Monday, October 31, 2005

Shock of the year

I see the Glens Falls daily Post-Star endorsed the resoundingly uninspiring Republican candidate Harold 'Bud' Taylor to be the next mayor of Glens Falls.

After giving Taylor a grossly disproportionate amount of coverage in their 'news' articles for most of this year, attentive readers of The Post-Star could've predicted this endorsment in July.

I'd like to think voters will make up their own mind, but I just hope they knew enough to go to other sources to learn about the other four candidates.

Reminder: this blog endorses Esmond Lyons, independent candidate for mayor of Glens Falls.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

So they DO believe in evolution (of 'ethics')

There's an old joke that goes like this...

Q: Why are politicians like porn stars?
A: Both are comfortable changing positions in front of the camera.

(I'm sure others can come up with more creative answers)

For example: last week, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she hoped that if 'Scooter' Libby and Karl Rove were indicted, it would be for actually leaking the name of the CIA agent, not for perjury, which she called a "technicality."

Hutchison's spokesman, Chris Paulitz, said on Monday that the senator was not commenting on any specific investigation, but rather "was expressing her general concern that perjury traps have become too common when investigators are unable to indict on any underlying crime."

Libby, who was a top aide to Vice-President Cheney, was indeed indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

How did Sen. Hutchison vote on articles of impeachment against then-president Bill Clinton: one article for obstruction of justice and one article for the 'technicality' of perjury'?

She voted guilty on both counts.

So much for the unchanging ethical and moral standards some people claim to believe in.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Conservatives torpedo Bush judicial nominee

Harriet Miers, President Bush's choice to join the Supreme Court, has withdrawn her nomination. She came under predictable criticism from some liberal groups who thought her unqualified. But the real storm came from the right wing of the Republican Party who wanted a more dependable hardline conservative ideologue to join the Court, an Antonin Scalia Jr. if you will.

Though the real reason Miers was pushed on to her sword was to appease the right wing, the pretext used was that senators (including Republicans) wanted access to documents Miers wrote as White House counsel. Since she had almost no other public record, the Senate wanted these documents to have some idea of the person they were voting on. Without these documents, she was a blank slate.

The White House did not want to release the documents, citing some invention called executive privilege; executive privilege has long been invoked by presidents as an excuse for secrecy, though it's mentioned nowhere in the Constitution (or, to my knowledge, regular law). It's telling that they would rather sacrifice a woman they consider to be a fantastic potential justice in order to prevent the public from learning how things really work at the Bush White House. As for the accusations of excessive secrecy in the administration, bizarre decision making processes and general sliminess, none of those suspicions are going to be alleviated by this decision.

Miers was basically seen as a blank slate; her main attribute was her closeness to the president. Even President Bush himself made no bones about this. His basic pitch for Miers was, "I know her. I trust her. You trust me. So confirm her."

The trouble is that Americans increasingly DON'T trust the president. Given the Iraq debacle, his controversial handling of Hurricane Katrina and the general atmosphere of fast-and-loose with ethics in the White House, faith in the president's judgement is (finally) through the floor.

But what's surprising is that even the right-wing, so fiercely loyal to Bush on Iraq, torture and the war against civil liberties, didn't trust Bush on this one. Instead, they went into open revolt.

This begs the question. When Bush said, "I know what I'm doing, just trust me" on Iraq or the war on civil liberties, the right smeared as unpatriotic anyone who didn't. "In times of war, we must always defer to presidential omniscence," they huffed.

So you can't blame Bush for trying the same approach on the Miers' nomination. Imagine his shock when after years of mindlessly accepting "I know what I'm doing, just trust me" as the be all and end all, suddenly conservatives decided to think for themselves and make up their own mind.

I'm glad they've finally realized that this is how issues should be dealt with. Let's hope they remember this when the public debate gets back to Iraq.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wal-Mart: raise the minimum wage

So what should one make of a recent call by Wal-Mart to raise the minimum wage? Their rational is that the low national minimum wage, which has been $5.15 an hour for almost a decade, has harmed Wal-Mart's core consumer base: low income earners.

On one hand, it's hard to take it seriously coming from them. It seems to me that if they wanted low income earners to have more money, they could do a lot simply by raising wages for their own workers. I don't know a lot about labor law but it seems you don't need Congressional action to give your staff more money.

And it's worth being skeptical of Wal-Mart's intentions given their alleged propensity to force workers to work overtime for free or deny them lunch breaks. I guess they don't know much about labor law either. Raising the minimum wage only helps workers if the employer actually pays it.

Or alternatively, Wal-Mart could use some of its $10 billion profits to provide health care to the majority of its staff that's not covered so that workers could use their wages could be used on other essentials. Maybe then they'd have less turnover and would spend less money training new 'associates.'

On the other hand, the call does hammer another nail into the most common argument against the minimum wage and raises of it, specifically that they harm business. Wal-Mart says that raising the minimum wage would HELP its business because its customers would have more money to spend.

Of course, it's easy to see this as a gimmick by Wal-Mart to deflect attention away from their battered image. And I have no doubt that this is the reasoning behind it. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. If they're serious are higher wages for low income workers, by all means let them lead the way!

So workers want a higher minimum wage because they want to be able to pay for essentials. Small businesses want a higher minimum wage so big businesses can't lowball them anymore. Big businesses (at least this particular one) want a higher minimum wage so their customers will have more money to spend. Consensus at last!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

New archbishop faces bigotry

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.

No sane person would claim that racism is dead, least of all Dr John Sentamu, who was recently installed as Archbishop of York.

Apparently, some people had a little problem with a black man (he was born in Uganda) ascending to the second-highest post in the Church of England. Archbishop Sentamu revealed that he'd been greeted with racist letters, including some covered in human excrement.

"I don't know where they are from. They don't tell you," he said of the cowards. "They simply tell you, I am Mr White X and nigger go back and this is what you are like, this is what you are worth."

He has also courted controversy by expressing his desire to fight homophobia within the Church of England.

I wish the archbishop success in his fight against bigots of both stripes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Death of a soldier: two years later

Adirondack Almanack blog points to an interesting story in The Glens Falls Post-Star on the second anniversary of the death of a local soldier in Iraq.

Two years ago, Staff Sgt. Kevin Kimmerly was killed in Iraq. I believe he was the first local soldier to die over there. The day after his funeral, The Post-Star ran on the front page a picture of his young son Christopher, then 9, sobbing at graveside.

The Post-Star received a lot of criticism for running the picture. People claimed the photo was tabloid trash; they claimed it was sensationalism. Though I'm not the daily's biggest fan, I disagreed at the time with its critics and still do.

The picture of the little boy in tears with his father's medals pinned to his rumpled powder blue dress shirt was the most powerful photo I've ever seen in any newspaper. It was also also one of the saddest pictures I've ever seen. I looked at the picture on three separate occassions on that day and I cried each time for a little boy I didn't even know. That's what war's about, not some staged shot of a statue being toppled.

The picture drove home the reality of war. Behind the lofty rhetoric of freedom and liberty and democracy are human beings. Each of the almost 2000 dead US soldiers represents a family shattered. And yes, each dead Iraqi civilian (of which there are several times more) represents the same thing.

Whether the Iraq aggression is necessary or not will be debated for decades. But everyone, whatever one's opinion of the morality of this war, should acknowledge the tragedy it represents, both for Americans and Iraqis. To brush aside human devastation of this magnitude is beneath indecent.

