Saturday, March 31, 2007

It's a good thing the 'terrorist' didn't moon anybody!

Australian detainee David Hicks was the first of the detainees to get an actual hearing before the Guantanamo Bay tribunals, which have been denounced as a mockery of justice by several prominent US military officers who work there.

Hicks pleaded guilty to one count of material support for terrorism. He will spend nine (more) months in incarceration, mostly in an Australian prison. He is expected to be free by the beginning of next year.

It took him five years of the black hole of detainment at Gitmo just to get to this point. He was detained for five years, before they realized that he needed to serve nine months for his 'crime', which amounted to attending four al-Qaeda training camps.

The apologists tell us that Gitmo is necessary. That the 385 detainees, almost none formally accused of anything, are the worst of the worst. That they'd all nuke America in a heartbeat if they ever saw the light of day. But the 'crimes' committed by this 'worst of the worst' was to attend a few al-Qaeda training camps and to be prepared to fight against American soldiers who invaded Afghanistan.

Mind you, that's 'be prepared' to fight, not actually fought.

So if the 'worst of the worst' is guilty of a single 'crime' worthy of a mere nine months in jail (excluding his five year kidnaping), then is Gitmo really necessary? Why can't this be handled by the regular courts?

Two Albany (NY) men were caught in a controversial terrorist sting and sentenced to 15 years in prison... providing material support to a terrorist organization.

They were sentenced not by a hypersecretive kangaroo court but by a US federal judge in a public court. If these two men could face an open, public trial without the republic crashing down upon us, then why not Hicks and the other 385 men in Gitmo?

By comparison, those convicted of a misdemeanor count of indecent exposure or public lewdness can face a whole year in jail.

It's a good thing Hicks didn't moon anybody!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Islamophobia in America is a myth (pt. 42)

It's no secret that anti-Arab hysteria was whipped up by the far right several years ago to justify the Bush administration's militaristic policies. First, it was used to gain support for the aggression against Iran. Now, it's being used to lay the ground work for some kind of military action against Iran. An pernicious side effect of this hatred is the how this poison turns Americans against other Americans. Take the recent case of a local Turkish*-American woman and the garbage she was subjected to on a recent trip

(*-Note: such bigotry is irrational and thus unconcerned with trite things like reality, such as the fact that neither Iranians nor Turks are considered Arabs. Arab has become synonymous with a generic 'Them dark-skinned folks over there.')

A local college administrator took a bus trip with her husband to SeaWorld in Florida. According to The Post-Star, the tour bus driver made slurs over the vehicle's loudspeaker about blondes and Jews, and described Muslims as "towel heads," "rag heads" and "sheet heads."

Trying to reassure people, the driver called himself an "equal opportunity offender".

Ok, so he's a hate-spewing moron against everybody. Whew!

When the woman expressed her discomfort to the driver after the trip, the driver mocked her accent.

He's been fired.

But can you imagine the national uproar had the driver spewed anti-Christian bigotry like that? The yap shows and blogs would be overflowing with outrage.

Then At SeaWorld's Shamu stadium, [the woman] Hilal Isler said, flying eagles and the American flag were shown on the jumbo screen. Audience members were shouting, "We support our troops," and, "Go America," Isler told the [Orlando] Sentinel.

The paper reported "the scene irked her."
"We are not at a military rally," she is quoted as saying. "Maybe they don't want us here. We won't be back."


I understand this sentiment. There are military and pro-war rallies all the time. No problem. I don't think anyone expects them at an amusement park's whale show.

A few years ago, I went to a charity rodeo was subjected to even worse crap. The bombastic announcer was berating liberals and Muslims and Arabs and all this crap. He went on about how great America was. I love my country, but when I go to rodeo, I don't want a chest-beating orgy of "we're the best and everyone else can rot in hell." I was about to walk out but the loudmouth finally shut up and got on the actual reason the people had shown up.

Speaking of bombastic loudmouths, the woman was attacked by Rush Limbaugh. "OK, it's one thing to be called a 'sheet head' when you're Muslim and not wearing a towel on your head when you're riding the I-Ride in Orlando, but can you imagine the humiliation of going to Shamu Stadium in Orlando at Sea World and having the American flag flashing?" he ranted.

Post-Star columnist Will Doolitle rightly condemned 'the crassness of using the sacrifice of U.S. troops to sell tickets to a dolphin show.' Ironic how burning the flag in free expression infuriates people but using it for commercial exploitation passes completely under the national radar.

It's the American way, I guess.

It's one thing to have the flag waving. It's another to have a military-style rally at a whale show. But maybe being addicted to drugs destroys common sense. At least I hope that's his excuse.

I'm not sure what excuse some of the Orlando Sentinel's readers have.

One person commented on the story with the following (quoted verbatim):

dont come back. this is america. if an american owned theme park wants to display an american flag, its there perogative. maybe the patriot act should look into these people.

Huzzah for freedom!

The anonymous post also made disparaging remarks about Turkey.

I imagine the Turkish-American Mrs. Isler has a far more coherent grasp of the English language than the American reader of The Sentinel.

Morons like the bus driver and Limbaugh are bad enough. But it's chilling to thing that fanatics like The Sentinel boob really exist in this country. Then again, maybe I shouldn't separate the three. Their all different shades of the same color.

The worst part of the story: sick of being attacked by the yap shows, she quit her job as a college administration because of all the national press attention (originally, she'd only complained to the Orlando paper just because it was so outrageous). The university called her a 'valued member of our community' and asked her to reconsider.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Blue Line online

The editor of Adirondack Almanack (AA) has been a sporadic critic of the 'right wing clap-trap,' the 'right wing BS line' and 'middle of the road pandering' that has appeared on this site. While I make no apologies for my writings and though I wish AA would accept public comments on its entries, the blog remains a very worthy read.

The Almanack recently celebrated its second anniversary as probably the only (or at least the best) blog that focuses entirely on Adirondack-themed issues. It offered a very good look at blogging within (and just outside) the Blue Line.

AA heaps scorn on the mainstream media's antipathy toward blogs and the online world in general. In part, I understand that sentiment. Mainstream media (MSM) journalists face more criticism than ever before, some fair, some not. Much of it generated by ideological organizations with axes to grind who have no interest in anything resembling fair reporting. Bloggers can choose to be completely or partially anonymous and thus somewhat shield themselves to the degree they want. I choose to publish only my first name, though most readers know who I am. MSM journalists do not have this luxury. I was a print journalist in college and I imagine I might feel a little resentment at doing tons of leg work and then being constantly second guessed (almost never praised) by someone sitting in their underwear and a bathrobe in front of a computer pounding out a rant.

That said, MSM journalists (and particularly publishers and editors) should realize that blogs are here to stay. Rather than pulling an RIAA and fighting against this new innovation, the MSM ought to embrace the blogosphere not as a competitor but as something that can compliment (and even inspire) its own work.

Anyway, Almanack points out that after insisting that free news sites would go the way of dinosaurs, the Glens Falls Post-Star recently abandoned its subscription-only model and put all its content on its free site (which is actually structured much better than either of its previous sites). Though to its credit, the daily quickly scrapped the obnoxious Don Coyote blog. If only the paper would dump the anonymous cheap shots (as well as the anonymous It's Debatable comments) from its printed pages too! When I worked at my college's newspaper, I was taught that everything in a printed newspaper should have a name associated with it.

