Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The winds of migration

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, Iraq and Iran*.

(*-upon the suggestion of a reader and due to the beating of the new drums of war, Iran has been included in this list.)

Since the election as president of longtime opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade, West Africa's Senegal has become a bit of a darling of the international community. A smooth, democratic transfer of power. A sauve president who knows exactly what words and phrases foreign diplomats and international donors want to hear. While things are certainly better off in Senegal than in most of its neighbors, things are not all roses in le pays de la Terenga.

I've already written written about Wade's autocratic political tendencies (more extensively in my francophone Africa blog).

Yet, the problems are not simply political. The economic problems are more pressing for most Senegalese. Global Voice reports on a Senegalese blogger who been chronicling the perils faced by his countrymen who try to migrate clandestinly to Europe.

Despite the well documented risks(some mortal) and the likelihood of being stopped by authorities before reaching the European mainland, thousands of Senegalese have reportedly braved this perilous journey this year alone.

A powerful video report on the subject posted by the site Seneweb has provoked hundreds of responses.

The quantity and passion of the responses (of which Global Voices have helpfully translated a few) demonstrate how important this issue ranks in the minds of many Senegalese.

Sadly, this phenemenon is not limited to Senegal or even to Africa.

In high school science, we learned how wind occurs. Wind is caused by air moving from an area of high pressure to an area of lower pressure. The greater the difference in pressure, the heavier the wind will be.

Migration works the same way, but in the other direction. Peoples tend to migration from areas of low economic potential to areas with higher economic potential. The greater the difference, the heavier the migration will be.

People like to think that what happens far away has no effect on them but in a globalized world, that's no longer true, if it ever was. Europe could erect a wall around its shores but as long as people in Africa can't feed their families by staying home, they will try to get in. People are going to do whatever they need to do to survive and to feed themselves and their families, even if it means being a sans papiers.

Thus, the only way to reduce the winds of migration is to decrease the economic disparity between Europe and Africa, between the US and Central America/Mexico. For this to occur, the western countries must implement fair trade practices by reducing or eliminating huge subsidies that cripple African producers. Freer trade must be structured so as to be a means, not an end in and of itself. Western countries must also restrict the highly profitable trade in small arms; far and away the most devastating weapon of mass destruction, small arms are used to destabilize countless countries and regions. Economic growth can not take off in an atmosphere of violence and instability.

Developing countries must launch a full-scale assault on corruption and bad governance, not simply let these be charades to settle political scores. The rule of law and respect for private property must go without saying if anyone is going to start a business and create employment; contrary to popular belief, respect for private property can be integrated with traditional social structures. Developing countries must also provide incentives for capable, well-educated citizens to remain at home. Universities, health facilities, laboratories and other institutions must be properly funded and maintained.

Of course, these are just a few of many things that need to be done to address global economic inequality. But it's a start. Interdiction alone will never be enough to stem the flow of migration.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The hypocrisy of el presidente

As the descendant of Italian immigrants, I certainly have no intention of siding with the nativists on the immigration scuffle. That said, Mexico's president is hardly helping things. On one hand, Vicente Fox visited the US and urged 'decent treatment' for his countrymen in the States.

Of course, it might be better if the former Coca-Cola executive focused more on ways to improve the Mexican economy so his countrymen wouldn't have to migrate in the first place. After all, most Mexicans who leave the country do so for economic reasons not because they want sponge off Texas' generous (snicker) social safety net.

But Fox's comments there are fair enough.

Yet a look at Mexico shows that non-natives are banned from those and thousands of other jobs, even if they are legal, naturalized citizens.

The debate in the US focuses on non-citizens who entered the country illegally.

The Associated Press notes Foreign-born Mexicans can't hold seats in either house of the congress. They're also banned from state legislatures, the Supreme Court and all governorships. Many states ban foreign-born Mexicans from spots on town councils. And Mexico's Constitution reserves almost all federal posts, and any position in the military and merchant marine, for "native-born Mexicans."

Pres. Fox's government wants this to go even further.

Since at least 2003, it has encouraged cities to ban non-natives from such local jobs as firefighters, police and judges. Mexico's Interior Department — which recommended the bans as part of "model" city statutes it distributed to local officials — could cite no basis for extending the bans to local posts.

And foreigners make up only a neglible percentage of people living in Mexico (0.5 percent vs 13 percent in the US).

In the US, foreign-born citizens can even serve as soldiers, governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger), senators (Mel Martinez) and even high-ranking federal cabinet officials (Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright). But a president who wants to ban foreigners from even being firefighters is lecturing Americans on fair treatment of non-natives?

I've stated my position on immigration. I'm about as far away from nativism as you can get. But Sr Fox's double standards are hardly helping.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The world's ten most underreported stories

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 UN publicized its annual list of the world's most underreported stories implying that politics, murder and sex scandals still take precedence over poverty, peace-building or economic development.

Some claim that the media doesn't cover stories from the developing world because it doesn't really affect Americans. At least not directly. In the global village, this is an increasingly shaky argument. But even so, how does this argument explain the fact that every time a pretty upper middle white girl is kidnapped and a handsome upper middle white boy is accused of acting badly, these marginal local stories hog national US 'news' programs?

Privleged lacrosse players supposedly raping a stripper makes for an easy narrative. How to improve lives for some of the billions of poor people is not. Gawking draws more readers/viewers than thinking. None of this is a revelation. That's just the way it is. Sadly, I no longer expect the corporate media to lead, but to be lead. My biggest objection is that it's borderline fraud to call such voyeurism 'news.'

"We've tried over the years to show that development issues can make good stories too -- by pointing out the human interest aspects, and by helping demonstrate that such stories can be made 'readable', 'watchable' and interesting," noted Shashi Tharoor, U.N. under-secretary-general for communications and public information.

According to the UN, the ten stories the world should hear more about include post-war reconstruction in Liberia; the new challenges faced by bona fide asylum seekers; the upcoming historic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo; children caught in the ongoing conflict in Nepal; and the compounding effects of a drought threatening to undermine stability in war-devastated Somalia.

The list also singles out several other stories under-reported by the world media: the plight of millions of refugees living in limbo; the problems of relief efforts in the aftermath of the South Asian earthquake and tsunami; the alarming number of children in conflict with the law; the collaborative solutions that have prevented conflicts over scarce water resources; and renewed violence that threatens to undermine the peace process in Cote d'Ivoire.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Pres. Bush is an inspiration... Outpost of Tyranny leader Robert Mugabe.

BBC Focus on Africa reports:

In Zimbabwe, the government has published a draft law that would allow it to monitor phone conversations and emails. The authorities say it's in the interest of law and order. However civil groups argue that if the proposal becomes law, the government could use it to target political opponents.

I'm sure Mugabe would echo Bush supporters and say something like, "If you're not a 'terrorist,' you have nothing to worry about."

US ranks 44th in world press freedom

Every year, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (also known by its French acronym RSF) issues an index of world press freedom. Amazingly, the 2005 index ranked the US 44th in press freedom.

How quickly things have deteroriated under the Bush administration? The US ranked 17th in press freedom as recently as 2002.

The US ranked below El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, the 'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys,' all the 'socialist' Scandinavian nations, eight countries who were behind the Iron Curtain fewer than two decades ago and even a half dozen African states.

At least we (barely) ranked above Israel, Mozambique and Mongolia.

The RSF report cites executive and judicial attacks on journalists as well as police retaliation against journalists who do reporting that displeases them. RSF also criticized recent comments by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Bear in mind that the RSF index was compiled before revelations of widespread warrantless spying by the Justice Department [sic] on journalists.

This is just the formal government pressures on the free press. The MSF index doesn't directly take into account indirect pressures on journalistic independence caused by widespread media consolidation.

Note: Iraq was 10th bottom during Saddam's last year. They've skyrocketed up to 11th bottom in 2005 under LIBERATION. Huzzah!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Kudos to The Post-Star

The title of this entry is not intended to be ironic. It's no secret that I've been a regular of The Post-Star in recent years. But I have to give them praise for the excellent series on suicide that the daily is running this week. (The series is available online by clicking here).

The series is not preachy or finger-wagging or self-righteous. It's informative, useful and emotionally powerful, a trio that is not always easy to blend.

