Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Che, Lumumba and... Foday Sankoh?

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..

I was in the library last night and noticed in the new arrivals section DVD entitled The Empire in Africa (I won't link to it because I don't want to encourage any one to spend a dime enriching the pockets of its makers). My curiosity piqued, I took a look and was nauseated to discover it was an apologia mythologizing the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF were the Sierra Leonian rebels who became infamous for the forced conscription of children, for the drugging of those child soldiers and for chopping off the hands and arms of women and children.

This was not the invention of some international propaganda campaign, as the 'documentary' implies. I lived in Guinea at the height of the Sierra Leonian civil war and met numerous refugees who fled the RUF's savagery, including a few who had lost limbs.

The Sierra Leonian government and military were filled at the time with brutal and thieving scumbags, no doubt. But no one's dared make an apologia to them. Whatever anti-corporate ideology the RUF might allegedly have had when it formed in the early 90s quickly evaporated. It became nothing more than an unimaginably savage organized crime gang that used ANY means necessary to line the pockets of its leaders.

The documentarian who made this offensive trash owes an apology to all the people killed, maimed and displaced by his sainted RUF.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Clean campaign financing in Maine

The Boston Globe has a good piece on Maine has tried to implement a sane system for financing electoral campaigns, one driven by human beings.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The GlobalFoundries black hole wants to suck even more taxpayer money

Matt over a Farenell Photography noticed that GlobalFoundries (formerly AMD) is seeking even more taxpayer money for its Luther Forest project in Malta, NY. This sum is in addition to the $1.2 BILLION in corporate welfare the conglomerate has already been handed over.

Tellingly, a GlobalFoundries spokesman would not say precisely how much money the company is seeking from the state, how large the expansion could be or how many jobs may be created if the expansion occurs

Meanwhile, schools, parks and hospitals are facing dramatic cuts in state aid, some even mooting closure, while schools and municipalities are looking at hikes to the state's already sky high property taxes.

As Sarah Palin (who I never thought would say anything worth repeating in public) might say: "Not just no, HELL NO."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Take advantage of this extra special offer before it expires... two years ago!

In past entries, I've talked about the newspaper industry's tendency toward self-cannibalization. I'm starting to get a full understand of the depth of its plight.

One example is that falling revenues has pushed papers to shed copy editors. That decreased oversight leads to a lower quality product which hurts revenue even further. But it can hurt revenue in other ways.

I bought a copy of The Post-Star at the news stand this morning, for one of the last times before its imminent 100 percent price rise.

In it, I found a card offering home delivery of the daily.

I could get the paper delivered 7 days a week for a mere $2.00 a week.

But if that was too expensive, I could get it delivered on only the weekends for significantly less price of... umm... $2.00 a week.

But I had to hurry to take advantage of this extraspecialsuperfantasticallyawesome offer.

It expires June 30, 2008.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Historical revisionism in action

"There's nothing more dangerous than ignorance in action." -Tom Smothers.

The New York Times had an interesting piece on the successful efforts of conservative ideologues in Texas to warp the state's history textbooks. It's not just the usual liberal suspects that get these revisionist 'historians' all hot and bothered. The Crusaders succeeded in minimizing the influence attributed to Thomas Jefferson, despite his status as a fierce advocate for a limited role for the federal government. It seems they don't like that the Founding Father had the audacity to coin the phrase "separation between church and state."

Friday, March 12, 2010

New York legislature not worth its salt

New York state is facing as much as a $9 billion budget gap (some claim it might be as high as $18 billion) for the next fiscal year. In the last two years, it's had a state senator expelled after being convicted of domestic violence, a sitting comptroller resign after a corruption conviction, a senate majority leader resign to immediately become a lobbyist only to be convicted himself of corruption, one governor resign in a prostitution scandal, another governor accused of witness tampering in a domestic violence case and the legislature refuse all serious attempts at ethics reform. This is to say nothing of the merely embarrassing, like last summer's senate coup shenanigans and being named the most dysfunctional state legislature in the nation by New York University's Brennan Center.

