Sunday, April 30, 2006

'Nothing but nets'

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Kudos to Sports Illustrated magazine columnist Rick Reilly. His essays usually touch on sporting topics and personalities. His most recent column, however, touched on a topic which has nothing to do with sports but is much more important. He urged readers to donate money to the UN's anti-malaria campaign. The money will be used to buy mosquito nets treated with insecticide to be given to people in malaria-prone regions of Africa. Malaria still kills more people in Africa than any other cause, natural or man-made.

How much will go to buying nets, Reilly asks. All of it. Thanks to Ted Turner, who donated $1 billion to create the U.N. Foundation, which covers all the overhead, "every cent will go to nets," says Andrea Gay, the U.N. Foundation's Director of Children's Health.

In the four days since the column first appeared, readers have donated $160,000, thus saving the lives of 11,000 children and their families, according to the UN.

If you'd like to donate, click here.


(If for some reason, you object to the UN, you can also donate to Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, which has also done a lot of work in the fight against malaria.)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Hommage to a master

The Global Game blog offers a nice hommage to retiring French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane.

(He also cues up an image of Zidane's strike in the 2002 European Champions League final, which remains the most breathtaking goal I've ever seen live)

I will say without any hesitation that in the 12 years I've followed professional soccer, Zidane is far and away the best player I ever had the honor of watching.

He was never the fastest or strongest player. He never had the hardest shot. But he was a maestro with the ball at his feet. For a man his size (6'1", 175 pounds or 1.85 m, 80 kg), his agility was beyond comprehension. He could make a 30 yard pass stop on a dime. He did things with the ball that simply took your breath away. He could gracefully glide through multiple defenders like a slalom skier going down a ski course. And that's the sign of a true sporting genius: someone who makes extremely difficult plays against world class competition look effortless.

In fact, the chief of the Scottish Arts Council described Zidane's style as 'pure ballet.'

In a game where negative tactics, sheer speed and brute force are given increasing primacy, Zidane, with his World Cup and European Championship winners medals, showed that the Beautiful Game played with skill and grace can still net results.

Additionally, Zidane's class as a human being was striking. In an era where sporting stars spend more time with the cameras than with aball, Zidane was always intensely uncomfortable with the spotlight. He quietly help out in and gave back a lot to the Marseille suburb where he grew up.

A world class player. And, by all accounts, a world class person. The soccer universe will miss his genius.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Full of Bull MLS see Red over spitting spat

The US first division Major League Soccer is a league in search of identity. It's done a good job of establishing itself as a viable business. It's been invaluable in helping provide the US national team with unprecedented depth and quality. It's led the push to get soccer-friendly stadiums built so they don't have to play on hideous grass surfaces destroyed by gridiron football (or the even worse artificial turf).

But what it lacks is passion and intensity. Sure, a few of the matchs have them. And many of the fans do, but it's usually in small groups of diehards rather than stadium-wide. What helps is good rivalries. The challenge, of course, is that good rivalries don't arise overnight.

A 'classico' rivalry developed between Los Angeles and San Jose, but this was the result of time, circumstances and great matches at important times. It didn't magically become a 'classico' just because the league office slaps a corporate sponsor before that phrase. Unfortunately, the San Jose team moved to Houston so the rivalry died.

Clubs like Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow or Boca Jrs and River Plate in Buenos Aires developed rivalries of the course of several years, not because they were contrived by a bunch of suits. But unfortunately, MLS' lack of continuity hampers this evolution, an evolution critical to increasing the popularity of the league and helping the league's investors make more money.

Ten MLS franchises were part of the league's inaugural season only a decade ago. Of those, one no longer exists, one has moved to another city, three have changed their nickname and one their team colors. In that period, the league added four expansion teams, one of whom also ceased to exist.

Despite this, the league is on pace to break its record for average attendance, though it's still early in the season. The league, however, seems determined to stamp out any of the spontaneity and passion that makes the game so appealing elsewhere.

There was a little spat in last Saturday's match between Red Bull New York and DC United. Red Bull NY is sponsored by the energy drink of the same name. After DC forward Alecko Eskandarian scored the first goal of the match, his goal celebration involved running toward his bench, having a teammate toss him a can of Red Bull, him taking a sip and then spitting it out. It was clearly meant as a sporting jab at his team's opponent. The clever goal celebration obviously displeased fans of the Red Bulls.

And that's exactly the point: to add a little juice to the game, to the rivalry, to take a little jab at the metro NY fans.

This jab surely got those fans motivated to chant and sing and jeer. That's what soccer in this country needs more of.

In other countries, rivalries are expressed in fans being stabbed or sectarian chants or monkey noises directed at black players. As far as fueling a rivalry, a guy spitting out a mass-produced beverage is about as benign as you can get.

But the folks in charge of ensuring MLS matches have all the atmosphere of a funeral dirge got their panties into a twist over the incident. They fined Eskandarian 250 dollars for 'inappropriate conduct.'

As Matchnight's Ian Plendereith noted: Yes, the body that gave Hristo Stoichkov a minor telling off for breaking a college kid's leg in a preseason scrimmage while still in a rage about a goal he thought was offside, has now come up with a new category of soccer misbehavior more suited to condemning a couple caught kissing at the back of a meeting of the Christian Mothers' Temperance Union.

I'm sure the hypersensitive suits in charge of MLS were afraid that one of the league's most important sponsors might be offended. But Red Bull company (who also own a team in Austria) is surely run by big boys and girls who understand how both soccer and business work. In fact, they should be thankful for Esky's gesture. I expect that the next time DC visits New Jersey, a much larger crowd is on hand to make sure they give the opposition's #11 a piece of their mind. That's the sort of passion MLS needs to foster, not trample.

More butts in the stadium means more green for Red Bull. I'm sure that won't offend them.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

'High gas prices,' populist pandering and subsidizing inefficiency

With gas prices rising in the US, politicians are feeling the heat. President Bush called for investigations into alleged price fixing and gouging and [for] a temporary lifting of state mandates for specific gasoline blends.

Our local Congressman, John Sweeney, claimed to be angry.

"When an executive retires with a $400 million incentive package and gas is over $3 at the pump, I'm a free market guy, but that is just an untenable response,” he fumed.

Republicans generally object to anything that might mildly slice into massive profits so their indignant outrage here is a bit curious.

But while there are many things for which I reproach the oil multinational conglomerates, the 'high' prices is not one of them. As long as worldwide demand increases (which it will as more people in China and India join the middle class) and supply remains roughly constant, prices will continue to rise.

It's not Big Oil's fault if you chose to buy an SUV or if you chose to live 50 miles away from your job. If you made the lifestyle decision of your own free will, don't expect others to bear the consequences. As Edward R. Murrow famously declared, "'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

The bashing of Big Oil is nothing more than populist pandering. I'm no fan of the oil mulinationals, but at least criticize them for environmental abuses or something like that; it's not their fault consumers can't control their appetite for Big Oil's product.

Of course, Republicans are using this issue to try to get something they could never get legitimately: drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Senate Republicans tried to bribe taxpayers with 100 dollar rebates and with expanded tax breaks to manufacturers of hybrid cars but only if ANWR drilling were allowed. Because as we know, oil drilling never has environmental consequences.

The local Post-Star had an article on the back-and-forth on this issue between Sweeney and Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand, a corporate lawyer and Hillary Clinton-wannabe, is one of several Democratic challengers to Sweeney (though the only one according to the paper).

The daily reported that Gillibrand said the federal government should temporarily suspend gas taxes as a short-term solution while embarking on a comprehensive effort to develop alternative energy.

Think about this proposal for a moment.

Lowering gas taxes would encourage consumers to make more inefficient choices with their driving. It would simultaneously deprive the federal government of the very revenues that could be used to fund research into and development of more efficient alternative energy usage!

I guess this only proves that Democrats can be just as populist and incoherent as Republicans on the issue.

Gillibrand was half right, which isn't surprising of someone less interested in seeing the problem addressed than in winning votes of people who she hopes aren't paying attention to the details.

The federal government should embark on a comprehensive effort to develop alternative energy, an effort which she compared to putting a man on the moon. However, it shouldn't do so by depriving itself of funding for that program AND encouraging more inefficient energy usage.

If Gillibrand really wants to encourage fundamental change via government action, she should advocate expanded tax breaks for users of fuel efficient vehicles. And there should be even bigger tax breaks for people who choose not to buy a motor vehicle at all and who choose to rely on bicycles or public transportation (full disclosure: I fall in this category).

