Thursday, November 30, 2006

Top myths about Iraq

Alternet has a good piece on the top ten fallacies about the civil war in Iraq.

Among the canards:

-"Syria and Iran are behind the violence."

-"Foreign fighters, especially jihadis, are fueling the violence."

and the most popular one of late

-"If we do not defeat the violent actors there, they will follow us here."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adirondack villages rap state aid distribution

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise had a fascinating article on the way state aid is divided up.

According to the Saranac Lake based paper, the New York state legislature gives far more aid per capita to entities classified as cities than those classified as towns or villages.

Leaders from three of the largest villages in the Adirondacks passed a resolution pointing out, among other things, that cities receive about 60 percent of state aid funding while villages receive only 2 percent, despite the fact that villages have to provide “city-like” services such as water, sewer, police and fire.

The paper noted that the Adirondack villages in question receive between $8 and $15 per person in state aid while the decaying capital district city of Amsterdam receives $115 per person.

The daily concludes that as a result villages have to use property taxes to generate larger portions of their revenue base. In 2004, Tupper Lake generated 72 percent of its revenue through property taxes, Saranac Lake was at 70 percent and Lake Placid was at 66 percent. Amsterdam raises 35 percent through land taxes.

The mayor of Saranac Lake reiterated that he is not necessarily calling for more aid statewide but for the existing aid to be distributed more fairly.

“There are villages that are bigger than cities. There are towns bigger than cities," he said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Religion" and the politics of division

One thing that's clear throughout human history is that the politics of division is destructive on nations and societies. One thing that's equally clear is that for all the talk about unity, the politics of division is effective as a way to earn money, power and votes. This is why negative campaigning works, even though everyone claims to hate it.

One thing that's always bugged me about the right-wing Christian movement is how un-Christian they seem to me. That plus the fact that many people act like right-wing and Christian are synonymous. I was raised in a moderately left-wing Christian household. My parents didn't talk about the evils of masturbation or homosexuality. Instead, they talked about the importance of giving of yourself, of helping those less fortunate. That's what I took from Christianity.

But many people instead take negative things from the religion. Don't do this. Don't do that. These people are evil. Those people are going to hell. Not a positive agenda, but a negative one.

I was interested to read that the man elected president of the Christian Coalition, a group of predominantly conservatives, resigned before he even took office.

He wanted to broaden the group's agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming. I consider these to be noble, Christian goals: helping human beings and the Earth they live on. In other words, taking care of God's creations.

But the Christian (sic) Coalition's leadership opposed this. They said that there members were primarily interested in attacking gay marriage and abortion.

The Coalition's president-who-never-was said of the group's board, "When we really got down to it, they said: 'This just isn't for us. It won't speak to our base, so we just can't go there.'"

And that says a lot about the so-called Christians who make up their base. An agenda centered around helping people doesn't interest them nearly as much as an agenda centered around attacking people.

Ironic since CHRISTianity is supposedly centered around some guy named CHRIST. Christianity's central prophet Jesus was a man who spoke quite a bit about fighting poverty and helping the less fortunate but, to the best of my knowledge, uttered not a single word about gay marriage.

Friday, November 24, 2006

We wouldn't want things in Iraq to get bad!

Opponents of a US withdrawal from occupied Iraq argue that withdrawing before Iraqis are "ready" would be disastrous. We need to stay, 50 years if necessary, until the Iraqis decide to get their act together. Well, they have a good point.

Granted, more Iraqi civilians died in October than were killed in the 9/11/01 attacks. And that was just the latest month. Sure, Iraq just suffered its deadliest attack on civilians since 2003. And over 7000 Iraqis are forced to flee every single week. Far more people (3.4 million) are either refugees from or internally displaced within Iraq than Darfur (2.2 million). That isn't really surprising. After all, the official civilian death toll since the beginning of the Iraq Aggresion and the Darfur genocide aren't much different.

But we need to stay. If US troops left, things might get bad!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Al-Jazeera goes to Harare

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, North Korea and Iran.

Chippla's Weblog comments on the launching of al-Jazeera's English service.

Unlike many Americans, I've always respected al-Jazeera's mission. The channel essentially invented the concept of independent broadcasting in the Arab world. Certainly they were the first to do it on a wide scale. This is a region where state-controlled broadcast media remains the norm and all independent press outlets are tightly restricted by authoritarian regimes.

When criticizing al-Jazeera, many westerners focus exclusively on stuff related to the west: specifically verbal attacks on America and Israel and on al-Qaeda messages that pass on the station's airwaves. These westerners want free speech so long as it excludes the right to criticize them! Just as many of them want democracy in the Middle East unless that democracy produces a result that the west don't like (Palestinian Authority, Lebanon).

But what al-Jazeera brought to the Arab political culture is the concept that bad leaders can be criticized in the media. This is a revolutionary concept that's critically important for anyone who actually wants a true democratic culture to implant itself in the Middle East.

Chippla noted that al-Jazeera opened bureaus in five major African cities: Cairo (Egypt), Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Harare (Zimbabwe).

Like Chippla, I am surprised that they didn't open one in Lagos or Abuja, the economic and political capitals respectively of Africa's most populous country Nigeria. Especially since CNN opened one there five years ago. Then again, from everything I've heard, I'm not sure who would voluntarily choose to live in either city.

This is a smart decision by the broadcaster. Al-Jazeera English is obviously focusing its efforts on the developing world. One only needs to watch a few minutes of the channel (a free stream is available here) to realize this. They are giving attention to parts of the world which are largely ignored by their two main competitors: BBC World and CNN International, who are more centered around North America and western Europe. Al-Jazeera is smart to cater to an audience that feels underrepresented.

Nevertheless, when I read the list of cities where al-Jazeera bureaus would be located, I couldn't help but wondering what sort of difficulties their reporters will have.

Egypt has been in a "state of emergency" for the last 25 years, quite possibly the longest "state of emergency" ever maintained in any country not at war. Egypt is also a country where state insecurity agents attack journalists.

Zimbabwe has infamously banned foreign reporters from being in the country without permission from the regime of Robert Mugabe. And even the local journalists who do dare report the truth are often thrown in prison or otherwise harassed.

The choice of Harare is even more peculiar. The other cities on the list represent a fairly wide geographic coverage of the continent. But Harare isn't really that far from Johannesburg; South Africa and Zimbabwe are neighbors. Certainly a place like Lusaka (Zambia) or Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) would've made more sense. Libreville (Gabon) hosts the independent pan-African radio station Africa No. 1.

It makes me wonder if a network which wants to appeal to viewers in the developing world was offered some sort of deal with a Dictator that wants to be seen as some sort of hero to non-aligned nations types. I'm not sure if I really believe this and it's certainly against al-Jazeera's careully cultivated image of independence but the choice of Harare really doesn't seem to make any sense to me.

