Friday, March 31, 2006

MLS preview

Spring is in the air so it must be time for the domestic pro soccer season to begin. Major League Soccer's eleventh season starts tomorrow. The opening match will be FC Dallas vs Chicago Fire. Unless you get the MLS Direct Kick pay-per-view package, you might want to watch this match. Since national games are usually on Saturday afternoons and Dallas can be pretty hot in the summer afternoon, very few FCD home games are broadcast and their Pizza Hut Park is the second nicest facility in the league. (The game will be broadcast at 4:00 PM Eastern Time on ABC).

The highlight of the first weekend is a rematch of last year's MLS Cup championship final between Los Angeles Galaxy and New England Revolution, who are supported by smarter soccer fans. The "champions" from southern California (who finished 9th of 12 in last year's regular season) are looking for another win against New England, who have not won away to Los Angeles since the league's inaugural season in 1996. There is a budding rivalry between these two sides. Once considered the Buffalo Bills of MLS, Los Angeles has now beaten New England in two MLS Cup finals and a US Open Cup (knockout tournament) final: all by a single goal, all in extra time. That game will also be broadcast on national television (Saturday on ESPN2 at 11:00 PM ET).

Los Angeles and New England are expected to be two of the three best teams in the league this year, along with the Houston Dynamo (formerly San Jose Earthquakes). The MetroStars also changed their name, becoming the New York Red Bulls after being bought by the energy drink company.

The Eastern Conference will be interesting. A lot of personnel changes have occurred. Columbus has a respected new coach in Sigi Schmid and a bunch of new players to freshed up what had become a broken down locker room. The addition of the exciting but erratic Eddie Gaven (in exchange for the equally erratic forward Edson Buddle) should make their midfielder stronger. But the loss of Buddle and Cornel Glen makes you wonder where the goals are going to come from. Kansas City lost key midfielders Chris Klein and Diego Guiterriez but gained the promising but difficult young forward Eddie Johnson. DC United lost the volatile Dema Kovalenko but otherwise kept the core of their team. The Red Bulls changed significantly, losing veteran defender Jeff Agoos and midfielders Gaven and Michael Bradley and forward Ante Razov; but gaining Buddle, midfielder Chris Henderson and defenders Marvell Wynne and former Leicester City man Peter Canero. New York's lack of a spine may hurt them. Defending conference champions New England are the only team without any key changes, so look for them to repeat. Their main challenge will be dealing with player losses to the World Cup. They could lose anywhere from zero to four key starters to the Germany-bound US team. But since the regular season means very little in MLS (as evidence by the 9th place team out of 12 last year becoming "champions"), any June hiccup for New England might not be a big deal.

The Western Conference should be more straight forward and not much different from last year as there seemed to be less player movement. Though Chivas USA, one of the worst team's in league history last year, revamped their squad and brought in a new coach so I expect them to be more competitive this year. Colorado should continue its mediocrity and FC Dallas will continue to excite, if not defend. Los Angeles and their former California rivals now in Houston should battle it out for the one spot.


1) New England
2) DC United
3) Kansas City
4) New York
5) Columbus
6) Chicago

1) Houston
2) Los Angeles
3) FC Dallas
4) Chivas USA
5) Colorado
6) Real Salt Lake

That's just for the regular season. Who knows how the playoffs will go. One can only hope that this year's MLS Cup will go to a team who actually played like a deserving champion all (or at least most) of the year.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Crossing boundaries

There been a big debate on immigration and illegal immigration lately; I quite consciously list them as two separate issues. And while it's a bit farcical to hear Pres. Bush lecture on the importance of scrupulous respect for the law, I'll save the meat of the issue (the status of illegal immigrants) for another essay. But there is an important related issue.

While most of the focus is on the US-Mexico frontier, any changes to border control issues will also affect the US-Canada boundary..

This is of great concern to people around here and in other parts of northern New York. There are a suprising number of migrant workers in my area. The number of Eastern Europeans working in the nearby tourist region around Lake George has skyrocketed in the last few years. However, to the best of my knowledge, all these workers are here legally.

Yet, changes affect this region because one of the biggest groups of visitors to the Lake George area is tourists from nearby Québec. Crossborder commerce with Canada is the lifeblood of many New York communities closer to the border, like Plattsburgh.

A new law will require a passport in order to enter the country (note: this won't take effect until the beginning of 2008; a driver's license or ID will suffice until then). This has caused an uproar in heavily conservative northern New York. Democrats and Republicans alike complain that this will cripple the economy of a region already so starved for jobs that it's been compared to Appalachia by the state's most prominent candidate for governor.

Elected officials in northern New York (who are overwhelmingly Republican) are trying to figure out some sort of compromise plan that the area's repesentatives in Washington can push through Congress. Perhaps some sort of special ID card solely for the US-Canada border that regular travelers can get with a background check or something like that.

Border crossing procedures seem erratic and arbitrary. Maybe that's the nature of the beast, but maybe what's needed is more streamlined procedures, not more regulations that will applied randomly.

Following 9/11, I've heard many a warning that if you're going through the main US-Canada border crossing in northeastern New York, you should allot a couple hours returning to the US just in case. But the last time I went to Montréal with a friend, when we came back, the US border guard simply asked us where we were going and let us through after we answered. We'd take out our wallets, assuming he was going to at least take the perfunctory action of checking our IDs, but he never did.

Another time when I came back from Montréal on a bus, I was singled out for special treatment by the border guards. They made me empty my overstuffed backpack (1 minute to empty, 10 minutes to repack) and searched through every item. And this was before 9/11, mind you.

Then again, Canada has fewer border patrol than the Americans do on the same border. They also have more relaxed entry procedures on land routes from the US into Canada. Yet people aren't trying to bomb buildings in Vancouver or to fly a plane into 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Maybe if the US had a more responsible foreign policy like our northern neighbors, we wouldn't have to worry about people trying to enter the country to blow us up. But that's a topic for another essay.

Update: Unfortunately, northern New York was recently invaded by hordes from this new group, the so-called Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. They claim their sole purpose is to help the border guard patrol the frontiers. They claim they're not vigilantes or extremists. They claim they just want the law respected. They claim they are non-partisan. Yet their very own official website contains gems like this.


(Yes, this was written in ALL CAPS)

Adirondack Musing blog offers a sample of comments from the so-called Minutemen's blog.


one more captins mast of swiftboatvets, These immigrants want all of the privileges of American life, but don’t want to do anything for this country. If they want of come here, they should have to put their lives on the line just as our ancestors did.

Its time for an end to multiculturalism in this country , Its time for people to either be American or get the hell out , we don't need mex Americans or African Americans , just American , If you want to be something else , get the hell out

I hate them. They have sold us out to Mexico. The history books will write about the dishinest senate in the year of 2006.They will write later about how the Minutemen came back from the ashes of history and stomped their lying asses out!

The Whores in Washington will do nothing.
The illegal marches in big cities is nothing more than anarchy, and a massive illegal foreign invasion, along with the useful idiot enabler school kids supporting them. The lead is going to start flying before long and we are going to be in a civil war to protect what's rightfully ours!

Dear Congress and Senate, Get the no good lazy people sitting on their ass's and colecting "welfare" off their buts and to work each day like the rest of us.... dumb ass liars and crooks and claim to have sworn on a bible to serve and protect,,, how in the hell they stand the mirror each day is a unknown to me.

I'm reassured.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

World's worst war criminal arrested!

As I wrote earlier, the Liberian government had asked for the country's former dictator, Charles Taylor, to be extradited from Nigeria, where he was staying in exile. There was a disagreement between the Nigerian and Liberian governments. The Nigerians wanted Liberia to come to Nigeria and collect the world's worst* war criminal. themselves but the new democratically-elected Liberian president wanted the former warlord shipped directly to the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, which indicted him for war crimes committed in that country.

(*Worst, as distinct from most infamous. Though one could make a plausible argument that this dishonor goes to the Lord's Resistance Army's barbaric Joseph Kony in northern Uganda, I'd give the nod to Taylor because his actions have ruined more lives in more countries.)

During the brief diplomatic spat, Taylor managed to escape from his heavily guarded compound in southeastern Nigeria. I guess Nigerian insecurity forces have gained more experience in the last 40 years harassing political activists and extorting bribes at road checkpoints than in actually keeping tabs on truly dangerous people.

