Friday, May 28, 2004

North Country Public Radio on rural homelessness

North Country Public Radio ran an excellent series on the homeless in northern New York. Homelessness in rural areas has a significantly different dynamic than homelessness in large cities.

The stories, available via Real Audio, can be heard by clicking here.

I love a parade

This weekend is one of my favorite events of the year: the Memorial Day parade. The way this month is going, it will probably be rained out, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

One of the reasons I love parades is simply because they are an expression of communal vibrancy. We live in a country where each house has their little picket fences and everyone tends to their own garden. Communal experiences, from concerts in the park to Christmas festivals, are increasingly less common. Simply put, parades are cool.

The other thing I like about Memorial Day is that it's probably the only secular holiday during which people actually pause and reflect about the holiday's intended purpose. Does anyone spend Labor Day thinking "Whew, thank goodness for labor unions because I like having vacation days."

Yet people actually seem to take a little time on Memorial Day to think about those in uniform who've given, or been forced to give, their lives. Yea, it's a day for barbecues but we also reflect a little bit too.

But I'm wary about this Memorial Day a bit, as I was for the last one. I'm dreading the post-parade ceremony which will almost surely be tainted by a dash of nationalism*

[*-I use nationalism and patriotism interchangeably because they are synonymous in the American context]

The point of Memorial Day is to honor the war dead. Yet, rather than merely honoring the dead and remembering the past, there will be speeches about future sacrifice and standing up to tyranny and fighting for what is Good and Righteous.

Patriotism and the flag have been hijacked, as usually happens during times of war. Patriotism now means supporting every particular detail of what the current president is doing because, as the borderline slanderous allegation would have you believe, doing otherwise would "put the troops in harm's way."

That phrase, "fighting for what is Good," is always meant in the militaristic sense. That is the real tragedy of such nationalism: the sense that going to war and "showing our strength" (militarily, of course) are the solution to any problem. We are quick to follow the drumbeat of war. We are assiduous about honoring those who die in such wars. Yet, we repeatedly enter into wars with shocking casualness.

Did you ever notice how we never hold ceremonies to honor diplomats, mediators, religious leaders and other peacemakers? Except for Martin Luther King Jr but we limit his plaudits to the strictly racial context and don't mention, for example, his opposition to the war in Vietnam or his attempts to work for social, not merely racial, justice. Oh, and we hold ceremonies for that pacifist Jesus guy too but we never quite connect the dots.

We honor those soldiers who give their lives. I'd like it, if just once, we took a day to honor those who work so the soldiers DON'T HAVE TO give their lives.

It's time we realized that wearing a uniform is A way to serve your country, but not the only way.

If you love your freedom, a vet is not the sole person you should thank.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Calling all copy editors...

Apparently there's need for you in Germany.

Every day, I receive a daily review of the programs on offer at Deutsche Welle (DW) radio. Today's began:


Following many rows and marathon negotiations, India's new prime minister Manmohan Singh finalised his government line-up last weekend. The coalition is dominated by Congress, but it has 19 coalition partners , who have come together to form the United Progressive Alliance governing coalition with Singh at the helm. Now that seems to be a rather complicated political make-up. DW's Angelika Ditscheid asked India correspondent Kuldeep Kumar what problems still need to be resolved before the government can finally produce its new manifesto:

I know Africa's not the most well-known continent in the western world, but jeez!

More observations from a pedalphile

Here are a few more suggestions and observations from this biker to you motor vehicle drivers:

-Using your turn signals is not optional. If there are no cars around, use your turn signals anyway because a bicyclist might be relying on them.

-Stop signs are not suggestions.

-If your stop sign does not say "4-way" under it and I'm coming at a 90-degree angle to you, then it means I do NOT have a stop sign. Therefore, don't expect me to stop.

-If I hold up my left hand, it means I'm turning right. It doesn't mean I'm waving at you, so don't give me the finger.

-I will try to follow the rules of the road in general, but I will not follow them to the letter. If I followed the letter of the rules of the road, then I would either never get anywhere or would put myself in peril every time I tried to turn left. I will not be reckless or put myself in danger and I'll try not to unnerve you. You'll have to settle for that.

-Do not complain that I don't follow the rules of the road perfectly. You don't want me to do so. If I did, it would be as unnerving to you as it would be dangerous to me. If I want to turn left on a multilane road, then, according to the rules, I should get in the same turning lane as a car would get in to make the same turn. Do you really want me cutting across three lanes of heavy traffic? So if I do things that seem a little odd to you like briefly riding against traffic from time to time (so as to avoid cutting across lanes of traffic), you're welcome in advance.

-Don't holler at me to get on the sidewalk. Pedestrians yell at me to get OFF the sidewalk. Legally, I'm supposed to be in the road. Deal with it!

And my number one, most important piece of advice:

-You may not like it but this is a fact. If a biker next to you is going straight and you're trying to turn right, the biker has the right of way. It's in the Rules of the Road. Look it up!

Thank you for your cooperation.

Ten stories the world should hear more about

With the world's focus on Iraq and its perpetual obsession with Israel-Palestine, it's easy to forget that those aren't the only two things going on in the world. But the UN News Center offers its list of ten stories the world should hear more about.

Child soldiers in Uganda
Turbulence in the Central African Republic
AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa
Demands for peacekeeping stretch UN resources
Post-civil war rebuilding Tajikistan
Women as peacemakers
Persons with disabilities fight for equality
The Bakassi Peninsula
Overfishing and its threat to marine biodiversity
Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation

For more on any of these stories, click here.

And of course, you can't forget the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Eastern Sudan which has cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced over a million people. Another 100,000 are believed to be at risk for famine if the dictatorship (whose militias are committing the ethnic cleansing) doesn't allow humanitarian workers into the region.

[Thanks to North Country Public Radio for providing a link to the 10 stories]

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

RIP: Satire

"Terrorists are planning to attack America. We'll tell you how this will affect your summer vacation plans."

-Promo for the 10 PM news (sic) broadcast of one of our local TV stations.

It appears that satire is dead.

Pro-war think tank: Iraq war made us less safe

The UK paper The Independent reported on an assessment issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The paper noted The IISS dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, published on 9 September 2002... was immediately seized on by Bush and Blair administrations as providing "proof" that Saddam was just months away from launching a chemical and biological, or even a nuclear attack. Large parts of the IISS document were subsequently recycled in the now notorious Downing Street dossier, published with a foreword by the Prime Minister, the following week... However, unlike No 10 [the British prime minister's office], the IISS admits that it made mistakes in its dossier about the extent of the Iraqi threat, and has commissioned an independent assessment by Rolf Ekeus, a former head of United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq.

The new assessment concluded that the Iraq occupation has proven to be "a potent global recruitment pretext" for al-Qaeda. The editor of the survey opined, "Invading Iraq damaged the war on terror, there is no doubt about that. It has strengthened rather than weakened al-Qa'ida."

Dr John Chipman, a former NATO who presented the original IISS WMD dossier, observed, "The US is realising the awful truth that the first law of peacekeeping is the same as the first law of forensics: 'Every contact leaves a trace.' Unfortunately, too many bad traces have been left recently, and many good ones will be needed to recover its reputation, prestige and effective power."

Many of us were critical before the war that the administration's plans were naively premised on a series of best-case scenarios. Those of us that pointed out that invasion and occupation would inevitably stir up an intricate series of emotions like pride and nationalism were told that we were somehow being contemptful of Iraqis' capacity for democracy and saying they didn't deserve (and this last part was always said breathlessly) freedom.

The people who planned the war were willfully blind to the complexities that invasion and occupation were always likely to provoke. And both American taxpayers and American soldiers are now paying the price for this arrogance.

The costs: hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of dead Americans, much of America's prestige and moral leadership, lots of Iraqi civilian casualties.

The result, according to a pro-war think tank: we are less safe than before.

Thank you Mr. President.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Confessions of a pedalphile

I have a secret.

A really deep secret.

I know what you're thinking.

I'm an al-Qaeda sympathizer.

I'm a Satanist.

I'm a Yankee fan.

Ok, ok, so those last two are basically the same.

I know you didn't think anything could be more horrific than being a Yankee fan. But there is.

You see: I'm a pedal-phile.

That's right. I... I can hardly bear to speak of this...

Ok, I'll just spit it out.

I don't drive.

Not just I don't have a car. I don't have a driver's license.

And perhaps most heinous of all: I have no burning desire to get one.

Most of the year, I bike everywhere. To work. To the YMCA. To the soccer fields. To the park. In the winter or on rainy summer days, I walk or take the bus.

This provokes diverse reactions from friends and colleagues. Occassionally, someone will say they admire what I'm doing and say they wish they could do the same. But reactions more frequently range from contempt to pity to bemusement.