Chippla replied:

I do not think Al Jazeera would shy away from reporting fairly about the situation in Zimbabwe. Its first report from Harare looked at the influx of poorly skilled Zimbabweans into South Africa—not the sort of story Robert Mugabe, or other Zimbabwean ruling class members, would have wanted to hear.

Al Jazeera's Zimbabwe correspondent, Farai Sevenzo, is a Zimbabwean who has written extensively and produced documentaries on the situation in Zimbabwe in the past. I doubt he, or the Al Jazeera news team, would be silent about the reality of things on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Certainly the free press climate in many Arab countries al-Jazeera reports from isn't that much friendlier. But even with the best intentions, there's reason to be wonder if al-Jazeera really will be able to report freely from a country where journalists can face 20 years in prison for publishing news that the Leader doesn't like.

And there's surely plenty of that to go around in a country with a death rate higher than Darfur's or Iraq's.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A country or a cariciature?

The Christian Science Monitor printed a good op-ed piece about the movie Borat. There's been much discussion of this movie on a sociopolitical and I won't get into it too much. Personally, I love satirical humor and I'm a big fan of political cartoons in the newspapers.

But for my taste, regardless of the message, good satire has to be subtle, not crude. Brick in the face humor can be amusing but it tends to get boring and tiresome very quickly. That's the difference between Beavis & Butthead (lame), South Park (moderately amusing) and The Simpsons (arguably the best comedy TV show of all time). Borat is brick in the face humor. Somewhere in the South Park range. Moderately funny but it seeks easy laughs. Not very clever.

I'm a big Canadianophile. I follow its politics closely. I like its social and cultural values, its emphasis on improving the lives of its citizens rather than on rampant militarism. Canadians think it's a better idea to provide health insurance for all their citizens than create health crises in other countries. Basically if America were a bit more enlightened and civilized, it would look something like Canada (or at least Vermont).

Even though Sacha Baron Cohen (the actor who plays Borat) is British, Borat's humor is very Canadian. Over the years, I've watched a lot of television and listened to a lot of radio programs from the CBC. One of the things I've enjoyed is Canadian comedy shows. One of the staples is to interview Americans, ask them questions about Canada and air the stupidest responses.

For example, they might go to North Dakota and ask people there where Manitoba is (it's on N. Dakota's northern border). They might ask 100 people who get the answer right but it'll be the 5 who say that Manitoba is in Africa or northern Antarctica that will get broadcast. I've met more than a few Canadians who don't get the concept that New York is not just a city, but a state too. I hope they never visit Quebec.

But this is really cheap humor is easy and formulaic. It doesn't take an ounce of creativity to come up with. Yet these guys act like their comedic geniuses for making essentially the same joke over and over. Borat is like that. I mean does anyone, other than males under the age of 10, really think poopy humor is hilarious after the 100th joke about it?

The Monitor piece that points out that the real United States is far more nuanced than the cariacture presented in the cartoonish Borat. The two filmmakers who wrote the piece spoke of the crosscountry journey they took while making a documentary.

On our journey across the country, we were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. We received countless invitations to stay in their homes. People were excited to share their stories with us, and they were eager to hear our tales of life cruising the nation's asphalt on a Segway scooter ... at 10 m.p.h.

They pointed out how America is more than a few racists, drunken frat boys.

The abundant kindheartedness we saw helped us to regain our love for America, which had been severely tainted by modern media. The entertainment they sell is conditioned to incite conflict, challenge, and sensational response. It celebrates perversity, ugliness, and fear. "Borat" fits this model perfectly. This trend can cause us to lose sight of what really is.

Listen, Europeans, Canadians and Australians are vastly superior to us pathetic, crude, unsophisticated, mean-spirited Americans who all genuflect to Deus Bush, who are all heartless money grubbers, who all reject evolution and who all think that Kofi Annan is a cappucino-flavored ice cream. We get it!

I hardly belong to the 'America is uniquely righteous and everyone else sucks!' crowd but it begs the question: is this really movie length material or populist overkill that panders to, rather than challenges, easy stereotypes?

Sorry everyone. I adore good satire. But bad satire really stinks.

Update: This column in The Guardian also takes issue with the glee over Borat. Like I said, humiliation as entertainment (especially humiliation of the decent and unwitting, some of which Borat's victims were) is a phenomenon I've long found troubling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The next aggression's pretext exposed

As most people know, some allies of the president are trying to prepare the American people for military action against Iran. This is why you hear commentators referring to Iran's president as "The Hitler of the Middle East," just like they did of Saddam. Iran's president is a loud-mouthed populist pandering to the crowd at home. He's quite clearly anti-Semitic. But Hitler? Give me a break.

Since he came to power, America's president has launched two wars (one unprovoked). How many wars has Iran's president launched?

The unprovoked war launced by America's president has led to the deaths of at least 150,000 civilians, according to Iraq's health minister. How many civilian deaths have been caused by decisions made by Iran's president?

These are not opinions. This is not ideology or polemics. This is not me saying Iran's president is a swell guy. These are questions with demonstrably factual answers.

But since some want to attack Iran, their president can't be the semi-democratically elected leader that he is. He can't simply be an ordinary, run of the mill populist with authoritarian tendencies. Heck, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is like that. George W. Bush in his first term was like that.

No, if we want to attack Iran, he has to be demonized. He has to be (insert menacing music) Hitler!

The only problem is that the president's allies are having trouble inventing a justification for such military action. Since their pretexts for the Iraq Aggression have been thoroughly discredited, they don't have much credibility left with the American people, who resent being fooled the first time.

So they're trying to scare people into believing that Iran is building nuclear weapons. I'm inclined to doubt this is true. Quite clearly, Iran's president is happy to let people think he's building nukes. But just because Iran's president wants people to believe he's developing nukes, doesn't mean he actually is. Leaving this impression, however false, gives Iran international prestige that it otherwise might not get. Also, standing up to the US administration, who the rest of the world sees as an aggressive bully, also gives Iran prestige.

This is EXACTLY the same tactic tried by Saddam Hussein. He was happy to let the rest of the world think he had an active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program even though weapons inspectors doubted it. Why? Because it gave him international prestige. His downfall was that he underestimated the US president's mania for war, common sense be damned.

Iran's president doesn't have that problem. He knows the US is stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan and that US public opinion won't let Bush start another insane war based on a flimsy pretext. He knows that the American military is overextended in an Iraq conflict that never had anything to do with US national security or fighting international terrorism.

Maybe it's true. Maybe the Iranians really are developing nukes. The problem is that the administration's allies have no credibility anymore. They're the boys who cried wolf.

But now, even the CIA says it has no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, according to a New Yorker story. The White House refuses to deny the story, preferring to smear the reporter in question. This has been the Bush administration's modus operandi for years.

But it begs the question: if the CIA says they don't have reason to believe Iran is developing nukes, who DOES have the evidence to that effect?

The other question it begs is if it even matters to those who seem like they've already decided.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The good old days... for whom?