This is the sort of good, public service journalism about serious issues that I hope to see more of in the paper.

Update: On an unrelated note, weekly Chronicle editor Mark Frost launched its latest salvo in his regular attacks on the Post-Star. The issue was regarding the weekly's inclusion in a interview with visiting Sen. John McCain, something the daily was not invited to and was peeved about. Frost published private emails sent by journalists at the daily to a member of McCain's staff. This is at least the second time he's published such private emails sent by The Post-Star staff. I know Mark Frost personally and I like him a lot but I find this practice ethically dubious to say the least. (Even more so since the emails weren't even sent to him directly.) The correspondances did not reveal any illegal or unethical activity, only a bit of sour grapes. The only reason Frost ran the letters was as a transparent jab against a competitor he despises. I've had email correspondances with Mr. Frost and with several journalists at The Post-Star. Though I've had my differences with both papers, it would never occur to me to publish any of those emails without their consent.

The 'Support our troops' ruse (pt. 243)

I've written before about how 'Support our troops' is nothing more than an empty phrase used to silence critics of the president and the Iraq aggression. Certainly not all people who use the phrase intend it that way; my mom has a bumper sticker with that slogan on her car and she's opposed the war from the beginning. But in reality, the seemingly innocuous phrase has been hijacked by those who believe in the un-American premise that you can't criticize the Leader.

The other sad part about the phrase is that people use it without thinking. It's become a bit like the prayers said at Sunday mass. Most people just intone the words from memory without really pondering them. It's just what you do in that situation.

But putting up a lawn sign or wearing a ribbon that says 'Support our troops' doesn't really support the troops. I've often said that if you really want to support the troops, demand that they never be put in harm's way lightly or for bogus reasons... that their commander-in-chief order them to risk their lives only when it's absolutely necessary.

There are others ways too. Such as making sure soldiers are treated properly after they leave the armed forces. My brother, an ex-Marine, has sent me many articles on the dysfunction in the veterans' benefits system.

The blog of Foreign Policy magazine offers several other examples.

A lot has rightly been made of the recent vets' identify theft scandal. But there's more. As FP notes A staggering 144,000 veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought treatment from the VA system, but the VA can do little but try to care for them on the cheap, given its slashed budget. Astonishingly, 33,858 more vets asked the VA for treatment in just the first quarter of [Fiscal Year] 2006 than the VA expects all year.

The magazine also interviews Jon Soltz, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America PAC. Soltz offers the following assessment: The veteran who walks into the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) today is drastically worse off than he or she was four or five years ago. They pay more for their prescription drugs. There is now a fee for them to enroll into the system. Iraq war veterans put a tremendous demand on the VA, specifically because we’ve deployed so many members of the Guard and Reserves. There’s also a problem with diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of people with PTSD get diagnosed with “adjustment disorder” primarily because there’s not enough money in the VA budget to provide these heroes with the disability payments they should be given.

Of course, if we stopped wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year on an insane war of aggression with no prospect of an end, we might have money to actually help the soldiers we ordered to prosecute that war.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

War apologists' logic dictates withdrawal

Some supporters for the Iraq aggression assure us that things are going swimmingly. That it's only months away from becoming the Garden of Eden again. All the homicide bombings are just a figment of the 'liberal' media's imagination. Iraqis would have water and electricity and security if not for Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean and Michael Moore. They suggest that having a piece of paper called a constitution and elections under foreign occupation make the place a model republic that Plato would be proud of.

People like this will lie to you and say that only peaceniks and inveterate Bush-haters think the war is going poorly. It's easy to laugh hysterically at this. Sometimes it's difficult to believe there are people who can be so willfully blind.

Sure, you might tell them that only 30% of the people opposed of the Iraq aggression beforehand and 49% voted against Bush in the 2004 election yet 62% (and rising) oppose the aggression now... so obviously it's more than just the president's and the war's natural opponents who have issues with the debacle. But such facts won't cure them of their delusions.

Just for a moment, however, let's take them at their word. Let's follow their analysis to its logical conclusion.

Iraq had elections. Iraq has a government. Iraq has a constitution. Iraq has nascent security forces. If these things are true and everything else is going as peachily as we are being assured, then clearly it's time for US troops to pull out. Why else would we need to stay longer?

Iraq is home to the oldest civilization in the world. It doesn't need some relatively young nation holding its hand on governance ad infinitum. They have their constitution, their government, their elections, their security forces. Let them run their own country unimpeded by Uncle Sam.

If things are going as well as the apologists tell us, then this is 'Mission Accomplished.' Why, then, do they tell us that this is 'Cut and Run'?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

NY Greens choose statewide candidates

Recently, the Green Party of New York State's leadership choose its candidates for statewide office. The Greens are calling their candidates 'the peace slate.' This is intended as a contrast to the Republicans, who almost uniformly backed the Iraq aggression, and to the Democrats, whose leadership eagerly made itself complicit.

Go to the GPNY's website. That's your best bet to learn about the candidates as they will surely continue to be ignored by the corporate media* along with nearly all other non-Democrat and -Republican candidates... and even some major candidates not deemed sufficiently important by the 'we don't make news, we just report it' types in the mainstream media.

(*-The Albany Times-Union is notable exception and actually and actually ran a story about the Greens' nomination).

Lazy editorials

The New York State Associated Press and other press organizations may go ga-ga over the flip editorials in The Post-Star but I know I'm not the only reader who's unimpressed.

I'm aware that writing editorials is not an easy job; I wrote a few for my college newspaper. Writing columns (essentially what I publish in this blog) is fairly straight-forward. Writing editorials is a bit trickier. Columns are the exclusive opinion of one person: the writer. Editorials are usually the collective opinion of the paper's editorial board. It's hard to write a concise opinion that reflects the consensus view of half a dozen people or more while still being focused and pointed. Yet surely The Post-Star can do more than the snarky offerings that show up on their editorial page.

Look at today's editorial (only available online to subscribers, unfortunately). The paper criticized school boards for not sufficiently cutting the fat out of school budgets. Many local school officials claim that their budgets don't contain much fat to cut but The Post-Star insists that it's a piece of cake.

I'm not criticizing the actual position the daily took. School board members are volunteers who spend a lot of time doing thankless tasks for free, like being the lightning rod when taxes are raised or negotiating with teachers' unions. I don't know enough about various local school budgets to know if there's a lot of fat in them or not. Sadly, The Post-Star's editorial (and its news reporting) didn't really illuminate me.

Ironically, the criticism of school boards on spending came only weeks after the paper urged voters in Glens Falls to APPROVE a $2.5 million project to install artificial turf and renovate the high school's football field. These improvements would've been useful but hardly essential. I realize that this would've resulted in bonds being issued, but the debt and interest still would've been paid for by school taxes that would've been raised in consequence. Voters obviously understood better than the newspaper the difference between necessity and luxury: they approved important renovations to school buildings but rejected the turf proposal.

The paper insists that cutting budgets is really easy. It offers an amazingly simple blueprint: A few minor purchases here, a part-time position there. Maybe live without that new computer for another year. Perhaps lower the thermostat a degree or two. Draw the line on excessive overtime. See if there are services being duplicated within the company that can be shared.

I don't know if I agreed with everything written in the editorial or even it's thrust, but it seemed like a fair commentary. Until you consider...

Not once did they give an actual, concrete example of 'fat' in local school budgets that could've been slashed. Not once did they cite a couple of purchases Fort Edward (where voters rejected the budget) could've lived without. Not once did they tell us how much overtime was being used up in Indian Lake (where voters did the same). If it were so easy to do and the fat so blindlingly obvious, certainly the paper's award winning editorialist could've shared suggestions with readers. The fact that the editorial was unable to offer a single example of wasteful spending means their criticism was a cheap shot. And a lazy one at that.

Somehow, I doubt AP contest judges will be shown this editorial.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Correction: Iran armband story retracted

In keeping with my criticisms of mainstream media outlets for burying important corrections, it's only fair that I not fall into the same trap.

Last Saturday, I wrote an essay which reference a report from Canada's right-wing National Post. The Post claimed that Iran's parliament was about to pass a law that would've required religious minorities to wear distinctive clothing, a la the Nazis.