I don't ask for pity and those who think I'm stupid for not driving can go jump off a bridge. But the 'bemusement' factor is the most curious. People seem to think it's a big deal that I don't drive. In general, it's not.

Maybe my friends and colleagues can't conceive of THEMSELVES not having a car. I understand this. They may have children. They may live in the country or in unwalkable suburbs. They may live 15 miles from where they work. Not having a car may be impractical or simply impossible for them.

But most of my friends and colleagues also know that I've gotten along fine without driving for the last 7 1/2 years, since I got back from Africa. It may be impossible for them but it's obviously not impossible for me. I get along just fine, thank you very much.

Not driving certainly has its disadvantages. When I have to walk or bike in the rain, it's particularly annoying; snow and cold aren't so bad. It's a bummer not being able to hop into a car and taking a road trip up to Montreal or a camping trip in the Adirondacks.

Friends and colleagues often remind me of these downsides when they "encourage" me to get my license or a car; though the wiser ones have realized that as a contrarian, badgering usually has the opposite effect that is intended. Yet, I've never gloated at them when they've complained about a $700 bill from the mechanic (about my transportation expense for two full years). When they complain about feeling totally paralyzed when their car's in the shop, I don't say a word.

Yet, when I get caught in the rain on my bike and come inside totally soaked, inevitably a friend or colleague will make some snide attempt at small talk by making the brilliant observation, "It's a little wet out there, isn't it?"

The most annoying part about not having a license or a car is the sheer presumptuousness of other people. Many seem to be under the illusion that I owe them an explanation for this fact. They offer unsolicited advice and expect me to be profoundly grateful and say, "I'll do that right away."

The fact of the matter is that I don't owe anyone an explanation. Though I frequently accept rides when offered, I rarely ask someone for a ride. I want to be self-sufficient precisely because I don't want people giving me the third degree about stuff that's not their business.

So if someone at your workplace bikes to work, understand that he or she not someone who needs to be patronized. If you're tempted to pity them, remember that they're not shelling out $2.20 a gallon for regular unleaded.

Fun night at Abu Ghraib

A lot has been said about the prisoner abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib and the impact of the war crimes apparently committed by American soldiers. As I've written before, the abuses disgusted me, but they didn't totally surprise me. To be surprised is to think that you can put American soldiers in unreasonable situations for long periods of time and expect that they won't crack under the extreme stress. To be surprised is to think that all American soldiers are superhumans immune to the laws of nature.

Maybe this is the danger of mass canonization of the troops: it makes us expect that they are all Superman and there is public shock when this is shown to be untrue. We must remember that soldiers are involved in war, not ballet performances.

But there's one thing that really did shock me. And it demonstrates how absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. What shocks me is not the abuses, which are disgusting enough, but all the photos and videos that soldiers took of the abuses. They took the photos because of a massive power trip. They either thought they'd never get caught or truly believed what they were doing was justified, because they were torturing defenders of the Axis of Evil. The Iraqi soldiers weren't with us so they must have been against us and so anything went.

What really got to me was the poses in some of the photos. They weren't merely content to take photos of the tortured prisoners. Soldiers in many of the photos had shit-eating grins on their faces and were posing next to tortured, humiliated prisoners in the same way a smiling family might pose next to the Grand Canyon. To them, it looked like the same kind of fun another person might have on a summer vacation trip.

Some contend that the torture was "necessary" to extract relevant information. But the joyful sadism exhibited by soldiers in those photos makes you seriously wonder if the torture was nothing more than perverse entertainment for bored, stressed out troops.

The Bush administration's judgement exposed again

In the last year and a half, many whiny liberals have been focused on things like:

-Questioning President Bush's motives for launching the Iraq war (legit question, hard to prove)

-Making idiotic observations (juvenile jokes about the president's name or his English grammar)

-Sniveling about issues of little relevance because they were afraid to tackle bigger ones (if the war was truly necessary, should the cost matter? If the war was not necessary, then is cost the real issue?)

I've always contended the issue is far more fundamental: the administration's judgement. The Iraq invasion was a bad idea, poorly timed, improperly justified and badly executed.

One can accept the administration's motives as being above board but contend its judgement has been and continues to be poor. I've been saying for a long time that reason you can't trust the administration is their questionable judgement. Judgement based on dangerous naivete, willful ignorance of complexities, contempt for nuance and a long-term strategy based entirely on a series of best case scenarios.

This whole Ahmed Chalabi thing drives home very clearly just how bad the administration's judgement really has been from the outset. Some argue that any criticism of the president must necessarily be partisan politics (there's also the facist lie that any criticism of the president puts our troops' lives at risk). But even those people must concede that the confrontation between Chalabi and coalition troops, Chalabi's angry attack on his former paymasters as well as the recent allegations that Chalabi spied for Iran is a serious blow to what's left of the administration's credibility.

If this doesn't erode, even slightly, your confidence in the administration's judgement, then what possibly could?

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Demagogue of the week

The award should be permanently renamed after a certain Congressman from Texas.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said:

"I believe that the president's leadership in the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience in making the decisions that would have been necessary to truly accomplish the mission without the deaths to our troops and the cost to our taxpayers."

to which Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) spat:

"Nancy Pelosi should apologize for her irresponsible, dangerous rhetoric. She apparently is so caught up in partisan hatred for President Bush that her words are putting American lives at risk."

I don't really care for Pelosi, but if DeLay wants to live in a country where criticizing the president isn't tolerated, he should move his rear end to Syria or North Korea.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Kerry makes his pitch to Naderites

One of the arguments of Sen. John Kerry's supporters is that the president nominates Supreme Court justices and that if re-elected, President Bush would pack the Court with more conservatives who'll do apocalyptic things to the country. That's why you mustn't "waste your vote" on Ralph Nader, they insist in near hysterical tones.

"I will not appoint somebody with a 5-4 court who's about to undo Roe v. Wade. I've said that before," Kerry was quoted by the Washington Post. "But that doesn't mean that if that's not the balance of the court, I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view. I've already voted for people like that. I voted for Judge [Antonin] Scalia."

'I voted for Judge Scalia.' Now, I'm sure that pitch will convince people who might vote for Nader of Kerry's progressive credentials. Some people argue that the differences between Kerry and Bush are far less than the two camps would have you believe. Kerry's near-boast that he voted for the most extreme conservative on the Supreme Court will clearly demarcate the differences between him and the president.

On the bottom of the page was an advertisement and link entitled 'Voting Nader helps Bush.'

This ad appeared in that article without the slightest hint of irony.

It depends on what your definition of 'all' is.

"America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom." -President Bush, State of the Union address, 2004.

"America has yet to reach the high calling of its own ideals, and yet we are a nation that strives to do right. We remember with gratitude the good souls who saw a great wrong, and stood their ground, and won their case [Brown vs the Board of Education]." -President Bush, 17 May.

"The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges. All Americans have a right to be heard in this debate." -President Bush, also on 17 May.

"Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality. The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all." -Sen. John Kerry, who also supports straights-only marriage, 17 May.

I know politicians speak a different language from ordinary citizens and this only demonstrates it. To the ordinary citizen, words like 'all' and 'every' are absolutes. Since neither man qualified their statements with exceptions, I inferred that every man's and woman's rights and dignity should be protected. I inferred that a ladder of opportunity should be put up for all. But I guess the two men almost certain to become president next year understand the English language, and the Constitution, differently.

The puppet who spiraled out of control -- part 96

Ahmed Chalabi, once the darling of the neo-conservatives, is now coming into confrontation with his possibly former allies. Chalabi is head of the Iraqi National Congress which received millions of dollars annually from the Pentagon. From exile in Florida, he was a leading advocate of toppling Saddam Hussein. His organization is believed to be the source of much of the intelligence used by the Americans to make the case that Saddam Hussein allegedly had large weapons of mass destruction stockpiles. It was expected by many that he would be installed as the figure head of a "sovereign" interim Iraqi regime.

Yet according to an Associated Press report, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police raided the residence of Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi on Thursday, and aides accused the Americans of holding guns to his head and bullying him over his criticism of plans for next month's transfer of sovereignty... A Chalabi aide, Haidar Musawi, accused the Americans of trying to pressure Chalabi, who has become openly critical of U.S. plans for how much power to transfer to the Iraqis on June 30. "The aim is to put political pressure," Musawi told The Associated Press. "Why is this happening at a time when the government is being formed?"

Interestingly, [t]here was no comment from U.S. authorities, but American officials here have complained privately that Chalabi — a longtime Pentagon favorite — is interfering with a U.S. investigation into allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime skimmed millions in oil revenues during the U.N.-run oil-for-food program.

