Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The death of a storyteller

The Global Game blog commented on an event I somehow missed: the death of the Ryszard Kapuściński. Kapuściński was one of the world's great storytellers. He wasn't worried about neutrality (sometimes mislabelled objectivity). He wasn't a practitioner of transcription journalism (which is barely journalism at all). He simply followed a story wherever it led him.

Kapuściński's books all make for fantastic reading and are each illuminating in some way. I've read three: The Soccer War, The Shadow of the Sun and Another Day of Life. The first two are disparate collections of reportage while the third is accounts of life in Angola around the time of the country's independence in 1975. Other well-known books of his are Imperium about the demise of the Soviet Union, The Emperor about life in Halie Selaisse's Ethiopia and Shah of Shahs about Iran's last emperor.

Of them, The Shadow of the Sun is my favorite. Its reportages deal entirely with Africa. It offers a portrait of a continent far more nuanced than that portrayed in the mainstream western media. This is due to Kapuściński's style.

Most modern reporters who are primarily concerned with access. Interview a president, interview an opposition politician, through in a pinch of NGO analysis, stir and serve cold. Most western news organizations only cover Africa when there's a crisis. Their journalists fly in, talk to a few head honchos, portray a few of the most desperate people to illustrate the tragic situation (anit can't be uplifting or even nuanced; it's Africa after all) and then fly out as soon as the immediate crisis is over.

The good journalists don't limit themselves to presidents and cabinet ministers and rebel leaders. The best ones tell the story of how current events affect the lives not of the political elites but of the ordinary people. This is the journalism that is truly compelling. But this takes time. And even if they have the journalists with such skills, most news organizations today won't give them the time to produce such meaningful, nuanced work. Big corporate journalism was supposed to liberate reporters by giving them the resources to do stuff like this. Instead, it's made editors and publishers slaves to always increasing profits for stockholders. Tabloid journalism does this more quickly than worthwhile journalism.

Kapuściński was able to do practice substantive journalism and we are the better for it. With his passing, Radio Netherlands' Eric Beauchemin is probably the best practioner of this art: journalism as storytelling. Kapuściński will be missed.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Negotiating the trade seas

Commerce has always been the foundation of international affairs. Most transnational diplomacy is centered around trade. Most wars have to do with access to resources.

European colonialism in Asia and Africa was not about 'the white man's burden' of civilizing the barbarians. It was about improving commercial prospects and access to free or cheap (thanks to forced labor) raw materials for European merchants. Leopold didn't have the Congo raped for his health, you know.

The US government didn't invade Iraq to impose democracy or fight terrorism. It invaded to improve prospects for US companies in the region. Of course, it backfired thanks to the unanticipated (by the Bush administration, not by sensible people) chaos it caused. But still, the government has already spent over $362 billion on Iraq. You can bet your bottom dollar that most of that money ended up in the pockets not of GIs but of corporations. No bonus points for guessing which country's companies got the lion's share of the booty.

In fact, the very first war fought by the independent United States (and most subsequent wars for that matter) was commercial: against the Barbary pirates who were harassing American ships in the Mediterrannean.

The US had no diplomatic relations with China from the time it turned communist in 1949 until the 1970s. But in the last two decades, relations between China and the US have gotten much closer. China remains a repressive dictatorship, but is essentially no longer communist. Iran is also a repressive non-communist dictatorship.

How come US-Chinese relations are comfortable while US-Iranian relations are cold? One has trade at its heart and one does not. Only when trade is not important to a bilateral relationship do other factors like democracy, human rights and the like come into play, almost always as a bludgeon.

This is why the US government relentlessly attacks Iran and North Korea, with whom it has virtually no commercial relationship, but remains allied with comparably dubious regimes like Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, both of whom have key oil reserves. This is why George W. Bush and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez may trade barbs from now until eternity but they will never impose trade sanctions on the other; the Bush needs Venezuelan oil and Chavez needs American oil money.

This is not new and is not unique to the United States. All countries act this way and have done so since forever. In relations between countries, trade doesn't trump other values. It IS The Value. This is why the increasing influence of non-governmental organizations is so important, as it injects a little pesky morality into the debate.

But trade remains central to global affairs. The BBC World Service has an excellent pair of documentaries on international trade negotiations. Anyone under the delusion that free trade is the goal of such deliberations is in for a serious reailty check. An illuminating look at a world that's as secretive as it is important.

There was a time when I once supported free trade in theory. And I still do in theory, but I've also come to the conclusion that free trade doesn't exist in reality. So it's best to make sure that it's done in the most humane way possible for the most people.

"But wait Brian, there is NAFTA. There is the WTO. There is the EU. These entities are entirely devoted to free trade."


Free trade means the freedom of unhindered movement of goods and services between countries.

Labor is a commodity. Yet nearly every country closely regulates the labor (people) that can come across into its territory. Free movement of services? Ask Mexican migrant farm workers.

Have you taken a look at the NAFTA treaty? At the WTO's mechanisms? At the EU's regulations? Why does a simple concept like free trade need such immensely complex documents and procedures to define it? Free trade doesn't need rules. Free trade is the absence of rules.

The answer is that free trade really doesn't exist. Free trade is what governments try to extract from the other guy for their nation's corporations. Protectionism is what governments are expected to defend by their workers. Industries wanted to be protected at home so long as they don't lose market access abroad. It's when these two notions collide that conflicts occur.

It's time leave the realm of idelogical fantasyland with regard to the relationship between commerce and foreign policy and start being honest about how trade really functions. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can have a rational discussion on what trade policies best advance the interests of people.

Update: US watchdogs reveal that huge chunks of money destined for Iraq reconstruction have mysteriously vanished.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Imprisoning common sense

Months away from his retirement and his reputation in tatters as a result of his affiliation with the Iraq Aggression, the once widely respected British prime minister Tony Blair seems to have completely lost the plot.

While not nearly as bad as American prisons, jails in Britain are increasingly plagued by problems of overcrowding.

"Full to the bursting point," is how the prime minister described them.

Far from being a point of concern, Blair insisted that the British public should be gleeful about this state of affairs.

Yet Britons didn't seem too gleeful when a convicted child porn user was spared prison because of overcrowding.

This came after Britain's home secretary, who's responsible for the prison system, called on judges to give more lenient sentences to non-violent criminals so that precious prison space could be reserved for the most dangerous elements.

While convicted pedophiles were spared incarceration, the British prisons could find space for a peace campaigner who refused to pay a 50 pound (about US$98) fine and a climate change protester who also refused to pay a fine.

Apparently opponents of wars of aggression and of climate change are considered public threats but child porn users are not.

But rather than building more prisons or reviewing sentencing guidelines to see if they are rational, the Blair government is instead launching even more nanny state regulations.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Doing justice

Alternet has good piece on the prison-industrial complex and attempts to reform it. There's really so much disturbing information in there that it's hard to sum up and do it justice.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Tens of thousands protest against the surge to oblivion

Tens of thousands of Americans have descended on Washington, DC to protest against the Iraq Aggression and President Bush's proposed troop surge to oblivion.

(The rally is being broadcast on CSPAN. By the way, if you get a chance to see a replay of Jesse Jackson's speech, DON'T! The once-capitivating speaker was reduced to rambling incoherence, him clearly just going through the motions.)

One can hope that the protests will help bring the president to his senses. Common sense dictates that if you're beating your head against a stone wall to no avail, then beating your head a little bit harder isn't going change anything. But this White House's supply of common sense was exhausted long ago.

On Friday, Pres. Bush re-iterated that when it came to military policy, "I'm the decision-maker." Whew, that's a relief. Last year, he famously declared that he was "the decider" and that had me worried. But now that he's "the decision-maker," I feel so relieved.

Ultimately, I think the main objective of the protests must be to influence the Congress, since "the decision-maker" is clearly incapable of taking sane decisions resulting from rational analysis.

