Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The "omissions, exaggerations and misstatements" of Dick Cheney

You remember the good old days when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was rarely seen or heard? Now that he's no longer holed up in his famous undisclosed location, the as-yet-unindicted former vice-president won't shut up. He's been on a media blitz in recent weeks, launching an impassioned defense of the Bush administration's anti-civilization policies.

If lack of truthiness, as Stephen Colbert would call it, were a legally recognized disability, Cheney could easily get one of those blue handicapped parking spot tags for his limo.

Two journalists from McClatchy offer a detailed analysis of the many "omissions, exaggerations and misstatements" (their words) found in a speech Cheney gave yesterday.

According to the piece, Cheney distorted comments from the director of national intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair to defend "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture), even though Blair said there was no evidence that such techniques were necessary.

Cheney's often claimed that torture has saved American lives. Strangely, he did not quote from the CIA director general or from the FBI director who both said there was zero evidence to back up such fantasies.

Cheney claimed that revealing torture techniques would allow America's 'enemies' to better prepare their combatants, even though Adm. Blair approved the release of the torture memos because they would be prohibited under Obama and because "we do not need these techniques to keep America safe."

The piece also pointed out that some of the most critical information about the 9/11 attacks were obtained from the very first al-Qaeda operative captured; the information was obtained through 'traditional' (civilized, non-torture) methods. The agent who obtained the information told a Senate subcommittee that the use of torture "was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al-Qaida."

Cheney stated "the key to any strategy is accurate intelligence." A strange comment considering how much Cheney and other far right neo-cons relied on dubious information supplied them from Iraqi exile groups to mislead the public into supporting the aggression against Iraq. Even back in Machiavelli's time, they knew not to trust the exiles. I'd be surprised if Cheney really cared at the time if the information was accurate. He knew it served his purposes.

Cheney claimed that only "ruthless enemies of this country" were kidnapped and sent to secret prisons. A 2008 McClatchy Newspapers investigation, however, found that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees captured in 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan and Pakistan were innocent citizens or low-level fighters of little intelligence value who were turned over to U.S. officials for money or because of personal or political rivalries.

Cheney claimed that after 9/11, the administration had to take seriously "dictators like Saddam Hussein with known ties to Mideast terrorists." The last State Department report on international terrorism to be released before Sept. 11 said Saddam's regime "has not attempted an anti-Western terrorist attack since its failed plot to assassinate former President [George H.W.] Bush in 1993 in Kuwait." And according to a Pentagon study released last year, Saddam's security services had "no direct operational link" with al-Qaeda.

Is Cheney willfully dishonest or so self-delusional as to be that divorced from reality? Anyone can speculate but only he knows for sure. But at least former president George W. Bush has had the grace to fade quietly into the sunset without harming America's reputation any further.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In praise of America's generous poor

During the last week, the New York state media has gone ga-ga over the case of Tom Golisano. Golisano is a multibillionaire businessman from western NY, who spent an estimated $90 million of his own money in three failed 'third party' runs for governor. Fellow blogger John Warren over at Adirondack Almanack noted with curiosity the orgy of coverage of Golisano, considering the media's usual blackout against smaller party and independent candidates. As Ross Perot supporters remember, the media only pays attention to 'third party' candidates if they're superrich.

Golisano recently announced that he was so disgusted by the recently enacted so-called millionaires' tax that he's moving to Florida. He's been long active in campaign against what he considers NYS' anti-business climate. Yet while Golisano himself is moving to Florida, his payroll processing company is remaining in New York, despite the much denounced 'anti-business' climate.

He said he would remain active in NYS politics, funding anti-tax and anti-spending candidates and groups. A pretty galling and presumptuous position to take for someone who wants to wash his hands of the state.

According to his own numbers, he would pay approximately $5 million a year in NYS taxes on his multibillion dollar income (a tiny fraction of what he spent on his political campaigns to no effect). That's what pushed him over the edge. That's what caused him to launch this PR campaign where the media has given him tons of air time to whine about the oppression he faces.

The state media fell over itself to take pity on the whiny, suffering multizillionaire

This is rather typical.

The convenient narrative is that the rich are worth paying attention to and that the poor are nothing more than welfare-hogging leeches on society who choose not to work because they're lazy. And while the rich have taken a little bit of a PR hit lately, after the AIG and banking scandals, stereotypes about the poor remain.

Not surprisingly, the reality is otherwise.