Adirondack Musing blog pointed to a letter in The Adirondack Daily Enterprise bemoaning the loss of the good old days.

Read the plaintive wail:

I remember when our children could walk about without fear of predators, but then we didn’t have the ACLU sticking up for the rights of the monsters who would destroy the lives of the most innocent of our society.

I remember a time when one’s marriage partner was of the opposite sex, and our children didn’t have to see men in panties on floats in a parade, or two women making out with each other.

That sexual predators didn't exist in the 50s will be a surprise to the countless baby boomers who were (silent) victims; this letter writer is under the delusion that just because it wasn't talked about, it didn't happen. And frankly, I've never seen, either as a child or as an adult, men in panties on floats in a parade or two women making out with each other in my town. I'm sure such behavior is even less likely in the conservative Adirondacks.

I too recall the good old days. Good old days when blacks were strung up on trees . Good old days when the poor stayed sick and miserable their whole lives. Good old days when Latinos broke their backs picking fruit without any expectation of anything more than poverty wages. The good old days where women, blacks and gays knew their place (in the kitchen, at the back of the bus and in the closet respectively) and didn't dare venture out of it.

I'm sure the 1950s when he grew up was a paradise for this letter writer. It's always pleasant when the ills of the world are hidden from your view. But the majority of Americans who were either black, female, gay or poor might have somewhat different memories of that time period.

I often read letters to the paper like this. What these people really bemoan is a time when their small minority (straight white, upper or upper middle class Protestant men) was the undisputed ruling class of this country. They had unique privilege while other groups were considered second or third class citizens. Starting in the 60s, other groups started challenging this status quo and demanding equal treatment and it made those in charge uncomfortable. Those in charge didn't want to share their unique place of privilege. They had special rights and didn't want to give them up. It's a fairly common human phenomenon. The Afrikaaners in South Africa have acted the same way since the end of apartheid.

Overt bigotry (or "political correctness" as he derides it) is no longer socially acceptable and America is a better place for it. This majority of Americans are now treated as first-class citizens and we are a better country for it.

That is indeed progress.

"Those who weep for the happy periods which they encounter in history acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery. " -Albert Camus

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Too much testing is the enemy of learning

I enjoy occasionally reading local and regional papers from around the country, just to get a flavor of what's going on in different parts of the US. I came across this article from Maine's Portland Press-Herald talking about how recess is quickly disappearing from many schools.

Some schools are concerned about liability but most simply don't have enough time to allow kids unstructured play time. With the avalanche of new federal mandates (and state ones as well in many places), the educational system is no longer about learning. It's about testing.

Kids are now force fed standardized tests. Here in New York, kids are given standardized tests in English-language arts and math every single year from 3rd to 8th grade. Teachers thus don't have the luxury of letting kids learn anything outside the curriculum. Time is too short.

I'm surprised kids are allowed to sleep or go to the bathroom without taking a test. Where's the accountability?! After all, how can a kid be accountable if he's not taking a formulaic exam.

Standardized tests are useful in small doses. They can be a way of making sure everyone's learning the same basic, important information. But it's clearly gone too far. Why would a teacher 'waste' time teaching kids about the local history of their town since such information surely won't appear on a state test? Then again, I suppose this corresponds with the general distaste society has for anything that's not homogenized.

Recess is where children learn how to negotiate the unwritten rules of society. It teaches them about negotiation and conflict resolution and compromise. It's also where they get fresh air and exercise. Such learning is just as important as knowing that 2+2=4 but since these things can't easily be paraphrased into a multiple choice question, they have no value in an 'accountability' based educational system. As someone with a university math degree and a concentration in statistics, I know better than most both the value of numbers AND their limitations. Not everything is quantifiable.

The elite's fetish for standardized tests is not helping kids learn. It's crushing their natural curiosity for learning. And it's teaching them a skill, formal test-taking, which has almost no value in the working world.

It makes you wonder when the policy makers are going to be held accountable.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Book banning: it's not just for the Bible Belt anymore

The concept of busybodies trying to get schools to ban books is something many Americans associate with the south and midwest of the United States. But as WAMC/Northeast Public Radio reports, that's not the case.

A group in Red Hook, in New York's Hudson Valley, is trying to get the local school to ban The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison from its reading lists and taken out of the library.

Though in reality, this phenomenon was never limited to one or two parts of the country. One of the school districts most associated with book banning attempts is Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, in central New York. Among the classics challenged in this district include A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and arguably the most beloved American novel of all time: To Kill A Mockingbird.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The tyranny of chaos

In writing yesterday's essay where I referred to a quote by Martin Luther, I came across a number of other good quotes.

In a recent debate with a pro-war reader on the Iraq Aggression, I used the phrase 'dictatorship of chaos' to describe the situation there. I think I should've used the 'tyranny of chaos' but the main point remains unaffected.

One of the worst self-delusions people make when going to war is that noble objectives render irrelevant the disastrous consequences that are inevitable in any war. Those disastrous consequences being destruction, death and displacement.

In other words, innocent people will necessarily lose their lives, homes and livelihoods. Simply having something called a democratically elected will not reverse those things.

This reader mocked my use of the phrase 'dictatorship of chaos.' "Where the hell did that come from?" he asked.

I've lived near two warzones, have visited a refugee camp and have friends who've fled warzones, so referring to the chaos as a type of tyranny seems completely self-evident to me.

Maybe it's not tyranny for the guys with the guns, though I suspect it is to some extent. But I've said it a million times: it's not the guys with the guns who are most destroyed by war.

Saddam Hussein was recently sentenced to death for his role in killing 148 people in a village in 1982.

In Iraq, over 150,000 civilians have lost their lives since the beginning of the aggression. That's according to the official Iraqi minister of health; other sources put the figure much higher.

In Saddam can be punished for the deaths of 148 people, who will be held accountable for a death count more than ONE HUNDRED TIMES HIGHER (and counting) in the current unnecessary aggressive war of choice?

There is a specious moral distinction made between intentional killing and pursuing a course of action which will inevitably lead to the deaths of innocent people.

What it boils down to is this: In deciding whether to go to war, one must take into account the unintended consequences, not just the intended ones.

Living conditions have deteroriated rapidly since the beginning of the aggression. Not since 1979 or some distant date, but since 2003. Not that things were great under Saddam, but things have gotten worse since his departure. This can be demonstrated with measurable statistics, which are more concrete to me than self-interested government pronouncements or second-hand stories from well-meaning troops in the field; policy by anecdote is always a bad idea.

So people are no longer dying because the government ordered their deaths. But they are dying because they don't have clean drinking water or modest medical care, things that had been previously available. What's the difference? Dead is dead.

If you die from a bullet wound, does it really matter if the shooter was targetting you or not? Whether you die from organized state violence or random, chaotic violence, what's the difference? There aren't different degrees of being dead.

This quote I found says it all:

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?" -Gandhi

Here are some other quotes I came across regarding war and the lust for war.