Of course, how and from whom "the decision-maker" is getting his information is a key question. The Bush White House is infamously little more than an echo chamber where no one dares tell the president or vice-president anything they don't want to hear.

Even the 'liberal media' was long complicit. It was only recently that they started showing the slightest skepticism of the administration's version of the 'facts.' And even then only a very proscribed skepticism was permitted. One could question the tactics and the results, but one could never fundamentally question the wisdom of our continued presence there. Even today, the 'liberal media' censors anything that might show a true picture of what's really going on in Iraq.

For example, the supposedly anti-Bush CBS News refused to broadcast a piece by its top foreign correspondent. What was so objectionable?

The segment in question -- "Battle for Haifa Street" -- is a piece of first-rate journalism but one that appears only on the CBS News website -- and has never been broadcast. It is a gritty, realistic look at life on the very mean streets of Baghdad and includes interviews with civilians who complain that the U.S. military presence is only making their lives worse and the situation more deadly.

"They told us they would bring democracy, they promised life would be better than it was under Saddam," one told Logan. "But they brought us nothing but death and killing. They brought mass destruction to Baghdad."

And this is what is taboo in the 'liberal media': asking whether America's presence in Iraq has actually made things worse.

CBS News' lame excuse for canning the piece: there were a few bodies shown in the piece and the day's evening news' broadcast already had enough Iraq stories.

(The piece can be viewed by clicking here)

NEWSFLASH: war necessarily involves dead bodies. In fact, they are an integral part of war. If you can't handle it, don't launch one!

The Los Angeles Times reports on the American government's use of mercenaries. Some 48,000 US-sponsored mercenaries operate in Iraq.

(By contrast, Britain has about 7200 soldiers in Iraq and is expected to withdraw almost half of them by May.)

The Times noted that the mercenaries have operated with almost no oversight or effective legal constraints and are an undeclared expansion of the scope of the occupation. Many of these contractors make up to $1,000 a day, far more than active-duty soldiers. What's more, these forces are politically expedient, as contractor deaths go uncounted in the official toll.

And while anti-war sentiment is often associated with the supposedly liberal urban and suburban 'elites,' it's actually rural America that's paying the heaviest price for this catastrophic war of choice.

The heaviest price besides the Iraqis themselves, of course.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Don't get fooled again

I have so many articles bookmarked relating to the Iraq Aggression and the war on civil liberties that it could be the only topic I blogged about for the next month. Instead, I'll try to condense them all into one piece.

I've written many times condemning the Bush administration's policies for the Guantanamo Bay kidnapee camp. You'd think that if the administration had such overwhelming evidence against people being held there that they'd be in a hurry to present it before a court to prove how dangerous and real the extremist threat is. Instead, hundreds of detainees have been kept there for years without even being charged or having any semblance of justice meted out. This un-American policy is precisely what makes them kidnapees.

And not a single one has been convicted of anything.

Some are being given a mockery of justice called military commissions. But even that's little more than a fig leaf. A senior Pentagon official recently threatened US law firms that provide representation to the detainees.

The Denver Post, among others, noted that Charles Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, told a Washington, D.C.-based radio station last week that he was dismayed that lawyers from top firms were representing detainees. He said CEOs ought to "make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms."

Such contempt for the most basic premises of our justice system is hardly shocking from this administration. After all, America's top law enforcement officer recently said that there is no Constitutional right to freedom.

Unsurprising as it may be, it's still another appalling of the administration's contempt for the basic American values it claims our soldiers are fighting abroad to protect.

Nat Hentoff, in The Village Voice, comments on reports that many countries around the world accused of human rights' abuses defend themselves by saying they are merely following America's examples. When the president told us that he wanted the United States to be a beacon for the world, most Americans probably didn't think that this was what he meant.

Adam Hochschild blasts the 'surge' proposed by Pres. Bush. He argues that the appropriate analogy for what the administration is doing is not Vietnam, but World War I's Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in world history. Ironically, Bush recently claimed to have been reading Hochschild's excellent book King Leopold's Ghost on the Belgian Congo, which was the greatest crime against humanity of the 20th century. While Bush may have read the book, was he actually paying attention to the content?

Not paying attention to details seems to be a trait of the president and his advisors. That's what Iraq expert and author Peter Galbraith explained at a speech at the Vermont state capitol. Galbraith notes that the administration is conducting a war they have no hope of ending because they refuse to understand the complexity of the region and it's culture. As recounted in Samantha Power's seminal book on genocide, Galbraith was a key player in unsuccessfully trying to get the Reagan and Bush I administrations stop or at least condemn their ally Saddam Hussein's genocidal massacres of the Kurds.

Republican Sen. Hagel, who's always been a rare independent mind in the Senate, explains in an interview with GQ why he opposes 'the surge. He notes that, "For almost four years, this administration has been saying, 'Just give us another six months.'" When you're beating your head against a stone wall to no avail, eventually you have to realize that the solution isn't to beat your head harder.

Hagel, who was wounded in combat during Vietnam, makes a point that progressives have been saying for years and were angrily derided for doing so. "It’s not ours to secure. We have never understood that! We have framed this in a way that never made sense: 'Win or lose in Iraq.' Wait a minute! There is no win or loss for us. The Iraqis will determine how this turns out. "

His discussion of the contemptuous and duplicitous dealings by the White House toward the Congress are also revealing.

And while apologists in Fantasyland portray Iraq as a virtual paradise, except for a few isolated parts, aid agencies on the ground explain what's going on in the real world. Already nearly two million Iraqis live in often miserable conditions as refugees in nearby countries. The effects? Many refugees live in conditions of acute poverty. In Syria, almost a third of Iraqi refugee children do not go to school. The UN says that there is growing evidence of women turning to prostitution.

Another 1.7 million are displaced inside Iraq itself (and officials fear that number could rise to 2.7 million by the end of this year).

That means about 1 in 8 Iraqis have fled their homes, representing the largest long-term displacement of people since the uprooting of Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948.

Britain and the United States, the two main countries who caused the chaos, only accept a tiny number of Iraqis seeking political asylum or resettlement.

Despite the menacing words coming from the Bush administration's fanatics, a full-scale invasion of neighboring Iran will not happen in the near future; Iraq is such a mess that even the administration's most extreme ideologues couldn't ram through a ground invasion of Iran. But a lesser military intervention, such as air strikes or small scale incursions, is not inconceivable. One (but not the only) way they will try to justify this is by claiming that Iran is aggressively supporting insurgents in Iraq. However, the actual evidence supporting this claim is negligible at best. This isn't new. Remember how accurate the Iraq weapons of mass destruction claims turned out to be.

Somehow as I was writing this essay, I kept thinking of the song 'Won't Get Fooled Again,' by The Who. It's still apt today, sadly enough. Even though the title was ultimately wrong: we were fooled again. Back in 2002.

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals when they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that's all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they'd all flown in the last war

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
No, no!

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
For I know that the hypnotized never lie
Do ya?

There's nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are out-phased, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now parting on the right
And their beards have all grown longer overnight

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

'Hardcore socialist' billionaire businessmen

The complete irrationality of ideologues can be very dangerous but it's often quite amusing. Take this comment from an acquaintance of mine who's both theocrat and fundamentalist advocate of absolutist laissez-faire capitalism. He's talking about former CNN boss Ted Turner:

"His political philosophy is hardcore socialist, whether or not he follows it in his life is another story."

Forget for a minute that my acquaintance is talking about the same Ted Turner who's one of the richest businessmen in America and reportedly the single largest private landowner in the country.

Exactly how "hardcore" a socialist can Turner be if he doesn't follow it in his life?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Iraq, as told by those who fought there

Two weeks ago, the weekly progressive film night run by local baker Matt Funiciello showed the documentary The Ground Truth. Without exaggeration, it was the most powerful and compelling film I've ever watched. By far. It left me speechless (imagine that!).

