Monday, July 31, 2006

Changing the rules in Africa

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*. (*-added on the suggestion of a reader)

National Public Radio's Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has a good blog piece on some of the strides being made in Africa.

There remain many problems on the continent: the worst being Darfur, northern Uganda and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The crises in Somalia, Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire aren't far behind.

Still, the tide may well be turning.

Hunter-Gault discusses the importance of the New Partnership for African Development. Nepad was imposed not by westerners but was conceived and advanced largely by three African presidents: South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade and Nigeria's Olesegun Obasanjo. Nepad set up a procedure where by governments would submit to a review of its governance practices by its peers. Hunter-Gault suggests that this peer review mechanism is part of the 'Changing the Rules in Africa.'

Previously, there was a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. Far from being done by a wink-and-a-nod, this non-interference policy was explicitly stated in Article III of former the Organization of African Unity's charter. Back then, the group would've been more accurately called the Organization for African Dictators' Unity.

This has been turned on its head by Nepad. Granted, the peer review mechanism is voluntarily, but Hunter-Gault notes that about half of African countries have submitted themselves to the process.

Another example of the changing tide is the African People's Court I wrote about a few days ago. For the first time, a pan-African entity gives equal standing to citizens and non-governmental organizations as it does to heads of state. The idea of governments or the pan-African institution itself having any responsibility to its citizens is a key evolution, one that we should hope will trickle down to national governments themselves.

Increasingly, African leaders are looking not for aid handouts but for fairer trade. They want Europe and the United States to reduce agricultural subsidies and trade barriers so that African raw materials such as cotton and cocoa can compete fairly on the international market. Even countries who are rebuilding from war, such as Liberia, are more interested in ideas than foreign cash.

Is there an African renaissance, as famously predicted by Pres. Mbeki almost a decade ago? Not yet. Not as long as there's genocide in Sudan, an impending one in Côte d'Ivoire and the deadliest conflict since World War II in the DRC. And for all the talk of 'African solutions to African problems,' Mbeki's been criminally silent on the Mugabe-made disaster in Zimbabwe.

But leaders are laying the pan-African groundwork that, if supported and respected, will provide a framework for future justice and stability on the continent.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Artists, society and the duties of citizenship

A while ago, I watched bits and piece of a PBS documentary on Bob Dylan. And it got me to thinking what would happen if Dylan were in his prime today.

It's no secret that our current political atmosphere is very poisonous. If you criticize the president, you are called a traitor, a terrorist appeaser or America-hater. (The Bush=Hitler crowd isn't exactly calming things down either)

While anyone who criticizes the president or his policies is subject to scorn, famous people who do so are subject to particularly vicious vitriol. The Dixie Chicks are the most famous example; they've even received death threats (presumably by people who insist our boys are over in Iraq fighting for freedom). But so is Michael Moore. So is Eddie Vedder. So is Green Day. So are many Hollywood actors.

I have no problem with fair criticism of these people or their comments. After all, if you can criticize Bush's actions or words, then your comments should be off-limits to criticism either. You should expect it. And not all of the criticism of Bush is fair either. But fair criticism means, "Vedder's criticism of Bush is wrong because...." not "Vedder is an America-hating sleazebag."

But singers, writers and actors who criticize the president are subjected to a ridiculous double standard. It's not the mere substance of their criticism that's attacked, it's the fact that they spoke out at all. According some people, actors should only talk about film , writers about literature and singers about music. They are not permitted to be citizens supporting or opposing their government's policies (well, they can support it, just not oppose it; no one seemed to mind baseball player Curt Schilling stumping for Bush). And frankly, that's outrageous.

Eddie Vedder is a citizen of the United States. So is Michael Moore. So is Billy Joe Armstrong. So are the Dixie Chicks. As such, they have every right to criticize the president and what he's doing. Just as you have every right to ignore them. They do not have the right to be taken seriously, but they do have the right to speak.

The war in Iraq isn't immoral because Susan Sarandon says so. It's immoral because it's immoral. That said, I have no more problem with Sarandon saying it's wrong than I do with Joe Sixpack saying it's wrong.

Their words do not carry more weight because they are famous. But their words do not carry less weight either.

Dylan wrote some of the most influential music of his time. He wrote about how young people were starting to think for themselves. He wrote about the immorality of segregation and racism. He wrote about the insanity of war.

And he admitted that artists had a social responsiblity:

Come writers and critics
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
Will be later to win

There's a long history of artists being engaged in politics and social issues. Some of the most revered figures in American history are people involved in artistic endeavors who weren't afraid to stick their noses in on the pressing issues of their time. Henry David Thoreau. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mark Twain. Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger. Harper Lee. Countless others.

And it's not just in American history. Writers played a very important role in supporting and advancing the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Fela Kuti sang about injustice in military-dominated Nigeria in the 70s. Writers have always been influential in Latin America.

The most prominent dissidents in Eastern Europe, those most revered by the west, weren't politicians. They were writers (Solzhenitsyn), playwrights (Havel) even scientists (Sakharov),

These people felt that limiting themselves ordinary stories about lost love was trite when the society around them was suffocated by such oppression. They felt a social responsibility to risk leaving their little artistic cocoon and speak out against injustice. They helped bring an end to the monstrosity that was the Soviet empire, all because these artists dared speak of politics. Then, the government treated them as traitors. History now considers them as heros and patriots. Not because they were artists. But because they were citizens.

Saturday, July 29, 2006


Every Friday night, our local baker shows progressive oriented films at his cafe. Last night, he showed an inspiring documentary on the career of Sen. Paul Wellstone. Despite the unhappy ending, Wellstone and his wife (an activist in her own right) tragically in a plane crash in October 2002, it was one of the most uplifting pieces I've seen in a while.

One of the things that intrigued me was how unusual someone like him seems now. I wondered what it would be like to be represented by someone with a shred of idealism. Idealism in politics seems virtually dead now, even on the left where idealism was so central in the 60s and 70s. Ronald Reagan's victory was more comprehensive than people realized during his presidency. He didn't just win the battles of the day.

Reaganism thoroughly eradicated the notion that government could anything (except wage war and provide welfare to defense contractors). Reaganism thoroughly crushed the notion of the word 'public.' The only thing that mattered was fundamentalist individualism. Conservatives of today complain that Americans aren't sufficiently united against the threats and alleged threats that we face. But that's because Americans no longer think in collective terms. This is a consequence of the Me Decade and the rejection of the notion of society, of being part of something greater than oneself.

Now, politics are governed almost exclusively by anger, divisiveness and demonization. These elements have always been present in American politics but at least they used to be balanced out by a bit of idealism. That balance seems to have disappeared.

At this point, it would be useful to point out the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism means you don't take anything at face value. Cynicism means you automatically attribute malicious or selfish motives to everything and everyone. Skepticism is a key component in ensuring democracy doesn't turn into authoritarianism. Cynicism is corrosive and undermines democracy by assuming that every action is selfish and everyone is only interested in self-promotion.

Skepticism means you analyze each case individually. Cynicism means you automatically assume the worst. In that way, cynicism is just as simplistic and mindless as the Polyanna view of the world. It doesn't take any effort to believe that the world is all sweetness and light. It also doesn't take any effort to believe that all humans are irredeemable thugs. It doesn't take any effort to believe that President Bush or the Democrats are automatically wrong before you even process their words or actions (the partisan view). It doesn't take any effort to believe that the purpose of every government program is to undermine society, that any collective action is a vicious assault on freedom (the hard-core libertarian view). These analyses are cheap, lazy and wrong.

But this cheap cynicism is worse than wrong, it's destructive. If you believe that citizens are irrelevant to the political process, you're going to sit on your butt and watch Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire instead of writing, protesting, organizing or voting. If you believe that all politicians are corrupt and there's nothing you can do about it, then you will withdraw from the political process. The more good folks withdraw from the political process, the more influence is ceded to the less honorable people. The more cynicism rules, the more good folks will be discouraged from getting involved at all.

We live in an era where it's easy to be cynical. We live under the most divisive president in generations. He's waging an insane war of aggression that was supposed to make us safer but has instead led to even his own party members saying we're in the early stages of World War III. And the disastrous foreign policy only serves to obscure disastrous domestic policies as well, such as in the domains of energy, scientific research and civil rights.

Yet, it would be a mistake to forget that while I oppose what the president is doing, a lot of people support him and/or what he's doing. A lot of people think the war is necessary and that Americans really need to get behind it. A lot of people think, for whatever reason, that the country will go down the tubes if two men are allowed to get their relationship recognized by the state. A lot of people feel that too many Americans don't recognize the dangers of Islamic extremism.