I remember at the time of his death writing: I hope Kevin Kimmerly honestly believed in what he was doing over in Iraq. I hope he truly believed that our country's actions would eventually lead to a safer America and a better Iraq. I certainly don't but since he gave his life for the war he was ordered to wage, I hope he at least believed in the virtue of the mission he part of.

Kimmerley's widow, however, seems a bit more skeptical.

"People hear the number of soldiers killed, but every single number represents an entire family that's devastated," she said, adding that her television is tuned most of the day to cable news. "Why did we start a war with Iraq? President Bush had no proof of weapons of mass destruction, although he said he did. It was so obvious to other countries the weapons didn't exist," she said.

"It makes me so mad ... not just for the loss of my own husband. No good is coming from the war, and it's not getting any better," she said. "Every day it goes on, and there's just more pain and suffering. Every time they report that another soldier has died, I know what the soldier's family is going through," she added.

I mention her comments not to 'prove' that the Iraq war was wrong. The aggression was and is wrong on its own merits, not because one person who's angry and in mourning says so. But I do this to put another dent into The Big Lie.

Too many Americans act like anyone who dares raise questions about the wisdom of the Iraq aggression (either the fact of its continuing, the way it's being waged or the improbability of victory) is unpatriotic. That they are a terrorist-appeasing, America-hater whose sole thrill in life is to risk the troops' safety and undermine their morale. These fear mongers will always deny that they believe this but this is how they act.

Any relative of a soldier who advocates whacko policies that would ACTUALLY support our troops (like only putting them in harm's way for real reasons) or who otherwise dares question the administration's wisdom is smeared with taunts of 'media whore' or worse.

Some see these relatives as worse than the 'leftie peaceniks' because being linked to the armed forces, they are supposed to be submissive (since after all, a soldier's job is to follow orders whether s/he likes them or not). Some see these relatives as traitors to the institution of the military, in the same league with the subversive Veterans for Peace.

Maybe we should listen to these families of fallen soldiers. Some will agree with the war. Some won't. Some families will be divided themselves, just like the country. No one has a monopoly on speaking for all soldiers' families and no one claims to. But all these families have been deeply affected, their relatives having paid the ultimate price

If the family of a soldier who's given his life suppoedly for his country can't speak frankly about the war without being accused of 'dishonoring the sacrifices of our troops,' then who can speak openly?

Christopher, 11, likes to play fish, ride his bike and be outdoors. Except he now has to do those things without a father. Countless Iraqi children the same age as him also now have to grow up without fathers (or brothers or sisters or mothers). A lot of Americans don't like to acknowledge their existence and their suffering, those beneficiaries of 'liberation.' But they're part of this story too.

People think of war as glory, as liberation, as an expression of machismo. Some view it like a video game. But this video game has no reset button.

The reality of war is that people die. People get hurt. People lose family members. And the people most devastated by war are those who never chose to join any army.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: The people most devastated by war are those who never chose to join any army.

The people most affected by war are those who have no guns. The people most affected by war are those without tanks and bulletproof vests or armed comrades watching their back.

This is what war is about, whether it's a 'good' war or not. War and death should never be cheered with some deceitful 'mission accomplished' banner. "Rah rah, yay, our team kicked the other team's butt!" should be reserved for Super Bowl victory parades.

War may sometimes be necessary, though not in the case of Iraq, but to celebrate war is obscene, to glorify it profane.

Is what we're doing over there worth countless little American and Iraqi boys growing up without their dads, countless women spending the rest of their lives without their best friends? Is it worth it? That's for each of you to decide. After all, we might never have launched the aggression if 70 percent of Americans hadn't thought it a great idea at the time so your opinion does carry some weight.

But you owe it to the late Staff Sgt. Kimmerly and the other American and Iraqi dead to factor their families into that equation.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The UN's Abu Ghraib

The United Nations as an institution has been under attack in the last few years by the US far right for its refusal to lick President Bush's boots on the Iraq invasion. On that question, the UN tried, if unsuccessfully, to do exactly what it was founded to do: discourage unprovoked international aggression.

While all the sound and fury was directed at the UN's refusal to be subservient to the bullies in Washington, a REAL UN scanda wasl being overlooked. Early this year, six peacekeepers from Nepal and six more from Morocco working under the UN flag in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were widely accused of sexually exploiting girls in their 'protected' area... some were as young as 13. An internal UN investigation substantiated the allegations and found a pattern of sexual exploitation of women and children, which it said was continuing. Most despicably, many of the victims were usually given food or small sums of money in return for sex.

The UN has since overhauled its rules for peacekeepers acting under UN auspices. The UN mission in the DRC has since banned peacekeepers from having sexual relations with Congolese.

An editorial in The New York Times rightly condemns this outrage. Because The Times understands the structure of the UN, it also calls on member states to take this issue seriously.

(If you don't have a good grasp of the structure of the UN and how authority is divided within the organization and amongst its member states, I explain it thoroughly in this essay)

Though the UN is still widely respected outside the US, the peacekeeper sex scandal risks damaging its reputation as much as Abu Ghraib stained America's.

Sex scandals are quite frequent in places where there are large numbers of foreign troops. There have been a number of such scandals in Okinawa, where there is a huge US military base. Not surprisingly, Okinawans haven't appreciated the sex assaults any more than the Congolese.

One of the particular problems with UN missions is their structure. There is no standing UN army. Rather, each time the Security Council authorizes a mission, it depends on member states to volunteer troops for the mission. In reality, the scandal was not by soldiers of a UN army, but soldiers of the Moroccan and Nepalese armies working under the UN flag. This lack of a coherent command and control structure contributes to a lack of control over peacekeepers.

The richest member states with the most well trained armies rarely volunteer peacekeepers, so UN missions are left with soldiers from countries where they might not have a lot of money to put into rigorous military training. Some are from countries where the military is deliberated kept weak so it's not tempted to interfere in politics.

For example, in September 2005, France, the US and Britain had a combined 1300 soldiers in UN missions. Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Nepal, Jordan, Ghana, Uruguay, South Africa, Morocco, Senegal and Kenya EACH had more UN peacekeepers than the three powers put together.

The Nigerian army, for example, has a poor reputation for indiscipline and corruption but it's willing to donate troops to place where no one else is so they are chosen to fill the vacuum.

One possibility to address this problem would be to establish a standing UN force with proper training and a unified vision on what peacekeeping, rather than ad hoc missions with invited forces. But the UN charter prohibits this and the UN's fiercest critics would be the most deadset against such a change.

A UN panel recommended that soldiers working under the UN flag and accused of sex crimes should be tried in their home country. I'm not sure this is a good idea since the military justice system in some countries is not trustworthy. A better option would be for peacekeepers to be tried in the country they allegedly committed the crime in. If this is not practical, then they should be tried at the International Criminal Court.

UN peacekeeping is a lucrative enterprise for some countries since the UN pays them for their efforts. This is why so many developing countries donate troops: they can keep their militaries (who in some places are politically meddlesome) occupied, get the soldiers real-life training without starting a war and get nicely remunerated for their efforts. Countries whose soldiers repeatedly commit such crimes should be banned from serving in UN missions. A potential ban (and the resultant loss of a lot of revenue) might force an emphasis on improved military discipline in those armed forces.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Pondering journalistic ethics

Two recent articles in the Glens Falls Post-Star daily raise some interesting questions on journalistic ethics.

In the last week, one of the paper's big stories was an allegation against Hebron (NY) town supervisor Ken Talkington, a Democrat. A few Republican members of the town board accused him of showing up drunk to a town budget meeting. Was it appropriate to publish these unsubstantiated allegations against a politician made by his political enemies? It's questionable.

