Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam's execution

After hearing about the state murder of a state murderer, one question came to mind that I've wondered here before.

If the Saddam Hussein can get a public trial and questionable approximation of due process, why can't that same process be afforded to the kidnapees in Gitmo, who are presumably far less monstrous? Why is the "Hitler of the Middle East*" afforded more pseudo-legality than ordinary suspected bad guys?

(*-the "Hitler of the Middle East" before Hamas, Hezbollah and Ahmadinejad won that ever changing monicker)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The last days of a statesman

Tomorrow marks the last day of Kofi Annan's leadership at the UN. As I wrote earlier, the departure of the world's conscience will leave a huge hole that one hopes his successor can come close to filling.

The Village Voice's Nat Henthoff, a regular critic of the departing secretary-general, explains in a column how the UN's very structure and its member states are responsible for 'the lethal failures' often attributed to Annan himself.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Four years too late?

The headline for today's Schenectady (NY) Daily Gazette caught my eye:

Bush plots course for Iraq.

My initial reaction: It's about bloody time!

A 'good and decent man' from another era

As most Americans know, former US president Gerald Ford died earlier this week. He is widely remembered as a straightforward and eminently decent man, the complete antithesis of his predecessor. His pardon of the criminal Richard Nixon is widely attributed to his loss in the 1976 election, but even the foremost critic at the time, Sen. Edward Kennedy, later admitted that in retrospect, it was the right decision. I'm not sure that sanctioning presidential impunity was the best precedent to set and we may be living the consequences today. Though I will concede that at worst, it was the wrong decision made for the right reason.

Others criticize his support for the Indonesian conquest of East Timor, an invasion which left at least 200,000 dead, almost one-third of the population at the time. He was probably badly advised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who some believe is a war criminal.

But generally, he is remembered fondly even by those on the other side of the political aisle. All in all, he was probably the right man for the moment.

In a 2004 interview that was not published until today, Ford told The Washington Post that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible idea.

He also criticized Vice-President Richard Cheney and then-War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Both had served as Ford's chief of staff and Rumsfeld had also been Pentagon chief for the 38th president.

"[Cheney] was an excellent chief of staff. First class," Ford said. "But I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious" as vice president. He said he agreed with former secretary of state Colin L. Powell's assertion that Cheney developed a "fever" about the threat of terrorism and Iraq. "I think that's probably true."

Ford also said of his chief diplomat Henry Kissinger, "I think he was a super secretary of state, but Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend."

Apparently Kissinger's mentality rubbed off on his colleagues Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Strangely, President Bush did not mention any of this in his eulogies of the first man to have ascended to the presidency without winning a national election.

Ford was quite clearly a poltician from a different era. A time, for better or worse, when ideas had a relationship with politics, before cynicism had completely taken over.

This editorial from the Detroit Free Press mentions a 2001 quote by Ford which really describes everything that's wrong with politics today.

"At times it feels as if American politics consists largely of candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content. Increasingly the result is elections without voters."


He was often called as a 'good and decent man.' But you almost get the sense that some people who described him that way were trying to damn him with faint praise. It's sad that our politics have sunk so low (and the citizenry is hardly innocent in all this) that the 'good and decent man' seems to be exception rather than the rule. We need more of them in our public life, not fewer.

Update: The Progressive's Matthew Rotschild takes a somewhat harsher assessment of Ford's presidency.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ethiopia's 'defensive' attack on Somalia

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

If a foreign political story gets big play in the 'independent' US mainstream media, chances are it's because of the priorities of the administration of the day. It's even more true if it's an African political story. The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is one of those cases. One of the main stories on the Christmas Day front page of The Troy Record, a resolutely local New York paper, was about this war.

Not everyone considers Ethiopia's action an invasion. The internationally recognized Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia reportedly asked for Ethiopian military help in order to eject the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), whose militias controlled most of Somalia.

The TNG was formed during internationally mediated negotiations in Kenya and comprises mostly warlords who'd kept Somalia in anarchy during the previous 15 years. The TNG controls very little of Somalia and even in the parts it did control, its members were infamous for bribery and racketeering. While the TNG may have international recognition (for lack of a better alternative), it has almost no credibility within Somalia itself.

The UIC has been able to bring much needed stability to a chaotic former nation. It imposed some sort of order. It re-opened the port in Mogadishu, the nominal capital. In other words, it filled the security vacuum in a way that the TNG was unable to do. While some may fear the potential future actions of the Islamists, most Somalis appreciate that they can now walk the streets in relative safety. Many are concerned by both what war will bring and by what would happen if the warlord-dominated TNG ever truly controlled the country.

The Bush administration has condemned the UIC, claiming that they are controlled by al-Qaeda. Outside experts say that there may be some sympathy for al-Qaeda within the diverse UIC coalition but that the group is independent of outside control.

The Bush administration has backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia though many fear that this will only further mistrust in the Muslim world about the west's intentions. Ethiopia, like the US, is a primarily Christian country and Somalia overwhelmingly Muslim.

Western diplomats and experts said that many Courts leaders, like most Somalis, are moderates and fiercely nationalist. For that reason and because of the complex tangle of clan allegiances within the courts, it's premature to conclude that the Islamists will impose a repressive Taliban-style Islamic regime aligned with bin Laden, they said.

The two countries have also fought a pair of wars in the past half century. Ironically, some observers think that the invasion of an old enemy might push Somalis to put aside clan differences and reignite nationalistic feeling against what the UIC is naturally portraying as a hostile foreign aggression.

This column in Kenya's Daily Nation (reprinted in The International Herald Tribune) expresses the widespread fear that the US proxy war in Somalia could destabilize the entire region.

Ethiopia and Eritrea remain tense after an insane, bloody border war. Eritrea backs the Islamists because Ethiopia opposes them. Some 240,000 refugees, mostly Somali, made their home on Kenyan soil in late September. That number is surely much higher now. The region of Kenya that borders Somalia has had its own troubles with famine even before the latest refugee influx.

Consciously mimicking President Bush's language, Ethiopia defended the invasion by stating that it was a pre-emptive measure against terrorists necessary for the country's security. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, "As of today our defence forces have launched a counter-offensive, which is completely legal and proportional, on these anti-peace forces [the UIC]."

Prime Minister Meles added, "We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalian internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances."

Ethiopia's information minister added, "Ethiopian troops are fighting to protect our sovereignty from international terrorist groups and anti-Ethiopian elements,"

Despite claiming that the intervention was purely for its own security and not to meddle in Somali domestic affairs, the Ethiopian regime has announced that its forces will "besiege" the Somali capital Mogadishu until the UIC surrenders.

Mogadishu is on the Indian Ocean coast and thus about as far away from Ethiopia as you can get and still be in Somalia.

Update: a former US ambassador to Ethiopia points out that Ethiopia's interests (a weak Somali government with no real power or no central authority at all) and Somalia's interests (stability) are at odds.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The lonely last days of unrepentant vermin

Gen. Augusto Pinochet died earlier this month. The former Chilean dictator was, of course, the spiritual father of South American fascism. Like Milosevic before him, Pinochet needed the divine intervention of death to escape human justice.

His regime was guilty of politicide, as is well-known. But in addition to being responsible for mass murder, he was accused by police of being corrupt, of being a thief. Pinochet was both a special class of criminal and a common one.

Because his dictatorship "disappeared" (ie: killed) tens of thousands of Chileans without any legal procedure whatsoever, tortured many others and instilled a merciless reign of terror over the country, you might think that the general was a macho, tough guy. But it turns out that he was really a sensitive, fragile flower in touch with his emotions.

A posthumous letter from the despot was published recently.

He noted, "I have left no room for hatred in my heart."

How very kind of him. Fortunately for his family, the old man himself was not "disappeared" so they could hold proper ceremonies for him. The families of the thousands of Pinochet's victims who did not have that privilege might still have a little room left in their heart for the killer, unrepentant and defiant to the end.

He claimed that had his military not interverned to topple the democratic socialist government of the day, "the military action would have resulted in many years of negative, extremely painful consequences for the people."

Well thank goodness the Chilean people were spared 'many years of negative, extremely painful consequences.'

I'm sure Chile's current president, thrown in Pinochet's Gulag when she was a young girl, is thrilled to have avoided 'negative, extremely painful consequences.'

