Friday, November 28, 2008

Empty the Asylums Day

A conversation overhead at my office:

1st woman (proudly): I stood in line outside Wal-Mart for over 2 1/2 hours in freezing weather!

2nd woman (admiringly): That's amazing! There's no way I could've done that.

I felt like telling the 2nd woman that the reason she couldn't have done that is because she's sane. Even more so considering that I've heard there was a brawl at that Wal-Mart in (where else?) the electronics department.

An acquaintance of mine's Facebook status reads, "everyone who shopped early today deserves all the crap they put up with."

I couldn't agree with him more.

People think sports fans are deranged fanatics. But I'd feel safer around Italian soccer hooligans than Christmas shoppers.

Update: The Season of Peace began badly for one Wal-Mart worker in Long Island who was trampled to death by a rampaging herd of lunatics released for the day from their cages. A tragedy in any context, but even more so considering the scenario.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The cable TV racket

Common Cause NY recently issued a report regarding the huge campaign donations made by cable television companies to New York politicians.

The three largest cable companies in the state (Verizon, Time Warner and Cablevision) along with the cable industry's trade group have coughed up over $4.3 million in legal campaign bribes (euphemistically referred to as "donations") in the last 10 years to NYS candidates for political office. Like most corporations, they are non-ideological: they bet on winners. In 2002, they gave 80 percent of their "donations" to the heavily favored Republican incumbent governor (who won); in 2006, they gave 82 percent to the overwhelmingly favored Democrat (who also won).

The industry has also spent a staggering $24 million just since 2005 on lobbying in New York. That's just for this one state.

These "donations" have accomplished their goal. Despite the theoretical legalization of competition in the industry some years ago, I am not aware of a single municipality in the state where residents have more than one cable choice.

Furthermore, these three companies have a virtual stranglehold on cable service in the state. A bill sponsored by powerful Assemblyman Richard Brodsky that would've legalized statewide franchises and provided stronger consumer protections for cable subscribers was defeated in the legislature, thanks to heavy industry lobbying. The industry continues to resist a la carte channel choices, despite strong support among consumers.

With their oligarchical control and no competition even amongst themselves in any municipality, the market leaders have no incentive to improve their lousy, overpriced service.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The first casualty

I'm reading an intriguing book entitled The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop.

The basic premise of the work is that while America as a whole has become very evenly divided, communities are becoming increasingly homogeneous and that polarization is being aggravated by these millions of little echo chambers.

In the part I'm reading now, the author talks about how more and more positions are being taken not because of any ideological or principled basis but out of a reflexive reaction to 'the other side.'

When I was one of the very few on the American left to condemn the Russian aggression against Georgia, I was struck by the ferocity of the criticism against me.

But the fact of the criticism didn't surprise me. I was taking what was perceived to be 'Bush's side' and that was unacceptable.

My critics trotted some token criticism of an alleged Georgian war crime. But it was just that: token. If they really cared that much about it, they'd still be beating the drum for the alleged perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Their main objection was clearly that Georgia's president was too friendly with Bush so he deserved to have his country get the crap beat out of it by the Russian behemoth.

Never mind that this seems grossly inconsistent with the normally expressed progressive position against imperial wars and militarism.

Why do I think it was just token? Virtually no mention of these alleged Georgian crimes were made before the Russian invasion.

And here's another reason: in recent months, both rebel militias and the national army in the eastern DR Congo are guilty of far more extensive, far more brutal and far more devastating war crimes and crimes against humanity than anything the Georgian military is accused of.

Yet there's nary a mention among those who were so quick to condemn Georgia's alleged shelling of the civilian area of one city. The Congolese combatants are guilty of savagery that dwarfs anything the Georgians did, in a manner that's much longer and on a far greater scale.

The only difference I can see is that none of the combatants in the DRC are seen as pro- or anti-Bush so there's no Pavlovian bell to react to.

I opposed the Russian aggression on grounds that were consistent with my ideologies in favor of human rights and against militarism. And I've written several times about the nightmare in the DRC. Both are wrong. And Bush has nothing to do with either.

Bishop talks about this sort of knee jerk behavior in his book.

He points out that the first town in the US to place limits on DNA research was none other than Cambridge, MA, home of Harvard. One of the most liberal cities in America nearly outlawed genetic research in 1977.

But something changed.

When the religious right came out against embryonic stem cell research, however, it created "this reflexive response to that religious point of view", noted a San Francisco scientist.