"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." - George Washington

"Nothing good ever comes of violence." -Martin Luther

"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official..." -Theodore Roosevelt

"The worst crimes were dared by a few, willed by more and tolerated by all." -Tacitus

"Peace is constructed, not fought for." -Brent Davis

"The worst barbarity of war is that it forces men collectively to commit acts against which individually they would revolt with their whole being." -Ellen Key

"If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." -James Madison

"Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. " -James Madison

"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." -James Madison

"The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." -George Orwell (the American version of the nationalist being called the patriot).

"It is always easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them." -Alfred Adler

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Service to man is service to God

I was listening to a great documentary* on Radio Netherlands on the First Hague Peace Conference of 1899. It was really a watershed moment in that really marked the birth of the field now known as international law. The body of law that deals with conduct of warring parties. Sine diplomacy and humanitarianism are two fields that greatly interest me, I found it a fascinating listen.

(*-part one here while part two is here)

In the documentary, one of the interviewees made references to a quote by Martin Luther which went, "What is it to serve God and to do His will? Nothing else than to show mercy to our neighbor. For it is our neighbor who needs our service; God in heaven needs it not."

I don't usually write about spiritual issues on this blog but my private morality obviously instructs my sociopolitical beliefs and actions.

I think this is a great quote. There is no need to serve God per se. If He's the all powerful, omniscient being, then he doesn't need our help. That's why a religious belief which is centered exclusively around prayer and Biblical study is of no value as far as I'm concerned. Religious belief must translate into action in order to be useful.

This always appealed to me. I was raised as a Roman Catholic. Maybe I was lucky that my local parish had some really good, inspirational priests but when I was growing up, they focused to a large degree on Christianity as it relates to helping others. I found great value in this. I've always identified with the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church, with the emphasis on helping those who most need it. I've donated many hours trying to help other people, not for recognition but because I found it meaningful and satisfying.

I've since become a non-practicing Catholic. Some refer to this concept as being a lapsed Catholic, but in my case that's no so. 'Lapsed' implies laziness, like I just don't get around to going to church because I'd rather sit and watch TV. In fact, my no longer going to church is a conscious choice which resulted from a great deal of thought and reflection. The Catholic Church has become so obsessed with private sexual morality that the social justice aspect seems to be an afterthought now. Maybe not an afterthought; I know the Church does a lot of good work in fields like humanitarian relief abroad and anti-poverty at home. And both the current and most recent former pope have spoken out on behalf of victims of war and against the current aggression against Iraq (comments which a lot of practicing American Catholics seemed to dismiss). But the disproportionate focus on homosexuality and masturbation and whether priests are chaste seems misdirected to say the least.

And since I always identified with the social justice aspects more (some of the teachings on sexual matters being downright silly), I've consciously drifted away from the formal Church. But I've kept my belief in social justice and helping others. I've come to believe, as a friend of mine pointed out to me, that organized religion is not about subservience to God but about subservience to HUMANS who proclaim to speak on behalf of God.

In this way, Luther is right. You can best serve God not by spreading hatred or encouraging violence against your fellow man; not by being vindictive or judgemental. You can best serve God by serving His creations.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

South Africa ends anti-gay apartheid

Yesterday, the South African parliament passed a bill that authorized same-sex state marriage. It becomes the first country in Africa and only one of a handful in the world to do so.

That it did so is unsurprising for two reasons. Last year, the country's high court ruled that the definition of marriage was unconstitutional. The South African constitution explicitly bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, the only constitution in the world to do so.

Furthermore, South Africa is governed by the African National Congress. The primary reason the ANC was formed was to fight against irrational bigotry. The movement spent decades combatting institutionalized, state-sponsored discrimination so that it would take this position is in continuing with its historic positions in favor of equal rights for all citizens.

Equal rights for gays are regularly denounced as a western concept. In the US, when someone doesn't have a real argument, they call a person or idea 'anti-American.' In Africa, when someone doesn't have a real argument, they use the generic insult 'un-African.' As though any one person has the singular right to define what is truly American or African.

Gay rights advocates contend that same-sex relationships were present in African cultures long before the arrival of westerners. It wasn't until the colonizers passed repressive anti-gay laws that there was a problem. In other words, homosexuality is not un-African. Homophobia is.

The questionably named African Christian Democratic Party's leader took a page out of Pat Robertson's book, insisting that those who voted in favor of equal rights for gays would face divine wrath.

While a government in 'backwards' Africa will legalize gay marriage, the president of 'civilized' America wants a constitutional amendment banning it.

South Africa isn't the only country in the world where 'traditionalists' oppose equal treatment by the government for all citizens.

Pakistan's national assembly recently voted to strengthen protections for women in the country's rape laws. Under old law, rape victims had to have four male witnesses to the crime - if not they faced prosecution for adultery.

Something which of course made it virtually impossible to prosecute such crimes.

In other words, if a women were raped in private or in small groups, she was punished for her crime of being a victim of violence.

Much like South Africa's pseudo-religious moralists, Pakistan's religious parties predicted the apocalypse. In true bizarro world fashion, one leader predicted that the 'bill will turn Pakistan into a free-sex zone.'

Even though the reality would be the opposite, since sex via rape would actually be punished.

I don't oppose tradition. I'm actually a fairly conservative person in my personal conduct. I believe you shouldn't just snap your fingers and change things simply for the purpose of doing what happens to be in vogue at the current time. There's enough of that going around in my town, people believing that change and progress are inherently synonymous. That's why we have representative democracy instead of direct democracy. Any social change should be the result of thorough discussion, otherwise it will not last, nor will it run deep. You can't legislate how people feel (though you can legislate how the government should act). But that doesn't mean that nothing should ever change.

There was a time when 'tradition' forbade marriages between people of different 'races' (ie: skin color). There was a time when 'tradition' forbade women from voting. Neither were considered full-fledged American citizens for a long time. Maybe anti-gay bigotry and small group rapes are the 'traditions' that are long overdue to be challenged.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


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 usually don't engage in hagiography but there is one profession that deserves it. There is no group for which I have greater respect than humanitarian aid workers. These are usually well-educated and highly qualified individuals that could easily make a very nice salary in their own countries. But instead of living in relatively safe North American or European cities, they choose of their own free will to go to some of the most inhospitable and/or violent places on the planet. Instead of working in nice, air-conditioned skyscrapers, they work in disgusting refugee camps and poorly equipped hospitals in the jungle or desert. In other words, they sacrifice what would be a comfortable, well of life to go to some of the most miserable places on earth, often with the 'perk' of being witness to man's greatest inhumanities toward fellow man.

And their mission is not to kill people or blow stuff up. Their sole purpose for doing so is to help people, to make people's lives better or at least a little less miserable. They feed the hungry, cloth the sick, give shelter to those who've lost their homes due to conflict. While not all aid workers are Christian, I can't think of any mission that's more truly to the Christian spirit. When I lived in West Africa, I wasn't a humanitarian aid worker but I knew people who were. I knew the lives they'd chosen to give up and I know the reasons why they chose to do so. I know the impact they had on the lives of people who really need it.