But there is one comment that stuck out:

"My destiny is a kind of banishment and loneliness that I would have never imagined, much less wanted," sniffed the butcher.

I'm not sure which word most accurately describes the above wail: clueless, pathetic or galling.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Why do progressives back the Islamists?

One of the biggest loads of b.s. peddled by the far right is that progressives like myself are sympathetic to Islamic extremists just because we don't buy the lie that the Muslim religion is inherently evil and violent. Just because we don't make a disingenous distinction between international terrorism and wars of aggression.

Basically, they try to sell the line that if you don't support Christian fundamentalist extremists, then you necessarily support Muslim fundamentalist extremists.

The fact is that far right theocrats are the ones close to Islamist ideology, not progressives. Islamists hate progressivism just as much as Christian theocrats do.

Progressives believe in women's rights. Islamists and Christian theocrats believe the female's place is in the kitchen and submissive to her husband. Except when she's cranking out babies. Heaven forbid a woman want to get a "man's job" or play a sport.

Progressives believe in gay rights. Islamists and Christian theocrats believe that gays are genetically defective or conscious moral degenerates who should be stoned (or at least shunned shunned for their "perversion"), not treated as human beings.

Progressives believe in secular government. Islamists and Christian theocrats, by definition, oppose the separation of church and state.

Progressives believe in a free exchange of ideas as the way to find the best solutions. (Well, most do.) Islamists and Christian theocrats believe in the Koran or the Bible or the Pope or clerics, not as a guide, but as a substitute for independent thought. Discussion or dogma?

Progressives oppose violence as a primary means to solve problems. Islamists and Christian theocrats quite evidentally do not.

The idea that progressives back Islamists is just as nonsensical as the idea that religious fanatics al-Qaeda and radical secularist Saddam were in bed with each other.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Let there be peace on Earth

This is the season when everyone says "Peace on Earth and goodwill to mankind."

Often the same people who say this will, at other times of the year, say stuff like, "Nuke em all and let Allah sort em out."

I was originally going to write about how peace is not politically correct nowadays. But then I realized that peace is rarely politically correct. Peace takes discipline. It takes mental fortitude. Sometimes it means sacrificing your pride and your ego for a greater good.

War and other forms of violence (physical or verbal) are the opposite. They are easy. They are self-indulgent. You can just lash out. You just let your rage take over.

Think about it. If someone calls you a mean name, which is harder: ignoring the guy or punching him in the face.

Of course, self-restraint is precisely what is (supposed to be) the difference between children and adults. When children see their adult role models so painfully lacking in self-discipline, it's not shocking that they act the same way.

I thought about all this for two reasons. I think about such things during the holiday season when everyone wishes their neighbors peace and the like. It's one of those things in society that people say a few weeks out of the year to assuage their conscience but they ignore their own advice most of the rest of the year.

The other reason is because I heard a documentary on the song "Let There Be Peace on Earth," which is song at a lot of churches and other places.

It's a great song. Simple, but pointed.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me

This is simple: peace is not something that occurs with peace treaties signed by presidents. Peace can only truly occur if individuals buy into it.

Let There Be Peace on Earth
The peace that was meant to be

Peace should be the default state of being. Any other state is because humans screw it up.

With God as our Father
Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

If you believe in Christianity, then we are all children of God. All brothers. It's a lot harder to wish violence on someone when you consider them your brother.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.

Not when you get around to it. Not from time to time. Not only during the Christmas season.

With ev'ry step I take
Let this be my solemn vow;
To take each moment and live
Each moment in peace eternally

It's not a situational decision. It's a lifestyle. It's a fundamental belief.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me

Enough said.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The "war on Christmas" in Muslim Senegal

Every December, there is wailing about the mythical War on Christmas. Fortunately, The Christian Science Monitor often helpfully injects a little reality into the melodrama. Such as this recent piece about Christmas in overwhelmingly Muslim Senegal. As someone who's lived in Senegal, I can assure the generally harmonious Christian-Muslim relations portrayed in the article are accurate.

There's a belief out there that the Christian and Muslim worlds are destined to conflict. But nothing is pre-ordained. Such a conflict can easily be avoided if there's sufficient will in both camps. There's plenty in common between the world's two largest monotheistic religions. Heck, Muslims even recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet (if not The Prophet).

Fanatical Christians and fanatical Muslims are hell bent on convincing moderates of their religion that sectarian war is inevitable, that a "clash of civilizations" is unavoidable. This is based not on faith but on politics and culture. This is why they are called theocrats, because they fuse religion (theo-) and politics/government (-cracy).

The majority of Christians in the world were and are appalled by the Iraq monstrosity. Most Muslims were disgusted by radical Islamist attacks on 9/11 and in Europe. Obviously some cheered these things and even held rallies in support, but most opposed them.

A reason for the tension is the belief, even by some well-intentioned people, that either the Muslim or Christian world is somehow monolithic. Just as Rome is nothing like Dubuque which is nothing like Belfast, Dakar is nothing like Jakarta which is nothing like Riyadh.

Progressives need a climate of hope to gain and maintain political power. They want to build something. A positive action requires a positive outlook. Extremists need a climate of fear to gain and maintain power. Their agenda is to divisive, to separate the pure from the impure.

Extremists feel most threatened not by extremists on the other side but by the possibility of moderates on their side rapproaching with moderates on the other side.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Something must be done" about Darfur

Retired Gen. Roméo Dallaire recently was back in the news by by creating a multiparty group in Canada's Senate (of which he is a member) and House of Commons in order to urge the international community more seriously engage to halt the genocide in Darfur.

As many readers will remember, Gen. Dallaire was in charge of the ill-fated United Nations' peacekeeping mission in Rwanda that "failed" to prevent the genocide in that country. Dallaire famously sent a request to UN headquarters that his mission be beefed up to prevent the massacres that his sources told him were planned but instead of respecting his request to double the size of the mission and give it a strong mandate, the Security Council slashed the mission's numbers by 90 percent, essentially emasculating it.

In forming this group, Dallaire said, "The objective is prevent genocides, not to round up pieces afterward."

A prominent activist coalition was formed a while ago in the US called Save Darfur.

As its first priority, Save Darfur wants 'the immediate deployment of the already-authorized UN peacekeeping force.'

Though it tolerates the presence of an impotent African Union mission, Sudanese junta has already said it would regard any UN force as a hostile invader.

What human rights and anti-genocide activists (and I include myself in both categories) have a hard time accepting is this: there is no good external solution to the Darfur crisis.

They issue the call so often heard in crisis situations: "something must be done."

But there's a problem with this slogan.

The word "something" is vague to the point of being meaningless. WHAT must be done?

The phrase "must be done" is in the passive tense. WHO must do the doing? How can a serious call to action use the passive tense?

The African Union will never approve a stronger mandate for the force there because too many member states are afraid of setting a precedent. If an aggressive AU mission can be imposed on Darfur, then it can also be imposed on Zimbabwe or Côte d'Ivoire. It's sad that an organization that was created with so much promise, that was structured precisely to be able to act strongly in catastrophic situations, risks falling into the irrelevancy that crippled its predecessor The Organization for African Unity.

And even if the AU were to approve a serious mandate, who'd carry it out? The AU mission currently in Darfur barely has the troops or equipment to handle the present, weak mandate.

What about the useless Arab League? Deafening silence. They're so busy passing resolutions condemning Israel because an IDF soldier sneezed without covering his mouth that they haven't noticed a genocide and humanitarian catastrophe that make the West Bank and Gaza look like the Garden of Eden. A genocide and humanitarian catastrophe being perpetrated by a member state.

Why the silence? Maybe you should ask the Arab League's Sudanese presidency.

I suppose there could be a UN intervention, but who would supply the troops? The junta has already warned that a UN mission would be treated as a hostile force. Would the normal peacekeeping soldier donor countries be willing to send their troops into a hot, peacemaking conflict?

And if so, would they be equiped and trained for such an incursion? Of the top ten peacekeeping troop contributing countries, only Australia would be considered by most as a developed country. Would Kenya or Jordan or Bangladesh have the resources for their troops to engage in an invasion of Darfur? Would this even be a good use of their scarce resources?

Realistically, any aggressive UN mission in Sudan would have to be carried out by a major military power. China won't do it because they have their eye on Sudan's oil and want to cozy up to the regime. The US and Britain won't do it because they are bogged down in the morasses of Afghanistan and Iraq. France won't do it because they were badly burned in Côte d'Ivoire. So who's left?