AA also points out that most local TV, radio and newspaper websites either don't have blogs at all or have pale imitations. Why should a media outlet waste its time and money maintaining a blog that doesn't add much content or context to its main output? The one notable exception being the Albany Times-Union's excellent Capitol Confidential blog on New York state government and politics.

Almanack also shares my high opinion of North Country Public Radio and its online content. While Albany-based WAMC/Northeast Public Radio has its merit (I've been a member in the past), its regional news content is a mile wide and an inch deep, trying to serve everybody a little but no one well. The tone on NCPR is much different, much folksier. The regional reporting is more in depth. You have no doubt you are listening to a resolutely North Country station rooted in its community. The website reflects that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shooting down diplomacy

Recently, Iran seized 15 British Navy personnel. Teheran says they were trespassing in Iranian. Britain denies this. Some think the sailors were ordered there intentionally to provoke the incident to serve as the pretext for the long-planned Bush administration aggression against Iran.

Normally, I'm not prone to such conspiracy theories, but after the fake Saddam-WMD pretext used to justify the Iraq Aggression and the general lack of honesty on the part of Bush administration officials, it's hard not to wonder.

And actions speak louder than words. While Britain is is in discreet talks with Iran, the US has launched military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. American authorities claim that these were long planned and the menacing message to Iran is just a happy coincidence. If so, it was very 'convenient' planning.

It begs the question: why is the allegedly aggrieved party trying diplomacy while a bystander is thumping its chest? Maybe one party wants to resolve conflicts while another either doesn't know how or isn't interested in doing so.

The respnose is fairly typical of this administration. Their policy is 'belligerence first, backtracking later.'

By contrast, take a look at some events which have happened in just in the last few days...

-The Christian Science Monitor published a book review which marked the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's trip to China. That a man who'd launched his political career as a red-baiter and a McCarthyist wannabe could engage in diplomatic talks with one of the two most prominent communist countries in the world was one of the most significant events of the Cold War.

-Laurent Gbagbo, head of state of the divided Côte d'Ivoire, will reportedly name rebel leader and bitter archrival Guillaume Soro as his new prime minister in a power-sharing government.

-Northern Ireland's two most vile sectarian leaders, 'Reverend' Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, came to an agreement on power sharing in the province's democratically-elected legislative assembly.

-Israeli prime minister Ehud Ohlmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to meet every two weeks for regular discussions.

The latter three are amongst the most bitter, intractable disputes in the world. Disputes dominated by irrational, sometimes even genocidal, rhetoric and by irrational, sometimes even genocidal, violence. Yet their leaders realized that years of insanity hasn't solved anything so they might as well try talking... and maybe even listening!

Civilized leaders realize that dialogue and negotiation is the best way to truly solve problems and that any use of force should only be an absolute last resort, never a first one. As the above demonstrates, even uncivilized ones often come to that realization.

Will the president and his cabal ever realize this?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Military officers denounce Gitmo kangaroo court

Australian David Hicks is set to be the first Guantanamo Bay kidnapee finally given a pseudo-legal hearing under the new Military Commissions Act. The old system was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

Hicks is getting this pseudo-trial due because great pressure to do so has been put on the US government by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a close ally of President Bush. That the first hearing is due to political pressure, not any legalistic rationale, hardly reflects well on the credibility of such tribunals. Justice is not supposed to be politicized, but the Bush administration has long been unaware of this.

One of the most damning critics of this system is someone who works intimately within it. Air Force reserve Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley is one of the lawyers appointed to defend Gitmo detainees. She told the conservative UK Telegraph newspaper that the tribunals are designed to achieve convictions without allowing defendants a full and fair trial.

In an interview with the BBC, she also called the system un-American and compared them to McCarthyism.

The lieutenant colonel's words, not mine.

When I googled her name, I came up with this story about her work from the official site of the Willow Grove Air Force Station. It's heartwarmingly entitled, "Officer defends alleged terrorist -- and truth, justice and the American way."

Interestingly, her criticisms of the un-American legitimacy of the whole system were not mentioned.

She also told the German magazine Der Spiegel that "These trials are political."

Lt. Col. Bradley doesn't believe that she will be able to achieve anything for her client before the military commission. "If you accept their rules you've lost," she says. "We must take political and legal steps against the trial procedures."

The German magazine also interviewed another officer assigned to work at Gitmo.

Lt. Col. Thomas Bogar is a tax attorney assigned to defend one of Gitmo's (sort of) accused. A tax lawyer representing an alleged terrorism case. Why would military assign someone to the case trained in a completely unrelated field of law? Why would they do that if not because, in Lt. Col. Bradley's words, 'the tribunals are designed to achieve convictions without allowing defendants a full and fair trial'?

Bogar and his team don't know if Zahir [the detainee] is telling them the truth, but they believe that the evidence against him is shaky. The classified Zahir file contains many unsigned witness accounts, making it impossible for the attorney to determine who the witnesses are. Anonymous evidence of this nature would not even be allowed in a case before a normal court-martial, but it is being permitted before the military tribunal.

This is pretty telling. Since the pseudo-trial is held in complete secrecy, there's no reason to have the further secrecy of anonymous evidence.

No leftist, he has even campaigned for the Republicans.

Yet Lt. Col. Bogar is at a loss to understand how the military tribunals can be permitted to use the unexamined testimony of anonymous witnesses... He also has trouble accepting the notion that it should be left up to a judge to decide whether testimony obtained through torture can be used in the trials.

Perhaps the most revealing fact reported by Der Spiegel is this: Since establishing the camp in 2002, the Bush administration has released close to 300 of the roughly 770 prisoners with the explanation that they were "no longer enemy combatants" -- as if being imprisoned at Guantanamo had somehow had a cathartic effect on them. There have been many suicide attempts at the camp since then, three of them successful.

Let's forget, for a moment, that the very principle of an 'enemy combatant' is probably the most brazen and outrageous claim of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the history of the world.

The Bush administration discovered that hundreds of kidnapees really were innocent, even without even the minimal rigor of a pseudo-trial. That means hundreds of innocent men were held in this black hole with no hope, mentally tortured by their experience of being kidnaped for years and imprisoned for no reason. How much do you think this made them love America? Do you think they are going to go home and tell their friends and family how great the USA really is?

'Why do they hate America?', you often hear proclaimed. There are many reasons, some legitimate, some illegitimate. But mockeries of justice like Guantanamo Bay make things ten times worse. The whole idea of kidnaping people in distant lands and either giving them kangaroo trials or no trial at all is a disgrace to and betrayal of the ideals and beliefs all Americans claim to believe in.

Don't believe me. Believe the American military officers who know how the system really works, who know it infinitely better than you or I.


Note: Interestingly, there were several reports about these officers' criticisms in the foreign media but I couldnt' find any in the 'liberal' American media.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Just another ordinary day in Baghdad

On Thursday, a mortar round landed near a compound where a joint press conference was being held with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon.

One passage in the report struck me.

Mr Ban flinched and momentarily half-ducked behind the table before recovering his composure. Mr Maliki did not react.