The documentary is essentially a series of interviews, almost entirely with veterans of the Iraq war. These veterans tell how the military is really being run, how soldiers are really being trained and how the war is really being waged. These heroes' stories are not something you'll ever see reported in the mainstream media.

You can listen to me or George W. Bush about what's really going on in Iraq or you can get it straight from the horses' mouth. Learn more at the film's website.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Chip fabrication plant in Saratoga County draws protest

I received the following press release that I found worth sharing:

Anti-AMD Demonstration Planned for Saratoga Springs
On January 23rd, Saratoga Economic Development Corporation will be rolling out the red carpet for AMD at a “Meet the Community Day,” luncheon. But not everyone will be out to welcome the corporate giant. Saratoga Greens (aka Green Party) and a group of concerned citizens who are opposed to the siting of a chip fab plant in the county will hold a demonstration in front of the City Center at noon.

At a recent Comprehensive Review Board meeting in Saratoga Springs, Jack Kelly, Vice President of SEDC talked about the future impact of the AMD plant on the city. Besides saying that AMD was bringing two to three hundred families with them and that a majority of those people would probably look for housing in Saratoga Springs, he also talked about his organization's long-term economic plans for upstate New York. “Over the next 25 years, we'd like to see 15 chip fab plants built from Kingston to Glens Falls ”said Kelly.

Barbara Trypaluk, Chairperson of the Greens, who is a member of Saratoga's Comprehensive Review Board does not consider Kelly's vision for upstate New York great news. “The thought of our predominantly rural Hudson Valley becoming another Silicon Valley is a sickening one. Environmentally, AMD has a shady history; in the 1990's three of its sites in California were put on EPA's superfund list after it was discovered that water-solvents and acid-neutralization liquids in two underground storage tanks had leaked into the groundwater. The clean-up for one of those sites took twelve years. In addition, no one knows what the long-term health effects of releasing nanoparticles into the air will be.” Results of studies done on rats at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have indicated that nanoparticles, or sub-miscroscopic particles, migrate directly into the animals' organs. Since chip fab plants use a lot of toxic substances in the manufacturing process, this does not bode well for humans or any other living things in or near Luther Forest.

Trypaluk goes on to say that “ it's time elected officials and economic planners took the people's wishes into consideration and started pushing for indsutry that would help instead of harm the environment, such as the production of ethanol. Also, new industry should not be introduced to rural areas like the town of Malta that lack infrastructure. The AMD project is obviously the lynchpin of the $67 million countywide water system, which, so far hasn't been able to procure a financial commitment from any of the towns. Even though AMD has been awarded a generous state funding package, water seems to be the wild card in this game.” Recently, Senator Joe Bruno teased reporters with yet another impending development that he claims will boost the Capital Region's economy. At an Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce meeting, he said that there were things”simmering and cooking” – insinuating that some other corporation was seriously looking at building on a site not far from Albany. Senator Bruno likes to keep people guessing -- about everything.

Contact Information: Barbara Trypaluk, 583-4487

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chavez granted dictatorial powers

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.

I've written before how many on the left are ready to canonize Venezuela's strongman Hugo Chavez for the primary reason of his contempt for US president George W. Bush. Anyone who truly supports human rights should condemn the excesses of his regime. Attacks on the free press. Assaults on judicial independence. Extrajudicial killings. Police abuse and torture. A Gulag-like prison system. Some believe these things are fine and dandy so long as it's someone on the ideological left doing them. I do not.

Chavez has taken things a step further and decided to formalize his dictatorship. He already has a National Assembly that rubber stamps all his decisions. Opposition parties boycotted the most recent legislative elections so the parliament is completely dominated by his supporters. But even a legislature of sycophants was too cumbersome for the one-time paratrooper. He rammed through legislation that would grant him the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months.

His proposals to nationalize much of Venezuela's economy could easily have been done without the legislature giving him dictatorial powers. But it's yet another step in Chavez's attempts to dismantle the country's institutions and forge an autocratic state based entirely on his cult of personality.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bush administration 73, Freedom 0

For 800 years, the right to habeas corpus has been recognized as the single most fundamental right in any country that purports to call itself free. Basically, habeas corpus means you can't be thrown in jail without a good reason and that the government must justify that reason. A writ of habeas corpus is issued so that a prisoner can be brought before the court (judicial oversight) to determine if his detainment is legitimate. Simply put, the right to habeas corpus is intended to guard against arbitrary arrests.

Habeas corpus is protected in the US Constitution's Article I, Section 9 which states quite clearly and explicitly: The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

However, in recent testimony before the US Senate's Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales presented one of the most Orwellian interpretations of this provision ever offered.

Gonzales, theoretically the nation's top law ENFORCEMENT officer, claimed that the Constitution did not guarantee the right of habeas corpus. It only prohibited the government from taking it away.

“There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there’s a prohibition against taking it away,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales’s remark left Specter, the committee’s ranking Republican, stammering.

“Wait a minute,” Specter interjected. “The Constitution says you can’t take it away except in case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus unless there’s a rebellion or invasion?”

Gonzales continued, “The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right shall not be suspended” except in cases of rebellion or invasion.

“You may be treading on your interdiction of violating common sense,” Specter said.

If you can read this exchange without getting dizzy, then you're a stronger person than I.

What's notable about this exchange is that the attorney general is not arguing that habeas corpus protection should be suspended because 'the public safety may require it.' Instead, he argues that the PROTECTION DOES NOT EXIST AT ALL.

Habeas corpus protection is the single most basic right in a free society. All other rights are premised on this right. After all, you can't exercise your freedom of assembly or right to protest or bear your arms if you're thrown in jail for no reason.

The record will show that I've never before explicitly called for the impeachment of any member of the president or his cabal. But I can't think of anything else that more clearly demonstrates the Bush administration's impeachable contempt for the Constitution and its loathesome contempt for the freedoms for which US soldiers are supposedly fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

An interview with Ralph Nader

My friend Matt Funiciello recently conducted an interview with longtime activist and public citizen Ralph Nader, along with the journal Green Pages. Below is the interview published (with permission) in its entireity.

Matt Funiciello: Given your long history of extensive consumer research and analysis, you would probably be ill at ease giving any film a simple thumbs up or down but could I ask you to tell us what you thought about “An Unreasonable Man” (the new Nader documentary)?

Ralph Nader: I think its a very motivating film for people around the country of various ages who sometimes get discouraged about about not being able to make a difference and also those who have never heard of their ability to make a difference. So for both the semi-active occasional citizen, as well as the person who really doesn't view himself or herself as a citizen activist it should have some impact. I hope that a lot of kids and school children see it. Its not an advertisement. It has critical voices against what I and my associates have done so it keeps your interest.

MF: Steve Skrovan told me you've seen the film twice. Was it different the second time?

RN: I thought it was even better the second time.

MF: Some of the attacks on you in the film were simply scathing (Eric Alterman's and Todd Gitlin's come to mind). I suppose we could just write those guys off as professional Democrats, but how do you answer the attacks from ex-Raiders like Gene Karpinski? He is so obviously conflicted about your role as a spoiler and as a mentor to him. Are these attacks more uncomfortable to sit through when the person making them is, or was, a friend?

RN: Well, Gene Karpinski worked with us and then he went on to head the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups which are a coalition of state and student funded (and run) public interest groups. And he lobbies a great deal in congress for control of air pollution, water pollution, heavy environmental emphasis. So, his framework is, “How do I get something done in Congress?” His answer is, “Keep supporting the Democrats who are more enlightened on these issues than Republicans.” His framework is not thirty major subject areas from the Department of Defense to the federal reserve to the FDA where again and again both parties have gotten worse and the Democrats have slid along with the Republicans on a sea of corporate cash into their campaigns. So, to watch Gene in the film is very touching, obviously. He was torn. It was great cinema, but I only knew him during the campaign as an all out opponent. I never saw that he was at all perplexed or conflicted, so that was news to me.