This article in South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian newspaper reminds us that as as noble as their work may be, it's also extremely dangerous. Dangerous because as great as I think their work is, the combattants often disagree. Just as civilians have become a deliberate target of combattants in most war zones, so have these unarmed aid workers.

They're not just honorable, they're physically courageous. Aid workers are part of 'one of the world's most hazardous professions,' according to the United Nations. In fact, it is the fifth most hazardous civilian profession in the world. A soon-to-be-published study revealed that violent acts against aid workers, as measured in absolute terms, have increased markedly since 1997, with a steeper increase in the second half of this decade.

So when some Americans say the UN is worthless, they're saying that helping refugees fleeing war zones is worthless. They're saying that bringing clean water to disease-prone areas is worthless. They're saying that feeding starving people is worthless. Would THEY have the guts to risk their lives on a daily basis, without the benefit of a weapon, to vaccinate children in a distant country? If not, then maybe they shouldn't attack those courageous heroes who do.

There is no profession more worthy of admiration. I tip my cap to all of them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The other war

In late 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda had attacked the United States and Afghanistan's Taliban regime harbored al-Qaeda. I wasn't entirely comfortable with this war but one could've plausibly argued that it constituted self-defense. We attacked the guys who attacked us. This is why the domestic and international opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan, while hardly non-existent, wasn't nearly as vehement as the opposition to the war that followed.

However, a little over a year later, we invaded Iraq, a war which wasn't even remotely close to having anything do with self-defense or our national security. While many individual Americans may have had noble reasons for backing the war, the purpose of the aggression against Iraq was to take control of the country's economy.

Appropriately, Iraq has been a huge windfall for American corporations, who are being subsidized by the US taxpayers. The US has spent nearly 40 billion dollars on rebuilding Iraq, to very little effect. Where has the money gone? The answer is murky. As a BBC World Service investigative series revealed, huge chunks of this money is unaccounted for. Billions of your money and mine vanished without a trace.

Not surprisingly, US-occupied Iraq has been labelled the second most corrupt country in the world by a pro-business, anti-corruption watchdog group.

The aggression against Iraq has had many terrible effects that have been well-documented. Most notably the sharp rise in anti-Americanism, the sharp decline of American credibility and prestige and the transformation of al-Qaeda in the eyes of many from a marginal movement into a mythical ideology. Even many in the normally conservative military establishment contend that Bush's actions have made America less safe. The head of the British army recently said the presence of British and American troops "exacerbates the security problems" in Iraq.

But one of the less well-known effects of the Iraq debacle is its impact on Afghanistan. Less well-known if your main source for news is television. By all accounts, the Taliban are making a resurgence in the country. NATO recently decided to take control of security in the whole country, because of the increasing influence of the Taliban.

The Nation magazine has a troubling piece on the Taliban's resurgence. The narrative is quite common throughout history. The formal Afghan central government controls little outside the capital. In much of the rest of the country, basic law and order (to say nothing of more ephemeral goals like democracy) are virtually non-existent. Many regions are controlled or held hostage by corrupt militias.

Whenever there is chaos, it's quite natural for people to welcome, at least in the short term, a group that promises some kind of stability. This is how Lenin came to power. This is how Hitler came to power in Germany. This is how the Islamists are coming to power in Somalia. Heck, this is how the Taliban came to power in the first place!

Yet, the Bush administration diverted a huge chunk of its resources to the aggression against Iraq, long before the normalization of Afghanistan was even close to being completed. Iraq had nothing to do with our national security. Afghanistan did. But now the Bush administration has screwed up both countries, stabilized neither, implanted chaos instead democracy and created a breeding ground for terrorists.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Let's go Revs!

MLS Cup 2006: Houston vs New England, 3:30 PM ET on ABC

Today's the big day. New England play in MLS Cup final for the third time. Both other times they lost 1-0 in extra time and both times to Los Angeles. This time we're playing Houston so it's going to be different! But only if the team scraps the ridiculous hyperdefensive shell that shackled them in '02 and especially '05. Rule number one of soccer: you can't win if you don't score!

Prediction: Houston 1-2 New England

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Iraq more corrupt than Africa

I knew violence was bad in Iraq. I also knew that corruption was a big deal. Whenever there's a disaster, natural or manmade, there's always a high probablity of corruption in the reconstruction efforts. But the sheer level of corruption in Iraq is mind boggling, though not surprising since the economic potential for US corporations was the main reason for the invasion in the first place.

US-occupied Iraq is the second most corrupt country in the world, according to the independent business-friendly organization Transparency International. Africa is the continent most associated with corruption in the minds of most people, yet no country in Africa is more corrupt than Iraq.

There's more than a little irony to this. World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz is on a crusade. A crusade to stamp out corruption, particularly in Africa. In his previous job as Deputy Defense Secretary, he was on another crusade: to invade and rebuild... Iraq. Too bad his anti-corruption crusade didn't start a few years earlier.

I'm sure this report will enhance his credibility when he lectures Africans on transparency.

Why does it matter? There's the obvious fact that money lost to corruption can't be used to build roads and schools. Additionally, some of the corruption ends up funding militias and insurgents.

Furthermore, a watchdog within the government also noted with alarm the loss of 14,000 weapons destined for Iraqi government use.

So thanks to corruption, your tax dollars are inadvertantly funding and arming the insurgents trying to kill our troops.

The watchdog referred to corruption as "the second insurgency. This money that's stolen doesn't merely enrich criminals but frequently goes out to fund criminal militias or insurgents."

The Bush administration's response:phase out the position of auditor, whose job it is to monitor and report on corruption in the reconstruction efforts.

For the administration, opposing anything that smacks of accountability and purging any internal sign of independent thought isn't just their policy, it's part of their DNA.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The importance of political movements

At some point, I got on the mailing list of David McReynolds, who ran for US Senate from New York on the Green Party line in 2004. I don't agree with everything he says all the time. He's a socialist. I'm not. But too many on the left let themselves get hung up on microdifferences. I find a lot of his stuff thought provoking and that's really what matters to me.

He sent the following essay on the reason smaller parties are important to the American political process, even when the don't necessarily win elections. I realize I'm one of those naive people who believe that ideas should matter in politics, that gaining power is utterly pointless unless it's to advance a set of positive ideals and goals. I realize that's outside the mainstream of American politics, which is more focused on image, scaremongering and ad hominem... because those things, not ideas, apparently win elections. I thought his essay was interesting enough to post here, which I do with his permission.

He writes:

[W]e sometimes forget that the greatest victories of the past half century were not won through the ballot, only ratified there.

The Civil Rights movement was necessary because neither the Republicans nor the Democrats could take it on. (After all, at that time the South was solidly Democratic, and solidly racist, and John F. Kennedy's role during that period was pretty awful). It was achieved in bloody battles - the blood being shed by African Americans, the violence being inflicted by mobs of racists. It was the courage, the dignity, and the nonviolence of that movement which gave us all a new America.