A bomb landed a mere 100 yards away and caused a huge explosion but Prime Minister Maliki didn't even flinch. Guess it must be ordinary (post-'Surge') life in Iraq's capital.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hell hath no fury like a hockey fan scorned

Members of the city of Glens Falls' Common Council are a vilified bunch lately.

Listen to some of the descriptions of them expressed in letters to the editor to The Post-Star newspaper.

-A "group of greedy cowards"

-"Does this Common Council want to promote gangbanging, narcotics, underage drinking, urinating in a public place or kids smoking pot..."

-The Council wants to "promote poison to our kids and to our future generations to cover up the truth about this pack of lies on the Common Council."

-"The Common Council made it their effort to run a negative campaign and make it so the person didn't want to come and save the hockey team."

-The Council wants to promote "underage drinking, open container violations and urinating in public."


What crime have Council members and business owners committed? Do they give beer to three year olds? Do they peddle kiddie porn? Do they pass out joints to kids hanging out in the park? Are they in league with terrorists?

No. Their crime is that they conducted negotiations with the owners of the local pro hockey in the summer of 2006 over a lease for the team to use the Civic Center arena. The hockey owners understandably wanted a lease favorable to them. The Council understandably wanted to make sure that the arena made enough revenue to lessen the building's operating deficit thus less the impact on the city's taxpayers. The two parties unfortunately could not come to an agreement and the franchise effectively folded.

Business owners Rick Davidson and Art Guillory have also taken sharp hits for dissenting from the orthodoxy that the city needs professional hockey no matter what the cost.

Fans lashed out angrily against the Council, against the business community and against the team's owners. Against everyone except the real culprits: the fans themselves. Or more specifically against the fans who stopped going to games.

The reality is that in their last year, the United Hockey League team averaged fewer than 2000 fans per game. Owners said they needed at least 3000 to break even. During the glory years of the 1980s, Glens Falls' American Hockey League team averaged between 4500-5000 fans a game most years.

The UHL is about two levels lower than the AHL, so it's not surprising that attendance dropped. But 3000 a game was a realistic number for the owners to expect. In 2005-06, the UHL team had an excellent season and played an exciting brand of hockey. Yet the team didn't even average 2000 fans a game.

Some complain about ticket prices. When the AHL team left and the UHL team replaced it, the new team's owners kept the ticket prices the same. This was a huge mistake. Fans were offered lower quality hockey at the same price. It's no surprise that attendance tanked. But the city government does not set the ticket prices.

Some point to the city's per ticket surcharge tax on tickets. But attendance was in steady decline long before this surcharge (to offset the burden to the city's taxpayers) was put into place. The policy of charging the same ticket prices for lower quality hockey was made long before this surcharge came into effect.

The reality is that fans stop chosing to spend their money to watch hockey games. That's not the fault of the Common Council or Rick Davidson or Art Guillory, no matter how much it angers the hockey fundamentalists. It's an unpleasant reality, but it's reality nonetheless.

I say this as a hockey fundamentalist myself. If the team returns at some point, I will be one of the first people in line to get season tickets. I'll put my money where my mouth is. But I don't want property taxes (and thus my rent) to go up dramatically just so I can have another entertainment choice.

The hockey team was a business. The Common Council runs a venue where that business was located. They couldn't come to an agreement that satisfied both parties. It's unfortunate. I'd been going to hockey games at the Civic Center for 20 years. But these things happen. I'm a hockey fan but the sport has run its natural life cycle in this small market. Nothing would please me more than to be wrong about this, but all the evidence points in the wrong direction.

The arena has run several big rock concerts since October (which would have been the beginning of hockey season). This brought in revenue that might not have been available had the building been filled by hockey. Of course, the city decided to forego revenue that they would've gotten from a lease with the hockey team. They lost one kind of revenue but are gaining another. It's a gamble, sure. But the building has operated a significant deficit for years. I give kudos to the Council for trying something new and for not chopping off the city taxpayers' left arm to appease the freeloading outsiders.

Davidson said that despite the lack of pro hockey, his business has been UP this winter as compared to last. Despite or because? The hockey fundamentalists may not like this but their overwrought melodrama can not counter cold, hard facts.

The reason the hockey fundamentalists are so upset is because they have a hard time accepting a reality. The simple fact is that interest in pro hockey in this area has significantly declined. The numbers demonstrate this. As a huge hockey fan myself, it saddens me. But I saw the writing on the wall several years ago.

They point to sellouts of a couple of games, each a special case scenario. One was the 2006 UHL all-star game and Adirondack Red Wings alumni game. It was a one-time special event. No regular Adirondack UHL game sold out that year. Another was an AHL Albany River Rats game last October that drew over 5000 fans. But that was a pre-season game and tickets were sold at $5 as a fundraiser for the local youth hockey program.

If Adirondack's UHL or AHL teams drew 5000 fans a game at REGULAR prices (not 2/3 off), then they'd still be here. What is a potential owner going to give more weight: one-time only special situations or the evidence of a decade of declining attendance? Is an owner going to believe promises and pleas or the facts of numbers?

The simple fact is that interest in pro hockey has declined in this area. I'm a huge hockey fan. I don't like this reality, but we fans need to recognize it if we're going to have any hope of changing it.

The answer is not to berate the Common Council or the business community. It's not to treat them with a venom usually reserved for child molesters. The answer is to be positive and encourage fans to go to hockey games whenever possible. The River Rats will hold four AHL regular season games at our Civic Center next year.

The infantile attacks against city leaders need to stop. I do not hold them above criticism, but only if the criticism is reasonable and coherent. If hockey fundamentalists see this as a serious problem, then let's hear some serious solutions.

I've been to several Glens Falls Common Council meetings and I've never heard anyone in the public comments period take nasty cheap shots at the Council for the hockey question. This tells me one of two things.

Either a) it's a lot easier to slam the Council members via letters to the editor or anonymous comments on their website than to have the guts to look them in the eye and slam them face-to-face or

b) actual residents of Glens Falls generally feel that their elected representatives are representing their interests (rather than the interests of people in other towns) in the way they use their tax dollars. Just because the Council is representing the interests of the people of Glens Falls, rather than the people of Olmstedville or Queensbury, doesn't make them idiots. It means they're doing their job!

It's telling that, as far as I can recall, of the many letters attacking the Council on the hockey question, NOT ONE was actually written by a resident of the city of Glens Falls.

Glens Falls residents and Glens Falls residents alone are the ones paying for the Civic Center, both the bonds and the operating expenses. Despite the fact that any economic benefit from big events at the building also typically spills over into South Glens Falls and Queensbury. Non-Glens Falls residents are the ones whining about the decisions our elected officials make, while not offering to contribute a dime.

Non-Glens Falls residents who want hockey to return to the Civic Center need to put up or shut up. Instead of demanding someone else's tax dollars foot the bill, let them share the burden. They ought to be demanding the their own town government or their county board of supervisors contribute money to offset the Civic Center's operating deficits.

As far as I'm concerned, if these people are not interested in having their own tax dollars help out, then no one in Glens Falls should listen to their opinions on how to run the building. No money = no input.