Why would the supposed Saddam-hater interfere with investigations into corruption in Saddam's regime? .

The article added, Chalabi took an early lead in exposing alleged abuses of the oil-for-food program and has been trying to force the coalition to give him the $5 million in Iraqi funds set aside for the probe to pay for his effort.

Hmm... $5 million...

The article noted, Chalabi, a former banker and longtime Iraqi exile, was convicted of fraud in absentia in Jordan in 1992 in a banking scandal and sentenced to 22 years in jail. He has repeatedly denied the charges.

Machiavelli suggested that a Prince "ought to go slowly in undertaking an enterprise upon the representations of an exile, for most of the times he will be left either with shame or very grave injury."

I'm surprised that Vice-President Cheney, who seems like he'd be very familiar with Machiavelli, didn't take into account this advice.

Chalabi is yet another in the long line of bad guys the American government has sucked up to only to have him eventually turn around and bite us in the rear. Noreiga. The Mujahadeen (the precursors to the Taliban). Even Saddam Hussen himself,

Chalabi's crime is, of course, demanding more sovereignty for Iraq; well his current crime, anyway. This shocked the neo-cons. Puppets aren't supposed to think for themselves and make demands. Yet it happens time and time again, and the smart guys in the foreign policy establishment are shocked time and time again.

As I've said repeatedly, supporting human rights is in our self interest. Linking up with scumbags is not. There's a good chance it will come back to bite us in the rear. Scumbags don't align with us because they like us. They do so because it's in THEIR (personal) self-interest. They will turn on us the second that turning on us becomes in their self-interest. In other words, they are unreliable friends... because they are not friends at all.

As I concluded in my essay: Support human rights is in our [America's] self-interest:

Some say that unpleasant political alliances are an unfortunate fact of geopolitical life. The latter is true. However, something else is also true: alliances can have consequences, not always good. This is not just self-righteous moralizing by some well-meaning but naive neophyte. It's in our self-interest to choose our allies very carefully. Democratic allies are almost invariably more stable (because they have a popular basis for the governance) and more reliable (because the rule of law tends to favor predictable outcomes).

Supporting human rights is in our self-interest

Below is an essay I wrote July 2002. I am posting it here because I will refer to it in future essays...


During the Cold War, the United States supported countless brutal dictatorships. This was not because the US liked to support brutal dicatorships or because the "land of the free" want to try out hypocrisy, but rather because of a simple intellectual error. The rhetorical basis for the Cold War was this: "communism is evil and totalitarian, therefore the anti-communism [the opposite of communism] is good and democratic [the opposite of evil and totalitarian]."

I won't go into a boring explanation of mathematical logic but even an attentive middle school math student should be able to tell you that this is a logically flawed conclusion to draw from the given premise

Communism was undoubtedly evil and totalitarian. It gave the world the horrors of the Maoist and Stalinist purges, the Gulag, the Stasi, the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring and of Budapest. But the so-called fight against anti-communism gave the world comparable horrors. Argentina's Dirty War, Augusto Pinochet, the Salvadoran death squads.

Samuel Doe was dictator of Liberia for almost all of the 1980s. If he weren't a dictator, he might be confused with some cartoonish bufoon. In reality though, Doe's brutality was as horrific as that of Uganda's infamous Idi Amin Dada. The main difference was that Amin's posturing and anti-British and anti-Israel propaganda invited international media scrutiny on his regime's horrors; Doe generally kept his mouth shut and thus was allowed to torture and brutalize in peace. Doe allowed the United States to set up a series of transmitters to allow Voice of America to broadcast more reliably to Africa, back when the Cold War powers were waging proxy wars in places like Angola and Mozambique. As a result, Doe was sickeningly lauded for his "human rights" record by then President Ronald Reagan.

I recently read an article in the Montreal paper Le Devoir on the aftereffects of the Guatemalan civil war and genocide. During several decades, there was a civil war in Guatemala between the American backed military regimes and the anti-communist rebels. The regime said they need to fight the communists to save the country. A UN commission determined that over 90% of the human rights abuses during the civil war were committed by the government (anti-communist) forces. They were trying to save the country from what? During the war, entire villages of Mayan indians were annihiliated by the forces of "law and order" in what is not generally recognized to be a genocide. This is not dissimiliar to the actions of their anti-communist comrades in El Salvador, where right-wing death squads murdered such "Marxist" threats as 4 American Catholic nuns as well as Archbishop Oscar Romero, the leading advocate for peace of that time (who was assassinated in the cathedral while saying Mass!).

Many Americans do not understand why people in other countries do not see us as the same paragon of goodness and virtue as we tend to see ourselves. After supporting criminals like Pinochet and the genociders, is it really shocking "what America represents" means something different to Chileans and Guatemalans (and many others) than it does to Americans? "Why do they hate us?" Easy, just look what happened to them and who was involved.

Why does this matter now? Because try replacing communists with Islamists. (Note: a Muslim is someone who believes in Islam; an Islamist is someone who believes that radical Islam should become the state-imposed theocratic political structure, usually by any means necessary). We're seeing many of the same parallels with our current war, we're seeing the possibility of history repeating itself. We support oppresive anti-democratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Guess where all of the 9/11 hijackers came from: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To them, we don't represent freedom and liberty and all the other virtues we like to brag about; we represent the government that is in bed with the corrupt Saudi monarchy and Egyptian dictatorship.

Some say that unpleasant political alliances are an unfortunate fact of geopolitical life. The latter is true. However, something else is also true: alliances can have consequences, not always good. This is not just self-righteous moralizing by some well-meaning but naive neophyte. It's in our self-interest to choose our allies very carefully. Democratic allies are almost invariably more stable (because they have a popular basis for the governance) and more reliable (because the rule of law tends to favor predictable outcomes).

The unilateralist foreign policy establishment of this country has to learn that if you say one thing and do another, it's going to piss a lot of people off. If those people that our bad policies have pissed off get access to hijacked planes or smallpox or chemical weapons, we're in a lot of trouble. You'd think they would have realized this on 11 Sept.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A victory for soccer as a global game

A belated congratulations to South Africa for winning the privilege to host the 2010 soccer World Cup. The country narrowly missed out the chance to host the 2006 Cup under controversial circumstances.

South Korea and Japan co-hosted to 2002 tournament. But before then, only Europe (8 times) and the Americas (7) had ever hosted the event.

Following the controversial vote for 2006, soccer's world governing body FIFA changed the rules so that the hosting of the world's largest single-sport event would hereby rotate between each of organization's six regions (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania).

The decision was a blow to the whiny Euro-centric lobby (the most vocal crowd in world soccer) who felt that it was a travesty that Old Continent would no longer host every other World Cup, as they had come to believe it was their God-given right to do so.

South Africa beat out its main rival Morocco for 2010. This was also a blow to the Euro-centrics who, grudgingly forced to accept a World Cup in "the dark continent," were pulling for Morocco because of its proximity to Europe. They were shocked that this did not appear to be the only consideration taken into account by the decision-makers.

South Africa's campaign was regularly attacked by this Chicken Little crowd. They showered the media with doom-and-gloom predictions if "crime ridden" South Africa were chosen for the World Cup. Crime would ruin the experience for fans. The distance from Europe would depress crowd sizes.

The truth of the matter is that this crowd didn't like South Africa because it's radically different from Europe; they would've tolerated Morocco because it was familiar to European vacationers and because it was so close to Europe that European fans didn't necessarily need to lodge there.

The same crowd also attacked the choice of Japan and South Korea. Some those attacks included: "They eat cats there" and "The huge time zone difference would make life miserable for European TV viewers."

South Africa's victory wasn't a victory for the African continent, despite how some media portrayed it. South Africa's victory was a victory for the concept of soccer as a global sport shared by all nations, not just richer ones. One whose greatest spectacle will be enjoyed first-hand by citizens in the developing world for the very first time.

FIFA got something right. It was bound to happen eventually.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

New York State schools to cut back on "non-core subjects"

WAMC Northeast Public Radio ran a story according to which: The New York State Education Department Commissioner has presented a series of recommendations to the State Board of Regents. At the middle school level, those proposals include cutting back on non-core subjects so that more time is available to improve performance in core subjects like math, reading and English

The main victims of the changes are the technology and home and careers skills courses (ie: shop and home ec). It wouldn't surprise me if physical education requirements are the next to be cut back.

Keep in mind that I have a B.S. in math and that I am a writer...