And even if the US or Britain did lead such a mission, it would be disastrous. A hostile intervention in Sudan would INEVITABLY be seen as yet another example of the bullying of less powerful countries by an Islamophobic west. "Why don't they invade Christian Zimbabwe?" you'll hear them ask. The Bush administration's militarism in Iraq and support for militarism against Lebanon (and their militaristic language against Iran, North Korea, Somalia and anyone else that crosses them) means that any US-led intervention in Sudan would necessarily be seen as another American imperial adventure. Perception is reality.

This is something that people like Gen. Dallaire and the Save Darfur folks fail to take into account. No matter how personally well-intentioned these folks may be, the motives of a western military force in Darfur would be automatically suspect. The face of such a mission to the Arab world wouldn't be George Clooney and Roméo Dallaire but George W. Bush.

A western-led UN force would inevitably be yet another breeding ground for Islamist insurgents. They wouldn't have to go far. Both Somalia and Saudi Arabia are close to Sudan.

Despite Gen. Dallaire's well-intentioned sentiments, there is a significant difference between Rwanda and Darfur. In Rwanda, there was already a UN force on the ground with the agreement of the regime in Kigali. They were on the ground, staffed, armed, equipped (sort of) and had intelligence gathering operations. A UN force in Darfur would not only have to start from scratch while fighting its way in. Would this save lives or cost even more?

The core principle of any peacekeeping mission is the same as the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. A hostile intervention force would clearly do more harm than good. Adding thousands or tens of thousands of dead peacekeepers to the hundreds of thousands of dead Darfuris may assuage the conscience of liberal westerners who insist that "something must be done." But if that 'something' is even more carnage, then it MUSTN'T be done.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I'm Jesus Christ and I approved this carnage

Alternet carried an interesting article by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. The first part of the piece is a bunch of nonsensical tripe. Skip down to the paragraph that begins 'Anyway,' which sort of tells you how irrelevant the first part was. The main part of the piece is where he talks about the new "Left Behind" video game which is based on the books of the same name. It's worth a read. At least the second half of it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hevesi to resign: report

Albany is not described as the most dysfuctional state government in the nation for nothing! Even during the normally quiet holiday season, things are happening in New York's state capital.

The FBI is investigating the business dealings of Joe Bruno, the Republican Senate Majority Leader.

And Democratic Comptroller Alan Hevesi, re-elected comfortably despite admitting illegally using a state employee to chauffeur his wife, is reportedly going to resign this week in order to avoid indictment. The Times-Union reports that Albany County District Attorney David Soares has offered Hevesi the plea deal in exchange for him stepping down. Soare's essentially spared Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer the awkward situation of having to press the impeachment of a former ally.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Immigration and rural America

While big cities have traditionally been magnets for newcomers to this country, North Country Public Radio reports that immigrants are increasingly moving to rural America.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A day (or two) at the office

This weekend, I read a magazine article which said that the average American had almost four weeks vacation. I found this rather astonishing. I've been working at a Fortune 500 company for nine years and I won't get a fourth week's vacation until 2008. I'm sure those most of those poor souls who toil at McDonald's or Wal-Mart don't get anywhere near four weeks. But I think I figured out a reason for this inflated statistic. They must've counted Congress, since they got a modest 37 1/2 weeks of vacation this year.

Then again, given some of the monstrosities the Republican controlled body imposes on us when they are in session, maybe we should make them take 52 weeks.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blood diamonds

The Hollywood film 'Blood Diamond' opened in US theatres recently. It is set in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, when illegal diamond mining was used to find one of the most vicious rebellions Africa has ever known.

The Christian Science Monitor notes that a self-policing process appears to be cleaning up the industry.

The mechanism, known as the Kimberley Process, was implemented in 2000 under pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

To me, this is a model example of how NGOs can effect positive change in international affairs. There was not demand for governments to impose punitive action or onerous regulations against diamond companies. Instead, NGOs successfully made 'blood diamonds' part of the vocabulary. This was devastating since diamonds have few practical applications and their demand and extremely high retail cost are based almost entirely on image. This naming and shaming convinced diamond companies that it was in their interest to agree to some sort of regulatory process.

This is called enlightened self-interest. The diamond industry didn't adopt these regulations because it suddenly had a tinge of guilt. Selling diamonds is an amoral activity. But activists made it so doing the right thing morally was the best thing for the industry's bottom line. In the end, a diamond boycott would hurt those engaging in legitimate mining, such as Botswana, Africa's oldest democracy.

Large corporations will always have a far greater influence on government than citizen groups, especially in the United States with its negligible campaign finance regulations. Influencing corporate-sponsored politicians will always be a long shot for citizen groups. And though government lobbying shouldn't be dismissed out of hand in all cases, appealing to enlightened corporate self-interest should be the primary tactic employed by activist organizations.

One World adds that although much progress has been made in cleaning up blood diamonds, some work still remains to be done.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The world's conscience leaves the scene

"My friends, our challenge today is not to save Western civilisation, or Eastern for that matter. All civilisation is at stake, and we can save it only if all peoples join together in the task." -UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Former South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon was sworn in a few days ago as the new United Nations Secretary-General. Ban swore to conduct himself solely in the interests of the United Nations and to refuse to accept instructions from any government or other authority, which surely infuriated the Bush administration. Soon will end the decade long tenure of Kofi Annan. Ban certainly has big shoes to fill as he replaces one of the world's few true statesmen, widely admired for his character and integrity.

Annan's 10 years in charge of the organization were eventful. He was originally installed at the post at the behest the United States, who did not want the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali to serve a second term. This caused some resentment as only three or four of the UN's over 200 member states oppose Boutros-Ghali's re-election. But the organization was clearly much better served by the quiet, self-effacing and Nobel Peace Prize winning Ghanaian than by the obnoxious and imperious Egyptian.

Annan's accession was quite a coup for the United States because Boutros-Ghali was strongly backed by France; shortly after his departure from the UN, Boutros-Ghali was named head of La Francophonie, France's answer to Britain's Commonwealth. However, the Clinton administration calmed France by naming a Frenchman as head of peacekeeping. This was back in a time when the US government practiced diplomacy.

This piece in Foreign Affairs magazine reviews James Traub's book 'The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power' which takes a look at Annan's never dull decade as the world's top diplomat.

Annan had one of the most challenging tasks of any secretary-general in the organization's history. The end of the Cold War and of the bipolar world unleashed great hope around the planet that the UN would finally be allowed to function as its founders intended. Now, whenever there's a problem anywhere in the world, it's pretty much expected that the UN will deal with it.

But resources has not kept pace with these increased expectations. During Annan's first term, the Clinton administration was generally open to working with the organization but the Republican Congress regularly withheld dues because the UN wouldn't do whatever the Congress wanted. During Annan's second term, the Bush administration worked quite actively to undermine the organization at every turn. That Annan successfully wooed the notoriously isolationist Sen. Jesse Helms is a testament to his power of persuasion.

When the rest of the world expects more and more but the most powerful member is dedicated to undercutting you at every turn (except when it needs your moral stamp of approval), that's a pretty tough balancing act.

One thing the UN has come to do fairly well under Annan's leadership is nation building. To the point where, as I mentioned earlier, they are the default organization whenever a country or society needs to be rebuilt. Further, they have the international credibility as a neutral organization when it comes to humanitarian coordination and reconstruction. The disaster in Iraq only serves to underline both the UN's competence at nation building and the necessity of a non-military organization making it happen.

Under his leadership, the UN has also tried to bring human rights to the forefront. In 1998, the Rome Treaty was negotiated and the International Criminal Court to try the world's worst war criminals created. Additionally, many of his appointees have been vocal in raising international awareness about the world's worst crises. Sergio Vieria de Mello about East Timor. Jan Egeland about Northern Uganda and the DR Congo. Jan Pronk about Darfur. Olara Otunnu about child soldiers.

Some criticize him for not doing more about these things but few offer actual alternatives. Most criticisms of the UN, especially within the US, are based on an ignorance about how the organization actually works.

The position of secretary-general has been described as that of a secular Pope. And it's quite accurate. Much like the Pope, the secretary-general's international authority is almost entirely moral. Just as the Pope only has executive authority over the Catholic Church hierarchy, the secretary-general only has executive authority of the UN's bureaucracy.