The massive Vietnam peace movement had to take place outside of the major parties because the Democratic Party was the party which got us into Vietnam - the peace movement eventually brought the issue into the electoral arena, when McCarthy ran in the primaries and drove LBJ out of the campaign for re-election.

The women's movement was also "above and beyond" the major parties (as was the gay liberation movement). The same is true of the environmental movement (which often has strong support from some conservatives).

This is why I want again to stress the value - the imperative role - of "ideological centers" as being as crucial to social change as running candidates, and why I think the Socialist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism are important not because they can field successful candidates, but because they can field essential ideas. I half expect that the Socialist Party's sectarian caucus may bring me up on charges for urging greater and more favorable attention to the Greens, but my job is to speak the truth as I see it.

Having made these really crucial points - the value of organizing outside of the major parties - I also think there is a great deal of nonsense within the left, as it bears on conspiracy, on underestimating the role of elections, and most of all on failing to see the "dialectical relationship" between movements in the street in actions in Congress. Congress cannot, ever, lead - it can only follow. But it remains vital for us to see the struggle for political power as valid, to recognize that the power of the Civil Rights movement forced the Democrats to take action, and laid the basis for the genuinely good civil rights acts which LBJ got through Congress. Our work "in the streets, in the school rooms, in the churches, in the unions" is finally reflected in the halls of power. On Vietnam, for example, only half the battle was won by the Vietnam Peace movement - the other half was won by the Vietnamese people, who put their lives on the line to fight the invaders, and lost three million lives in the process.

Because the US lacks any form of Labor Party (which, if it existed, would be as imperfect as the Greens, as ideologically complex and confused), we have seen the various interest groups - environmental, labor, womens, etc. etc. - look to the Democratic Party and it is easy to forget that the real power for social change is not in either major party but in the independent actions of radical formations outside the political structure. Roosevelt turned to labor because, in 1932, labor had already
become a radical force outside of existing parties and the Democrats need their support. So while I believe in electoral action (my God, I've run for office a half dozen times), I believe even more strongly in the power of ideas, and the need to use the electoral arena as one place to put those ideas into the arena of discussion.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The gangs of Washington County

The Adirondacks and northern New York is the most economically depressed area of New York state, mainly because of its previous reliance on manufacturing (which has collapsed in the northeast) and on industries like logging and mining which are subject to volatile worldwide price fluctuations. Some towns, like Lake Placid and Lake George, have embraced mass tourism. Others have tried to better market their natural wonders to suburban and city folk from other regions.

Dazzled by huge sums of money and the prospect of employment, some towns have embraced the prison-industrial complex as an economic panacea. The Atlantic magazine had a very enlightening investigation of this booming national industry. America incarcerates more of its population than any other western country.

New York's prisons are particularly crowded because of its Rockefeller Drug Laws. These laws are so medieval that even the governor and Assembly speaker, who normally squabble like a pair of six year olds, agree they need to be revamped. Drug crimes, even minor ones like possession of small amounts, now account for 38 percent of the state's prison population.

However much like with casino gambling, areas who bought into the prison-industrial complex are finding out about the unintended consequences. An area with a large population of prisoners soon becomes an area with a large population of FORMER prisoners.

An article in the Glens Falls Post-Star offers a chilling reminder of this fact.

The paper reported: Police in Washington County have uncovered evidence of three chapters of nationwide street gangs in the region, including two chapters of the feared Bloods gang, officials said Monday.

A 14-year-old boy who was arrested recently on charges he spraypainted a street gang symbol on a fuel tank off Clay Hill Road in Fort Ann told police that he is a member of a local chapter of the nationwide Bloods street gang, officials said.

The teen, whose name was not released, told Washington County sheriff's officers he spraypainted the letters "ES" on the tank to represent the "Emia Squad" chapter of the Bloods, said Washington County Sheriff Roger Leclaire.

The teen told police there were about 70 members of the Bloods chapter in Hudson Falls, Fort Edward and Glens Falls, and that they were involved in marijuana trafficking in the region, said sheriff's Deputy Terry Markham, the department's gang specialist.

Where did this problem come from?

An inmate in Washington County jail who'd served time in state prison.

The deputy police chief in Hudson Falls, also in Washington County, noted, "When these kids go to jail, they are in there with actual gang members, who are recruiting all the time."

Rather than being a deterrent, prison appears to be a social networking device linking previously non-violent people with hard core criminals.

If this isn't evidence of the failure of the state's drug laws, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election day after

I am not going to talk much about the national election results simply because I don't have much to add that others aren't already saying. Suffice it to say, Democrat control of the House (and possibly the Senate) may bode well for those who want to halt the increasing and very dangerous centralization of power in the hands of one man: the president.

Granted, the Democrats did little to oppose the president's claims to imperial power when they were in the opposition: a majority of Democrats voted for the Iraq aggression and only one of 50 voted against the Patriot Act. Or at least they didn't stand up to these imperial claims when it was politically incorrect to do so.

But at the very least, the few good ones, like Sens. Patrick Leahy and Russ Feingold, will have more influence.

The last six years reminds us that gridlock is not the worst thing in the world. The Democrats don't have much of an agenda to advance but I suppose better nothing get done than finishing the president's radical agenda.

Locally, the Democrat won the race to Congress. She became the first Democrat to win election to the House in this very conservative area since 1976. There are almost twice as many registered Republicans in this district than Democrats. And the incumbent wasn't really that unpopular when the race started so the win still shocks me. I don't think the Democrat is that great and both candidates ran sleazy campaigns. But at least it proves that this area is capable of voting out a Republican incumbent.

The Democrat NY state comptroller was hit with a huge ethics scandal a few weeks before the election. He used a state driver for his wife and never reimbursed the state until his opponent revealed the scandal. He said he 'forgot' but I believe he was guilty of the same ethical 'lapse' when he was NYC comptroller. The state ethics commission receommended he be removed from office or prosecuted, not their usual slap on the wrist thing. His lead in the polls went from 50 points to within the margin of error. It was the first time in my memory when the comptroller's race was the most prominent statewide office.

But the AFL-CIO came to his rescue with attack ads on he ended up winning by 18 points, which was still the closest statewide race but much larger than most expected a few days ago. And the incumbent/winner may still be impeached by the GOP state senate. Some Dems argued he should be re-elected so he could resign and the new (Democrat) governor would pick his replacement. Even if he were impeached, his replacement would be chosen by a combined vote of the legislature, which has more Democrats.

The election was notable also because it was the first time I've ever voted for a Republican for anything above county level. I wanted to vote for the Green but I didn't know anything about her except that she wanted to use the state pension fund to divest from companies that do business with Sudan. A noble goal but not enough by itself to base my vote on. But she got more votes than any other statewide Green candidate.

