Turks. The original Nazis used Jews as their scapegoat; neo-Nazis use Muslims. The original Nazis also exploited such sentiment. Resentment over Weimar Germany's economic collapse. Anger over the conditions of the Versailles Treaty. Humiliation over loss of German territory. Without such fury, the Nazis would never have come to power. Contented people don't become extremists.

Take North Africa, for example. The two countries with the most dangerous, extremist Islamist movements are Egypt and Algeria, where such movements are banned by the dictatorship and militocracy respectively. The nation with the most tame movement is Morocco, where the party is legalized and integrated into the country's burgeoning democracy.

There are laws in place to deal with actual violence. If Germany or other European countries were to ban extremist political parties, it would give the neo-Nazis a real martyrdom far greater than any they could invent themselves.

Europe could give political extremists no greater gift than to ban them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Men behaving badly

I hate to write anything that might conceivably pander to some Americans' pre-conceptions about soccer, especially those fueled by prominent anti-soccer media like Sports Illustrated and ESPN. And I know my friend Matt doesn't get enthusiastic about my soccer entries, but here goes.

One of the reasons soccer that holds back soccer from a top-tier sport in the United States (as a spectator sport; it's hugely popular as a participatory one) is the perception that fan violence is endemic. While it's true that fan violence is far less than it's been in the past, particularly in England and other parts of Western Europe, international soccer and domestic soccer in most other countries still has far more violence and bitterness than North American sports.

In other countries, soccer is not merely a sport, but a religion. Many soccer clubs around the world are linked to different groups that logically should have nothing to do with soccer.

Some clubs are associated politics. The Rome club Lazio is associated with the far right, since it was the side Mussolini supported; neo-Nazi groups go to Lazio games and chant racist slogans and venerate Serbian warlords. Their crosstown rivals Roma are associated with the left.

Some clubs are associated with nationalism. The Spanish sides Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao are seen as the iconic clubs of the Catalan and Basque peoples. I believe Bilbao only employs Basque players as club policy; Barcelona is probably the only major club in the world without a corporate sponsor on its jersey.

The Scottish giants Celtic and Rangers are associated with the city's Catholic and Protestant communities respectively. In a sense, the Old Firm clubs, as they are known, are a proxy for sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. In Glasgow, and in some other cities, soccer as religion is not exaggerated hype, but is quite literal.

In too many places, soccer is an extension of identity politics. That's something most North Americans don't get.

In other places, soccer is a extension of nationalism, which I suppose is a kind of identity politics. That's something most North Americans don't get either, except during the Olympics or Miracle on Ice films. We generally reserve our jingoism for wars.

And to be totally honest, I hope it's something we NEVER understand or accept. I love the passion of soccer fans. But soccer is not a morality play. Supporters of my teams' rivals are not my personal, sworn enemies.

I think one of the main reasons for this difference is that in North America, there are really four major team sports (back before the NHL committed suicide), plus popular individual sports like NASCAR. As a result, people's passions are spread out. If the Red Sox bit the bullet early (for once, we're speaking hypothetically :-), Bostonians were disappointed and perhaps angry, but they sulked about it briefly and then went on to following the Bruins or the Celtics or the Patriots. In many other countries, soccer is the ONLY sport, or the only major one, so there's no other outlet for their passion when results don't go their way.

I remember back in 1997, there was violence between English fans and Italian police during a World Cup qualifier between the two countries. English officials blamed the Italians for not making sure the two sets of fans were separated. I've seen photos Scottish matches between the sectarian clubs Rangers and Celtic where there are whole sections of seats occupied by police, to make sure fans don't interact. During the 1985 European Cup final in Belgium, several dozen Juventus fans were killed when a fence separating them from Liverpool fans collapsed and a crush and panic ensued. The English authorities complained even before the match that the two sets of fans weren't adequately separated and that it might be dangerous.

But what most North American fans can't wrap their mind around is that last sentence.

The two sets of fans weren't adequately separated and it might be dangerous.

And that's really the crux of the matter. All of the examples I cited have the same theme. Either fans were totally separated and it was ok or fans weren't totally separated and there were problems.

If fans can't be trusted to act in a civilized, or at least non-violent, manner, then is it real the fault of stadium officials? If a fan is unable to walk by a rival supporter without throwing a punch or stabbing him, then does he really belong in the stadium?

The Red Sox-Yankees baseball rivalry is the biggest in North American club sports. My family and I went down to a game in Yankee Stadium a few years ago. We were all wearing Red Sox stuff but were sitting right in the middle of almost all Yankee fans. There was some good natured, if fairly uncreative, bantering, but that's it. My mom didn't appreciate the 'colorful' verbiage but it was nothing serious and usually followed by laughter. It was all in good fun. We didn't feel unsafe in anyway. Despite being the most intense rivalry in North America, no one would consider taking extraordinary means to separate the fans. And if problems did break out, people would blame the idiots in question, not stadium officials.

Do you think most 50-something women would feel comfortable sitting next to sons with Celtic shirts on in the middle of a Rangers crowd?

Fortunately, such acts of violence are on the decrease in Western European stadiums. Huge television exposure (and money) has made the threat of bad PR a motivator for clubs and countries to crack down on such violence. But it's not gone away. At last Saturday's Italy-Scotland match in Milan, there was crowd violence; except it was between two rival groups of Italian fans.

A far more serious incident occured in Bamako, Malians stormed the field before the end of their team's 2-1 loss to Togo in a World Cup qualifier. Whenever fans invade the field, especially during a game, the team in question is usually sanctioned severely. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mali lose points or be forced to play future home games before closed doors. But the invasion can't be encouraging to two of Mali's best player Freddi Kanouté. Fans reportedly chanted "Give us Kanoute. We are going to kill him." They allegedly made similiar threats against fellow striker Mamadou Bagayoko.

And that was just this weekend.

It's bad enough when fans make threats or take action against opposing players, like when Costa Rican fans pelt American players with bags of urine or American fans chanting obscenties at Salvadoran fans and players (in Spanish, so there was no confusion). But when you start attacking your own players, that's even worse. So much for "home field advantage."

This international perception taints soccer as a spectator sport here in the US. However, games in the domestic Major League Soccer and lower divisions are fairly tame. Clubs realize it's good business sense to encourage a family atmosphere. If an atmosphere of violence or boorishness pervades, then only men (some men) are likely to show up and clubs are essentially pushing away a large group of potential paying customers.

In the last few years, there's been quite a movement in international soccer against racism and racist chants. Fan violence needs to be punished just as severely. Managers who incite fan violence need to be punished as well. If it means expelling clubs and countries from major competitions, then so be it. If a major country like Holland or Italy got expelled from the World Cup for fan violence, I bet authorities, and fans themselves, would sit up and take note.

Update: there was a riot in Pyongyang following North Korea's 2-0 World Cup qualifier loss to Iran. This followed only days after a stampede in Tehran following Iran's home win over Japan; six people are believed to have died.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The "culture of life"

I don’t know how I feel about the Terri Schiavo case. And by that, I mean the actual merits of the question. I am quite emphatically against this becoming a federal case. I am quite emphatically against the politicians getting involved. Such decisions should be made by family (how that’s defined is the real question) and doctors, not partisan camera whores in DC and self-rigtheous moralizers. I am quite emphatically against laws being passed solely for the purpose of dealing with one person.

But it is a tricky question. Normally, I’d say defer to the patient’s wishes. But it’s an open question what her wishes really were. Her husband says one thing, her family another. Who do you believe?

My understanding is that she was being given food and water through a tube. Does that constitute “extraordinary means”? I’m inclined to think not.

But who has authority to make that call? Her husband? Her parents? Politicians in Washington? Judges (some of whom are elected)? In the absence of specific instructions by the patient, why not authorize an independent medical panel to make the decision on the merits, so it’s not made by someone with a crowd to pander to.