*The last time I cooked (a skill I learned in home ec class): The day before yesterday

*The last time I fixed something with tools (a skill I learned in shop class): Last Wednesday

*The last time I played tennis (a skill I learned in gym class): Earlier this month

*The last time I calculated a square root by hand (a skill I learned in 7th grade math class and quickly forgot): 7th grade math class

*The last time I made a parts of speech diagram (a "skill" I learned in 9th grade English class): 9th grade English class

If the core subjects had a practical dimension (like learning how to balance a checkbook as part of math; for me, this is a real-life use of imaginary numbers :-) , this might not be such a big deal. Instead, students are taught mostly theoretical stuff, especially in math and science, that have little use in the real world unless you specifically have a math- or science-related job.

If the educational process emphasized rigorous thought processes rather than rote memorization, we might have a better educated citizenry. But the educational process is more of an assembly line designed to produce widgets, where personal attention isn't really possible. Except for special ed students who get the benefit of infinitely more resources than gifted kids or even "ordinary" ones.

This isn't the fault of teachers, who are held to answer for the poor performance of their laziest and least motivated students, under a perverse definition of "accountability." It's the fault of a system that was designed to address 19th and early 20th century realities.

If students were shown the skills necessary to figure things out for themselves and then be allowed to do so, it might not only motivate them to go to school in the morning but it would also prepare them far better for the real world. But that can't be easily quantified on a standardized test, the holy grail of contemporary education. And if it can't be quantified, it doesn't exist, according to "conventional wisdom."

New York's Education Commissioner, Richard Mills, has said that standards have to be toughened and universalized because colleges are complaining that, for example, engineering students aren't properly grounded in the math necessary for that field. (I wish I could find the exact quote but I can't.)

This comment demonstrates Mills' approach, an approach which has changed the face of education in New York State in the last decade. Mills' emphasis on core academic subjects and de-emphasis of "fluffier" material sounds good in theory. People who merely question the standards' structure are blithely lectured about the importance of expectations. In other words, if we expect more, they'll do better. That's all it takes. Simple, eh?

The problem with one-size-fits-all is a simple, politically incorrect reality: not everyone goes to college. Mills' assumptions seem to be based on catering exclusively to the college-bound student. It's certainly important to well-prepare college bound students; whether the very structure of the educational system does that is another question. But where does the near-exclusive focus on college bound students leave the remaining students?

Society is based on a delicate balance. If our country was made up solely of engineers, who would fix the electrical short in your living room? (Especially since scrapping tech diminishes the do-it-yourself aspect) If our country was made up solely of scientists, who would fix the problems with your car motor (Especially since trade education is undervalued in this country)

It's not good enough to simply talk about high expectations and then wash your hands of those who drop out because they don't meet those expectations. The point of education is supposedly to prepare you for life, whether that life includes college or not.

Survival of the wisest

The Congress Party was the largest party in parliament following the recent general elections in India. Sonia Gandhi has said that she will not become prime minister, despite being the Congress Party's leader. Her husband Rajiv was prime minister and was assassinated. Her mother-in-law Indira was prime minister and she was assassinated. If you were her, would you want the poisoned chalice?

Monday, May 17, 2004

A landmark date in civil rights history... times two?

Today is the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision which ordered desegregation in America's schools. While it was not the first event in the black civil rights' movement, it is generally considered the spur to the agitation that eventually brought down state-enforced segregation. Though it didn't happen overnight and there was a huge resistance to equal rights, states were eventually forced to respect the US Constitution's equal protection clause and to honor the Declaration of Independence's promise that "all men are created equal."

In another important civil rights' event, Massachussetts today became the first state in the nation to allow gays to get married. There is plenty of opposition.

A lot of people will act like gay marriage will cause the collapse of western civilization. Many will oppose it or be uncomfortable with it just because it doesn't feel right in their gut, though they won't be able to explain why.

I suspect it's a matter of time before some governor stands on the steps of the statehouse and declares, "Straights-only marriage today. Straights-only marriage tommorrow. Straights-only marriage forever." To that end, President Bush himself has already said, "I called on the Congress to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife."

But gay marriage will eventually become accepted, in the same way interracial marriage eventually became accepted. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen..

It may happen with a different name. The government might come to its senses and get out of the marriage business altogether, as it should, and give everyone civil unions. But gays will get equal rights eventually. Bigotry always collapses under the weight of its own irrationality. Not always quickly and not always obviously, but it will happen.

One can only hope that on May 17, 2054, Americans will be celebrating the anniversary of TWO landmark dates in civil rights' history.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Questionable techniques approved from above -- Congress whines about the horse it pushed out of the barn

According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald: Interrogation techniques approved by the senior US military commander in Baghdad could violate the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, has admitted... After trying to avoid an answer by saying he had not seen the rules of interrogation, Mr Wolfowitz admitted that it "sounds to me like a violation of the Geneva convention". But he said he had no independent knowledge of what was in the rules signed by General Ricardo Sanchez in October.

So was the torture a few (or more than a few) bad apples acting roguely? Or were they committed by soldiers following established and approved but illegal practices?


The Washington Post ran an article headlined: Congress Hesitant to Write 'Blank Check'. According to the paper: President Bush asked Congress yesterday to approve a new $25 billion "contingency fund" for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but members of both parties in Congress indicated strong reservations about giving the Pentagon the free hand it is seeking to spend the money... But after military setbacks and recent allegations of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners, key senators seemed far more reluctant to give the Pentagon free rein.

This is just great. For the last two years, Congress has given the administration a blank check to do whatever it wants. The administration acts repeatedly on that blank check. It sends troops to Iraq based on that blank check. Congress passes resolutions saying what a wonderful idea this is: bully for invasions! And then in mid-course, Congress suddenly decides that maybe the impardonable abdication of its constitutional responsibility wasn't such a good idea after all. If they hadn't been asleep at the wheel in the first place, we might not be in this mess. They have no one to blame but themselves. And Democratic leaders, this means you too!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

'We Meant Well' doesn't cut it anymore

[a continuation of my essay: The self-delusional nature of Exceptionalism]

Two weeks ago, I was set to write an essay that said, despite my opposition to the war and to Bush, we needed to stick it out. We appointed ourselves Saviors and got ourselves into this mess and we had to stay until the country got on the stable path. You might not believe I was going to write that but I was.

Then I read a USA Today piece that reported: Only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm, and a solid majority support an immediate military pullout even though they fear that could put them in greater danger, according to a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll.

I admit my general skepticism of polls, but it's a pretty big body blow to the contention that, "If we don't stay the course, we'll betray the Iraqi people."

Then there were the prisoner abuse images that did incalculable damage. We go into this country uninvited and then some complain that they're hypersenstitive about us torturing them. We can't do that anymore. Sen. James Inhofe wonders why anyone cares what happens to Iraqi prisoners. I'm no PR expert but I doubt the "we're not as bad as Saddam" motto isn't going to rally Iraqis to our side in droves.

And yes, whiny Arab states do far worse things to their citizens. But the drip, drip, drip of these problems is seriously undermining the effort to rebuild Iraq. The accusations that abuses are far more systematic and widespread than Americans want to admit.

The Washington Post cited Red Cross sources stated that some military intelligence officers estimated that 70 percent to 90 percent of "the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake." Of the 43,000 Iraqis who have been imprisoned at some point during the occupation, only about 600 have been referred to Iraqi authorities for prosecution, according to U.S. officials.

I know there's a lot of confusion in the fog of war. But over year after "mission accomplished," only less than 1.4% of those detained have started to go through the justice process.

The Post cited former prisoners, Iraqi lawyers, human rights advocates and the the Red Cross and wrote: Problems in the U.S.-run detention system in Iraq extended beyond physical mistreatment in prison cellblocks, involving thousands of arrests without evidence of wrongdoing and abuse of suspects starting from the moment of detention... U.S.-led forces routinely rounded up Iraqis and then denied or restricted their rights under the Geneva Conventions during months of confinement, including rights to legal representation and family visits, the sources said.

This doesn't paint a picture of a 'few bad apples' acting roguely on their own.

(The Red Cross is hardly a partisan organization; if fact, they've come under criticism in recent years for being TOO neutral)

Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. He shouldn't be held responsible for what others did; he should be held responsible for what he did.

He is responsible because these abuses were first reported to superiors on 13 January and but no charges were brought against the soldiers until this month, only after the bad publicity. He should should resign because a spokesman for the Red Cross told the BBC that he had been warning the US about such cases for more than a year and nothing happened until the media publicized it. He should resign because his policies helped create the culture of impunity that these individual soldiers abused.

The tortures were allowed to happen because of a "Failure of leadership, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision." This is not a criticism leveled by a John Kerry supporter or a Bush-hater or a 'warmed-over 60s hippie' peacenik. This is a criticism made by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, author of the Pentagon report that found numerous "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at the U.S.-run prison complex near Baghdad.