Taylor tried to cross the border in northeast Nigeria into Cameroon. He managed to pass through immigration but not customs.

"He passed through immigration but when he reached customs they were suspicious and they insisted on searching the jeep, where they found a large amount of US dollars," explained an official.

This incident epitomizes the dysfunction of the Nigerian state. Immigration didn't notice he was the most wanted criminal in the country whose flight received international publicity but once they noticed huge sums of money involved, that sure got their attention!

After his arrest, Taylor was put on a plane and sent back to Liberia, who will hand him over ot the UN Special Court.

Poetic justice has been served, I suppose. If Taylor hadn't been so greedy, he would be still be free to terrorize a region.

Update: Underscoring the continuing danger of the former warlord, the Special Court's prosecutor charged that Taylor was still trying to have Guinean leader Lansana Conté assassinated.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Life in cubicle nation

A while ago, the local Post-Star dropped Molly Ivins as a columnist. Managing Editor Ken Tingley swore up and down that that they didn't drop her because she was a harsh Bush critic. Which might be plausible since they have two local columnists who regularly criticize the president. Rather, he claimed, it was because she was a one-trick pony. Bashing Bush is all she does.

This was rich coming from Tingley, who has probably written more patronizing opinion columns in the last year on teen drinking/binge drinking/drunk driving (which he disingenuously passes off as three of the same thing) than on every other topic combined. He's the last person to call anyone a one-trick pony.

Personally, I was never a huge fan of Ivins because I always found her a bit shrill. Sort of like Michael Moore but with better hair. The substance of her comments is often detracted from by her sarcasm; it's just not a style that appeals to me.

But the paper kept far right columnist Cal Thomas, who is just as predictable and tiresome as Ivins.

What was even more appalling about this decision was that the paper replaced Ivins with some guy named Jim Shea.

Ivins' most recent column (not in The Post-Star obviously) was about the decline of newspapers. And the 'one-trick pony' didn't mention Bush at all. Her previous one was about electoral reform. Shea's last column was about life in a cubicle.

Fluff has its place in newspapers. I read the sports sections. I read the comics. I love the Jumble. But that's where fluff belongs, not in the front section. Fluff should compliment serious issues, not replace them altogether. The paper runs enough fluff on the front page, such as dogs jumping off a bridge in Scotland or some (non-local) college student winning some poker tournament. To scrap a columnist who writes on political corruption and the Iraq aggression and replace her with someone who writes about cubicle nation is sad. And it's emblematic of The Post-Star's dumbing down in the last several years. If the paper was dead set against Ivins, couldn't they have found a worthy successor?

Maybe this exemplifies the decline of newspaper Ivins was talking about.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Dark days for the (once) Beautiful Game

BBC's football (soccer) site had video of highlights of the FA Cup match between Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough. I figured such a match would offer about five seconds of highlights so I clicked on the link. I overestimated by about three seconds.


George Steinbrenner is no longer the worst owner in professional sports. That dishonor goes to a guy named Roman Romanov who owns and runs the Edinburgh soccer club Heart of Midlothian (known as just Hearts).

The Scottish Premier League is one of the least competitive sports leagues in the world. Major League Baseball's American League East has NFL-style parity by comparison. The two big Glasgow teams known as the Old Firm (Rangers and Celtic) have 90 Scottish championships in 116 years. The two have won every championship since 1986. In fact, no other team has even fiinished in the top two since 1994.

So Romanov, this Russian tycoon, bought the club and poured money into. Surely not as much as the Glasgow giants have but a lot by non-Old Firm standards. Romanov hires the well-regarded George Burley as manager. Burley does a great job and the team after ten games, the team is still undefeated and in first place.

But then Burley dramatically left the club. Whether he actually quit or was fired is unclear, but he complained that Romanov was meddling too much, buying players without the his input, trying to tell him who to play, etc.

Hearts cooled down a little under new manager Graham Rix bit but were still doing well. This is great for Scottish soccer because it brings a little excitement back into the game and makes the SPL an actual competition again.

But then reports surfaced that it was actually Owner Romanov and not Manager Rix who was choosing the starting lineup on matchdays. A few weeks later, Rix was also sacked. Romanov claimed it was because Rix had underperformed in his whopping 19 league matches in charge of the club. Hearts are still are odds on favorites to finish second (their highest finish since 1992) and to qualify for the very lucrative Champions League (something they've never done), which you'd think would thrill the businessman. In reality, Rix was fired because he or someone else in the clubhouse went public about the degree to which Romanov was interfering in day-to-day team affairs.

As The Scotsman's Barry Anderson reported: Rix was told several times by Romanov [the owner] in the build-up to the meeting with Rangers that midfielder Julien Brellier - a Burley signing - was not to be played under any circumstances. Not only did the Frenchman play, he was voted man of the match.

The columnist added: What is not up for debate is this: Hearts are rapidly becoming an eastern European club in every sense of the word. Almost incessantly in turmoil, owner interfering in footballing matters, manager changing every few months. As a consequence, Tynecastle presently has all the stability of a paper aeroplane in a hurricane.

Not only has the megalomaniac gutted what was the best chance in a generation of a non-Glasgow winning the championship, but all the instability he's provoked may ruin a rare opportunity to give hope to the minnows and turn the SPL into a truly competitive league.


I wrote last week about Chelsea's insufferable manager Jose Mourinho. He would call critics jealous but one only needs to look at Barcelona's Frank Rijkaard or Juventus' Fabio Capello to prove that one can be a winner AND have class at the same time.

I wrote that essay after Mourinho sniffed about a handball call against forward Didier Drogba... Mourinho's crybaby antics coming AFTER he admitted the referee made the correct call in that situation.

This weekend, Drogba committed another handball infraction before scoring a goal except this time, it wasn't caught by the referee. When commentators complained, Drogba whined that people pick on him and Chelsea unfairly.

Additionally, he admitted he dove to deceive refs and then quickly retracted his admission. Of course, his first comment was the truth, which is why he quickly took it back. Drogba is about the size of a central defender, but he often falls down faster than Kate Moss being tackled by Lawrence Taylor.

Not surprisingly, Mourinho rushed to defend his cheater: ""Sometimes he is a player who doesn't get what he deserves..."

Like a yellow card?

Let's be honest. Players dive. Diving, as a plague, can not be separated from its evil twin shirt pulling. They're two sides of the same coin. Diving is how attacking players cheat. Shirt pulling is how defending players cheat. Aside from bufoonish players screaming at referee every 0.92 seconds, diving/shirt pulling is the worst plague in the game today. Everyone may do it, but I refuse to have sympathy for anyone who does.


It's a sad time for the Beautiful Game.

Last year the US first division Major League Soccer's pathetic playoff system allowed the 9th best regular season team (in a 12 team league) to be crowned its 'champion.' It's all the more farcical when you realize that only 8 MLS teams make the playoffs.

But that's small potatoes compared to what's happening in Europe. Cheaters in England. Hooliganism in Italy. Racist chanting in Spain and in Slovakia. Match fixing scandals in Germany.

In England, practioners of thug soccer (Bolton or Blackburn) may conquer the prominent fourth Champions League spot ahead of Arsenal or Tottenham, who try play skill soccer. Dourly efficient Chelsea will win the English championship and Juventus the Italian version. A collective yawn will ensue.

In practically every league in the world, you have the pathetic spectacle of players collapsing to the ground as if shot any time a fan in the upper deck (Row Z) sneezes.

In practically every league in the world, you have the disgrace of 11 furious players virtually assaulting the referee when he gives a penalty even Ray Charles would've awarded.

In practically every league in the world, you have the constant obnoxiousness of players beseeching the referee to show a card every time someone steps on their shoelace.

Sure, you have the occassional sublime sides like Ronaldinho's Barcelona or (on a good day) Arsenal. They are the rare side that gives you hope for the game but in the back of your head, you fear they are but a false dawn, the exception that proves the rule.

Sportsmanship is virtually dead. Brilliance is rare, class rarer still.

And they wonder why attendances are plumetting in the most prominent leagues. Who wants to take out a second mortgage to watch dour efficiency?

But it's not all bad. A Reuters article points out that, contrary to popular belief, there is actually some pretty compelling soccer being played outside Western Europe.

And MLS' eleventh season starts on Saturday with mighty New England visiting (undeserving) champion Los Angeles in a rematch of MLS Cup 2005. Maybe this year, the league will manage to crown a champion who merits the title. After all, the Beautiful Game needs some good news.