If they'd run anonymous attacks, I'd have no problem condemnding the paper's actions. But in fairness, The Post-Star published the actual names of Talkington's accusers. Does that automatically make it ok? I'm a bit uncomfortable with printing rumor as fact, especially when it's something fairly serious. The paper could reasonably counter that the report was justified since Talkington landed in hot water earlier in his term for driving while under the influence of alcohol and thus even though it's a rumor, it points to the possibility of a pattern of negative behavior.

However, I think the paper crossed the line when it ran an editorial condemning Talkington's judgement even though the allegations against Talkington remained unsubstantiated and were made by political opponents. In doing so, it implicitly accepted the accusations against the supervisor without explaining why.

Another recent story was that of Dr. Stephen Serlin, an obstetrician/gynecologist who was recently arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated.

On Friday, the paper reported a rumor that Serlin was not only intoxicated, but on his way to the hospital to perform a cesarean section on a pregnant woman. The woman claims she was told that Serlin was on call and that she was waiting for him in labor for some two hours but he didn't show up (presumably because he was arrested). Finally, another doctor in Serlin's practice, Dr. Ann Soucy, arrived to deliver the baby. Serlin claims that he passed off his on-call duties to Soucy earlier in the day.

The baby spent the next five days in Albany Medical Center with blood problems and continues to have medical problems, according to the paper.

Now, if it were certain that Serlin were on call, this would clearly be a story. But the new mother is the only one to make that claim, at least in the pages of The Post-Star.

Serlin, not surprisingly, denies he was on call. The president of Glens Falls Hospital would not comment, pending an investigation. Ditto the state health department. Soucy and the anesthesiologist in the surgery were also unavailable for comment.

So in other words, the paper had the allegation of the patient, a denial from the accused but comment from none of the many third parties in the case and it still decided to run the story.

There's just something about this approach that I find distasteful. At this point, it's merely a bunch of hearsay. A headline in the paper (or at least the edition I received) read: 'Doctor charged with DWI possibly on call.' This is too serious an allegation to be based on the adverb 'possibly.'

Couldn't the paper have waited until the health department or hospital concluded their investigations or until the paper had something, ANYTHING, more substantive?

The daily has tremendous power in the community. It's completely irresponsible of the Post-Star to be assassinating people's reputations unless they have something more concrete than mere he said-she said.

Update (sort of): The Post-Star has 'updated' the situation with an article with the illuminating title 'On-call status unclear in case of doctor charged with DWI.' Nothing's new and the paper felt the need to remind us that they know nothing new. Thanks guys!

Friday, October 21, 2005

NY Democrats want people molesting kids!

Jeanine Pirro's sputtering campaign for the US Senate has taken a turn for the slimey. The woman who wants to unseat Hillary Clinton has accused Democrats of protecting child molesters.

On Tuesday, the Westchester County district attorney continued her criticism of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly for its refusal to adopt legislation that would civilly confine violent sex offenders after their prison sentences end.

There has been a sharp debate in Albany on the issue. The Republican Senate has passed the bill, which is supported by Gov. George Pataki, but the Democratic Assembly has not. Frustrated by the Assembly, Pataki unilaterally ordered some sex offenders to stay locked up after their prison sentences were up.

It's a tricky issue. Of course to some, acknowleding nuance and complexity is tantamount to promoting the sin of [insert menacing music] moral equivalency.

Obviously the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from potentially dangerous convicted criminals. But it also can't scrap the concept of the punishment fitting the crime. Should the punishment for a single sex crime be de facto life in prison, as Republicans suggest?

Perhaps, but rather than make that argument in a way that decent, civilized way, Pirro chose the low road. Instead, she attacked state Democrats (even though she's running for federal office) by saying, "That's a difference between Democrats and Republicans -- we don't want them next door molesting children and murdering women."

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Democrats want people molesting kids.

And critics say Sen. Clinton is the slimy one!

Even more pathetic that Pirro's smear is her backtracking from it. Her campaign manager offered the lame defense, "This quote is out of context."

I'm no fan of Sen. Clinton and I certainly don't intend to vote for her next year, but Ms. Pirro is clearly grasping at straws. Her entire campaign is based not on ideas, probably because her ideas are not that disimiliar from the former first lady's. Pirro's campaign is based on the premise that Ms. Clinton will not serve her full term as senator. That tactic was tried and failed in 2000 by a similiarly not-ready-for-prime-time candidate, so it's mystfying why the state party apparatus who backs her thinks this will work again. In many ways, they remind me of the left's loathing of President Bush; they are so consumed by their hatred of Hillary Clinton that they let themselves be blinded to the fact that for all her faults, she's a very adept politician.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

US soccer: we've arrived!

I remember after Brazil lifted the 1994 World Cup, winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was roundly condemned because though his team were world champions, they were not sufficiently flashy enough for the country's fickle fans. 2002 winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari faced similar criticism. England boss Sven Goran Eriksson has faced calls for his head despite having lost only one World Cup qualifier in something like 15 or 20 matches. His crime: his England side (whose only major international trophy was back in the 1966 World Cup and whose fans regularly overestimate their side's potential) are 'too boring.'

That's how I know US has truly arrived as a world soccer power.

Sure, we've been a fixture in the top 10 of the world rankings of soccer's international governing body FIFA. Granted, these rankings are useless. It's hard to take seriously a system that ranks the US and Mexico ahead of Italy and Germany or one that ranks Nigeria and Cameroon behind Iran and Ireland or one that ranks the Netherlands as second in the world despite not having made the final of (let alone actually win) any major tournament since 1988. But it does correctly reflect the rise of the US from also rans into perhaps the second-tier of world soccer.

Sure, we've won three continental championships since 1991.

Sure, we made the quarterfinals of the most recent World Cup.

Sure, we recently secured our fifth consecutive appearance in the world's greatest soccer party and after 56 years (between 1934 and 1990) with only one World Cup appearance, regular qualification has since become an absolute expectation.

But you can tell soccer has arrived in the United States for one simple reason. commentators are no longer content with actual winning, they want it done with style. Once you get fans whining incessantly despite unprecedented success, then you know you're on your way to becoming a true soccer power.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

2005 New York State ballot initiatives

While much talk in New York political circles is of the 2006 statewide races for governor and US Senate, voters in next month's elections will get to vote on two statewide ballot initiatives: one is an amendment to the state constitution to change Albany's budgeting process to give more power to the state legislature at the expense of the governor. The League of Women Voters, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and Common Cause NY all think the constitutional amendment is a good idea because it introduces more transparency to the budget process. The The Business Council of New York State opposes the initiative saying that state spending and taxes would be even more out of control if more budget power is given to 150+ legislators whose primary focus is getting pork to their narrow electoral constituency.

The Business Council raises some legitimate concerns but the constitutional amendment would require more openness and greater transparency in the process. That in and of itself could do wonders for the dysfuctional budget-making in Albany. With more transparency, the Business Council would have more data and information with which to pursue its lower taxes/less spending campaign. It's precisely the secrecy and backdoor deal making that causes this runaway spending in the first place.

I certainly understand the very reasonable objections to this amendment, but I will be voting YES on the budget reform package.