For years, public policy has seen tax dollars used to subsidize inefficient choices, from gas guzzlers to highway construction (while starving public transportation) to the massive expansion of the suburbs and exurbs. The only way the present energy situation can have any hope of being remedied is if public policy is used to encourage and reward EFFICIENT lifestyle choices.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

This and that

-A co-founder of Greenpeace makes the case for nuclear power, from an environmentalist perspective.

-Remember when right wingers got their panties in a twist about the alleged role of French and Russian officials in oil smuggling during Saddam's regime? Well in American-occupied Iraq, oil smuggling still reportedly costs the country billions of dollars in income.

-It's silly season again. Last January, there was some nonsense called Not One Damn Dime Day, scheduled to coincide with President Bush's second swearing in. I've seen other similar days organized to boycott gasoline, in order to 'send a message' about the 'power' of consumers. Except the very nature of a one day boycott undermines that message. If you boycott gas on, say, January 20, all that means is that gas sales will probably INCREASE on January 19 and 21; what this means is that the OVERALL profits for the period of January 19-21 will be about the same. I'm sure Big Oil was hardly quaking in their boots. Now, another email circulating around the Internet is calling for a boycott of ExxonMobil to protest supposedly high gas prices. Now, there are many reasons to dislike ExxonMobil but in terms of gas prices, are they really any worse than anyone else? In terms of corporate irresponsibility, are they really worse than, say, Shell? These one day boycotts are pointless acts whose real objective is to make you feel better, not to effectuate even the slightest bit of change. If you REALLY want to lower demand (and thus prices) for gas, then eschew these self-indulgent gimmicks and make a lifestyle change. Oil prices aren't going to collapse just because you fill up your SUV from a Getty station instead of an Exxon one.

-The Glens Falls Post-Star's poll question of the week is: "Is the spirited campaign between [the GOP's] John Sweeney and [Democrat] Kirsten Gillibrand likely to affect you in the fall?" Unfortunately, the daily fails to mention that corporate lawyer Gillibrand has several primary challengers. The paper has apparently decided that her challengers are irrelevant and has annointed Gillibrand as the nominee. This gives lie to the pretense advanced by so many in the journalistic establishment that "We don't make news, we just report it." It's bad enough when the paper and other mainstream media outlets are complicit in advancing the falsehood of the two-party system; some 40 percent of Warren County voters belong to neither the Democrat nor the Republican parties. But now, this paper is even ignoring those from WITHIN the two largest parties. It's true that Hillary-wannabe Gillibrand is the most well-financed and most aggressive of the Democrat challengers to Sweeney. But contrary to what the local media implies, she's not the only one.

-The US is a tough country to love. America is like that cousin you have who's really successful at what he does but who never, EVER let's you forget how successful he is. And who, while quick to find fault with others, never notices any in himself. Of course, the risk of being so self-satisfied at such grandeur is complacency toward structural weaknesses, whether in your life or in your country. Personally, I've always found pride in one's country to be meaningless. How can you have pride in a hunk of land that occupies the space between arbitrary borders? It's like being proud of rain or dust. I do, however, have pride in the values most Americans say that country represents. Unfortunately, when you urge your countrymen to be more faithful to those values they proclaim to hold dear, it is often confused with 'self-loathing' or 'America hating.' Nina Burleigh offers more thoughts on patriotism/nationalism

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A really lame duck

Ever since his announcement that he would not seek a fourth term this November, New York governor George Pataki has been seen by many as a lame duck. However, Pataki has taken advantage of a recent controversial ruling by the state's highest court that gave the governor near imperial power over the state's budget process to re-impose himself on the political scene in Albany.

Pataki is probably the only person to consider himself a viable presidential candidate for 2008. Yet many attribute those ambitions to his recent decision to veto $2.9 billion from the budget approved by the legislature. The governor slashed money destined to help health care for the poor, prescription drug coverage for the elderly and improvements to the state university system.

According to the high court ruling, the legislature can only change the numbers of the budget submitted by the governor; it can't add or delete programs or language.

Pataki claims that about 2/3 of the amount he vetoed can't be overridden under that criteria, though obviously legislators disagree.

Bizarrely, for someone trying to burnish his conservative credentials with GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire voters, he also vetoed a $1.7 million (over two years) rebate to payers of New York's notoriously high property taxes.

Not surprisingly, Pataki was blasted not only by his archenemy, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But he was also ripped by his fellow Republican, Senate leader Joe Bruno. The majority leader accused Pataki of negoiating in bad faith, saying that he learned of the governor's most recent offer via the newspaper and accused the governor's staff of bargaining by press release.

In other state news, the Albany Times-Union reported that Representatives of the state Senate, Assembly and Gov. George Pataki's budget division routinely sign a pact barring them from disclosing how millions of dollars are spent on "member items,"

A document obtained by the paper mandated secrecy around the process of choosing who would get $200 million in taxpayer money last year from the Legislature's member item account — the discretionary spending account critics say is used for "pork barrel" spending. "Each party will treat information regarding any proposed project as confidential and will not share it with any individual or entity," says the agreement public officials have signed for years, according to the "memorandum of understanding" obtained by the newspaper for member items in 2005.

This is hardly surprising for a body rated the worst legislature in the country by one of the state's most prominent law schools. But it was still condemned by the good government groups who the conscience of the state's political corrupt scene.

Monday, April 24, 2006

'Is America being transformed into a radical republic?'

In this column for The Baltimore Sun, retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson contends that 'the neo-Jacobins who masquerade under the title "neoconservatives"' have transformed the US into a 'radical republic.'

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Top secret... to anyone with 20 bucks

Some people express concerns about privacy in an age where every intrusion (even something as inane as searching a backpack at a high school football game) is justified in the name of 'security.' These people are usually denounced as 'chicken littles,' whiners who do nothing more than harass those trying to protect us from [insert Evil Doer of the week].

Yet look at what's happening in Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles Times reported top secret military computer hard drives were easily available for purchase at an Afghan marketplace near Bagram airbase, the biggest US base in the country.

The paper discovered that drives [were] for sale at the bazaar contained documents marked "secret" and that they also listed the names and Social Security numbers of nearly 700 U.S. service members. In addition, they included discussions of U.S. efforts to "remove" or "marginalize" Afghan government officials whom the military considered "problem makers."


These concerns are hardly pedantic in an age where identity theft is hardly uncommon. If authorities can't even protect their own top secret data, then how can we trust them to protect your Social Security number and my credit history?

Then again, 'top secret' isn't what it used to be.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Nepal's Tiannamen

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Pro-democracy marches which have turned into anti-monarchy riots have rocked the Kingdom of Nepal.

Last February, King Gyanendra seized power after sacking the elected government and suspending democracy; he had previously been a constitutional monarch. He did so under the pretext that the politicians had failed to suppress a violent Maolist insurgency; though by most accounts, a year of direct rule by the king has only strengthened the rebellion.

What's interesting is that the country's urban elite strongly opposes the Maoists. They fear that the insurgents may impose a Pol Pot-style nightmare on the small Himalayan kingdom. The king gambled that this fear would allow him to seize power and an impose a monarchical autocracy with no opposition. He was wrong.

Two weeks ago, the political opposition started organizing mass pro-democracy protests. However, security forces fired on the peaceful, unarmed protesters and 14 have been killed. The situation quickly deteriorated to the point where the protests transformed from pro-democracy to anti-monarchy. One foreign diplomat even opined, "I am very afraid we are moving into a revolutionary situation."

The popular unrest against the absolute monarch is in stark contrast to the tradition in Nepal. The monarch does not just believe in the divine right of kings. He believes he is a living god himself.

The situation became so grave in Nepal that after long remaining silent, the Bush administration belatedly urged the king to bring back democracy.

The US ambassador warned this week that if he does not give up his autocratic powers, Gyanendra will end up fleeing Kathmandu clinging to a helicopter.

(It might've been more productive if the administration hadn't waited until the country was on the verge of chaos)

Faced with widespread defiance and disgust with his rule, the king was forced into a humiliating climbdown. In a national address, he called the political parties to put forth a candidate for prime minister so that civilian rule and the 1990 constitution could be reinstalled.