And people on all sides resent the influence of big money on politics, the legalized bribery of poltical officials called campaign contributions. People increasingly see that there are only a handful of true differences between the two major parties and that most of the other 'differences' are cosmetic or questions of degree. (Don't forget that John Kerry's position on Iraq wasn't that it was a terrible idea. It was that Iraq was a nifty idea that Bush was screwing up the details and that he could do better)

In short, everyone's angry. Everyone's more worried about blaming the other side or the media than trying to figure out solutions to problems.

The president didn't help things when he demanded total subservience. He infamously said that either you're with us or you're with the terrorists. Liberals and progressives resented being told they couldn't oppose anything he did or they'd be with the terrorists. These groups had real concerns about radical Islam, since religious extremism is the most reactionary, anti-progressive force in the world today. If you want unity, you need to reach out to people. The president and his supports demanded absolute obedience or else. Of course there was going to be resistance.

In the wake of this, there were two astonishingly juvenile smear campaigns. One by the right against anyone who questioned the war on Iraq or its dubious justifications. One by the left against President Bush's intellect and his alleged similiarities to the history's worst monsters.

This sort of bile is anthetical to building consensus. If you've been bombarded with slogans like "Bush is Hitler" or if you've had some scream at you about being a traitor or a terrorist appeaser, you are not likely to be in the mood to sit down and rationally discuss possible ways to move forward.

But once these folks wipe the drool from their chins and their blood pressure goes back to normal, the issues will remain.

Even aside from the war, there are a lot of problems in this country. But as someone who's not a cynic, I also believe that a lot of good things about this country too. There are a lot of good people (both supporters and opponents of the current president) with good will who, if their energy and ideas were tapped, could help make this country even better.

And that's what intrigued me about Paul Wellstone. He didn't just say, "This is what I'm going to do. Follow me or else."

That's really a true leader of a movement does. He convinces people to follow him but more importantly, he inspires them to take action in their own right. He makes them feel like they have power and that the power will survive even when the leader is no longer there.

It's hard to do nowadays, when cynicism is so easy. But some people manage it. Howard Dean did it for a while. And he's a great example. Dean was not really that liberal himself; he was a fairly pragmatic centrist governor. Yet he was able really stir up the previously moribund liberal wing of the Democrat Party. That wing remains active despite Dean himself selling out.

Paul Wellstone was able to motivate people to become active in the political process. Jesse Jackson did it. Dean did it.

Even though I disagree with them wholeheartedly, the Christian Right did a masterful job of it in the 80s and 90s. They took a group that felt marginalized by the mainstream, organized them from the bottom up in a long, painstaking process and now they control the country.

There are no shortcuts. But when it works, it really works.

Wellstone, Jackson and the Christian Right knew one critical thing. Money may be disproprotionately important in our political process but corporations still can't vote on Election Day. Ultimately, the elections are decided by human beings. And when human beings are organized, they can win.

History is filled with supposedly powerless people who didn't believe in their supposed powerlessness. Wellstone was a rabble rouser in one of the most establishment bodies in this country. He didn't get through his whole agenda; he spent most of his time in a Senate controlled by the other party and the rest controlled by the other wing of his own. But through hard work, passion, commitment and the belief that politics matters, he got things done against the odds.

Whether you believe you can make a difference or believe you can't, you're right.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The beginning of the end for the imperial presidency?

I've written regularly about the Bush administration's contempt for the rule of law. A google search of this blog for the phrase 'rule of law' shows four essays on this topic relating to the Bush administration since April alone; six since the beginning of the year.

The worst part of the administration's assault of the rule of law is the shameful acquiesence on the part of legislators, that supposed co-equal branch of government which has abdicated its constitutional duty to be a part of the checks and balances process.

But it looks like the benefits of stem cell research has not only scientific benefits, but political ones too. Apparently, it's been used to grow a spine for some members of Congress.

President Bush has used something called 'signing statements' to dissent from parts of bills that he signed. The signing statement is not new, but Bush has issued more of them in a little over five years than all his predecessors combined did in the previous 212. Most of the signing statements by his predecessors have been instructions on how executive agencies should enforce the law, now how they should ignore it.

Critics add that the chief executive should not be picking and choosing which laws he feels like enforcing. If he doesn't like a bill that comes before his desk, he should veto it altogether.

Bush has issued at least 750 signing statements during his presidency, reserving the right to revise, interpret or disregard laws on national security and constitutional grounds.

These signing statements amount to line item vetoes of legislation, which are not permitted under existing law or the Constitution. Except they are more insidious and a naked power grab because since they aren't official vetoes, Congress can't override them.

Most infamously, he signed a bill that banned torture but added that he reserved to right not to enforce the ban.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has proposed legislation that would explicitly declare that these signing statements had no legal status.

"The president cannot use a signing statement to rewrite the words of a statute nor can the president use a signing statement to selectively nullify those provisions he does not like," Mr Specter said as he introduced his proposed law.
"The president cannot veto part of bill... he cannot veto certain provisions he does not like."

Mr Specter's proposed law would forbid courts from taking presidential signing statements into account when interpreting laws and would allow Congress to take the president to court over signing statements.

"If the president is permitted to re-write the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process," Mr Specter, an increasingly frequent critic of the administration, said.

The action came after the American Bar Association declared that by attaching conditions to legislation, the president has sidestepped his constitutional duty to either sign a bill, veto it, or take no action.

(Note: it's worth remembering that the ABA gave a thumbs up to both of Bush's Supreme Court nominations)

If this actually passes, which is admittedly a long shot at the moment given that hard-core conservatives control the House of Representatives, then it would be an important and long overdue step in Congress finally reigning in assertions of imperial authority by the White House.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Climate change and the national parks

Leave it to a foreign paper to tell us what's really going on in the US. The UK Independent has a good article on how climate change is affecting America's national parks and other treasures.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The moral midget speaks

You know your position is morally bankrupt when it boils down to: our innocent civilian deaths are more righteous than your innocent civilian deaths.

David Limbaugh heaped praise on US ambassador to the UN John Bolton and urged he be approved to the position full-time. Personally, I'm torn. He certainly represents the Bush administration's belligerence and arrogance better than anyone else; a more diplomatic ambassador might paper over the White House's deep flaws. But I guess it's a question of whether you should vote for an ambassador who works for an administration at the expense of the well-being of the country as a whole.

Anyways, Limbaugh praised Bolton's 'moral clarity' in his absolutist defense of the Israeli destruction of southern Lebanon.

In commenting on the crisis, Bolton said:

I think it would be a mistake to ascribe a moral equivalence to civilians who die as the direct result of malicious terrorist acts, the very purpose of which terrorist acts are to kill civilians and the tragic and unfortunate consequence of civilian deaths as a result of military action taken in self-defense.

Huzzah for the 'culture of life'!

Bolton's moral clarity is evident: it's clear his morals are seriously deficient.

Then again, it's too bad the Lebanese civilians weren't embryos. Or on life support. Then Americans might care about what happens to them.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

African people's court

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*. (*-added on the suggestion of a reader)

The two areas that have in the front of the African news lately have been Somalia (which I discussed here) and the impending elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ably covered in The Salon blog and by the IRIN).

While these important issues along with the Ugandan peace talks and the intervention of Joseph Kony's mother have been in the headlines, one important development in continental justice seems to have slipped by with little attention.

Earlier this month, the African Union launched the historic African Court on Human and People's Rights.

It will be the continent's first court that gives states and people equal rights to challenge governments suspected of human rights violations or other infractions.

Eight years in the making since its creation on paper, the court can apply and rule on any international treaty or law ratified by the state in question, including treaties that do not themselves refer violators to a court. States, AU organs, individuals and non-governmental organisations [NGOs] can all ask for rulings.

Though it's easy to be cynical, this has to the potential to revolutionize justice in Africa. Rather than shipping dictators to Europe to stand trial or to ad hoc tribunals, there will be a single, regular court with a consistent mandate and rules. This will certainly lead to more effective implementation of justice than having to re-invent the wheel after every conflict.

Most international bodies only give standing to governments, some of whom are causing the problems in question in the first place. This court importantly gives equal standing to individuals and NGOs as to states. That means that dictators like Ben Ali, Obiang and Mugabe can no longer hide behind the fig leaf of national sovereignty to cover their gross human rights violations.

After all, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights has been voluntarily ratified by Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe and all 50 other members of the African Union.

Update: NPR Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has a good piece on some of the other strides being made in Africa.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Habit of War

Given this blog's recent (if inadvertant) on the mentality of violence, The London Review of Books Jeremy Harding ran a good piece on The Habit of War.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Issues? We don't need no stinkin issues!