People have often demanded that Annan "do something" about Iraq or Darfur, but he can not snap his fingers and send troops. The UN is barred from having a standing army. Troops can only sent if the Security Council agrees... and member states provide their own men for the mission. Those who demand the secretary-general "do something" ought to specify what exactly he should do.

Annan's remarkable tenure as 'secular Pope' was marred by one serious problem and one outright disaster, both involving Iraq.

With the massively increased expectations of the UN, it's been suggested that the post of secretary-general be split into two. One would focus on the diplomat-in-chief post that Annan was so masterful at. The other would focus on the actual internal management of the UN bureaucracy and its hugely important member agencies, an area which is reportedly Ban's strength. Continuing the papal analogy, just as John Paul II was a better diplomat and salesman for his organization's ideals than an administrator, Annan was too.

This was manifested in the oil-for-food scandal. The oil-for-food agency was set up as a way to allow Saddam's Iraq to sell oil and (theoretically) ensure the profits went to feed ordinary Iraqis instead of the regime's bank accounts. The scandal was that there was apparently a fair degree of corruption (corruption? in the oil industry? unthinkable!).

The oil-for-food program was unprecedented. Never before had the UN run the entire economy of a nation without having some sort of political stewardship over it. Annan was strongly opposed to the UN running oil-for-food but the Security Council, at the Clinton administration's behest, shoved it down his throat.

This proved the perfect excuse for those looking for an axe to grind. Annan never wanted the program in the first place but got all the blame when the exact problems he feared came to pass.

The other scar on his tenure is the US Aggression against Iraq. That the Aggression was launched despite UN opposition (and of almost the entire rest of the world, including for that matter the Pope) was seen by many as the organization's Mussolini Moment... referring to the League of Nations' failure to prevent or reverse Fascist Italy's conquest of Ethiopia, the incident widely seen as the beginning of the end for that organization. But despite massive protestations, the Ghanaian couldn't prevent the disaster, and that sense of helplessness drove him to despair.

Annan is man of great honor and dignity but he is also a man who has an almost religious belief in the institution of the United Nations. Anyone who thinks he's 'just another sleazy politician' should read the part in Traub's book where Annan is so distraught by the Iraq atrocity that he is temporarily rendered unable to speak. That's not expediency. That's principle. Can you imagine Bush, a great man of principle according to his apologists, being shaken to the point of speechless about what's happening in Iraq?

When the Bush administration went to the UN hat-in-hand and asked them for their expert help. Annan could've been prideful and told the administration, "You made this mess. Fix it yourselves." In fact, most of the UN bureaucracy wanted him to do exactly that.

But Annan believed that the ideals of the organization were more important than settling political scores, even with a government that, despite its decision to ok the US invasion of Afghanistan, had done nothing but viciously attack and undermine the UN for not sufficiently being its lap dog.

Annan swallowed his pride, ignored the opposition of most of his colleagues, and decided to ok a UN humanitarian and reconstruction presence in US-occupied Iraq. He did so because he believed the well-being of Iraqis was more important than spiting Pres. Bush and his lackeys.

Sadly, the UN mission in Iraq was seen by some extremists as an extension of US rule. As a result, a a massive bomb at UN headquarters in Bagdhad wounded over 100 UN staff and killed 22, including the widely respected Sergio Vieria de Mello.

The bombing was claimed by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,who issued the following statement:

We destroyed the U.N. building, the protectors of Jews, the friends of the oppressors and aggressors. The U.N. has recognized the Americans as the masters of Iraq. Before that, they gave Palestine as a gift to the Jews so they can rape the land and humiliate our people. Do not forget Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The UN is attacked by the Americans as being anti-American, by the Israelis as being anti-Semitic and by the Jihadists for being pro-American and pro-Israeli.

Would you want this job?

Many lesser men would've quit, thus satisfying Christian and Muslim theocrats alike. That Annan kept going is a testament to his Job-like patience and strength of conviction and character.

Kofi Annan is not a saint, though he's about as close as any public figure can get nowadays. Some argue that he should've resigned or spoken out more forcefully when he was civilian head of UN peacekeeping during the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda. I think that's a fair comment.

I know this piece seems like a hagiography but I can't help but concluding that UN will sorely miss this great man. At a time when the powers great and small genuflected to the gods of destruction and violence, Annan was a beacon for the most noble principles of morality and humanity. I hope Ban Ki-Moon is up to the job.

Update: This editorial from The Los Angeles Times also praises Mr. Annan for leaving the UN a stronger institution. And perhaps that's precisely why he's so hated by the American far right.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Darfur genocide reveals the face of racists

I was listening to a BBC story on the Darfur genocide yesterday. They interviewed the Zambian ambassador to the United Nations who was very critical of the regime in Sudan who is almost universally believed to be actively backing the genocide. In listening to the ambassador's comments I was struck by how rare they were. The Arab and sub-Saharan African world has been virtually silent on this tragedy.

Sub-Saharan Africa has attacked the United States and Europe for not doing enough to stop the Rwandan genocide. The Arab world stirs up worldwide indignation at the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis in the Occupied Territories.

Fair enough.

If Israel were to refuse to allow one ambulance through a checkpoint, the Arab world would whip up international anti-Israeli hysteria and pass this off as "proof" of a western conspiracy against Islam. If Europe were to refuse a boatload of black African immigrants without documents, African countries would scream racism.

But when the regime in Khartoum is actively complicit in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people (mostly black and mostly Muslim), the African and Arab worlds, with a few noble exceptions like Zambia, deafen the world with their silence.

Worse yet, when the US and Europe criticize the Sudanese regime for supporting this genocide, African and Arab countries attack THEM for supposedly advancing some sort of neo-imperialist agenda!

Apparently trying to stop the mass slaughter of Africans constitutes neo-imperialism. And protecting mass murderers constitutes some perverted version of pan-Arab or pan-African nationalism.


We know the Sudanese regime is genocidal. But an almost equal tragedy is the way that African and Arab governments are despicably more concerned with opposing Washington than with protecting innocent lives in Darfur.

They have forfeited the moral right to criticize the west for racism.

Update: This news puts the Bush administration in a quandry. The International Criminal Court is investigating crimes against humanity in Darfur and is apparently ready to launch its first prosecution regarding this conflict. The Bush administration has rightly spoken out forcefully against the genocide. But they've also done everything possible to undermine the ICC's legitimacy at every turn. It will be interesting to see whether the US administration is more committed to unilateralism or justice for war criminals and mass murderers.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Malaria-HIV link?

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

According to an article in the journal Science, scientists have discovered what they believe is a link between the two biggest natural killers in Africa.

Apparently, the way malaria and the HIV virus which causes AIDS may help each spread faster. The BBC explains:

When people with Aids contract malaria, it causes a surge of HIV virus in their blood, making them more likely to infect a partner, the research says.

Meanwhile people weakened by HIV are more likely to catch malaria.

Additionally, "In turn, the weakening of the immune system by HIV infection has fuelled a rise in adult malaria-infection rates and may have facilitated the expansion of malaria in Africa," said James Kublin of the Hutchinson Center.

Monday, December 11, 2006

At what price dignity?

It's ironic that former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet should die only a few days after one of his chief apologists: former US ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick. She devised the "Kirkpatrick Doctrine" which essentially stated that any dictator, no matter how bloody or repressive, could count on unflinching US support so long as it called itself anti-communist. This explains the Reagan administration's active backing for despots like Pinochet and for the genocidal regimes in Guatemala and, yes, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

When al-Qaeda launched its attacks on New York and Washington, 2973 people were killed. Al-Qaeda was denounced as a group of terrorist murders who needed to be hunted down and administered Wild West justice.

Pinochet's fascist regime murdered more people: over 3100, to say nothing of the tens of thousands tortured and hundreds of thousands sent into exile, thus destroying one of Latin America's oldest and most stable democracies. Yet he is still revered as a hero, not only by a minority in Chile, but by some on the American and British right.

Apparently, they think it's no problem sacrificing a few thousand people and terrorizing a nation for decades is an acceptable price to pay for mass privatization (well not complete privatization: the Chilean military still directly receives a hefty cut of the country's copper exports, with no government oversight). Big corporations, some American, benefited greatly from the junta. Corporatacracy is one of the traits of fascism.

But it begs the question: if you were violently raped and beaten, would you be magically appeased if your attacker threw a few hundred dollar bills at you?