I think this case underlines the need to get your wishes down in writing. And be as specific as you can. Because even if you tell your partner, he/she might become the target of a vicious smear campaign by partisan activists who don’t give a crap about you, your spouse or your kids. [And of course, if you're gay, your partner probably won't have any legal status anyway thanks to the unconstitutional lack of equal protection]

It is pathetic, however, to see some folks who claim to be part of the “culture of life” crowd giving death threats to Michael Schiavo and to Michael Schiavo’s relatives.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Better food = better educational outcomes?

The BBC has an interesting story on the relationship between food and learning. Some campaigners are calling for improved food quality, particularly more fresh foods and fewer processed ones, in school cafeterias, suggesting that they will result in students being better able to learn.

The piece reports on a primary school in London which, in the past, had served food like Chicken nuggets, instant mashed potato, chips - everything most children love to gobble up. And then they sit in the classroom getting grumpy and sleepy, unwilling or unable to learn from the exasperated teacher... Now a typical school dinner could be lamb casserole, always a salad -" not those big lettuce leaves, but chopped finely" - and new potatoes with butter.

"Before the children were quite lively, they were quite a trial," explains one school official. After the switch to better food, "Then suddenly they are getting on in the afternoon and incidents of fighting have gone down."

To see if there was any link between healthy schools and a rise in standards, the change in the total proportion of primary school children who achieved level 4 or higher in English, Maths and Science was assessed. Of the 2,314 schools who were part of the Healthy Schools programme, there was an increase from 2003 to 2004 of 3.6 percentage points and from 2002 to 2004 of 3.8. This was above the average improvement in the 1,200 schools who did not participate, according to figures from the British Department of Education and Skills.

Friday, March 25, 2005

It isn't April 1st yet, is it?

Some news stories just make you laugh. Take this one from North Country Public Radio.

[New York state] Lawmakers Optimistic About On-time Budget

And I'm optimistic about ending all world hunger by the end of the year.

New York state hasn't had an on-time budget since Ronald Reagan's first term as president.

Arab League talking shop

This analysis from the supposed pro-Arab BBC looks at this week's Arab League summit in Algiers., Algeria. Arab leader talking shops are even more worthless than most others simply because they always say the same things.

-Israel is the root of all evil. America is its lackey. (or vice versa).

-The problems of repression in Saudi Arabia or corruption in Algeria are the fault of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

-Syrian and Saudi leaders will denounce Israeli and American terrorism and repression. They will do so with a straight face.

-The lack of rain is the fault of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

-If the Israelis totally withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all the problems throughout the Arab world would be solved... at least for a few months when Arab leaders would make further demands such as the Syrian annexation of the eastern half of Israel proper and the Egyptian annexation of the western half.

-Now, the American occupation of Iraq can be added (belatedly) as a "cause" of those same ills.

At least as striking as what the Arab leaders will talk about is what they will not talk about, notes the BBC. They are unwilling to discuss democratic reform. And also absent from their deliberations will be the event which has plunged Syria and Lebanon into crisis - the assassination last month of a former Lebanese prime minister

Arab leaders won't mention how a UN human rights expert has praised Israel for taking steps to improve the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

They probably won't discuss the call for Arab democratization made by UN Secretary-General Kofi Anna.

Jordan (and possibly Morocco) is probably the only country in touch with reality. Jordanian King Abdullah made a proposal for Arab states to normalise relations with Israel before any territorial withdrawal but this was rejected by other leaders even before the summit. Arab leaders don't want a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question because they would lose their favorite scapegoat. As unjust as the Israeli occupation is and as important it is that they withdrew, leaders throughout the Arab world use the issue as a smokescreen to deflect their populations' attention from the often miserable conditions at home. The Israeli scapegoat provides a safe outlet for domestic anger.

So you'll hear a lot about the evil Israelis repressing the Palestinians, but not much about the Saudis or Egyptians repressing their own people. You'll hear a lot about the American occupation of Iraq, but you won't hear much about the Syrian occupation of Lebanon or the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara because they magically aren't on the summit's agenda. You'll hear a lot of hysterical talk about the 'genocide' of the Palestinians and Iraqis, but not much about the actual genocide of Africans by the Sudanese central government's militias in Darfur.

Go figure.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Uprising in Central Asia

After Georgia and Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan has become the latest former Soviet republic to have a popular insurrection. Events in the Central Asian seem to be moving at light speed but as of 10 AM Thursday morning (New York time), the BBC reports that the opposition says it has taken control of the capital, Bishkek, after overrunning the president's palace.

Demonstrations intensified after recent parliamentary elections, which the opposition claims were rigged. They started in outlying areas, with the opposition even even seizing the town of Jalal-Abad. But protests quickly spread to the capital. Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of the country's leader, Askar Akayev.

The unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a poor and mountainous country which is seen as strategically important, is being stoked by its economic problems and alleged government corruption.

No word on if President Bush has taken credit yet for the Kyrgyz uprising.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The power of one

Though they were more in the news last week, I still wanted to give a nod to the family of Robert McCartney. McCartney, a Northern Irish man and father of two, was stabbed to death on 30 January. Allegedly by the Irish Republican Army terrorist organization. (An organization that intentionally murders civilians is not a liberation group, but a terrorist group)

Anyway, the IRA and other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland on both sides of the divide have murdered lots of people. Usually, the victims are buried and families guard their silence because they fear retribution if they speak out against the thugs. The menace is something everyone is aware of but no one talks about.

The McCartney family instead decided to speak out, surely at great risk to their own well-being. As a result, they've provoked incredible international pressure on the IRA, even by those who are normally sympathetic to the goal of a united Ireland. The IRA no longer has a shroud of romanticism around it as was the case in the past. Even proponents of a united Ireland realize that this objective should be achieved through the political process. They realize that whatever it's professed objectives may be, the IRA is nothing more than a bunch of armed bullies and thugs who terrorize civilians to preserve their own power.

Thanks to the guts of people like the McCartney family, international sympathy for the IRA mafia may vanish once and for all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Freedom hurt troop morale in Nepal... they decided to get rid of the freedom.

I was listening to the BBC World Service's The World Today program last night. One of the pieces was on the aftermath of the royal/military coup in Nepal. The country's king sacked the government and seized power for himself, blaming the defunct government for failing to deal with a Maoist rebellion. This particular piece was about the sweeping restrictions on press freedom.

The information ministry (I'm immediately suspicious of press freedom in any country that feels the need to have an information ministry) said it was restricting journalism that "directly or indirectly instigates or supports terrorist and destructive activities and terrorism."

A wonderfully vague phrase that some so-called patriots in this country would impose in a heartbeat if they had the chance.

The radio piece had an interview with an activist for some Asian press fredom watchdog group. He pointed out that one of the justifications the now absolute monarch and his minions used for restricting press reporting of the rebellion and its conduct was, and I'm not making this up, that it might hurt the morale of the troops.

Which begs the question: is militarism the enemy of freedom around the world?

Or just in South Asia?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Multipartyism 'too chaotic'

I wrote in my Africa blog about a website promoting the future presidential ambitions of the former Nigerian military dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (known as IBB). The site had such an Orwellian sycophancy that you could only laugh hysterically.

IBB is generally thought of as one of the worst of the country's many military strongmen, surpassed only by his infamous successor Gen. Sani Abacha, but the website calls him a great hero of human rights.

The website also notes that IBB set up a two-party system for Nigeria to replace the chaotic several parties that contributed to the demise of the previous two republics.

[As an acquaintance of mine put it, "You could also say that Hitler set up a one-race system for Germany to replace the chaotic several races that contributed to the demise of the previous two Reichs."]

Any sane person would wonder if they're talking about the same IBB who ANNULLED the elections which were supposed to be the culmination of that supposed democratization process.