The Republican was attacked by the AFL-CIO for wanting to change the fixed benefit state pension fund into 401(k)'s. Personally, I don't see this as the end of the world since I have a 401(k) myself; New York has too many state workers anyways. But NYSUT (teachers) and CSEA (other public workers) have so much power even the state senate Republicans are afraid to stand up to them.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Disgusted with the candidates? Take another look at these guys

Disgusted with the 'choice' of candidates for political office that you've heard about?

Before you vote for the 'lesser of two evils' (by definition an evil), take a look at some of the candidates you haven't heard about: here.

Make sure to vote today.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bush league party, major league deceit

There are many aspects of New York state's electoral law which I have problems with. One of the minor points I object to is the fact that candidates can run on multiple party lines. One of the smaller parties is The Working Families Party.

I hesitate to call the WFP a party since they are really nothing more than a vehicle by which (predominantly) Democrats can pick up another ballot line, especially those who lose in the primary. The WFP is heavily linked to unions. They are different from the Green Party of New York which, though it's also sympathetic to labor values, runs its own candidates rather than cross-endorsing establishment Democrats.

Frankly, I think the sole purpose of a smaller party is to add something that the two major parties do not. I don't like to use the term third party because a) it's used for any generic smaller party and b) it implies that there can only be three parties.

In merely cross-endorsing (mostly) Democrats, the WFP does not really add anything to the debate. This is why the Greens in New York are a real party advancing a distinct agenda while the WFP is just a movement of people who want to stay close to power for no discernible purpose.

And it's really questionable to what degree they even stand for their principles. Their website explains:

The vast majority of us share progressive values and want more affordable health care, a higher minimum wage, and better schools - but real change is hard to come by.

Take incumbent US Sen. Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton served six years on the board of directors of Wal-Mart, one of the most infamous corporate opponents of a higher minimum wage, regulations on overtime and other issues that would benefit WORKING FAMILIES.

Yet who did the WFP cross-endorse for Senate? Mrs. Clinton.

(Her Green opponent, Howie Hawkins, is actually a union member and blue-collar worker.)

Mrs. Clinton was also notoriously the architect of the byzantine health care 'reform' plan during her husband's presidency, which managed the neat trick of infuriating both supporters and opponents of decent health care for all Americans. She has done nothing in this area since being elected. Senators ensure they themselves good health care, but not the rest of us. Health care is one of the major issues of concern for WORKING FAMILIES.

Yet who did the WFP cross-endorse for Senate? Mrs. Clinton.

Sen. Clinton also voted to give Pres. Bush a blank check for his aggression against Iraq and (like the president himself) still refuses to come out with any sort of coherent plan to achieve whatever course we're supposed to be staying. Iraq is an issue that most affects not the rich, but young soldiers who come predominantly from WORKING FAMILIES.

The WFP calls on voters to, "Send a message right now that you're voting Working Families to bring the troops home."

Yet who did the WFP cross-endorse for Senate? Mrs. Clinton.

As someone who agrees with much of the WFP's agenda in theory, I am disappointed that they repeatedly refuse to consider progressive alternatives to non-progressive Democrats (or Republicans).

I realize that voting means making imperfect choices but what's the point of believing in principles in theory if you endorse candidates who don't share the most important ones?

For example, the WFP endorsed for re-election state Sen. Dale Volker. Volker, a Republican, was for years most associated with a single issue: bringing back the death penalty to New York. That's progressive?

The WFP also endorsed state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver is a the classic insider machine politician. But Silver is a close ally of New York's two most powerful labor organizations (the white collar teachers' and state bureaucrats' unions) so that makes him A-OK for the WFP. Never mind the fact that he promotes patronage, opposes transparent state government and generally epitomizes everything that's WRONG with Albany.

Apparently, the WFP is more concerned whether they receive more votes than New York's other main vehicle that passes for a political party, the Conservatives. While the WFP focuses on the petty horse race aspect, the Greens are pushing candidates who actually stand for a progressive agenda. The WFP is about making little parlor game bets with Michael Long. The Greens are about bringing the troops home.

But I am even more disappointed that the WFP engages in the same sort of outright deceit that we've come to expect from the two major parties.

Last week, the WFP sent out a mailer featuring several prominent anti-war figures like Pete Seeger, Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan. The mailer was designed to promote the WFPDemocrat statewide candidates, including Sen. Clinton and gubenatorial favorite Eliot Spitzer. There's only one problem:

Cindy Sheehan actually endorses Clinton's and Spitzer's OPPONENTS.

She endorses Howie Hawkins for Senate and Malachy McCourt for governor. The pair want the a troop withdrawal from Iraq, unlike Clinton and Spitzer. At least Sheehan's endorsements aren't at odds with her principles

I'm not one of those people who canonizes Cindy Sheehan. I agree with some of what she says but I find her shrill and annoying and not likely to persuade the undecided, just like Moore. But I find it incredibly deceitful for the WFP to use her image in support of candidates where she has explicitly come out for their opponents.

If I do decide to vote for a Democrat, it will be on the Democrats' line, not the WFP's. It seems more ingenuous.

Update: This editorial from The New York Times explains how these faux-parties are about nothing more than patronage and influence peddling.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Dang, I'm good

So it's New England vs Houston for the Major League Soccer championship.

I wonder who would've predicted them as the best two teams in the league.

Ok, so playoffs aren't regular season but who cares.

Go Revolution!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The fight for freedom at home

"Anyone can handle adversity. If you want to test a man's character, give him power." -Abraham Lincoln

With the Congressional election a few days away, it's a good time to summarize some disturbing articles I've read recently. When you consider who to vote for, try to find out where the candidates stand on these issues. Remember that Congressmen swear an oath to protect the Constitution 'against all enemies, foreign and domestic.' If they've been complicit in these outrages, they've violated their oath

President Bush signed a law that would make it easier for the president to declare martial law and seize National Guard units without the consent of state governors. He can also ship them to other states.

The provision was attacked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the few true voices of conscience in Washington, though by almost no one else. The provision obviously passed Congress. It was part of a larger defense spending bill. Maybe Sen. Leahy is the only person who knew what he was voting on. Rubber stamps: they're not just for Republicans anymore! (Vote Green or 'third party')

Or maybe his colleagues knew exactly what they were voting on. Such dereliction of duty is hardly surprising when you have lawmakers who who believe that the "pursuit of happiness is harming America."

This is consistent with the massive centralization of power occurring in this country. This explains why the US respects the privacy rights of its citizens LESS than any other western country except Britain.

If ordinary, law-abiding citizens are arbitrarily spied on, then it's no surprise that the harassment of the watchdog press has skyrocketed in recent years. That's why the US now ranks a mere 53rd in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index compiled by the independent press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Press freedom in the US ranked behind countries like Ghana, Mali, Panama, Benin and the 'surrender monkeys' in France. The US also ranks behind countries that were recently either police states or in the midst of hideous civil wars such as El Salvador, Chile, South Africa, Mozambique, the three countries that fought the savage Balkans wars of the 90s (actually we're tied with Croatia) and former Soviet-satellite states like Bulgaria and the three Baltic republics.