One paper editorialized: But while responsibility begins with the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership. The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish. From the moment they are captured, prisoners are hooded, shackled and isolated. The message to the troops: Anything goes... How tragically ironic that the American military, which was welcomed to Baghdad by the euphoric Iraqi people a year ago as a liberating force that ended 30 years of tyranny, would today stand guilty of dehumanizing torture in the same Abu Ghraib prison used by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen... On the battlefield, [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard] Myers’ and Rumsfeld’s errors would be called a lack of situational awareness — a failure that amounts to professional negligence... This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level. This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential — even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war.

These are two of the less damning parts of the editorial. No 'shoot the messenger' whining. No attacking the hippies. No blame the media smokescreens.

The paper in question: The Army Times.

In his lecture to Iraqis on Arab television, President Bush said, "We stand side by side with the Iraqis that love freedom. But people will be held to account. That's what the process does. That's what we do in America. We fully investigate, we let everybody see the results of the investigation and then people will be held to account. " The president should demonstrate his commitment to accountability if Secretary Rumsfeld refuses to.

But while Rumsfeld's departure would be helpful (I'm not holding my breath), it would not address the fundamental difficulties we face in Iraq.

Let's put feelings about the administration aside for a moment. I do believe that most Americans (the 70% who supported the invasion and even us "warmed over 60s hippies" who didn't) would prefer a stable and democratic Iraq to one in chaos.

Our intentions are good. But we must also address the consequences of our actions.

Even if you think the war was a good idea, even if you think Iraq is in better shape today than under Saddam, I think we all have to ask ourselves if we've reached the point of diminishing returns. If we've reached the point where we may do more harm, even if inadvertantly, by staying than by leaving.

I'm not convinced yet that this is the case, but we seem to be going toward that point rather than away from it. Regardless, the question shouldn't be taboo.

Unfortunately, the question IS taboo for most. It's taboo because some people think that by saying "yes," we'd either a) be admitting that the invasion was a bad idea (which a 'yes' answer does not necessarily imply) or b) be giving the proverbial 'aid and comfort' to terrorists. Though the abuse images was a pretty big PR coup for the al-Qaedaists too.

The question can't be posed by the simple dichotomy: status quo or immediate and full pull out. If we're going to stay, things need to improve. Sooner, not later. How are we going to make that happen? Can we make that happen? Too much energy has been spent retrospectively defending or attacking the decision to go to war that everyone seems to be neglecting this question.

Yes, I think the invasion was a bad idea; a bad idea poorly executed. Yes, I think events on the ground demonstrate that the anti-war advocates weren't totally full of it because nothing that's happening there was unforeseable. Yes, I hope it serves as a warning for the next time we think of doing something like this. But you know what, it's a great intellectual exercise but it doesn't do a damn thing to address the current problems. Having been right doesn't really make me feel any better when I see American soldiers torturing Iraqis; or when I think that a guy watched his brother being decapitated on television.

Most here would prefer a free and democratic Iraq. I really do believe that. As a result, Americans need to start asking if the actions in Iraq are achieving the goal they all proclaim to want. The fact is, I don't have any good solutions. I hope someone else does.

To do this, we need to stop pretending that the declaration of good intentions is a vaccine that immunizes us from having to consider the consequences of our actions. If the ACTUAL consequences are diametrically opposed to the INTENDED consequences, then those good intentions don't amount to a hill of beans.

However true it may be, simply saying "we meant well" doesn't cut it any more.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The utilitarian nature of torture

The US government must condemn torture unambiguously. The Pentagon must say loudly and clearly that we're going to respect the Geneva Convention. Period. No hemming and hawing and other qualifications or reservations. Right now, you still have people who either justify it or, like Sen. Inhofe, think it's not so bad. This sort of confusion is the last thing we need right now.

Typical of this mentality, one lieutenant told the BBC "You got to understand - although it seems harsh - the Iraqis, they only understand force."

In other words, treat the Iraqis like animals and then be shocked (SHOCKED!) when the act like animals. This mentality has been repeated throughout history. It pretty much never works in the medium- and long-terms. The moral aspect of torture and its counterproductivity to the PR aspect of the war has already been much discussed.

But I'm not sure I understand torture even from a purely amoral, utilitarian stance. It seems that if you abuse someone, they will likely tell you what they think you want to hear, not necessarily the truth. If tortured long enough, I'd probably admit "George W. Bush is the best president in history" even though I'd never say this while sober. Wouldn't reliance on torture frequently lead to false admissions by captives desperate just to end the torture? And if soldiers go into risky situations based on that false intelligence....

Some people still think torture is a necessary evil, to protect the lives of soldiers or civilians. During the Battle of Algiers, torture was widely used by colonial French forces against the indigenous Algerian FLN nationalist guerillas. It was thought to be necessary to gain important information to break the FLN's organizational structural in the Algerian capital. It worked and yet it didn't.

The French won the Battle of Algiers but the means (torture) had a devastating effect. A classic "won the battle but lost the war" scenario. Not only did the torture turn international opinion against the French, but it galvanized the nationalists and allowed the FLN to portray the Europeans as evil. Sure, the FLN was responsible for more than a few atrocities of their own, but the atrocities made the French seem no better. When given the choice, most people would rather be ruled by their own thugs than foreign thugs.

The head of French military forces during the Battle of Algiers, Gen. Jacques Massu, iniitally defended his and his soldiers' actions. In his 1971, less than a decade after the Algerian War ended, he wrote I am not afraid of the word torture and claimed in the majority of cases, the French soldiers who were obliged to resort to torture to combat terrorism were fortunately choir boys compared to the rebels. Their extreme savagery led us to show a certain ferocity, it is true, but we remained within the limits of the law of the 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth'.

Does this sound at all familiar?

[Before one gets too smug, remember what happened in Algeria. The French were winning the war militarily but the FLN made things as bloody as possible. Eventually, French public opinion thought the human cost was far too high just to keep distant Algeria part of France proper. French public pressure forced Paris to recognize Algerian independence.]

Yet 30 years later, in 2001, the general changed his tune. He declared in a newspaper interview, "Torture is not indispensible in times of you. You can easily skip it." When asked if the French state should admit it authorized torture and apologize for it, Massu answered, "I think that would be a good thing. Morally, torture is inadmissible."

Some people will always insist that torture has a certain utility in extracting information. I will always question the accuracy of information gained in that manner. We may agree to disagree on this. But one thing I hope everyone can concur on is that torture should NEVER be permitted simply so prison guards can get their kicks. The most disgusting sight in the images I saw was not the actual abuse, which was bad enough. It was the sight of American soldiers, with shit-eating grins on their faces, posing next to humiliated captives in the same way a couple of tourists might pose in front of the Washington Monument during a family vacation.

I said yesterday that the torture should disgust us but not surprise us and I was attacked for this. Thomas Powers, author of Intelligence Wars : American Secret History From Hitler to Al-Qaeda summed it up well last year. That which we call a low-intensity war gives rise to frustration and terrible temptations: the frustration of never getting a beat on an enemy that could be anyone anywhere; the temptation of resorting to torture to squeeze from prisoners or suspects the information needed to act effectively. The manner in which the United States reacts to this temptation is one of the unknowns of the war. They tell us that torture is technically illegal and we hope it's true. But as these low intensity conflicts go on forever, the soldiers tell themselves: 'We will defend our life and no one will ever know.'

Three things we need to do in Iraq

A bunch of courageous men with their faces covered beheaded a tied-up, defenseless American civilian hostage and sent the video to a television station. They said it was in revenge for the now infamous incidents of torture apparently inflicted by American soldiers on Iraqi prisoners and visitors (though somehow I get the feeling they would've found an excuse for it regardless). The insurgents' atrocities (hanging Americans from a bridge like slaughtered livestock) begets American atrocities (you've seen the images) which begets this sickening scene. And the cycle of joy goes on and on.