However, it remains to be seen if the political opposition will be satisfied by the king's concessions. They've been so emboldened with the massive support they've received in opposing the absolute monarchy, they might not be willing to let the isolated king return to his previous role as constitutional monarch... especially as there are no guarantees he won't pull such shenanigans again.

Already, the political opposition has called for a constitutent assembly to determine the future role of the monarch.


Update: The political opposition has rejected the king's offer and called for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Call for suggestions (reprise)

A few weeks ago, I issued a call for ideas.

It's easy to get into a bit of a rut commenting on breaking news stories. However, at some point hopefully this month I am going to take a week-long break from this daily grind and offer a broader look at a handful of big issues that are having a serious impact on millions of people around the world but get little press coverage. Ones presently under consideration are:

-The small arms trade
-Child soldiers
-Street children
-Malaria in Africa
-Aid workers as targets of combattants
-'Asylum fatigue'
-How to help internally displaced people (as distinct from refugees)


So if any readers have others issues they'd like to suggest I study and write about, please leave a comment for me to take into consideration. Bear in mind I'm looking for issues to explore, not a particular conflict to focus on.

Mediocracy in America

A recent issue of TIME magazine had a little piece on Harriet Miers, the White House counsel whose nomination to the Supreme Court was withdrawn under pressure from the right-wing ideologues.

Back at Bush's side, Miers is one of the dwindling number of longtime Texas confidants still at the White House at this time of upheaval. The loyalty is reciprocal--Bush was still hot months later about how she was treated, viewing her as a victim of snobby élitists.

Generally, speaking the left and the right alike thought Miers was extremely underqualified to serve on the nation's highest court.

Do I often agree with Justice Antonin Scalia's opinions? Rarely. Is his judicial temperment obnoxious? Often. Is he one of the most intelligent, well qualified legal minds in the country? Absolutely.

And this epitomizes one of the greatest faults of the Bush administration: its complete lack of expectations (other than loyalty), the way it continually rewards mediocrity.

Paul Bremer completely screws up the initial stages of the US occupation of Iraq (including the mysterious case of the vanishing $8 billion). The result? He's awarded a presidential medal of freedom. Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld were two of the main architects of the Iraq disaster and neither has been fired or forced to resign. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was too and she was promoted.

In defending the 1969 nomination of Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court, Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska famously quipped, "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

President Bush obviously concluded yes.

In his two election campaigns, Mr. Bush has successfully (if bizarrely considering his patrician, old money background) passed himself off as a regular guy, an ordinary bloke. So maybe he thought it would be a good quality to inject into the Supreme Court.

Joe Sixpack gets into a fight at the bar everytime some drunk says his mama wears combat boots. The difference is Joe Sixpack doesn't command a huge military. Mediocrity is acceptable for a paperboy or the guy delivering your pizza, not for the guy with his finger on the nuclear button. And not for one of the nine people in the country who decide what the Constitution means.

Yes, I want only the best, most elite legal minds to serve on the nation's most important court. Let the mediocre ones bring them coffee. If that makes me a snobby elitist, so be it.

Update: Rolling Stone magazine cites a leading historian who calls Bush 'the worst president in history.'

Though he's far and away the worst in my lifetime, I'm not yet prepared to call him the worst of all time. It's certainly plausible. Most of the men regarded as terrible presidents (Hoover, Buchanan, Nixon) only brought severe damage to this country; the devastation wrought by Bush has extended far beyond America's borders. That said, I do not subscribe to the school of instant historical judgement, which I consider an oxymoron. Historical judgements are usually more fair when they are removed from the passion of the moment. Maybe history will regard Bush as only merely bad. Only time will tell.

But here's the key point:

No other president -- Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR in World War II, John F. Kennedy at critical moments of the Cold War -- faced with such a monumental set of military and political circumstances failed to embrace the opposing political party to help wage a truly national struggle. But Bush shut out and even demonized the Democrats. Top military advisers and even members of the president's own Cabinet who expressed any reservations or criticisms of his policies -- including retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill -- suffered either dismissal, smear attacks from the president's supporters or investigations into their alleged breaches of national security.

Candidate Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider. Yet, President Bush has been a divider since day one, offering his middle finger to the half of the country that didn't vote for him. Even Reagan, who I was never fond of ideologically, was a master of co-opting the opposition in order to make his agenda seem mainstream. With the exception of a few weeks after the attacks, even 9/11 didn't fundamentally change Bush's approach even as that event made uniting an even more crucial quality for the head of state. Bush expects the opposition to blindly support his madness (or at least to be bullied into submission) but refuses to consult with that opposition, refuses to bring them into the decision making process.decision making process.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Iraq vet to speak in Saratoga on Saturday morning

I received this release in my email recently:


A Dialogue on War, Survival, and Recovery

Saratoga Springs welcomes Iraq veteran and former Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey along with psychotherapist Edward Tick to the Saratoga Public Library Community Room Saturday, April 22, from 9:30 to 11:30 am for a public conversation on war, survival, and recovery. The discussion will focus on how modern war affects members of the armed services, vets, their families, and civilians.

Massey, a 12 year marine veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD and given an honorable medical discharge after participating in the invasion of Baghdad during April and May of 2003. An ardent defender of the constitution, Jimmy became disillusioned with the occupation when he witnessed the killing of innocent civilians. "One minute you’re passing out candy to a little kid, 10 minutes later you’re opening fire on a vehicle with women and children". Unable to reconcile this with his ideals for America, he went to superior officers with his concerns and was sent stateside. As part of his healing process he has been speaking about his experience in Iraq to groups and individuals across the US.

Dr. Edward Tick, a psychotherapist practicing in Albany, NY for over 30 years, specializes in work with survivors of severe trauma and violence, particularly combat war veterans. He is a nationally recognized expert on the psychological, spiritual, historical, and cultural aspects of war. An ordained interfaith minister, Dr Tick has also served as consultant to numerous community, church, and veterans organizations on the treatment of veterans and the training of staff for such work. Dr. Tick has authored a number of books, his most recent being "War and the Soul", published by Quest books. For more information on Dr Tick’s work call 463-1062 or go to www.mentorthesoul.com.

This event is free and open to the public and is sponsored by Veterans for Peace, which is establishing a chapter in Saratoga Springs, and Community Dialogues. For more information, contact Jim Fulmer at 583-7501, or Elliott Adams at 284-2048 or 441-2697.

Ohio compemplates Fugitive Preggers Act

South Dakota recently passed a controversial law banning abortion except if the life of the mother is at risk. This caused a huge uproar across the nation on this most divisive of domestic issues.

The policy of this blog is to not discuss the question of whether abortion should be legal. That is the only domestic topic I avoid. The legality of abortion is almost never discussed in a clear, level-headed way by advocates of any side. Shouting and rational discourse are antithetical. I avoid the Israeli-Palestinian issue for the exact same reason.

However, the Ohio legislature is consider a bill that is much more draconian than South Dakota's and has much broader implications outside the abortion realm.

A central Ohio paper reports that the Ohio bill would not only make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion. But it goes much further. It would also make it illegal for a woman to travel across state lines for an abortion.

Just when you think you are so cynical that nothing can astonish you, something astonishes you.

Is there any chance that such a provision would be constitutional? Does a state have the right to regulate what a citizen does in another state? Will anti-gay marriage states jail their citizens who go to Massachussetts or Vermont to get hitched? If a New York resident visits a casino in Connecticut and lights up a cigarette indoors, will he be slapped with a big, fat fine when he returns to the Empire State? If the Ohio bill is allowed, then all bets are off.

When I read of this provision, the thing that immediately came to mind was the Fugitive Slave Act.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fake news: it's not just for Jon Stewart anymore

There are three topics which get establishment media journalists all hot and bothered.

One is the myth of the liberal media, a fantasy so often repeated that some view it as self-evident.

One is blogs. The relationship between the mainstream media and the blogosphere should be seen as complementary, with each fulfilling a different role. But it's not surprising the watchdog bristles at being watched. As a result, too many mainstream media journalists view blogs with thinly veiled contempt. And many bloggers return the favor. It need not be that way.

But those are topics for another day.

The other issue mainstream media journalists, especially older ones, bemoan is how much young people rely on comedian Jon Stewart (in the past, it was David Letterman) for their news content. Stewart is the host of the Daily Show, a wildly popular (and excellent) satirical show which is self-desrcribed as 'fake news.'