Update: This piece from The International Herald Tribune also reminds us that western Europe is not the be all and end all of the soccer world.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why I'm glad I don't work in the news media

In this blog, I've been often critical of the news media and how they cover various stories and events. However, I'm going to take a slightly different path today. While I stand by my previous critiques, I do feel a bit sympathetic to those who work in news media.

(PBS' Newshour With Jim Lehrer, the highly overrated epitomy of he said-she said transcription reporting, did run an a thought-provoking segment that touched on many of the issues I address below)

I think most journalists are honest people who try to report the news in a fair way according to the standards they've been taught. To what degree they succeed; whether those standards should be revisited by the industry; if journalism should strive for neutrality or if it should strive for objectivity: those are all extremely important questions. But I think we should acknowledge that most reporters and editors try their best to meet that which is of expected them in often challenging circumstances, because today's journalists are subject to unprecedented pressures.

I think it's important to distinguish between the four principal areas of mainstream journalism: TV journalism (such as it is), newspaper journalism, magazine journalism and radio journalism, which is basically just public radio in this country. Each has very distinct strengths and weaknesses but there are certain common pressures they all face.

Pressure by corporate owners to maximize profits with little regard to how its done (public radio doesn't have this pressure; not coincidentally, it offers the best journalism in the mainstream media). As a result, the line between news and entertainment is becoming almost indistinguishable.

Pressure by the talk-show culture which always wants someone demonized and loathes nuance and by the ADD society which wants everything reduced to 20 seconds or less. preferably with pictures.

Pressure by politicians and political parties, which is not new but technology makes it easier for everyone to give 'uncooperative' journalists a piece of their mind.

Pressure by media watchdog organizations, whose jobs are to comb through every word on every media outlet and scream bloody murder every time a piece is a liberal interviewee gets one syllable more in a quote than a conservative interviewee, or vice versa. Their job is also to take things out of context. A paper could write 50 heart-warming stories about local troops playing soccer with Iraqi boys and how warmly the soldiers are welcomed home by their communities but one article about an anti-war rally betrays 'a raging anti-troop and anti-Bush agenda.'

Even pressure by blogs. Many blogs are good and perform a valuable oversight service, some are merely venues for screeds or adolescent angst. Most, including this one, contain entirely commentary, opinion or confession. Hardly any contain original journalism. (It's thus easy to see how a journalist who does the leg work of making phone calls and attending boring public meetings could get a little resentful about being constantly second-guessed by some loudmouth bloggers sitting in their pajamas pounding away on keyboards about topics they know little about anything but still think they're an expert at.)

Another pressure faced by the news media is the famous and incessant allegation of bias. For over two decades, conservatives have never stopped repeating that the news media has a (insert ominous music) liberal bias. They've been very clever in repeating it. A myth repeated often enough unchallenged becomes seen not only as true, but as self-evident.

Liberals and progressives, finally noticing this, have fought back. Not by denying the 'liberal media' charge but by creating a new 'right-wing media' allegation, which they now repeat ad infinitum too (along with related version like 'establishment media' and 'mainstream media,' which are meant as pejoratives). They contend that the news media has been so defensive about the bias allegation that they've overcompensated and are now too conservative.

So now, if a media outlet does a political story, it is all but guaranteed to get hammered with this accusation of bias. This is why much the news media now has an increasing reliance on transcription journalism, rather than investigative reporting which might, gasp, come to a conclusion that someone will scream about. Much of the media is gun shy.

As one of the guest in the Newshour interview opined: I think the press is not all that intrepid when it comes to challenging the wisdom out there when the public is against it. I feel the press is willing to be courageous, as long as it knows it's going to be applauded for it.

While I don't condone this mentality by the media, it's hard to blame them.

Am I exaggerating? You be the judge.

Earlier this week, the local daily Post-Star ran a story about our Congressman, John Sweeney, allegedly being involved in the Jack Abramoff mess. A friend of mine attacked the paper for running hundreds of pieces about teen drinking but only one (at the time) story about the alleged Sweeney-Abramoff ties. A letter to the editor by a Sweeney supporter hammered The Post-Star for even this minimal reporting, saying that a story about corruption allegations surrounding our man in Washington did not belong on the front page. That an article on some (non-local) college student winning a million dollars in a high stakes poker match was run on the front page apparently didn't bother this letter writer.

(Similarly, newspapers constantly run letters to the editor bemoaning the excess of 'bad news' stories. But if the paper runs 'good news' stories, people complain there is too much 'fluff.')

Now, it's tempting to say that if liberals claim a conservative bias and conservatives claim a liberal bias, then chances are the story is fair.

But this false equivalency really is a recipe for dangerous complacency.

Take the media's coverage of the aggression against Iraq. (I use the loaded word 'aggression' because this is an opinion/analysis piece, not a news article)

Pro-war people think the coverage has been overly negative. Anti-war people think it's been overly positive. In my opinion, the coverage was initially very uncritical and has increasingly gotten more critical. The national media has always tended to act in a pack mentality, which its priorities seem so incomprehensible to many ordinary Americans. (Were Gary Condit, JonBenet Ramsey, shark attacks and the Alabama girl kidnapped in the Caribbean really stories that deserved a tiny fraction of the NATIONAL media attention they were accorded?)

Even when the war coverage was sycophantic and fawning, pro-war people still thought it was too negative. And even as it's gotten more skeptical, anti-war people still think it's too positive. The coverage has changed, but perceptions of the coverage generally haven't. The news media can't please the extremes and, for the sake of its credibility, shouldn't try.

The flip side is that if conservatives and liberals (or Democrats and Republicans) agree on a policy, then the media generally assumes it must be a great idea. The label of 'bipartisanship' almost always makes the media to relax, even when they shouldn't.

Recent history offers an excellent manifestation of this danger.

Before the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration presented (carefully selected) evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction program. Most people, with a few exceptions, accepted the truth of the 'evidence,' even as they disagreed on what course of action the evidence implied. Some thought the evidence meant we should go to war, others thought the evidence wasn't grave enough to justify war..

But the very basis upon which these conclusions were drawn was almost never questioned in Washington. And since all national political stories are centered in Washington, this myopia is another weakness, that piece of conventional 'wisdom' was almost never questioned by the media.

This unquestioned conventional wisdom was the foundation of the debate on the war yet its accuracy wasn't seriously investigated until after the fact, until after it was too late. The media was lulled into complacency because Democrats and Republicans agreed.

This begs the question: COULD the US news media have investigated the truth of the WMD allegations and if so, how and to what degree?

Journalists are not weapons inspectors. They're not spies. Given the repressiveness of Saddam's Iraq, the best most journalists could've done is to ask outside experts. But media accounts of Saddam's 'obvious' WMD program were presented as definitive.

The media likes to portray itself as the watchdogs of the power, as the venerable Fifth Estate. One thing the media does a poor job in is explaining its limitations.

People constantly complain to media outlets, "How come you don't cover this?" or "How come you don't do more stories on that?"

They rarely get a response that is not defensiveness. "We're doing the best we can" is only a half answer. "We've already done 428 stories on that topic" doesn't mean you've covered the angle the reader/viewer is trying to get at.

I know journalists feel beseiged from all corners. But if they better explained their constrictions, it might defuse some of the criticism. Journalists like to think of themselves as 'the good guys' and I think they generally are too (full disclosure: I was a journalist for my college paper). While they probably expect hostility from the objects of unflattering stories, they haven't reacted well to the skepticism shown them by the general public. The defensiveness, in turn, feeds that skepticism. For a profession that demands transparency of others, it could practice more itself. A little openness goes a long way.

I don't expect my local paper to have a man in Washington covering the president (though even the tiniest media outlets seem to find resources to send people to tightly scripted, news-devoid political conventions). But they can have a man in their home office write an article when a national story has a local angle.

I think smaller newspapers rely too heavily on the wire services and their he said-she said transcription reporting. If they can't do original investigative work on an important story (at non-local levels), I'd like to see them consider using more stories from alternative media or even from foreign media outlets, to give readers a different perspective.

I don't expect national television to cover my city's mayor's race, but do they need to spend countless hours on every photogenic suburban white girl that gets kidnapped?