The most generous Americans are the poor.

America's poor donate more, in percentage terms, than higher-income groups do, surveys of charitable giving show. What's more, their generosity declines less in hard times than the generosity of wealthier givers does. "The lowest-income fifth (of the population) always give at more than their capacity," said Virginia Hodgkinson, former vice president for research at Independent Sector, a Washington-based association of major nonprofit agencies. "The next two-fifths give at capacity, and those above that are capable of giving two or three times more than they give."

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics that in terms of percentage of income, the poorest fifth of Americans donate TWICE AS MUCH to charitable causes than do the richest fifth of Americans.

They noted that figures probably undercount remittances by legal and illegal immigrants to family and friends back home, a multibillion-dollar outlay to which the poor contribute disproportionally.

This, despite the massive tax advantages to charitable giving that the rich are far better positioned to take advantage of.

We must live in bizarroworld where multizillionaires launch a media blitz to whine about a slight tax increase and the poor give away more than they can really afford. But at least there's still some decency in this world, even if the most generous are more likely to be demonized that to get credit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Irrationality, bigotry and politics

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

North Country Public Radio ran an interesting piece about Democratic state Sen. Darryl Aubertine and the gay marriage bill that the chamber will hopefully vote on.

Aubertine stated that he was opposed to the bill. This is not that shocking, considering that he represents a conservative district; though it's worth noting that all four of the region's Assembly members (three of whom are Democrats) felt comfortable enough to vote in favor of the bill in that chamber.

Aubertine's opposition matters because the Democrats have a mere 32-30 vote in the state Senate and the potentially tiebreaking lieutenant governor's seat is vacant. So with the opposition of Aubertine and a couple of conservative Democratic Latino senators from NYC, the Democrats will need a few Republican votes to pass the bill.

Aubertine stated that he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But what's revealing is Aubertine's reaction when asked how he came to that conclusion.

He couldn't answer it.

The senator said that his belief was "not necessarily religious" but after several minutes of parrying the question, he never really stated what was the basis of his belief.

He also stated repeatedly that he's always been opposed to gay marriage and wasn't going to change his mind, even if that's what his supporters or constituents wanted.

I think the interview was very revealing. He basically admits that he can't justify his belief in any coherent or rational way but is closed-minded about it anyway... even to friendly persuasion from people who support him.

He admits that he can't really explain why gay couples don't deserve equal rights but that lack of a reason isn't enough to make him reconsider his position (assuming he actually thought about it in the first place).

I can't think of anything that more clearly embodies both the degree to which gut feelings and emotions, rather than rationality, control our political discourse and what exactly prejudice means.

Note: Many people describe their opposition to gay marriage in terms that are vitriolic and/or borderline hysterical. Some can give more-or-less coherent reasons why they object. Based on the interview, Aubertine really doesn't seem to fit into either category. The definition of bigotry I found was "an obstinate and unreasoning attachment of one's own belief and opinions." He didn't really give a reason for his belief, hence he was unreasoning. He openly admitted that he'd never change his mind no matter what. Hence he was obstinate. He may not be hateful or vile and that's not irrelevant. But the politically incorrect truth is that according to the dictionary, unreasoning plus obstinacy makes bigotry. If he objects to being called a bigot (even a civilized one), then I'd encourage him to stop practicing bigotry.

Update: Bob over at Planet Albany disagrees.

If fire departments were run like our health care system

Scott McLarty at gp.org has a good opinion piece on what things would be like if fire departments were run like our health care system.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

WMD hysteria redux in Pakistan?

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 and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

As is now clear, the news media played a role in uncritically megaphoning the Bush administration's false claims about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destructions and the non-existent threat they posed. This was indispensible in allowing the Bush administration to whip up public fervor for an unnecessary and disastrous war of aggression against a country that was never any threat to the United States.

The PBS program Bill Moyers Journal has an interview with two South Asia experts* who claim that the media may unwittingly be playing a similar role regarding the Obama administration's claims about Pakistan.

The Obama administration has made a big deal about the alleged danger to the rest of Pakistan posed by Talibanesque-elements in the country's tribal areas, which border Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even went so far as to call these elements 'an existential threat' to the Pakistani state.