Liberals like to think that questioning this kind of science is the unique provenance of uneducated, Bible thumping rubes.

So how do they explain this in the home of the most elite university in the nation? Do they forget that a century ago, the progressivism of the time supported eugenics?

I am pro-science but I'm not fundamentalist. When I was in West Africa, a colleague of mine often said to me, "Science without conscience will be the ruin of mankind."

He was no Einstein. He had no fancy degrees from elite institutions. He was a humble middle school biology and chemistry teacher in a tiny village in the West African jungle. I do not know his politics. He may not have been highly educated but he was very wise.

Of course, such knee-jerk behavior is not unique to the left. When Republican George Bush decided to launch his unprovoked aggression against Iraq, Republicans rallied behind him and intoned the mantra that it was treasonous to criticize a president during war time.

Many of these same Republicans were the most bitter critics of Bill Clinton and his decision to launch a NATO intervention in Kosovo. Bill Clinton was a Democrat.

People today are more concerned about being with 'their side' than about being right than anything else. Professed values just get in the war. That's why values get tossed out the window and rabidly anti-war citizens will eagerly get behind pro-war candidates. It's easier to pick a side than to search for what is often a messy, nuanced truth.

They say truth is the first casualty of war. The saying was directed toward conventional military conflict. But apparently it's also true of the culture wars.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Are you dumber than an 11 year old?

I'm sorry to rant but... is there anything more flat out stupid than observations like "With really cold weather we're having tonight, I have a hard time believing in global warming."

The scary part is that people with this sort of comprehensive ignorance of the most basic tenets of science, stuff I learned way back in 6th grade... these are the people who've been running the country and overruling informed scientific policy for the last eight years.

It was 63 here last Wednesday afternoon. I guess that proves global warming!!!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Coverage of the Adirondack Climate Conference

Today and tomorrow, John over at Adirondack Almanack is providing live blogging coverage from the climate change conference being held at Tupper Lake's Wild Center. Check it out!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Churches' special rights

It's no secret that churches are the main opponents of attempts to offer state-recognition of gay unions. These are proposals that only affect what the state does and has no impact on religious organizations, who remain free to be as bigoted as they want.

Something's occurred to me recently. Organized churches benefit great from one enormous special right: the tax-exempt status that society (via governments) chooses to accord them. They are not allowed to explicitly endorse or oppose candidates for political office. But obviously, there are no restrictions to what they can do related to other political issues.

Given this special right that society gives them, you'd think they'd be a little bit less in your face in lobbying about public policy issues that don't affect them.

There's a huge difference between a church saying "We won't recognize gay marriages" and it saying "The state should ban anyone from recognizing gay marriages."

The state doesn't dictate how churches regulate themselves. Churches should return the favor.

After all, churches risk a backlash. Revulsion against creeping theocracy may create a movement to revoke this special right.

If they want to be political, so be it. They just shouldn't be subsidized by the rest of us.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is a dead fetus in Kansas worth more than a dead toddler in Baghdad?

"They say we're disturbing the peace. But what really disturbs them is that we're disturbing the war." -Howard Zinn

The US Catholic bishops are at it again. They've issued their periodical call for Catholic politicians who support legal abortion to be denied Holy Communion.

There is one hypocrisy that infuriates me to no end. And that most Americans who claim to be 'pro-life,' define the term EXCLUSIVELY in terms of one's position on the legality of abortion.

The reason this infuriates me is because there are two other central 'life issues' that ought to be given equal consideration: wars of aggression and state murder, more commonly known as the death penalty.

I do not wish to devote this essay to a debate over whether the fetus should be considered a child. But I will say this.

If you consider an unborn fetus to be a full-fledged human being deserving of all the rights therein, shouldn't you expect the same rights be accorded to former fetuses that now live outside the womb?

In short, if the unborn have rights, why are rights for the born forgotten?

It infuriates me that so many people demand the unborn be afforded special protection but then don't give a crap what happens once they leave the mother's fetus. It's too bad that 'pro-life' and 'pro-quality of life' seem unrelated.

And here's the point. The Vatican regularly speaks out against abortion. It regularly speaks out against the death penalty. It regularly speaks out against war generally and against the catastrophe of the Iraq Aggression in particular. The Vatican, for its many faults, believes that all three are key questions related to the sanctity of human life. Agree or disagree, it is consistent not only in its positions but in its emphasis.