MF: Sadly, Michael Moore wouldn't agree to be interviewed for the film. Do you have any idea why? I mean, I'm sure its really embarrassing for him to have to explain his amazing change of conscience between supporting you and the Greens in 2000 and turning tail on all of us in 2004. I really don't think that he's ever adequately explained his abandonment of the third party tent. Has he ever said to you, “Ralph, here's why I did it?”

RN: No. He's basically cut off all communications not just with me but with all his friends who he attributed tremendous support to at low periods in his life after he was relieved of his editorship of Mother Jones and came to Washington to work. So he hasn't called back his friends and he hasn't called me back and he won't respond at all. I think he's just decided that he's going to go all out for Hillary. He said to me once, “I have a thing for Hillary”. Those were his exact words. He's into Hollywood. He's into his movies. He's into promotion, putting out books and ... its as if he's written off that chapter of his life entirely and ... he's done that before, himself. He does write off chapters in his life that he finds are unpleasant or able of pointing out his self-contradiction.

MF: The new film deals to some degree with the belief amongst mainstream Democrats that you and third parties like ours are stealing voters from them. Your embrace and adoption of that “Spoiler” mantle has enraged many Democrats, as we see in the film, but I believe that the phenomenon has also had some success turning Greens against you as in the 2004 elections. What would you say to Greens conflicted over their own perceived role as “Spoilers”?

RN: Well, anyone who adheres to the “Spoiler” philosophy should not support a third party or lead a third party. The point of a third party is to start a “new politics”. We're going to move the agenda in the direction of the best interests of the people and their progeny and the environment and the world. If we start small ... thats the way great movements have always started. Very few movements suddenly, spontaneously, immediately come into fruition. Just look at our history. The women's right to vote movement, the anti-slavery movement, the worker decency movement, the farmer populist progressive movement, those took years and years to develop and if the people who decided to vote for those small parties in the 19th century instead had the same attitude that some liberals have today (of “spoilers”) they wouldn't have voted for the anti-slavery, or the woman's suffrage party or the labor party or the people's party. If we look back now ... aren't we glad that they did? Aren't we glad that they spurred on the two major parties and one or both of them came on board with some of these major issues and eventually ... its part of American life – a women's right to vote, the end of slavery. There's no politician in the two parties who would doubt those changes and oppose them now.
They have to develop a public philosophy. Either they go through life voting and supporting the “least worst” which has a corollary. Once you support the “least worst”, lets say John Kerry in 2004, you don't make any demands on John Kerry because you're so fretted about “the worst” winning that you don't want to upset John Kerry or expose him to any criticism from the progressive side. So, you lock yourself into a position where you're not only supporting the “least worst”, you're also signaling to John Kerry that he has your vote for nothing in return. For not any stronger stance on a wasteful military budget or Iraq or corporate tax reform or campaign finance reform etcetera. Its a very indentured status. Its important for the “least worsters” in our country to think about what attaches to a “least worst” position. The more “least worsters” there are, the more likely it is that both parties will get worse because there's one force that doesn't deal with that “least worst”, they pull on both parties, and thats the corporate interests. The corporate interests, twenty four seven, are pulling on both parties and millions of “least worsters” are giving (the Democrats, in this case) a free ride. Now, which way are the Democrats going to go? They're going to go with that which is pulling on them in one direction because no one is pulling them in the other direction.

MF: The “pie in the face” incident was very disturbing to watch for many Greens and it was included in this movie. How do you not become demoralized by such an incident?

RN: Two points on that part of the movie. Number one is that the guy who threw the pie later told people that he was a Green. Whether it was true or not, thats what he said. And the second is that the picture was unfairly slanted against me because what they didn't show is that right after the pie hit, I scraped off a huge amount and as he turned heel and headed for the exit, going past all kinds of people who could have tripped him, I threw probably a fourth of this mushy pie right back at him. Now you would think that they would have shown that, but they didn't. You can't edit a film that you have nothing to do with. Its really too bad they didn't show that.

MF: One of the really impressive features in the film was the footage of the Super Rally at Madison Square Garden. The media almost totally ignored these huge Green-Nader rallies all across the country. This is easily one of the most demonstrative representations of the press' absolute corporate allegiance. Sixteen thousand people paying twenty dollars apiece just to see you speak and the NY Times couldn't even be bothered to send a reporter! Obviously, the press is no longer free! What do we do?

RN: They (the press) look at the polls and they say that, “This is a two-party country, therefore, it is not important to cover these large rallies.” Thats what they look at. Actually, the Times did have a 700 word article but they buried it. What the Times ignored was a huge rally on Wall Street ... one of the biggest rallies ever. They didn't have a word on that. Thats right in their hometown, right in their backyard. It was a rather dramatic rally, very very substantive.

Green Pages: Many Greens will be celebrating Martin Luther King's 78th birthday, just a few days away. Many Americans are aware that much of HIS legacy has been abbreviated by the mainstream media, especially his opposition to the Vietnam War and his call for Democratic Socialism. This new film deals with YOUR legacy. How do you think you will be judged 50 years down the road? Does it matter to you?

RN: I just look to the future. You can't do things about the past. If you just wallow in your laurels from past years, you lose that laser beam focus on expanding the strength and depth of a just democracy and effecting the world with the same spirit in practice. Its amazing how uninterested I am in so-called wins and victories other than just to give people motivation.

GP: Speaking of the 2004 election, Alexander Cockburn wrote, “The Democrats spent the year wasting money and passion attacking Ralph Nader whose early predictions of his ultimate drawing power at the polls turned out to be on the money.” If you decide to run again in 2008, is there any reason to believe that the Democrats may stop making you, or the Greens, their enemy and embrace a different, perhaps more fruitful strategy?

RN: Um, No. Its amazing how little they learn from history! They didn't pick up the issues we were spreading all over the country in 2000 which would have easily won for Gore, by a bigger margin than he actually did win the election (which, I believe, he did). In 2004, Kerry started out right. He basically said, “I'm going to take away Nader's votes by taking away his issues,” which is exactly what I wanted him to do. Unfortunately, he then fell into the hands of his political consultants and a number of people who thought they could make a short term profit by starting 527's and offering their services by going after our ballot access and our petitioners. So, I think that its just part of this two-party “elected dictatorship” virus. They just cannot stand to have competition to a level where they don't want to respond to the competition, they want to remove it from the arena by removing us from one state ballot after another; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and many other states.

MF: It seems obvious that it will be McCain versus Hillary in 2008. I won't come right out and ask if you're running again or seeking the Green Party's endorsement in 2008, but you have often said that you will run as long as no one else is making the need to do so irrelevant. Many Democrats say that they have Barack Obama or Denis Kucinich. Do you see anybody that is a legitimate, progressive, candidate? Is there somebody “out there” this time?

RN: Well, I don't see anybody in the Democratic party. Not because they're all the same in terms of candidates, but the party comes down hard on candidates like Kucinich and closes them out in March or April when the primaries have been decided and the press has declared which nominee is going to win. So, they don't go 'til November, number one. They lose the most intense time period of interest for the American people which is after Labor Day. Secondly, and most importantly, is that outside the two parties I don't see anybody coming to the forefront. They're all very comfortable in their lives, you know? Jim Hightower has a nice media empire, all power to him. Bill Moyers, who could raise, by my guess, at least 50 million, has huge support and name recognition and was the subject of a draft website a few months ago and he hasn't shown any interest in running. There's nobody. Just name the people you would call progressives in the country that are reasonably well known and ... they're not interested. Its a very arduous process to run. Huge. Not only during the campaign, not only at the election but it also takes a long time just to close down, with all the federal election commission regulations and rules and compliance reporting ... So, people just don't want to go through it. They don't want to go from Holiday Inn to some hostel, campgrounds, wherever. They don't want to go through the groveling process of trying to raise money.