Prof. Juan Cole and journalist Shahan Mufti admit that the Pakistani Taliban is certainly a problem for the central government but emphatically reject claims that they represent anything close to 'an existential threat' to the nuclear-armed state. They point out that the Taliban is pretty unpopular in most of Pakistan. To them, the idea that a small group of militia men armed only with Kalashnikovs can defeat one of the largest, most well-equipped and most powerful armies in Asia strain credulity... especially considering their lack of broad public support. The idea that they would know where nuclear installations are located, let alone be able to seize them, is even more dubious.

The Americans' real concern, they say, is to eliminate Pakistani tribal areas as a safe haven for the Taliban to launch attacks into NATO-occupied Afghanistan. The hysteria whipped up by the Obama administration's disingenuous claims of an 'existential threat' is simply designed to give the Pakistani army political cover to do the Americans' bidding... and most likely to give the Washington an ex post facto excuse for ratcheting up the war in Afghanistan and the controversial deadly drone attacks in Pakistan.

*-Warning: the two commentators, both of whom have actually lived in Pakistan, are both somewhat optimistic about the country's future

Friday, May 15, 2009

Follow your dreams... really!

I've always had mixed feelings about graduation season. The world is filled with bitter, cynical adults who'd rather complain about their lives than actually try to improve them. So I've always admired the general optimism of graduating students and appreciate the contrast with the 'mature' world.

On the other hand, the poor kids are usually subjected to characteristic adult hypocrisy. Graduating seniors are usually serenaded by speakers who urge them to follow their dreams, make a difference in the world. But graduation weekend happy talk is often just an anomaly in a relentless campaign to pressure kids to stop being 'naive' and start being 'realistic.' American society is one that values the accountants and scientists, instead of the artists or explorers. The disciplined, not the creative. The focused, not the curious. Healthy societies reject the either/or dynamic and value both.

In one of his books, Ken Dryden said something to the effect that society used to value trying to be the best person you could be and that now, the emphasis was instead being the best you could be at something. Too many adults mouth words like 'follow your dreams' but then in the next breath will urge you to get a stable, boring job. How can you know what you want if you don't explore what's out there?

Over at timesunion.com, Matt Funiciello has some pretty good advice to that effect for graduating seniors. The kind you should actually follow.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thoughts from an undisclosed location

I noticed this article in TIME about Dick Cheney. For eight years, when he actually had power and theoretical accountability, the man barely said two words (thank heaven for small miracles). Now, the as-yet unindicted former vice-president won't shut up.

I imagine the Democrats can barely contain their glee.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Justice for dummies

Germany recently arrested and charged an alleged former Nazi with running a death camp in the 1940s.

Cambodia is putting on trial senior Khmer Rouge members for torture committed in the 1970s.

A Peruvian court convicted and sentenced to a quarter century in jail its former president Alberto Fujimori for widespread human rights abuses in the 1990s.

The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone is currently trying former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor for hideous war crimes and crimes against humanity also committed in the 1990s.

If these entities can hold to account former heads of state for human rights abuses committed decades ago, then why can't US officials prosecute those who authorized secret torture sites, torture more generally and any of the other violations of American and international law okayed only a few years ago by the US government during the so-called war on terror?

Sadly, some in power and their apologists are more concerned with 'not giving the Republicans any ammo' than re-establishing America's respect for civilized values and the rule of law.

Third world countries and the supposedly incompetent UN are mature and decent enough to apply justice and the rule of law. Certainly the self-described Greatest Nation on Earth and Leader of the Free World can hold itself to at least a high a standard.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

World media punk'd by Irish student

I've been a frequent critic of the mainstream media from many angles, often pointing out that the common 'liberal media' epithet fails to see the forest for the trees. One of my biggest objections is that modern journalism is lazy. Specifically the new media's insistence on squeezing nearly every story into a simplistic dichotomy (establishment liberal v establishment conservative) rather than doing the work that would produce a more layered and more accurate narrative. And their overreliance on polls, predictions and analysis as a substitute for, rather than a compliment to, real journalism.

The perils of this laziness was recently illustrated when an experiment by a university student from Dublin embarrassed some of the world's most respected media outlets.

Irish student Shane Fitzgerald posted a charismatic, but fabricated, quote on the Wikipedia page of a French composer, shortly the musician's death.

The AP reported that the quote flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web sites in Britain, Australia and India. They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote's lack of attribution and removed it.

Many news outlets quietly expunged the incorrect information. The UK daily The Guardian was the only one to publicly admit their mistake.