They fume with their most self-righteous indignation about how this development signals the imminent collapse of the Republic. Of course, this is easier to do than asking WHY young people are ignoring the mainstream media for satirical TV shows, blogs, the Internet and other non-traditional news sources. This is easier than asking what those sources provide that establishment media outlets do not. Usually, grizzled media types will offer rationalizations about entertainment and attention span, excuses which are really more about not having to look in the mirror.

The fact of the matter is that blogs and the Internet raise issues that the mainstream media would prefer to ignore (see Monday's essay). Are these sources without fault? Absolutely not. But they provide points of view that the tightly controlled corporate media does not.

The fact of the matter is that Jon Stewart asks uncomfortable questions (albeit in a humorous way) about important issues that traditional reporters do not. In that sense, Stewart's news is more real than the real news.

Mainstream media journalists are first and foremost concerned with access. Asking uncomfortable questions can compromise that access. A few, like the gutsy Helen Thomas, are willing to risk it; most aren't.

Simply put, those in the alternative media may have far fewer resources but they have more freedom to take risks, more latitude to look for the real story.

But we're learning that the Daily Show hardly has a monopoly on fake news.

This piece from Alternet cites a new study by the Center for Media and Democracy. The study found found at least 77 TV stations around the country have aired corporate-sponsored video news releases over the past 10 months. The report accuses the TV stations of actively disguising the content, which has been paid for by companies like General Motors, Panasonic and Pfizer, to make it appear to be their own reporting.

[...]
The stations are scattered throughout 30 states and are affiliated with all of the major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. And many of the stations are owned by some of the country's largest media companies, including Clear Channel, News Corp, Viacom, the Tribune Co. and Sinclair Broadcast.

The study by the Center for Media and Democracy is called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed." The authors of the report charge that these TV stations actively disguise the corporate-sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting.


For all the huffing and puffing about the so-called 'Daily Show effect,' many traditional media outlets could learn a lot from the program. At least Stewart is ethical enough to admit that his news is fake.


Update: As one of my aquaintainces pointed out, "Those who are concerned that America's youth get's their news from this source are missing an important fact. Young people know that ALL news sources have an underlying agenda. Stewart is endearing because he tells us his agenda right off. That way he's more credible."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A McCourt running for governor

Sources have informed me that Malachy McCourt, brother of author Frank, is running for the Green Party's nomination for governor of New York. At least according to this piece which ran in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and many other non-New York papers.

According to the results a Google News search, over 50 newspapers ran the wire service story on McCourt's candidacy, which was made public in late March. In addition to Seattle, newspapers from places like Miami, Los Angeles, Nevada, North Dakota and Mississippi ran the story. But apparently only two dailies from New York state have done so, both in Long Island. In fact, more papers from Canada and Britain (one each) ran the story than did publications from upstate New York (zilch).

Since McCourt's progressive candidacy is likely to get almost no press coverage in the corporate media, New Yorkers who want to learn about more than just Democrat and Republican candidates may wish to check out his campaign website.

As a public service, this blog will continue to offer information about and links to campaigns run by non-Democrat and -Republican candidates ignored by the mainstream media.

Simulating the Beautiful Game

The Global Game, a good blog about the intersection of soccer and politics, had an interesting post about diving.

Diving, or 'simulation' according to the official jargon, is considered one of the worst plagues in the Beautiful Game.

It's interesting, though, that perceptions on diving often differ depending on the culture. In Britain, divers are angrily berated as cheaters and as unmanly; some suggest bringing back capital punishment just for them. The attitude is the same in British-influenced soccer cultures like the US and Australia.

There seems to be a more tolerant attitude toward simulation in Latin America and Southern Europe, where it seems to be excused as 'gamesmanship.' Maybe they realize that defenders have all the advantages. They can bump, grab, mug and shirt tug the forwards. But if a forward barely brushes against the arm hair of the goalkeeper, it's a 'foul'.

In that sense, it's a bit surprising that diving hasn't been embraced by America's win-at-all-costs sporting culture; destroying your body with steroids (and sending that message to kids) is ok but embarassing yourself by flopping on the ground is heinous?

I loathe diving. There's nothing more obnoxious than a forward collapsing to the ground and writhing in agony like he was shot 27 times merely because some fan in the upper deck sneezed... only to get up the instant he realizes the referee isn't buying it.

But I think that many soccer commentators and fans are so eager to decry simulation, that they forget about equally grave affronts to the sport. There is no way you can talk about diving without mentioning its evil Siamese twin: shirt pulling.

When you watch high level soccer, it's a miracle that anyone ever scores off a free kick or corner kick giving how much shirt grabbing takes place. Why is it that shirt pulling lauded as tight marking but diving is angrily condemned? They're both cheating.

There's a dirty little secret about diving: it's often the only way to get a legitimate foul called. 'Savvy' defenders know how to foul a player without getting caught. A little tug to the shirt or a little bump that maybe the ref can't see because of the angle or because his vision is blocked. If the forward doesn't go down, the ref doesn't know anything has happened. And even if the ref does see it, he often won't call it. Refs often conclude that if the player didn't fall down, what happened couldn't have been severe enough to blow the whistle.

In that situation, many forwards say to themselves, "I am truly getting fouled but falling down is the only way I can make sure a legitimate call gets noticed." Otherwise, the forward is punished for adhering to fair play.

I watched a Major League Soccer match last year. A defender bumped a forward who was running on to a through ball pass which would've given him a clear shot on goal. The forward stumbled but stayed on his feet and the ball went out of bounds. Amazingly, the ref still called the foul and awarded the attacking team a penalty kick.

It occurred to me that I don't think I'd ever seen that before. Sure, the foul was legitimate and the penalty deserved. But 95% of the time, the ref will not call a foul unless the player goes to ground, no matter how legitimate the infraction. When it comes to awarding a penalty kick, it's more like 99.99999%.

Soccer various governing bodies launch sporadic crackdowns on simulation. This usually consists of encouraging officials to give yellow cards (cautions) to divers. This results in a brief binge of cards, often for players simply falling down or stumbling due to the natural flow of play... something which is an infraction on neither player. It's not that hard to tell the difference between a diver and someone falling down accidentally, because the diver (after writhing in agony for several seconds) will immediately look to the ref and scream for the opponent to be given a card. Someone who fell down accidentally will get up immediately and try to find the ball. Yet this overzealous enforcement inevitably traps many of the latter. After this brief binge, things usually return to normal.

There is a better way, if the soccer braintrust could see the forest for the trees.

If we truly want to end diving, fans must demand that officials call legitimate fouls that don't result in a player falling down. If you want to discourage simulation, officials must not simply punish divers. They must reward those who engage in fair play by staying on their feet.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The secretary and her 'good friend' the ogre

Powerful countries often use high-minded rhetoric as a camouflage to justify decisions based solely on self-interest. This is not new. European colonialism was always justified with rationaliziations like 'The White Man's Burden' or 'la mission civilisatrice,' the civilizing mission. Those sounded a lot nobler than the more accurate 'Pillage of Asia's and Africa's natural resources via violence and forced labor.'

The US aggression against Iraq was no different. We were told it was about liberty, not about installing the beginnings of American economic dominance in the region. It was nicknamed 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' not 'Operation Seize the Oil' or 'Operation Dump the Guy Who Said Our President's Mama Wears Combat Boots.'

A noble pretense makes it a lot easier for people to swallow their doubts and get behind a war which they might consider dodgy. Even if 'pacification' becomes difficult, and they usually do in such colonial missions, the noble pretense allows people to say after the fact, "At least we meant well."

(Even though this self-delusion is morally untenable)

Yet, the noble pretense can become problematic: someone might take you seriously. They might not be aware that the noble pretense is meant as a one-time only deception rather than a universal rule. 'In this case...' undermines the strength of the noble pretense so it's usually omitted.

When someone does take your noble pretense seriously, it can make you look like a hypocrite. Those who subscribe to the noble pretense school typically denounce those who prefer realpolitik. But at least realpolitik isn't dishonest.

President Bush famously denounced the 'Axis of Evil' (according to him: Iran, Saddam's Iraq and North Korea). Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice added a collorary 'Outposts of Tyranny' which she identified as two remaining 'Axis of Evil' regimes along with Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Burma. Those six countries no doubt deserve condemnation for their lamentable human rights' records.