MF: Well, they've watched you do it. It doesn't look like a whole lot of fun.

RN: Yeah, thats right. Nobody's coming. Now, I think that the people we're going to see in the future, maybe not in '08, are going to be billionaires who run as independent candidates. I mean, Bloomberg, if he runs in '08, is going to run as an independent, probably, and he can spend 300 million dollars and hardly feel it. He's got a wealth of 5 billion. You can see that's a little bit more than annual interest, but not all that much more. There are a huge number of billionaires being created every year now and some of them are fairly young and a very small number can be considered progressive. Like I say, why not? Perot did it. It was a stop/go campaign of rather bizarre dimensions and he got 19 million votes! Thats enough to get a billionaire to run just for that mark in history he or she would make. So, unfortunately, I think that the main threat to the two parties' dominance are going to be billionaires ... not anyone else. I mean, thats they way I see it, because I don't see millions of people taking a few hours of their week and locking arms with one another coast to coast to really build a new political movement. That doesn't mean you don't keep the flame alive, that doesn't mean that you don't organize or mobilize the hard core because thats the essence of any future growth but the fact is that the only time the press will take you seriously is when you show up in the polls and when you have a lot of money. If you have a lot of money, they'll immediately poll you. There are enough disaffected, alienated, people that they'll just say, “We want anybody but the two parties. We're going for this new candidate because he's got the (or she's got the) money.”

MF: Many Democrats seem to feel that Howard Dean having the DNC's chairmanship is going to make a difference this next election. Do you think that will have any effect at all on how the Democrats behave towards Greens and other real progressives this time around?

RN: No, I think he'll only make a difference in terms of the Democrats mobilizing in states which they have abandoned. He may make a difference in getting the vote out but on a policy basis, they've got him pretty much in chains. “They” meaning Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Harry Reid. I mean, they basically said to him, “Look, you're our representative. You're our agent. We're the principals. You work for us and we'll make the agenda.”

MF: I know many Greens who simply canceled their subscriptions to the Nation in 2004 when they demanded “Don't Run Ralph”. I think that most readers could have stomached an op-ed saying this but for the entire editorial staff to kowtow to the Democrats like that was truly frightening to behold. Are there any real progressive periodicals left or have they all sold out to the mainstream? Which ones might you currently recommend?

RN: What's interesting about the Nation, they really, in '04, they represented the politics of fear and ... they just freaked out. They had a full page editorial, “Ralph, Don't Run” they allowed me the same space responding to them. I did, in terms of their own history of 140 years or so of dissent and I recommend that people read that. I mean, “In These Times”, “Progressive”, they're all “least worsters”. They're all politics of fear - “Be practical. Don't make any demands, Don't condition your vote,” they counsel. There was a great progressive publication called the Oklahoma Observer and (their editor) was probably one of the most progressive journalists in America, and still is. He cut me out of his newspaper. He used to print my column. He never responded. He would never respond to my calls and letters. He printed a letter saying to the readers, “Why is the Oklahoma Observer printing my (Ralph Nader's) column?” So, HE was totally freaked out. His name's Frosty Troy. There's really only one publication left that I could really call progressive and thats the “Progressive Populist”. They have all kinds of articles and reprints of articles and they don't display the politics of fear.

GP: Greens already know that the so-called “new congress” is not going to be substantially different than the “old congress”. With Nancy Pelosi taking impeachment off the table on day one, what are your thoughts about this?

RN: Well, the only argument on her behalf is that if Bush and Cheney were impeached (and it would be a twofer if it ever happened), she would become the president, so she's in an awkward situation. But what she did was she put the kibosh on her chairmen, like Chairman John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee. She literally demanded that he write an op-ed, which he did last year in the Washington Post, saying “impeachment is off the table but I'd like to have a bi-partisan committee of inquiry.” Yeah, I'm sure the Republicans are lining up in front of his door trying to sign up for that preliminary tiptoe forward. She didn't HAVE to do that. Its interesting how a constitutional system decays. It was alive to impeach Nixon if he hadn't resigned just in time and it was invoked to impeach Clinton who was accused about lying under oath about sex but with the largest high crimes and misdemeanors in modern American history, if not all American history, by George Bush; everything from a criminally-initiated outlaw war based on lies and deception and wire-tapping without court approval and torture as a system of interrogation and deprivation of civil liberties and locking people up without charges and without lawyers indefinitely ... I mean you can just go on and on about impeachable offenses. The Democrats, who, with various degrees of intensity before '06, criticized Bush for all this ... then, they become in control of Congress and they take it off the table which means they also take off any kind of likely censure movement. What does that do? It basically institutionalizes a lower and lower bar for presidents to engage in outrageous behavior with impunity. I mean, they don't look at how these “passes” they give Bush are going to effect the future of politics in America. In that sense, the Democrats showed their true hand, didn't they?

MF: Seemingly, many in the Peace movement abandoned their goals and voted Democrat this election. Aside from their immediate betrayal (removing impeachment from the agenda), the Democrats almost seem to be helping the Republicans escalate their war by using the report of the Iraq Study Group. Was that report just another empty shell created to justify escalation or is there a case to be made that there's “meat on them bones” and its just being ignored?

RN: I think it was mixed. I mean, one, it had very good factual summaries of whats going on over there and that was not reported because they focused on the recommendations. The second is the process of some sort of structured withdrawal was recommended and thats good, although I would have a different approach as to the withdrawal. The third is they emphasize the need to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and thats a bold move in Washington these days. Baker's always been good on that which is why the pro-Israeli APAC so despise him. The fourth, where they really stubbed their toe, so to speak, not unexpectedly, is they argued for the privatization of the Iraq Oil Industry, which is a no-no in Iraq, completely. And they may have a different version of privatization than the corporate oil companies in this country, but they'd have a hard time convincing Iraqis that there's any difference. The indication was, it would be heavily under the influence of the U.S. Oil companies. So, in that sense, they didn't want to go after Bush too much because the report was intended to persuade Bush. You don't look to that report for any cogent, systemic criticism of George W Bush. They were not into the accountability frame of mind. That isn't what they saw they were asked to do. In a way, its almost a skeletal report with a few rips here and there because if you don't focus on the main culprits and the accountability, you're not going to draw the conclusions on domestic and constitutional policy and foreign policy and military policy that would come from that chapter on accountability.

MF: What would be your last words to Greens reading this all across the country?

RN: If you're a “least worster”, don't participate in a third party because then you're just a Trojan Horse.

MF: Thank you very much for your time, Ralph. You've been very generous.

RN: Thank you.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quotes to make your head spin

"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

"Iraq may be a harder issue but the fact is that the life issue comes first in both parties. Once a candidate gets by that, then they can focus on more pressing issues." -A conservative acquaintance of mine on the upcoming presidential campaign.

It's one of the most insane, sickening self-delusions of the far right that war in general, let alone a war of aggression that has caused a MINIMUM of 150,000 civilian deaths, is not considered a 'life issue.' Or maybe in their Orwellian world, unleashing chaos, destruction and a death total surpassing genocidal levels (Saddam's genocide against the Kurds an estimated 100,000) is considered being pro-life.

"I think Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude... That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq." -President Bush.

Speaking of insane, sickening self-delusions to make your head spin. But maybe he's right. Maybe the MINIMUM 150,000 dead civilians and over 3 million internal and external refugees owe the USA a "huge debt of gratitude" for the 'freedom' and 'liberty' they've been given. I think Bush should go to Iraq and meet with some of these normal Iraqis (or maybe he'd have to go to neighboring countries). That way, they could 'thank' him personally.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Every so often, fate intervenes and juxtaposes two apparently unrelated articles in short order.