The Post has reportedly retracted the story.

Journey Into the Sunset

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 progressive site Alternet has a rare article in the US media about the crisis in northern Uganda. It talks about the documentary Journey Into the Sunset, starring Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle. The article also has an interview with the documentary's director, Rick Wilkinson. The film focuses on the 'night commuters,' children who walk miles every evening from the countryside to urban shelters to avoid the wrath of the hideous and misnamed Lord's Resistance Army.

Best line from the interview:

Alternet: The United Nations called this crisis one of the worst to afflict children around the world.

Rick Wilkinson: Yeah, but who listens to the U.N.? I'm not going to say they're powerless, but when the U.N. releases a press release, what do you think will get covered, the press release or some lacrosse guys accused of rape?

(Of course the UN has very limited power. That's exactly the way the US and other major countries want it. But the point on US press coverage is spot on.)

Rather than giving your money to Ticketmaster, give some to to this group instead.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ticketmaster and price gouging

With the exception of DeBeers, is there any company which singularly dominates an industry like Ticketmaster?

As an example, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is playing at a local venue. The lowest priced ticket is $36. And for $36, you don't get an actual seat to sit in. You pay $36 for lawn seating for a single act.

Going to the movies seems like a bargain by comparison! Even with the $4 candy bars.

$36 for a lawn 'seat' is a typical price for that venue.

If you want an actual seat inside the ampitheatre, the minimum cost is $86.

Eighty-six dollars!

And that's before Ticketmaster's myriad of special fees.

For maybe a two or three hour concert.

And it's not even one of the top current acts.

Ticketmaster says it does not determine the face value of the ticket and it probably doesn't directly. But it must charge promoters so much for their services that face value prices have to be jacked up to compensate.

On top of that $36 cost for a lawn 'seat', there's a $9 'convenience charge' if you buy online. That despite the fact that when you buy online, it doesn't require an actual person (labor costs) to check ticket availability for you. Is the actual cost to Ticketmaster of you logging in to their site and ordering a ticket really $9? Are bandwidth and security measures that expensive?

Even more ridiculous are the delivery options. They will postal mail it to you in a regular envelope for free, even though it costs them 39 cents for the stamp. But if you want it via email, something which costs them nothing, they charge you $2.50. And of course if you want it within 3 business days or , they'll UPS it to you for at least $14.50.

So for that lawn 'seat', you're paying a MINIMUM 25% extra in extra fees... up to almost 80%.

And that doesn't include $15 parking or $7 bottles of water or $35 t-shirts once you actually get to the concert.

Apparently, Ticketmaster thinks it's not ripping you off enough. Now, it's going to auction off seats to the highest bidder for popular shows, instead of selling tickets at a flat rate.

No, I don't think Congress should intervene here, any more than I think they should intervene to lower gas prices.

I don't think what Ticketmaster is doing fits the legal definition of price gouging. But it certainly fits the layman's definition. Yet if people don't like Ticketmaster's obscene policies, they don't have to go to concerts. That's my choice.

I haven't bought a ticket to a concert in about five years. I've been to exactly two concerts in the last 12 years. I love music and I'd like to go to more live shows. But ticket prices are outrageous. I like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young but it's not worth $45 (plus incidentals) of my money to do so. I don't like any band that much. Which is why I don't go to concerts anymore... at least not at big venues.

For all the whining of music fans about Ticketmaster, the fact is that they charge these ridiculous prices because they know people will pay them. Because people DO pay them. They're going to auction off these tickets because they know people will pay through the nose for them.

There's nothing more annoying to me than to hear an automobilist whine that they 'have' to pay $50 to fill up their gas guzzler. With the possible exception of music fans sniffing that they 'had' to pay $50 to see their favorite band in concert. No one's putting a gun to your head to make you buy an SUV or pickup truck nor is anyone forcing you to drop a U.S. Grant to see Godsmack. The only way Ticketmaster will get the message and lower costs is if fans decide en masse to stop paying the outrageous prices. It's time to put up or shut up.

Save your money and subscribe to Napster. It's a lot better value.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Respect for human rights is in our national interest

I've often said that the 'war on terror' is simply the Cold War with different devils. The rhetoric, the tactics and the mistakes are effectively the same. I let someone else reference the military-industrial complex.

During the Cold War, the US government often blindly backed odious regimes simply because they were anti-communist. Or at least claimed to be. The actual communist menace in the country didn't need to be significant. We also backed sickening death squads in places El Salvador, a genocidal regime in Guatemala and state terrorism in too many other Latin American countries. Sure, tens (hundreds) of thousands of people were killed, assassinated or 'disappeared,' but at least we 'saved' Latin America from communism. Can anyone definitively say that state terror in East Germany was really significantly worse than state terror under Pinochet? As repressive as almost all communist regimes were, I would rather have lived in Cuba or Hungary in the 80s than in El Salvador or Guatemala.

Blind US support for ogres backfired when populations revolted and often helped usher in regimes who were anti-American. US-backed despots like Somoza, Batista and the Shah were overthrown in popular uprisings and replaced by the anti-American regimes of the Sandinistas, Fidel Castro and the Ayatollah Khomeni. Somalia's Siad Barre was originally in the Marxist camp but switched sides when the Soviets backed his archrival Mengitsu in neighboring Ethiopia. US government support for the 'converted' anti-communist blinded them to Barre's wild unpopularity at home; Washington was shocked when his regime collapsed. The country has been in chaos ever since. The US intervened in the early 90s. And we're meddling there again now.

In some cases, the friends of yesterday become the enemy's of today. The US backed the theocratic Mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But when the Mujahadeen became the Taliban and the Taliban supported al-Qaeda, suddenly we didn't like them so much anymore. We went from funding them to invading to get rid of them. This was hardly unprecedented, as Saddam and Noriega could attest to.

I've often argued that the advocacy of human rights was in our national interest. Not human rights as a selective bludgeon to serve other ends. But human rights as a central tenet of foreign policy. This goes against the conventional wisdom in foreign policy circles, which deems an emphasis on human rights to be hopelessly naive. It's always astounded me that the so many of same people who demand ethics and morality as a central tenet of their personal conduct reject it out of hand as a key factor in the conduct of foreign policy.

(It should go without saying that we must demand of ourselves respect for human rights if we are going to demand it of others. We can't demand Robert Mugabe close his internment camps created in a legal vacuum for 'national security' reasons if we refuse to close Guantanamo Bay.)

Human rights has never been a central tenet of US foreign policy ever since imperial America was founded in the 1890s. But given the instability and threats to security provoked by the value-free foreign policy, maybe human rights SHOULD be front and center. The other way hasn't worked.

The reason is simple. Belief in human rights is a core value. Whether a country's government is pro-American, pro-the US president of the day or pro-capitalist or whatever is a temporary interest. Italy's government went from being pro-Bush to anti-Bush in the snap of a finger. However, the core shared values between the two countries remains. For all the sniveling about France, our shared values with that country run far more deeply than with putative 'allies' in the 'war on terror' like Uzbekistan or Pakistan.

Yet, we're making the exact same mistakes we made during the Cold War. Any two-bit despot can call himself 'anti-terror' and he's likely to get virtually unconditional US backing. Just ask the nutjob in charge of the former 'rogue state' of Libya. He's still a nutjob. He's still against democracy. He still is one of the worst human rights abusers on a continent with many others. But since he renounced support for terrorism (against westerners mind you, not against his own citizens or even against West Africans), you'd think he was the next Gandhi.

The expediency of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' is an absolute guarantee for instability. The US government is reportedly backing warlords in Somalia who are fighting against alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers. These are probably the some of the same warlords US forces were fighting AGAINST in the early 90s. How much would you like to bet that they'll end up as our enemy again within the next few years?

The US continues to back despots who call themselves anti-terrorist without regard to their abysmal human rights and governance records. And the implications such nefariousness and incompetence are hardly inconsequential. Will Hosni Mubarak's Egypt descend into chaos (like Somalia), be taken over by force by an anti-American group (like Iran) or will the Islamists take power with democratic legitimacy (like Palestine)? The last one seems unlikely given Mubarak's contempt for accountability; the country has been in a state of emergency for 25 years, possibly a world record.