So it was thus interesting to read the blog of Foreign Policy magazine commenting on the recent meeting between Rice and the tyrant in charge of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Sec. Rice and her 'good friend' Obiang were to have a full set of discussions about [their] bilateral relationship, about some innovative social programs that USAID is involved with and about the range of regional issues that [they] both confront.

Parade magazine ranked Obiang as the world's tenth worst dictator. This is fairly generous as I'd put him in the top (er... bottom?) four.

I wonder if Equatorial Guinea's nightmarish human rights' record (which is significantly worse than Robert Mugabe's 'outpost of tyranny' but without the bluster) was part of the talks. Given the country's position as one of Africa's emerging oil exporters, I doubt the set of discussions between the secretary and her 'good friend' were that 'full.'


(Interestingly, the FP piece noted that while the mainstream media ignored the meeting between one of America's top diplomat and one of the world's worst dictators, the blogosphere, so often derided by self-described serious journalists, was right on top of the story. This demonstrates yet again that the mainstream media only follows foreign stories according to the administration of the day's priorities. Accordingly, in the press conference preceding the Rice-Obiang tete-a-tete, journalists asked questions about Iran but not a single one about Equatorial Guinea. They probably didn't have a clue where Equatorial Guinea is, let alone the fact that they were standing before one of the world's worst dictators.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Who designed this schedule?

So many parents freak out about trying to make sure their kids 'keep up with the Joneses.' You even read stories about parents paying Ivy League amounts to send their kids to the 'right' pre-school for crying out loud. Parents are told to play Mozart to their fetuses. If a kid's not reading War and Peace by 1st grade, he's slapped (and it's a 'he' more often that not) with ADD or some other learning disability and pressured to get up to speed.

Now, a study shows that parents ought to just relax.

Truly smart children, despite their reputation for being ahead of their peers mentally, actually lag behind other kids in development of the "thinking" part of the brain, a new study reports.

The brain's outer mantle, or cortex, gets thicker, then thins during childhood and the teen years. The study said that in kids with superior intelligence, the cortex reaches its thickest stage a few years later than in other children.


So this begs the question: if smarter kids lag 'behind schedule' developmentally, maybe the 'schedule' of expectations needs to be revised.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The GOP's greater good

An interesting quote from this Reuters article caught my eye. The piece dealt with a proposal in Congress to allow Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert urged Congress on Thursday to pass a deal that would allow Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization, saying the "greater good" outweighed human rights concerns.
Hastert told reporters on a three-day visit to Vietnam that some members would put religious and human rights constraints on any trade bill.

"But in the long run for the greater good it is important for us to pass this legislation," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican who led a delegation of House members to Hanoi to meet government leaders.


For all the GOP's self-righteous, messianic yammering about 'freedom and liberty,' this incident demonstrates that when push comes to shove, trade will always trump those virtues. Informed observers knew that Republicans would never consider human rights to be a 'greater good'; Speaker Hastert was just gauche enough to admit it explicitly.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Big Story

In my office, there are a couple TVs on the wall, one of which is always tuned to Fox News [sic]. I was just walking by one of them a few days and it was the Fox show The Big Story. So what was their big story? Their most important issue of the day? Key developments in Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program? The apparent center-left victory in the Italian elections? Repression in Nepal? How about the immigration so-called issue, something perfectly in line with Fox's trademark fear mongering?

No. Their lead story, the most important issue of the day in their esteemed editorial judgement, was about the Duke lacrosse team.

Then again, this is the 'fair and balanced' network where one of their anchors unashamedly referred to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as 'our guy'... in a purported NEWS segment.

It would be easy to bash Fox for something like this; Lord knows they deserve it. However, it would be a mistake to think that such inanity is limited to Rupert Murdoch's channel.

This is symbolic of everything that's wrong with cable so-called news channels: the obsession with flash, pizazz and sex. They give blanket coverage to things that, when not downright trite, are really micro-stories that merit barely more than a few seconds on a national television channel.

Chandra Levy. JonBenet Ramsey. Elizabeth Smart. That girl in Alabama who was abducted in the Carribbean. I spent a few seconds humanely hoping they'd all return safe and sound. But did I care enough to watch hours and hours of tedious, repetitive, redundant, n... e... v... e... r... e... n...d...i...n...g... coverage? No.

It would be perfectly reasonable for channels local to those areas to give those stories a lot of play. It would've been fine to do a story or two on national television. But do we really need hours, days and weeks of saturation NATIONAL 'news' coverage for every photogenic white girl that gets kidnapped? For every bunch of spoiled rich college athletes who behave badly? The 'respectable' news media establishment looks their noses down on the trailer trash appeal of Jerry Springer, pro wrestling and The New York Post. But is cable news really that different?

When the cable news era exploded, there was great promise. Civic-minded folks hoped that it would mark a new dawn in serious journalism, not restricted to the tight 22 minute format of the evening news or the once a week format of 60 Minutes. But now that the news media is dominated by gigantic entertainment corporations, it's no surprise that the line between news and entertainment on television has all but vanished. It's no surprise that 24 hour 'news' channels are suffocated by vapid, meaningless pap.

Local newspapers are little better. On April 5, readers of the Glens Falls Post-Star were titilated with a non-story about renters who seek roommates interested 'sex and light office duty.' From a wire service and about San Francisco, despite the daily's indignant pretentions that it focuses on local issues. Surprisingly, no drool towel was inserted in the paper for the readers' benefit. While this voyeuristic tabloidism adorned the front page, a tiny snipet about one of the northeast's largest states (neighboring Massachussetts) adopting a universal health insurance program merited only four sentences... on page two... just above an equally sized list of pop stars on postage stamps. I don't dispute the presence of fluff in newspapers; it just needs to be prioritized appropriately.

We no longer feed humans to lions in order to numb the masses. The Bill O'Reillys, Larry Kings and Geraldo Riveras serve that purpose just fine.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Third term for Nigeria's president: recipe for a failed state?

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Nigeria has been controversially described by some as the world's largest failed state. While it hasn't descended into total anarchy yet, if Nigeria were to collapse completely, it would be far worse than Somalia. And, it has been argued, worse than Iraq. That it's one of the leading exporters of oil to the United States keeps it on the radar screen of the foreign policy establishment in Washington. That northern Nigeria has only significant presence of radicalized Islam in sub-Saharan Africa does as well.

While the country's artificial construct, arbitrarily pieced together by British colonialists, hasn't helped, Nigeria's downfall since independence has varied from the merely inept and corrupt to the brutal and hugely corrupt.

This article in The Atlantic described the myriad of woes facing one of Africa's most economically and politically important countries.

Chief among the country's current woes is corruption. During the last twenty-five years, Nigeria earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues—but annual per capita income plummeted from $1,000 to $390. More than two-thirds of the population lives beneath the poverty line, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. The country's elites bear most of the blame. Since Nigeria gained independence, in 1960, its rulers—military and civilian alike—have systematically squandered or stolen some $400 billion in government money. According to a 2004 World Bank report, 80 percent of the country's oil wealth accrues to 1 percent of the population. As the journalist Karl Maier, whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."

In 1999, Olesegun Obasanjo was elected president of the federal republic. Though he was a former military ruler from the late 1970s (when he handed off to a democratically-elected civilian regime), he was viewed as a great democrat. He had been imprisoned for criticizing the nightmarish tyranny of Gen. Sani Abacha. He had even been a serious candidate to be the UN's secretary-general. As someone with democratic credentials AND ties to the military, he was seen as the ideal candidate to occupy the poisoned chalice that is the Nigerian presidency (he is already the country's longest serving democratically-elected leader).

Hoping to move on from the singular horror that was Abacha's rule, Obasanjo's inauguration was greeted by widespread national and international acclaim. He was re-elected in 2003.

Next month, Obasanjo will begin the final year of what should have been his final term in office. The constitution limits the president to two mandates.

However, there has been a fairly transparent campaign by Obasanjo's sycophants to remove this two-term limit and make him president-for-life.

(It's worth noting that the proposed constitutional change would also scrap the two-term limit for state governors)

Pres. Obasanjo has categorically refused to say he won't under any circumstances run for a third term. He's maintained the charade of saying he'll do whatever 'the people' (ie: his sycophants) want but no one believes this. He could easily have extinguished this dangerous course by saying he will retire in 2007 no matter what. But he didn't.