First, I read an interesting piece in the UK Independent about the reign of Uganda's Idi Amin. Amin, who terrorized the country from 1971-79, is the 'gold standard' of the thuggish murderous, African misruler. Essentially, he is the cartoon character who personified the stereotypes.

Idi Amin was an embarassment to both the west and to Africa at the time not solely because he was a mass murderer. He became this embodiment of evil because he was a bufoon. A former boxer, he just looked like a thug. That he reportedly engaged in cannibalism only added to the aura around him.

By 1979, neighboring Tanzania was being inundated by a wave of refugees from Amin's nightmare. Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere invaded Uganda to remove Amin; the bufoon's demoralized army evaporated. Tanzania installed Milton Obote, who Amin had overthrown in 1971, as the country's new ruler. Everyone thought the nightmare was over.

In reality, the main difference between Amin and Obote was personality. Amin was a brutish, uneducated mass murderer. Obote was a well-spoken mass murderer who'd studied at what was then Africa's most prestigious university. Because he was comparatively suave, Obote was seen as a welcome relief following the unpredictable Amin. Obote was seen as a founding father of pan-Africanism and thus, like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, was generally given a free pass by the African elite. But while he was seen as a relief by the outside world after eight years of the erratic Amin, Obote was no better to many Ugandans.

Amin had killed anyone who threatened him, and purged the army with massacres of ethnic groups that he thought did not support him, but on the whole he left the little people alone. His successor was very different. Between 1980 and 1985 in the Luwero triangle around Kampala, the number of civilians murdered by Obote's British-trained soldiers approached genocidal levels, as whole villages were exterminated, notes The Independent.

Some estimate that Obote's regimes were responsible for the deaths of as many as half a million people. By some accounts, 'liberator' Obote was responsible for as many, if not more, deaths than 'Evil incarnate' Amin.

Then I read a piece noting that according to the UN, over 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by violence in the year 2006 alone, with another 36,000 injured. was after the UN refugee commission reported that nearly 3.7 million Iraqis (out of a population of 28 million) were either refugees or internally displaced.

Anywhere between 100,000 (according to a low figure from Iraq's health minister) to as many as 655,000 (according to an estimate by the medical journal The Lancet) Iraqis have died in the not quite four years since 'liberation.'

The US State Department itself estimates that Saddam was actively responsible for some 400,000 deaths during his 24 years in power.

If you factor in the destruction, instability and chaos faced by ordinary Iraqis caused by the Aggression and the resulting power vacuum (to say nothing of the collapse of US international prestige and the increased threat to US security), the invasion of Iraq is yet another example of the cure being worse than the disease.

But we wouldn't want to leave Iraq. Because if we did, there might be death, instability, violence and chaos!

Update: The greatest insanity of all is that we have spent close to $400 billion in not quite four years to bring all this death, instability, violence and chaos to Iraq. By contrast, the US spent some $660 billion in today's dollars on its over decade-long involvement in Vietnam.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A breath of fresh air

BBC News has a portrait of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the first self-described socialist ever to sit in the US Senate.

"The government should make sure people who work 40 hours a week do not live in poverty," the radical observed. You'd think that the Christian Right, which often preaches about the value of hard work, would agree.

One of his pet topics is America's dysfunctional health care system. Sen. Sanders noted that the US spends three times as much per capita as the United Kingdom, where health care is universal. 48 million Americans have no health coverage, while the entire population of England is about 51 million.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poverty wages

Major League Soccer completed its most outrageous signing in history by inking a 5 year, $250 million deal with David Beckham. Now more a soccer icon than world class player, Beckham will leave his present club Real Madrid this summer and join Los Angeles Galaxy in August.

It's a mark of how his stock has fallen that he is leaving one of the most prestigious clubs in the world not just for a Major League Soccer team, but one that has finished in the bottom third of the MLS table in each of the last two regular seasons*.

(*-You might be excused for thinking otherwise but this is true.)

The signing is not shocking, but the compensation is: some $50 million a year.

This is quite possibly more than every other player in the entire league makes. By contrast, if you took the top paid player on every MLS team during 2006, they were paid about a COMBINED $5 million. Only five MLS players will be paid more than 1 percent of what Beckham will make.

The compensation is obscene even by international standards. Ronaldinho, widely acclaimed to be the best player in the world, receives a salary of $11.4 million a year. Beckham's current teammate Ronaldo, who has scored more World Cup goals than anyone in history, $8.1 million a year.

By comparison, Pele, generally acknowledged to be the greatest player in soccer history. In 1975, he signed a $1 million a year contract with the New York Cosmos, which translates to about $3.75 million in 2005 dollars.

Beckham isn't even close to the best player of his generation. The salary is a testament to the power of marketing, but it's still almost inconceivable to see how LA's owner could recoup such a gigantic investment.

Los Angeles is already the best supported club in MLS, averaging over 20,000 fans a game at their 27,000 seat Home Depot Center. It is the only MLS club making a profit (this was before paying Beckham's salary mind you).

Though this represents a $42 million a year increase over what Real Madrid was forking over, rest assured Becks isn't doing it for the money. He wants to be a soccer missionary.

How gracious of him to settle for poverty wages.

Update: The BBC has an analysis of the numbers.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iraq progress continues: National Review

An acquaintance complained about how the 'liberial media' [sic] repeatedly ignores all the great news coming out of Iraq. He provided as evidence a piece in the eminently objective National Review.

I decided to read the article and was pleasantly surprised by its contents. Not wanting to mimic the 'liberial media,' I will share with you what I learned.

There was no mention of the 17,000 Iraqi civilians killed during 2006, but we are told that a whole three of Iraq's 18 provinces are now under Iraqi control, nearly four years after the invasion.

Among the other highlights:
-In Bayji, the Iraqi army captured an insurgent sniper responsible for attacks against coalition forces.

-The police in Baghdad now have a state-of-the-art forensics facility to assist in solving crimes, which will surely get a lot of use.

-A car bomb was defused near Mahmudiyah.

-239 kilometers of village roads have received upgrades.

-[I]n Nasiriyah, U.S. Army engineers delivered toys to happy Iraqi children.

-Iraq’s airline industry as a whole is coming to life, which is good news for the 50,000 Iraqis who are fleeing the utopia each month.

The article's assertion that Iraqi forces continue to improve, and are expected to be able to operate “virtually free of coalition help” sometime in 2007 is utterly fantastic news!

That means we won't need the 'troop surge' that President Bush was expected to announce this week!

Oops, I almost forgot the most important accomplishment of all: Work on the reconstruction of Iraq’s oil infrastructure is nearing completion.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

US military attacks Somalia

Yesterday, the Bush administration launched military action in yet another Muslim country when it bombed Somalia.

The Ethiopian dictatorship, with US backing, invaded Somalia to force out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had taken over and pacified much of the country. The Ethiopians say they were invited by Somalia's Transitional National Government, the internationally-recognized but largely powerless government comprised largely of warlords.

The BBC World Service's Newshour program has a great interview on the airstrikes and the counterproductive Bush administration policy in the Horn of Africa with Michael Schueur, a man who once ran the CIA's anti-al Qaeda unit. It's extremely insightful, a must-listen for anyone who wants the war on terror to actually diminish the terror threat.

(Note: the audio will probably only be available until Wednesday morning US time, so listen to it soon. Just go to the Newshour page and there should be a story to click on entitled 'Targeting al-Qaeda.' You'll need Real Player.)

Oh yes... oh gawd yesssss!!!

"You can see the sweat dripping off the anchorman's forehead, which is I think why you buy such a big tv." -A consumer electronics' industry analyst on NPR

Thank God we have Sony and Philips to give the people what they want: a close up of Wolf Blitzer's perspiration!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Things that make you go hmm...

BBC 606: poor attendances were a feature at the majority of the weekend’s 30 [English soccer] FA Cup ties.