I don't expect TIME magazine to send a journalist to penetrate the reclusive Saddam dictatorship to investigate their alleged nuclear program. But I do expect them to be up front about the limitations of their reporting. If they have no independent evidence of their own, I expect their journalism to give equal weight to the administration's claims and the criticism of those claims by people like Scott Ritter. When you give 95 percent of your coverage to allegations of one side and 5 percent to the other, it's pretty obvious which position you're implicitly endorsing. If you don't have enough information to know where objectivity lies, then at least strive for neutrality.

Larger media organizations should be more careful about letting their guard down whenever an issue is declared to have 'bipartisan consensus.' In fact, this is when they should be most vigilant. Often, there are more than two sides to an issue.

Heaven forbid any media outlet regularly include comments by a Green or a libertarian or some other non-Democrat/Republican in important stories.

I'd like to see all coverage of especially campaigns focus more on the substance of the issues involved and less emphasis on the 'horse race' aspect. I don't really care if Joe Schmo thinks Mitt Romney has a good shot being elected president in 2008. I'd much rather read what kind of president Joe Schmo thinks Mitt Romney would make and what his positions on key issues are. And frankly, I won't really have much interest in even that for at least two years.

As I said, I think most journalists do the best they can given the norms of the industry. I'd just like to see more of them really challenge many of the standards that need to be questioned. If they held their own business to the same scrutiny they held the political business, it would result in a much better service to the public. Both in terms of their product and the political product.

I think journalism is one of the most self-critical professions... but only within certain boundaries. Those boundaries are rarely questioned. Journalists engage in massive self-flagellation whenever an obvious breach of ethics occurs, such as Jayson Blair. This is something obvious that everyone can agree upon: making stuff up has no place in journalism.

But this masks other, more subtle structural issues. For example, I'd like to see those within the media tackle a more challenging but more fundamental question: should journalism strive be neutral or should it strive to be objective? Is its purpose to provide an artificial balance or the complete picture? To provide a truth or the whole truth?

Something to ponder.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Africa's worst war criminal to face justice?

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this 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 what has the potential to be a significant advance in the cause of international justice, Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has formally asked Nigeria to extradite Charles Taylor. The disgraced former dictator has been in exile for the last few years after being forced out of office. The one-time warlord has been indicted for war crimes by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, where Taylor was accused of arming and funding that country's notorious rebel group, the RUF.

When I was in Guinea, I had Liberian and Sierra Leonian friends and acquaintances who had their lives destroyed, their property ruined, their relatives killed by Taylor's troops or those funded and armed by Taylor. As a result, I loathe him more than any living creature. Taylor has caused, either directly or through proxies, unimaginable death, destruction, instability and violence. Simply put, he is responsible for ruining more lives than any individual alive. It will be a great day for Africa and for humanity when this detestable scumbag is finally subjected to long overdue justice.

Nigeria's president has repeatedly guaranteed to hand over Taylor upon the request of a democratically-elected Liberian leader. Now that this has occurred, all that is left is for President Obasanjo to keep his promise.

In similar good news, the International Criminal Court has begun its first case. The ICC, which was opposed by the Bush administration, arrested a warlord in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on a charge of conscripting and enlisting children and actively using them.

UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman, a former Bush cabinet official, praised the ICC's action. “It is important to protect children from being recruited and used in armed conflict. "Wars must never be fought by children. Whether children are forcibly recruited, join armed groups in order to escape poverty or hunger, or enlist to actively support a cause, the first loss is their childhood.”

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dishonor all around

Several months ago, a party was held and some Ft. Edward high school students apparently attended and drank alcohol, something which is, of course, illegal. At least one of them was reportedly an athlete, which is a violation of the school's code of conduct that all athletes sign in order to participate in sports. Some genius took pictures at the party and posted them on the Internet site Someone saw the photos and reported them to the school.

What followed was fairly predictable: head-in-the-sand denials, obfuscation, demands for perpetrators to be stoned, self-righteous condemnations by the newspaper, defensive villagers circling the wagons against the newspaper, an administration eventually embarassed into doing the right thing, no one's honor left intact.

The school tried to ignore the photos. They claimed that they didn't know if the photos were doctored. They claimed that without knowing when the party was held, they couldn't know if it was before or after the athletes had signed the code of conduct and therefore couldn't act. They insisted that they'd acted on reports of alcohol use by students in the past, but after it was referred to them by the police.

Some parents complained about this. They contended that the district was engaged in a coverup. They claimed that some students are held to different standards than others with regard to the code of conduct. Did I mention that the one of the students identified was the star player for the school's state-ranked basketball team AND the son of the district's superintendent?

Four days before the basketball team was to participate in the state semifinal, a story appeared in the local daily Post-Star on the topic (along with the usual self-righteous editorial).

The timing was extremely fishy.

The complaining parents contended that they'd spent three months trying to get the school board to act on the photos. Yet if the parents had the photos for months, why did they wait for a few days before the big game to go to the newspaper? If they were so concerned about 'impunity' and 'double standards' by the school board, why didn't they just take the photos directly to the police (since underage drinking is a violation of the law, not just the athletic code of conduct)? Simply put, why did they wait so long to go public if they thought the administration was stonewalling? It makes you wonder if someone had an axe to grind with the superintendent and decide to use his son for that purpose.

Not surprisingly, many residents of the town circled the wagons and got very defensive. Why was the big bad newspaper picking on the poor, innocent town? Of course, the paper wasn't picking on the town, they were criticizing the (in)action of the school board and superintendent. But it's easier to blame the media than to blame your neighbors.

Not that the paper is blameless either. They've written a front page article on the topic almost every day for the last week and a half, even when there was hardly anything new to report. They insisted (hand over heart) that their reporting on the issue was not about the 'politics of personal destruction.' While this may not have been their intention, it's not hard to see how this could be misconstrued... even by those not looking for things to misconstrue.

Every single story on the topic (except today's, for some reason) contained some version of the sentence: "One of the students in the photos has been identified by The Post-Star's sports department as [kid's name], the star and leading scorer for Ft. Edward's basketball team."

That kid was the only student identified either explicitly or even implicitly by the paper.

When you combine that with the fact that this sentence was included in EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE ON THE TOPIC FOR THE LAST WEEK AND A HALF, it makes you wonder: why are they ramming this kid's name down people's throats? A mention in the first article would've sufficed, since who he is (or who his father is) is relevant to the story. But by now, it's overkill, it's sensationalism. After you've told people six times in a week and a half that one of the kids was so-and-so, is a seventh mention really necessary? Is it any wonder people question the paper's motives for beating this dead horse?

I've already explained several times why the paper's hysterical Crusade against teen drinking is more dangerous than helpful, since it fuels binge drinking, instead of more responsible consumption. Thank goodness those who developed the 'designated driver' concept weren't such ostriches. Particularly galling is the emotional blackmail they employ to hide their pathological refusal to distinguish between three distinct phenomena: teen drinking, binge drinking and drunk driving.

But whether teen drinking should be legal and monitored instead of hidden in the woods isn't the issue at hand. The athletes voluntarily signed the code of conduct in order to participate in sports. They chose to sign a de facto contract and they apparently broke the contract. If you want to get plastered or high all the time, don't play sports. It's that simple. It's dangerous to yourself and disrespectful to your teammates. It would be completely appropriate that they be suspended from their sport in accordance with the terms of the contract they signed. In fact, it would be wrong if they weren't.

The superintendent didn't distinguish himself any more than anyone else. As a father, he probably wanted to protect his kid (and his own image), both of which are understandable to some extent. But as a superintendent, he has a broader responsibility. He could've urged the board to look into things and then recused himself from the rest of the process.

It's true that the mob want this kid tarred and feathered. The superintendent would've been right to say, "Hold on, let's take a deep breath, investigate and let due process take its course." He would've been right to do this regardless of who the kid was. But he didn't do that. He buried his head in the sand, refused to look at the pictures and hoped that situation would simply go away. He could've done the right thing but he didn't... at least not until the negative publicity generated by the newspaper embarassed him and the rest of the board into doing so. But not after serious damage to his and the district's reputation.

I'm not surprised that some villagers view it as a witch hunt, since that's tone the newspaper uses in all of its reporting and editorials on the topic. And the newspaper has a reputation for being smug in general. When you wag your finger and lecture people like insolent children, it's not surprising when they get a bit defensive. But it really much simpler than that. If the board refuses to enforce the code of conduct, they are admitting that the code is meaningless. That's not a good lesson. Or, they could be admitting that you get different treatment if you're a star athlete or the child of a powerful person or if you're on a team that's doing really well. That's an even worse lesson to teach the kids.