Olesegun Obasanjo will have served eight years as president of Nigeria. If he has done such a great job, he doesn't need four more years. If he has done a poor job, then he doesn't deserve four more years.

And frankly, his first two terms have been underwhelming. As the Atlantic article pointed out:

Nigeria appears to be de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands. Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or given a knife jab in the shoulder.

And while the hell that is Lagos is hardly representative of the country as a whole, urban jungles usually aren't, its dysfunction is very symbolic. As I learned when I lived in West Africa myself, infrastructure that's un- or under-maintained is far, far worse than no infrastructure at all. (This is why people in the countryside are generally much more self-sufficient than those in the cities)

And essentially, this is the worst thing about the third-term nonsense. Nigeria has many serious problems. Every minute wasted on arguing whether Obansajo should be crowned an emperor is a minute not spent on figuring out how to combat corruption, fight crime or pacify the folks in the Niger Delta. It's a huge distraction which isn't merely benign, but potentially ruinous.

The worst despotisms arise not from more mild dictatorships but from failed democratic experiments. Hitler's Third Reich did not arise immediately from the ashes of the Kaiser but from the weak Weimar experiment; Franco's from the undermined Spanish Republic. Côte d'Ivoire is a ways down that same path.

Authoritarian regimes, for their many faults, are often able to keep a lid on ethnic, nationalist and/or religious tension by sheer brutality. Democracies are generally less reliant on force. So if the political system is weak and politicians venal, democracies can exacerbate divisions rather than unite a country. Yugoslavs found that out in the early 90s; Iraqis are finding that out today.

Nigeria is a very fragile democracy and, critically, has weak institutions. At least civilian ones. The worst thing for developing strong institutions is to build a cult of personality around the singular Leader. If Obasanjo is allowed to become president-for-life, this is exactly what will happen. I've always said that the best thing Nelson Mandela did for South African democracy was to NOT allow himself to become president-for-life, to eschew the cult of personality trap that is building up around Obasanjo.

The situation in neighboring Republic of Benin is much different. That country's leader, Gen. Mathieu Kérékou, had ruled the country for 30 of the last 34 years. He was barred by the constitution to run in this year's election both because of term limits and because of an age limit. Yet rather than manipulating the constitution to ensure him staying in power until death, he did a funny thing: he announced his retirement. He could've forced through constitutional changes (or told or allowed his sycophants to do the same). But he didn't.

Instead, the well-qualified Dr. Yayi Boni was decisively elected as the new president of Benin and was sworn in last week to succeed Kérékou.

It wasn't the first time Kérékou had decided to put the best interests of the nation first. In the late 80s, after having been military ruler for a decade and a half, he appointed a national conference, made it sovereign and saw it strip him of many of his powers. When the ensuing presidential elections were held in 1991, he could've rigged them to ensure victory, but he lost and peacefully handed over to his bitter rival. (In 1996, he beat that same rival who also handed over without rancor after choosing not to rig the results)

Many of his countrymen think Pres. Obasanjo could learn a lot from Nigeria's tiny neighbor. Not coincidentally, no fears Benin will become the next failed state.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Local schools buying locally produced food

It's not news that huge agrobusiness and largely crappy processed foods dominate our dinner plates and lunch bags. But developments in Vermont are hoping to make a small dent into that trend.

A Vermont Public Radio commentator reports:

In 2002-2003, schools in Vermont spent thirteen million dollars on food, yet less than five percent went for direct purchase of produce from local farms. Since then, programs to connect local farms to school cafeterias and classrooms to farms have begun to increase. Recent efforts have demonstrated that when children and food service personnel have relationships with local farmers and producers they are more likely to try new foods and use fresh and less-processed foods.

[...]

The main thrust of the programs is to provide fresh, local food to school kitchens. In Alburgh, Jennifer Mitchell, the school's kitchen manager, set up taste tests as part of FEED [the Food-to-Education-EveryDay program]. She tried different grains - brown rice, millet, and barley - and fresh local vegetables, including green and purple cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower; fresh fruits; and various kinds of beans. Ever hear of millet and vegetable salad? In Orange, the students created a daily healthy snack menu - from banana nut muffins to smoothies - and apples with peanut butter to veggie sticks with ranch dip.

The Starksboro school built gardens and planted garlic in the fall. The garlic was used the following September in the cafeteria, with more vegetables planted in the spring.

[...]

Bringing locally grown foods into the schools benefits the local economy. Farmers who work with the schools are able to extend the growing season, have outlets for their surplus and a way to sell produce that has surface blemishes but is perfectly nutritious. Healthy nutrition needs to start early, so that by the time the young ones reach their teens they will be making wise food choices.


The overwhelming majority of upstate and northern New York is farm country. Wouldn't it be nice if local schools implemented a similar program?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Sticks and stones...

A few weeks ago, there was an anti-war rally in my town to mark the 3rd anniversary of the launching of the aggression against Iraq. Our local daily ran a story on and photo of the rally. I was at the rally, but not in the photo. A few days later, a woman wrote a letter blasting the protesters for protesting and the paper for supposedly glorifying them. According to her, protesters were undermining troop morale. She said that we would’ve lost World War II if people had acted like this and added, bizarrely, that ‘loose lips sink ships’ as though that had anything to do with the price of tea in China. This woman was hardly the first person to propagate the insidious lie that critics of the president or of the war were giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Normally I would’ve brushed it off since I rarely write letters to the local paper about national or international issues, but something in me decided that enough was enough and I felt that someone needed to counter this nonsense.

We’re told our soldiers are tough men and women of such strength and courage that they will vanquish the Evildoers. Yet we’re supposed to believe that these same valliant warriors with the internal fortitude crush the enemies of Civilization will be seized by uncontrolled anguish just because Joe Six Pack in East Podunk says that Mr. Bush is not a very good president. Is this the absolute height of absurdity?

And frankly, if you're over in Iraq facing the constant threat of homicide bombs or dodging sniper fire, Joe Six Pack's opinion is probably pretty low on your list of worries.

I actually received a phone call from a reader about my letter. This man told me of how he was injured during World War II and how seven other men in his group were killed and how he was hospitalized for years afterward. He talked about how we shouldn’t go to war for any old reason, only when it's just. He said he agreed with my letter ‘not one-hundred percent but one-thousand percent.’ I’m flattered he took the time to call me. I hope he writes a letter too.



Editor:
(Woman’s) letter of March 24 reminds us that threats to our freedom are not only found abroad.

If nobody protested during World War II, it's because most Americans thought the war was just. Support for the Iraq aggression is collapsing because many Americans are finally realizing that it is an unjust war.

It’s disgraceful for (woman) to suggest that anti-war rallies give aid and comfort to the terrorists. That we can protest is what distinguishes us from Belarus, North Korea or Saddam's Iraq. Those regimes demonize dissent as unpatriotic, just like (woman).

Terrorists don’t understand that protests are part of what makes democracy strong. That ideas are subjected to public scrunity. It's sickening for her to suggest that in spreading freedom elsewhere we should suspend it at home.

Perhaps, she is merely confused. She speaks of military obedience. But, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, NOT commander-in-chief of the entire country. If ordinary citizens think the president is pursuing misguided, reckless policies that make us less safe, they have a duty to speak out.

(Woman), our soldiers are not fragile flowers who will dissolve into tears should anyone criticize their commander-in-chief. They are men and women of integrity and internal fortitude who take seriously the oath they swore to uphold our Constitution.

A (newspaper) article earlier this month contended that morale in the Iraq theater was holding steady. This demonstrates that our troops are more mature than (woman) gives them credit for. Most soldiers seem to understand that the protesters are merely exercising the freedoms that we are told make this country so great, even if some disagree with them.

I'm glad this country's Founding Fathers rejected her contention that dissent is unpatriotic or else we'd still be singing God Save the Queen.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Slick George’s fishing for leaks

President Bush has been in hot water for much of the last year. The most recent scandal of the week has to do with allegations by the vice-president’s former chief of staff that the president authorized underlings to leak classified information in order to discredit critics.

It’s been argued that what the president did is not illegal. It’s been argued that since the president decides what is classified, if he allows the leak of something, then he’s implicitly de-classifying it. It’s a bit of a shaky argument. I profess to being unsure of what the laws of classified information are but somehow, I imagine there’s a bit more required than the president ok’ing a leak to a newspaper columnist. I could be wrong, though.

It’s even been argued that this was a ‘good leak’ (such as by a Washington Post editorial).