Soccernet: Attendances at the FA Cup third round over the weekend were the highest for 25 years.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chavez's Gulag

Many in the American and European lefts fetishize Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez. Chavez is an old school left wing populist of the kind you don't really see much any more.

He regularly takes on the meddling by 'imperial America,' though it hasn't stopped him from meddling in Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian domestic politics. He revels in taunting President Bush. These are two of the major reasons why many of the left love him.

Many act like anyone who opposes American imperialism in general or Bush in particular is a guy worthy of canonization. Waving a book by Noam Chomsky only clinches it.

(Bush is allegedly reading something else)

Not being one to follow the herd, I've never subscribed to this simplistic theory. The principle that anyone who criticizes American imperialism or the Bush administration gets a free pass regardless of any other consideration. Such nonsense is nothing more than a variation of Bush's own infamous slogan "Either you're with us (his administration) or you're with the terrorists."

Granted, at least Chavez (sort of) allows opposition and democratic elections, unlike his buddy Fidel in Cuba. Though even that's only 'sort of.'

He recently shut down one of the country's oldest television stations because it wasn't sufficiently sycophantic to him. This is hardly the only assault on the media: as one former Chavez supporter explained to the independent watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, “Here we have freedom of opinion but not longer freedom of expression."

The human rights' situation faced by non-journalists isn't much better. Such as extrajudicial killings, rampant police abuse, torture and generalized impunity.

In an extremely chilling account, the liberal South African newspaper Daily Mail and Guardian described Venezuela's prison system as being 'widely considered one of the world's most brutal and corrupt.'

When a newspaper that extensively covers Zimbabwe calls a prison system 'one of the world's most brutal and corrupt,' that's quite a statement. I wonder if some of those who regularly condemn conditions at Guantanamo Bay will, even once, criticize Chavez's own Gulag. Or are only right wing government supposed to follow human rights law?

By all objective accounts, there are clearly some good things Chavez has done. He's instituted many programs to help the poor, particularly in terms of health care and education. The standard of living for millions of Venezuelans has improved and that's surely a good thing.

However, his governing style calls in to question how sustainable this improvements can be. Funding is based on revenues gained from the high price of oil, of which Venezuela is a major producer.

Additionally, Chavez and his aides have focused on consolidating power around the presidency (the cult of personality effect) rather than strengthening the country's institutions, which would perpetuate and stabilize these programs. If these admittedly positive steps are based exclusively on the personality and charisma of Chavez, what happens if the strongman dies* or otherwise leaves the scene precipitously?

(*-I find it unlikely that Chavez will ever leave power gracefully and of his own free will)

I think the fundamental problem with a 'revolution' based on the cult of personality is that it's not really a revolution. Such systems lack a mechanism for self-correction, because (and this will sound familiar) the leader and the system are one. Criticizing the system is akin to attacking the chief and vice versa. Lacking a mechanism for self-correction, such systems inevitably implode. When the system finally does implode, will poor Venezuelans acquiese into starvation like the North Koreans or angrily revolt like the Romanians?

At the end of the day, Chavez is nothing more than a populist demagogue strongman who's built a cult of personality around himself. And I've always viewed such characters with extreme skepticism. Chavez is no more a uniter than Bush himself. They're both self-styled tough guy bullies who have built their presidencies on division and demonization. Neither should be imitated.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Big Brothers/Big Sisters

Big Brothers/Big Sisters sent me the following email:

January is National Mentoring Month … and we’ve set a goal to recruit 10,000 people who have an interest in volunteering this month. You know what a difference a "Big Brother" or "Big Sister" makes in the life of a child. The truth is, we need more generous people like you to volunteer as "Bigs". Especially as Big Brothers.

So please help us recruit Big Brothers with Tell-a-Guy e-cards. Send them to 5 male friends and help make a child’s dream come true. Too many boys who want one don’t have Big Brothers. These boys are ready and eager for someone to play catch with, a fellow computer-game lover, or a buddy to haggle over the last slice of pizza and then share a movie.

What better way is there to kick off the new year for these kids than finding them a Big?

For more information on becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister or the programs the organization offers, go to the BBBS of America website. The national site also provides information on local agencies.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A wolf can't change his spots

One of the disgraced architects of the Iraq Aggression was former Deputy War Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. He was rewarded for this debacle by being named head of the World Bank. Apparently his role in a destructive war gave him the necessary credentials to head an agency supposedly designed around constructive development.

Then again, this is not sarcastic. After all, one of his predecessors as head of the bank was Vietnam architect Robert McNamara.

As part of the Bush administration, Wolfowitz was clearly trained in the art of secrecy, opacity and obfuscation and came to abhorr accountability.

Apparently, Wolfowitz has transplanted this mismanagement style to the Bank.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Reading various blogs and other media outlets, I've been struck by something. Something that seems part of a broader trend in this country. It seems that the only people who are considered heros are soldiers. The only people considered men (or women) of honor are soldiers. The only people considered brave are soldiers. The only way to show courage is to be a soldier. The only way to serve your country is to be a soldier.

I don't have anything against soldiers and do not wish to dispute these descriptions but when I was growing up, my dad was my hero. He used to be my hero long before I found out that he'd volunteered for the Air Force at the height of Vietnam. He was my hero because he was a great guy, because he was my role model, because he was the kind of person I wanted to grow up to be. But he would be one of "our heroes" because of his 3 1/2 years as a number cruncher in the Air Force, not because of his 33 years of being a parent or his decades of activity in the community or his years of teaching church school. To many, military service is the only service worth a damn. And I'm sorry but I resent that.

It's incredibly sad that the qualities I mentioned above are so rarely applied to non-soldiers or non-military professions. Are there not teachers or coaches or doctors or parents who are heroes? Is picking up an M-16 the only way to show honor? Do policemen show bravery? Do firemen show courage? What about humanitarian aid workers who go into many of the very same dangerous situations as soldiers, but without the protection of weapons, body armor, tanks and armed comrades? Are they brave, courageous, honorable heroes?

What about people who help feed the homeless? What about people who teach the illiterate how to read? What about people who spend their time helping at risk youths? What about people who voluntarily serve on school boards or neighborhood watch programs? Aren't these people serving their country? Maybe not by killing people and blowing shit up, which gets people's adrenaline going. But they are certainly trying to improve our society. I'm not asking for bumper stickers, parades, rallies, ribbons, newspaper editorials and daily presidential speeches in their honor, but don't these people deserve our plaudits once in a great while?

We praise our soldiers because they are fighting AGAINST something. It's no coincidence that all the 'support our troops' ribbons, etc. came after the launching of the so-called war on terror. I guess we didn't support our troops when they were "only" trying to keep the peace in Bosnia or Korea. But this is human nature and I understand this. Still, it's a sad mentality we have in this country that we forget to praise the people who are fighting FOR something. I wonder if it's simple thoughtlessness or if we as a society simply view physical courage as the only worthy sacrifice, the only contribution of value. Where's the balance?

We need to remember those who are fighting FOR something. For literacy. For humanity. For kids. For a better country. They're heroes too.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Israel allows arms shipment to 'terrorists'

I rarely write entries on the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mainly because it’s impossible to have a rational discussion about it with 95 percent of the people. If your comments are (perceived as) 51 percent against Israel, then you are anti-Semitic who wants Israel’s destruction. If your comments are (perceived as) 51 percent against the Palestinians, then you are an imperialist lackey who supports the genocide against them.

I was going to say that if you live in the US, any criticism of Israel makes you anti-Semitic. But then I realized it’s a little more nuanced. You can criticize specific actions the Israeli government of the day, provided that you provide at least 10 times more criticisms of the Palestinians in the same comment. But one thing you can never do is cast aspersions on their motives. They must always get a blank check for any mistake they make. If they a bombing raid causes ‘collateral damage,’ it’s the fault of everyone in the village for “tolerating” terrorists in their midst. Because an unarmed can easily go up to a guy with a cellar full of Uzis and tell him f- off. You can say the Israeli military and government make mistakes, so long as you figure out a way to blame someone else.