In response to Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch's bad idea to borrow $2 billion to help cover that gap and create a fiscal oversight board, Senate Democratic leader John Sampson said, "I hate to abdicate my legislative responsibility to the board, but I have an open mind."

Lawmakers in Albany have been abdicating their legislative responsibility for years so Sampson's words ring more than a little hollow.

But apparently one Democratic legislator didn't get Sampson's memo on pretend responsibility. Because in the face of all the above problems (to say nothing of economic stagnation in most of upstate, the suffocating effect of unfunded mandates, sky-high property taxes, bureaucratic assaults on small businesses, the proposed closure of state parks and massive corporate welfare giveaways, among other things), Assemblyman Felix Ortiz feels that what the legislature really should be focusing on is combating ... the use of salt in restaurants.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Post-Star 100 percent closer to oblivion

Unlike many technophiles, I take no joy in the demise of newspapers. Aside from NPR, newspapers still account for 98 percent of the serious daily journalism in this country, despite the industry's well-documented problems. In much of rural America, the newspaper is the only source of local news.

At the same time, many newspapers waste no opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot.

I noticed a sign in Stewart's yesterday that The Post-Star was doubling the price of its daily edition to $1, effective the end of the month.

So some business genius thinks the antidote for declining circulation is a 100 percent price rise. The solution to falling demand is to raise the price?

As quality has plummeted dramatically during the decade or so of Ken Tingley's managing editorship, the price, once 35 cents, has nearly tripled.

This is what is known as self-cannibalization.

Despite my issues with the paper, I've spent 50 cents, 6 days a week for most of the last several years buying it at the news stand. So if publisher Rick Emanuel is reading this, he should know that the 100 percent price rise is likely to make me a former customer. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I don't want Glens Falls to become a zero newspaper town but the paper's business and editorial leadership seems to be taking it in that direction.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Revisionist historians: just doing their job

My friend Jim over at The Critical Bookworm blog wrote a recent entry which began: I was reading through a few articles on the death of revisionist 'historian' and wannabe polemicist, Howard Zinn.

Jim's piece wasn't really about Zinn but it got me onto a topic that's often got me going. Leaving aside the specifics of Zinn, who did a great job of expanding the narrow, sanitized conventional history to tell a much fuller truth, the scorn with which the phrase 'revisionist historian' is typically used has always amused me because it seems to miss the point.

The very job of all historians is to continually look at the 'standard' narrative of historical events and see if they hold water. They are constantly investigating to see if there are documents, perspectives and what not that haven't entered the historical record or, quite often, that have been deliberately ignored for political and propaganda reasons.

In other words, their job is to REVISE. The JOB of historians is to be revisionist.

Authors don't write a single draft of fiction and move forward without at least looking back at it, tweaking it, REVISING it and, nearly always, showing it to those with other points of view to get their feedback. Nor do you write a single draft of history (which, as the saying goes, is journalism) without doing those things.

Can you imagine if the only historical record of the run-up to the Iraq Aggression were the now-discredited Judith Miller New York Times reports on Saddam Hussein's mythical weapons of mass destruction? Thank goodness some historians and others REVISED this record.

History is not like math where two plus two always equals four always and everywhere. It's this precisely clash of ideas and points of view that makes history so compelling and dynamic. Countries which refuse to examine and discuss its standard historical narrative (written by the winners, as another saying goes) are invariably sclerotic societies in decline and, quite often, ones extremely prone to civil war and violence. Think the Balkans or the Middle East . Would American society really benefit from a rigid, Soviet-style official history revised (without discussion of course) only when political leaders felt it expedient? I think not.

All historians are revisionist. It's their job.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Jackson town officials solve "its" non-problem

A final follow-up to my earlier piece: the Jackson town board on Wednesday approved its English-only law... though not without embarrassing itself one final time. The Post-Star's Nick Reisman reported that, you couldn't make this stuff up, the original text of the proposed law contained two grammar errors:

"The purpose of this law is to provide for the language to be used by the elected officials and its appointees."

and later the law "designates English as the official written and spoken language of the Town Board and its appointees to be used in all official meetings and business conducted by the elected officials and its appointees."