The other initiative is a transportation bond act. The bond act would borrow $2.9 billion to upgrade the state's transportation infrastructure such as subways, roads and bridges. The Business Council inexplicably supports the bond act. This is surprising since their rationale for supporting the bond act is strikingly similar to their warnings AGAINST support the budget reform act. For consistency's sake, one would've expected Council to denounce the bond act (by definition greater spending) as a massive pork barrel project that would only lead to higher taxes.

The Business Council's support of the bond act came only a few weeks after state comptroller Alan Hevesi warned that the state's debt was already too high. How high? Hevesi estimates that by 2010, the state will be paying nearly $6 billion a year in INTEREST PAYMENTS on the state's debt... and that's not including the transportation bond act.

(At least this potential debt is being voted on by citizens. According to the comptroller, more than 90 percent of the state's $48 billion debt was acquired by opaque, unaccountable public authorities)

Maybe if the state weren't wasting billions a year on interest payments to bankers on ancient debt, it would more easily be able to afford on its own maintenance of social programs, support for higher education and the arts and, yes, transportation infrastructure improvements. Maybe this year is a good time to make infrastructure improvements a pay-as-you-go proposition.

Please vote NO on the transportation bond act. Sanity must be introduced at some point.

Update: North Country Public Radio reports that both supporters and opponents of the budget reform change fear that the amendment's complexity might discourage many citizens from voting on it at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The worthless UN

Amidst the din of some who mindlessly bash the UN as though it's some monolithic entity with power in its own right, it's worth taking a different look at the organization. While most of the UN's right-wing American critics view a skyscraper in Manhattan as the be all and end all of the organization, those who actually know what they're talking about realize the UN is much more. One's assessment of the UN should not be limited to a few inane General Assembly resolutions. While those who actually believe in the UN and want to improve it can offer fair criticisms of the organization, these are more substantive than saying the UN is bad just because a few Security Council members who refuse to lick George W. Bush's boots on his aggression against Iraq.

You can tell a lot about someone's priorities not just by what they say about particular issues but by how often they say it. For example, while I've criticized both the Iraq aggression and the UN oil-for-food scandal, I've condemned the former significantly more often than the latter. From this, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that Iraq bothers me more than the oil-for-food scandal. The reason for this is that the UN responded to the oil-for-food scandal by reforming its rules, ordering two investigations (one independent), lifting diplomatic immunity, allowing the courts to hand out indictments, firing the oil-for-food chief and letting the alleged wrong-doers be brought to justice. By contrast, the Bush administration responded to the Iraq debacle by giving its architects promotions and presidential medals of freedom. It's bad enough when you refuse acknowledge your screwups and fix them (thus allowing them to go on indefinitely at the cost of who knows how many lives), but it's even more of a sin when such failure and incompetence is actually rewarded.

I make no bones about the fact that I support the UN, both as an institution and an idea. Except it's really institutions, not a single institution. Where the critics don't get or don't want to get is that the UN has several different components.

There is the political institution, which is pretty much all that its critics see. This comprises three areas: the Security Counci, the General Assembly and the Secretariat. Most critics refuse to understand, the structure, authority and purpose of each of these components.

The Security Council has 15 members. 5 permanent members who have veto power over resolutions and 10 non-permanent members who don't. I believe resolutions must be passed with a majority vote of the council, plus no vetos by the permanent members. In other words, the Security Council can't do anything if France, Russia, Britain, China OR the US objects. This should reassure the Chicken Littles who claim to fear one world government: there's built-in gridlock. One country can block action that the rest of the world wants.

But in reality, most critics don't really fear the UN becoming a one-world government; what they fear is that the UN might act as a check on the power of the United States (I suspect China and Russia fear this as well).

This is a extremely foolish. Countries ignore the UN all the time. The "good" guys do it as much as the "bad" guys. The UN is a check on untramelled US or Russian or Chinese power only in the sense that it can criticize, expose and try to shame the offending powers into restraint. It's not a real check in the sense that the UN can ban countries from doing things that it doesn't like; it might be able to ban those things but it has no power of enforcement. The UN is not allowed to have a standing army and any use of force in the UN's name must be approved by the Security Council and thus, by definition, can be vetoed by the very countries whose power might be checked. If the UN were a REAL obstacle to the superpowers, the US and Britain wouldn't in Iraq right now.

The General Assembly (GA) contains one representative for each UN country. They pass resolutions, but unlike Security Council resolutions, these aren't binding. GA resolutions are nothing more than an expression of the majority opinion of world governments. People flip out whenever the GA passes absurd resolutions like saying that Israel's right to exist constitutes racism. But these resolutions are no different than me spouting off here. They are not binding. The GA is essentially a talking shop.

The Secretariat, run by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is the UN bureaucracy. The secretary-general is not akin to the president of the world; he simply runs the UN Organization. Critics like to pretend that Annan (or whoever the secretary-general of the day is) has far more power than he really has, though they only do this when he refuses to do something they want or can't do something he has no authority to do. Annan can't order peacekeepers into a conflict by himself. He can't ban countries from having nuclear weapons by himself. He can't impose economic sanctions or travel bans on odious leaders by himself.

The secretary-general is more like the Pope than the president of the world. The only EXECUTIVE authority they really have is over their particular bureaucracy. Annan can hire and fire UN functionnaries and re-structure the internal workings of the organization, just like the Pope can for the Catholic Church. But in the domains of diplomacy and foreign affairs, Annan's authority is purely moral, just like the Pope's.

Critics ignore most other aspects of the UN, such as economic and social development, where they advise developing countries on how to improve their economies and standards of living. There is the international law component, which the US is notoriously hostile to... even on treaties which they've voluntarily signed and ratified. There are many UN missions around the world where foreign troops under the UN flag act as peacekeepers in (hopefully) post-war situations or try to mediate in existing conflicts. They provide electoral assistance to young and hopefully emerging democracies.

But one of the most important parts of the UN that its critics ignore is the humanitarian affairs portion. Anytime there's a major catastrophe in the developing world, the UN is usually the organization in charge of the massive task of coordinating international relief efforts. The UN's has undertaken gargantuan efforts in coordinating relief in the Pakistan earthquake.

The International Atomic Energy Agency won the Nobel Peace Prize for its anti-nuclear proliferation efforts. Even most issues that the US government seems to care about have UN offices to deal with them: terrorism, immigration, the drug trade.

Even on less cataclysmic or America-centered issues, UN-related agencies play a critical role. Additionally, the World Health Organization in vaccination campaigns against polio and other preventable diseases. UN organizations coordinate international efforts against many of the world's greatest killers: AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, landmines. The World Food Program in feeding hungry people. The UN Refugee Agency in helping people fleeing wars they didn't choose. The UN Children's Fund helps with the education of children especially girls, reintegrating child soldiers into society and helping children in conflict situations deal with the stress and trauma of what they've been forced to witness.

Worthless? My foot!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Blatter and other blather

There are ""pornographic amounts of money" being thrown around by the world's biggest soccer clubs. This is according to FIFA president Sepp Blatter. The head of soccer's world governing body claims that hugely wealthy owners of soccer clubs are threatening the future of the game.

"A fortunate few clubs are richer than ever before. All too often, the source of this wealth is individuals with little or no history of interest in the game, who have happened upon football [soccer] as a means of serving some hidden agenda. Having set foot in the sport seemingly out of nowhere, they proceed to throw pornographic amounts of money at it" he said.

"What they do not understand is that football is more about grass-roots than idols; more about giving entertainment and hope to the many than bogus popularity to a predictable few; more about respecting others than sating individual greed, whether for adulation or money."