But it certainly opens him up to accusations of hypocrisy, which perhaps the administration is used to by now but the public is tiring of. The shiftiness seems almost to evoke President Clinton’s infamous lines “It depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The guy was trying to get off on a technicality. Maybe we need to wait for President Bush to receive oral sex before he is finally held accountable.

"I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information," Bush told reporters in Chicago when asked about leaks on Sept. 30, 2003. "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action. There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of.", noted The Chicago Tribune.

Now if the president did really authorize the leak (and the administration has so far refused to deny this) before he was implicitly denying so, then the bald-face deception is stunning, even by this administration’s standards.

The way the president and his advisors handled the affair is a de facto admission of culpability. They know they’re guilty as sin. Maybe not legally, but they know that morally (snicker), they haven’t a leg to stand on.

Think about it.

The president has so far refused to comment on the allegations by the vice-president’s chief of staff. The president’s spokesman as well as some of his apologists have said the president not only had the right to leak the information but was right to do so. They argue that the de-classified information served to better inform the public and clear up alleged misconceptions about the reasons for going to war.

Let’s forget for a moment about releasing information for the purpose of personally smearing a critic. Let’s forget that outing a CIA agent was something President Bush’s father, a former CIA director himself, once called ‘treason. Let’s assume for a second that this assertion is reasonable. If so, then great! This administration is the most secretive administration in the history of the Republic. Any time they actually want to release information, it’s an astonishing but pleasant surprise.

But if the stated purpose of releasing this information was to better inform the public about the president’s rationale for launching the invasion of Iraq, why didn’t the president or his spokesman or one of his cabinet officials stand before the media and release that information directly? Or when asked back in 2003, why didn’t the president just say, “Yes, I authorized the leak because I believed it in the public interest.”

That it was done by a secret leak where the leaker initially only released the information based on a pledge of confidentiality shows that the administration KNEW they were do something slimy and didn’t want to get caught.

Friday, April 07, 2006

US aid to feed almost 2,000,000 East Africans

There has been widespread domestic and international criticism (including by yours truly) of the United States because of its foreign policy. And while American foreign policy has always had some objectionable elements, criticism of it has reached unprecedented levels under the present administration.

But while I don't have numbers in front of me, I believe the US is the most generous donor of humanitarian emergency aid and one of the most generous donors of international development aid in the world.

I read yesterday that the US government pledged $92 million to food relief efforts in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa. That represents almost 30 percent of the World Food Program's appeal for the region where it estimates over 6 million East Africans will need food assistance. A single country filling almost 1/3 of the appeal.

And unlike in Iraq where our money is being used to clean up the mess



While the Iraq aggression will be rightly excoriated in the international press, will this pledge to fund the feeding of almost TWO MILLION PEOPLE merit even a blurb? Basic fairness dictates it should be at least briefly mentioned, but I'd be shocked if it were even a tiny blip on the radar.

The pledge is even more timely since it came the same week as UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland's complaint about how international appeals are consistently and grossly underfunded... especially if there are no western television crews in the affected areas.

In some cases, US aid comes with such onerous strings attached as to make it pointless or even counterproductive, as does aid from most donor countries. However, in many cases, the aid saves the lives of thousands or millions of real people.

Generous American aid does not absolve the US government of guilt for its active malfeasance or the US citizenry for going along with it (usually passively; sometimes actively, such as in Iraq). Nor should it be used as an excuse to sweep under the rug broad structural deficiences in the international system defended by the US and other western countries that perpetuate poverty in the first place. However, basic fairness dictates that stuff like this not be ignored as part of the equation

Suggestions

It's easy to get into a bit of a rut commenting on breaking news stories. However, at some point probably this month I am going to take a week-long break from this daily grind and offer a broader look at a handful of big issues that are having a serious impact on millions of people around the world. A few that I already have in mind are:

-The small arms trade
-Child soldiers
-Humanitarian workers and civilians as intentional targets in 'modern' wars

The first two are definite. The third is a possibility.

However, I'd like to do six or seven in that week. So if any readers have issues they'd like to suggest I study and write about, please leave a comment for me to take into consideration. Bear in mind I'm looking for issues to explore, not a particular conflict to focus on.

Thanks.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

When 'Never Again' happened again

Though I normally only post one article a day, I would be remiss if I let this pass by without mention.

Today is the 12th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide during which at least 800,000 people were murdered. It was one of the world's worst atrocities of the century and certainly the worst to be covered during the age of cable news television. It occured a year, almost to the week, after politicians and dignitaries in Washington solemnly promised 'Never again' while inaugurating the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2004, I wrote a long series of essays on the occasion of the 10th anniversary which gave a lot of information and background about the genocide.

They are as follows (yes, I know the images do not work):

-Ten years later (an intro)
-Pre-genocide history
-How the genocide unfolded
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 1)
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 2)
-The genocide's orphans
-Hate media and their role in the genocide
-International law and American law on genocide
-Post-genocide justice
-The post-genocide government
-Lessons and conclusions

What conflict is three times more deadly for civilians than Iraq?

While much of the North American and European left is (rightly) outraged over the US aggression against Iraq and the chaos it's provoked, spare a few thoughts for a conflict whose violent death rate is THREE TIMES higher than that of Iraq.

No, it's not Palestine or Chechnya or Tibet or any conflict more fashionable with the European literati or Hollywood glitterati. It's the long, brutal war in northern Uganda.

As The East African weekly reported:

A report issued by a coalition of over 50 leading non-governmental organisations, Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda (CSOPNU), reveals new facts and figures showing the brutal impact of the conflict on the civilian population between government forces and those of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
The report describes northern Uganda as a catastrophe fuelled by terrible acts of war and violence and by a shameful litany of failure. It also shows the continuing failure of the LRA to cease its brutal campaign of violence against civilians, and the failure of both the government and the international community to uphold their legal obligations to secure the protection, security, and peace of the civilians of northern Uganda.


The northern Ugandan rebels was one of the first groups to systematically employ child soldiers as a conscious 'military' tactic. (And by 'child,' I don't mean 16 and 17 year olds but kids who are often 12 or younger)

As if to demonstrate why peace and security and prerequisites to any serious economic development:

The report, Counting the Cost: 20 years of war in northern Uganda, estimates the devastating economic cost of the war at $1.7 billion over the course of the past two decades. This is equivalent to the total US aid to Uganda between 1994 and 2002.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A history of regime change

I heard a great interview on the NPR show Fresh Air with Stephen Kinzer, author of the book Overthrow : America's Century Of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq. Kinzer notes that the US policy of regime change to advance the economic interests of American corporations did not begin with the recent aggression against Iraq.

It started back in the early 1893, when a US-backed coup overthrow the monarchy of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii. The queen was replaced by a regime backed by US sugar interests who wanted Hawaii integrated into the United States so as to avoid having to face American tariffs on their exports. Hawaii was annexed in 1898.

1898 was the same year as the conflict considered by most to America's first true imperial excursion: the Spanish-American War. Though argue that such tendencies date further back to the various conflicts with Mexico and even as far back as the Barbary Wars of the late 1790s. (Thus the beginning of the Marine hymn, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.")

Knizer notes that in the last 110 years, the US has used force to impose 14 separate 'regime changes' in various parts of the world. Almost all for primarily economic reasons, even if ideological and pseudo-moral pretexts were offered as a smokescreen. And most of them turned out badly, both for the country in question and for America's prestige and security.

Not surprisingly, he points out that these interventions are remembered much more vividly in the affected countries than in this country. (Do you think 5 percent of Americans could tell you who Mossadegh was?) This lack of institutional memory is why different US administrations continue to make the same errors repeatedly even though previous regime changes have a miserable history.

He also brings up a point I've mentioned before. So often, especially during the Cold War, paranoid American officials were consistently unable to (or refused to) distinguish between nationalism and communism.

The US government has consistently been unable to countenance democratic governments who act in their countries' interests instead of ours. (The whole definition of 'national interests' is another topic). Thus, the French are 'cheese eating surrender monkeys' and now the Iraqis have become 'ingrates.'

One of the most infamous examples involved the most mythologized of African fathers of independence: Congo's Patrice Lumumba. He opposed foreign domination, be it by the Belgians, Americans, French or Soviets. But because he wouldn't kowtow to American or western wishes, he was labelled a communist. The CIA engineered a coup to overthrow him and he was murdered under mysterious circumstances.