It's all too easy to 'volunteer' someone else's tax dollars. The job of the Glens Falls Common Council is to represent the interests of the residents of Glens Falls. Their job is not to have the residents of Glens Falls subsidize the entertainment choices of people in other municipalities.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Belligerence, politicized intelligence causes more instability (redux)

Iraq isn't the only place where the Bush administration's belligerence and politicization of intelligence has created more instability, rather than diminishing it. At least that's what reports the UK Independent.

The British paper noted: The United States appears to have made a major intelligence blunder over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, one that may have exacerbated tensions with Pyongyang over the past four years and goaded Kim Jong-Il into pressing ahead with last October's live nuclear test, intelligence and Bush administration officials have said.

Bear in mind the paper is merely reporting what Bush administration officials are now admitting to.

The paper reiterated claims that the Bush administration was cherry picking the intelligence to fit its predetermined militaristic agenda rather than letting the intelligence drive the policies.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We'll let our people testify, so long as they don't have to tell the truth

That's the position of the Bush administration.

They will allow political strategist Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers talk to Congress, but only if they are not put under oath.

Let's put aside the topic of the firing of US attorneys and Rove's and Miers' alleged role in this.

What does it say when the White House overtly admits they will let their people talk only if they are given the legal ability to lie through their teeth?

Then again, I suppose it's sadly appropriate that the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq Aggression is being 'celebrated' with yet another deceit from this administration.

At least they're being open about it this time.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Yes Virginia, there really is a National Grid customer service representative

I've written before on what masquerades for customer service at National Grid, upstate New York's main power company. But it seems every time I have to call them, I come up with another story.

I had the misfortune of needing to call them today about an issue. After spending several minutes pressing buttons and listening to annoyingly long, drawn out choices, it finally tried to connect me to one of that rarest of species: the mythical National Grid customer service representative. It's the Loch Ness monster of jobs; you hear rumors it exists but rarely have the opportunity to come in actual contact with one.

Except when the voicemail system (aka: spawn of the devil) tried to connect me, I was told that all circuits were busy and that I should call back later. Then it disconnected me.

Infuriated, I immediately called back, spent another several minutes pressing buttons, spent several more minutes waiting as an obnoxious voice repeatedly told me how important my call was and that important me should hold the line indefinitely since I have nothing better to do. Finally, I got through to [insert dramatic music] an ACTUAL HUMAN BEING. It's a moment you hope for but are never quite sure is actually going to happen. Stunned at getting through to [insert dramatic music] an ACTUAL HUMAN BEING in less than a fortnight, I stuttered at the beginning before telling the guy what I needed. After some 15 minutes of waiting, button pressing and automated voices, my actual business was concluded in under two minutes once I got to [insert dramatic music] an ACTUAL HUMAN BEING.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

When slime crosses the line

I remember being flabbergasted when ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to serve as an NFL studio analyst. He may have been a football fan but surely there were more qualified people to serve as analysts. The sole reason they hired him is because they wanted someone to 'liven things up' in the booth.

Yet when he made a controversial politically-tinged comment about Donovan McNabb, there was a big flap and ESPN fired him. I remember thinking how idiotic ESPN was. They hired him to be an obnoxious loudmouth and when he did exactly what he was hired to do, they gave him the axe. I have no love lost for the admitted drug addict but ESPN was hypocritcal. When they hired him, not only did they know he had foot-in-mouth disease, that's the single reason they hired him!

I thought of this during the recent Ann Coulter flap. As you may know by now, she called Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a faggot. I'm not going to comment on her actual remark because there are certain people that just aren't worth getting upset about. And if anyone exemplifies that kind of person it's Coulter. It's the reaction that intrigued me.

Her slur provoked a virulent reaction from liberal opponents, which is exactly what she wanted. This provoked a hyperventilating counterreaction by conservative defenders of the avowed McCarthyist. It was the usual overblown back and forth. I found the whole thing dull and typical.

Ann Coulter embodies everything that's wrong with how political 'debate' is conducted in this country. She's not fundamentally different than Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore or their ilk; she just has better hair and a shriller voice.

Bear in mind, being rabidly incoherent is her niche. It's her bread and butter. Her whole appeal is to frothing-at-the-mouth readers. She never convinces anyone undecided. She just throws red meat to the partisans and makes a lot of money that way. She's not in the least persuasive, but she's a good businesswoman.

What amuses me about the latest flap is that what she said is really par for the course for her. This is a woman who's written books with titles like, "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism," "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right" and "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)."

If you look at titles like this and expect something with the wisdom of Socrates and the tolerance of Gandhi, you'd have to be delusional.

So in the wake of her 'faggot' comment, at least half a dozen papers have dropped Coulter's rantings.

Again, I don't have any warm feelings for a woman who embodies the worst in America, but what sense does this make? Why did these papers even pick up her column in the first place? I'm sure there are conservative columnists out there who appeal to readers with a double (and maybe even triple) digit IQ and all their rabies shots.

Her 'faggot' comment is really just as empty and hardly much more nasty than her usual drivel. Them dropping her columns because of this comment is like ESPN firing Limbaugh: both were simply doing what the organizations in question hired them to do.

According to these newspapers, it was no big deal for Coulter to call all liberals 'traitors.'

It was ok for her to say, 'Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do.'

It was ok for her to refer to the Democratic gathering as 'the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston.'

It was ok for her to say, 'My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building' (this from a woman who insisted that while 'not all Muslims were terrorists, all terrorists were Muslims.')

It was ok for her to decrying 9/11 widows as 'people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.'

It was ok for her to say 'If only we could get Muslims to boycott all airlines, we could dispense with airport security altogether.'

It was ok for her to say of Muslims, 'We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.'

It was ok for her to say, 'When we were fighting communism, OK, they had mass murderers and gulags, but they were white men and they were sane. Now we're up against absolutely insane savages.'

All that stuff was ok, or at least tolerable, according to these newspapers. But using an infantile schoolyard taunt against John Edwards... now THAT is crossing the line!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

'War on terror' causes terrorism to skyrocket

... at least according to the facts.

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the aggression against Iraq. It's a good opportunity to take a look at just how disastrous the effects have been. How disastrous?

Many more people have died world due to terrorism in the 4 years since the invasion of Iraq than in all of the previous 35 years.

These astonishing statistics found at this Terrorism Knowledge Base website. It has information on all worldwide terrorist incidents since 1968.

From January 1, 1968 until March 20, 2003 (when the Iraq invasion began), there were 19,586 deaths caused during 16,343 terrorist incidents in the entire world. This figure of course included the attacks on New York and Washington.

Since then until today, there have been 28,229 deaths caused during 16,002 terrorist incidents.

There have been almost as many terrorist attacks in the world in the last four years as during the previous 35.

There have been almost one-third MORE deaths in the world due to terrorism in the last four years than during the previous 35.

Yes, Mr. President, the Iraq invasion has made the world safer.

Since the beginning of this atrocity, the world death rate due to terrorism is 13 times higher, terrorist incidents are 8 times more common.

Oh, and let's not forgot that anti-American hatred is way up.

Maybe they don't hate us for our freedom, as President Bush so pompously insists. Maybe they hate us because he's made the world a significantly more dangerous place by the grotesquely misnamed 'war on terror,' a ruse easily unmasked by a cursory look at... the facts.