But what's tragic is that the idea of Mubarak ceding power peaceful to moderate democrats isn't even considered a plausible option. During the Cold War, the US government almost never considered backing peaceful, democratic opposition as an alternative to anti-communist autocracies. The dictatorships blackmailed the US into silence by claiming (often dubiously) that less repression would lead to a communist takeover. The results, as chronicled above, had consequences that we're still living today. We're making the same mistakes in the 'war on terror.'

Why aren't we supporting the peaceful, democratic opposition to Mubarak? Better yet, we've given the Egyptian dictatorship $60 billion of taxpayer money since 1979. Why aren't there some strings attached, like respect for human rights, judicial independence and the rule of law? If Mubarak's regime still needs a state of emergency to maintain 'security' after 25 years, then surely he's been a miserable failure.

Popular uprisings in places like Lebanon, the Ukraine and Georgia demonstrate that autocracies can cede power without massive bloodshed, provided the civil society groups have support. The Iron Curtain fell not because NATO invaded Eastern Europe or because Ronald Reagan wished upon a star but because it was undermined from within. Undermined by courageous Eastern Europeans themselves with western support.

If the US wants to undermine al-Qaeda in Somalia, we should help nascent civil society groups get off the ground, not arm one group of petty criminal warlords against another.The US and Europe are doing the exact opposite in Palestine, undermining civil society by cutting off aid. Hamas' popularity flourished not simply because it sponsored terror attacks against Israel; it flourished because it provided medical care and other services abdicated by the corrupt Fatah regime. With the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the void left by the government will only get bigger. Hamas, as a private organization, may well pick up the slack, quite possibly with money from Syria or Iran. Is that what western governments want?

Terrorist groups often fill a vacuum like this. If the US wants to undermine terrorist groups, we must help fill such voids before they do, not make the voids bigger.

We need to choose allies that share our core values, not merely the expediency of the day. If that means helping a private Palestinian medical charity instead of the PA itself, then so be it.

No more "friends today, invasion targets tomorrow" debacles. We need to recognize that allies will not agree with us on every issue but share our core goals. For all the right wing snivelling about the French, the US and France share a fear of western civilization being threatened by Islamic extremism; France is far more vulnerable to this threat than the US.

It's been said that the US has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. We need to define what those interests are. Putting human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy will help ensure long-term protection for our two most important national interests: security and stability.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Bigotry abound in the Middle East

Two news stories caught my eye recently:

Israel's Supreme Court ruled to uphold a racist law that prevents West Bank Palestinians from living with their spouses and children who are Arab citizens of Israel. The government says Palestinians living in Israel pose a security threat and could assist terrorist elements in the West Bank... While the government says it is an anti-terrorism measure, officials admit that it is also about demographics. Israeli Arabs compose 20 percent of the population and their birthrate is higher than the Jews. So Israel fears the Jewish majority could be threatened if too many Palestinians are granted citizenship.

Maybe the Israelis should've thought of this before they conquered the West Bank and Gaza.

If those from Israeli-occupied Palestine are banned from living in Israel proper, then it's long past time for the territories to become an independent country. The present situation for the Palestinians is the worst of both worlds. They are blamed for not sufficiently controlling terrorism or imposing security, but are denied the resources to do so adequately. They are given 'self-rule' but not possession of taxes collected on 'their behalf.' They are told to become a democracy but punished when the democratic result displeases Israel and the west. The border between Israel and the Israeli-occupied lands are opened and closed arbitrarily on the whim of the Israelis (ironic since the far right in Israel claims that the occupied lands are part of Israel proper; this is akin to having checkpoints between New York and Pennsylvania). Palestinians now can't even live in Israel with their spouses and do menial jobs. It would be one thing to deny entry to Palestnians with criminal records or links to terrorist groups (however that's defined). But a blanket ban on merely living there is racism pure and simple.

Speaking of racism, the nutjob in charge of Iran isn't any better. Some might assume that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a great guy because he continually lambastes Pres. Bush. This sort of nonsense causes many to praise emperors like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. But Ahmadinejad is no hero, except perhaps to Iranian nationalists and the intellectually lazy. The Iranian head of state just pushed through a new law that would require separate, distinctive dress codes for religious minorities.

Specifically, Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue...

Canada's National Post, admittedly a conservative paper, reports that the new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis (unclean).

It's not clear from the article how many Jews and Christians still live in Iran but if this sounds eerily familiar, it should. Especially given the Iranian head of state's promise to wipe Israel off the face of the map.

Then again, maybe the Israelis ought to refresh their memories about the Nuremberg Laws too.

Update: An Iranian Jewish parliamentarian rubbished the National Post report's veracity. So who knows?

Further update: An Associated Press article claims that the law would not ban or require certain kinds of clothing, only offer economic incentives for dress deemed sufficiently authentic.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Who wants to be a ref?

Cases of idiot youth soccer parents accosting, berating or downright assaulting referees are well known. But referees of top class professional soccer aren't immune from the heat. With ridiculous amounts of money at stake, the pressure clubs, managers and players face is enormous. They transfer that to the officials. Referees and assistant referees of top level soccer are under obscene amounts of pressure. They must get every big decision right (and most of the little ones as well too), even though the game has increased exponentially in speed and skill in the last 20 years. So has the technology to second guess the officials. I seriously doubt the amount they get paid is enough.

Take this Wednesday's European Champions League final between Barcelona and the London club Arsenal. The contest widely regarded as the most prestigious club soccer match in the world was won by the Catalans 2-1

The big decision in the match occurred mid-way through the first half when the Norwegian referee gave a red card to Arsenal's goalkeeper for fouling a Barcelona player on a breakaway; there had never been a red card in the 49 previous finals. The referee could've played advantage (allowed the play to continue) since the resulting play ended up as a Barcelona goal anyway. He could still have given the keeper a yellow card after awarding the goal. But instead, Arsenal played 10 vs 11 for most of the match.

Both teams surrounded the ref protesting the decision. The English side demanded the goal be awarded and the card be yellow so they could preserve their 11 men (even if they were down by a goal). The Spanish side were happy with the ejection but wanted the goal awarded too.

The game, which had all the makings of a classic, was obviously transformed by the sending off. Arsenal played defensively for most of the game yet actually scored first and led for almost half the game. But two late Barcelona goals won them the trophy.

The red card against the Arsenal goalkeeper, I'm sorry to say, was completely appropriate. He intentionally fouled the player outside the penalty area (the region where the keeper can use his hands) thus preventing a clear scoring opportunity.

According to the laws of the game, the ejection was beyond question as far as I'm concerned. The has since admitted that he may have blew the whistle too quickly... but later retracted the statement. Though even the reprimanded goalkeeper admitted that he understood why the ref red carded him.

While the ref got the red card right, some of the other calls and non-calls were pretty strange. Did they deny Arsenal a deserved victory? No.

It's not surprising that Arsenal's manager and their captain blamed the ref for the team's defeat.

As a netural, they are probably one of the most enjoyable-to-watch teams in Europe; far more than any other English team, that's for sure. But they have a tendency to whine every time things don't go their way; not as much as their fellow Londoners Chelsea but it's still annoying.

Captain Thierry Henry complained of being kicked all the time by Barcelona's defenders, who went unpunished. A fair assessment, if you ask me, but did the normally classy Henry really need to suggest that the ref was wearing a Barcelona shirt?

Manager Arsène Wenger complained that the Catalans' first goal was offside. Video replays showed that it was indeed. But only by the slightest of margins and you could only tell by showing the replay as in incredibly slow motion. The play happened so quickly and the offside so tight, it was virtually impossible for the referee's assistant to make that call. The officials don't have the benefit of watching it several times in super, duper slow motion. They have to make calls at full speed in a split second.

Late in the first half, Arsenal defender Emmanuel Éboué suffered a phantom foul (he lost control of the ball and fell down like he was shot). The resulting free kick led directly to Arsenal's goal. For all the English side's pissing and moaning about the officials, it's odd that none of them complained about that controversial call.

It's not surprising that the losing team and their country's press sniveled like spoiled brats who didn't get the Christmas presents they wanted. But even some segments of the Spanish press claimed it was their winning side that suffered the most from incompetent refereeing. "The Norwegian referee Terje Hauge was prejudiced against Barca with an officious and cowardly performance," sniffed a Catalan sports daily.