Ft. Edward's school board and superintendent can talk all it wants about honesty, integrity and respect for the rules. But it would be hard to take them seriously now that those adults in positions of leadership have shown such a sad lack of all three qualities.

You have some kids doing stupid things, a school board and superintendent engaging in a coverup, some parents with an axe to grind and a newspaper demanding burnings at the stake. Sadly, no one comes out of this debacle with any credit.

Update: An interesting addendum to the daily's Crusade against teen drinking/binge drinking/drunk driving (which The Post-Star and their managing editor Ken Tingley disingenuously pass off as three of the same thing). In his column on Sunday March 26, Tingley recounted the time back in his younger days when he drove while intoxicated. Strangely enough, he was 21 and thus would've been drinking legally. (In fact, the drinking age at the time may have been 18 which meant he would've been drinking legally for several years). Maybe Tingley's episode demonstrates that the real problem isn't a teenager having a beer or two. Maybe the real problems are binge drinking and drunk driving... REGARDLESS of the age of the person doing it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Adeus Jose

In what must be good news for fans for English soccer, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been linked with the same position at Inter Milan, the long underachieving Italian giants.

Though always arrogant (he once famously described himself as 'the Special One'), Mourinho was initially seen by many fans of the English as a breath of fresh air for his candor. After all, every quality manager, or player for that matter, has an ego. And he backed up all his talk. He's managed 68 league matches for Chelsea, winning an amazing 53 and losing only 4... none at home. His squad is virtually assured of a second consecutive English league title.

But Mourinho has become tedious faster than you can say 'Christmas Card.' If you count cup and European competitions, I believe Chelsea have lost 7 or 8 times in the Special One's almost two years. Yet if you were to listen to Mourinho, his Chelsea has never once been beaten by a team that was better than them on that particular day.

It's always the referee's fault. The linesman's fault. The other manager's fault. The other team dives or kicks. Bias by the Football Association, UEFA or Premiership governing bodies. Nay, a global conspiracy against poor, underresourced Chelsea. I'm surprised he hasn't condemned Mother Nature's influence yet.

I understand the rationale behind Mourinho's schtick. It's a classic managerial motivation trick, creating the 'us against the world' mentality to foster team unity. That's why it's always someone else's fault. That's why you never hear him say 'Today, the other 11 just outplayed us.'

At this weekend's match, a hand ball call cost Chelsea a goal in a match they lost 1-0. He admitted that the ref made the right call ("I've seen it on TV and I know it's a hand ball") but blasted the official about it anyway!

Let me repeat that: he admitted that the ref made the right call, BUT THREW A TEMPER TANTRUM ABOUT IT ANYWAY!

"There are 19 managers and clubs plus one. There are not 20 in the same table," he sniffed.

His rants are designed to make himself the lightning rod to take the pressure off his players. This is another way he motivates players and earns their loyalty. But the downside is that he's become tiresome in record time. He's managed the neat trick of making Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson seem like a warm, sympathetic character by comparison.

As Fox Soccer Channel analyst Bobby McMahon pointed out, Chelsea have the aura of the nouveau riche. They're fine and dandy when they're winning but when faced with the tiniest bit of adversity, their lack of class is cruelly exposed.

Mourinho employs a high risk strategy that works well in the short term, but I'm not sure if it's sustainable over a long period of time. He's been at four clubs but has never spent more than two full seasons at the same place. By contrast, Ferguson has been at Manchester United for 20 years.

His emphasis on discipline worked well at Porto (and allowed them to compete with and beat Europe's giants) and at previously underachieving Chelsea (which gave them long overdue domestic, if not European, success). But you have to wonder how that emphasis on discipline at all costs would be received by Inter crowds used to flair and creativity.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Roundabout should inspire 'fear in your heart'

It's no secret that I've been critical of the counterproductive roundabout that apparently will be built in downtown Glens Falls.

Post-Star managing editor Ken Tingley derided critics of the project as opponents of progress. An editorial lectured incoming Mayor Roy Akins not to waste his time re-visiting the boondoggle. Imagine, an elected official thoroughly examining a project that would spend millions of taxpayer dollars and have major ramifications for the city's central business district. And he's denounced by the most powerful media outlet in the region for this act of fiscal responsibility?

The daily is not merely content to support the project. They go much further, mocking those who dare question their omniscence. But this is typical of the new Post-Star in the 21st century, a pale, dumbed-down shadow of a once excellent regional paper.

I've never accepted the contention of some that a roundabout would be the magic bullet that singlehandedly transforms downtown Glens Falls. This is only the latest in a series of once-a-decade magic bullets from one-way traffic (in the 1950s), to the disastrous urban renewal (1960s), to the building of the Civic Center (1970s), to the Civic Center Plaza (1980s), to the return of two-way traffic (in the 1990s). None of those magic bullets transformed Glens Falls; though all of them cost money and some made things worse, just like the roundabout will.

In fact, the roundabout does exactly the opposite of what downtown Glens Falls needs. The central business district needs to be made more friendly to pedestrians, as was done in downtown Saratoga. This will make it a more desirable place to stop and visit. The roundabout will only make downtown Glens Falls a more desirable place to NOT stop (because they won't have to) and NOT visit (because it'll be even more hostile to pedestrians).

One of the biggest reasons I've opposed the roundabout is that I have yet to hear a real answer to a single critical question: how is someone supposed to cross the street if car traffic in a roundabout never stops?

Apparently, I'm not the only one with this concern as a woman from Queensbury posed the same question to the Answers Please section of The Post-Star on Saturday.

The closest thing to a concrete answer was a reference to a state Department of Transportation book which urged pedestrians to "never cross to the central island."

This is confusing since defenders of the roundabout (when they actually bother to answer questions about foot traffic) have said that this central island is precisely what makes roundabouts such a utopia for walkers.

Additionally, the paper's response urged pedestrians to "have some fear in [their] heart."

Whew, that makes me feel better!

That one of the roundabout's most rabid supporters can not even come up with a concrete answer to my simple question only reinforces my opposition to this stupidity.

Electoral reform in Vermont

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is an electoral method advocated by the Green Party as well as by non-partisan groups like Common Cause. It's even been endorsed by the state Republican parties in Utah and Alaska.

(What is IRV? As the group Citizens for IRV in New York State explains: Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank their preferences for candidates from first to last. If no one receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second choices from those ballots are added to the totals for the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate emerges with a majority. Ireland and Australia have used the system in national elections, and it has been adopted in parts of Great Britain.)

IRV was used in the recent local elections in Burlington, Vermont's largest city.

On Tuesday, Vermont Public Radio's Switchboard call in program will have a show dedicated to discussing IRV.

The show will be available live via VPR's online stream (if you're outside their listening area) at 7:00 pm on Tuesday. And it will be available in their archives presumably later that week.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is"

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the beginning of the aggression against Iraq that has created chaos and cost tens of thousands of lives. For much of that time, many people and organizations have called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, a group which has become increasingly numerous and politically diverse. They have been attacked by the far right who accuse them of wanting to 'cut and run' (ie: spend more lives and money in an impossible cause). Defenders of the aggression have insisted that we must (hold hand over heart) 'stay the course.'

'Stay the course,' much like 'Support our troops,' is a neat rhetorical trick to bludgeon opponents into silence. But much like 'Support our troops,' 'Stay the course' is empty propaganda, not a strategy.

Appeals to 'Stay the course' beg the question 'What course?'

No one has the slightest idea.

There are many people who opposed the aggression in the beginning but reluctantly believe that we must stay in Iraq to finish the job. It would be irresponsible for us to so badly break Iraq and then leave Iraqis alone to clean up the mess. Such people argued that if US troops left Iraq 'hastily' (whatever that means), then Iraq would be plunged into civil war. For a long time, I was one of those people.

No more.

Iraq IS in civil war already, DESPITE the presence of over 150,000 mostly American troops. Some argue, convincingly, that far from restraining things, the presence of foreign troops is INFLAMING the violence. And this is precisely what I and many other pre-war critics of the invasion feared.