Yes, Mr. President, the Iraq invasion has made the world better. Your little fantasy world, anyway.

No word on if the AT LEAST 150,000 Iraqis who've been killed since their "liberation" feel safer.


Numbers:

-In the 35 years prior to the Iraq Aggression, there was an average of 46.2 deaths per month worldwide due to terrorism and 38.6 terrorist incidents per month

-In the 4 years since the Iraq Aggression started, there has been an average of 588.1 deaths per month worldwide due to terrorism and 333.4 terrorist incidents per month.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

If only the towers emitted common sense...

There has been quite an uproar following the death of a man on Interstate 87 (the Adirondack Northway). The man and his wife's car went into a ditch during an ice storm. There was no cell phone coverage in the ditch and the man died. The death galvanized calls for cell phone towers to be installed all along the rural northern stretches of the Northway.

Not surprisingly, the villain in the piece is environmentalists. According to the hysteria, if not for tree huggers, there would be cell towers on the Northway and the man would have lived. The environmentalists are putting scenic views ahead of people!!

As in many simplistic morality tales, this isn't quite the whole truth.

A plan was approved in 2002 by the region's regulatory body, the Adirondack Park Agency, that would've allowed for the installation of a series of 33 cell phone towers along the remote stretches of the Northway.

But though this plan was approve FIVE years ago, it has never been implemented.

Why?

Not because of the evil tree huggers. The region's main environmental groups SUPPORT this plan that would enhance the public safety of motorists on the Northway.

The reason the plan hasn't been implemented is because cell phone companies have decided it's not profitable enough to install towers in the sparsely populated Park.

It is certainly their prerogative to do so but Park residents should quit blaming boogeymen like the Adirondack Council because Cingular, Nextel and Verizon don't view the residents as beneficial enough to their bottom line. Blame capitalism, not the Greenies.

The pro-"free market" residents of the Park want the state to foot the bill for the construction of the towers so that they hugely profitable corporations don't have to.

The more annoying part of this debate, the hysteria as I put it, has to do with how one unfortunate death was exploited to advance an agenda that's been around for several years. Residents couldn't get private corporations to put up the towers so now they want state taxpayers to foot the bill.

One person dies in circumstances that have more to do with that person's individual choices and suddenly we have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to change everything.

"You mean we can talk to people on the moon, but we can't talk to people on Interstate 87?" wondered a member of the Jewish community to wish the deceased motorst belonged.

Apparently, it's now a God-given right to be able to yack on your cell phone on every square inch of the Earth's surface. I suppose hungry peasants in Ethiopia are having their fundamental human rights violated because they don't have access to the new iTunes phone!

Local elected officials did their part to fan the frenzy.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that local state Sen. Betty Little said, “We’re really talking about being able to communicate when there’s an emergency and a need. The most important thing here that we’re talking about is safety.”

This was after she said she can't imagine living without her cell phone and her Blackberry.

I know politicians can get a skewed view of reality when they spend too long in the cocoon of the capital, but Sen. Little should be made aware that the ability to type out an email to a campaign donor does not constitute a matter of grave public safety!

Even the local newspaper got into the act.

The Glens Falls Post-Star recently posted an appeal seeking stories of people who have been helped by cellular phones, or who have had problems using cellular phones, when summoning assistance in the Adirondacks region, including Warren, Washington, Saratoga and Essex counties.

Is this 'we don't make news, we just report it' or is this finding facts that fit a pre-determined agenda?

Usually such appalling bias is more well-hidden.

There's more hypocrisy involved. Part of the hysteria insisted that "we must do anything to prevent another death along the Northway."

Who knows, maybe the legislature will pass a bill banning snow and ice from landing on the Northway. It is Albany, after all.

But what about the rest of the Adirondack Park? Is the ability of people driving from Montreal to New York City (or to the state Senate chamber) to use their Blackberrys more important than the safety of permanent residents who don't live alongside the Northway? If a local dies on Route 28 near Blue Mountain Lake, will there be the same red-faced demands for more cell towers than when a Brooklynite dies on the Interstate?

The man crashed because he insisted on driving on the Northway during the most severe ice storm in a decade, rather than getting off and checking into a motel. Given the hideous weather conditions, it's not clear if rescue vehicles would reached him in time even if there had been cell phone service in the ditch.

I remember that ice storm. It was barely safe enough for me to walk three blocks to the convenience store without breaking my neck, let alone to drive a one ton hunk of metal hurtling down the Interstate. I chose safety first. My burning desire for a bottle of diet soda would have to wait.

I ride on the Northway, often during the winter, sometimes during bad weather. In fact, I've been in two accidents in the mountains, once during a snow storm.

In bad driving conditions there are simple solutions. Those solutions do not include blaming the Adirondack Council. They do not include grabbing your cell phone and calling a helicopter. They do not include borrowing Sen. Little's bodily appendage Blackberry. The solutions involving driving slowly and carefully or to pull off the road altogether and wait for the weather to clear. Being smart is more important than being connected.

Maybe these solutions require more patience than Brooklynites have, but locals know that wisdom is more of a life saver than speed.

If you live in the Adirondack Mountains, common sense has a much bigger impact on your safety than cell phone service.

Update: Post-Star online director Pat Dowd responds, "I am sorry for your suspicion! We are looking for people who had problems to see if the cell phone dead spots are an issue with readers or not. So I'd put that in the 'just reporting it' category. But thanks for keeping us on our toes!" I suppose I'll take her at her word for now and suspend judgement (though not attentiveness) for the moment.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wars of aggression moral, gays not

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, recently told a newspaper that homosexuality was immoral and should not be tolerated in the military.

Pace told The Chicago Tribune, "I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way."

In defending the military's indefensible 'don't ask, don't tell' farce, Pace added, "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts."

Of course, this is a specious argument. The question is not whether gay sex between soldiers or in the barracks should be allowed. The question is whether gay men and women should be allowed to serve their country.

Though I am reassured that a profession where killing people, blowing stuff up and destroying other countries can be an integral part of the job description has such high moral standards.

Update: Gen. Pace has since expressed regret that he focused more on his own personal morality than on the Pentagon's 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lake Chad 'dying'

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.

While most of the greenhouse gases that the scientific consensus believes causes climate change are emitted in industrialized and industrializing countries, it's largely pastoral Africa that's suffering worst effects of global warming.

(Incidentally, kudos to the European Union for taking responsibility for their excesses and trying moderate them. In choosing to adapt to reality, the EU is positioning itself to be an economic leader in developing green technologies.)

The Sahara Desert is creeping further southward. Regions of West Africa that were lush 30 years ago are now dry scrublands. Drought and hunger are now increasingly common in the band of the continent stretching from Senegal and Mali east through Ethiopia and Somalia. Decades ago, these countries had food self-sufficiency, but that was back when they had rain.

One of the victims is Lake Chad. Lake Chad is one of Africa's largest and most important lakes. It's also dying, as this BBC piece explains.

Experts are warning that the lake, which was once Africa's third largest inland water body, could shrink to a mere pond in two decades.

German and American scientists blamed global warming and human activity, such as dams.

The fishing industry in towns around Lake Chad is in crisis. Locals also report that birds and other animals are also dying. The decreased water amounts also severely affects pastoralists.