The Post-Star ran a good editorial on the local campaign for the US House of Representatives. The race for New York's 20th Congressional district seat pits GOP incumbent Rep. John Sweeney and Democrat challenge Kirsten Gillibrand. There is also a Liberal Party candidate, whose name eludes me and who went unnamed by the daily. Though in fairness, it would be hard for the paper to find out even if it wanted to; the state Liberal Party is so irrelevant that even their website doesn't list any of their candidates for the upcoming election (except for a giant photo of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton).

The Post-Star's editorial echoes my annoyance with the superfluousness of the present campaign. Not only have the Democrats not won the seat for this area since the mid-70s but the area is so overwhelmingly Republican, GOP incumbents have almost never been seriously challenged. Sweeney won the last election with over 65% of the vote, which is less than the staggering 73% he won in 2002. Such nastiness is not surprising. Republicans aren't used to having a race on their hands and for whatever reason Democrats smell blood in the water.

That said, the comments from each campaign are bordering on the comical. The Post-Star noted several non-stories that have been played up by the campaigns including:

-That Sweeney used the same photo on his campaign website as on his Congressional pages

-That Gillibrand's brother ran a gas station in Albany that was cited for minor violations by the state yet she was endorsed by the Sierra Club

-That Gillibrand's father is a lobbyist

-That Sweeney was involved in a ski trip junket in Lake Placid

Democrats were titilated by published photos of Sweeney at a frat party at Union College. Republicans attacked Gillibrand for not denouncing a Democrat National Committee spot that used images of dead soldiers.

(Exposing people to the reality of war by showing dead soldiers is partisanship... though apparently exposing people to the reality of abortion by showing dead fetuses is perfectly fine)

The ski trip story is the most interesting to me. The trip was sponsored by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) and was paid for in part by the New York Power Authority (NYPA). The event, designed to showcase the Olympic facilities, has taken place since 1998. NYPA chipped in $25,000 for the event.

The state Assembly has launched hearings into ORDA's and NYPA's roles in the events. Sweeney declined to testify.

Naturally, Democrats have attacked Sweeney, calling the ski weekend an abuse of power. They say it's a clear example of the Congressman's ethical deficiencies. Yet, as The Post-Star ably reported last week, ALL of our federal representatives are used to taking junkets.

Noted the paper:

US Sen. Hillary Clinton and her aides took 115 trips valued at $182,676, while [US Sen. Chuck] Schumer and his aides took 45 trips valued at $75,542. Sweeney and his aides took 25 trips valued at $35,774.

If what Sweeney did was so unethical, I'd like to hear Democrats attack Clinton and Schumer. If these trips demonstrate ethical deficiences, then it's certainly a bipartisan issue. Then again, the Green Party* has been saying this for years.

The real issue with the ski trip is not Sweeney's participation in it. The real issue is why the infamously opaque and wasteful state authorities are spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars so that John Sweeney's hangers-on can battle each other on the bobsled track. But that's one for the state legislature to look at.

These candidates say they want to represent YOU in Washington. But do YOU really care about which photos Sweeney uses on his website? Do YOU care if Gillibrand's father is a lobbyist? Or do you care about things like health care, war and energy policy. If these guys have nothing to say about issues that anyone with a life would care about, the least they can do is stop bombarding voters with trivialiities.

*-Clinton's Green Party opponent, Howie Hawkins, spoke in Glens Falls yesterday. I'll have a report on the visit later this week.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ideological axes looking for a sharpening stone

There are two topics I almost never discuss on my blog: abortion and any Middle East conflict that involves Israel. The reason is that it's virtually impossible to have a reasonable, rational discussion about either topic. Almost everyone knows exactly where they stand on these two issues and most are so uncompromising that attempted dialogue is futile... there are only monologues.

I was trying to let the Israeli attacks on and imminent invasion of Lebanon go uncommented upon because pretty much everyone else in the world is screaming about the subject anyway. But with all I've heard and read, I can't let the subject pass.

The Israeli response to a pair of soldiers being captured/kidnapped is wholly over the top. For it, they have turning southern Lebanon into rubble are even shelling civilian areas in Beirut and the capital's airport. A good chunk of Israel's most moderate neighbor, which spent over a decade recovering from a long civil war, has been largely destroyed in less than a week.

The reaction to the military operation is typical. The US is backing Israel uncritically. The rest of the world is attacking Israel (which they see as a puppet of Washington) uncritically.

Granted, Israel hasn't turned southern Lebanon into a glass bowl like some extremists would like, but the overreaction is still sickening. Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feels the need to overcompensate for his lack of high ranking military credentials, but it's still sickening and will only embolden Hezbollah and support for it as the militants will appeal to Lebanese nationalism.

Still, the international response begs some important questions. Israel's actions drew worldwide condemnation and rightly so. Yet when Hezbollah launched rockets into Israeli civilian areas before the Israeli action, where was the angry international denunciations? Where were the calls for a ceasefire? Where was the fury with Hezbollah's wanton violence that killed civilians?

Furthermore, Israel has been widely excoriated for launching rockets into civilian areas. Some want them tried for war crimes under international law.

Yet, hardly anyone's saying a word about WHY they're targeting such places: Hezbollah is hiding there amongst the civilians. Using human shields is also against international law but I'm not sure I've heard one non-American or -Israel demand Hezbollah fighters be tried for war crimes. Why is that?

I've been very critical of Israeli actions in the past. They should withdraw from the occupied territories and recognize an independent Palestinian state. Until they do, they should stop the atrocious treatment of people living in the territories, treatment which sows the seeds that blossom into terrorism.

But it's absolutely despicable that, the US excluded, Israel always seems to get the entireity of international blame. There's plenty of condemnation to go around. But when a dozen Israeli civilians are killed by a Hezbollah rocket, people say they're occupiers so tough cookies. But when a single Palestinian or Lebanese civilian is killed, it's front page news around the world and the subject of countless infuriated blog entries (by people who insist they're not anti-Israeli but only ever criticize Israel). These people say they stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people who are subject to terrible oppression and arbitrary violence. And that's right and proper. But why will no one stand in solidarity with the Israeli people when they are subject to arbitrary violence? Why are their lives worth less?

Of course, I could also ask why international attention is always focused on the Middle East when dozens of Lebanese/Palestinians or Israelis die in a week, even though over a thousand die every day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with hardly any western media attention at all. Naturally, it's because the Arabs and Israelis have done a much better job than the Congolese on the PR front, selling their story to the western media and to various ideological groups. It fits into a neat little box: freedom fighter vs imperialist oppressor or civilized democrat vs terrorist. And with Israel so closely linked to the US government, it makes a perfect foil for avowed enemies of President Bush. People pick sides not based on morality or humanitarianism but based on which fits their ideological bent more closely.

Let's face it: far fewer people are affected by the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories or Lebanon than in the DR Congo or in northern Uganda or in Haiti or Sri Lanka or half a dozen other areas you've never heard of. And let's face it, the security of Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese does not affect Americans, Europeans, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Senegalese or tons of other places where people take this conflict so personally.

The opinions of most people on the Middle East conflict is not down humanitarianism or security. It's about people who already have an ideological axe to grind looking for a sharpening stone.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The fetish for violence and war

A few days ago, I wrote about egoism and violence. Americans have quite a lust for violence and war. But in a weird way. We get upset about being shown IMAGES of violence, but not about ACTUAL violence. Many people oppose gratuitous violence in video games and movies. If the news shows dead bodies of soldiers (or even flag draped coffins), people freak out.

Yet for years, the Iraq aggression remained popular with the American public. As long as people were shown smiling faces of young GIs thinking they were going off to save the world from tyranny, all was well and good in the homeland. Once they started coming home in body bags in large numbers, discomfort rose. Despite the fact that this was inevitable once the war was launched. It makes you wonder why people don't think of these things BEFORE deciding to back military action. If your son or your neighbor's brother coming at home in a casket is going to make you oppose a war that you'd previously backed, then you shouldn't support it in the first place. It's not worth it if it's only someone else's relative who should give their life.

Perhaps, one of the reasons I don't share the American fetish for war is because I've seen the effects of war with my own eyes. When I was in Guinea, I went to a camp filled with tens of thousands of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The people most affected by war are not those with M16s or Kalashnikovs. The people most affected by war are not those protected by tank armor or flack jackets. The people most affected by war are women, children and the elderly. The people most affected by war are those who did not choose to be a part of it. The real heroes are those trying with true courage to survive the senseless violence, not those perpetrating it. The most tragic victims of war are those with babies on their backs, not a rifle in their hands. This may not be politically correct, but this is truth.

If you have delusions about the glory of war or Orwellian ideas about guns spreading freedom, bombs spreading democracy and torture spreading human rights, then visit a refugee camp. Such a quick interaction with reality will quickly disabuse you of such profane notions.