It might be easy to dismiss these rationalizations as the shameless rantings of a lunatic trying to assure his reputation. However, it's worth noting that at least the above statement is given quite a bit of credibility here in the United States.

After all, our political system is regularly described as a two-party system. Republicans, Democratic and the cognoscenti consistently belittle anyone who considers voting for a Green Party candidate, or a Libertarian or a Constitutionalist. True multipartyism is too chaotic for an American public used to choosing between 30 different brands of white bread. "It's a wasted vote," they huff and puff.

Who'd have thought their opinions on democracy would be on the same wavelength with a military dictator?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The right to nutrition

I was reading The New York Times on the latest developments in the Terri Schiavo case.

For those not familiar, she's a seriously brain damaged woman who's lives in an vegetative state. She told her husband she didn't want to be kept alive by artificial means but her parents sued to force her to be kept alive by artificial means. Her husband is fighting to have her wishes respected.

It’s often seen as a euthanasia (mercy killing) case but it’s not. I’m fairly uncomfortable with mercy killing and its likely social ramifications, even if I won’t go so far as to make any blanket statements. That said, allowing nature to take its course according to their expressed wishes is significantly different than actively killing them or artificially facilitating their demise. It’s a tricky case, though, since what’s in question is not extraordinary medical intervention but simple nutrition.

Now, Congress is getting involved. "We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being. That is the very least we can do," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who's also a proponent of state-sponsored murder (ie: the death penalty). The case has become a cause celebre, particularly among religious conservatives.

But what caught my eye is this passage:

Top lawmakers in both the House and the Senate said they hoped to pass the compromise bill as early as Sunday. They said it would allow Ms. Schiavo's parents to ask a federal judge to restore her feeding tube on the ground that their daughter's constitutional rights were being violated by the withholding of nutrition needed to keep her alive. [emphasis mine]

First, I REALLY don’t like the idea of passing laws to deal a single person. Law by anecdote often results in some really bad precedents being set.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't conservatives usually ATTACKING those who find "invented" constitutional rights around every corner? I wonder why gays being subject to the equal protection clause is an "invented" right but disabled having the "right" to nutrition is perfectly legitimate? Does this new "right" to nutrition mean conservatives are going to push for massive federal funding of soup kitchens?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The latest social scourge: women playing sports

The Blog of the Moderate Left pointed out the latest social scourge blamed on political correctness and feminism: women playing sports.

I bet you didn't even know it was a problem.

You see, sports greatly hinders the development of godly, Biblical, feminine character, according to the author.

The consequences?

The fruits we see are that today’s Christian women are often ill-prepared to be Biblically obedient wives and mothers.

As a result, We have a nation filled with weak men and disorderly women. Much of the disorderliness among women comes from feminist influences and activities like competitive sports. Weakened marriages and divorce are often the result.

So women playing sports can cause divorce. I suppose this makes sense. After all, in order to play sports, you need to think for yourself. And thinking for yourself is not especially compatible with obedience.

The author is also part of the self-esteem crowd.

I read about one school where the boys refused to wrestle the girls and forfeited their matches; there could be no greater embarrassment to them than to lose to a girl, not to mention it likely violated their sense of masculine chivalry. So not only is female sports participation degrading the feminine nature of women, in many cases it degrades the developing masculinity in boys.

However, in fairness, the author seems to have a problem with sports in general.

Given that sports may very well foster pagan and humanistic attitudes, I urge parents to think deeply about this issue and about whether or not any members of their families should participate in organized sports programs.

But at the very least, he urges that we should keep our daughters away from competitive sports and spend our time training them how to be Biblically feminine women, wives and mothers.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

It's a democracy... if you can keep it

I was listening to a piece on NPR about an anti-Iraq war protest near Fort Bragg. One of the people interviewed worried that a protest so close to the base would "hurt troop morale."

I've heard this argument countless times against the whole concept of anti-war protests. That they might hurt troop morale.

This pisses me off every time I hear it, so let me offer a little civics lesson. I know this is a bit presumptuous, since society acts like soldiers are all infallible beacons of divine light and everyone else sucks in comparison to them. As a result, no one else in society is allowed to have an opinion on anything... especially on matters of war and peace. Or if they do, it's automatically trumped by whatever a soldier or veteran thinks. Unless of course, that soldier or veteran opposes war, in which case they're turncoats.

Personally, I think soldiers are fine, but I'll risk the wrath of the politically correct and say it: I don't think they have a monopoly on wisdom, courage, honor and service.

I don't think you should spit on them. I don't think you should curse at them. I think it's fine to send them care packages. I think it’s fine to welcome them back when they return from duty or otherwise treat them nicely. But I don't think you should let your political opinions be held hostage by them.

So here's my civics lesson.

You see, in a democratic society, people propose ideas. Some people will think those ideas are brilliant, others will think those ideas are terrible. In some cases, people will protest, march, write letters or otherwise campaign in favor of their particular argument. This sort of give and take is not only a feature of a vibrant, democratic society, it’s a requirement.

For example, President Bush proposed invading Iraq. Some people thought it was a terrible idea and protested against it. Some people thought it was a swell idea and protested for it.

Now, the people who objected to the war weren't protesting against the troops. They were protesting against the IDEA of the war. Those who protested against people protested against the authors of that idea: namely, the president and members of his administration.

I participated in an anti-war protest. There were maybe 75 or 80 people. They all disliked the war. Most had bad things to say about President Bush, about American foreign policy, imperialism, etc. I didn't agree with everything that was said. However, I didn't hear a single one of those 75 or 80 people disparage the troops. Though I did hear several people say they opposed the war precisely BECAUSE they supported the troops. I think that not having the troops die for an bad idea, poorly executed, is a good way of supporting them.

When I went home, I walked right by the counterprotest. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t insult them. I didn’t scream at them to go home. I just ignored them and they ignored me.

This is all the way it should be. Big decisions with huge ramifications SHOULD provoke public reaction. They SHOULD push the public, at least a little bit, to think before the government acts in its name. Lack of feedback favors bad decision making, regardless of who’s in power and regardless of the purity of their intentions.

So the idea that anyone who claims to support democracy can object to this give and take is frankly pathetic. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that the anti-war protesters are wrong. It's reasonable to say that the harsh language some of them use hurts their cause more than it helps.

It’s an entirely different thing to say that the anti-war people shouldn’t be protesting at all, lest they offend politically correct sensibilities. It’s an entirely different thing to say that the anti-war people shouldn’t be protesting. It’s an entirely different thing to say that the anti-war people should let their opinions be held hostage because someone might not understand the basic tenets of liberty.

Anyone who gets their feelings hurt by the exercise of freedom and democracy at home has absolutely no business spreading it abroad.

Iraq risks becoming "the biggest corruption scandal in history," warns watchdog group

First, people were shocked to learn of corruption in the oil-for-food scandal, since one never associates shady dealings with the oil industry. Now, people will be equally amazed to learn of similiar problems in occupied Iraq; because corruption and questionable ethics in the midst of a aggressive military excursion is something no one could possibly have predicted.

The reconstruction of post-war Iraq is in danger of becoming "the biggest corruption scandal in history."

This fear was expressed not by long-haired hippies, liberal agitators, Europeans or other 'America-haters.'

It was made by the independent corruption watchdog organization Transparency International.

"Strong and immediate measures must be taken to address corruption before the real spending on reconstruction starts," it said.

Iraq has so far failed to learn the lessons of post-war reconstruction in Cambodia, Congo and Afghanistan, TI said, where a combination of weak government, thriving black markets, and a legacy of patronage allowed corruption to flourish, reports the BBC. [T]he body is critical of the United States' handling of the reconstruction process, arguing that its process for awarding public contracts was secretive and favoured a small number of large firms.