In a mere 40 years, the surface of the lake has shrunk by a mind-boggling 80 percent.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The importance of unreasonable men

Alternet wonders if Ralph Nader is an unreasonable man. A documentary about him, An Unreasonable Man, was released recently.

Despite being the most prominent progressive candidate in the last two presidential elections, Nader remains a hate figure in many left-of-center circles. As an anti-war American, I was grateful that Nader ran in 2004 so I could have a chance to vote for an actual anti-war candidate. Most anti-war Americans voted for a candidate who thought the Iraq Aggression was a fantastic idea in principle, just that it wasn't being managed quite so niftily.

The Alternet piece points to leftist critics of Nader who blame him for the Iraq Aggression, environmental destruction, the assault on the Constitution and who call him a "megalomaniac" and "intellectually dishonest."

It's one thing to disagree with Nader (though many of his most virulent critics agree with him on most things, except on his right to run for president). But his most vicious critics, who are usually on the left not the right, are so disconnected from reality in the way they attack him, that you have to wonder if they are mentally deranged.

Saying that Nader should have spent more years trying to help reform the Democratic Party is not a statement I'd agree with (the strategy having been tried and failed) but it's a fair statement that one can debate. But saying that Nader is to blame for the Iraq Aggression is beyond irrational.

In reading such fury and drivel, you almost forget that it's George W. Bush and his cronies who are destroying the country and the world, not a man who's spent four decades fighting AGAINST Bush and his right-wing corporatist forefathers and everything they stand for.

Similarly, Lorna Salzman wrote an interesting piece entitled 'Paleoliberals and the Satanic Nader.'

(It's available on her website. Just click on 'collected writings,' then on 'Green politics and foreign policy' and scroll down)

In her essay, Salzman assails 'Joe McCarthy-like outbursts' of establishment liberals (which she refers to as 'paleoliberals') against Nader.

What can they [the paleoliberals] possibly be thinking as they curse Pres. Bush for countenancing torture and illegal wiretapping and trampling on our civil liberties on the one hand, and with the other curse Nader for actually putting those liberties into practice? Or when they loudly scream for campaign reform but then, by inference, insist that the Democratic Party owns the votes of anyone who doesn't vote Republican?

She also points out that Nader was a refreshing antidote to the idea-free campaign of the Democrats and of John "a kinder, gentler militarism" Kerry.

Most distressing was the fact that few saw fit to even listen to Nader's reasons for running, much less his platform. Far easier it was to brand him as an apostate than be forced to defend the two-party system and the cynicism of the "lesser of two evils', or to defend a mediocre Democrat and his do-nothing party, or actually admit they agreed with Nader on all the issues. Who wants to subject himself to a civics lesson in the meaning of democracy? Perhaps in the end it was this resentment against the superior Nader arguments that galled his critics the most. If so, this was a subliminal way of honoring him; if you curse him enough, voters will ignore the issues he raises and your pronouncements will reign supreme. The cynics win and the country loses.

The Democrats spent four years rightly complaining about electoral mess that was Florida 2000. They wanted democracy, they sniffed. They wanted elections to be decided by the people, not lawyers and judges. The DNC machinations against Nader in 2004 when they tried to lawyer him off the ballot in many states revealed the hollowness of such whinings. Sure, many of these suits were without merit or frivolous but they bled Nader's campaign coffers dry and prevented him from running an effective campaign. What do you expect from the party of trial lawyers. They proved they were Democrats, not democrats.

And this garbage only further illustrated what Nader had said all along: that a serious, viable third party is necessary in this country. Nader has not yet succeeded in making this happen. One person alone can not do it. But it's a battle that needs to be fought.

Some people call him an egomaniac. But devoting 40 years and almost all your money entirely to public service is a strange way to manifest egomania. Being spied on by General Motors is a strange way to manifst egomania. Being called a traitor by your former friends because you actually acted on the principles those friends always admired you for is a strange way to manifest egomania.

Nader realizes that the poiltical system needs to be completely overhauled. If it were reformed in the way he and his supporters know is required, I would bet a year's paycheck that he would not run for president. He wouldn't have to. His objective is not power, but change.

Ralph Nader may be a prickly individual. He's not the kind of person you're going to go have a beer with at the bar. But he knows that those who believe the Democratic Party can return to its roots as a progressive movement free from corporate control may be well-intentioned, but are hopelessly naive. He is not a saint, but he's as close as we're going to get in today's politics. And he's gotten results. He wouldn't be so loathed by corporate America if he didn't.

Nader may be an unreasonable man. But every great advancement in American history was initiated by 'unreasonable' people. Unreasonable people like the Founding Fathers. Unreasonable people like Martin Luther King, Jr. Unreasonable people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan. Unreasonable people who were too naive and stubborn to believe critics when they were told that the right thing can't be done. In 40 years, Nader has made more of a positive contribution to this country than any reasonable person I can think of.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Even the spirits don't like him

It must be tough being President Bush. His vice-president's top aide is convicted of several crimes. The Aggression he staked his presidency continues to go catastrophically. His poll ratings are in the toilet. And now even the spirits reject him.

President Bush has started his 'fence-mending' tour of Latin America. Latin Americans, for their part, have reacted somewhat strongly to the visit of US leader.

He was greeted by riots in Brazil. There have also been riots in Colombia in advance of his visit.

The most amusing story comes from Guatemala, location of a genocide in the 1980s committed by a military dictatorship backed by the Reagan administration.

Mayan priests will purify a sacred archaeological site to eliminate "bad spirits" after President Bush visits next week, an official with close ties to the group said Thursday.

"That a person like (Bush), with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture,"
said the director of a Mayan non-governmental organization.

Maybe we can get them to purify the White House too in late January 2009.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

You aren't entitled to your own facts, but that doesn't stop some people from trying

I believe it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts."

Apparently, some conservatives don't accept this. The Bush administration has been a Godsend for partisans of Newspeak. War is peace. Chaos is liberation. Fear of leaving one's home is safety. Not having the basic necessities is freedom. Big government is small government.

Another part of conservative orthodoxy (and this pre-dates the current administration) is that nearly all major institutions have a liberal bias. Network news is liberal. Cable news is liberal. Newspapers are liberal. Magazines are liberal. Public radio is liberal. Public primary and secondary school teachers are liberal. University professors are liberal.

Only Fox News (sic) Channel, yap radio and a few 'respectable' newspapers like The Washington Times and New York Post provide moderate, balanced reporting that's an antidote to the liberal crusade of outlets owned by the giant corporate media companies (the corporate establishment being a known hotbed of far left radicalism).

With nearly every major domain in public life, save churches and the military, have this grotesque liberal bias, there must be some sort of Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy to coordinate their anti-Christian, anti-American agenda.

Of course, charges of a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy or systematic bias from these institutions is pure nonsense (with the possible exception of some universities). Corporate media is a notoriously conservative institution. Not conservative as in right-wing but conservative as in not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to offend anyone. That's why corporate media news is bland and has no nutritional value.

The more interesting question is this. Do conservatives actually believe that these institutions have a systematic bias? Or is it part of an organized campaign to intimidate these institutions into being more conservative as a way to appease conservative criticism?