I do not oppose every war on principle, but I do believe that it should always be the last option. The reason for this is the law of unintended consequences. War inevitably introduces an element of chaos to the situation. For example, when the US launched its aggression against Iraq, people were tricked into believing that the mere removal of the butcher Saddam Hussein would transform Iraq into paradise; if not immediately, then at least within a year or two after we'd installed a government of our choosing. But the removal of the authoritarian that was holding the country together, if by fear, released anarchy on to the Iraqi scene.

The braintrust behind the Iraq aggression either failed to take this potential for anarchy into account or grotestquely underestimated its probablity. A casual look at the histories of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia (or for that matter current Nigeria) would've enlightened them as to the likelihood of religious or ethnic tensions erupting after the demise of an autocratic regime.

One of the main reasons that the 'remove a despotic regime and everything will be peachy' delusion usually fails is that it doesn't take into account the method required for removing the despot in the first place. Whenever war is the path chosen, it inevitably leaves major scars on society. The trauma of war lasts long, LONG after the guns go silent.

I was reminded of this last week after watching a PBS documentary on gang culture in El Salvador. The small Central American country was ruined by violence in the '80s as Soviet-backed guerillas and US-backed death squads destroyed the country in order to 'save' it from the other side. A large part of the Salvadoran population grew up learning about the logic of force, believing that if you can't get what you want when you want it, then violence is the answer. Now it's considered thuggery, but back then it was fetishized an honorable way to struggle for 'freedom' or 'liberation.' The gangs don't buy the hypocrisy and El Salvador is left still traumatized by the violence and its after-effects 14 years after the peace accords.

Sierra Leone is another country in similar straits. A rebellion was launched there in 1991, ostensibly to oust a corrupt military regime. But as so often happens, the 'cure' was far worse than the disease. The rebels became infamous for hacking off the hands and arms of anyone they felt like torturing. They did so by abducting children, drugging them and ordering them to commit these atrocities. Key to the rebels' 'recruitment' efforts was to sever any ties between their young conscripts and their previous lives. So children, some as young as 10, were ordered to commit atrocities such as rape, amputation or murder against their own relatives and elders of their village. This was a way of turning upside down the established social order and basically forcing the children to stay with the rebels by literally eliminating all other viable options.

Even though the war ended four years ago, the planned rebel strategy of ripping apart the social fabric continues to have devastating consequences in the country and will for a generation. Rebuilding is slow. A huge portion of people in the country suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other related conditions. Former child soldiers have been rejected by their families and villages because of the atrocities they were forced to commit. There are organizations out there, like War Child, trying to help the kids reintegrate into society but it's very difficult. These honorable NGOs can't impose a collective amnesia on townspeople and villagers.

The psychological trauma doesn't even factor in the massive damage to infrastructure. The absence of destroyed schools, roads and hospitals also has a huge impact on people's lives. And will hurt the chances of at least the next generation too.

And to further the totality of war theme, the war in Sierra Leone erupted as a direct result of spill over from the civil war in neighboring Liberia. Liberia's in almost the exact same situation as Sierra Leone that I outlined above. The wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau had a huge destabilizing impact on neighboring Guinea, as does the current war in Ivory Coast. The instability, economic destruction and refugee influx from those four conflicts has Guinea itself teetering on the brink.

When people debate a war's merit, they often bat about numbers like enemy body counts, civilian dead or schools built. Or they use deceitful emotional blackmail like, "Do you want an evil dictator to remain in place?" as though that's the only pertinent question, as though war is a surgical procedure where a man can be removed with virtually no entry or exit wound. But the impact of war can not be judged solely by superficial numbers or the presence/absence of a single individual. The impact of war on a country and its people is comprehensive, thorough, utterly complete.

War is real violence against real people. As much as Salvadorans and Sierra Leonians would like to hit the reset button to a time before a bunch of egomaniacs decided that violence would solve all their problems, that isn't possible. That's not the way it works in the real world.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The invasion

Today, a country sent troops into its neighbor, not for the first time. The neighbor's seat of government was seriously impacted by the intervention and its fragile regime's credibility undermined even more. The military action wasn't that surprising after the prime minister declared that the Islamists' presence was a threat to his own country's security.

Still, the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia is a curious thing. A militia run by Islamist courts controls almost all of Mogadishu and is threatening to overrun the entire country. The country does have an internationally recognized transitional national government (TNG) agreed upon at a national conference but it's weak and is presently seated at Baidoa, rather than the official capital of Mogadishu.

(Note: The northwest part of Somalia seceded from the mess some years ago and is now the Republic of Somaliland. Though it is a peaceful country with all the functioning institutions of a normal country, its sovereignty is not recognized by any other countries)

According to reports, the Islamists have brought much needed law and order to Mogadishu. Much like when the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996, the population was hopeful that Islamists would bring stability to the chaos.

In the battle for Mogadishu, the CIA backed warlords fighting the Islamist militias. Much like during the Cold War, Washington did care if it backed crooks and murderers so long as they were our crooks and murderers. But as the former Mujahadeen-turned-Taliban demonstrated, no one is obliged to remain our crooks and murderers forever.

This is a missed opportunity for the Bush administration to help bring back a sense of normalcy to the country. Rather than backing the thugs who called themselves anti-Islamist, Washington should've taken the chance to given as much support as possible to the TNG. Hard line fundamentalist regimes thrive in the vacuum of anarchy. That's why the Taliban and Somali Islamists (and for that matter, the Ayatollah in Iran) were so heartily welcomed when they first arrived.

The TNG has denied suggestions that it invited the Ethiopians to protect Baidoa; in fact, they deny that Ethopian troops are in the city at all. The Ethopians have promised to attack if the Islamists come anywhere near Baidoa.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Men (and women and boys) behaving badly

There is a big controversy around here after a local youth baseball coach was accused of and charged with attacking one of his 14 year old players. The man, Bob Orlando, is also the president (since suspended) of the town's youth baseball program and general manager of the local mall.

According to The Post-Star, Orlando allegedly threw several punches at one of his players following a nasty verbal exchange. The player was upset that he had taken out of the game and taunted the coach, who apparently responded by lunging at him through a car window.

Orlando has since been banned from coaching at least through 2007 and removed as president of the baseball program. He has been charged by the police. He has rightly been excoriated by the newspaper and by the community as a whole. Some of the involved parents have gone one step further and implied he should lose his job as general manager of the mall.

That's a bit excessive but most of the criticism of Orlando is deserved. A coach should throw a punch at a player, period. A coach should never touch a player in anger at all except in self-defense or to break up a fight. And even then, the action should only be defensive, not aggressive.

I've been told from a reliable source that the kid, a pitcher, was infuriated at being taken out of a game and was verbally abusing Orlando from the moment he got back to the dugout. Apparently, the expletive laced tired never stopped. This is a 14 year old, mind you, verbally abusing a coach who had volunteered hours of his time to help these kids. What Orlando did was completely unacceptable, but it wasn't unprovoked.

I only heard this third hand and Orlando has refused comment, presumably on the advice of his lawyer. So I don't blame The Post-Star for not publishing something so far removed from the incident. I think they've done a good job covering what is essentially a 'he said, she said' story where the 'he' isn't talking.

But assuming it's true, it does add context to the story. It does not in any way excuse what Orlando did. He deserves the criticism and the punishments. But it begs the question: how come he's the ONLY one being held accountable? At least socially.

Consider the kid throwing the temper tantrum because his teammates made a few errors, is he a little baby or a 14 year old? Shouldn't he be expected to act his age?

Bear in mind the one thing that we DO know is that the kid admitted to sitting his car with his mom and mocking Orlando: "Thanks, President Bob; Thanks, President Bob; Thanks' President Bob."

If his mom didn't hear the alleged verbal abuse in the dugout, then surely she heard this. How could any decent parent sit there in silence as their adolescent son taunted an adult, let alone someone who was volunteering his time to help kids?

Orlando should not be allowed to coach again. And it is right and proper than he have charges filed against him. But the obnoxious brat and his complicit or impotent mother also need to look in the mirror too and think about their own role in this mess.

Angry editorials and columns are written whenever there is a story like this of out-of-control coaches or parents. And I heartily approve of such pieces. When he was sports editor of The Post-Star, Ken Tingley often wrote columns about the importance of sportsmanship. They were some of the best stuff he's ever published in the paper.

As a relatively mellow youth coach who expects good behavior of myself and my parents, I completely agreed with them. If all parents conducted themselves with dignity, it would make the job of every coach easier and it would let the kids enjoy their sport more. I've been fortunate that I've had almost no parents like that, but I know not all coaches are that lucky.