This is a very tricky situation. On one hand, it's amusing to hear Blatter whine about these obscene sums of money. He doesn't seem to mind when such sums are thrown at FIFA's own pre-eminent tournament: the World Cup. A few years ago, Blatter was accused of corruption by his then-deputy.

Oil tycoon Roman Abramovich bought the London club Chelsea and has lavished his millions on the club. Chelsea went from being one of the top five or six clubs in England to being the prohibitive favorite to win the English Premiership (again). While most leagues have a handful of clubs who have won most of the championships, a certain degree of randomness and variety is necessary for the competitive health of a league.

Not only has it been almost 20 years since anyone other than the Glasgow clubs Celtic and Rangers won the Scottish championship, it's been a long time since it was CONCEIVABLE that anyone else would HAVE A CHANCE. The Edinburgh side Hearts are in first place now; though it's only 9 games into the season, it would do wonders for the health of the Scottish league to have someone other than the Old Firm challenge for the title.

And that's what's most dispiriting for most soccer fans. It's almost inconceivable that anyone other than Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United might win the English Premiership not only this year (and the latter two are almost out of the race already), but in the near future. It's almost inconceivable that anyone other than Juventus or AC Milan might win the Italian Serie A. It's almost inconceivable that anyone other than Lyon or Monaco might win the French Ligue 1. That lack of suspense makes for pretty boring soccer. Not surprisingly, nearly all the clubs mentioned above have a hugely wealth financial backer.

The problem with Blatter's comments is that there's not a lot that can be done. Professional soccer is a business as everyone knows. While fans would prefer their sport remain pure as the white snow, they also get really impatient if their team underperforms on the pitch.


After condemning the money men, Blatter found time to warn young Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United and England youngster has been in the news lately with much-commented on temper problems. Blatter said that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and England boss Sven Goran Eriksson should get tough on Rooney. Ferguson, who I'm not fond of, rightly told Blatter to mind his own business and deal with important issues in the global game.

Blatter also found time to controversially accuse smaller clubs of fielding second-string sides when playing bigger clubs.

I'm reminded of the old adage that Sepp Blatter comes up with 50 ideas every day, 51 of which are bad.


Leicester City goalkeeper Rab Douglas insists that his Foxes aren't a bad side.

Problem is they're not a good side either.

The Blues' current form is mediocre: 2 wins in 12 games doesn't exactly suggest promotion material. With half their games ending in draws so far (they drew 20 of 46 last year), it portends another mediocre season for the Foxes' faithful.


Now if you were from a tiny country with almost no soccer pedigree at any level and one of your youth teams unexpectedly won the continental championship, you'd probably be pretty happy. If that team went to the world championships and won two out of three games including a victory over one of the world's premier soccer nation, you'd probably be thrilled. But if you were sports minister of The Gambia, you'd order an inquiry.

The Baby Scorpions beat Qatar and Brazil at the Under-17 World Championships but lost to Holland. Holland, like Brazil, is one of the world's top soccer countries so there's certainly no shame in that. Or there shouldn't be.

But the nitwit who calls himself Gambian sports minister set up a commission to look into the team's display against Holland and the overall performance of the Gambia FA's technical committee.

The committee chairman said his panel's purpose was to "uncover the reasons for the team's failure" to reach the knock-out stages.

They were the first Gambian national team ever to win anything. They won two games at the world championships and stunned eventual runners-up Brazil. But because they lost a single game (to another giant), they are subjected to a humiliating inquiry.

With meddling clueless cabinet officials like this, no one they'd never won anything before.


At the senior level of international soccer: last weekend, five African teams qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. Astonishingly, four countries will participate for the first time: Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. They will be joined by defending African champions Tunisia.

Perrenial giants Nigeria and Cameroon will miss out on the World Cup, for the first times since 1990 and 1986 respectively. Nigeria failed to beat Angola in their two matches against each other and thus lost out to the Palancas negras on a tiebreaker; the southern Africans were accordingly ecstatic. Angola's 1-1 draw in Lagos snapped Nigeria's 20 match home winning streak in World Cup qualifying, dating back to 1981.

Cameroon was awarded a last minute penalty in their final qualifier against Egypt but Pierre Wome's spot kick slammed against the post. Cameroonian fans were not amused, though Ivorian fans were a bit more joyous. Oh and when I said unamused, I wasn't kidding.

Ghana finished ahead of South Africa and the DR Congo. Sometimes referred to as 'the Spain of Africa' in soccer terms, the Ghanaians have won a joint record four African Nations Cups but fans are celebrating their first trip to the world's biggest soccer party.

While Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana had some continental pedigree and quite a bit of international success at the youth levels, Togo's qualification was astonishing. The tiny West African country was completely unrated even in the African soccer scene but somehow managed to top a group with more fancied sides like Senegal (2002 World Cup quarterfinalists), Mali (2002 and 2004 African Cup semifinalists) and Zambia (1994 African Cup finalists). Togo's head of state was so impressed that he declared a national holiday.

And spare a thought for Morocco. The African vice-champions went undefeated in qualifying but five of their ten matches ended in draws so the Atlas Lions lost out to their north African rivals Tunisia. (Unfancied Israel suffered the same fate in European qualifying).

Congrats to fans of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Angola and Togo. It's good to give new fans a chance to enjoy some time in the spotlight.


This is the last weekend of Major League Soccer's tenth regular season. San Jose Earthquakes has already clinched the Supporters Shield as the league's top regular season team. San Jose and the fantastic New England Revolution are co-favorites to lift MLS Cup as league champions, though you can't count out the holders DC United.

A lot will be determined by this last round of games. Boring, defensive-minded Kansas City Wizards would likely provide a much sterner first round playoff test for wide open New England than would the MetroStars. The New Jersey side needs to do better than the Wizards in the last regular season game to make the playoffs. San Jose is in an odd situation; the Quakes could avoid facing bitter rivals Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs by FAILING to beat the hot-and-cold Southern Californians in their regular season finale. If that happened, San Jose would end up facing mediocre Colorado next weekend.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Hugo Chavez

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.

The New York Review of Books' Alma Guillermopietro offers a fascinating portrait of Venezuela's strongman Hugo Chavez. The portrait is worth reading because it's a far more nuanced look than the cariacatures you read in the mainstream press. The piece is also interesting because it lacks the ideological blinders used in the hagiographies of Chavez run in many left-wing media outlets. These hagiographies are based on the nonsensical premise that because Chavez is loathed by President Bush and is a virulent critic of American foreign policy, then he must be some kind of progressive hero. Like ideologues of all stripes, they do not understand the difference between democratically-elected and democratic-acting. Hugo Chavez is a garden variety power hungry, populist demagogue who has erected a cult of personality around himself. The autocrat doesn't deserve anyone's admiration.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Kudos to the Nobel Peace Prize winner

Just wanted to give my congratulations to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency that he heads. They were co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

"The job that the IAEA does every day is indespensable," German President Horst Köhler wrote in a letter to ElBaradei. "To ensure that nuclear energy is only used to peaceful ends ... demands courage and patience ... You have been a example of this in your years since taking over and have solidified and increased the reputation of the IAEA."

Since taking charge of the IAEA in 1997, ElBaradei has balanced the often differing demands of Europe, the United States and Arab countries in working towards a peacful solution to Iran and North Korea's nuclear plans. Despite some protest out of Washington, he was elected this year to a third fourth-year term as IAEA Director General, noted Deutsche Welle. While some in Washington objected to the Egyptian's re-election as IAEA chief, ElBaradei's honorable predecessor Hans Blix noted that the US administration couldn't find anyone more qualified to replace him.