"Corruption doesn't just line the pockets of political and business elites, it leaves ordinary people without essential services and deprives them of access to sanitation and housing," said Peter Eigen, Transparency International's chairman.

The World Bank - which since last year has required all companies awarded large-scale projects under its control to sign an anti-bribery agreement - said the report highlighted issues of "deep concern".

However, the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the Iraq war and occupation, as new head of the World Bank may call into question the future resolve of the Bank to deal with corruption in Iraq.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Quote of the week

Let it not be said that I never, ever agree with the president. He's right on with this quote...

"In instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life." -President George W. Bush, a supporter of the death penalty (and decreer of the Iraq war).

Activist conservative judges

One of the great canards of our time, aside from the phrase 'liberal media,' is the proposition that righteous, God-fearing Americans are under attack by the liberal 'activist judges.' This phrase is usually trotted out when some group of law abiding citizens makes the greedy, outrageous demand that the equal protection clause of a constitution (gasp) actually apply to them.

According to this canard, judges should let legislators do whatever they want, the constitution (state or federal) be damned, because unrestricted majority rule is the only principle of governance worth having.

Except when it comes electing the president, of course.

I've already written more detailed essays on the fallacies surrounding judicial activism (such as here). But I now have one more.

The Angry New Yorker blog lavished praised on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia because his view of constitutional interpretation via "originalism" is very flexible - as it leaves the political process to run its course whenever possible [emphasis mine], rather than freezing issues by "constitutionalizing" wide areas

This is pretty much the core argument of opponents of so-called judicial activism. Let the legislators legislate, not the judiciary. Judges should stay out of the political process. Conservatives like Scalia understand this and liberal judges don't.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

So needless to say, I was interested to read this portrait in The Atlantic of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The portrait is rather flattering of the Chief Justice and argues, among other things, that liberals have never understood how significantly and frequently Rehnquist departed from doctrinaire conservative ideology, and conservatives have failed to grasp that his tactical flexibility was more effective than the rigid purity of Scalia and Thomas.

It notes that while all the conservatives on the Rehnquist Court say for public consumption that the judiciary should occupy a modest role in American politics and should defer to the judgment of elected legislators, Rehnquist has most consistently practiced what he preaches.

Furthermore, if judicial activism is defined by a judge's willingness to strike down federal or state laws, then guess who two of the three most restrained justices are?

Liberals Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Steven Breyer.

Guess who two of the four most activist justices are?

Yup, Scalia and conservative co-firebrand Clarence Thomas.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Damned are the peacemakers

A political correctness controversy has erupted in my town. Some people think political correctness is only a liberal thing. But conservative-instigated political correctness is quite obviously in the ascendancy in America right now.

A little background on the local situation.

There's a Civil War monument in the middle of my city's downtown. For the last few years, a military veteran stood at the monument every afternoon for an hour or so with a large sign that read 'Support The Troops.'

He did so pretty much every day, no matter how hideous the weather. Anyone who tried to engage him in politics was told something to the effect, "I'm not here to support the war or the president, just the troops"... though I don't remember seeing him out there before the anti-Iraq war rallies began.

In fairness, however, there's part of me that admires the fact that, while some people just slap a sticker on their car, he's out there every single day, even in terrible weather. He even travels down to the Albany airport to welcome home returning soldiers. Or he did anyways. He was given a job in Washington as some sort of liaison support for soldiers. He seems like a good man for that job. He has a name but everyone around know knows him as the Support The Troops Guy.

In any case, the PTA at a neighborhood elementary school commissioned Esmond Lyons, a local artist, to paint a mural on one of the school's walls. The man, who's an acquaintance of mine, painted a large panorama of the city.

In the middle of town, he painted the Civil War monument with a small figure holding a tiny sign that read 'Blessed are the Peacemakers.'

You'd think all he'd painted 'Heil Hitler' or 'Viva Osama.'

The PTA attacked the mural and demanded he paint another slogan or paint over the slogan. The artist said he'd prefer to destroy the mural and return the money rather than change it because of political jingoism.

One of the PTA's co-presidents objected to 'Blessed are the peacemakers' on the grounds that it was political yet said, “I feel that ‘Support Our Troops’ is pretty neutral, and doesn’t express support for the war or against it."

I thought I was living in a parallel universe when I read this.

It's incomprehensible how any person could simulatenously see 'Support our troops' as neutral yet 'Blessed are the peacemakers' as political. Either they are both neutral or both political.

The PTA co-president went further. "But the reality is, there are people who are fighting for our country and many are paying the ultimate price -- by refusing to acknowledge them, you are nullifying their importance."

Her last sentiment is both wrong and insulting. Every job has importance in our society. By honoring one group, the artist is in no way 'refusing to acknowledge' any other. It's selfish to say that ONLY the military deserves to be honored. And sad.

Does the PTA want to tell kids that doctors, teachers and firemen aren't valuable, lest it diminish what the troops are doing? Are these parents sending the message to kids that there is no honorable profession other than soldiering?

Yes, we have soldiers abroad risking their lives. They get honored on a daily basis in this country. And you hear few objections to this, even from those who oppose the war. Most can distinguish between the sacrifices of the soldiers and the policies of the politicians. The son of a colleague of mine returned home from Iraq two days ago. He was welcomed home by a crowd of well-wishers. Not only by veterans, fire- and policemen, but also by friends, some of whom I know strongly objected to the Iraq invasion. But they know that the young man wasn't the one who ordered the invasion. They can differentiate between the personal and the political. They have no problem honoring him.

But is it really such a terrible thing that once, just once, we honor the peacemakers. Peacemakers who, when allowed to do their jobs, can prevent the our parents, siblings and children in the military from having to risk their lives in the first place? Can't peacemakers be shown gratitude for once without the politically correct throwing a conniption fit?

It's the PTA's mural and if they want to destroy the peacemakers then it's their prerogative, no matter how sadly symbolic that might be. But they should be ashamed of themselves. Their kids will be poorer for it.

Then again, if some in the area can object to a 'Peace on Earth' t-shirt at a local mall, then maybe it's not surprising that 'Blessed are the Peacemakers' causes so much inexplicable outrage.

Note: North Country Public Radio aired an interview with mural painter Esmond Lyons.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Wolf guarding the henhouse

In some organizations, incompetence results in being fired or demoted or taking a pay cut. In the Bush administration, moderate incompetence is rewarded with the presidential medal of freedom. But what do the spectacularly incompetent get? Nomination to a cushy job heading an international institution.

Though in fairness, the word 'incompetence' might not do justice to Wolfowitz since it implies a benign lack of ability. Wolfowitz's problem had more to do with breathtaking arrogance and presumptuous that blinded the judgement of an otherwise intelligent man.

His spectacular lack of foresight has made the Iraq occupation even more problematic than it was always likely to be. Then again, maybe his spectacular lack of foresight will be a perfect fit with the World Bank.

A cynic might note the fact that a previous head of the World Bank was a man named Robert McNamara, former Pentagon chief and architect of the Vietnam War.

And aside from the political aspect, there's an even more obvious question. What qualifications does he have to run the world's most influential development organization?

Maureen Dowd suggests: Wolfie's biggest qualification to run the World Bank? His prediction that Iraqi reconstruction would pay for itself with Iraqi oil revenues.

President Bush talked about Wolfowitz's experience running a big bureaucracy, as though the military is analagous to a development organization. The president talked about how Wolfowitz was a really swell guy.

However, World Bank critic Allan Meltzer said it wasn't a big deal. "We don't need a development person, there are plenty of people at the bank who do that," he insisted.

Not a development person?


Lack of foresight?


Held in low esteem by the rest of the world?


I guess they've got their man!

Accountability without authority is not 'moral courage'

The Christian Science Monitor is an excellent paper that publishes fantastic stories and thought-provoking essays. Even the ones I disagree with on content, I usually respect the intellectual rigor. So I was disappointed to read this opinion piece by Cathryn Prince applauding the appointment of John Bolton as the US' top diplomat to the United Nations.