But I am also a relatively mellow youth coach who expects good behavior of my players. I've coached 14 year olds before and, while I'd never assault them, I also would never put up with them (or kids of any other age) verbally abusing me or their teammates. All it takes it one little spoiled twerp carping on how great he is and how everyone else sucks to ruin your experience as a coach and the experience of the other kids.

Thankfully, I've never coached a kid who has even hinted at such an action. The coach sets the tone but it helps to have it reinforced, or at least not undermined, by the parents. I have expectations of my players of good behavior and will tolerate nothing less. Sadly, it seems this kid's mom has no such expectations of her son.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Egoism and violence

On another forum, I was goaded into responding to the juvenile taunting of someone who got upset when I asked him to explain his position on something. The whole exchange occured on Sunday afternoon. Later that day, I caught the public radio show Humankind. It's a fantastic and moving show that is airs on Sirius Satellite Radio and I think some NPR affiliates. It's so engaging that it's the only broadcast show, radio or TV, that I will re-arrange my schedule so as to not miss.

The most recent show was on Teaching Nonviolence. After listening to the show, I realized I wasn't goaded into verbal violence by this bully. I allowed myself to be goaded into verbal violence by him. I let my ego get in the way of sound judgement. I rarely do this but it happened on Sunday.

And in a way, this is how nearly all violence (verbal, physical or militaristic) starts. It happens when someone or someones let their ego get in the way of good judgement. And it's always a person or people. Countries don't have egos. Their citizens or rulers do.

In my case, my ego led to the 'need' to have the last word. The person who goaded me can do his own self-analysis if he's so inclined. The egos of America's rulers led to the Iraq aggression and debacle; they had their minds made up beforehand and weren't going to let any pesky facts get in the way. Saddam Hussein's ego led him to obstruct UN weapons' inspectors which gave our rulers the fake excuse they needed to invade.

But this isn't surprising or unique to Bush or Saddam. Egos are almost invariably at the origin of war, just as with almost every other act of violence.

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought one of the stupidest, most absurd wars in history. Two of the poorest countries in the world wasted enormous sums of money on a war that cost 70,000 lives. The war was over a remote triangle of land with few people and no natural resources. Why was this war fought? Because the egos of Ethiopia's strongman and Eritrea's dictator overrode common sense and good judgement. That the two men were former allies added to the ego factor.

Egoism is at the origin of almost all forms of violence. Succombing to egoism releases the shackles of civilization and has you succomb to primal urges. Violence is a form of self-indulgence, a failure of imagination, a collapse of self-restraint.

I don't believe in absolute non-violence all the time. I do believe in self-defense and defending others who are victims of violence (I mean this in a personal sense; international affairs are a bit more nuanced). If I see someone being raped, yes I would use a baseball bat to stop it if I had to. But I'd shout first.

A generalized belief in non-violence means that resolving an issue without violence should always been your goal. Violence should always been an absolute last resort. In our society, we resort to violence way too easily. The predominant mentality is, "Give me exactly what I want right away or I'll use violence." They think this allows them to say that violence is not their first choice.

People say that generally believing in non-violence is naive. It was said that Martin Luther King Jr, Mandela and Gandhi were naive. It was also said that Gen. Sherman was realistic. Three of those people built bridges; one burned them. All four of those people had a profound impact on the history of their country; three for the better, one for the worse. The 'naive' people helped bring freedom and liberty to their followers but while remaining magnanimous to the other side. The 'realistic' person slashed and burned his way to violent victory but helped sow a deep bitterness that lasted over a century. Some victory.

Militarists often cite World War II as an example of a good war, of a war that ultimately had positive benefits for humanity. For the sake of argument, let's assume this is true. There have been dozens and dozens of wars around the world in the last 60 years. The fact that the militarists have to go back through countless wars and six decades just to fine a single 'good' war is telling. If only 1 or 2 percent of the conflicts are 'good' ones, then that's a pretty strong rebuke to the whole theory that war solves problems. I bet non-violence has more than a 2 percent success rate.

The question needs to be turned on its head.

Look at all the damage and destruction and trauma that violence has caused over the millenia. And remember, I'm not just talking about militaristic violence, but physical and verbal violence as well. Societies and families torn apart. Progress stopped in its tracks. Millions of lives lost. Many times more lives ruined.

For anyone to believe that violence is a long-term solution to any problem given its miserable failure of a history, that's about the most naive thing anyone can possibly believe in.

Just ask yourself this. When was the last time you heard anyone ever say 'peace is hell'?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Some of us ARE paying attention

I am convinced that the ruling class* power is predicated on the premise that no one is paying attention to what they say. It's predicated on the reality that in this ADD society, no one is going to remember what any of our leaders said at any point in the past and this allows them to redefine 'reality' as they see fit.

(*-By ruling class, I do not solely mean the Republican Party. The Democrat Party establishment is guilty of the same things. That's why so many Democrat Iraq War accomplices, like Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, have been able delude passionate anti-war people into voting for them. They are pro-war but trash the president enough to fool much of the anti-war base that makes up their party. I think that's a case of people wanting to be fooled, but that's another issue.)

However, the conservative wing of the Republican Party controls the decision-making branches of government, so I'll focus on them for now.

I've heard conservatives tell me that climate change doesn't exist, that it's a fiction of the 'liberal' media and Al Gore (and probably the Dixie Chicks and New York Times too). I've heard conservatives tell me that climate change is real, but it's a natural cycle of the Earth and independent of man's activities so that makes it ok to continue our environmentally destructive and unsustainable activities. I've heard the same people mouth both arguments. How can something be natural if it doesn't exist? It might make sense if you don't bother to think about it.

When was the last time anyone in this administration talked about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? Back when they were trying to justify the aggression against that country, the administration mentioned Iraq's alleged WMDs (or certain WMDs, according to them) every 2.3 seconds.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is likely running for president in 2008. Gingrich has a very big mouth, which is perhaps why he's able to talk out of both sides of it.

Gingrich is one of many conservatives who praised the aggression. "I feel safer having Americans try to liberate Iraq." -he said a few years ago.

Yesterday, he changed course and declared, "[W]e, we are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war...."

So the impending third world war makes you feel safer, Mr. Would-be President? Or if things have changed since your 'feel safer' comment, shouldn't you disavow it.

And this neatly exemplifies the inherent contradictions of the neo-con house of cards. They've spent several years trying to brainwash us into believing the falsehood that the Iraq aggression has made Americans safer. Yet their whole plan is based on stoking the climate of fear so they can easily whip up another war against the next international Hitler (Iran's Ahmadinejad, Syria's Assad, France's Chirac). They want to reassure people so their shambolic efforts can have a tiny shred of credibility, but not so much that the people become immune to their fear mongering.

It's a delicate balance and the far right has done a good job for the last few years, but it was never going to be sustainable indefinitely. Truth always wins out in the end, even if it takes a while.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Thank you Bruce Arena

Late last week, US Soccer announced that Bruce Arena's tenure as men's national team coach would end with this year. Arena will finish his 8-year run as the all-time winningest coach in national team history. He also led the team to a pair of continental titles (2002, 2005) as well as a World Cup quarterfinal appearance in 2002, the second best US World Cup showing ever.

I loved having Bruce as coach. I enjoyed his willingness to shake up the establishment and tell it like it is. I've read he was instrumental in demanding that US Soccer professionalize its internal operations. He criticized Major League Soccer because regular season games have such little meaning (something I've criticized too) which means domestic players face little pressure on a daily basis. He's called for more young players to challenge themselves by playing in Europe, where there is more pressure to improve. He's ruffled a lot of feathers in a US Soccer environment that demands conformity and a fake happy face but to be honest, he's had the guts to amplify a lot of the things that many fans have been saying for years.

There are many people who trashed Arena after the US team's disappointing performance at the most recent World Cup. That was understandable. He was the coach and was always going to bear the brunt of the responsibility for the shambolic performances. I was one of many who criticized Arena's overly defensive tactics during the tournament.

However some took their criticisms to the next level. Some got personal. Take notorious loudmouth Eric Wynalda. Waldo is the US' all-time leading goal scorer (for now) and perhaps that's what makes him so obnoxious and self-important. Rather than limiting his criticisms to Arena's tactics, Wynalda got gratuitously nasty as he so often does.

"He can take a team to a certain level, but he has no idea where the next level is," he said. "How much does he know about playing in Europe, other than having a hot dog and a beer in the stands? Hearsay? Does he talk to the players? That's justification to know? Has he ever coached there and have that pressure? No. Sorry, I'm just pointing out the obvious."
The view's pretty good from the cheap seats. I guess one could equally ask Whine-alda what he knows about coaching a national team.