So why do American bishops SINGULARLY FOCUS on only one of those three key 'life issues'? Why do they seek to deny Communion to politicians who support legal abortions but not to politicians who support state murder like the death penalty or Iraq Aggression? Do they pick and choose which Vatican positions to support and which to ignore? Doesn't this make them the 'cafeteria Catholics' many of them denounce?

If the US bishops were to deny Communion to politicians who went against Vatican policy on ANY of these issues, I'm not sure I'd agree with it but I'd respect its consistency. This inconsistency sends the message that a dead toddler in Bagdhad is worth less to them than a dead fetus in Kansas?

In fact, one could argue that of these three 'life issues,' abortion is the one where politicians have the LEAST culpability. Abortion is the only one that doesn't result from action perpetrated by the government. With legal abortion, government merely allows people the choice to commit what the Church considers a sin. With unjust war and the death penalty, the government itself is actually committing the sin.

Furthermore, many anti-abortion commentators believe the Church's focus on the legal aspect of abortion is misguided. They feel the Church should worry less about punishing politicians who support legal abortion as state policy and more about trying to convince its own flock and society in general that abortion should be avoided at all costs.

Because at the end of the day, the legality of abortion doesn't matter if no one chooses to have one.

Update: If the bishops' position isn't dubious enough, a crazy priest in South Carolina has done them several better. He said that anyone who voted for Obama should refrain from receiving Communion. In addition to falsely referring to John McCain as 'pro-life,' the priest stated that a vote for a politician who supports legal abortion 'constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil.'

And the Catholic Church wonders why it's hemorrhaging members.

Of course, such rants merely illustrate why the Church's influence is declining. Despite (because?) of the this kind of hysteria, 54 percent of Catholics voted for... Obama.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New media models for Africa

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling 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, IsraelStine, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

AllAfrica.com has a good article on new blueprints and models for the continent's media as discussed at the recent African Media Leaders’ Forum in Dakar, Senegal.

The chief executive officer of East Africa’s Nation Media Group urged African journalists take ownership of how the continent's stories are told. He said the African press should be less reliant on western media outlets and "to tell the African story in an African way."

He also called for African media leaders to pool resources for training and for more focus on bringing more radio broadcasters – who reached much bigger audiences than newspaper – to join other media leaders in planning for the future.

A Burkinabè publisher called for the establishment of training courses in skills such as media management for publishers in Africa. He also advocated collaboration among publishers so they could learn from one another about such practical issues as methods of distribution, and even share co-operatively-owned printing presses.

I found this article really interesting. It's always frustrated me the way the western media covers Africa, focusing almost exclusively on famines, wars and other crises. Most of the time, western journalists jet in whenever there's a 'hot' situation, talk to various cabinet ministers and rebel leaders and then jet out as soon as things calm down. They rarely scratch beneath the surface to find something outside the convenient narratives of plundering and ethnic hatred.

These crises need to be covered. People really are dying in Darfur and North Kivu. But there's more going on in Africa than just misery. You just wouldn't know this from the media coverage, even the ones like the BBC that actually cover it reasonably well.

This lack of proportion distorts westerners' perceptions of Africa.

Most news reporting in general is of bad things. Today, my local newspaper contained, among other things, stories of a fire that made people homeless, a town supervisor convicted of a felony, massive state budget cuts and an attempted armed robbery. The paper mostly reports bad news because that's standard operating procedure for most mainstream media outlets.

And if my only knowledge of this area was from the paper, I'd avoid it like the plague.

But the thing is this. MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE tells me that this is a great place to live. My personal experience is that the people here are generally friendly; I have no doubt the community will rally to help the people who lost their home in the fire. My personal experience is that this area is pretty safe.

The media may report the bad news, but I have my personal experience to balance out my perception of this area.

Most people do NOT have that balancing personal experience when it comes to Africa. So they read all the horrible things, but are kept in the dark about all the good things. They are not aware of how communal village life is and how everyone is expected to share with those less fortunate. They are not aware that outside war zones, crimes like theft in small villages are virtually non-existent. They are not aware of how villagers will pool their resources to send a single boy or girl to university in Europe or the US.