While the worst violence of Pinochet's dictatorship occurred with the complicity Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Reagan and Kirkpatrick enabled other horrors thanks to their blind support of butchers in the name of 'the free world.' Reagan-ally Rios Montt in Guatemala committed his genocide against the Mayas during the Reagan administration. Reagan-ally Saddam Hussein launched his genocide against the Kurds during the Reagan administration. CIA-backed death squads in El Salvador killed over 30,000 people during the Reagan years.

This was the Kirkpatrick Doctrine in action.

Click your heels and say 'freedom and liberty' three times.

(Certainly, there have been atrocities committed by left-wing forces in many conflicts, including El Salvador. Fidel's Cuba still holds a fascination for many leftists in the west, despite his authoritarianism and repression. But these are almost never backed by my government or enabled by the CIA's use of my tax dollars.)

The irony is that the 1973 date on which Pinochet launched his coup and began the political rape of Chile was... September 11.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

And there was much rejoicing

Former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet has died in a military hospital. Sadly, the spiritual leader of South American fascism avoided trial for his regime's myriad of human rights' abuses. Unlike the families of those killed mysteriously or 'disappeared' by the regime, Pinochet's family can engage in a proper burial.

But I suppose one can take solace in the fact that the end of his life was perhaps a tiny fraction as miserable as those tortured by his regime or those made 'disappeared' by his thugs.

Not your father's military coup

Last week, there was a military coup in the Pacific island nation of Fiji. It was the third putsch there in 20 years.

(Radio New Zealand International and NZ's Stuff website both have good coverage of the events)

The new military ruler Frank Bainimarama is reportedly running ads in local newspapers to fill vacant positions in the country's Cabinet.

He removed a swathe of senior civil servants, including top police officers, saying he is weeding out corruption entrenched in the administration of ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

"Applicants must be of outstanding character and without any criminal records," the advertisements noted.

I wonder if toppling a democratically-elected government counts against one's criminal record.

It's not exactly clear which newspapers the ads ran in since many suspended publication rather than accept military censorship.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Poorest half of the world's people own one percent of global wealth

That the global distribution of wealth is grossly unequal is not surprising. The degree of that inequality is somewhat astonishing.

According to a UN study as reported by the BBC:

The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth


the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth.

Unlike many other reports, this study looks at not solely income but wealth (income minus debt).

As such, the study also finds that inequality is sharper in wealth than in annual income.

Friday, December 08, 2006

How failure became self-sustaining

With the collapse of public support for the Iraq disaster and the Republicans' loss of control of Congress, isn't it interesting how many people intimately involved with the launching of the Aggression are suddenly washing their hands of it?

The UK Independent has a long list of former war cheerleaders who've changed their tune. The list includes pretty much every major architect of the war with the exception of Pres. Bush, Vice-Pres. Cheney and British Prime Minister Blair.

There's part of me that admires that many of these people were honest enough to change their minds in the face of overwhelming reality. But there's also part of me that resents the fact most of these former officials didn't have the guts to speak (or see) the truth when they were actually in office, actually in a position to affect the course of events. I would've liked to have seen someone resign in protest rather than implement a policy they knew to be disastrous. But I suppose this is really antithetical to the Bush administration's modus operandi.

I've always said that the greatest flaw of George W. Bush's governing style is not the policies he advocates, as disastrous as they are. It's not his alleged lack of intelligence. The greatest flaws in his governing style are his lack of curiosity, his preference for personal loyalty over truth and the greater good, his disinterest in or outright hostility toward hearing differing points of view.

While many on the left smugly and with great self-satisfaction focus on Bush's alleged intellectual and mental deficiencies, they're missing the point. Cheney is, by all accounts, an extremely intelligent man. But he suffers from the very same character flaw as Bush: not wanting their opinions challenged.

This administration has created a culture that prized 'yes' men above all else; that rewarded loyalty over competence; that viewed the admissions of the slightest failing to be almost treasonous against the person of Mr. Bush.

Any administration is going to make mistakes, because they are made up of fallible humans. But an open-minded administration will be open enough to new ideas to correct their mistakes. In a closed-minded culture like the Bush administration, they don't even acknowledge the mistakes in the first place so they can't fix them. In the absence of such corrective measures, failure becomes self-sustaining.

Maybe the appointment of Robert Gates to the Pentagon shows they're realizing this. In confirmation hearings yesterday, Gates was asked if he thought we were winning war in Iraq and he replied flatly, "No." This is in stark contrast to the perpetually rose-colored glasses' assessments of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld and of Cheney and Bush.

Maybe the appointment of the Iraq study group (ISG) means they're realizing this too. Some have described the ISG's work as signifying that play time is over and that the big boys are now running the show.

I'm not sure that competence has really replaced loyalty and corporate militarism as the administration's guiding principle. You can't erase 6 years of arrogance with a few vague statements by someone with a dodgy history and a commission of insiders. I'm not optimistic but I can hope, can't I?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Conservative states poorer, more dangerous

Christian conservatives have a tendency think of themselves as more righteous than the rest of us. Many want to foist their morality on the rest of us; not merely by encouraging us to change our private behavior but ramming through legislation that imposes their sometimes twisted morality by the force of law. I read an interesting post over at the Wall of Speech blog recently which suggests that maybe they should focus first and foremost on their own behavior.

The piece cites the following statistics:

Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in ‘blue’ states


Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states.

Of course, red signifies conservative-leaning and blue signifies liberal-leaning.


In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of
burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.

If Christian conservatives claim to be more moral than the rest of us, then they have a funny way of showing it.

Maybe a reason there is more crime in red states is because red states tend to be poorer.

So conservatives are supposedly tougher on crime, but conservative states have higher crime rates. Conservatives are supposedly friendlier to the common man than the 'elitist' liberals and progressives, but conservative states have lower median incomes.

Makes you wonder when conventional wisdom is going to catch up with reality.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

39 percent of Americans support requiring Nazi-esque symbols for Muslims

My last ten entries have garnered a grand total of one comment. The one just prior to that, on Borat, prompted three. So I might as well return to that topic, if indirectly.

While I think Borat was too much overkill to be effective, put ons can expose some rather disturbing tendencies in society.

Take this piece about a radio host who put on a hoax that offered to give people a Playstation 3 in exchange for handing over their babies for 24 hours to a complete stranger, no questions asked.

Some people recognized it for the gag it was and played along but other people were very serious.

As the host explained: The most memorable was the girl we had actually planned to make a deal with. She was 22, and she was going to give us her one-month-old baby for three nights. And we made it sound pretty harsh: She couldn't call to see how the baby was. We told her we didn't have a car seat and we'd be driving around a lot with the baby on our laps, and was that cool? And she was saying okay, all right, I guess so, to all of this. No problem. The amazing thing was that after we explained the gag, she said, "Does this mean i don't get the Playstation?".

One reader of the article quipped: Abstinence programs don't look quite so silly when you consider the target audience walking around out here.


But while 'babies for bling' is hardly a ringing endorsement of society, another hoax revealed much more virulent strain of thought in this country.

A radio host in Washington suggested that Muslims should be forced to wear a crescent-shaped tatoo or distinctive armband. If this sounds familiar, maybe you were paying attention in history class.

But far from rejecting this Nazi-esque proposal, many of his listeners praised him. One said this wasn't nearly enough.

Another said that tattoos, armbands and other identifying markers such as crescent marks on driver's licenses, passports and birth certificates did not go far enough. "What good is identifying them?" he asked. "You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans."

At the end, the host revealed his hoax and attacked listeners who agreed with him.

"I can't believe any of you are sick enough to have agreed for one second with anything I said," he said, adding that such proposals are 'beyond disgusting.'

A Gallup poll this summer of more than 1,000 Americans showed that 39 percent were in favor of requiring Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to carry special identification.
Roughly a quarter of those polled said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim and a third thought that Muslims in the United States sympathized with al Qaeda....

I used to think such people were a tiny minority of the country who's volume was far more vocal than their numbers would suggest. Maybe this was just wishful thinking. If almost 4 out of every 10 Americans would support a policy identical to one that pre-saged the genocide of the Jews, then excuse me if I'm more than a bit uncomfortable.

I thought America was supported to be IN FAVOR of freedom and civilization.