There are a few things we need to do in Iraq. And no, Senator Inhofe, being apologists for war criminals is not one of those things.

a) Those soldiers who committed the torture must be held accountable. Any superior officers who gave them the orders to torture, either directly or indirectly, should be tried. The secretary of war should resign. The Pentagon brass must make it clear and unambiguous that these sorts of things are unacceptable. If it ever happens again, they must punish the perpetrators without waiting for the story to get reported by the media. These things go without saying. Or should.

b) Either get more troops in Iraq or withdraw completely. There's no two ways about it. Guards at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison are reportedly working up to 18 hour days. An 18 hour day at the security desk at the Empire State Building would be long enough. But in a prison with enemy prisoners, the desert heat. Soldiers had their tours of duty extended much longer than they'd expected. As I've said repeatedly, if you put people in unreasonable situations, they will react in unreasonable ways. The situation in Iraq will always be extremely difficult, but as long as we're going to be there, more troops would make things somewhat less unreasonable on those soldiers who we force to remain. If we're not willing to get more troops into Iraq, even at the expense of a draft (70% of Americans supported the invasion so I'm sure some of them would be willing), then we should get out.

c) Soldiers in combat zones must be taken care of. They must be given good pay and, more importantly, they must be given adequate equipment. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, a local soldier was killed in Iraq last month. The other soldiers in his patrol said that the truck they were driving was unprotected and had no armor; armor that might've been vital in protecting against the rocket propelled grenade that killed one soldier and injured the other four. This is what angers me the most. We're sending these kids (the dead was 21) into these extremely dangerous situations, asking them to risk their lives for some greater cause, and they don't even have basic equipment to reduce the risk. It pisses me off that the Pentagon can find billions of dollars for useless Star Wars but can't provide basic crap to combat soldiers. I've gotten the impression (and conversations with my brother, who was in the Marines, have done nothing to dissuade me) that the military brass is so starry-eyed about fancy technology that they forget basic stuff. It's like teaching a young baseball player to hit a forkball, knuckleball, screwball and splitter, but not the fastball. Except kids are dying because the Pentagon can't keep its eye on the ball.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The self-delusional nature of Exceptionalism

Every virtue has its potential weakness. Patience and adaptability are important characteristics in most African societies. These have their good and bad sides. If you're not patient in most African countries, you will go insane. When I was in Guinea, if I got an invitation for a baptism or marriage that said the ceremony would start "at 1:00 PM very precisely" (and it always said 'precisely' or 'exactly'), I learned not to bother showing up until 2:30-ish and even then I'd inevitably have to wait: anywhere from half an hour to 90 minutes. Most governments in Africa don't do anything except get in the way. If you're not adaptable, you die.

But there's a flip side. It means that people collectively people accept things they shouldn't accept. They are so patient, they often don't react to injustice. They just adapt. Sometimes people do react and a civil war breaks out, a civil war which is inevitably more injust and destructive than the dictatorship it purported to overthrow.

These examples understandably makes other Africans cautious. A Guinean may not like the dictatorship that's running the country into the ground economically; but he looks to his southern neighbors in Liberia and Sierra Leone and suddenly things at home don't seem so bad. Things aren't moving forward in Guinea, but at least they're not really moving backward. But running in place isn't a great way to expend a lot of energy.

Americans, on the other hand, are supremely self-confident. This is called American Exceptionalism. We don't think we're great; we know we're great. And as such, we expect to act like a great power. Modesty and restraint are not part of our modus operandi.

This Exceptionalism is why we led the fight against Soviet expansionism (and make no mistake about it: the USSR was just as imperalistic as they accused the US of being). There were certainly abuses and bad misjudgements, as I've chronicled before. But while trying to temper the excesses, most people in western countries accepted the United States as flawed but undisputed leader of the "good guys" in the Cold War. It's no coincidence that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Eastern European countries have adopted pro-American foreign policy.

This Exceptionalism has also led to overreach in unwinnable wars as in Vietnam. It lead us to offer unquestioning support odious regimes such Pinochet's Chile, Mobutu's Zaire, apartheid South Africa, the genocidal Guatemalan junta and Saddam's regime, which was also genocidal. We explained away any abuses, excesses and bad judgement with the teflon of "good intentions."

And this continues today. The House of Saud, where they chop people's hands off for stealing. Egypt (the second largest recipient of American aid), where they have mass roundups and kangaroo trials of gays. Eritrea, one of the five worst countries in the world for press freedom (they rank below Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria). Uzbekistan, where the regime's secret police boils prisoners alive. These are all either close allies or part of the so-called coalition of the willing.

But the United States has good intentions and are working for freedom and liberty so it's ok to keep this company. Our Exceptionalism and certainty about the rightness of our intentions severely blinds us to the consequences of our actions.

I recently finished reading the brilliant novel The Quiet American by Graham Greene; the classic is still timely some half century after its publication. The book exploresthe strained rapport between a hardened British journalist (named Fowler) covering the French war in Indochina and a young American military attache (named Pyle) sent to Vietnam to channel aid into a "third force": neither the French colonialists nor the Vietminh. Fowler was the old, cynical, hardened European; Pyle, the young, idealistic, naive American. Fowler said of Pyle, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

There's a reason I don't label myself as liberal or socialist or whatever. I don't want to be a slave to an ideology. I want to make my ideology fit my morals, conscience and beliefs, not the other way around. Too many times throughout history, people have their certainty about an ideology blind themselves to the human consequences of the implementation of that ideology.

They shrug and say something trite like, "You can't make omelettes without breaking a few eggs." But if a movement thinks that some people's lives or well-being can be sacrificed, then anyone's life or well-being can be sacrificed. Even the ideology's original supporters or people who might otherwise be somewhat sympathetic to it. Think Orwell's Hommage to Catalonia. An ideology must work for the benefit of people, not the other way around.

The main problem with strict adherence to ideology and theory is that they often work well in a textbook but poorly in practice. In some cases, theories work well in small, controlled settings but are not adaptable to larger situations. The collective is an example of this. Any ideology that fails to take into account human nature is bound to fail. This is why communism was great in theory but was always a disaster in practice.

Americans have been shocked by the images of Iraqis tortured and humiliated by American soldiers. Why were they shocked? Because of their belief in Exceptionalism (and because we've spent the last year and a half canonizing soldiers, so the sense of betrayal is all the more bitter).

As Zombywoof correctly wrote:

First of all, don't be so shocked. This is how soldiers act. It's how the military has been acting since beginning of time.

Soldiers kill people. They blow things up. They may engage in other activities, but these are two of fundamental things they do that no one else is allowed to do. To be a combat soldier, you need a lot of adrenaline. In combat situations, you are going to kill someone else if there's even the remotest possibility they might kill you. You are hypersensitive to any danger, senses on full alert, justifiably paranoid.

I'm sure I'd be the same way in the same situation. And that's exactly the point. You put people in extreme situations and they will act in extreme ways. Being a soldier is not being a ballet dancer. The job of a combat soldier is not to create, but to destroy. It might be necessary, but society should not engage in self-delusion as to the nature of the job.

An an article in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:

In 1971 researchers created a simulated prison in a basement on Stanford University campus. They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.

Within days, the "guards" had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners' heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.

Adrenaline. Hypersensitive. Combine these with the group mentality that pushes many people to do things they ordinarily wouldn't do on their own. Give them guns and control over prisoners. Be honest: is it really that surprising that they would go on power trips and humilitate the soldiers they'd been conditioned to see as villains defending the "Axis of Evil"?

It's only surprising if you believe in Exceptionalism and that Americans are somehow exempt from the laws of nature.

It's disgusting. It's not surprising.

There's only outrage because some soldiers were stupid enough to shoot the images. Except they weren't stupid, they were arrogant. They had excessive power and, as usually happens, they became arrogant. The soldiers thought they'd never get caught or punished. They thought impunity applied to them. And it would have if the images hadn't gotten out.

"All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

[to be continued]

Monday, May 10, 2004

Please leave comments

Apparently you can now leave comments in this blog. Please do so!

Demagoguery of the week

Mr. Secretary, the behavior by Americans at the prison in Iraq is, as we all acknowledge, immoral, intolerable and un-American. It deserves the apology that you have given today and that have been given by others in high positions in our government and our military.

I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized. Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq working to liberate Iraq and protect our security have never apologized.

And those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Fallujah a while ago never received an apology from anybody.

-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what's known as a demagogic non sequitur. Which is a fancy of way of saying the senator is full of horse manure.

Almost no one believes Saddam Hussein's regime had anything to do with 11 September; even the president was forced to admit that. And that the particular Iraqi GIs actually tortured by our soldiers were involved in 11 September is almost inconceivable. In other words, 9/11 has nothing to do with American war crimes. That's why it's considered demagoguery. It's the inclusion of an emotional statement that has nothing to do with the question at hand.

When I was getting a haircut this weekend, I heard something similiar to Lieberman. My barber fumed, "They didn't apolgize when they killed all those people in Oklahoma."

I pointed out to him that it was an American, not Iraqis, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City and he acknowledged his error. Something like this done by a barber with a high school education can be written off as an honest mistake. When it's done by an educated and experienced senator (who felt qualified enough to run for commander-in-chief), it can only be willful deception.

[My barber also fought in Korea and said of the tortures something like, "It's a different generation. When we were soldiers, we would never have done something like that. You don't do that because of the Geneva Convention." Apparently a humble septugenerian barber has more respect for the Geneva Convention than the administration.]