The thing that no one likes to admit: referees are human. Players make mistakes. Managers make mistakes. And yes, refs do too. No one called for Henry's head when he missed a couple of sitters. No one called for Wenger's head for not making a substitution earlier in the second half when his valliant but exhausted charges were barely holding out. But everyone wants to lynch the ref when he makes a mistake. And most fans accept this hideous double standard without a second thought.

It's bad enough when the refs are being attacked by the participating teams; I'm sure they expect that to some extent. But when even the head of the international soccer federation (FIFA) starts second guessing officials, it makes you wonder who'd ever want the job. Sepp Blatter (henceforth referred to as Blather) opined that the Norwegian ref was too quick to blow his whistle. He added that, "It was a great game but it was not helped by the refereeing from the very beginning."

I'm sure people are used to Blather, of whom it was famously said that he has 50 ideas every day, 51 of them bad, flapping his gums about nonsense. This is the guy, after all, who infamous called on female soccer players to wear tighter jerseys to increase the popularity of the women's game. But I think referees have the right to expect that when they are under pressure, they will at least be supported by those administrators who claim to represent 'The Good of the Game.' They have the right to expect to not be undermined by soccer's most powerful figure, especially when the most controversial call in question was technically correct.

Fortunately UEFA, the European soccer confederation, actually defended their official, as Blather would've done if he had any sense of decency. (I wonder if Blather's hatred of UEFA's president played into his decision to attack the ref)

Last year, Swedish referee Anders Frisk quit the game after being accused of dishonesty by Chelsea's manager. In 2004, a Swiss refere Urs Meier was forced into hiding after receiving death threats when he made a controversial call against the England national team; he also quit.

In both cases, Blather rightly attacked those people who were putting intolerable pressure on referees. He even gave an award to Frisk after his departure from the game.

As the head of world soccer, Blather should've said something like, "The ref did the best he could under difficult circumstances." Or maybe he could've consulted with someone who actually knows the rules who would've told him that the ref got it right. Or maybe he could've read the papers where even the goalkeeper who got sent off admitted he understood the ref's decision. But Blather's decision to attack the referee is absolutely disgraceful, even by his standards.

It's bad enough modern referees get screamed at by crybaby players after making calls that even a blind man in the upper deck would've seen. It's bad enough the officials get villified in the press by managers who need scapegoats to save their own skin and who see or 'not see' incidents according to what is convenient for them.

Referees never have a home game. They never have 70,000 people cheering them on. They hardly ever get praised by the media, fans or anyone else. But now even the suits who should be backing up honest officials are stabbing them in the back... even when they get it right.

I'm not sure why anyone would want the job.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Real UN human rights reform

The old United Nations Human Rights Commission was widely pilloried, not just by the American far right, for irrelevance. Even the last person to head the Commission, the widely respected Canadian Louise Arbour, derided it as useless. Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned the Commission for harming the image of the UN as a whole.

The Commission famously comprised some of the world's most infamous human rights abusers. Not surprisingly, the human rights abusers conspired to make sure the body didn't criticize any of them.

Widespread international derision forced the UN to scrap the Commission and replace it with a new Human Rights Council.

The Bush administration's position on the Council is what you'd expect. It wants the body to be powerful enough to sanction enemies of the US but not independent enough to criticize US abuses in the 'war on terror.' As long as global human rights' standards only apply Axis of Evil or Outposts of Tyranny countries, the Bush administration is happy.

But even those who actually care about human rights have reason disturbed by this new Council. As I pointed out earlier, the Human Rights Council is nothing more than old wine in a new bottle.

The human rights body needed to be made much smaller in order for increased efficiency. But it was reduced from 53 members to only 47.

The new Council was touted as 'reform' because now members would be forced to have their human rights records subjected to scrutiny. But how effective can that scrutiny be when its done by other human rights abusers? How does this change the fundamental problem of oppressive regimes protecting each other?

The the new Council was elected recently. While Iran's and Venezuela's candidacies were rejected, the supposedly high new standards didn't prevent several prominent countries with notorious records from being elected. Notably China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. But just as infamously, there was also Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and Guatemala weren't exactly inspiring choices either. The Bush administration, perhaps still in a hissy fit for not getting a more maleable body or perhaps not wanting to subject its abuses in the name of the 'war on terror' to any more scrutiny, did not put the US up for a seat.

The Washington Post is optimistic that the Council can still do its job despite a third of it being controlled by countries with dubious human rights records. The San Francisco Chronicle is not.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch praised the new Council as “significantly better” than the old Commission because its membership criteria were supposedly far more stringent. UN members then proceded to approve 5 of the 7 candidacies that HRW had specifically urged them to reject.

A once in a half century opportunity to bring human rights into the forefront of the international agenda, an advance badly needed in an era dominated by Islamic extremism and the 'war on terror,' was tragically wasted. The new international human rights body is virtually indistinguishable from the old one.

What needs to happen is a change in paradigm. As now, all UN bodies have comprised exclusive UN members, which is to say countries. However, the UN is seen as an international body with international legitimacy who purports to speak for the international community. The challenge a human rights body comprised of countries is that countries care fire and foremost about advancing their own perceived interests.

The mere fact that there is a United Nations is a historic break with the past. The mere fact that we speak of international law and the international community and international human rights norms is a historic break from the past. However imperfect the execution may be, getting governments to at least adopt the rhetoric of global standards is not to be underestimated.

Yet progress requires constant innovation, not complacency. As an international organization, the UN needs to move beyond simply being a talking shop for governments. The Human Rights Council should be a first step. It should be completely scrapped in its current form. It should be revamped to include human rights NGOs.

NGOs are increasingly influential in shaping global public opinion. They have far more international respect than the any government.

Amnesty International, for example, has far more global credibility on human rights than the US, Russian and British governments combined. They aren't seen as having entangling alliances or external calculations that compromise their objectivity on human rights. Human rights isn't a part of what they do; it's all they do. That's why they apply the same standards to Saudi Arabia as to North Korea while many governments choose not to. That's why they can criticize both Saddam's regime and the US occupation of Iraq. That's why they can criticize Kim Jong Il's prison camps and Guantanamo Bay's prison camps. It's that even-handedness that ensures their credibility in a way that's impossible for national governments.

(A great illustration of this was how the US government used Amnesty's data on Saddam Hussein's vileness to justify the Iraq aggression but then lambasted Amnesty when the organization criticized the Bush administration's handling of the 'war on terror.' It went from credible to anti-American depending on who it was criticizing, which meant it was credible all along.)

In addition to making it smaller, I would have the Human Rights Council's membership be made up not of countries but of NGOs. NGOs like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross (if they wanted to take part), the Committee Against Torture, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, etc. The Secretary General could provide a list of competent, relevant NGOs and UN members would vote on it. A Council comprised on NGOs would help ensure an independent, impartial analysis of human rights unclouded by external factors.

(An inferior alternative could be a small Council with 50-50 mix of countries and NGOs)

Furthermore, individuals should be allowed to raise cases before the Council. This would be less crucial if Council were made up of NGOs since NGOs tend to take up these cases anyways. But it should be part of the protocol that the Council is accessible to the people, not just the governments.

Additionally, the Council should be given the authority to impose punishments on human rights abusing regimes or groups. This would start with suspension of UN voting privileges and other perks of membership (for countries) but could extend to targeted sanctions (travel bans, freezing of assets) against the leaders of countries or the malefactors in question. The Council should also have the authority to refer cases to the International Criminal Court.

It's a long shot that such fundamental changes will ever occur. Powerful countries, like the US and Russia, don't want an independent human rights body. The smaller, abusive countries, as well as anti-UN types, don't want one with actual authority. But the status quo, even if slightly repackaged, is unacceptable. Those who don't want human rights standards degraded even further must demand real changes.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Don't worry, they're spying on journalists too

Yet another addition to the long list of reasons to mistrust this administration.

If you're upset about the probably that the government is spying on you, don't feel bad. They're spying on journalists too.

According to President Bush: 'We do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.'