According to her, the [t]ough-talking Bolton: just what the UN needs. She rightly applauds Bolton for his role in getting the UN General Assembly to scrap the odious 'Zionism is racism' resolution.

The byline claims that Prince covered the UN for The Monitor during the mid-90s. Yet even in opinion columns, shouldn't journalists try to dispel lazy pre-conceived notions rather than perpetuating them?

For example, she spews: As the world has witnessed, and is reminded vividly in the recent movie "Hotel Rwanda," UN peacekeepers are useless in preventing the slaughter of innocents.

UN peacekeepers were worthless in preventing the slaughter of innocents because UN Security Council members patently refused to give them the mandate, the authority, to prevent the slaughter of innocents. This wasn't a casual omission. The UN peacekeeping mission asked the Security Council for that authority; the Council's member states not only refused, but slashed the force's numbers by 90%. How any so-called responsible journalist can perpetuate such a borderline defamatory half-truth is beyond me.

Prince writes casually about the UN's "ineptitude" in Darfur today as well in Rwanda and Srebenica of a decade ago. She does so without bothering to explain why. As a journalist, surely she knows that the inability of the United Nations to act in those place was less a failure of the UN as an institution, but rather a failure of the UN's member states. The UN didn't act because powerful member states didn't want the UN to act. That's the way the organization was designed to work by its founders, including the United States.

Prince seems to want a more powerful UN, which would be more effective in addressing the world's worst atrocities. Does she really think Bolton would push for the UN to have enough authority to act effectively? The Bush administration wants a UN that's effective only to the extent that it's pliable to Washington's interests. Anything more would necessarily result in [insert ominous music] ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush administration doesn't pretend otherwise.

Where the Secretary-General actually does have authority, basically in the internal workings of the UN, Kofi Annan HAS taken action. The oil-for-food scandal is under investigation. Following the UN peacekeepers' sex scandals, new rules for peacekeeping missions were implemented. Imagine how much better were things if the Bush administration cleaned up its messes like that.

Annan can not force President Bush to support this action or President Chirac to support that action. The secretary-general called for a strong Security Council resolution and demanded action to deal with the mass crimes against humanity in Darfur. He even convened an emergency session of the Security Council to deal with Darfur.

He demanded a resolution, but he can't force one through. He called for action, but he can't decree it. He doesn't have the authority.

Right-wing UN critics in the US refuse to acknowledge that the secretary-general is not the president of the world. He is not the commander-in-chief of the world's armies. He has executive authority only over the UN's internal bureaucracy, not over world politics. Much like the Pope, his authority is primarily a moral authority.

Reform to create a truly effective UN would scrap the veto held by permanent members of the Security Council. It was that veto that prevented effective UN action in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Does Prince really think John Bolton will push for that, however proudly undiplomatic he may be?

Cathryn Prince speaks of Bolton's 'moral courage.' How about the moral courage to bring criminals against humanity to justice, such as the Darfur genociders? Such moral courage could be achieved by US support for the work of the International Criminal Court. Does Prince really think that 'morally courageous' John Bolton will push for that?

The UN's commission on human rights contains such sterling candidates for a rights' watchdog as Congo-Brazzaville, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Conservatives have cited the membership as an example of the sham known as the UN. Annan has called for reforming this commission but he can't wave a magic wand and make it happen. Does Prince really think Bolton will fight to embolden a human rights' commission that might subsequently castigate the United States over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?

To Bolton and his allies, the UN is useful only as a whipping boy, a scapegoat to blame when they can't get everything they want. Bolton may score political points by demanding 'accountability' of the UN and its secretary-general. But demanding accountabilty without authority is a far cry from 'moral courage.' In fact, it's little more than meaningless demagoguery.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Peaceful Muslims and other figments of my imagination

Many Americans think being macho and beating their chest a lot is a substitute for using their brain. One thing some of these lunatics say ad nauseum is something to the effect: how come Muslims in the West NEVER criticize al-Qaeda and terrorism. Of course, that’s like expecting every Christian to answer personally whenever an abortion doctor is assassinated. But I digress.

I've noted how Muslims in the West DO criticize al-Qaeda and terrorism, just that it's usually not reported with the same hype as the latest bin Laden tape or celebrity trial. I see moderate Muslims quietly interviewed on television or radio all the time talking about how what al-Qaeda does is in direct violation of their interpretation of Islam. To say nothing of my Muslim friends in Africa, who wrote me of their horror, indignation and sadness upon learning of 9/11.

Then again, maybe they could be dismissed as 'cafeteria Muslims' by their more extreme co-religioners.

But the Crusaders insist that this is all a figment of my imagination. Or that they’re the exception that proves the rule about all Muslims being bloodthirsty savages.

Take Fox News [sic] Channel’s John Gibson. He pointed out that one of the risks of democracy in the Middle East is that the Ey-rabbs might elect someone even less friendly to the United States than the folks in power now.

And if that happens, he says, [a]t least we'd know; at least we'd know we tried. And if we have to bomb a democracy back to the Stone Age because it was sticking with its roots and sending terrorists to attack us, we could bomb it back to the Stone Age with a clean conscience.

Yet another great proponent of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’

Given the drumbeat of anti-Muslim sentiment in some quarters and the incessant bashing of moderate Muslims for ‘never’ saying anything against terrorism, I was surprised to read that Spain’s Islamic commission issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden and his followers.

I’m left to wonder: did this story merit a mention in the corporate media, particularly on ‘liberal’ network news? Given the focus on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Madrid, wouldn’t this have been extremely relevant? Or maybe it was more important to give blanket coverage to Michael Jackson in his pajamas than to help dispel the uninformed prejudices of millions of Americans.

Or maybe it’s all just another figment of my imagination.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Kill the ref!

"Kill the ref" is a phrase said in jest, or mostly in jest, at many sporting events.

It's not quite so funny when people take it literally.

Swedish soccer referee Anders Frisk is quitting the game follow death threats he received. He was in charge for a controversial match between Chelsea and Barcelona, leaders of the English and Spanish leagues respectively.

The Barcelona manager allegedly talked to Frisk at halftime of the match. Chelsea's manager criticized the alleged meeting, claiming that Frisk made more favorable calls to the Catalan side in the second half.

Last fall, Frisk was hit in the head by an object thrown from the crowd at Rome's Olympic Stadium.

In December Claudio Ranieri, at the time Valencia's coach, openly criticised the Swede after his side went out of the Champions League following a 2-0 home defeat by Werder Bremen.

But more despicably, Ranieri, who is normally considered one of the sport's good guys, said that after watching the game he understood why Frisk had been hit on the head in Rome.

The retirement of Frisk, who's generally considered one of the best refs in the world, follows death threats made last year against Swiss official Urs Meier, who controversially disallowed a goal that would've sent England into the semifinal of the European Championships... a hate campaign that was sickeningly fanned by segments of the British tabloid press.

Update: The head of European soccer's refereeing committee has branded Mourinho as an 'enemy of football.' He even suggested that referees might strike in protest of the treatment of Frisk.

While no competitor enjoys losing, some people handle it with grace and others make excuses. Former British referee Jeff Winter hit the nail on the head. "We have had instances lately, and on this occasion it is Mourinho's name that appears again, that on the few occasions Chelsea lose a football match there is a conspiracy theory - it is the referee's fault."

Update 2: From Soccer America... After a fan ran onto the field and punched and kicked referee Luiz Carlos during Sunday's America and Atletico Mineiro game [in the Brazilian League], Carlos chased down the fan and slugged him numerous times in the face. Players from both teams eventually stopped the fight.

"I had to do something, he was much bigger than me,'' the Brazilian ref said. "He would beat me up badly if I just stayed there."