As I explained before, Arena deserves criticism for his overly defensive tactics at the World Cup. But is it his fault that most of the players inexplicably didn't show up? Is it his fault that the best players mostly underperformed? That he can't be bothered to hold anyone to any standard of accountability other than Arena says more about Whine-alda than Bruce.

I do not subscribe to revisionism. This happened the last time the US changed coaches as well. Steve Sampson did a poor job preparing for the 1998 World Cup and the team went three and out. However, people just his reign solely on the World Cup. They forgot what it was like before. When Sampson took over, the US was a team of hard workers that hoped to luck their way to some results. Sampson made them into a regional power. But the World Cup performance is the sum of most people's judgement of him. Sampson took the US to the next level.

Arena took the team to the next level above that. Now, we have a team that EXPECTS to be competitive against big powers. During Arena's tenure, we've gotten results in competitive matches against teams like Germany ('99), Portugal ('02) and Italy ('06). The US outplayed Germany in the 2002 quarterfinal but lost 1-0 due in part to a controversial officiating decision. In years past, the team and fans would've been happy losing 'only 1-0' to a team like Germany. Now, we're disheartened. It's precisely those expectations, raised so high by Arena, that make the performances in Germany so disappointed.

And that's precisely why Bruce Arena has been a great manager for the US. He's raised expectations for everybody. 'Almost' is no longer good enough. Criticize his decisions in two of the games in Germany if you must; fans do that all the time and I'm sure Bruce's feelings aren't going to be hurt by it. But don't succomb to the cheap temptation to discard his whole legacy and his important contributions to US soccer.

Update: Columnist Jamie Trecker takes a dissenting view. I still maintain that Arena took this team to the next level. Maybe it requires someone else to take the team another level still, but I can't help but praise Arena for his contributions.

Second update: First, Trecker identifies Bruce Arena's prickly nature, arrogance and tendency to blame everyone else when things went wrong as major flaws. His solution to this state of affairs: hire Jose Mourinho, the self-described Special One, as his successor. Sorry Jamie, you lost all credibility with me there.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

'Americans will never like soccer' and other fairy tales

There are certain things you can set your watch to. For example, if you come inside after getting soaked in a rainstorm, some people will blame President Bush for causing the bad weather or at least for not handing out umbrellas to everyone. Others will swear up and down that there isn't a cloud in the sky and that the rain is an invention of the liberal media. Another thing you can bank on is the massive hyperbole that surrounds the quadrennial soccer World Cup.

This is when normally understated soccer-lovers come out of closet and profess the love for their sport unabashedly. Since it only happens one month out of every four years, there's always quite a bit of hype.

This of course brings the soccer-bashers out of the closet too. I ought to start by defining the term. A soccer-basher is not someone who is uninterested in soccer. My mom is someone who is uninterested in soccer. A soccer-basher is someone who goes out of his (or her) way to badmouth the sport. I was in a bar on Sunday watching the World Cup final. I went into the bathroom and some guy came in as well. He noticed by soccer hat. That provoked him to launch into a one minute discourse on why he disliked soccer and why it was boring. Where did he get the audacity going out of his way to badmouth the sport to some stranger he knew was a fan?

Soccer-bashers talk about how boring soccer is, how it's a sport for pansies and commies (or, in the modern lingo, a sport for terrorists and the French). They insist it's a sport filled with lazy cheating divers (more true than it should be) and people not tough enough to play manly sports. Strangely enough, they don't say this to Roy Keane's face. The soccer-bashers insist that if if you really love the sport, you should move to Che-loving Latin America or socialist Europe. How right-wing politics gets in here is beyond me.

And as in anything of this sort, the more popular soccer becomes, the more shrill the soccer-bashers get. This is to be expected. No one bashes professional lacrosse because few follow it. Popularity of smaller sports provokes a backlash amongst those who follow the establishment sports. The harder the rain falls, the sunnier they insist it is.

Why do so many people go out of their way to bash soccer like the guy in the bar? I can't stand the NBA (Non-Basketball Association). It baffles me how anyone can sit in front of a TV and watch golf or NASCAR for hours on end. But I don't bash those sports. I don't go the bar and shout about how much auto racing sucks. I don't whine about the NBA Finals being shoved down the throats of anyone who watched more than 3 seconds a day of ESPN. I just ignore those sports. I don't need to tear down other sports to prop up my own. If they come on the TV, I don't fire off any angry newspaper column or blog entry. I just change the channel.

But it is amusing is when soccer-bashers in their hysteria express statements that flout common sense. I'm not talking about subjective comments like 'Soccer is boring' or 'There aren't enough goals.'

I'm talking more about comments like 'Soccer will never be big in America.' The more popular the game as a spectator sport becomes, and it's come light years since the early 90s, the louder these comments become.

They tell you that soccer will never be big in America. But they can't explain why the highest World Cup rights fee in history from a single country was just paid by US broadcasters. They can't explain why and cities and across the country have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build soccer-specific stadiums. Are Disney, Univision and big developers capitalistic entrepreneurs or charities who magnanimously want to prop up soccer in this country with their largesse? Or maybe they know something the 'Americans will never like soccer' crowd refuses to accept.

They will tell you that no one watches soccer. But they can't come up with a good reason why almost as many people watched the World Cup final on Sunday as the average World Series game last year.

To be honest, these comments are more amusing than anything else. I don't like sports based on how popular they are. I liked soccer when it was obscure. I still like it now that it's popularity continues to rise. I will continue to like soccer if its popularity in this country plummets.

The point of this entry is not to convince soccer-bashers to 'get with the program.' It's not to say that if they only knew the rules and understood the nuances, they'd love it. They shouldn't like it because it's becoming popular anymore than I should've stopped liking it back when it wasn't.

My comment is simply for the soccer-bashers to grow up. If you don't like soccer, just ignore it for crying out loud. We soccer fans don't rain on your parade when you 'shove down our throats' the YEARLY saturation coverage of the Super Bowl or MLB postseason or NBA playoffs. Can't you give us one month every four years with a little grace?

A corollary to that is that soccer fans need to grow up too. There are various reasons most Americans aren't into soccer as a spectator sport. But some of the 'reasons' offered by soccer fans are obnoxious and condescending. It has nothing to do with the fact that Americans don't win every World Cup; if dominance were the only factor, then track and field would be our national sport. It has nothing to do with low scoring; Americans venerate the pitchers' duel and gridiron defenses. There are other bogus reasons offered too but they really boil down to a superior, nose-in-the-air attitude, which is surprising. Most of the rest of the world thinks that Americans aren't good enough at soccer to be snobbish about it. But our fans are.

There is one simple reason why baseball and gridiron football are more popular than soccer in the US: they were here first. Or at least they gained a cultural foothold first. This is also why baseball and gridiron football remain nationally more popular than basketball and hockey. Passion and tradition are related. Big-time soccer doesn't have the tradition yet. It takes time. Soccer may never be as popular as baseball. So what?

Admittedly, a lot of the snobbery results from the bunker mentality. American soccer fans have to defend themselves against American soccer haters and foreigners who insist Americans are crap at the sport and should just give it up. You'd be shocked at how much the soccer boards light up every time Jim Rome opens his big yap bashing soccer. Fans need to grow up and give him and other soccer-bashers exactly the amount of attention they deserve: none.

(And they can delight in the fact that Rome's show was pre-empted for most of the last month by... none other than the World Cup)

Maybe when US soccer fans losing the condescension, there might be a little less knee-jerk resistance to the sport.

Another thing you can set your watch to is that after every World Cup, people who wouldn't watch soccer anyways will offer fantastic ways to improve the sport. Make the goals ten yards wider. Make goals from distance worth two points. Reduce the number of players on the field. Make a 4' height limit for goalkeepers.

None of these things should happen. Soccer should not be completely changed to pander to the fans of a single country, especially one with such a short attention span anyway. They tried it before in this country with a weird version of soccer called the NASL. It boomed but only for a few years and really only in one place (metro New York). Then it collapsed because it was unsustainable. The current Major League Soccer is a much more orthodox version of soccer and its success is more modest but also more uniform and sustainable.

Americans love fads. That's why poker and reality shows are on television so much here. In recent years millions of Americans have come to love soccer as it is now. There's no reason to mutate it into something unrecognizable for the purpose of a 4 or 5 year boom. And Americans also love quick fixes. For the soccer to really take root as a spectator sport, it needs to grow organically and that means slowly. And it's doing so now. Soccer fans just need to accept that. And soccer bashers just need to deal with that.