If anything, Fitzgerald said, he expected newspapers to avoid his quote because it had no link to a source -- and even might trigger alarms as "too good to be true." But many blogs and several newspapers used the quotes at the start or finish of their obituaries.


Fitzgerald said he had waited in part to test whether news organizations or the public would smoke out the quote's lack of provenance. He said he was troubled that none did.

He noted that several news outlets blamed him for their own laziness.

Friday, May 08, 2009

What's the polar opposite of preaching to the choir?

Then again, I suppose if anyone needed to hear this...

Tibet's spiritual leader The Dalai Lama was in Albany this week, during which the Nobel Peace laureate briefly addressed the New York state Senate.

As The Buffalo News described it with great journalistic understatement: The Dalai Lama also stressed the importance of “transparency,” something usually lacking in the Capitol.

“Sometimes I feel like Albany needs divine intervention,” quipped Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group, one of the rare paragons of virtue in the state capital.

The Dalai Lama's comments came during the same week as it was reported that lobbying remained one of the few industries in the state that doesn't seem hit by the recession. Special interest groups spent $174 million last year to influence the nation's most dysfunctional legislature, a 15.2 pct increase in the last two years.

Of course, they're only dysfunctional from the perspective of the ordinary people. I'm sure those who've hired the highly paid lobbyists find legislators quite useful.

There are over 30 registered lobbyists in Albany for every lawmaker.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Free speech opponent banned for his speech

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

So I see that far right shock jock Michael Savage has been banned from Britain for allegedly fostering extremism or hatred.

I am not that familiar with British laws pertaining to hate crimes/speech. I realize that countries have the right to regulate who enters their country, as opponents of illegal immigration will be quick to point out. My natural inclination is to err on the side of free speech unless there's a pretty compelling reason otherwise. Putting up with filth like Savage's is a necessary evil in a democratic society. Otherwise, 'allowable' speech depends on who's in power and people like Savage are allowed to turn themselves into free speech martyrs.

Civil libertarians noted that excluding people based on their political views intensified after the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, it recalls Cold War fears when people like Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a communist, was kept out of the United States. The letter cited people who been barred from entering the United States, including Adam Habib, a South African professor and human rights activist, Rafael de Jesus Gallego Romero, a Colombian priest who is a critic of his government, and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss national who is a professor at the University of Oxford and described as a leading Islamic thinker, reported The San Francisco Chronicle.

That said, I can only laugh at how Savage and his supporters have suddenly become big defenders of free speech.

I'm not sure which is more ironic: a) the fact that the same Savage who's now whining about free speech protections used to say that it was "time to re-enact the Sedition Act," which banned criticism of the federal government* or b) the fact that one of the most vocal organizations against the practice to which Savage was subjected is that group most hated by the far right... the ACLU.

(*-Too bad he didn't get his way now that his much loathed Obama is president)

Update: The UK isn't the only country coming under criticism for its blacklists.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Brodsky looking into Yankee Stadium funding

Updating an earlier piece...

State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who represents the district to the immediate north of the Bronx, has become a thorn in the side of the Yankees.

Brodsky has been pressing the Bronx Bombers on spending related to their new stadium, much of which has come with public funds.

The chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions is trying to subpoena documents related to the ballpark's construction.

Brodsky contends the Yankees are spending $4 billion in public money without providing enough jobs, affordable tickets or public information about the new stadium. He issued the subpoena as chairman of the Assembly's committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, reported the Albany Times-Union.

The Yankees said Brodsky's numbers were wrong and called him publicity hungry.

Brodsky stressed his money figures were accurate, outlining dollars spent between bonds, interest and aid.

"The state could have bought the Yankees for less than it cost to build the stadium," Brodsky told reporters.

Brodksy's long struck me as one of the few good guys in Albany. And if his numbers are correct, this is an even more scandalous tax giveaway than the infamous AMD project in Saratoga County. So I wish the Westchester Democrat well.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Your fearless leaders in action

It's a good thing we have strong leadership in Congress to guide us on the critical issues of the day.

While New York's senior senator has launched his crusade to push IHOP to break its reliance on foreign condiments, the House Energy and Commerce is dealing with something even more consequential: whether college football's Bowl Championship Series is a fair way to determine a national champion.

I'll save Congress a lot of time and money.

The answer is no.

Now that the critical issue of the college football national championship has been settled, perhaps the committee can go back to more trivial things like developing a rational energy policy.