Lieberman says that the 9/11 killers didn't apologize. He says that Saddam's army didn't apologize. The bad guys didn't apologize: so what?! They're the [insert omninous music] Axis of Evil. We expect nothing of them. America's Crusaders, on the other hand, liberated Iraq with its Army of Goodness in the name of the Forces of Light. We held ourselves to a higher moral standard than those Darth Vader wannabes and the Euro-wimp appeasers.

So when Lieberman says that "what those American soldiers did was immoral but the other guys are immoral too," it hardly fills me with confidence and pride either with our men and women in uniform or with their so-called leaders.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Sen. Lieberman has been the only man in Washington who can top the president in the 'self-righteous' category. I suppose the the only thing that makes me rejoice is the knowledge that this demagogue won't be moralizer-in-chief for the next four years.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Ethnic Cleansing in Eastern Sudan

The world media (or the small part of it that noticed) recently marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. There was the requisite soul-searching about the media's role in failing to report more vigorously on the genocide while it was actually happening.

I'm not convinced this would've mattered. Western countries were given near-saturation media coverage on the situation in the Balkans; the non-reactions varied from hand washing (US govt saying "It's not our problem) to doing something to assuage one's conscience without really doing anything (Europe wagging its finger at Milosevic: "We're warning you. If you don't stop, we're going to... warn you ever more vigorously next time" and then holding interminable conferences).

The fact of the matter is that if another situation similiar to Rwanda occurred, the western media would likely act in the same way. People in western countries generally aren't that interested in what's going on in non-western countries. Sure, there are a few exceptions. The British and French tend to be moderately interested in the doings in their former African colonies because a) they maintain considerably economic ties in many of them and b) there are many African immigrants in those countries. Western Europeans tend to be disproportionately interested in the Israeli Occupied Territories. But generally speaking, most westerners care little about non-western countries, except in a tangential way. Ask them if 'x' crisis is bad and they will say "Yes, it's awful." It usually doesn't translate into anything more than that.

The media likes to engage in a bit of self-serving chest-puffing. "We don't make news, we just report it," is one myth. "All the news that's fit to print" and other mottos appeal to some notion of service.

Yet most media outlets are first and foremost businesses. As such, they give the consumers what they want, not necessarily what they need. Like I said, they are business, so that's the way businesses operate. But journalism would be better served if it acknowledged this reality. Individual journalists may aspire to a more noble cause, but do they call the shots?

In recalling the Rwandan genocide, a BBC producers remembered: Months [before the genocide erupted], the BBC newsroom had been bombarded with complaints when a small massacre in neighbouring Burundi had been shown in dreadful detail, once, on the lunchtime news. Someone had issued a directive about pictures. This was allowed to set the tone, in the BBC at least, for a story of unimaginably greater consequence.

The BBC tried to give the people a fair idea of what was going on and the people screamed that they didn't want to know. The BBC is a public broadcaster, less suspectible to economic pressures and whose very charter incorporates the notion of public service, but even it can't totally ignore what the consumers want.

So while the media and the politicians went on about how they failed Rwandans 10 years ago, they did so while similiarly failing black Africans in eastern Sudan. And they did so without the slightest hint of irony.

Apparently, everyone is much better at remembering the anniversaries of tragedies than they are at addressing them while they happen or, God forbid, try and prevent them (which, before I get bombared by people jumping to conclusions, doesn't necessarily imply a military response)

Ethnic cleansing in the province of Darfur, in the east of the Sudan, has led to what is widely described as the worst humanitarian situation in the world today. Arab militias, widely believed to be armed by the central government, have engaged in a scorched earth campaign against black residents and villages. The Arab-dominated government, which also stands accused of tolerating slavery and the slave trade in the southern (black) regions, naturally denies the ethnic cleansing allegations. "What is happening in Darfur is neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide," the country's foreign minister told the official Sudan News Agency. "It is a state of war, which resulted in a humanitarian situation."

Just an unfortunate, but unavoidable, by-product of the war, according to the regime. A by-product which is believed to have already caused 30,000 deaths and over one million Sudanese displaced from their homes.

And, chillingly, many in the UN believe it could get worse wrote: Political tension and rivalry in Khartoum [the capital] also underlies its response or lack of response, said Snyder. Over 50 percent of the government's military forces come from Darfur, but from the region's African Muslim population. Those forces have been sympathetic to the anger of their kith and kin at government favoritism toward "Arab" people there, and thus have been reluctant to fight.

Rivalries within the ruling elite have complicated things. The military government had previously formed an unholy alliance with Islamist clerics. They imposed Sharia law on the land. However, when the clerics got too powerful, the military regime engaged in a crackdown and had its leader, the parliament speaker Hassan al-Turabi, arrested.

The New York Times relayed one girl's account: Hawa Muhammad, 15, lost just about everything when the men on horseback came. They took her family's horses, donkeys and small herd of goats and sheep. They took her cooking pots and her clothing. They took her mother and her father, too. "The men on horses killed my parents," she said, referring to the Janjaweed, loose bands of Arab fighters. "Then the planes came."

Despite the slavery and ethnic cleansing allegations, Sudan somehow got elected to the United Nations' Human Rights Commission. Maybe the country will nominate North Korea as its successor. But despite the corruption of the Human Rights Commission (a body elected by member states), the UN's humanitarian organizations (staffed by bureaucrats) are under no illusions as to the situation.

"This is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with so many people in the most belligerent way being chased from their homes. Everything has been taken away from these people. This is tragic," UN World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris was quoted by UN News as saying in London on Tuesday.

"As in many other recent conflicts, rape has become a weapon of war in western Sudan, with disastrous consequences for women and girls," added Pamela Delargy, the chief of the humanitarian response unit of the UN Population Fund.

Normally, the Arab press spends most of its energy demonizing even the slightest misdeeds of Israel while barely mentioning the massive human rights abuses, economic mismanagement and corruption and total lack of democracy in most Arab countries. So I was certainly surprised and heartened to read an editorial in the Lebanese paper The Daily Star calling on the Arab League to get involved in the Darfur crisis. The paper asked: Why is Amr Moussa not in Darfur? Why is the secretary-general of the Arab League not physically present at, and diplomatically active in, the latest and most disturbing violent Arab crisis? If the Arab League has a purpose and the idea of collective Arab action has any legitimacy, then surely the situation in Darfur in western Sudan is the kind of issue that begs for active Arab intervention. The paper added that Darfur was a "horrendous example of ethnic cleansing and mass murder - crimes against humanity, by any standard - except perhaps that of the collective Arab conscience?" Though I don't know how reflective The Daily Star's editorial is of its colleagues, the position is certainly a welcome break for the normally reflexively defensive Arab press.

As California Congressman Tom Lantos wrote in The Boston Globe: The US government should have no illusions that what is taking place in Darfur is ethnic cleansing. The Sudan is a government determined to use every opportunity, whether through peace negotiations or war, to expand its grip on local resources, impose Sharia law on non-Muslims, and to propagate a hateful racial and cultural ideology to maintain political hegemony over the diverse communities in Sudan. The United States must lead the international community to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, open access to humanitarian aid, and agree to a strong monitoring mechanism for the cease-fire agreement. This must include a robust role for the entities that have played key roles in the peace negotiations: the UN, the United States, the Africa Union, and the European Union.

In fairness, the world media finally does seem to be getting the Darfur story. It took a while, but the man-made nightmare in eastern Sudan is finally getting a little attention. At least as much as any international story outside of Iraq and Israel-Palestine is ever going to get today.

The Horse Has Left The Barn

"The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. The world is better off because he sits in a prison cell. Because we acted, torture rooms are closed, rape rooms no longer exist, mass graves are no longer a possibility in Iraq." -President Bush, 3 May '04

Toronto's Globe and Mail is is reporting that International Committee for the Red Cross that its officials were worried about activities at Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad, long before stories of mistreatment became public.

Apparently, the "isolated incidents" of torture, abuse and sexual degradation allegedly committed by American troops weren't and aren't quite as isolated as we'd all like to believe. Systematic and widespread? Hopefully not. But with the PR disaster getting worse every day, neither the president nor anyone else should content themselves by blithely saying "It's still better than Saddam" and casually lecturing Iraqis on the nature of democracy.

As the Washington Post editorial yesterday pointed out about Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld.