According to ABC News: The Department of Justice says it secretly sought phone records and other documents of 3,501 people last year under a provision of the Patriot Act that does not require judicial oversight [empahsis mine]... Federal law enforcement sources say the National Security Letters are being used to obtain phone records of reporters at ABC News and elsewhere in an attempt to learn confidential sources who may have provided classified information in violation of the law.

Is what the Bush administration legal? For once, it might actually be. But it's telling that rather than cracking down on their own employees who are leaking information, they're going after the messenger (conveniently a part of the 'liberal media').

Nixon must be jealous.

Then again, maybe if this weren't far and away the least transparent, most unnecessarily secretive administration in history, none of this would be necessary.

Then again, if I were as guilty as them, I'd be secretive too.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Made in the USA

The public radio show Fresh Air will have a segment today on sweatshops in the USA. Specifically:

While the Northern Marianas Islands are a U.S. territory, they are exempt from the usual American laws regulating minimum wage, tariffs, quotas and immigration. Yet clothing sewn in the sweatshops bears the "made in the USA" label. To further complicate matters, the Marianas were a client of Jack Abramoff, who, with the help of Tom Delay, blocked legislation that would have eliminated these exemptions.

Check local listings.

Read the red (Independent)

The UK Independent has dedicated today's edition to primarily to stories on and from the developing world.

The paper is also donating half of its revenues today to anti-AIDS charities in Africa.

Dumbed down letters

I've written a number of pieces touching on the dumbing down of the local The Post-Star. One of the unfortunate byproducts of a dumbed down newspaper is that it attracts dumbed down readers. Sometimes those dumbed down readers spout off. A pair of recent letters to the editor demonstrate this nicely.

In Monday's edition, a reader from Argyle blasted the paper for its alleged bias against John Sweeney, the local Congressman. According to this reader, an opinion column by Will Doolittle demonstrated The Post-Star's 'personal agenda [sic] against Congressman Sweeney.' How a collective institution can have a 'personal agenda' is beyond me.

(Of course, the paper itself once ran an editorial that began, 'In the neighborhood we grew up in...' so maybe it can't criticize readers for grammar lapses.)

But to the reader clearly has a poor understanding of how a newspaper works. Will Doolittle's columns represent the opinions of Will Doolittle alone. The 'personal agenda' of the paper is reflected not in the opinions of any individual columnists but in those expressed in its editorials. This is how any mainstream newspaper works, not just The Post-Star.

Saying The Post-Star is anti-Sweeney because of Will Doolittle is like saying The New York Times is conservative because of William Safire.

For several years, the right has presented any dissent as unpatriotic. When I've said this before, I've been accused of exaggeration, of martyrdom, of creating a convenient straw man. The right has been very clever in hiding this insidiousness, usually cloaking it in the guise of cutesy but vacuous phrases like 'support our troops' or 'freedom is not free.' But every once in a while, the cloak slips and they reveal their intentions.

Take this letter in Sunday's paper from someone in Hudson Falls.

'Enough of the Bush-bashing. The man took the fight to the terrorist, on their soil. We are winning that war... Support him or move to another country."

In the middle of his letter, he raised a number of other factually questionable assertions, in addition to the outright false ones mentioned above.

But give him credit. He didn't hide his hostility to American values behind the any smokescreen. He was up front about it. If you don't support The Leader, you should go somewhere else. I wonder if one of his ancestors was a spokesman for King George III.

I'd like to think people like this nitwit were a tiny lunatic fringe but clearly there are far more people in this country who agree with him than most of us would like to believe. Then again, with President Bush's still collapsing poll ratings, if non-Bush apologists left the country, maybe the lunatic fringe would be the only people left.

And just remember: each of those letter writers has the same vote as you.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Survivor: Wal-Mart

North Country Public Radio reports that ComLinks Women’s Entrepreneurial Business Center is offering three "survival workshops" to teach mom-and-pop stores to compete with mega-retailers.

NCPR's site has more details, which might be of interests to residents of Potsdam and other northern New York villages where the arrival of a Wal-Mart is threatening to destroy the downtowns.

Libya backs world's worst terrorist; Washington restores relations

So Libya's leader Muamar Gaddafi is unhappy over the extradition of former warlord, ex-Liberian dictator and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor to the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone.

I can't imagine why he would have reason to fear. It's not like The Guide of the Libyan Revolution had anything to do with Taylor's destruction of West Africa.

The arrest of vile scumbag Taylor was heartily welcomed by the Bush administration. So you think the US government would be annoyed that Libya would continue to back the world's worst terrorist. Instead, Washington reinstated diplomatic relations with Tripoli.

Way to strike a blow for liberty and freedom!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A scandal a day keeps the attention away

I'm not sure if that's how the saying goes but the Bush people sure hopes it does.

Sometimes it's really hard keeping track of all this administration's scandals. That's what they hope. I imagine that's why they're trying to change the subject with the president's anticipated speech to the nation on immigration on Monday. If people get back to blaming foreigners for all our problems, that's fire directed away from Washington.

Fortunately for the administration, none of the scandals involve oral sex so impeachment or the appointment of a special prosecutor are unlikely. While impunity is on trial in Africa, it's alive and well in the United States.

I had articles bookmarked that I was going to write about but I realized there was so many, I didn't have time to write a full essay on each. So here's a recap some of the scandals. (Note: I'm sure I'm going to miss some. So I apologize in advance)

I've always said that secrecy is the enemy of democracy. You'll notice a theme here.

The USA Today, a paper that doesn't spring forth into most people's mind when talking about journalistic excellence, ran an excellent and controversial story on the National Security Agency (NSA). It turns out the NSA has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.

The paper added The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime [emphasis mine]. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.

The program was described as "the largest databas ever assembled in the world."

Earlier, the administration angrily defended the NSA's monitoring of phone calls, monitoring done without a court warrant despite the existence of a secret spy court set up precisely for that reason. Officials assured us that they were only monitoring calls from the US to other countries or vice versa, not internal US calls. Some attacked The New York Times for reporting on the program.

The database was collected without any warrants and with the cooperation of most major phone companies, with the notable exception of Qwest.

Defenders of the program claim that the information collected is only a list of phone numbers, not the actual content of conversations. One might be able to grudgingly accept that if the public were sure that was the extent of the trolling

But how can anyone know for sure since...

The Associated Press reported an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program has been scrapped because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.

A Justice Department spokesman claims that despite the rejections, the spying program "has been subject to extensive oversight both in the executive branch and in Congress from the time of its inception."

Though given the obstructionism, obfuscation and the administration's traditional hostility to accountability, how extensive could the oversight have possibly been?

On the defensive yet again, Pres. Bush insisted that the spying was not widespread and that it's only used to target terrorists. The government is not "mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans," he claimed. But given recent reports that some of the people being monitored included Quakers, Catholic anti-poverty activists and (shockingly) anti-war activists, how can we believe him?

Further undermining the president's credibility is the secrecy surrounding these programs. Not the way they work, but their very existence. The revelation of these previously secret programs have brought a wave of recriminations against the newspapers that reported on them: The New York Times and The USA Today. The Times won a Pulitizer Prize for the story but Bush apologists said they should've won a 'Pulitizer Prize for Treason'.

I'm sure the administration would agree that the purpose of such programs are ultimately to deter terrorism. Given that, shouldn't the administration have WANTED to promote the existence of these programs? Shouldn't the administration have WANTED to send a loud and clear message to potential terrorists, "We're watching you. We're listening to you. We know who you're calling."

Shouldn't the number one goal to hinder plots even being conceived in the first place? Wouldn't the promotion of the existence of these programs make it exceedingly difficult on potential terrorists by making communication and organization so onerous that they give up?

The fact that the administration has been so secretive about the existence of programs that logic dicatates they should've wanted to publicize makes me wonder why. It makes me wonder what they're trying to hide?

Continuing the 'why the secrecy?' trend, the Red Cross (ICRC) has criticized the US government for its refusal to grant the ICRC access to detainees held in secret detention centers.

The Red Cross' criticism is notable because the organization almost never criticizes any government: neutrality is its guiding principle.

"No matter how legitimate the grounds for detention, there exists no right to conceal a person's whereabouts or to deny that he or she is being detained," noted the ICRC's president.