Friday, July 14, 2006

He wants to do for the World Bank what he did for Iraq

Paul Wolfowitz is infamous for having been one of the main architects of the Iraq aggression. He is now president of the World Bank. One of his predecessors at the Bank was Robert McNamara, one a main architects of another disastrous US war. I wonder why it's believed that guys who conceive and execute hideously destructive wars that cost thousands of lives and incalculable damage have business running an organization whose main job is make things BETTER for less developed countries.

The Iraq debacle is a bad idea, poorly executed. One of the reasons it was poorly executed is because of the administration's style: listen to whatever panders to your preconceived notions and ignore the rest.

Sadly, it looks like Wolfowitz has brought that same style of mismanagement to the World Bank.

Bush to respect rule of law (honest!)

Earlier this week, the Bush administration flip flopped and decided to grant Geneva Convention protections to terrorism suspects in accordance with its treaty obligations. This follows a US Supreme Court decision ruled that it was illegal to deny such protections to terrorism suspects.

This is a major policy shift on two fronts.

First, the administration had previously argued that terrorism suspects were NOT prisoners of war and thus were not subject to Geneva protections (they also argued that detainees were not common criminals and shouldn't be put on trial either; they basically invented a category out of thin for these).

Secondly, the administration had previously acted as though the rule of law was null and void. This is an important policy shift on both fronts.

The president's spokesman Tony Snow insisted, "It is not really a reversal of policy - humane treatment has always been the standard

How imprisoning unindicted suspects indefinitely for years without them having any hope of even being formally accused and a chance to defend themselves is humane treatment is not something the former Fox News [sic] personality explained.

Nevertheless, it's a good sign that the administration will start respecting the rule of law on this front. Let's hope it can be expanded to all fronts. Let's also hope that this marks the definitive end of "the terrorists are doing worse" as a rationalization for destroying our values before the Evildoers can.

Update: Despite the concerns, most experts say that US troops will benefit from this long overdue clarity on the issue.

2nd update: Leonard Pitts Jr praises the Supreme Court's decisions as being the first time one of the other two arms of government has stood up and declared America to be a republic, not an absolute monarchy.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Public service announcement

I was surprised to see the same error made by both the prestigious Washington Post and the excellent public radio show The World.

In this piece, The Post referred to Italy's prime minister Romano Prodi as the country's head of state. The World said that German chancellor Angela Merkel's video podcast is 'the first ever by a head of state'; the chancellor being the German term for their prime minister.

A political science lesson for any journalists who may be reading this. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister is by definition head of GOVERNMENT. In such a system, the head of state is either the president (in a republic) or the monarch.

I know Americans aren't great at international affairs but these two outlets usually lead the way in foreign coverage and should do better.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Nigeria's oil capital without electricity

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*. (*-added on the suggestion of a reader)

I've always advocated that if you want to be an informed citizen, you should rely on many media sources to get your information. BUT if you live in the US and can only choose one, I'd highly recommend The Week (website). This is because it's not one media source but many: it's a sort of world press review, publishing articles from countless different US and international press outlets.

The most recent issue cited an interesting editorial from the Nigerian paper This Day.

Bayelsa State is located in the heart of Nigeria's oil producing region. Yet like most of the Niger Delta, Bayelsa residents remain mired in poverty.

That's due in no small part to the massive environmental damage caused by oil exploiters such as Shell. Ecological devastation is pretty big deal for poor residents who rely on fishing an other subsistence activities for survival.

Yet despite putting up with the rape of its natural resources by foreign multinationals, Bayelsans haven't got much in return. The state home to one of Nigeria's largest deposits of crude oil doesn't even have electricity 50 years after the 'godsend' black gold was discovered.

I'm sure Global Witness wouldn't be surprised.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

2006 World Cup recap: how to combat diving

Diving, which is also known as simulation or play acting, was more prevalent at this World Cup than any previous. And it's not just North Americans raised on 'manly' sports like pointy ball and ice hockey who think play acting is garbage. The head of the 2006 World Cup organizing committee, German legend Franz Beckenbauer, has called for a summit on how to deal with this plague.

dirtycheatingportugal (TM) was the team most infamous for its players' penchant for collapsing as though shot merely because a fan in the upper deck sneezed. Despite their ability to play attractively when they actually put their minds to soccer instead of flopping, Portugal became most neutral fans' most hated team because of their unsporting behavior. Their tendency to whine like snivelling little children whenever their cheating was not rewarded by the ref only added to most fans' loathing of the Iberians. I'm sure I wasn't the only person happy to see them eliminated in the semifinal and thrashed in the third-place match.

But it would be wrong to see this as a purely Portugese disease, even if they were the worst practioners. Sadly, most teams that did anything had a few players with a tendency to flop, with the notable exception of the English and the Germans.

For many casual fans, the diving plague cast aspersions on the integrity of the whole sport. To casual fans, they asked how can you like a game where it seems like everyone cheats? To the rabid fan, it ruined their dream of the Beautiful Game winning out.

This disillusionment has many fans asking what can be done to clean up the sport of this crap. The answer is a bit less direct than you think.

Unlike most fans, I refuse to separate diving from obstruction and shirt pulling.

Obstruction and shirt pulling are also forms of cheating that ruin the game. But they are rarely, if ever called. Furthermore, when a player cheats by play acting, fans want him tarred and feathered. But when a player cheats by shirt pulling, fans excuse it as 'savvy' or 'sophisticated' play. This double standard is deplorable.

Diving and obstruction/shirt pulling are not separate crimes against soccer. They are two sides of the same coin. Defenders obstruct the attacking player or grab a chunk of his jersey. Many creative players have had their careers cut short because they've literally been kicked out of the game by players fouling them with impunity. Former Dutch legend (and current Dutch coach) Marco Van Basten is one example of someone who retired because of repeated injuries. I fear that Italy's Francesco Totti will soon be another.

These defensive players and goons masquerading as such get away with it. So the attacking player rationalizes, "The defender is getting an advantage by breaking the rules. If I dive, I'm not cheating; I'm just evening things up."

I don't condone diving. But you can't condemn one form of cheating and refuse to acknowledge any other. Too many fans do.

Referees need to crack down on diving. But they simultaneously need to crack down on obstruction and shirt pulling. And they need to give yellow cards for hard fouls, not for pedantic nonsense like they did this World Cup.

Most of the time, the only way to get the ref to blow the whistle when a real foul is committed is to fall to the ground. If a player doesn't fall down, then the legitimate foul will not be called and the attacking player is punished for staying on his feet in a sporting manner.

That's the dirty little secret that no one talks about but it's central to addressing the problem.

Of all the fouls that result in the award of a penalty kick, what percentage are awarded to players who are fouled but stay on their feet? I venture to say the number is something like 0.01 percent. In 12 years of playing and watching dozens of matches every month, I bet I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen this happen and have fingers left over.

When sporting behavior is punished and unsporting behavior is rewarded, can you really blame players for choosing the latter?

Punishing divers is an important change that needs to happen. In such cases, I'd like to see the foul or penalty awarded to the attacking team AND the attacking player's diver yellow carded. If a player is fouled and flops, two infractions have been committed; there's no need to choose only one or the other. Punish both.

Referees also need to do one other important thing: they must call fouls even in cases where the attacking player doesn't fall down.

This is far and away the best thing officials can do to discourage diving. Once attacking players realize they won't be punished for staying on their feet, that's exactly what they'll try to do. And defenders will learn that their cheating will not be rewarded.

Diving in soccer must be dealt with. But it can only be dealt with if it's seen for what it is: a response to a larger pattern of cheating.

Monday, July 10, 2006

2006 World Cup recap: analysis

The 2006 World Cup ended in fantastic fashion with the Italians lifting their fourth world championship. I would've given anything to have watched the match in Rome or Naples or even in Montreal's Little Italy, where I'd hoped to be.

But the match was fantastic only if you're an Italian fan, like myself. If you're a neutral, then it was a fairly disappointing match. Since I started watching World Cups in 1990, I haven't seen a single final match that was good. Yesterday's fairly disappointing game was far better than any of the other four I've seen; at least both teams scored... something which hadn't happened in a final in 20 years.

The final was marred by two events. One was the penalty shootout, which decided the champion. As an Italian fan, I was thrilled the Azzurri won... especially since I suffered with them through penalty heartbreak in three successive World Cups ('90, '94 and '98). But winning by penalty shootout is a little bit anti-climatic. Surprisingly, I was more joyous after Italy's late pair of goals won the semifinal. I've always said that the penalty shootout should be eliminated. Play golden goal (sudden death overtime) until someone scores. End of story. A penalty shootout is no way to determine a world champion.

The main event that stole headlines in the final was the red card handed to French legend Zinedine Zidane, who was appearing in his last professional soccer match. He inexplicably headbutted Italian Marco Materazzi in the chest. It has been reported that Materazzi provoked Zidane by allegedly* calling him 'a dirty terrorist.' Zidane is Muslim and of Algerian descent.