Some felt that we would invade Iraq and everyone would welcome us with flowers and parades. This betrayed a criminal ignorance of both history and human nature. When the UN issues a report criticizing the deplorable human rights situation at Guantanamo Bay, the spines of many Americans stiffen. 'Who are those foreigners to tell us what to do?' If Americans can't tolerate foreign criticism in the press, how naive were those Americans who thought Iraqis would welcome foreigners conquering and running their country?

Iraq has a huge presence of well-armed and well-trained foreign troops. Yet, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Even former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi insisted that Iraq was in civil war.
"It is unfortunate that we are in civil war. We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more," he told the BBC. "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

He also warned that Iraq is moving toward the "point of no return",

Granted, Allawi is not one of those evil hippie peaceniks that many on the far right like to demonize. Nor is he a Democrat (cue menacing music) 'playing partisan politics'... as only Democrats do, we are told. But he was installed to his position by the American-led coalition.

The coalition has been in Iraq for three years and has spent hundres of billions of dollars. Yet the situation is getting worse, not better. If two of the most powerful armies in the world backed by virtually unlimited and unrestricted funds can not bring peace and stability to Iraq, then maybe this demonstrates how impossible the mission was in the first place.

I always contended that the Iraq aggression was a horrible idea, badly executed. No one likes to admit failure but this was a mission that NO military was capable of pulling off. No military, at least not in the 21st century, is capable of invalidating human nature. Simply put, people don't like to be governed by foreigners.

I've never called for a withdrawal of US troops.

Until now.

Iraq has a constitution. It has an elected government. It has the basis upon which the country can move forward, if its citizens and politicians want to. If they don't want to, there is absolutely nothing any outside power can do about it.

While I don't believe we should pull out all soldiers tomorrow, US troops should start the process of withdrawal now.

Most troops should leave Iraq within a few months.

Some should remain to help train the Iraqi police force and army, that were dismantled by the US viceroy. However, they should leave too as soon as the police and army are self-sustaining.

As long as Iraqis think they are dependent on the US and UK for their security (such as it is), they will never become a self-sufficient nation. While some angrily denounce the idea of a timetable, the fact is that it is necessary to pressure the Iraqis to speed things up. Conservatives argue that poor people need a time limit on the amount of welfare they can receive because they need that pressure to make themselves self-sufficient; why doesn't that reasoning apply here? A gradual withdrawal of foreign troops will put pressure on the Iraqi police and army to step up to the plate.

Iraq is in civil war. Not only did the US-led aggression cause it but our presence is prolonging it, not shortening it. The process of withdrawal must begin immediately.

Update: in case there was a microgram of doubt about whether this course of action would be followed, the president has removed it. On Wednesday, Bush promised troops would stay in Iraq at least until 2009.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

New Jersey is now a Red (Bulls) state

Both Mohawk Blogger and The Global Game: Left Wing blogs comment on the disappearence of the MetroStars, a flagship franchise in the United States' first division Major League Soccer. The team hasn't disappeared, per se, but it was bought out by the Red Bull energy drink company and renamed the New York Red Bulls.

Apparently the authority that runs Giants Stadium, where the Red Bulls play, is peeved that the team's new name contains New York. Giants Stadium is located in New Jersey and the new stadium being built for the club is in Harrison, also in New Jersey.

There was talk that the new management would erase all of the team's records to start afresh, as they did when they bought out the hundred year old Austrian club SV Salzburg. This would've been a catastrophe for the team's (or should I call them the entity's) fans and for the entity's already fragile identity. Fortunately, that did not happen but it did create some ill feeling.

Tab Ramos, the best player in MetroStars history, slammed the move.

"How could I not be sad? I was part of the beginning of something and I was proud of that, and that whole thing has disappeared," Ramos said yesterday. "The identity has been lost. In Europe, there are plenty of teams that haven't won a championship in 100 years and they are still around with all their history. I wanted to win a championship here. We tried as hard as we could. You look at all the work that has been done for 10 years, and that's gone."

He added: "It's unfortunate, because whether the MetroStars have been a winning team or not, you have to remember there are thousands of people that have followed the team for 10 years, and it hurts them more than anyone else,"

And the $100 million investment by Red Bull will not have the same impact on the team on the field as it would in almost any other league around the world. MLS' structure and rules stipulates that all player acquisitions and contracts must be negotiated by the central league office. All teams are subject to the same salary cap restriction (well, in theory... MLS bends its rules more often than Pres. Bush bends the US Constitution). But no MLS team is going to be allowed to bring in a Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry. In fact, Red Bull won't actually own the franchise; MLS money men are called 'investor-operators.'

The lack of identity is something the MetroStars/Red Bulls have been fighting since MLS' debut in 1996. Giants Stadium is just sort of out there in the middle of suburbia. While they share a location with the Devils hockey team and Giants NFL football team, there is a difference. The Devils have been very successful for the last decade. And the Giants had a huge following before they moved to New Jersey.

The other problem the franchise faces is a microcosm of the challenge faced by MLS as a whole. The New York city metro area is home to probably the country’s most diverse immigrant population, which would make you think it a great recruiting ground for MLS fans. But as they come from other countries, they realize that the quality of MLS does not compare favorably to the top Western European leagues so they don’t bother to support the team in the middle of suburban New Jersey. They save their pennies for the one-off friendlies (exhibitions) between, say, Chelsea and AC Milan that come every summer and attract four times as many fans as the biggest stand-alone Metros game despite high ticket prices.

Identity and tradition are something that are important to build loyalty in sport, loyalty that can withstand the normal ups and downs of success (or not) on the field. You can't build tradition overnight, but Red Bull has demonstrated that you can dismantle tradition overnight.

The team's management essentially has to start from scratch again. MLS is notorious for this. The Dallas Burn became FC Dallas. The Kansas City Wiz became the Kansas City Wizards. The New York/New Jersey MetroStars became just the MetroStars became the New York Red Bulls. The San Jose Clash became the San Jose Earthquakes became Houston 1836 became Houston Dynamo. The Colorado Rapids changed their colors from green and black to blue and black. The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were contracted out of existence. All this in a league that's only ten years old. Tradition? Stability? Pft!

MLS teams need to follow the model of its two teams that have been most successful both on and off the pitch: DC United and Los Angeles Galaxy. The two key elements those two clubs both have are:

-A winning tradition. DC United has won 11 major trophies in 10 years while Los Angeles has won 7. I don't think any other team has half that. They are also the only two teams to win the CONCACAF Champions Cup as the best team in all of North America.

-A great stadium atmosphere. LA's Home Depot Center is the best stadium in the league. It's relatively small by American outdoor sports standards (seats about 27,000) but perfect for soccer. The crowd is loud and boisterous and right on top of the field. DCU's RFK Stadium isn't the ideal venue but it does hold in noise very well and their raucous fans are the best in the game.

MLS needs to worry about improving the quality of play and the stadium experience for its other clubs instead of obsessing about stupid marketing gimmicks and changing things every year. Has the league ever had the same playoff structure for three consecutive seasons?

Sports Illustrated opines, optimistically I suspect, that renaming an entire team after a corporate sponsor is not likely to be followed.

On a related note, the team's general manager Alexi Lalas was bullish (sorry couldn't resist the pun) about the potential involvement of German great and former New York Cosmos Franz Beckenbauer. "He's an idol of mine and a gentleman and a wonderful bridge between what happened with the Cosmos and what's happening here.

Lalas was more cool on the possibility of working with another former Cosmo, Giorgio Chinaglia. Chinaglia is quite possibly the only soccer person next to whom former US international and current television analyst Eric Wynalda comes across as a sympathetic figure. Says Lalas, "Giorgio thinks we should fire the front-office staff, the players, and the coaches. So as far as I'm concerned, he can kiss my ass."


Friday, March 17, 2006

Quote of the week

"The only people who want us in Iraq are Iran and al-Qaida."

-Rep. John Murtha, D-PA

While partially true, he forgot Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What happens when The Dear Leader comes to town

York Staters blog has a first hand account of how she experienced President Bush's visit to Canandaigua, in western New York.

Protesters were herded about a mile away from where the president was speaking to his hand-picked audience. This is actually quite typical for the administration to insist protesters be so far away from the president that they can't be heard.

(Warning: her account uses some fairly harsh language.)

Apparently, liberties are suspended when The Dear Leader Who's On A Sacred Crusade to Spread Freedom and Democracy comes to town. Or least restricted to "free speech zones."