It wasn't always like this. The first RSF index back in 2002 ranked the US 17th while Mozambique was 70th.

But at least our press is (just barely) more free than those in Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic and Turkish occupied Northern Cyprus!

Clearly, the government loves to watch its citizens but it hates when citizens watch them back!

If they keep 'protecting my freedoms' like this, I'm not sure how much longer I'll have any left.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Regional news and notes

One of my pet peeves is that publications run big gaudy headlines or dramatic articles on the front page but when they make an error, the corrections are almost inevitably buried in small print, often in the middle of the newspaper, no matter how big the headline.

Kudos to the Glens Falls weekly The Chronicle for bucking that trend.

Last week, the paper ran an article based on the premise that the city of Glens Falls taxpayers could save $142 million if the city's two school districts merged. It turns out that in crunching the numbers, the reporter used a premise that was incorrect. The amount saved would be only $26 million.

This isn't a minor error like misspelling someone's name. It's a significant error that dramatically affects (though doesn't negate completely) the entire premise of the article.

But rather than burying the admission inside, The Chronicle ran a correction as one of its main front page articles, giving it roughly the same prominence as the original article.

I tip my cap to News Editor Gordon Woodworth (who wrote the article) and Editor Mark Frost for having the integrity to handle this error the right way.


North Country Public Radio is running a series on a topic that might fly under the radar: Hispanic immigrants working on farms in northern New York.

This piece points out the quandry faced by many farmers.


NCPR also has an interview with the author of The Smallmart Revolution, which calls on local economic developers to look beyond transitory big box stores and foster locally-based small business that are more likely to develop roots in the community.


Winter is on the way. And while many upstate New York residents bemoan the fourth season which seems to occupy well more than a quarter of the year, NYCO blog takes a moment post an essay in praise of winter.

This time of year allows us to settle down a little bit. The cold air and snow reduces the running around, and gives us more time at home. After the clocks turn back to standard time, night falls pretty early, and affords some time to spend with our loved ones in the evening, the essay observes.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

No wonder many good people stay out of politics

New York's 20th Congressional district race got even nastier and less issue-related as it was rocked by allegations that incumbent Rep. John Sweeney was involved in a domestic violence incident late last year.

The Albany Times-Union reported that emergency call to a police dispatcher triggered a visit to the couple's residence by a state trooper from Clifton Park, who filed a domestic incident report after noting that the congressman had scratches on his face, according to a purported State Police document obtained by the paper.

The Sweeney campaign's spokeswoman attacked the document as "a piece of campaign propaganda" without commenting on whether police were called to the Congressman's residence. Nor would Sweeney himself discuss details of the evening.

Some have attacked the paper for running the story less than a week before Election Day. But the daily explained:

In the past 10 months, at least three news organizations, including the Times Union, have filed formal requests seeking disclosure of police records about the incident. State Police denied those requests and, according to agency sources, ordered that all inquiries about the matter be directed to headquarters, where officials have declined comment.

Early Tuesday, copies of the document obtained by this newspaper were provided to State Police headquarters and to Sweeney's offices in Washington, D.C., and Clifton Park.

It is not clear how The Times-Union obtained the document, since release of domestic incident reports are generally exempt from Freedom of Information requests.

The Glens Falls Post-Star reported that Sweeney's wife authorized the State Police to release what she calls 'the real report,' though a State Police official noted that they cannot release the report without a notarized waiver from the Sweeneys.

(The paper also ran complete statements from the Sweeney's and Democrat opponent Kirsten Gillibrand)

Many Democrats jumped on the incident as further proof that Sweeney is unfit for public office. Presumably, many of them also attacked Republicans for making then-President Bill Clinton's private life a public issue. Granted, there's an important difference between consensual sex between two adults and alleged assault and battery. But it seems that if charges weren't pressed, then the matter should remain private.

As much as I am not fond of Sweeney as a politician, I think it's sad that politicians are no longer allowed to have a private life. No one is allowed to have a family dispute. No one is allowed to have kids doing stupid stuff. Nothing is off limits any more, not even family. Public scrunity is 24/7... and not just for the candidate but for everyone related to or associated with the candidate.

We wonder why the calibre of politicians continues to decline. Maybe it's because the most able leaders are way too smart to subject themselves to this masochism.

Update: Though in that spirit, I have to tip my cap to Warren Redlich, the Republican challenger to Albany-area Congressman Michael McNulty. If you think all races for public offices need to be sickening slimefests like Sweeney-Gillibrand, then check this out.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Economic development or legalized theft?

The Post-Standard is arguably the best paper in New York in investigating corruption, lack of transparency and other issues in state government. A few years ago, they did a series on the secret, unaccountable slush funds known as state public authorities.

Now, the paper has a series focusing on dubious practices within the state's Empire Zone program.

Empire Zones were designed to provide incentives to businesses as a way to spur job creation. Supposedly, they were to be a boon to small businesses. However in many cases, they have degenerated into little more than patronage. They are merely tax givebacks to large corporations in exchange for nothing, reports the Syracuse daily. In other words, legalized theft.

Take this report on Pyramid, which also runs the Aviation Mall in Queensbury.

The Pyramid Cos. warned Syracuse politicians in 2001 that without Empire Zone tax breaks it would not transform the Carousel Center mall into Destiny USA, a $1.7 billion resort.
In the five years since, not a single beam, block or 2-by-4 has been erected for Destiny USA.

Yet Pyramid founder Robert Congel and his partners are already claiming Empire Zone tax breaks worth $7 million per year.

The 40,000 new Destiny jobs Pyramid predicted don’t exist. But New York taxpayers reimbursed Pyramid for its Carousel Center property taxes in 2004 and 2005.

And it can continue to claim these tax breaks through 2015.

Not surprisingly, Gov. George Pataki defends the program, claiming it has created thousands of new jobs. The paper notes that in many cases, this is nothing but a fiction, a shell game.

Pataki's numbers are inflated, however, to include thousands of jobs that already existed in New York state, a Post-Standard analysis has found.

The governor counts 1,700 jobs at Endicott Interconnect Technologies as new jobs. That company was formed in 2002, when local investors bought a division of IBM. The new owners inherited about 2,000 workers.

The governor counts the Buffalo Sabres' workers as new employees, although the team has been playing since 1970.

The governor counts 477 jobs at Harden Holdings as new jobs. That's the new name for Harden Furniture, which reincorporated in 2002 and claimed all of the old employees as new.

How could this happen?

The Department of Economic Development calculates job creation by simply adding up the numbers the companies provide every year on a document, notes a spokeswoman. But we have no independent way of verifying what is reported by the business," she said.

If this is the state's idea of rigorous accountability procedures, no wonder the program operates like it does.