And they are not aware that the overwhelming majority of countries in Africa are at war right now.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Poetic justice

It's no secret that I did not vote for Barack Obama nor that I have issues with both him and the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, especially in the week a Republican campaign that did everything it could to appeal to broader cult of ignorance, I take some satisfaction in knowing that all the racist idiots in this country will spend the next four years having to choke on the words 'President Obama.'

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A historic victory for... bigotry

"I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a gang of pot-bellied parasites." -Eugene Debs

Tuesday's election was a historic victory for equality with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. But there was a bittersweet footnote to the election that made it a not-as-great day for equality under the law.

The decisive margin in the narrow passing of a gay marriage ban in California was provided by blacks. According to The Los Angeles Times, 70 percent of African-Americans voted to enshrine this bigotry into the state constitution.

In fact, blacks backed this constitutional bigotry even more strongly than people who identified themselves as Christians, only 2/3 of whom supported it.

Blacks who supported this should be ashamed of themselves. It's shocking that equality was blocked by one of the group of Americans that's suffered the most from inequality over the centuries. How can you claim Obama's election was slap in the face to bigots while support a bigoted gay marriage ban? Blacks deserve human rights but gays don't? Disgraceful!

Being a bigot is like being pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. There's no somewhat about it. You have NO right to whine about veiled racism in society if you support government-mandated homophobia.

Anti-racism and anti-homophobia are not part of some sort of zero sum game where the success of one imperils the success of the other. There's plenty of room in society for everyone to be granted equal human rights.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Local political thoughts

If you support a progressive agenda, then support a progressive candidate.

It's been said that a gaffe is when a politician accidentally says what he really thinks. Local Republican Congressional candidate Sandy Treadwell made such a gaffe recently. At a campaign rally, he reportedly said, "I'm all about grass-roots politics. That's the way it began 23 months ago...."

That might seem innocuous until you do a little math.

23 months ago was December 2006.

December 2006 was a month BEFORE Treadwell's opponent, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, had even been sworn in as a Congresswoman.

So that means that even before Gillibrand had started her job, Treadwell had decided she was going to be so bad at that he had to replace her. He didn't even give her a chance to be a bad representative for a single day to determine that she was going to be a bad representative.

I realize that Treadwell is hardly the only politician who puts personal political ambitions before anything else, but most are smart enough to couch in it some thin veneer of public service.

***

Queensbury is probably the most establishment Republican town in this area. Not the most conservative, but certainly the one most in bed with developers who want to pave over or put a housing complex on every square inch of the place. It is also the town most hostile to both non-automobilists and civic participation in government.

I wrote earlier about the miraculous appearance of actual sidewalks on the town's portion of US Route 9, though a reader corrected my mistaken impression that the town had built them. It was actually the state.

People who speak at town board meetings are treated as troublemaking interlopers, especially by the town's belligerent supervisor Dan Stec. Stec is the heir apparent to the area's late congressman Jerry Solomon, another loudmouth contemptuous of real public discussion who served as Queensbury supervisor.

But Stec is not the only powerful Queensbury official contemptuous of residents.

A group called Citizens for Queensbury is pushing for a sidewalk or multi-use bicycle-pedestrian path on Aviation Road adjacent to the Aviation Mall. Of the many places in Queensbury where it's suicidal to be a pedestrian, this location is near the top of the list.

However, town planning board chair Chris Hunsinger thumbed his nose at the group, dismissing Citizens for Queensbury as 'an ad hoc group of like-minded people putting forward their own agenda '

So what?

Isn't that what we need in this country? Wouldn't it be better if more people got off their butts and tried to make their community a better place? A government not controlled by developers should welcome civic participation. Such a government should welcome input from people who will actually be affected by their decisions. Or at the very least, such people shouldn't be spat upon by people like Hunsinger.

No wonder Americans are increasingly apathetic about the state of our democracy. Whenever they actually try to be active citizens, they're treated like a bunch of barbarians crashing at the gate of the castle where only the know-it-all government officials are permitted.

What Chairman Hunsinger should learn is that the people who comprise Citizens for Queensbury are residents of the town just like him, they pay taxes just like him and their voices deserve to be heard just like him.

***

One of the most interesting local political blogs out there is The Ballot Box by North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann. The primary focus of Mann's reporting and blogging is the dynamics of rural politics.

A recent entry reveals a lot about the largely unseen hand of corporate media conglomerates.