My guess is that it's a combination of the two. And it's worked. For two decades or more, conservatives have consistently attacked the media for mythical liberal bias. So when the Bush administration made its now-discredited case for the aggression against Iraq, the "liberal" media didn't challenge it. It accepted the administration's fantastical assertions that Saddam Hussein was a threat to Americans without blinking an eye. Why? Because they didn't want to appear "liberal" by overly questioning a "war president" or his decisions. They didn't want to appear unpatriotic by asking questions or pushing Americans into thinking before doing. I'm sure corporate media journalists didn't want to be sycophants, but they were cowed into playing that role.

The fact that many elected Democrats accepted the president's b.s. gave the media a perfect excuse not to investigate seriously. If it's "bipartisan," it must be right! Which is exactly why we need to start electing smaller party candidates to get a real diversity of opinions on serious issues, rather than the current false dichotomy.

The corporate media didn't bother asking any serious questions until a couple years after the Aggression was launched. By then, the war was going badly enough that they had the political cover to ask serious questions. But by then, the damage was done.

Not content with smearing the media and educations, conservatives have found a new strawman to invent bias allegations about: Wikipedia.

Now I have to say that Wikipedia's an interesting experiment, so long as you take its entries with a grain of salt. I think its entries can give you a good guide to things you don't know much about, so long as it's a jumping off point to other, more credible sources.

But conservatives apparently aren't happy about a website where everybody, including liberals, secularists and other heathens, can influence things. They want their own version of the facts in an unchallenged way. Maybe they don't think they can win a fair fight. Who knows.

So what happens when a poor sport has to follow the same rules as everyone else, he takes his ball and goes home. In this case, conservatives didn't like Wikipedia so they invented their own site. Screw you, Mr. Moynihan!

The site is called Conservapedia. Its motto: A conservative encyclopedia you can trust.

The site offers a list of 32 alleged examples of bias in Wikipedia. Many of them come straight from the conservative culture war manual. Abortion. The mythical war against Christianity. "Intelligent design." America-hating. The usual nonsense.

An example of this alleged anti-Americanism? Wikipedia occasionally permits [cue Darth Vader voice]... British spellings of words.

OH THE HORROR.

All Americans should take offence at this encylopaedia!

Conservapedia also whines about an "extreme form of Anglophilia that characterizes many entries in Wikipedia."

Britain supported the conservative-instigated Aggression against Iraq so you wouldn't think Anglophilia would be a great crime in their eyes.

What's the #1 example of bias? [insert menacing music] Wikipedia uses B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D. to refer to years.

Now I agree that BCE and CE are silly because they are both based on the year of Jesus' birth anyways, but if this is the worst example of bias in Wikipedia, the one that is at the top of the Conservapedia hit list, then they're reeeeeally grasping at straws.

Conservatives can invent their own encylopedia if they want. If they wish to preach to the converted, it's a free country. But somehow I doubt most non-conservative Americans are going to flock to this overtly conservative encylcopedia, just because Wikipedia once "lacked any entry on the basic concept of an elementary [mathematical] proof."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Happy Birthday Ghana


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.



My Africa blog is named Black Star Journal. As Africaphiles will probably guess, the title refers to the black star in the center of Ghana's flag, which has come to symbolize pan-African idealism. Today, Ghana celebrates its Golden Jubilee.

On this date in 1957, Ghana won independence from Britiain, becoming the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to break free from European colonialism.

At the time, Ghana joined Ethiopia and Liberia as black Africa's only independent countries. Within 20 years, virtually all of Africa had gained political indepedence. Ghana served as a beacon of hope for Africans in other colonies. The success of their struggle to control their own destinies was hardly assured at the time.

Ghana's founding leader Kwame Nkrumah was one of the standard bearers of pan-Africanism, the idea of uniting all Africans and those of the diaspora into a united community. His vision was for all countries on the continent to eventually join into a United States of Africa.

While Nkrumah was a great visionary of pan-Africanism, he wasn't a particularly good leader of Ghana. Like many leaders, he was good at the big ideas but not so good at translating them into the nitty gritty of governance. (Are you taking notes Presidents Obasanjo and Wade?)

The pan-African optimism of the late 50s and early 60s quickly evaporated. Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup. Sylvanus Olympio and Patrice Lumumba were assassinated. Sékou Touré's regime quickly descended into a nightmarish police state. Nigeria erupted in civil war. The continent was split into 50+ countries with as many ruling cliques who didn't fancy giving up their power and privilege. At least not voluntarily.

Ghana was very unstable and sometimes violent in the 25 years following Nkrumah's overthrow. But the country was stabilized in the latter part of the rule of the controversial Jerry John Rawlings. A peaceful handover of power occurred in 2000 after opposition leader John Kufour defeated Rawlings' handpicked successor.

The always opinionated Rawlings didn't share his disgust at his party's loss of power but he did hand over. Though the former head of state clearly remains bitter at the fact that after 20 years of unquestioned power, Ghanaians snubbed him by not electing his dauphin. He refused an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations. The man widely accused of massive human rights, especially in the early 80s, sniffed that the Kufour administration was covering up alleged cases of torture and extrajudicial killings. Strangely, the human rights organizations which normally chronicle such things don't mention anything about these mythical abuses. Perhaps Rawlings is just upset that at this high profile anniversary, he is, for once, not at the center of attention.

Ghana is certainly not without its share of problems today. But it is now seen as one of the most economically and politically stable countries on the continent. After 50 turbulent years, it has returned to its place as one of the beacons of hope for Africa.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The anti-landmine campaign and its legacy

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.

Almost ten years ago, the international treaty to ban landmines was signed in Ottawa, presumably because of the leadership shown on the issue by Canada's then-foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.

While Axworthy provided the impetus on the governmental level, the movement was really headed by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The ICBL is a coalition of over 1400 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cooperating on this issue. The ICBL and its then-coordinator Jody Williams were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Voice of America has a brief piece on how successful the treaty has been. Though it notes that most of the world's top military powers have refused to sign the treaty including the United States, China, Pakistan, India, Russia and most countries in the Middle East.

While the failure of the US to adhere to these basic standards of making warfare slightly less savage is a disappointment, the ICBL's legacy has been enormous. The international development agenda was once dominated by governments, some anti-democratic, others in hoc to financial and commercial interests. Essentially, few entities existed to look at development from an unbiased perspective, with the interest of the ordinary masses of people in mind.

The ICBL was really the first time I'm aware of that NGOs were able to wage a huge advocacy campaign that ultimately resulted in the adoption of a major international treaty. This, along with the 'blood diamonds' campaign that followed shortly thereafter, have essentially become the template for NGOs can have an impact on the international agenda.

NGO power still pales in comparison to the obscene influence of multinational behemoths. Big corporations have plenty of money to grease the skids, while NGOs only have moral authority. But at least there's now a way by which the agenda of ordinary people can actually be heard... and once in a while even advances.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The economics of war and the priority of ending it

Every so often, you see a series of apparently unrelated articles with a common thread running through them.

UNICEF recently reported that children in the United States and Britain have the worst standard of living of kids in any industrialized country.