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Bush's model isn't Reagan, it's Nixon

UPI reports a claim that the public version of the capture of Saddam Hussein was faked.

"I was among the 20-man unit, including eight of Arab descent, who searched for Saddam for three days in the area of Dour near Tikrit, and we found him in a modest home in a small village and not in a hole as announced," said ex-Sgt. Abou Rabeh. "We captured him after fierce resistance during which a Marine of Sudanese origin was killed."

He said Saddam himself fired at them with a gun from the window of a room on the second floor.

I don't know if this is true or not. And to be honest with you, even if it were true, it wouldn't change my opinion of this administration.

The saddest part is that, if it were true, I wouldn't be surprised.

If Bill Clinton had claimed he paid $40 for a haircut when he was president and he'd actually paid $42, he would've been crucified for it. There would've been calls for his impeachment.

But this administration can play fast and loose with the truth on huge issues of actual importance to the national and international scene and President Bush can get a free pass just by saying 'Remember 9/11,' clicking his heels and then repeating breathlessly the words 'liberty' and 'freedom' 100 times.

And what's even worse is that, such as the Saddam capture case if it's true and many other cases, they even play fast and loose with the truth when they don't have to.

I guess old habits are hard to break.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

'Bill O'Reilly wants to have sexuality with you'

My friend Ryan Freebern has an amusing entry entitled 'Bill O'Reilly wants to have sexuality with you.'

O'Reilly sounded off at the Postcards With Buster flap. The PBS show of that name did an episode where the animated bunny visited a family with a child and two mothers.

This provoked quite a controversy. So-called 'family groups' denounced the program for "promoting homosexuality to pre-schoolers."

Education Secretary Margaret Spelling lashed out, "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode."

Now given the furor, you might think the show portrayed the mommies kissing, engaging in hot lesbian sex or something of that nature. After all, that's pretty much the only thing in the lesbian 'lifestyle' that's necessarily different from the heterosexual one.

In fact, everyone was engaged in the subversive activity of... making maple syrup.

Quick: cover your child's eyes!!

Anyways, O'Reilly fumes that introducing homosexuality into the little kid culture angers many Americans who believe sex in general is an inappropriate topic for small children.

As Ryan Freebern notes: O'Reilly ignorantly conflates sexuality with sex. Sexuality is psychological, an ingrained preference for the company of certain other members of the species over others. It’s not the act of intercourse.

O'Reilly asks: I don’t want to be offensive here, but who in their right mind wants to explain Norma and Barbara’s lifestyle to their 4-year-old?

Ryan responds: I do, Bill. How’s this? “Hey, 4-year-old child of mine. See Norma and Barbara? They love each other, just like your mother and I do.” That’s it. Explaining a homosexual relationship is as simple as that.

I'd go one step further than Ryan

In reality, most four year olds would look at the two women and see... two women. Only adults might see two lesbians. Only perverts would see two women and a girl (and a cartoon character) making maple syrup and derive anything sexual out of that situation.

I dare say you wouldn’t have to explain the women's lifestyle (whatever that means) simply because an unprompted four year old wouldn’t have any reason to think the women’s 'lifestyle' is any different from that of his or her parents. Or parent.

These loud critics do not simply object to the homosexual lifestyle (whatever that means). Their agenda is much broader.

They don't want ANY acknowledgement of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as human beings who are decent and idiotic in roughly the same proportions as heterosexuals. They don't want gays, lesbians and bisexuals judged as individuals; the mere fact of their non-heterosexuality excludes them from being decent. Acknowledging them implies that they are decent.

To mention the existence of gays, except to say they're going to burn in Hell, that's unacceptable. To the Theocracy Brigade, that's tantamount to 'promoting the homosexual lifestyle.'

Friday, March 11, 2005

Random musings

I was reading a New York Times article on Dan Rather's last broadcast. It was in the arts' section. Does anyone know why the NYT considers television to be art?


Speaking of Rather, he seriously messed up on the Bush documents thing. Even if the story may have been fundamentally right (and I don't know if it was, nor would it particularly matter to me), good journalists need to be careful of the details. Small details can destroy a story that's fundamentally right. That's what too many reporters forget in the rush to be first.

Then again, viewers share part of the blame as well. They demand instant news and instant analysis. They want it now, whether the information is verified or not. So, reporters willingly oblige. Sometimes too willingly.

This, plus its general superficiality (designed to give the consumers what they want, thus producing an orgy of stories on stuff like celebrity trials), is why I don't watch television news anymore.

Though it is refreshing to see that at CBS News, when someone seriously screws up, they're expected to do the honorable thing and step aside. In other places, when someone screws up, they're given the presidential medal of freedom.


I was a soccer coaches' clinic in Connecticut last weekend. One of the speakers was Brandi Chastain, who was hawking her new book. She did a nice seminar on youth soccer. Many of you may remember Chastain for scoring the decisive penalty kick to win the 1999 Women's World Cup in southern California. Many more will remember the photo of her having taken off her shirt in joy after the kick revealing her sports' bra.

Anyways, her new book's main title is It's Not About the Bra. So quite naturally, what's on the front cover of the book? Yup, that famous picture of her in the bra.


The coaches' clinic was held at the Mohegan Sun casino. I'm not much of a gambler but I decided to spend a few bucks there just for the heck of it. I only played the slots. At the end of the day, I was down $5. Not bad. I spend more far money buying soccer gear and books. And food ($6 hambugers, $18 buffets). I know some people go down to casinos every month or more often, but I thought it got boring pretty quickly. I guess I figure if I'm going to waste my money on anything, it should be clothes, electronics or food.

New York passed a state law banning smoking in pretty much all public buildings. It's funny how you take things like that for granted. Connecticut has no such ban. I noticed the smoke within two minutes of walking into the complex.

Credit where credit is due

Conservative pundits have been falling over themselves in recent days praising President Bush for 'democratizing the Middle East.'

Popular protests in Lebanon forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government. The pro-American dictator of Egypt announced that he would actually permit challengers to his throne in the next election. Even repressive pro-American monarchy in Saudi Arabia held local elections.

This is all due to Bush's daring and visionary policies, they say. The Iraq invasion inspired these other repressed people to rise up against their tormentors. Or so we're told.

Well, hold your horses for just a minute.

The Saudi local elections were tightly controlled. Only half the local councils were up for election (the other half would be appointed) and only men could vote. Progress? I suppose. Revolutionary change that automatically and by itself vindicates Bush's vision and counterbalances the huge investment of money and loss of life in Iraq? Hardly.

The new alleged openness in Egypt may be a good sign, but it's far too early to tell. Egypt's been under a state of emergency since 1981, when the current strongman Hosni Mubarak took over following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It's hard to gush about 'freedom' in a country that's been under a state of emergency for 24 years. Maybe it's a first step. Or maybe it's a diversion, like that used by so many other African leaders. There's talk of Mubarak naming his son as heir apparent and turning the country into another monarchical republic.

The protests in Lebanon were indeed a positive sign. Though Bush apologists might have reason to be wary since the Lebanese rose up in nationalistic anger against domination by a foreign power. The pro-Bush crowd has always been uncomfortable with the fact that freedom and openness works both ways, not just against the 'bad guys.' But as hopeful as the Cedar Revolution may be, it's still far from its objectives. The pro-Syrian prime minister of Lebanon who resigned last week in the wake of the protests was re-appointed yesterday to the same post.

I concur with the Blog of the Moderate Left who states, "If [Bush] brings peace to the Middle East, I'll be happy to co-sign the nomination for the Nobel."

Sadly, I don't expect to be digging up my ceremonial pen any time soon.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

South African film wins top African cinema prize

This essay is part of a weekly 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.