Update: the hell faced by this college professor, who a jury refused to convict but was sent to prison anyways, shows that the perils faced by Muslims in America are more than bigoted public opinion.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Glens Falls: one of the worst cities in America?

The Syracuse Post-Standard reported on a new book entitled 'The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America.'

According to this book, two New York state cities made the list of 50 worst places to live. Syracuse and Glens Falls.

While I'm sure some of my progressive friends think Glens Falls is hell, since you'll never hear anything good about the region coming out of their mouthes, I think most local residents can only laugh at this characterization.

Glens Falls is not a perfect city and there are certainly things that can be improved. The economy could be better and, like much of upstate New York, property taxes are high.

But frankly, it's a great little town. A great library. A theatre. A professional symphony orchestra. Magnificient recreational opportunities. Good schools. Safe streets. Big enough to have stuff to do but small enough where you don't feel overwhelmed.

Of course, the author of the book is New Jersey, the center of the world when it comes to livable cities.

The paper adds: Although some people might not see it as such, the book is a satire, says [author Dave] Gilmartin.

I suppose that makes sense.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The secret life of pork

It will be no secret to regular readers of this blog (or of any serious New York state newspaper) that New York has the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. Whether it's secret slush funds or legalized gerrymandering, the one single word that best describes Albany is opaque. Legislative leaders are used to operating with neither scrutiny nor accountability. So they've been troubled that in the last several years, good government groups (the real opposition movement in Albany) have successfully rallied public opinion to pressure these leaders to make minimal reformist concessions.

To its credit, the press has played its role too. A few years ago, the local Post-Star ran regular editorials calling on readers to write letters to legislators protesting this pathetic state of affairs. I wrote the editorial page editor pooh-poohing this crusade. He asked me if I had any better ideas. I didn't really. Turns out, he was right and I was wrong. Pressure has forced legislative leaders to throw the public a bone. Granted, these changes are far from what is necessary, but it's a start. The mere idea that the public still has a shred of influence in sclerotic Albany is a sign of hope.

The Albany Times-Union has also played a constructive role in favor of government transparency. It recently filed a successful lawsuit against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. The lawsuit wanted to force Silver and Bruno to release details of all the personal pet projects that are spent by legislators. The two leaders wanted these budget items, containing our money, to remain secret.

It takes no genius to figure out the reasons for that.

The daily reported that:

Silver sent grants from his personal basket of funds to at least two groups represented by his friend, lobbyist Patricia Lynch. Lynch served as Silver's top aide for years before opening a lobbying firm, which has become one of the biggest outside of Washington, D.C.
Clients getting Silver grants paid Lynch tens of thousands of dollars to lobby in Albany, including:

* Alliance for Downtown New York, which got $200,000 for an ad campaign for lower Manhattan firms, $100,000 for printing and distributing restaurant and retail guides, and $100,000 for free concerts in city hall park.

Ultimately, Silver was personally and unilaterally responsible for spending some $15.2 million in the last two years on his pet causes, including the above example of taxpayer money being used to subsidize special interest lobbying of... Silver.

Bruno, for his part, "generously" spent over $12 million of our money on his causes.

Bruno did his best to be as obnoxious as possible in complying with the court ordered release of information that should obviously be part of the public record without an expensive lawsuit. Of course, the state (ie: us taxpayers) had to pay the legal fees of The Times-Union because the legislative leaders refused to release this public information)

Unlike similar documents released by the Assembly, the Senate's can't be readily analyzed with computer software and had special encryption. Bruno blamed a "glitch" in the Senate computer system and said future data on Senate member items will be released unencrypted, the paper reported.

I wonder why.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

New York's top judge proposes modest judicial reforms

About two months ago, The New York Times published a series of troubling articles about the disturbingly dysfunctional local judicial system in New York state.

(The original blog entry and this follow up explain in more detail)

Inside Albany reports some modest news on this front. The state's top judge wants to significantly expand training for judges who aren't lawyers as well as buying computers for local justices to better keep track of their caseload. The state will also purchase recording equipment for justice courts, the article adds.

These modest improvements, which most New Yorkers would be shocked to know weren't in place 20 years ago, must only be the first step revamping New York's local courts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sex blotter

Yesterday's local newspaper made for some depressing lunchtime reading.

You had the guy who was accidentally shot and seriously wounded by his brother-in-law during a hunting expedition. Fortunately, the guy is expected to pull through despite injuries to his kidneys, liver and intestines. On the upside, we now have a potential replacement if Vice-President Cheney ever resigns.

Then you had the guy who was arrested and charged with molesting a one-week old baby. Talk about something to make you lose your appetite.

You know there are going to be idiots and scumbags out there but you sort of hope the justice system will take care of most of them. I hate to sound like The New York Post but this article really left me scratching my head.

A Warrensburg (NY) teen pleaded guilty to a series of sex abuse charges and will spend five years in prison. The Post-Star notes that he could have faced up to 25 years in prison on one of the rape charges alone, as well as consecutive sentences for the other charges. The deal was opposed by the Warren County district attorney's office. The teen's brother also faces sex crime charges.

The short five year sentence is disturbing. The charges alone are serious enough. According to the paper, they include multiple felony counts of first-degree rape, first-degree criminal sexual act and first-degree sexual abuse for sex acts with 5 young girls ages 9 to 14, as well as restraining and threatening the girls during the assaults.

We're not talking about an 18 year old having consensual sex with a 17 year old here.

And it wasn't simply a one time lapse in judgement either.

The now-18 year old plead guilty to all FORTY-NINE charges against him which cover acts committed 'over a several-year period.'

A psychologist concluded that the teen (and his brother) were 'likely to reoffend.'

Yet for admitting to serious sex crimes perpetrated repeatedly against pre-teen girls over a several year period, he gets only five years in jail.

I know that sometimes the hysteria over sex abuse allegations can get out of control and drown out rational discussion of this problem. But five years for serious, violent and repeated sex crimes against pre-teens is obscene by any standard.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

Today is World AIDS Day.

Being based in South Africa, which has the world's largest AIDS population, The Daily Mail and Guardian offers an interesting perspective. Two of its articles illustrate how the disease impacts more than just those affect with the HIV virus.

It notes that the AIDS death rate will create some 200,000 orphaned children this year alone.

The Mail and Guardian also talks about one of the underappreciated parts of the pandemic: the grave toll exacted on medical workers treating AIDS victims.

The paper mentions a study by a South African mental health group concluding that almost 2/3 of the caregivers in the country suffer from depression. Given that these are the people who help keep AIDS sufferers alive, it's a very serious problem.

The Independent offers a few bits of good news. The center-left paper has a surprising article on how the world's drug firms sacrificed profits in the battle against AIDS. It's a great example demonstrating how shame and public pressure are far better means to address socially irresponsible corporate behavior than government mandates (which should remain an option of last resort).

The British daily also has a piece on how music is being used in Senegal in HIV/AIDS education campaigns. The west African country has the lowest rate of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa.

The paper also has an article on the 50 best African artists.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Top myths about Iraq

Alternet has a good piece on the top ten fallacies about the civil war in Iraq.

Among the canards:

-"Syria and Iran are behind the violence."

-"Foreign fighters, especially jihadis, are fueling the violence."

and the most popular one of late

-"If we do not defeat the violent actors there, they will follow us here."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adirondack villages rap state aid distribution

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise had a fascinating article on the way state aid is divided up.

According to the Saranac Lake based paper, the New York state legislature gives far more aid per capita to entities classified as cities than those classified as towns or villages.

Leaders from three of the largest villages in the Adirondacks passed a resolution pointing out, among other things, that cities receive about 60 percent of state aid funding while villages receive only 2 percent, despite the fact that villages have to provide “city-like” services such as water, sewer, police and fire.

The paper noted that the Adirondack villages in question receive between $8 and $15 per person in state aid while the decaying capital district city of Amsterdam receives $115 per person.

The daily concludes that as a result villages have to use property taxes to generate larger portions of their revenue base. In 2004, Tupper Lake generated 72 percent of its revenue through property taxes, Saranac Lake was at 70 percent and Lake Placid was at 66 percent. Amsterdam raises 35 percent through land taxes.

The mayor of Saranac Lake reiterated that he is not necessarily calling for more aid statewide but for the existing aid to be distributed more fairly.