The First Amendment guarantees the right of the people 'to petition the government for a redress of grievances.'

It doesn't restrict this right to "free spech zones." It doesn't restrict this right to supporters of the president or undecided voters. It doesn't restrict this right to people hand-picked by the president's staff.

I wonder if this blog will be considered a "free speech zone" if my town is ever subjected to hosting this president.

It's telling that this administration tries to restrict free speech to small, distant zones ANY TIME it thinks it can. It's revealing that the president's underlings want to make sure the president is subjected as rarely as possible to free speech not pre-selected by them.

Contrast this to the presidency of another conservative, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not only not afraid of hecklers, but he was often able to use his wit and charm to make political hay out of them. When he remained cool and witty in the face of intemperate critics, he benefited politically. He presented the image of someone comfortable with himself, calm when faced with the unexpected. If he were in good control of himself, people thought he was in good control of the country. President Bush presents the opposite image.

It seems this president is under the delusion that he's commander-in-chief of the entire country, instead of just the armed forces. A delusion no one has bothered to disabuse him or his staff of.

For years, there has been heavy security around any presidential visit, but as with so many other things, this administration has taken it to unprecedented new levels.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold recently introduced a proposal to censure the president over the controversial domestic spying program. (the mechanics of which I've attacked... both early and often).

One of the few progressives in Washington, Feingold was the only senator courageous enough to vote against the hastily-written Patriot Act when it was rammed through Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The censure motion would condemn Bush's "unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required" by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Censure of a president is rare and has happened fewer times than impeachment.

Feingold's motion has found no supporters even among his fellow Democrats, which is no surprise since his party members have repeatedly failed to stand up to the president on critical issues. Whenever the administration has cried wolf... umm I mean, national security, most members of the 'loyal opposition' have dutiful gone silent and ceased responsible skepticism. Several Democrats claimed that they wanted to wait until a report is issued by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee but Feingold expressed amazement that Democrats were "cowering with this president's numbers so low,"

I'm not a big fan of the usually shrill pressure group MoveOn, but they are sponsoring a petition to encourage Congress to censure the president. As some readers may be interested, it can be found here.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Peace vigil in Glens Falls

My friend Matt reports that there will be a vigil in Glens Falls this Saturday to mark the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of the aggression against Iraq. I know my first reaction when I read the note was, "Has it been only three years?" It already seems like we've been there forever.

This Saturday March 18 "Friends of Peace" will be holding a vigil/protest in Glens Falls to mark the third anniversary of our occupation of Iraq. The vigil will be from 11am to 12 noon (so that those who regularly attend the vigils in Saratoga at noon can still attend). The vigil will be held at the "Five Corners" (where Ridge, Warren, and Glen Streets come together in front of Burger King and Ridge Street Coffee). Lets all get together to bear witness, express feelings and light candles. Feel free to bring signs to help others see the cost (on all levels) of this illegal war.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Missing the point, as usual

I'm on record as criticizing the mainstream opposition to the Dubai ports deal. I've heard some legitimate criticism of the deal but most of it, I've found it nauseating. Particularly that many supposed liberals were so intent on bashing President Bush come heck or high water and of out-demagoging the president on security that they adopted the rhetoric of the nativists and xenophobes against this deal, which was killed. That said...

Friday, President Bush fumed angrily at the rejection.

"I'm concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East," he said. Adding, "In order to win the war on terror we have got to strengthen our friendships and relationships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East."

He's right, but it's a little late for him to come around to this line of thinking. The war against Iraq has so alienated huge swaths of the Middle East. The idea that a ports management deal between the US government and a sultanate is going to magically rehabilitate his and America's tattered credibility in the region is beyond prepostrous.

"I despised America so much because of their imperialist Crusade in Iraq. But now that they let the sultan of Dubai's company run their ports, I don't hate them nearly as much any more."

It's ludricrous to imagine this conversation happening anywhere.

It's like raping someone and then thinking that doing business with your victim's third cousin twice removed will suddenly absolve you.

If the president really wants to strengthen our friendships and relations with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East, he can apologize for the unprovoked, illegal invasion of Iraq as well as for the instability, chaos, violence and civil war in that country that the aggression has provoked. He can apologize for transforming Iraq from a tyranny of autocracy to a tyranny of chaos.

That would do far more than some technocratic contract to repair the relationships his reckless actions have so thoroughly damaged.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Trade Mike O'Connell! (redux)

I wrote an essay a few months ago calling for Mike O'Connell's resignation after the Boston hockey general manager traded away the Bruins' captain and best player Joe Thornton for three average players (forward Marco Sturm has proven to be a little above average). Now with San Jose, Thornton currently leads the league in assists and is second in points.

Two days ago, O'Connell did it again. He traded away the team's best remaining player, Sergei Samsonov, for a journeyman (Marty Reasoner), and a draft pick. In the same deal, they also reacquired a prospect (Yan Stasny) that they'd originally drafted but thought so little of they traded him away for another draft pick.

You have to hand it to the B's boss. Mike O'Connell is not the only GM to give up on a season, but he might be the first to give up twice on the same season. He is not the first GM to trade away his best player for a handful of fringe players, but he might be the first to do it twice in the same season.

This most recent trade as the club was making a playoff push, finally having recovered from the Thornton trade. The Bruins were only 7 points out of a playoff spot, a margin which would've been reduced to 5 if they'd won last night.

The Bruins might be the worst run franchise in the NHL. Some could reasonably argue that the Chicago Blackhawks or New York Islanders are more pathetic. However, Blackhawk and Islander GMs are usually fired after a few years of incompetence.

O'Connell and his mentor Harry Sinden have been allowed run the Bruins into the ground for the last 33 years, which coincides with the longest period in team history without a Stanley Cup. Sinden, for his faults, steered the Bruins to the playoffs in each of his 23 years in the GM's seat, even if they never won the Cup. This will mark the fourth time in nine seasons that the Bruins will miss the playoffs under O'Connell.

The Bruins are a directionless organization and O'Connell's in charge so it's long past time he should get the axe.

If I were Patrice Bergeron, the B's best remaining player, I wouldn't buy a house in Boston just yet.

Update: After the Bruins loss tonight, their fourth consecutive, coach Mike Sullivan said, "We've got to score goals. It's tough to win games when you only score one goal. Obviously, that's been our nemesis the last couple of games." It's hard to score goals when the team keeps trading away their leading scorers!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Restorative justice

Most judicial systems around the world are based on the concept of punitive justice. That's to say, someone commits a crime and is punished for it by paying a fine or serving prison time. The fine, of course, is paid to the state. By contrast, a prisoner's expenses are paid BY the state. No where in this process is the victim or the victim's family or friends really involved. Offenses are deemed crimes against society, not against an individual. That's why criminal cases are usually named "The people vs John Smith" and not "[The victim] vs John Smith."

Restorative justice is an alternative path that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders..

Punitive justice doesn't do anything for the victim or his loved ones. And while prisons are usually called by some euphemism like 'correctional facilities,' rehabilitation isn't really what they're about. The punitive justice system is about punishment and that's it. That's why so many criminals leave prison even more hardened and anti-social than before they entered.

Restorative justice won't bring the dead back to life but it does make criminals to confront the effects of the crimes on other people. It pushes those who've done wrong to think of someone other than themselves. Without being so confronted, it's easy for the criminal to see himself as a persecuted victim.

I know that restorative justice won't going to work in all cases but it's something worth introducing on a small scale. My mom always said, "If you make a mess, clean it up." Punitive justice never forces anyone to clean up their mess. It simply grounds them for years or decades.

Radio Netherlands English Service did powerful documentary on how restorative justice in the New Zealand justice system.

Restorative justice is also being being attempted in Rwanda. It's a process that many see as the only way for true reconciliation to arrive in the country following the 1994 genocide.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What's in a name?

When it comes to hype, few enterprises are more guilty than the sports industry.

Major League Baseball recently invented something called the World Baseball Classic, which is baseball's lame attempt to copy soccer's World Cup. The problem, of course, is that the very definition of the word 'classic' implies some sort of long tradition. The first edition of something can not be called a classic, especially before it's even occurred.

Major League Soccer was guilty of this last season as well. The very first match in history (and all subsequent matches) between Los Angeles Galaxy and their city rivals Chivas USA were instantly dubbed Super Classicos.'