The report for the first time measures and compares overall child well-being across six dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviours and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of their own well-being. In total, 40 separate indicators of child well-being – from relative poverty and child safety, to educational achievement to drug abuse – are brought together in this overview to present a picture of the lives of children.

Not surprisingly, children in "socialist" northern Europe have the highest standards of living.

Not surprising because those countries have policies which facilitate a pretty high standard of living for everyone.

Then, I read how thousands of Army humvees designed to reduce U.S. troop deaths from roadside bombs lack the armor necessary to do the job. They are designed to protect the type of weapon that is now causing some 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq. The upgrade is not scheduled to be completed until this summer.

In 2003, the US shipped some $12 billion ($12,000,000,000) in cold hard cash to Iraq and watched it vanish with not one iota of accountability.

That number might be unfathomable to some. You might be tempted to write it off as a drop in the bucket comparatively. But with the total cost of the war quickly approaching $405,000,000,000 (probably more by the time you read this), $12 billion represents almost a month and a half's worth.

So that means in just the year of 2003, about 12 percent of all the US taxpayers' money spent in Iraq just vanished into thin air. Just in the year 2003.

The Army 'couldn't afford' to upgrade their equipment sooner. The VA 'can't afford' to properly take care of veterans. Americans in general 'can't afford' policies that provide children with a dignified standard of living. But the federal government can afford to throw away $12,000,000,000 in a single year in a chaotic foreign country with no strings attached and without anyone apparently noticing until year's later.

In reality, 'can't afford' mean 'choose not to prioritize.'

'Defense' contractors have made sure their profits are prioritized.

If you take Economics 101, you'll learn about opportunity cost. Normal cost factors in the expense of taking an action. Opportunity cost expresses the cost of NOT doing something else.

The insanity in Iraq has a gigantic cost that can be easily expressed ($405 billion and counting). But the OPPORTUNITY cost of spending that $405 billion on senseless war and destruction, as opposed to, say, veterans' benefits and child well-being programs, is much higher. Spending huge amounts of money on an atrocity instead of spending on something constructive has a cost to society that's immeasurable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The new harvest of shame

There are certain stories that just make you completely want to vomit. This is one of them. In recent years, Colorado has passed some of the strictest anti-immigrant laws in the nation. Not surprisingly, migrants fled the state. This caused a not at all unexpected problem: a serious labor shortage.

So the state's Department of Corrections proposed a novel solution: use convicts to pick the melons, onions and peppers that the migrants used to harvest. Prisoners who opt to do this will earn 60 cents a day. This works out to less than $0.08 per hour in a state where the minimum wage is $6.85.

They can't get virtual slave labor from Latin America so they raiding American jails instead.

I guess it's easier than paying legal workers a decent wage.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Religious extremists target gays all over the world

Being gay isn't easy anywhere in the world, though the degree varies quite a bit depending on the location.

In THE UNITED STATES, some gays are having to chose between their heart and their country. This commentary in Newsweek explains on case. The writer's describes her son as a model American citizen. He is a hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding young man. An honor student, a National Merit Scholar, a dean's list mainstay. He is liked by his teachers, co-workers and bosses; he's kind to cats, dogs and little old ladies. He is an environmental engineer because he believes we need to save our planet. He is wildly in love with the first and only person he ever dated and their monogamous relationship is an example of what it means to be soulmates. Except for a brief interlude with hideous pink hair, he has led an exemplary life. My son will be an asset to his employer, his community and his country, but unfortunately for us, his country will not be the United States.

He will move to Canada. Why? [B]ecause he wants what heterosexual American citizens take for granted. He wants to marry the one person in the world who makes him happier than anyone else. He wants to be able to go to the hospital when his partner, Aaron, is sick and have the same decision-making rights that heterosexual couples have as soon as they say "I do." He wants to be able to take advantage of family health-insurance rates that Aaron's company offers to all its heterosexual married couples but not to domestic partnership couples. He wants the tax breaks that heterosexual married couples get and the ability to inherit shared assets without paying taxes. He simply wants what he cannot have in this country.

Some people claim that gays want the sun and the moon. But what of the above is unreasonable?

Some people pretend that gays want "special rights." But what of the above is "special"? They don't want preferential treatment. They just want the exact same things that straights already have. Gay American citizens just want EQUAL legal rights to heterosexual American citizens.

These equal rights are something the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution supposedly guarantees but 26 state constitutions not only don't guarantee but explicitly ban.

But as bad as the Theocracy Brigade in this country is, NIGERIA's is much worse. The west African country's government wants to ban any acknowledgement of gays.

By this, I don't mean criminalizing gay acts (which I'm sure are already illegal, even in private). I don't mean banning gay marriage. Religious conservatives in the United States demand gays be treated as second-class humans. Religious conservatives in Nigeria want gays to be treated as not human at all, to ban them from talking. The Nigerian government and religious leaders want to ban anyone from even speaking out in favor of equal rights for gays. And to have the power to imprison people for such speech. Even the country's late military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, one of Africa's most monstrous dictators, never proposed such insanity.

But in newly democratic Nigeria, with its lack of separation of church and state, such a ban has a good chance of passing. Religious institutions are its most ardent backers. Banning acknowledgement of gays as human beings is one of the few things that the conservative Muslim north and the country's fundamentalist Christian president will find in common.

Religious hatred can divide people. But just as tragically, it can also unite people. I wonder if those Americans who claim to be so worried about the freedom of Iraqis will speak out against this monstrosity. Or if they only speak of "freedom" when they want to promote militarism.

In IRAQ, it's even worse still. Theocrats in that country are assassinating gays. "Sexual cleansing" is the euphemism used, a word with an eerie echo of "ethnic cleansing" (a euphemism for genocide).

The Badr Corps -- the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the country's most powerful Shiite political group -- launched a campaign of "sexual cleansing," marshaling death squads to exterminate homosexuality, following a "death to gays" fatwa issued in October 2005 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 77-year-old chief spiritual leader of all Iraqi Shiite Muslims.

And you thought America was the only object to the 'death to...' chants.

One Iraqi gay comments:

"I've been living in a state of fear for the last year since Ayatollah Sistani issued that fatwa, in which he even encouraged families to kill their sons and brothers if they do not change their gay behavior," said [one Iraqi gay man named Hussein]. "My brother, who has been under pressure and threats from Sistani's followers about me, has threatened to harm me himself, or even kill me, if I show any signs of gayness."

Hussein had already lost his job in a photo lab because the shop owner did not want people to think that he was supporting a gay man.

"Now I'm very self-conscious about my look and the way I dress -- I try to play it safe," said Hussein, who is slightly effeminate. "Several times I was followed in the street and beaten just because I had a nice, cool haircut that looked feminine to them. Now I just shave my head."

Indeed, even the way one dresses is enough to get a gay Iraqi killed.

"Just the fact of looking neat and clean, let alone looking elegant and well groomed, is very dangerous for a gay person," Hussein said. "So now I don't wear nice clothes, so that no one would even suspect that I'm gay. I now only leave home if I want to get food."


If anyone has a rational justification for any of this, I'm all ears.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Peace Corps Day

Today is national Peace Corps Day. It's the anniversary of the day in 1961 when President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medeival saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the [46th] anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.



Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elogies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.


(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)


The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.