“There are villages that are bigger than cities. There are towns bigger than cities," he said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Religion" and the politics of division

One thing that's clear throughout human history is that the politics of division is destructive on nations and societies. One thing that's equally clear is that for all the talk about unity, the politics of division is effective as a way to earn money, power and votes. This is why negative campaigning works, even though everyone claims to hate it.

One thing that's always bugged me about the right-wing Christian movement is how un-Christian they seem to me. That plus the fact that many people act like right-wing and Christian are synonymous. I was raised in a moderately left-wing Christian household. My parents didn't talk about the evils of masturbation or homosexuality. Instead, they talked about the importance of giving of yourself, of helping those less fortunate. That's what I took from Christianity.

But many people instead take negative things from the religion. Don't do this. Don't do that. These people are evil. Those people are going to hell. Not a positive agenda, but a negative one.

I was interested to read that the man elected president of the Christian Coalition, a group of predominantly conservatives, resigned before he even took office.

He wanted to broaden the group's agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming. I consider these to be noble, Christian goals: helping human beings and the Earth they live on. In other words, taking care of God's creations.

But the Christian (sic) Coalition's leadership opposed this. They said that there members were primarily interested in attacking gay marriage and abortion.

The Coalition's president-who-never-was said of the group's board, "When we really got down to it, they said: 'This just isn't for us. It won't speak to our base, so we just can't go there.'"

And that says a lot about the so-called Christians who make up their base. An agenda centered around helping people doesn't interest them nearly as much as an agenda centered around attacking people.

Ironic since CHRISTianity is supposedly centered around some guy named CHRIST. Christianity's central prophet Jesus was a man who spoke quite a bit about fighting poverty and helping the less fortunate but, to the best of my knowledge, uttered not a single word about gay marriage.

Friday, November 24, 2006

We wouldn't want things in Iraq to get bad!

Opponents of a US withdrawal from occupied Iraq argue that withdrawing before Iraqis are "ready" would be disastrous. We need to stay, 50 years if necessary, until the Iraqis decide to get their act together. Well, they have a good point.

Granted, more Iraqi civilians died in October than were killed in the 9/11/01 attacks. And that was just the latest month. Sure, Iraq just suffered its deadliest attack on civilians since 2003. And over 7000 Iraqis are forced to flee every single week. Far more people (3.4 million) are either refugees from or internally displaced within Iraq than Darfur (2.2 million). That isn't really surprising. After all, the official civilian death toll since the beginning of the Iraq Aggresion and the Darfur genocide aren't much different.

But we need to stay. If US troops left, things might get bad!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Al-Jazeera goes to Harare

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

Chippla's Weblog comments on the launching of al-Jazeera's English service.

Unlike many Americans, I've always respected al-Jazeera's mission. The channel essentially invented the concept of independent broadcasting in the Arab world. Certainly they were the first to do it on a wide scale. This is a region where state-controlled broadcast media remains the norm and all independent press outlets are tightly restricted by authoritarian regimes.

When criticizing al-Jazeera, many westerners focus exclusively on stuff related to the west: specifically verbal attacks on America and Israel and on al-Qaeda messages that pass on the station's airwaves. These westerners want free speech so long as it excludes the right to criticize them! Just as many of them want democracy in the Middle East unless that democracy produces a result that the west don't like (Palestinian Authority, Lebanon).

But what al-Jazeera brought to the Arab political culture is the concept that bad leaders can be criticized in the media. This is a revolutionary concept that's critically important for anyone who actually wants a true democratic culture to implant itself in the Middle East.

Chippla noted that al-Jazeera opened bureaus in five major African cities: Cairo (Egypt), Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Harare (Zimbabwe).

Like Chippla, I am surprised that they didn't open one in Lagos or Abuja, the economic and political capitals respectively of Africa's most populous country Nigeria. Especially since CNN opened one there five years ago. Then again, from everything I've heard, I'm not sure who would voluntarily choose to live in either city.

This is a smart decision by the broadcaster. Al-Jazeera English is obviously focusing its efforts on the developing world. One only needs to watch a few minutes of the channel (a free stream is available here) to realize this. They are giving attention to parts of the world which are largely ignored by their two main competitors: BBC World and CNN International, who are more centered around North America and western Europe. Al-Jazeera is smart to cater to an audience that feels underrepresented.

Nevertheless, when I read the list of cities where al-Jazeera bureaus would be located, I couldn't help but wondering what sort of difficulties their reporters will have.

Egypt has been in a "state of emergency" for the last 25 years, quite possibly the longest "state of emergency" ever maintained in any country not at war. Egypt is also a country where state insecurity agents attack journalists.

Zimbabwe has infamously banned foreign reporters from being in the country without permission from the regime of Robert Mugabe. And even the local journalists who do dare report the truth are often thrown in prison or otherwise harassed.

The choice of Harare is even more peculiar. The other cities on the list represent a fairly wide geographic coverage of the continent. But Harare isn't really that far from Johannesburg; South Africa and Zimbabwe are neighbors. Certainly a place like Lusaka (Zambia) or Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) would've made more sense. Libreville (Gabon) hosts the independent pan-African radio station Africa No. 1.

It makes me wonder if a network which wants to appeal to viewers in the developing world was offered some sort of deal with a Dictator that wants to be seen as some sort of hero to non-aligned nations types. I'm not sure if I really believe this and it's certainly against al-Jazeera's careully cultivated image of independence but the choice of Harare really doesn't seem to make any sense to me.

Chippla replied:

I do not think Al Jazeera would shy away from reporting fairly about the situation in Zimbabwe. Its first report from Harare looked at the influx of poorly skilled Zimbabweans into South Africa—not the sort of story Robert Mugabe, or other Zimbabwean ruling class members, would have wanted to hear.

Al Jazeera's Zimbabwe correspondent, Farai Sevenzo, is a Zimbabwean who has written extensively and produced documentaries on the situation in Zimbabwe in the past. I doubt he, or the Al Jazeera news team, would be silent about the reality of things on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Certainly the free press climate in many Arab countries al-Jazeera reports from isn't that much friendlier. But even with the best intentions, there's reason to be wonder if al-Jazeera really will be able to report freely from a country where journalists can face 20 years in prison for publishing news that the Leader doesn't like.

And there's surely plenty of that to go around in a country with a death rate higher than Darfur's or Iraq's.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A country or a cariciature?

The Christian Science Monitor printed a good op-ed piece about the movie Borat. There's been much discussion of this movie on a sociopolitical and I won't get into it too much. Personally, I love satirical humor and I'm a big fan of political cartoons in the newspapers.

But for my taste, regardless of the message, good satire has to be subtle, not crude. Brick in the face humor can be amusing but it tends to get boring and tiresome very quickly. That's the difference between Beavis & Butthead (lame), South Park (moderately amusing) and The Simpsons (arguably the best comedy TV show of all time). Borat is brick in the face humor. Somewhere in the South Park range. Moderately funny but it seeks easy laughs. Not very clever.

I'm a big Canadianophile. I follow its politics closely. I like its social and cultural values, its emphasis on improving the lives of its citizens rather than on rampant militarism. Canadians think it's a better idea to provide health insurance for all their citizens than create health crises in other countries. Basically if America were a bit more enlightened and civilized, it would look something like Canada (or at least Vermont).

Even though Sacha Baron Cohen (the actor who plays Borat) is British, Borat's humor is very Canadian. Over the years, I've watched a lot of television and listened to a lot of radio programs from the CBC. One of the things I've enjoyed is Canadian comedy shows. One of the staples is to interview Americans, ask them questions about Canada and air the stupidest responses.

For example, they might go to North Dakota and ask people there where Manitoba is (it's on N. Dakota's northern border). They might ask 100 people who get the answer right but it'll be the 5 who say that Manitoba is in Africa or northern Antarctica that will get broadcast. I've met more than a few Canadians who don't get the concept that New York is not just a city, but a state too. I hope they never visit Quebec.

But this is really cheap humor is easy and formulaic. It doesn't take an ounce of creativity to come up with. Yet these guys act like their comedic geniuses for making essentially the same joke over and over. Borat is like that. I mean does anyone, other than males under the age of 10, really think poopy humor is hilarious after the 100th joke about it?

The Monitor piece that points out that the real United States is far more nuanced than the cariacture presented in the cartoonish Borat. The two filmmakers who wrote the piece spoke of the crosscountry journey they took while making a documentary.