The German broadcaster quoted ElBaradei: "The award sends a very strong message: 'Keep doing what you are doing - be impartial, act with integrity' and that is what we intend to do," he said in a statement. "The advantage of having this recognition today, it will strengthen my resolve."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Four things I learned today

-I learned that Glens Falls' (NY) Democratic mayoral candidate Roy Akins actually took a position on something. A real, concrete position, not just his usual vague platitudes. Akins came out in favor consolidating the Glens Falls Police Department's dispatching services with those of the Warren County Sheriff's office. He is the only one of the five candidates (yes, there are five) to take that position. This should guarantee him the endorsement of The Post-Star newspaper, which apparently sees no other campaign issue worth running snarky editorials on. (Though in fairness, the paper rightly came out against a police captain who smeared two Public Safety Board officials for taking the "wrong" position on the dispatch consolidation debate.) Disclaimer: This blog endorses Esmond Lyons for mayor

-I learned that many of those who oppose Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court are sexist. At least according to President Bush's wife. Of course, it can't possibly be because Miers is too conservative or not (demonstrably) conservative enough or because she's seen as a crony of the president. Opposition can't be related to her having too little experience in authoring legal opinions... a fairly important quality for serving on the high court. Frankly, Mrs. Bush's assertion that female judges should be immune from scrutiny is more sexist that any criticism made against Miers.

-I learned that those who oppose state murder, euphemistically known as the death penalty, are not entitled to be governor. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia made that allegation against his Democratic opponent, who was once appointed by a court to defend a death row inmate a decade ago. Virginia kills more of its citizens than any other state in the country besides Texas. The Democrat explained his opposition by noting that "God grants life and God should take it away"... though surely that won't satisfy folks who invoke God in every other circumstance.

-I learned that multipartyism is more radical than same sex marriage. Some of you may remember a controversy last year when Jason West, the Green mayor of New Paltz (NY), started marrying gay couples. He was rebuked by the state and forced to stop. West has been savaged... by none other than one of the men he married. Billiam Van Roestenberg is Democratic candidate for the county legislature. Roestenberg denounced West because the Green Party had the audacity to run its own candidates instead of giving the Democrats their perceived God-given right to every left-of-center vote. "It's not the job of the Green Party to get Democrats elected – that's not what we're here for – we're here to get Greens elected," West pointed out. Van Roestenberg countered, "It's a terrible thing to do. Jason West thinks this election is all about Jason West, and I'm sorry, it's not. I've come to believe Jason West's Green Party is a little too radical for me." Apparently the idea of having more than two parties involved in an election is more radical than allowing two men to marry.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A question of priorities

Only two days after the disaster, the US government dispatched military assistance to help victims of the horrific earthquake in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. I wonder why the president was significantly more decisive in helping Pakistanis deal with their natural disaster than he was in helping Louisianans. Maybe if Osama had been hiding out in the French Quarter... Then again, much of our military equipment is over in that neighborhood anyway.

Want to help? Donate to Doctors Without Borders or a similar humanitarian organization..

Monday, October 10, 2005

Cover up in Fort Ann!

Gayle Hall is the supervisor of the Town of Fort Ann, in upstate New York. Next month, she is running for re-election. If you live in Fort Ann, please don't vote for her. I'd encourage you to write in someone else's name.

On July 2, the dam at the town's Hadlock Pond failed. This lead to devastating flooding and massive property damage. Several people lost their homes, though thankfully no one died. The dam failed only weeks after it had been re-built and the pond re-filled with water. The new dam that failed replaced an older dam that had been around for over half a century, without the slightest problem.

According to The Post-Star newspaper's analysis of a state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) report on the failure

In October 2003, DEC issued the Town a dam safety permit authorizing the repair and rehabilitation of the dam. In addition, the Town received approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Adirondack Park Agency.

Construction began in September 2004. DEC staff conducted four site visits during construction to observe the construction and site conditions. The last DEC site visit was on April 13, 2005. DEC did not receive a notice of completion or the engineer's certification, and did not conduct a final inspection or issue a letter of approval to fill.

In other words, the town did not ask the state to inspect the dam's safety or to refill the pond, as it should have. If that had been done, the dam's lack of stability would have been blindingly obvious to state engineers. Even an ordinary teenager who lived near the dam recognized that there was something wrong but no one took his concerns seriously.

The Post-Star and other media organizations have filed a Freedom of Information request from the Town of Fort Ann for documents relating to the dam failure. The town denied the request, citing security reasons. Supervisor Hall even had the audacity to make an allusion to 9/11 to justify the denial; to invoke a murderous terrorist attack to defend such a self-serving decision is profane.

The daily correctly savaged Supervisor Hall's attempts to insult people's intelligence. Even if terrorists in an Afghan cave wanted to blow up a dam in this tiny town in upstate New York farm country, the dam no longer exists!! If she were really so concerned about people's safety, she would've paid a little more attention BEFORE her town ok'd the unsafe dam to be filled up without state approval.

The only thing being protected by Hall's decision is her own rear end.

Hall doesn't seem to realize that she's acting as guilty as sin even if she isn't. Or since she is (to the best of my knowledge) running for re-election unopposed after winning the Republican primary, perhaps she simply doesn't care how ethically dubious her actions appear.

I've been very critical of The Post-Star in the past but they've been dogged in pursuit of this story despite Hall's obstructionism. They are absolutely right to blast the town's secrecy. The paper has promised to appeal the Freedom of Information request denial and, if necessary, to take legal action so that the public can know why this devastation occurred.

If the Jihadists blow up the non-existent dam as a result, then the paper can give its mea culpa. Until that happens, it's Supervisor Hall who owes the apology.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

International court indicts Ugandan rebel leaders

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

In a development praised as "historic" by Human Rights Watch, the new International Criminal Court has issued its first arrest warrants. While some feared (despite many safeguards to the contrary) the ICC would become an instrument of anti-American hatred, the Court's first warrants were issued against five top figures in the so-called Lord's Resistance Army.

The LRA's nominal political objective is to overthrow the Ugandan regime and replace it with a government based on the Ten Commandments. But no one familiar with their unimaginable savagery can take these purported claims the least bit seriously, since they seem intent on VIOLATING all of the Commandments. The LRA's real target is the civilians of northern Uganda.

The LRA's fanatical leader, the self-styled prophet Joseph Kony, is wanted for many alleged atrocities, including torture and mutilation, abduction, sexual violence, forced recruitment and the killing of people the LRA considers are supporters of Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's leader.

A full catalogue of the LRA's violence against children has been compiled by Human Rights Watch. Though the organization additionally recommends that the ICC also investigate alleged abuses by the Ugandan army as well.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Be informed: read the local weekly

Kudos to the Glens Falls Chronicle. The weekly has surprisingly become the primary source of information on the city's mayoral race. The paper asks all five candidates in the race two questions each week, then publishes the answers in their entireity. This is shockingly simple but exceedingly useful to voters who want to be somewhat informed.

I've had my fair share of disagreements with The Chronicle in the past; friends have criticized me, perhaps not without reason, for being too harsh on them. But maybe both I and the weekly's editor have mellowed out a little. The paper's undignified editorial rants against the daily Post-Star seem to have diminished in frequency and nastiness... even if there is occasional backsliding like references to '(The Post-Star's managing editor) and his Saddam wannabes.'