The organization's chief spokesperson declared, "[I]t is absolutely vital for such people to be held in a clear legal framework and that they are granted all basic judicial safeguards," adding that "Obviously this includes those people held in secret places of detention."

And the above doesn't even include generalized corruption in Washington (which is bipartisan but affects Republicans more because they control the place), the anticipated military action against a Middle East country for its alleged weapons program and loudmouthed leader (if this sounds familiar, it should) or the biggest scandal of all: the Iraq disaster.

No wonder Scott McClellan resigned.

Note: The New York Review of Books ran a great article by Brian Urquhart describing the damage done by the present disastrous foreign policy of the US on respect for international law. The Globalist ran a good piece on how the Bush administration's defense of torture and contempt for the rule of law is undermining the global cause of human rights promotion.

Update: the latest scandal: The Washington Post reports that a former CIA officer accuses the agency of lying to Congress with regard to torture. An editorialin The Post echoes some of my comments on how fishy the administration's hyperdefensiveness seems

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Anti-gay McCarthyism in Nigeria

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 January, I wrote about a hideous bill being pushed through Nigeria's National Assembly. The bill would ban not just homosexual acts and gay marriage (neither of which are legal in the country anyway). It would criminalize any form of free speech used to agitate for gay rights.

The justice minister was quoted as promising the proposal would ban "any form of protest to press for rights or recognition" by gays and lesbians. Perhaps Fred Phelps is an advisor to the Nigerian government.

But just when you think it can't get any worse, it does.

Black Looks blog cites The Vanguard newspaper which reports that the Bill has been widened to include "punish individuals who witness, celebrate with or support couples involved in homosexual relationships". Any persons breaking the law will be subjected to a compulsory term of 5 years imprisonment.

The Vanguard article adds:

The bill also aims to prohibit any form of publicity or registration to homosexual clubs and societies. Section 7 of the bill reads thus: Registration of Gay Clubs, Societies and organisations by whatever name they are called in institutions from secondary to the tertiary level or other institutions in particular and, in Nigeria generally, by government agencies is hereby prohibited. Publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise are prohibited in Nigeria.

This bill essentially invalidates the rights not only of gays and lesbians but of any straight person who wants to show support for them or the gay rights cause.

It makes you wonder which legislator is going to advance his career by becoming the Nigerian answer to Joseph McCarthy.

Bear in mind, this is being promulgated by a purportedly democratic civilian government. Since the ruling party is sure to ram this through, the only way to stop this monstrosity is if some 'activist judge' decides to declare the obvious: this bill violates Nigeria's constitution. To say nothing of it being a grotesque violation of various pan-African and international human rights treaties of which Nigeria is a part.

The international community has been quick to condemn the states of northern Nigeria for their imposition of a reactionary interpretation of Islamic Sharia law almost worthy of the Taliban. It's one of the rare times feminists and Crusaders agree. But when the predominantly Christian federal government tries to do something nearly as regressive against gays, the only place you hear about it is the progressive blogosphere.

Friday, May 12, 2006

6 out of every 5 statisticians agree...

Perhaps a bit cheap and I know I'm no Don Coyote but the irony of this is too delicious to pass up.

The Post-Star ran the following correction today:

A chart on the percentage of students who passed English Language Arts and math tests that was published Wednesday had incorrect information involving the state average for students who passed eighth-grade math. The chart state the average was 77 percent. The correct average is 55 percent.

I guess someone from the 48 percent who didn't pass became a copy editor at The Post-Star.

Did I say 48? Oops, I meant 43.

The powerless menace

The situation regarding Iran’s nuclear program is the latest thing the Bush administration has decided to make into a crisis. The administration has such little credibility and trust that no one’s sure to what degree this is a real crisis and to what degree it’s a diversion. This is the real tragedy of the administration’s obfuscations and deceptions: if there really were a potential national security emergency, who’d believe them?

In fairness, it must be added that Europe, with whom the US government has had strained relations, also fears Iran’s real goal is to develop nuclear weapons. It’s kind of sad that for many Americans, foreign governments are more credible than their own.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative populist, sent a letter earlier this week to Bush.

It was a long rambling tract (I read the transcript earlier but I can’t seem to find the link now). He criticized US foreign policy, support for Israel and made an appeal to Bush as a self-professed religious man to start acting like it.

Iran’s head of state could certainly take his own advice. He infamously called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. And his other belligerent rhetoric has unnerved a lot of people. Not enough to make him ‘the Iranian Hitler’ as some nutjobs but it’s certainly disturbing.

Equally disturbing is the fact that there is open talk in some US right-wing circles of military action against Iran. Apparently, they think Iraq is going so swimmingly that we can afford another intervention based on spurrious grounds.

In fact, some suspect that Bush pressured British prime Tony Blair to sack his foreign secretary Jack Straw because Straw dismissed the idea of military action against Iran as ‘inconceivable’ and nuclear strikes as ‘nuts.’ Blair reportedly phoned the Foreign Office several times to suggest Mr Straw stop going on the BBC Today programme and ruling it out so categorically. Whether Blair was pressured to sack Straw or whether there’s an implicit understanding between him and Bush, it’s clear that something’s going on behind the scenes. It’s clear that the American and British publics are being softened up for the eventuality of military intervention against Iran.

Rational and humane people should make a sober analysis before being seduced by the latest drumbeat of war. And here’s that analysis.

Westerners, particularly Americans, are focused on Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel. For one thing, Israel is capable of taking care of itself. It has nukes too. As Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the country’s most noted dove, pointed out, "Iran, too, can be destroyed.”

The focus on Ahmadinejad’s nuttiness obscures one simple question: how much power does he really have? He’s a loud-mouthed populist but how dangerous is he really?

Iran’s president doesn’t have nearly as much power as his American counterpart. Most of the power is retained by senior clerics.

Not surprisingly, the drumbeat for war hides a glaring inconsistency.

Ahmadinejad’s predecessor as head of state was Mohammed Khatami. Khatami was widely seen as a reformist, someone who wanted to loosen the tight restrictions of Iran’s theocracy.

But his presidency was seen as a disappointment because his reform efforts were constantly undermined by the conservative judiciary and clerics. US neo-cons called for Iran’s continued isolation arguing that as well intentioned as Khatami may have been, he didn’t have the power to effectuate any significant change, that the presidency was essentially irrelevant in the Iranian system.

So if the Iranian presidency was irrelevant under the reformist Khatami, how come the right is so afraid of Ahmadinejad’s presidency that there’s open talk of yet another war?

Is it a coincidence that the neo-con assessment of the Iranian presidency went from powerless to petrifying without any structural change? Is it a coincidence that the neo-cons flip flopped based on whichever argument would better serve a hostile course of action against Iran? Coincidence or self-serving intellectual dishonesty?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Soda is $5 a gallon: where's my rebate?!

NPR's Day to Day had a good segment on irrational consumer expectations. While 'high' gas prices has set off a wave of finger pointing, gas costs less per unit that coffee or soda, two liquids which are also guzzled in massive quantities by Americans.

Instead, the finger pointing has been directed at oil companies for alleged price gouging.

If demand increases (as it continues to do with increasing energy consumption by India and China) and sources of supply remain steady, then logically the price will increase. This isn't gouging. It's basic economics.

So why blame the oil companies? This is done mostly by populist politicians of both major parties who want to give the appearance that there addressing this problem without doing anything significant to actually address the problem.

Why won't they address the problem? Because there's not much they can do.

This brings me to the other point in the segment. When faced with perceived high prices, consumers inevitably prefer to blame someone else. This is why the finger pointing is directed at Big Oil for doing exactly what multinationals are demanded to do by their shareholders and the market (including those with 401(k) plans): make as much money as they possibly can. It's ok when these multinationals do so by destroying the lives and homeland of the people of southern Nigeria or by lining the pockets of one of the world's worst despots. But when Big Oil makes middle class Americans to pay three bucks a gallon for a product they took as their God-given right to get cheaply, then it's a national 'crisis.'

There are a lot of things for which you can reproach Big Oil but charging middle class Americans a fair market price for fueling their motor vehicles.