As I've written before, racism is a serious problem in too many soccer grounds in continental Europe, particularly southern and eastern. The plague has been effectively tackled by soccer authorities in England, which proves that the problem can be dealt with if the will is there. Assuing the accusations against the Italian are true, hopefully the shared shame of the Zidane-Materazzi incident will provoke European authorities to crack down on xenophobia on and off the pitch. I won't hold my breath.

Yet the fairly disappointing final was an appropriate end to a fairly disappointing tournament. The Azzurri were clearly the most consistent team in a Cup where most of the heavyweights were very erratic. Besides Italy, only Germany regularly played anything close to world class soccer.

This World Cup seems to continue a trend. The last World Cup held in Europe, France '98, was fairly disappointing. The previous one in Europe, Italy '90, was so negative that it prompted the international soccer federation (FIFA) to change the rules! By constrast, the last three World Cups held outside Europe (Korea/Japan '02, USA '94 and Mexico '86) featured lots of goals and some breathtaking soccer, especially in the latter two. Thank goodness FIFA will start rotating World Cups among the six soccer-playing continents so half of the tournaments aren't European snoozefests.

The tournament was dominated by two big stories, both negative: officiating and diving.

I wrote earlier about the flood of red and yellow cards. According to the laws of the game, players should only be shown yellow cards if they are 'guilty of unsporting behavior' or of a handful of other specific actions. However, during this tournament, it seemed like nearly every foul was considered 'unsporting conduct.' The yellow card's deterrent effect was devalued by its frequency. And too many players missed games because of suspensions induced by dubious yellow cards.

What's most interesting is that the semifinals and final were very well officiated. Cards were reserved for more serious play, as they should be. The games were decided by the teams, not the man in the middle. Also as they should be.

Yet the flood of cards did not prevent the tournament's other biggest talking point: diving. But that's a topic for my next entry.

Some have argued that the quality of World Cup matches is not what they used to be. These are usually Europeans and they typically attribute this to the expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams which allowed in several more smaller (read: non-European) soccer nations. I disagree. After all, with the notably exceptions of Argentina and Germany, even the 'superpowers' of soccer were produced mostly uninspiring stuff. Brazil was a motley collection of talented individuals. Italy, though more attacking than usual, was its typical efficient self. Portugal did too but that was marred by diving and incessant whining. Spain had potential but choked as usual.

I'm sorry but 'minnows' like Ivory Coast and Ghana produced more consistently compelling soccer than anything offered by 'big' teams like England and France. But neither of the 'minnows' made it past the second round, while drab Ukraine and dirtycheatingportugal (TM) both made it further. This demonstrates how the modern game doesn't reward positive soccer.

I think the quality of the World Cup appears to be going down for two reasons. One is the interminable demands on top players. Most of the top players have been playing competitive matches almost non-stop for eleven months. Longer if you count last summer's pre-season training. Top clubs typically play at least 50 competitive matches in a season, plus pre- and in-season friendlies (exhibitions) plus the long foreign tours they all seem to take. As soon as the club season was over in mid-May, players went immediately into training camps with their national teams. Players are humans, not machines.

The other reason the quality of the World Cup appears to be going down is down to perception. In the past, the World Cup was essentially the showpiece of the best players in the world. But now, the best players in the world tend to be concentrated in top European clubs. And while clubs train together for ten months out of the year or more, national teams are only together for a few weeks before the World Cup. Is it any surprise that national teams don't mesh nearly as well as club teams, despite the presence of top players on both? Let's face it, FC Barcelona was better than any national team at this tournament. The showpiece to watch if you want to see the best soccer is no longer the World Cup, but the European Champions League.

And since the Champions League gets huge television exposure as well, the World Cup seems to pale in comparison, at least in terms of the quality of the soccer. The sport isn't stagnant at all levels. The malaise is mainly at the international level.

For this, I propose pushing back the World Cup a month. So that the Cup is primarily in the month of July, instead of June. Make it so that the World Cup is at the BEGINNING of the European season (where most of the top players play) not at the end. This would give players a few weeks of rest before WC training camp and hopefully we'd see fresher legs and minds.

A game without mistakes is pretty boring to watch. People remember the 'golden era' of soccer. And when they do, it's not bone crunching defenders they remember, it's the brilliance of Pele, the brashness of Maradona, the grace of Beckenbauer. There have to be ways to reward risk taking soccer. Knockout round games must be played until someone scores (unlimited golden goal). The present system (30 automatic minute of extra time and then a penalty shootout) encourages tired teams to sit back and play for penalties. 6 games this tournament went to extra time; in only two of them did someone score. With extra time until someone scores, teams are forced to attack at some point.

As good as this would be, such a change would only affect a handful of games. There have to be other ways to encourage attacking soccer. I'm not talking about gimmicks like expanding the size of the goals. People don't need to see 6-5 games to enjoy soccer. But they do want to see a good scoring chance more than once every 20 minutes. Some have treating a 0-0 game the same as a loss for both teams; the premise being you are not rewarded in the standings if you don't score. Others have suggested awarding four points for a win, instead of the current three. I'm not endorsing or rejecting either of these ideas, but they're worth considering. If anyone has any ideas on how to encourage attacking soccer within the fundamental context of the game, please share them.

Tommorrow: The diving epidemic and how to deal with it. It's not exactly what you think!

*-Update: It looks like the 'dirty terrorist' reports were erroneous. Zidane claims that Materazzi insulted his mother and sister.

World Cup recap: superlatives

Before my recap, here are few superlatives from this World Cup...

MOST SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT: Attacking Germans. For decades, German soccer was equated with boring, efficient play. Yet coach Jurgen Klinsmann made them into a free flowing, attacking outfit. If a country for long synonymous with robotic play can have their mentality changed so thoroughly, then this offers hope for the future of the sport. It would be the one positive development from this tournament. Even Italy, with an equal reputation for defensiveness, finished its semifinal with four forwards on the field.

MOST DISAPPOINTING TREND: Besides diving... the fact that nearly all the meaningful games tended to be boring, defensive affairs. With a few exceptions, the most breathtaking games were the games with nothing at stake. First round matches between already eliminated teams (Poland-Costa Rica, Ivory Coast-Serbia & Montegnero) and the third place match (Portugal-Germany) were three of the most back-and-forth games of the tournament.

BEST PLAYER: Italy's captain Fabio Cannavaro. Though Zidane got the golden ball as the tournament's top player, that honor really belonged to Cannavaro. I'm usually partial to creative attacking players like Zidane and I've pooh-poohed the notion that defending can be an art. But Cannavaro showed that when done right, defending can be something to watch. Defending will never match the beauty of Zidane or Ronaldinho gliding past players like a slalom skier but it can be artful on rare occasions. Furthermore, Zidane missed one match due to suspension and was sent off in another. Cannavaro not only played every minute of every match, but he spent most of the tournament shoring up a defense missing his world class partner: the injured Alessando Nesta. Perhaps even more impressive, he didn't pick up any cards in a ournament where they were thrown around like confetti.

First round: Argentina 2-1 Ivory Coast. Great match. Lots of attacking soccer.

Knockout stage: Argentina.2-1 (aet) Mexico. It's a cold day when I give Mexico any credit but they did themselves proud.

First round: Argentina 0-0 Holland. That two teams this talented could produce such a pathetic spectacle is a crime against soccer.

Knockout stage, Ukraine 0-0 (aet) Switzerland. Sadly, this match represents 2+ hours of my life I'll never get back.

First round: Ghana 2-0 Czech Republic. Astonishing result. Could've been much worse for the supposed #2 team in the world.

Knockout stage: Italy 1-0 Australia. Socceroos knocked out by a dodgy late penalty.

First round: Spain 6-0 Serbia & Montenegro. S&M looked like they were victims of S&M. How the Balkan side went undefeated through European qualifying and then looked like a group of schoolboys playing Brazil is beyond me?

Knockout stage: Italy 3-0 Ukraine. Clock strikes midnight for Shevchenko and company.

First round: T&T goalkeeper Shaka Hislop vs Sweden and Kasey Keller, keeper for 9 man USA vs Italy.

Knockout stage: Portugal's keeper Ricardo saving three penalties against England (and getting his hand on the fourth).

Zidane. Lots of excellence and a moment of madness.
Juan Roman Riquelme. When he's on, Argentina is virtually unstoppable. But too often, he looks like his dog just died.

MOST DETESTED TEAM: dirtycheatingportugal (TM). The less said about them the better.

MOST AMAZING STAT: Italy scored 12 different goals via 11 different players. Talk about everyone pitching in!