While more prominent and well-staffed local publications abdicate their self-ascribed civic duty, I applaud The Chronicle and editor Mark Frost for picking up the slack.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Why couldn't God tell him to feed the hungry?

Which of the following statements is true:

a) The Theocracy Brigade doesn't really exist

b) Religious extremists are dangerous only if they're Muslim

c) God told President Bush to invade Iraq

The answer, at least according to an upcoming BBC documentary, is c. (The BBC sought comment from the president but the White House declined)

Maybe God told him to defend the use of torture too.

It's almost enough to make you an atheist.

Update: After repeatedly refusing to comment before the story was released, the White House has finally denied that Bush made the remarks. By contrast, a Palestinian official insists he heard the comments but that he didn't take the words literally, only as a figurative expression of the depth of Bush's intentions. I just hope that White House doesn't whine about biased journalism. That's one of my pet peeves: when subjects of articles refuse to comment before the article is released but then whine about one-side journalism (duh!).

Thursday, October 06, 2005

'Culture of life' president claims right to torture

Yesterday, the Republican-controlled US Senate overwhelmingly vote to set new limits on interrogating detainees in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The changes would prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of those in US military custody.

The Bush administration objects to the Senate's move. It is not clear why the folks who claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom, liberty and decency would feel the need to guard their right to use 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.' It's not certain why the folks pursuing the global struggle against the enemies of freedom [or whatever the euphemism of the week for the war on terrorism is] would insist on safeguarding interrogating tactics more worthy of a banana republic dictatorship.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain, pointed out that the terrorists are contemptful of the Geneva Convention, treaties against torture and basic human decency. McCain insists that the United States must act in a more humane, more decent way than the terrorists. He also pointed out that American soldiers "crying out for clarity" on how to deal with detainees.

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions opposed the provision, claiming that "We do not have ... systematic abuse of prisoners going on by our United States military." Yet, if such abuse is not widespread or systematic, then surely such a clarification should present no problems to the military.

But while such abhorrent conduct may not be systematic, how can it be seen as anything other than condoned by a commander-in-chief who wants to guard jealously the right to impose such abhorrent conduct?

McCain, and other supporters of the change like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, knows that scandals like Abu Ghraib have been a terrible blow to America's international credibility, which has collapsed in the last few years.

If the administration virulently opposes even a de jure ban on "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment, then how can it claim the tiniest shred of moral superiority over the heathens?

Kudos to Democrat and Republican senators alike for standing up for decency and American values, despite the White House's wishes. Let's hope the House does the same.

Update: Less than a day after claiming the right to torture as a presidential prerogative, Mr Bush warned (without the slightest hint of irony) against terrorists who want to wage war against humanity

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Black Star Journal

I was humbled to learn that my companion Africa blog was nominated for a Best of the Blogs. The Best of the Blogs, or the BOBs, is a series of awards sponsored by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Black Star Journal has been nominated for Best Journalistic Blog - English. I'm not sure if it merits the award, but I appreciate that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it.

Paper's rationalization for shoddy coverage exposed!

I've written several entries (such as this one) complaining about The Post-Star's grossly inadequate coverage of the Glens Falls' mayoral race. All spring and summer, the monopoly daily gave blanket and near exclusive coverage to Republican candidates Bud Taylor and Peter McDevitt (though coverage of the latter was usually critical). Democrat Roy Akins and independents Esmond Lyons and Bill Berg were virtually ignored by the paper, except for token mentions that they were running.

Throughout, the paper rationalized their exclusionary coverage by pointing out that Taylor and McDevitt were facing off in a Republican primary in mid-September so it was logical to cover only them for months and months on end. Once the primary was over, readers were solemnly assured, the paper would do its civic duty and actually cover all the candidates.

The GOP primary was held over three weeks ago. In that time period, the paper did a token, if unflattering, profile on Berg (so they can say they haven't completely ignored him). I haven't seen a single article featuring Lyons or Akins... or even including them.

Glens Falls is one of the few towns in the area where most of the races for elective office are actually contested. So how come The Post-Star has decided to offer such miniscule coverage of the mayoral race and non-existent coverage of races for the city's Common Council? I've never seen the paper provide such shoddy coverage of a city election since I've been paying attention.

Are the candidates boring? Ask them questions on important issues. Are they infuriatingly vague, like Roy Akins? Press them to get specific. Just because a candidate doesn't make for great copy (or dumbed-down copy) doesn't mean you pretend he isn't running. None of them may be as visionary as Mandela or as charismatic as Reagan, but one of them is going to be the next mayor of Glens Falls regardless.

Maybe instead of thinking up enough anonymous cheap shots to transform into a blog, perhaps the venerable Fourth Estaters could ring up Lyons, Akins and Berg and talk to them about their opinions on critical issues facing Glens Falls. I'm sure this amateur hack could find the phone numbers for them.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Gray Lady's welcome change

I'm not a big fan of The New York Times but they recently announced a change that all newspapers should follow. From now on, the paper's corrections will be listed on the editorial page.

I've been critical of some segments of the media in this OD, but for the most part I think most reporters and editors do their best. I maintain my critiques of certain editorial judgements and patterns of various newspapers, magazines and television stations, but I don't think anyone is trying to get it wrong. I don't think anyone is trying to be biased. I think they're just careless or wearing blinders.

I think modern journalists and editors are in a difficult position. They are under fire from all sides. Conservatives say they are too liberal. Liberals say they are too conservative. Progressives says they are too corporate. Libertarians say they are too establishment. Smaller parties say they only cover Democrats and Republicans. Many publications are simultaneously anti-Israel and anti-Palestinian, depending on who's making the criticism. The whole 'criticizing the president's policies undermines troop morale and gives aid and comfort to the terrorists' Big Lie only increases the pressure on the Fourth Estate. Many journalists are called Bush-bashers and Bush-apologists all in the same day. Anything they write might subject them to a torrent of abuse, often vicious, sometimes personal, attacking not only their competence but their integrity.

That said, one thing that's always bugged me is that when an error in a newspaper is made, it's often a prominent part of a major article on the front page of the paper or of one of the sections. But when the correction is run, it's buried in the middle of a minor section between bingo results and barbecue fundraiser announcements.

The Times' decision to place corrections in a more prominent place is welcome change. People realize that journalists are human and are thus not perfect. I think we just want the institutions to acknowledge this, hold their hand up and say sorry, learn from it and move on.

Monday, October 03, 2005

At least 20 die in upstate NY boat tragedy

I was saddened to hear about the capsizing of a tour boat in Lake George on Sunday afternoon, which cost at least 20 lives. The death toll was exacerbated by the fact that most of the tourists were elderly and many used walkers or wheelchairs. The circumstances of the sinking are unclear as the weather was nice and, by all accounts, the lake waters were calm. Whatever caused the boat to flip over happened so fast that the captain didn't even have time to alert the passengers so they could put on their life vests. Radio-Canada reported that a bad manuever by the captain was the cause of the disaster but did not give any details.

Apparently, this is the deadliest boat accident in Lake George history, but as Adirondack Almanack points out, not the first.

Update: Accounts of the tragedy are hard to read.

Strange place for on-the-job training

Two recent vacancies have hit the Supreme Court of the United States. President Bush nominated John Roberts to be the new Chief Justice (he was approved and sworn in last week). Today, the president nominated his buddy Harriet Miers, White House counsel, to fill the other Supreme Court seat.

Roberts had less than two years experiences as a judge when he was nominated; Miers has never been a judge at all.