On our journey across the country, we were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. We received countless invitations to stay in their homes. People were excited to share their stories with us, and they were eager to hear our tales of life cruising the nation's asphalt on a Segway scooter ... at 10 m.p.h.

They pointed out how America is more than a few racists, drunken frat boys.

The abundant kindheartedness we saw helped us to regain our love for America, which had been severely tainted by modern media. The entertainment they sell is conditioned to incite conflict, challenge, and sensational response. It celebrates perversity, ugliness, and fear. "Borat" fits this model perfectly. This trend can cause us to lose sight of what really is.

Listen, Europeans, Canadians and Australians are vastly superior to us pathetic, crude, unsophisticated, mean-spirited Americans who all genuflect to Deus Bush, who are all heartless money grubbers, who all reject evolution and who all think that Kofi Annan is a cappucino-flavored ice cream. We get it!

I hardly belong to the 'America is uniquely righteous and everyone else sucks!' crowd but it begs the question: is this really movie length material or populist overkill that panders to, rather than challenges, easy stereotypes?

Sorry everyone. I adore good satire. But bad satire really stinks.

Update: This column in The Guardian also takes issue with the glee over Borat. Like I said, humiliation as entertainment (especially humiliation of the decent and unwitting, some of which Borat's victims were) is a phenomenon I've long found troubling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The next aggression's pretext exposed

As most people know, some allies of the president are trying to prepare the American people for military action against Iran. This is why you hear commentators referring to Iran's president as "The Hitler of the Middle East," just like they did of Saddam. Iran's president is a loud-mouthed populist pandering to the crowd at home. He's quite clearly anti-Semitic. But Hitler? Give me a break.

Since he came to power, America's president has launched two wars (one unprovoked). How many wars has Iran's president launched?

The unprovoked war launced by America's president has led to the deaths of at least 150,000 civilians, according to Iraq's health minister. How many civilian deaths have been caused by decisions made by Iran's president?

These are not opinions. This is not ideology or polemics. This is not me saying Iran's president is a swell guy. These are questions with demonstrably factual answers.

But since some want to attack Iran, their president can't be the semi-democratically elected leader that he is. He can't simply be an ordinary, run of the mill populist with authoritarian tendencies. Heck, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is like that. George W. Bush in his first term was like that.

No, if we want to attack Iran, he has to be demonized. He has to be (insert menacing music) Hitler!

The only problem is that the president's allies are having trouble inventing a justification for such military action. Since their pretexts for the Iraq Aggression have been thoroughly discredited, they don't have much credibility left with the American people, who resent being fooled the first time.

So they're trying to scare people into believing that Iran is building nuclear weapons. I'm inclined to doubt this is true. Quite clearly, Iran's president is happy to let people think he's building nukes. But just because Iran's president wants people to believe he's developing nukes, doesn't mean he actually is. Leaving this impression, however false, gives Iran international prestige that it otherwise might not get. Also, standing up to the US administration, who the rest of the world sees as an aggressive bully, also gives Iran prestige.

This is EXACTLY the same tactic tried by Saddam Hussein. He was happy to let the rest of the world think he had an active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program even though weapons inspectors doubted it. Why? Because it gave him international prestige. His downfall was that he underestimated the US president's mania for war, common sense be damned.

Iran's president doesn't have that problem. He knows the US is stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan and that US public opinion won't let Bush start another insane war based on a flimsy pretext. He knows that the American military is overextended in an Iraq conflict that never had anything to do with US national security or fighting international terrorism.

Maybe it's true. Maybe the Iranians really are developing nukes. The problem is that the administration's allies have no credibility anymore. They're the boys who cried wolf.

But now, even the CIA says it has no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, according to a New Yorker story. The White House refuses to deny the story, preferring to smear the reporter in question. This has been the Bush administration's modus operandi for years.

But it begs the question: if the CIA says they don't have reason to believe Iran is developing nukes, who DOES have the evidence to that effect?

The other question it begs is if it even matters to those who seem like they've already decided.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The good old days... for whom?

Adirondack Musing blog pointed to a letter in The Adirondack Daily Enterprise bemoaning the loss of the good old days.

Read the plaintive wail:

I remember when our children could walk about without fear of predators, but then we didn’t have the ACLU sticking up for the rights of the monsters who would destroy the lives of the most innocent of our society.

I remember a time when one’s marriage partner was of the opposite sex, and our children didn’t have to see men in panties on floats in a parade, or two women making out with each other.

That sexual predators didn't exist in the 50s will be a surprise to the countless baby boomers who were (silent) victims; this letter writer is under the delusion that just because it wasn't talked about, it didn't happen. And frankly, I've never seen, either as a child or as an adult, men in panties on floats in a parade or two women making out with each other in my town. I'm sure such behavior is even less likely in the conservative Adirondacks.

I too recall the good old days. Good old days when blacks were strung up on trees . Good old days when the poor stayed sick and miserable their whole lives. Good old days when Latinos broke their backs picking fruit without any expectation of anything more than poverty wages. The good old days where women, blacks and gays knew their place (in the kitchen, at the back of the bus and in the closet respectively) and didn't dare venture out of it.

I'm sure the 1950s when he grew up was a paradise for this letter writer. It's always pleasant when the ills of the world are hidden from your view. But the majority of Americans who were either black, female, gay or poor might have somewhat different memories of that time period.

I often read letters to the paper like this. What these people really bemoan is a time when their small minority (straight white, upper or upper middle class Protestant men) was the undisputed ruling class of this country. They had unique privilege while other groups were considered second or third class citizens. Starting in the 60s, other groups started challenging this status quo and demanding equal treatment and it made those in charge uncomfortable. Those in charge didn't want to share their unique place of privilege. They had special rights and didn't want to give them up. It's a fairly common human phenomenon. The Afrikaaners in South Africa have acted the same way since the end of apartheid.

Overt bigotry (or "political correctness" as he derides it) is no longer socially acceptable and America is a better place for it. This majority of Americans are now treated as first-class citizens and we are a better country for it.

That is indeed progress.

"Those who weep for the happy periods which they encounter in history acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery. " -Albert Camus

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Too much testing is the enemy of learning

I enjoy occasionally reading local and regional papers from around the country, just to get a flavor of what's going on in different parts of the US. I came across this article from Maine's Portland Press-Herald talking about how recess is quickly disappearing from many schools.

Some schools are concerned about liability but most simply don't have enough time to allow kids unstructured play time. With the avalanche of new federal mandates (and state ones as well in many places), the educational system is no longer about learning. It's about testing.

Kids are now force fed standardized tests. Here in New York, kids are given standardized tests in English-language arts and math every single year from 3rd to 8th grade. Teachers thus don't have the luxury of letting kids learn anything outside the curriculum. Time is too short.

I'm surprised kids are allowed to sleep or go to the bathroom without taking a test. Where's the accountability?! After all, how can a kid be accountable if he's not taking a formulaic exam.

Standardized tests are useful in small doses. They can be a way of making sure everyone's learning the same basic, important information. But it's clearly gone too far. Why would a teacher 'waste' time teaching kids about the local history of their town since such information surely won't appear on a state test? Then again, I suppose this corresponds with the general distaste society has for anything that's not homogenized.

Recess is where children learn how to negotiate the unwritten rules of society. It teaches them about negotiation and conflict resolution and compromise. It's also where they get fresh air and exercise. Such learning is just as important as knowing that 2+2=4 but since these things can't easily be paraphrased into a multiple choice question, they have no value in an 'accountability' based educational system. As someone with a university math degree and a concentration in statistics, I know better than most both the value of numbers AND their limitations. Not everything is quantifiable.

The elite's fetish for standardized tests is not helping kids learn. It's crushing their natural curiosity for learning. And it's teaching them a skill, formal test-taking, which has almost no value in the working world.

It makes you wonder when the policy makers are going to be held accountable.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Book banning: it's not just for the Bible Belt anymore

The concept of busybodies trying to get schools to ban books is something many Americans associate with the south and midwest of the United States. But as WAMC/Northeast Public Radio reports, that's not the case.

A group in Red Hook, in New York's Hudson Valley, is trying to get the local school to ban The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison from its reading lists and taken out of the library.

Though in reality, this phenomenon was never limited to one or two parts of the country. One of the school districts most associated with book banning attempts is Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, in central New York. Among the classics challenged in this district include A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and arguably the most beloved American novel of all time: To Kill A Mockingbird.