There was one little problem: Lumumba was not a communist. It's not just me or his mythologizers who say this. In her excellent book In The Footsteps Of Mr Kurtz, journalist Michela Wrong interviewed the CIA station chief in the Congolese capital (then called Leopoldville). Even the CIA station chief admitted that Lumumba was not a communist. His nationalist rhetoric had just unleashed forces beyond his control.

Then there was the case of another African independence leader: Ghana's Kwame N'Krumah. N'Krumah, too, was a nationalist not a communist. He originally appealed to the US and Britain for help in developing his poor country. They hesitated and hemmed and hawwed. So, he asked the Soviet Union and they eagerly filled the void. Thus, N'Krumah quickly became labelled a 'communist.' N'Krumah was British educated and of a temperment predisposed to staying within the western sphere of influence. But as a nationalist, he wanted to improve his country. The US and Britain wouldn't help him do that; the Soviets did. The choice was simple for him. He was overthrown in a 1966 coup which many believe had the CIA's fingerprints on (in fairness, by then, he'd become an isolated cult-of-personality dictator ruling by arbitrary decree).

Some ostriches delude themselves into believing that anti-Americanism must rise out of nothing and that hostility toward the US government never has any basis in historical or current fact. Any grievances against US foreign policy are always illegitimate and must have been formulated by agitators and troublemakers. In some cases, that's true; in most cases, it's not. This should be a concern to all Americans because it is not poverty, but resentment that fuels terrorism.

It's thus no coindence that whenever the US meddles in a region of the world, anti-Americanism erupts. Such sentiment has always been hot in Latin America since that's where the US has meddled most. It was hottest in the 1970s and 80s as US interference has reached its zenith. The sentiment has exploded in the Middle East in the last few years, coinciding with the aggression against Iraq. By contrast, West Africa has been largely immune from US chest-beating and America is generally well-regarded there.

Whether the CIA was actually involved and to what degree in the overthrows of Lumumba and N'Krumah is a matter of much historical debate. That CIA complicity in these two coups is almost universally accepted amongst Africans is a testament to the corrosive impact of a belligerent foreign policy on America's international prestige. Even when the US government may not be guilty of meddling and interference, it is widely assumed that it is.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Concrete benefits of debt cancellation

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.


I've always argued in favor of debt cancellation for African countries. I had no problem with the proviso that any country receiving such a cancellation should not be offered future loans, at least for a certain period of time. The money spent on repaying the debt and interest being repaid to the International Monetary Fund would be better served on improving such things as education, health care and infrastructure construction (and importantly, infrastructure maintenance), perhaps even microcredit projects.

Some argued that any such debt cancellation would be a waste of money because all African governments are irredeemably corrupt. They did so even though provisions could be quite easily added to the debt cancellation agreement between the country and the IMF so as to ensure that such savings were used for legitimate and dually agreed purposes. It's important not to take everything at face value. But there's an enormous difference between healthy skepticism and corrosive cynicism.

Most of these debts were granted to dictatorships. It's important to give to emerging African democracies the benefit of the doubt, even as you limit their room for future screwups. If the regimes steal the money or fall victim to cronyism, just shut off the tap immediately. If this had been done during the Cold War to the Mobutu regime or other dictatorships, these countries would never had accrued such enormous debts in the first place.

Cheap cycnism about debt cancellation is quite easy, but trying to improve things requires a little more persistence. Oxfam reports on how things can unfold if given the chance.

User fees were introduced in Zambia under IMF and World Bank pressure in the early 1990s, back when the two institutions were pressuring every country it could to adopt homogeneous neoliberal economic policies conceived in Washington and London without any regard for local specificities. Fortunately, the Zambian government finally reversed this disaster after the G8 countries erased about 40 percent of its debt.

The government of Zambia [last week] introduced free health care for people living in rural areas, scrapping fees which for years had made health care inaccessible for millions.
The move was made possible using money from the debt cancellation and aid increases agreed at the G8 in Gleneagles [Britain] last July, when Zambia received $4 billion of debt relief; money it is now investing in health and education.

[...]

Until today the average trip to a clinic would have cost more than double that amount, the equivalent of [an American worker having to pay $210] just to visit a clinic.


Zambia's national income is only $900 per person per year.

Zambia's per capita debt (before the debt relief) was $913 per person per year.

Bravo to the Zambian government! But imagine what the country could do for its people if most or all of the other 60 percent were forgiven.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Unlike his victims, Taylor gets his day in court

Today, vile scum Charles Taylor will appear before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone to answer his indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

(Regular readers of this blog will know that I've taken a special interest in this case because I personally have friends and aquaintances who lost relatives, homes and liveliehoods because of Taylor's terrorists. So when I call him 'vile scum,' I make no apologies for the ad hominem)


The BBC reports that the charges against him are as follows:

(abbreviations: WC=war crimes; CAH=crimes against humanity; VIHL=other serious violations of international humanitarian law)


Terrorising the civilian population and collective punishments
1 Acts of terrorism (WC)

Unlawful killings

2 Murder (CAH)

3 Violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder (WC)

Sexual violence

4 Rape (CAH)

5 Sexual slavery and any other form of sexual violence (CAH)

6 Outrages upon personal dignity (WC)

Physical violence

7 Violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular cruel treatment (WC)

8 Other inhumane acts (CAH)

Use of child soldiers

9 Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities (VIHL)

Abductions and forced labour

10 Enslavement (CAH)

Looting

11 Pillage (WC)



Some are upset about suggestions that the Taylor trial be moved to The Hague. Some blame this on 'western interference.' However, it was the president of Liberia herself, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, that made that request, calling the Dutch-based court 'more conducive.'

Some people would've preferred Taylor be allowed to remain in exile and impunity in Nigeria so as to 'ensure the peace' of Liberia. This was a false choice. Pres. Sirleaf said that the decision to extradite Taylor was a 'hard decision which ensures the long-term safety of the Liberian people and the security of the state.'

As if to underscore the CONTINUING menace represented by Taylor to the nation he once terrorized more directly, Liberian state security arrested a number of former Taylor generals following reports (admittedly by a one-time rival of Taylor) of an alleged plan to destabilize the government.

Some complain that Pres. Sirleaf was forced into calling for Taylor's extradition only because of pressure from the Bush administration, saying that future badly needed development aid was linked to justice for Taylor. Some argue that while Taylor's extradition was a good thing, the way in which it was forced upon her was tawdry. I tend to see a different view.

As rarely as I agree with the Bush administration, they were right on this one (it was bound to happen eventually). I suspect that Pres. Sirleaf wanted to extradite Taylor from the beginning. After all, she and her supporters were long harassed by Dictator Taylor; in fact, she might well have won the presidency back in 1997 had Taylor not blackmailed the country into choosing him ('vote for me or I'll take the country back to war'). I suspect she wanted to extradite Taylor anyway because of this and because of the continuing threat he represented to the country but she couldn't because Taylor still had strong influence on the Liberian political scene. My guess is that she secretly appreciated the public pressure from the Bush administration because it deflected a lot of the heat that would otherwise have been directed at the new president of a fragile government.

Some complain that the big, bad international community (ie: the evil west who is responsible for 110 percent of Africa's problems) is picking on the former Liberian saint. Why are they picking on poor, innocent Taylor when there are so many other people who did bad things during those wars? For one thing, a court can not prosecute everybody at once. And it makes only sense to start with the most culpable, with the leaders.

Some complain that the Special Court is going after only Taylor, and thus it amounts to 'victors' justice.' This is simply not true. The Special Court has 11 people; 2 of whom are now dead, 1 of whom is still at large and the rest of whom are in custody. Victors' justice? The first person to stand trial was not a rebel, but Sam Hinga Norman, the leader of a PRO-government Sierra Leone militia. His trial is controversial since many in Sierra Leone see him as a patriot and a war hero for combatting the hideous RUF rebels.

And just what exactly did Taylor do to become the world's worst war criminal? The Associated Press' West Africa correspondent during the early 1990s offers her memories. This is but a mere sample of the madness provoked by Taylor's megalomania.

This article from TIME magazine's archive's offers another perspective.

Update: A Liberian woman writing in The New York Times offers her memories of when Taylor's homicidal goons kidnapped her sister. The title of the piece says it all: A Story in Which Only the Happy Ending Is Unusual .