Beginning more than two years ago, Mr. Rumsfeld decided to overturn decades of previous practice by the U.S. military in its handling of detainees in foreign countries. His Pentagon ruled that the United States would no longer be bound by the Geneva Conventions; that Army regulations on the interrogation of prisoners would not be observed; and that many detainees would be held incommunicado and without any independent mechanism of review. Abuses will take place in any prison system. But Mr. Rumsfeld's decisions helped create a lawless regime in which prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been humiliated, beaten, tortured and murdered -- and in which, until recently, no one has been held accountable. The lawlessness began in January 2002 when Mr. Rumsfeld publicly declared that hundreds of people detained by U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan "do not have any rights" under the Geneva Conventions.

The president needs to take a dramatic step: fire the secretary of war. Firing Secretary Rumsfeld would send a REAL message to Iraqis about accountability and rule of law in a democratic society; a message far more powerful than reading a script on pan-Arab television. The crimes were committed by individual soldiers and they should be punished accordingly. The tone for such lawlessness and impunity was set by the secretary of war's policies. He should be punished accordingly too. By losing his job.

Do I expect this to happen? When hell freezes over. The motto of this administration is: take a decision, make "facts" fit with that decision, don't look back and never, EVER cast a critical analysis on past decisions. President Bush complained that he learned of the horrible photos via the media, rather than Secretary Rumsfeld, But the president has set the tone for his administration that made this seem normal. He's little interested in the specifics. He's not an ideas guy, he'd probably boast. It's not surprising that this style of leadership eventually burned him.

Congress is equally complicit. They stopped acting as a check on the executive shortly after 11 September. They hurriedly passed the so-called Patriot Act with little opposition and, shockingly, no Congressional hearings. They woud hold Congressional hearings if someone proposed establishing 'Apple Pie Tastes Good' Day but not for radically far-reaching Patriot Act.

After signing this blank check, the administration concluded that it could do pretty much whatever it wanted under the guise of 'the war on terror.' And it was right. Congress has been largely silent throughout.

You'd think someone in Congress might make some noise when the administration to say it'll respect the Constitution when it wants to. Or that the administration doesn't feel like complying with the Geneva Convention. Yet Congress was silent. Oversight and accountability are functionally non-existent. And some of us are left to bemoan "phantoms of lost liberties," to cite the attorney general's condescending remarks.

Now, Congress is annoyed that Secretary Rumsfeld never told them about the photos. What did they expect? They've given the administration blank checks for the last two and a half years and now they're shocked, SHOCKED, about being left out of the loop. Once the horse is let out of the barn, it's hard to get him back in.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

And You Thought the 'Freedom Fries' Debate Was Ridiculous

Yesterday, Major League Baseball announced that it would put advertisements for the movie Spiderman 2 on the bases and pitchers mounds in all the league's stadia. When I read this news, I sighed, though I wasn't surprised. I figure that within 15 years, teams will be competing in the HP/Compaq Playoffs for a berth in the Yahoo! World Series.

So MLB's going for hyper-commercialization. Sports have been conquered by that phenomenon a long time ago.

But then I read that MLB reversed its decision only a day later. The Washington Post reported:

Faced with a public outcry, angry threats from Congress and even criticism from some of its owners, Major League Baseball announced late Thursday that it was retreating from plans to place logos for the new movie "Spider-Man 2" on the bases during games next month.


If every country in the world were at peace, our troops weren't in over a hundred countries around the world and there was no poverty or unemployment at home, Major League Baseball's advertising choices still wouldn't merit the attention of Congress.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Propaganda Coup for the America-Haters

The apparent torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners* is a terrible PR blow to the Bush administration. The disgusting site of Iraqis being tortured by American soldiers was surely a daunting challenge for an administration that was diplomacy challenged at the best of times.

(*-apparently it wasn't just Iraqis. The Globe and Mail of Toronto reports of a Canadian civilian who also claims to have been tortured by US troops in Iraq. But he had a "funny" name so maybe that's why he allegedly got caught in the middle)

The most sickening photo was in The New Yorker magazine, whose caption read Two American soldiers pose behind a pyramid of hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners. The two soldiers had sh*t-eating grins on their face.

"It's a terrible thing, but it's not as bad as Saddam's torture chambers," say war defenders, as though this makes a lick of difference. It's probably not as bad as Saddam's torture chambers in that it's not (hopefully) as widespread and systematic. Certainly the broadcast of such images wouldn't have caused Saddam to blush, let alone push him to go on pan-Arabic television. "A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this," President Bush told al-Arabiya.

But no one should take any comfort from such distinctions. Because, fairly or not, I wonder how many Iraqis will make such distinctions anyway. The administration has continually underestimated the importance of PERCEPTION in what is now as much a war of public relations as any other kind.

The abuses might not be as bad as Saddam's regime but we were SUPPOSED to be better than Saddam. A lot better than Saddam. That's how we tried to sell our Crusade. Getting rid of a brutal regime is the only justification for invasion left that hasn't been discredited. Stuff like this seriously undermines even that lone remaining rationale.

Yes, war is hell. Our soldiers are in a nearly impossible situation, not of their making. Put people in inhumane conditions and they will act in inhumane ways. This is how terrorists recruit. This is apparently what's happened to some of our soldiers. But the fact of this situation isn't accidental. The soldiers are in that situation because a conscious decision made by a president with the support of some 70% of the population (including his Democratic presidential opponent). To place all the blame on President Bush's shoulders is disingenuous; no one can say the president didn't have the broad support of the people.

These war crimes are a serious blow to the only noble (stated) justification for the invasion: the establishment in Iraq of a democratic system that respects human rights. The US military as a whole is trying to make the best of a bad situation and these atrocities are making things so much worse, it's almost impossible to overstate the damage. Now, those extremist groups who said, "We told you the west represented evil and would rain indignity upon you" will say they were vindicated.

Images of these atrocities will be the best recruiting tool for anti-American organizations since the Iraq invasion itself.

Foxes Chosen to Guard the Henhouse

The UN High Commission for Human (UNHCHR) has become a bete noire for neo-conservatives. Yes, these are the same neo-cons who laud the inclusion of repressive dictatorships like Uzbekistan and Eritrea in the coalition of the willing for freedom and liberty. It started when Libya was named to chair the commission. This was before the west began its canonization of Col. Gadaffi. Now, The Sudan was recently elected to the commission.

Neo-cons aren't known for being big on the language of human rights. They speak more about freedom. A country that allows US corporations to exploit its natural resources is, according to them, a free country.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been complaining about the weak and ineffectual nature of the UNHCHR for years, but Washington's never paid attention. Maybe it's because the NGOs had been trying to call awareness to the situation in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Israeli-occupied territories. These places are slightly more uncomfortable targets for Washington than Libya or the Sudan.

Nevertheless, there is a legitimate point if you fight through the disingenuousness. Libya has no business chairing a human rights panel.

The Sudan is home to what is widely considered the most serious humanitarian situation in the world in its eastern province of Darfur, one which many are calling genocide. There, militias sponsored by the Arab government have killed at least 30,000 black Africans and forced over one million people to flee their home. "This is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with so many people in the most belligerent way being chased from their homes. Everything has been taken away from these people. This is tragic," UN World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris was quoted by UN News as saying in London on Tuesday. And this doesn't even take into account the Khartoum regime's tolerance of slavery and the slave trade within its borders.

Part of the problem is the large nature of the commission (50-something members) and the consensual group way in which members are chosen. Essentially, each continent nominates a bloc of countries to serve on the commission and those nominations are almost always accepted. In addition to the Sudan, the most atrocious example,three other countries with lamentable human rights records were also named to the commission: Guinea (where I lived), Pakistan and Togo.

The UNHCHR should be reformed if it wants to be relevant. It should be made much smaller. Maybe two countries per continent. And continents should nominate several countries for one seat so a choice can be made. Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Botswana would all be credible African members of the commission. Thabo Mbeki's willful blindness to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe rules out South Africa for now.

It should be reformed but it won't. Sadly, most governments, and not just those from "the third world," think they have an interest in maintaining a powerless, irrelevant, emasculated international human rights' body

Evil Downloaders

The RIAA (music industry) is waging a legal war against file sharers. It's not because the RIAA is selfish, they insist, but because the industry is concerned about the fate of poor, struggling musicians. It's all about the musicians, the RIAA tells us, hand over heart.

So given the industry's obviously pure-as-the-white-snow intentions, I was naturally surprised to read this article from the New York Times about how record labels had shortchanged performers.

The industry recently concluded a settlement with New York's state attorney general whereby the world's top recording companies would pay nearly $50 million to artists. An investigation by the attorney general's office concluded that the world's largest recording companies had failed to maintain contact with many artists and writers and had stopped making required payments to them.

Bob Donnelly, an entertainment lawyer, said that he had planned to file a class-action lawsuit against the music industry, "but every time we'd get a good plaintiff, the record company would offer to pay them."