Every other February, the small and extremely hot and dry West African country of Burkina Faso hosts one of the world's top film festival. The FESPACO film festival, held in Burkina's capital Ouagadougou, brings together the small, but vibrant, African film community. This year, the winner of the top prize, l'Etalon d'or de Yennenga, was the film Drum, by the South African director Zola Maseko.

The film centres on a determined reporter and his clashes with the apartheid regime, notes the BBC. The hero of Drum is the fun loving, hard-drinking philanderer, Henry Nxumalo, a magazine reporter. Nxumalo's enterprising reportage leads him into direct conflict with South Africa's apartheid machinery with fatal consequences.

Drum is only the second English-language film to win FESPACO's top prize since 1989. The African film industry is most vibrant in West and North Africa, which are predominantly French- and Arab-speaking respectively.

Second prize went to the Moroccan film, La Chambre Noire, a film about the tortures and extra judicial imprisonment in 1970s Morocco, part of the period referred as 'The Years of Lead' in the country.

Tasuma Le Feu, a comedy by Burkinabe director Kollo Sanou carried the third prize. It tells the story of an elderly ex-serviceman, Tasuma, who fought for France but was still waiting for his pension years later. Fed up with waiting Tasuma holds the district administrator hostage and forces him to dictate a letter to French President General Charles de Gaulle - who unknown to Tasuma is long dead.

In conjunction with the festival, Burkina Faso's most famous cineaste Gaston Kaboré (who directed such wonderful films as Wend Kuuni and Zan Boko) has decided to use his money to open up the country's first film school.

In a related story, Le Monde has an interview (in French) with the legendary Senegalese director and poet Sembène Ousmane.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Ralph Nader to visit upstate New York in mid-April

I was excited to learn that former presidential candidate Ralph Nader will be paying a visit to my area. For those of you who live near Glens Falls and would like to hear this longtime activist and muckraker speak, please read the press release below.

Contact: Matt Funiciello (518) 361-6278

Former Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader To Speak in Glens Falls April 16th

GLENS FALLS [NY] – Former presidential candidate and progressive activist Ralph Nader will be in Glens Falls on Saturday, April 16, 2005 to discuss the Iraq War, the growing imperialist threat of multinational corporations, and the dangerous convergence of corporate and government power. The event will be held at the Charles R. Wood Theatre, a community performing arts facility in the newly renovated Woolworth Building on Glen Street. The program will begin at 8:00 pm and tickets are on sale in advance at Rock Hill Bakehouse in Glens Falls. Tickets are $15 each and are discounted for seniors, veterans and students.

Ralph Nader is one of America's most effective social critics. He has run for the office of US President three times, twice as the candidate of the Green Party in 1996 and 2000 (America’s third largest and fastest growing political party), and once as an Independent in 2004. For forty years his documented criticism of government and industry has had a widespread effect on public awareness and bureaucratic power and has inspired a whole population of consumer advocates and citizen activists.

Nader first made headlines in 1965 with his book
Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing indictment of the auto industry for producing unsafe vehicles that led to congressional hearings and a series of automobile safety laws passed in 1966. Since then Nader has been responsible for at least eight major federal consumer protection laws such as the motor vehicle safety laws and the Safe Drinking Water Act and the launching of federal regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environment Protection Agency (EPA), and Consumer Product Safety Administration, and the Freedom of Information Act of 1974.

Nader also helped establish the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) the student-funded and controlled organizations that function on college campuses in 23 states. Their impact alone has been tremendous. The groups have published hundreds of ground-breaking reports and guides, lobbied for laws in their state legislatures, and called the media's attention to environmental and energy problems. The largest of the Nader organizations is Public Citizen, founded in 1971 and with a current nationwide membership over 100,000.

This event is sponsored by local Independents, and members of the Green, Democratic and Republican parties interested in fostering a local dialogue on today’s most important issues.

Religious musings

There are a few right-wing Christians that I read on the blogosphere. Some of them presumptuously think the phrase right-wing Christian is redundant, but that's another matter.

What I find odd is this.

Tthe self-professed Christians that I read write about a lot of religious stuff. But you hardly ever see them invoke what Jesus Christ himself actually (or was recorded to have) said, did or preached.

In case you didn't notice, CHRIST is the first part of the word CHRISTianity. That's not a coincidence.

It's also odd that these right-wing Christians have bizarre a fixation with the Old Testament, particularly its sexual admonitions. Leviticus' statement against homosexuality, for example, was part of a long list of Jewish* traditional customs (*-the people long persecuted as 'Christ killers').

It's even more odd that you consider these Christians have such a fixation with the Old Testament, even though the Old Testament recorded events from the pre-Christian period.

If Christianity is supposedly based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, then shouldn't that man's teachings be at the heart of the religion? And why do right-wing self-professed Christians skip over the teachings of their prophet in order to advance their socio-ideological agenda?

It's time people admitted that the practice of religion is never pure. Those who follow it take to the table with them the pre-conceptions of their country, their society, their culture and their political beliefs.

There is no logical reason why Christian Protestants and Christian Catholics should be at each other's throats in Northern Ireland. I don't think murder and thuggery is sanctioned by any major Christian denomination. But in reality, the conflict isn't about religion. Religion is merely a proxy for culture and nationalism. Protestantism is a proxy for British-ness and Catholicism symbolizes Irish-ness, even if the British and Irish are actually going to Church much less often than they used to. Religion is less an active part of their daily lives and more a symbol that represents their identity.

Both right- and left-wing Christians (and yes, there are many of the latter) do not shed their ideological baggage at the church doorway. What this means in practice is that each group focuses on the aspects of Christianity (or its interpretations) that suit their particular ideological bent. Right-wing Christians, in this country, fixate especially on the sexual stuff. Left-wing Christians focus on the peace and social justice aspects. Each conveniently tends to gloss over the parts they don't agree with.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Shifting deck chairs on the Titanic?

The Democracy in Albany blog lauds a recent letter to the editor of the Albany Times-Union.

The blog offers particular praise for this passage: Given the sheep-like propensity of most voters to return incumbents to office, and our regrettable societal reluctance toward storming the state Capitol with pitchforks and a guillotine, we can only look forward to eternally living with the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation.

I'm afraid that however well-intentioned DIA's author may be, s/he is missing the point. In fact, the sheep quality is the reluctance of citizens to even consider the possibility voting for smaller parties.

It's widely acknowledged that both Republicans and Democrats are about equally responsible for the mess in Albany. The GOP has run the state Senate for all but 4 of the last 67 years; the Democrats have controlled the Assembly for as long as I can remember. People were complaining about Albany dysfunction under the Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo just as they are now under the Republican Gov. George Pataki.

So if both major parties share more or less equal blame for the mess in Albany, is it really going to revolutionize things to replace a Democrat incumbent with a Republican or vice versa?

I admit there is a small, residual benefit of showing that incumbents can actually lose and accountability can occasionally rear its menacing head. But will shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic really produce the major transformation that Democracy in Albany and so many others want?

The real way to change things in the legislature is to send members of smaller parties there. Send people to the legislature who aren't beholden to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver or Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Send people there who don't owe their jobs to being in the good graces of the Democratic or Republican establishments. Send people there who will bring a fresh voice, a new perspective, a badly needed independent streak and, most of all, a desire to be relevant.

This will necessarily weaken the iron-fisted control of Speaker Silver and Sen. Bruno. Democracy can only begin to take hold in Albany once absolute power is wrested away from two men and seized back by ordinary legislators. Since Democrat and GOP lawmakers have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don't have the guts to demand such a move, we need to send others there who do.

Other upstate New York blogs

Below are a few upstate New York blogs I read regularly.

-NYCO, the blog of a Central New York resident who's affiliated with the Finger Leaks Democracy for America group (the organization started by Howard Dean). NYCO writes primarily about New York state government issues.

-Democracy in Albany: this optimistically titled blog offers a progressive take on state government and local politics in the Albany area.