As any teenager with an A in 9th grade English could tell you, it should have been "the elected officials and THEIR appointees."

Fortunately, citizens in the audience informed the elected officials of "its" errors.

Regardless of what one things about the English-only law in a town that's 97.3 percent white and 1.1 percent Hispanic, it is more than a little galling that use of the language is being mandated by a group of people with such a pathetic grasp of it.

The final kicker: yesterday was National Grammar Day.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hatemongering is the real cancer in America

There's a great line in the movie The American President that goes something like, "Why is it that people who claim to love America spend so much time hating Americans?"

I noticed that the boobs in Congress are trying to ban al-Jazeera from satellite providers for "anti-Americanism." Al-Jazeera, or at least its English service, is an excellent news organization that truly does fulfill a mission to broadcast and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints. It's a refreshing change from the elitist US model of primarily airing "slightly left of center" establishment insider views and "slightly right of center" establishment insider views.

The BBC (World TV and World Service radio) is much better than American broadcasters and does excellent in-depth reporting. But the BBC is heavily centered on the US and Western Europe and on addressing governmental issues and politics. Al-Jazeera's breadth is much better, as it often delves deeper into broader social issues, rather than having a heavy focus on presidents, cabinet ministers and opposition leaders. Al-Jazeera also goes into more depth in covering the Arab world and Africa . But the two are both good and compliment each other.

The "anti-Americanism" Congress refers to is just another way of saying al-Jazeera sometimes airs views critical of US foreign policy and sometimes shows the actual effects of said policy on real human beings. Or perhaps more to the point, al-Jazeera's crime is that it treats non-Americans as full-fledged human beings.

This is completely unacceptable to American broadcasters who treat war as merely a video game. The only people portrayed sympathetically are American soldiers and their families. The only people that matter are these well-armed and -protected members of the occupation force.

People indigenous to the countries US soldiers are fighting in are mere background noise; you'd have no idea that it's, you know, THEIR COUNTRY. You'd have no idea that exponentially more Afghans and Iraqi nationals have been killed that American or coalition soldiers. They've lost relatives, friends, property, livelihood. Of course, it's "blame America first" or "political correctness" if you mention any of this.

Was all this caused by US troops? Of course not. But the US invasions unleashed a series of chaotic and entirely foreseeable consequences that Iraqis and Afghans, not Americans, are bearing the brunt of. Al-Jazeera's "anti-Americanism" is that its reporting reflects this broader human truth, rather than just the very narrow American nationalistic truth.

And yet Glenn Beck's call for the "eradication" of progressivism or Rush Limbaugh's calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a terrorist are not at all anti-American... because in their eyes progressives and Pelosi aren't real Americans. Yeah, a good foreign news organization is the real threat to a civilized America. (wink)

Although this is a stark reversal of their contention of only a few years ago that criticism of the president constituted treason.

Does that mean airing "anti-American" views of others will be illegal, but hating Americans yourself is okay? Or does it mean it's okay wish ill on Americans who disagree with you politically, just so long as you don't hate all Americans?

Part of me wants to move to Canada to get away from this filth but that would mean Glenn Beck and the other American-haters would win. And I guess I love America too much to let that happen.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Discrimination is not discriminatory

A follow-up to my earlier piece on a posturing Jackson (NY) official who proposed an English-only law for his town even though he conceded local circumstances didn't really necessitate one.

In a Post-Star article, he denied that the law was discriminatory. "That is so far from the intent of this law, it's ludicrous," he said.

An English-only law is BY DEFINITION discriminatory against non-English speakers. The description -only is inherently discriminatory. If he wants to argue that it's justified discrimination, even if it's much ado about nothing, so be it. But don't deny what it is.

If this official has such a poor understanding of the meaning of basic English words, perhaps he's not the best person to dictate how and when others use the language. Maybe he should learn English before he demands others do so.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

National Peace Corps Day (after)

Yesterday was national Peace Corps Day. 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 (or 2, if I forget).

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval 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 [48th] 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, as I did, 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."

-Elegies 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.