Actually, they were dubbed 'Honda Super Classicos.'

As if the deceptive use of the word 'classic' wasn't bad enough, throwing in a corporate sponsor to something that's supposed to add mystique seems to defeat the whole point.

Worst of all were matches between the league's two newest teams, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. Some genius decided to call these contests 'Expansion classicos.'

Anyone with an ounce of common sense should understand that the phrase 'Expansion classico' is a contradiction in terms.

Matches between Los Angeles and the former San Jose Earthquakes became known as California Classicos. This occurred not because some suit decreed it so and decides to slap a corporate sponsor in front of it, but because the two teams played some incredible matches in front of great crowds and developed the most intense rivalry in MLS.

And this doesn't even take into consideration something called the World Series, which involves baseball clubs from two of the world's approximately two hundred countries.

Of course, American sports aren't the only ones guilty of this excessive hype. Tokyo hosts an annual match called the Toyota Cup, which most of the soccer press refers to as the World Club Cup, and the winner as the World Club Champion. This is simply not true, as the match involves only the champions of South America and Europe.

In 1998, US and North American champions DC United defeated South American champions Vasco da Gama in the Interamerican Cup. Yet, it was Vasco da Gama who ended up playing Real Madrid in the 'World Club Cup.' Go figure.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ali Farka Touré: 1939-2006

I was saddened to read of the passing of Ali Farka Touré. The Malian was one of Africa's best and most famous musicians. He won a Grammy for his album Talking Timbuktu, which he made with Ry Cooder. But his albums Niafunké and Radio Mali were even better, in my opinion, if less well-known. One of the reasons I loved his sound was that while the music of many other African artists popular in the west is overproduced, Ali Farka Touré's music was very simple and organic. The greatest complement I can pay his music is that whenever I heard it, I was instantly transported back to my small West African village.

He had been recently named mayor of his home village Niafunké. It's worth noting that despite international reknown, he chose to remain in the dusty and generally unpleasant Sahel rather than moving to New York or Paris. While there, he tried to use his fame to improve the lives of his fellow villagers. He was also active in supporting young, up and coming Malian musicians.

His music is truly a joy to listen to.

Note: A humorous anecdote. A few years ago, my sister and her boyfriend were over. I had Talking Timbuktu (which Farka Touré recorded with Ry Cooder) in my CD player. My sister's boyfriend saw the album cover and asked, "Who's that guy with Ry Cooder?" I laughed and said, "That's funny because when I first saw the cover, I wondered who was that guy with Ali Farka Touré." We both chuckled.

Monday, March 06, 2006

View from a mud hut

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this 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 Globalist has an interesting account of life in Burkina Faso. Newly arrived Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) Nathalie Boittin writes of her experiences in the West African country.

Some are fairly common among new PCVs:
The first few days in my village were probably the toughest days of my service to date.

I felt like I didn’t know the language, I certainly didn’t know anyone in the village — and I still wasn’t sure just how I was expected to either empower or educate the girls.

Others sure ring familiar to me even though I was in Guinea.

At first, I had to make an effort to get myself to leave the house each morning to go and “talk” to people in the village — a process which involved a lot of hand gestures and pointing and big smiles.

It was rather unnerving being the constant center of attention. Few people had ever interacted with a white person (or “Toubakou,” in the Fulfuldé language) for any significant amount of time. And many of the younger children had never seen a toubakou at all — and initially fled in terror whenever I came near.

The Burkinabé, much like Guineans and other West Africans, must have a bit of Italian in them:

They also go a little overboard feeding me. Giving food to others is an integral part of hospitality here, but it can get to be a bit much — especially since they aren’t exactly feeding me Caesar salads.

Well maybe just in spirit:

They bring a giant bowl of tô (a kind of thick millet dough served with various sauces, that people here eat morning, noon, and night) to me every single evening — and occasionally at noon, too.

Eventually she, like most PCVs, found her rhythm:

Incidentally, the children are no longer afraid of me. They are much more likely to follow me around, run after me when I bike over to the water pump to get my water every day, or offer to get the water for me, than to run away.

Not only that, but now that I have more or less navigated the difficult period of settling in, getting used to people and language, and getting them to accept me as their daughter/sister/niece/non-wife, I can actually start getting some work done, which leads me to a whole new challenge and adventure — figuring out the whole girls’ empowerment thing!

Good luck Nathalie!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Troops want out of Iraq... but first, more on Banana Boy!

Recently, the respected polling firm Zogby found that 72 percent of American troops in Iraq think the US should exit the country within this year.


-42 percent say U.S. role is hazy

-A [p]lurality believes Iraqi insurgents are mostly homegrown

-A [m]ajority of troops oppose use of harsh prisoner interrogation

-[J]ust one in five troops want to heed Bush call to stay “as long as they are needed”

I've never been a big fan of militarocracy, government by soldiers. I'm especially wary of giving carte blanche on our foreign policy decisions to a group where Almost 90% think war is retaliation for Saddam’s role in 9/11. It is widely known (outside those circles apparently) that Saddam had no role in 9/11.

But many Americans HAVE cited absolute deferrence to soldiers as a reason to eliminate democratic debate on the wisdom of the war. They've used the excuse that criticizing the aggression or the president would (hold hand over heart) undermine troop morale. Because according to them, soldiers are too weak of mind and fragile in spirit for any criticism of their commander-in-chief to be brokered. That's why we must suspend the normal democratic rules at home while the soldiers are on their sacred Crusade of spreading democracy abroad.

So what do those folks make of information like this? Does this mean that the soldiers are anti-troop? Has this famously conservative demographic suddenly become a bastion of left-wing hippie radicalism?

If you demanded absolute deferrence to them before, don't change your mind now.

Perhaps the soldiers are, along with many other Americans, starting to recognize that 'Don't cut and run' is smokescreen, not a strategy. Maybe they've realized that 'Stay the course' is empty rhetoric if no one, including the president, has any clue what that course is.

Our local daily actually did run a wire service story on the poll, contrary to some expectations.

I understand that the paper wants to emphasize stories with a local slant. But while Mega Millions lottery fever and the [insert catchy music] continuing saga of Banana Boy have been deemed worthy of front page placement, this significant story about surprising opinions of those required to risk their lives executing the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation was buried on page A3, just above liquor and furniture ads.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The strange doings of Mahatma Bush and Silvio of Nazareth

-Bush: Iraqis Must Choose 'Chaos or Unity'. President Bush smugly lectures Iraqis, "It's your responsibility to clean up the mess we created. For your Liberation of course. Now snap to it!" Of course, he gave his lecture not in Iraq to Iraqis but in Washington alongside Italian prime minister Silvio Berslusconi.

-Speaking of Silvio, he recently compared himself to Jesus Christ. The president's chum called himself "the Jesus Christ of Italian politics." Adding, "I am a patient victim. I put up with everything, I sacrifice myself for everyone." And to think, most of us thought he was merely an ethically challenged media tycoon.

-Not to be outdone, during his visit to India, President Bush will reportedly lay a wreath at the grave of Gandhi. So the man who's ordered more wars than anyone in the 21st century will honor the 20th century figure whose very name is synonymous with non-violence. Of course, the president also gave a presidential medal of freedom to Muhammad Ali, who was once excoriated for his opposition to another insane war of aggression. Then again, Americans weren't fooled by that ruse either.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

George Washington spied on people's emails too

Though this happened a few weeks ago, a friend just pointed this out to me. Almost as if to show that just when you think the administration's credibility can't get any lower, they prove you wrong.

In his Senate testimony last month on the president's probably illegal domestic spying program, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (who infamously claimed the government's right to torture) made a number of extraordinary claims. But the most novel one was this:

"President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all authorized electronic surveillance on a far broader scale."

So THAT's how the north won the Civil War: Lincoln was secretly intercepting Jefferson Davis' text messages!

Perhaps this is why Republican senators reportedly refused to put the attorney general under oath before his testimony.

I think we should take it easy on President Bush. I heard Caesar tapped cell phones too.

Note: Before one dismisses Gonzales' comment as an honest, off-the-cuff mistake, it's worth noting that he was reading a prepared statement.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Happy Peace Corps Day

Today is national Peace Corps Day. It's the anniversary of the day in 1961 when President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps. A few years ago, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

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 [now 45th] 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 the antithesis. 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. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

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 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, some 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.

(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)

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.