The Saranac Lake-based Adirondack Daily Enterprise is the only daily newspaper published in the Adirondack Park. I check out the paper's website most days. What makes it interesting to me is that, like NCPR, the Enterprise's content and focus is resolutely local. It's not a generic media outlet that tries to be everything to every body. It's an Adirondacks' media outlet reporting on Adirondacks' issues.

At least that's what it usually does.

But an editorial run in the paper endorsing John McCain calls that into question.

The reason?

Because the paper did NOT actually endorse McCain.

The Enterprise's managing editor explained that daily's editorial board could not come to a consensus on which presidential candidate to support so it endorsed none of them.

Yet an editorial ran in the paper encouraging voters in 'our area' to support the Arizona Republican.

The editorial was written by the daily's corporate owners... based in West Virginia.

A small byline indicated that it was written by 'Ogden Newspapers Inc.' But it was still labeled an editorial, not an opinion, thus giving readers the false impression that the local daily agreed with this position.

The Enterprise's editorial line is typically middle of the road. I wonder how the paper's editorial board feels about having endorsements shoved down its throat by distant corporate masters claiming the local region as their own.

What plays well in Alabama doesn't work in Vermont

If you support a progressive agenda, then support a progressive candidate.

I saw two good articles this weekend on the slow demise of northeastern Republicans. As the national party has veered sharply to the right in the last two decades, it's has shown less and less room for the moderates that populate the northeastern GOP. Half a century ago, New England was the most reliably Republican part of the country. (And the south, the most democratic... they've basically switched).

Even recently, there used to be room for moderate Republican governors in Democratic states like New York (George Pataki, 12 years) and Massachussetts (several, mostly moderate ones for 16 years). Both reigns ended for different reasons, but ones that didn't work the more moderate northeast.

In Massachussetts in 2006, Republican lieutenant governor and gubenatorial candidate Kerry Healey ran a Rove-style smear campaign and lost to a charismatic opponent by over 20 points. New York Republicans nominated the former Assembly minority leader John Faso as their sacrificial lamb to face the (then) wildly popular Democratic attorney general Eliot Spitzer. Faso was far too conservative to ever have a chance in a state like New York and was crushed by almost 40 points. Both the MA and NY GOP tapped conservatives to replace incumbent moderates and were crushed at the polls.

The New York Times had an article about the main state political story here in New York: the desperate Republican fight to preserve control of the state senate.

Outsiders might be surprised to know that the GOP has controlled the state senate for all but one year since 1938, back when basically a new state constitution was promulgated. Despite New York's increasing Democratic dominance in registration, the GOP has maintained control of the senate thanks to gerrymandering (in collusion with Assembly Democrats) and bedrock support in the more conservative rural upstate.

However, the increasing unpopularity of the national Republican brand after eight years of Bush plus a lack of leadership in the state party and an aging Republican caucus has led to a slow decline in GOP fortunes, as it's turned out off what used to be the other main bastion of NY Republican support: suburban New York City and Long Island. Republicans have a mere one seat majority in the chamber (with one vacant seat at the moment). They are aided by the fact that the lieutenant governor's post, who casts tiebreaking senate votes and would normally be in Democratic hands now, will remain vacant until 2011. But the trends are not in their favor.

Northeast Public Radio points out that Republicans now have only 6 of New York's 31 federal House and Senate seats and that number could dwindle to as low as 2 after Election Day.

The Boston Globe also had a story about the collapsing Republican fortunes in New England. It points out that in the early 70s, 10 of New England's 25 House members were Republican. Now, there's only one. And the region only has two Republican US Senators, both moderates from Maine, one of whom is in a tough re-election fight. The article points out that this is why several moderate Republicans, such as former Bush Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and former MA Gov. William Weld, have endorsed the more unifying Barack Obama and Joe Biden rather than the more divisive campaign John McCain and Sarah "Real America" Palin.

Basically, the GOP is disappearing in the northeast for one simple reason. 50 years ago, the national GOP was moderate enough to nominate someone like Dwight Eisenhower. 45 years ago, the national GOP was moderate enough to be a main reason why key civil rights legislation passed the US Senate. 35 years ago, the national GOP put the good of the nation and the rule of law ahead of partisanship in impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon.

Now, someone like John McCain is too liberal for a good chunk of the party. Now, the national GOP stands against civil rights for gays. Now, the national GOP has put partisanship ahead of the good of the nation and the rule of law in passing many of Bush's self-destructive and/or anti-constitutional policies.

What plays well in Alabama doesn't work in Vermont.