Unless you’re on the far left of the US or any part of the left in Europe, in which case you must state that Israeli soldiers willfully slaughter Palestinian children and drink their blood at parties. You must also point out that the global warming, world poverty and AIDS in Africa is also the fault of the Israelis. If an Israeli soldier coughs without covering his mouth, you must send out a missive to all your leftist friends denouncing Israel for intentionally spreading disease to ravage the Palestinians; you must also insist that the occupation of Palestine is ALWAYS the worst, bloodiest and most severe humantarian and political crisis in the world, no matter how much more expontentionally severe the crises in Darfur, northern Uganda and eastern Congo would be, according to any objective person. If a pizzeria is bombed in Tel Aviv or a some village schoolhouse gets hit with a rocket, it’s the fault of the Israeli government for the occupation. Not the guys who intentionally targeted civilians for murder. Probably the one thing I agree with Fox News (sic) about is their use of the phrase ‘homicide bombings,’ because that’s exactly what they are. Their main purpose is not suicide, but homicide.

I’m one of those rare people who believe there is that there is plenty of blame to share on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides and that blame is pretty close to equal. As well as the Arab, western European and American sides as well.

This is where I’m supposed to say they’re both to blame but (because I’m an American) the Palestinians are far more to blame or (because I’m on the left) the Israelis are far more to blame. It’s marginally acceptable to blame both sides, so long as you quantify it. I won’t quantify because it serves no purpose.

We live in an world where people can’t remember what they had for lunch two days ago but people in the Middle East can tell you in great deal all the wrongs that allegedly happened to their ancestors 60 years ago.

The bottom line is that there’s so much irrationality and hysteria surrounding this problem that it’s difficult to know how it will be solved. The only realistic solution I see is for divine intervention to give everyone in Israel and the Occupied Territories mass amnesia and everyone in the US and the Arab world the temporary inability to speak.

This is the part where I comment on a current events story. And where the rough balance of 50-50 blame goes to 55-45 and I end up accused of hating Israel and being anti-Semitic (which are of course the same thing, we’re told).

While Fatah ran the Palestinian Authority government, the Israeli government did everything it could to undermine it. It said they coddled terrorists. It said they were terrorists. It said they should be able to control things better despite having one hand tied behind their back by the Israelis. It said they were corrupt. It said that Yassir Arafat, and later Mahmoud Abbas, was not a partner for peace. Basically, it tried to delegitimize Fatah at every step.

Then, Israel’s strategy ended up working too well. The weakened Fatah was spanked in legislative elections by the fanatical Hamas organization. This wasn’t unexpected. Such puritanical movements always gain support when the regime in place is seen as corrupt and illegitimate. Think the Taliban in Afghanistan or Islamic Courts in Somalia. This development was far worse for Israel, or far better for Israeli extremists.

The US and European Union should how much it would respect democracy by placing an embargo on the democratically-elected government of the Palestinians. The already miserable living conditions in the occupied territories got even worse.

The Hamas prime minister went on a regional tour and collected tens of millions of dollars to replace the suspended US-EU aid. But Israel (who still control external borders) refused to allow him to return to Gaza with the money. They allowed him to enter Gaza, but without the money. The Israelis contended might be used to buy arms.

So imagine my shock when I read this piece which said that Israel would allow a shipment of weapons and ammunition into Gaza to Abbas’ presidential guard.

So the Israelis won’t allow into Gaza money SOME of which MIGHT be used to buy arms but they will allow into Gaza actual weapons? 2,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 ammo clips and some 2 million bullets, to be specific.

The Israelis spent years weakening Abbas but now that he was so weak that he lost control of the parliament, they decide to back him. Now the Israeli government is taking sides in internal Palestinian conflicts.

It seems clear that the Israeli government does not want a stable, peaceful Palestinian society. They probably feel that it’s better for Palestinians to take out their anger and murder each other than Israelis. The only problem is that without a stable, peaceful Palestinian society, the Israelis will never be able to extricate themselves for the mess that, by now, most Israelis want to eventually extricate themselves from.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hungry for solutions

"To admit the existence of hunger in America is to confess that we have failed in meeting the most sensitive and painful of human needs. To admit the existence of widespread hunger is to cast doubt on the efficacy of our whole system." -George McGovern

Note: This entry turned into quite a bit more than I'd originally planned. Sometimes, you just have to follow the story where it takes you.

The New Year is a time when people often take stock of their lives and how to make it better. So it seems appropriate that it also be a time when citizen take stock of their country and how to make it better.

Much of politics today focuses on the symbolic, especially the so-called culture war (and I am hardly immune from falling into that trap at times). For example, whether gays can get their union recognized by the state is largely irrelevant to most people's everyday lives, except gay couples themselves. It certainly won't harm anybody.

But the 'issue' makes for a great way to rouse fury of ordinary people looking for an outlet for their anger. And since ordinary people feel they have little control over the forces that really affect their lives, they direct their venom against someone lower down the political food chain. It's the kick-your-dog syndrome.

As this Reuters piece points out, millions of Americans have far more pressing concerns. Some 1.2 million New York city residents, nearly 15 percent of the city's population, face a regular choice between food and housing.

And it's not unique to New York. According to federal government numbers, almost 12* percent of all Americans (35 million people) struggled with hunger during 2005.

(*-That number may actually be 15.4 percent of all Americans, of 46 million people, thanks to a quiet bureaucratic re-definition of the word that erased the label, if not the actual fact of, hunger from 11 million people.)

The Food Bank of New York City distributes an average of over 89 tons of food EVERY DAY to community groups and other organizations. That's 65 million pounds of charity food a year for New York City alone.

And as the article pointed out, it's not just the unemployed, 'bums,' 'welfare queens' and drug users that are unable to buy their own food. The anti-hunger organization America's Second Harvest (A2H) did a study of those 24 million people who received its help. It noted that:

-36.4 percent were children
-10 percent were elderly
-36 percent of households helped had at least one employed adult
-32 percent had incomes ABOVE the federal poverty line

And it wasn't just New York city residents who had to choose between food and other necessities. A2H found that of its nationwide recipients:

-42 percent had to choose between food and heat or other utilities
-35 percent had to choose between food and rent or mortgage
-32 percent had to choose between food and medical care

Even those who already receive government benefits still suffer from food insecurity. A2H found that of its nationwide recipient households:

-35 percent received food stamps and still needed further help
-51 percent received WIC benefits and still needed further help
-62 percent with school age children participated in the school lunch program and still needed further help

The Food Bank's president fumed, "I would rather be giving my expertise to try and solve the hunger issue in a third world country, where they have no food. Here we have the food."

Somehow, I don't think whether Seattle airport has a Christmas tree is of much concern to the tens of millions of Americans who are simply worried about where there next meal will come from.

How to help:

-The Hunger Site
-America's Second Harvest
-World Food Day USA
-Find your local soup kitchen

Monday, January 01, 2007

2006 P.U.litzer prizes

In honor of the end of 2006, Alternet offers the 15th annual P.U.litzer prizes.

The New York Times' Tom Friedman is mocked for his mindless praise of CAFTA which he said was a US free trade agreement with the Carribbean. Even those of us who are neither international affairs 'experts' nor famous columnists in the nation's most prestigious newspaper know that CAFTA would actually apply to Central America.

Most of the awards were merited, but the most deserving was:

In November, [Glenn] Beck -- an Islamophobic host on CNN Headline News -- launched into his interview with Congressman-elect Keith Ellison, a Muslim American, this way: "I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'" Beck then added: "And I know you're not. I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way." Is it possible that primetime bigots like CNN's Beck have something to do with the prejudices "that a lot of Americans feel"?