Because of the 'blame others' mentality, we get quick fix bandaids that do nothing to address underlying structural problems. And in some cases, exacerbate them. That's why you get federal proposals for $100 rebates so a family can get a free week or two of gasoline. That's why you get New York state proposals to cap the gas tax (thus further encouraging inefficient behavior). That's why you get proposals to drill in the Alaska's ANWAR park even though oil from there wouldn't hit the market for years.

If you're going to offer a rebate or tax breaks, why not use them to reward EFFICIENT transportation behavior? Why not exempt the purchase of hybrids from taxes? Why not offer them to people who bike or walk or take the bus to work? Or to companies to who reward their employees for doing so? After all, people who drive less or not at all are not only contributing to less air pollution, but they are easing demand on gas that's causing the prices to increase.

Free will is about choice. If you choose to buy a Hummer or a pickup truck, you have no right to complain about how much you're paying for gas. If you choose to live 50 miles away from where you work, you have no right to complain about how much you're paying for gas.

For years, I've been gently needled by some, and outright ridiculed by others, for my choice to not own a car. As I explained then every transportation option has positives and negatives and I've chosen the one that makes sense for me at this time. I took the good with the bad without blaming others or expecting others to subsidize my choice. If you want to call yourself an adult, you need to be able to do that. I've never lectured people on what transportation they should choose for themselves, only explained what I chose for myself. Yet now, many automobilists want the politicians to rush in and save them from their own lifestyle choices which have suddenly become inconvenient. I don't rejoice at high gas prices but you'll pardon me if I don't shed any tears for the protestations.

If you want to win elections, blaming others is always more effective than telling people to looking in the mirror. Voters say they want politicians to tell the truth but only if it's what they want to hear. And the truth is that at least for the near future, gas prices will probably continue to rise. If you don't like it, change your own lifestyle. Otherwise, keep your whining away from my ears.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

More mixed messages

On Sunday, the local daily Post-Star took a break from their routine and actually praised people (a practice usually reserved for Mondays only). Kids, actually. The paper ran an editorial praising kids who participate in SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions.

SADD was originally called Students Against Drunk Driving. The group was formed as a recognition of the fact that only acknolwedging the reality of teen drinking will mitigate its negative effects, as opposed to the 'burn the witches' hysteria of The Post-Star. This approach has saved lives.

I too applaud SADD. Peer pressure is what's need to reduce teen drinking in much the same way it's reduced smoking. This is far more effective than self-righteous floggings by a newspaper editorial (Did the paper really need to mention a certain Fort Edward basketball player's name more than one or two times? Wasn't a mention in seven consecutive stories voyeuristic and gratuitous considering the circumstances?)

Anyways, the paper praised SADD. In an accompanying box, they indicated they were going to start recognizing the achievements of young people who have 'done something positive to improve their school or community.'

Maybe the paper realized that the Inquisition is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Maybe they realized that they can't simply tell kids to say no, they have to give kids something to say yes to. If so, then good for the paper.

But the very next day, what appears on the front page? Yet another non-urgent wire service story. For a paper that likes to pat itself on the back for the prominence it claims to give to local coverage, it sure gives a lot of its front pages to minor, national wire service stories. I have no problem with front page wire stories about Iraq or health care. But front page wire stories about dogs jumping off a bridge in Scotland (last August) or about San Franciscans who trade rent for sex (last month) are more worthy of The New York Post than the region's main daily. Just because you don't win Pulitizer Prizes doesn't mean you should have no standards.

What was the topic of this front page wire service story? 'Virginity pledges rarely make a difference.' So one day after promising to praise and feature worthy local teens, the paper chooses to run an article implicitly criticizing young people and highlighting their failings.

Is the paper trying to send mixed messages or is there just nobody there who notices these things?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Legalize immigration

There's been much debate in recent weeks about immigration. Immigrants who enter through this country extralegally are either a gigantic drain on resources or they fill jobs that Americans won't do... depending on who you believe.

And since the main issue is immigrants coming from our southern neighbor, my solution to this issue is simple: remove almost all restrictions on immigration between Mexico, Canada and the United States and impose comparable environmental and labor laws between the three countries.

Warning: one thing I do not address in this essay is the fate of those folks who are already here extralegally. I will only address what should happen from now on.

At the beginning of 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. It created a giant free trade zone between the US, Canada and Mexico. NAFTA was not without its critics, both in principle and in execution. But let's go with that for now.

One of the most intectually dishonest arguments is made by those who contend that free trade (the free movement of goods and services) is a wonderful thing that will raise poor people out of poverty but for some inexplicable reason, the free movement of labor (a service) should be exempted from this.

Simply put, there should be free movement of American, Mexican and Canadian citizens between the three NAFTA countries. The only restrictions should be on people with criminal records.

The Mexican government wants its citizens to be able to work in the US because the citizens send money home, which helps the Mexican economy. In exchange for removing most restrictions on migration, the Mexican government will accept US and Canadian help in ensuring its southern border is properly monitored. Human trafficking from Central America to the US via Mexico is a growing problem.

Additionally, the Mexican government should agree to revamp its environmental and labor laws to come more into line with American and Canadian standards. If the Mexican government wants this change, they should be prepared to give something up in return. If properly designed, and that's a big if, such changes would also address criticisms that NAFTA undermines worker protection and facilitates ecological destruction. After all, if the free movement of services allows American multinationals to enter Mexico, why shouldn't it allow American labor unions too?

Making virtually all immigration legal does some important things.

First, by making all immigrants legal, it brings them into the system. They will pay taxes, for example. It makes them feel a part of this country rather than apart from it. It makes them feel useful, rather than demonized. Removing them as a scapegoat reduces their understandable siege mentality (of both extralegal and sympathetic legal immigrants alike) and encourages their integration into American culture.

Furthermore, legalizing almost all immigration would end employer exploitation of immigrants who were previously here extralegally. Employers would no longer be able to pay slave wages. Employers would be forced to provide them decent working conditions. Essentially, employers would no longer be able to blackmail workers into accepting the unacceptable simply by threatening to report them to the authorities or to ship them back to Mexico.

As legal workers, the immigrants would be allowed to form unions. They would get workers' compensation if they got injured on the job. They would have legal recourse against employers who violated labor law. Businesses who pay slave wages to farm workers or who run sweatshops would lose their competitive advantage. It would help all workers in those industries as businesses would no longer be pressured to engage in a race to the bottom.

Such a zone is hardly unprecedented. Any citizen of a European Union country can work in any other EU state. Any citizen of ECOWAS, the West African economic community, can work in any other ECOWAS state. Why shouldn't this apply to NAFTA as well?

Either the United States believes in free trade or it doesn't. If it does, then it must apply basic rules of free trade to labor, to immigrants.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Decider-in-chief claims to want Gitmo closed

Many groups and citizens, including myself, have criticized the law-free zone known as the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. That's where the administration is holding kidnapees that it suspects of being terrorists but refuses to formally accuse them or put them on trial for their alleged misdeeds.

Pres. Bush and his administration have strenuously defended the camp. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who wrote an infamous memo defending torture, has called the camp absolutely essential.

The Bush administration has argued in court that US law and judicial review should not apply to Guantanamo kidnapees. Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled the administration does not have the power to suspend the Constitution in this case.

So imagine my shock when I read the most recent comments by the president.

"I very much would like to end Guantanamo; I very much would like to get people to a court," he told German television.

Some Guantanamo kidnapees have been there for several years without trial or even formal accusation (which is precisely what makes them kidnapees). It seems that if getting these folks to court is such a pressing issue for Bush, he would've made it happen already.

"And we're waiting for our Supreme Court to give us a decision as to whether the people need to have a fair trial in a civilian court or in a military court," he added.

I thought Bush was 'the decider' so why is he waiting for a bunch of unelected judges to do the deciding for him. Respecting the courts and the law has never been a priority for him before.

The Zacarias Moussaoui case showed that the regular judicial system is capable of handling terrorism trials without resorting to contrived military commissions. The trials of people involved in the first World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings demonstrated this as well.

The president claims he would 'like to end Guantanamo' as a detention center. He's the one who decided it open and he's the one who could decide it closed. It's time he ordered the detainees there either be charged in regular courts or be released. It's time the chief executive executed the law. He doesn't need to wait for the Supreme Court to tell him to do the right thing. It's time for the decider-in-chief to a leader for once.