I don't know much about Miers' ideology and Roberts came across as a reasonable nominee, but is the Supreme Court really the best place for on-the-job training?

Update: While it's true that Miers would not be the first justice in history without any judicial experience, most had some background in legal scholarship. Miers has spent much of her recent career as an advisor to George W. Bush and was praised by the administration for cleaning up the Texas State Lottery Commission when she was its chair. She also had a very distinguished career as a trial litigator, according to the White House.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Religion and politics

A friend of mine chastized me on my essay on Roy Moore and Cindy Sheehan. He considers the 'sneering tone' in which I berate the Theocracy Brigade unworthy of me. He thinks I do not come anywhere near addressing the best arguments of my opponents.

At first, my reaction was defensive; it's a bit of a reflexive action since people hardly ever send me responses to say they agree with my essays. That's part of the deal about being a public commentator: critics are usually spurred to express their objections while those agree usually don't.

The essay in question was not really about the Theocracy Brigade, but about double standards. Nevertheless, his criticisms aren't entirely off the mark and worth addressing.

In responding to my friend, I realized something: I don't think I've ever explained exactly what I mean by the objectionable phrase. One of the unfortunate characteristics of modern discourse (one I'm apparently guilty sometimes too) is that controversial terms are rarely defined by those who use them. Thus, a pro-death penalty, pro-war individual can call himself pro-life without batting an eyelash.

To my mind, the Theocracy Brigade comprises individuals who believe in the singular predominance of religion (in this country, Christianity) in all public and governmental realms. It comprises individuals who believe that the Christian Bible should be the unique basis for public policy in this country. My friend thinks this group, so defined, is too miniscule to worry about; I don't.

The primary definition of theocracy is: a government ruled by or subject to religious authority.

Theocracy is not simply a question of government run by a particular church or denomination. Some think that as long as a state is not like the Vatican then it can't be theocracy. That's clearly not the case.

Many northern states of Nigeria have adopted Islamic Sharia law as public policy. The Nigerian federal government strongly objects to this but because of the nature of the Nigerian federation and its emphasis on states' rights, the central government has little power to counter it. While these states retain a nominally secular structure (democratically-elected civilian governors and legislators), it's hard to deny the theocratic aspect of these jurisdictions.

I condede that my Roy Moore essay was not the best one I've ever written. And upon reflection, I further concede that my essays on the topic are a little more strident than the others.

The Theocracy Brigade is so preachy and exclusionary that I have little idea what their best arguments actually are. Perhaps they really do have cogent arguments that are lost in the noise of the shrill. I don't know.

At least traditional conservative thought on social or economic issues follows a certain rational set of reasoning and principles that, while I may disagree with, I can at least wrap my mind around enough to address.

The group I'm talking about simply speaks a completely different language. For example, open-mindedness, respecting minority rights, freedom of and from religion, vibrant democratic debate and pluralism are not only important to me but completely SELF-EVIDENT. The idea that judges should interpret law according to the Constitution not the Bible is SELF-EVIDENT to me.

For the group I'm talking about, the importance of the Bible and Christianity as the sole basis for laws and public policy (even where it contradicts the Constitution) is completely self-evident to them. That open-mindedness is tantamount to vacillation, moral relativism and tolerance for wrong is self-evident to them.

I apologize to my friend but I honestly don't know how to bridge that gap. I wish I did.

My friend does make one good point. I like the phrase 'Theocracy Brigade' because it accurately captures this mentality (and it's not the individuals I object to but the mentality).

While repetition is a common rhetorical device, I do concede that this particular phrase gets tiresome quickly. Part of the problem is that I can't alternate phrases because I don't have another one that really captures the sense of what I'm getting at.

Dennis, over at Moderate Republican blog, uses the phrase 'theocon.' His objections to that group are more interesting since he's an ordained minister. That phrase doesn't really grab me, particularly since it doesn't quite capture the military-like discipline, obedience and conformity that predominates.

Many use phrases like Religious Right, Christian conservative or some variation. I don't like those phrases because they're easy to misinterpret, either unintentionally or willfully. My objection is not to people who are Christian and conservative. That's perfectly legitimate.

My objection is to those who are intolerant toward those who AREN'T Christian and conservative. My objection is to those who believe the Christian and conservative are the only values that any decent person must have AND that the governments should be enforcing this.

Contemporary liberals have a condescending, obnoxious and ultimately self-defeating habit of treating everyone on the other side as stupid. Contrary to liberal stereotypes, these people are not all idiots, they are not all rednecks or whatever pejorative is in vogue.

A lot of these folks are very well-educated, intelligent, charismatic people. They're not some cariciature who can't string two English words together. Yet it's precisely because they're intelligent and well-spoken that I can't simply ignore them.

They inhabit a world that not only I don't understand but can't conceive. For example, I don't think there's any inherent conflict between rationality and faith, between science and religion, but many of these folks do and so say explicitly.

Some of these people are so exclusionary in their politico-religious sort-of Christianity that they even rail against papists, the Bishop of Rome and their anti-Biblical saints. I'd never seen or heard the pejorative papist used in contemporary discussion before, only history books and A Man For All Seasons. Talk about the psychosis of small differences! Even Muslims and atheists refer to Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger as the Pope.

I concede that I really have little idea how to counter this mindset. How exactly can you have a rational debate with someone who insists not only that 2+2=5 but that I ought to respect this, in the name of diversity, as a mere 'difference of opinion'? If anyone has suggestions, I'm all ears.

I can argue with traditional conservatives because I understand how they think and where they're coming from. Even when I think they're wrong. I know how to engage them. I know how to adapt my line of argumentation in such a way that might possibly persuade them. They might say, "Regulation harms health and prosperity because...." I might counter "Some regulation helps health and prosperity because..." We may disagree on means but we both share the core belief that health and prosperity are good things. At least there's that element of common ground upon which a debate can be based.

With the Theocracy Brigade (I'm sorry if the term is sounding a bit like overkill), there isn't that element of common ground. I find them far more dangerous than traditional conservative thought because at least the latter is based on principles compatible with pluralistic, constitutional democracy.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


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

Earlier this week, Algeria held a referendum on a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Allegedly 97% of voters approved the project with a reported 79% turnout... though the opposition and journalists dispute the latter figure. The opposition called for a boycott of the plan.

In 1992, the Algerian military cancelled elections that were about to be won by the Islamist FIS party and a state of emergency was declared. What followed was several years of a dirty war between the Islamist militants and the so-called forces of order. It is estimated that over 100,000 Algerians have been killed since the start of the insurgency and some 6000 have disappeared without a trace.

Bouteflika's plan gives a pardon to militants, except those who took part in mass murder, public bombings and rapes. It also offers compensation to the families of victims. The plan is controversial because gives a blanket amnesty to the Algerian military, the country's dominant institution. "The sovereign Algerian people reject any allegation aimed at holding the state responsible for the phenomena of the disappeared," the proposed charter says. Hardly anyone believes this deception.

Most notably, the Algerian plan eschews the reconciliation model of places like South Africa and Rwanda. Those places instituted truth and reconciliation commissions. Pardon was conditioned upon full disclosure of what happened. The truth was revealed and people were allowed to grieve and move on.

Bouteflika's crude attempt to buy off victims' families, or more specifically their memories, is a hard sell.

"I do not want the government to give me money to compensate the loss of my son," says one man. "I want it to tell me the truth, and why the security forces kidnapped him - not more but not less."

The Algerian model asks citizens to pretend the viciousness never happened. You can't forgive if you don't know what you're forgiving.