-Albany Eye: this is an excellent blog which offers commentary on pretty much the entire capital district media.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Question for opponents of 'judicial activism'

I was disappointed to read my (increasingly amateurish) local paper re-running this editorial from The Washington Post. The editorial dealt with a prominent eminent domain case before the US Supreme Court. Eminent domain is when the government takes private property for public use. This is quite often done for things like roads.

Eminent domain is controversial but also constitutional. The 5th Amendment reads, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

So basically the government can take private property for public use provided they give fair compensation to the property owner. Usually, the only question is the definition of 'fair': in other words, how much should the government pay.

But this case is a little different. The city of New London, Connecticut wanted to use eminent domain to seize property not for public use but to sell to businessmen who wanted to re-develop the land into something more economically lucrative.

The city argued that this did indeed constitute public use. Economic development is something in the public interest. The hotel, offices and other business would bring in much more property and sales tax revenues than mere family dwellings. New London is an economically downtrodden area and this would help both the city's coffers and provide employment to residents.

The Post (and, implicitly, my local paper too) said that this is a legitimate way to define public use. In fact, it's taking away land from modest, middle class home owners and giving it to big, politically connected developers. It's nothing less than forcible land redistribution. All that's missing is some 'patriotic' militias and you could just as easily be in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, which also uses the rhetoric of 'economic necessity' to justify this process of punishing the have nots to help the haves.

The Post writes: Traditionally, the courts have shown great deference to legislatures as to what constitutes a public use. Letting the courts make those judgments case by case would greatly encumber many legitimate projects... New London is unquestionably a distressed city in need of economic development, and federal courts shouldn't be second-guessing the city's determination of how best to accomplish that very public goal.

This raises an interesting question, particularly for some conservatives. Should the Court engage in so-called judicial activism to strike down the obviously unconstitutional taking of private property for PRIVATE use? Or should it show 'judicial restraint' and defer to the unconstitutional will of elected officials?

Sunday, March 06, 2005


I was checking out the rather meager offerings on what passes for the web site of the Green Party of New York State. It ran an Associated Press article on a controversy in New Paltz, NY.

No, not THAT controversy.

Late last year, a New Paltz cinema owner refused to run Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11. He also took out a radio ad explaining why and claiming that Hollywood studios don't reflect "our values."

This is probably true. I don't recall a single major Hollywood film that featured gay marriage, something that was performed in New Paltz last year.

But since the cinema owner's decision was backed by Rush Limbaugh, I'm not sure that's what he meant.

Anyway, the decision not to show F9/11 provoked a boycott organized by the New Paltz Green Party (to my knowledge, New Paltz is the only town in the country that has both a Green mayor and a Green-controlled town council).

The New Paltz Greens chairman Steve Greenfield decided to use enlightened self interest to try to change the theater owner's mind and urged a boycott of the owner's three theaters. "We're not interested in patronizing a theater that is declaring its intent to try to limit our access that through the law of supply and demand, the marketplace here would otherwise be interested in seeing," Greenfield, a regular patron of the theaters in the past, told the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Personally, I think this is exactly how such decisions should be dealt with. Cinema owners are free to air whatever they want. Consumers should be free to patronize these places or refuse to. They should be free to praise such decisions or object to them. If the theater owner has the right to not air the film, consumers have an equal right to criticize the decision if they want. This is precisely how such controversies should play out.

But the thing that really intrigued me was Rush Limbaugh's defense of the theater owner.

Limbaugh speculated those taking part in the boycott would likely be "three or four long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-smoking FM-type protesters."

The other juvenile insults were predictable. But can anyone tell me what exactly is an 'FM-type' and why it's an insult?

Personally, I don't listen to any commercial radio anymore, because actual music now represents such a low percentage of the FM airwaves. But if someone accused me of being an FM-type, I'd take it as a high compliment that they thought I didn't listen to AM-radio.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

No good deed goes unpunished

From: Soccer America's e-newsletter

In an Italian Serie A game on Sunday, referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded a penalty kick to Lecce against Messina after Lecce's Uruguayan midfielder Guillermo Giacomazzi tumbled in the penalty [area] amid a crowd of Messina defenders.

After Giacomazzi sprang to his feet he admitted that he fallen on his own; that he hadn't been fouled. Rizzoli reversed his penalty-kick decision. But no good deed goes unpunished, and Rizzoli yellow-carded [cautioned] Giacomazzi for simulation.

"He was being honest," said Messina midfielder Massimo Donati, whose team lost, 1-0. "I don't believe he deserved to get a yellow card. I hope they rescind it."

Soccer's international governing body FIFA talks a lot about fair play. It even has a formal campaign to that effect that rewards clubs with good disciplinary records. But if you really want good sportsmanship, then try cracking down on officials who punish good sportsmanship

I'm all in favor of eliminating diving from soccer, along with its Siamese twin shirt-pulling. But this is unbelievable idiocy from a ref with a God complex.

Simulation (the official euphemism for diving) is done for the sole purpose of deceiving the referee into awarding an undeserved foul or penalty kick. If the player drew the undeserved foul and then told the ref "Hey, I just fell on my own," then the fall was obviously not down with deceptive intent.

It's the ref himself who deserves the yellow card.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

States can't kill kids anymore

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court banned states from killing kids. It struck down state-implemented murder (better known by the euphemisms 'capital punishment' and 'death penalty') against people who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. Or were convicted of such crimes anyways. I have to include that qualifier considering the large numbers of not guilty people who were on death row before being exonerated... as well as those not guilty people who weren't so lucky.

I haven't read the decision and, from what I've heard, there are aspects of the Court's reasoning which I may not entirely agree with. I have to read more before commenting. However, I can't say I will shed any tears for the demise of this practice. And I'm sure anyone who dares call himself pro-life will agree with me.

Simply put, the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens, not to kill them... even the scumbags. Think of it this way: if one gang member kills another gang member, should he be prosecuted? Or should we say that the victim was a scumbag and the state has no duty to protect scumbags, therefore the killer should remain free to roam the streets?

Committing first-degree murder is not a legitimate function of a legitimate government. No demented definition of 'due process' can make it so. It's really that simple. Do you want me to put faith in a state that lowers itself to the mentality of a common thug?

State-implemented murder against adults remains legal in most states, but at least states can no longer kill kids. It's a small step in the right direction toward a more civilized government.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Happy (belated) Peace Corps Day

In honor of Peace Corps Day, which was yesterday, I am reposting an essay I wrote for last year's Peace Corps Day.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medeival saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 43rd anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development. Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 and random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, several themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.
-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.
-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.
-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.
-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.
-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.
-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.
-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.

Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa are as follows:
-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"
-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.
-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.
-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."
-Elogies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.
-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.
-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.
-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.

The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Another troop-hating peacenik

NPR's All Things Considered ran a story of another America-hating peacenik hippie who has nothing better to do than plotting stategies to bash America and undermine troop morale. Actually, that's a bit redundant since anyone who opposes the Iraq aggression is necessarily those things, at least according to some people.

An Iraq war veteran with 10 years in the service faces a general court martial for refusing to return to Iraq. Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman of the 3rd Infantry Division says he is morally opposed to war after having witnessed it during his first tour in Iraq.

Oh wait, I'm confused...

I'm suspect that if Sgt. Benderman really thought Iraq had anything to do with our national security, he wouldn't hesitate to go back over there. And I suspect that if most Americans thought Iraq had anything to do with our national security, the National Guards wouldn't have such a tough time recruiting new members. If people really thought Iraq had anything to do with our national security, they'd be flooding the recruiters like they did during World War II.

Instead, people have finally smartened up to realize that they don't want to go off to become cannon fodder in support of an aggression done for dubious reasons and whose ultimate outcome and affect on American security can only be either bad or worse.