Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Yesterday Kevin Drum took a stab at defending David Brooks' jes' folks elitism (Summary of Brooks: In America, everyone who isn't rich wants to be, so no one will mind if the rich take it all.). I don't think the defense quite works. Brooks' piece was stupid, and a relatively sensible line here or there can't change that.

But Kevin's overall point is a good one. Resentment of the rich and squabbling over who gets what doesn't sell. It isn't the fact that some people have more money that bothers most of us, it's how -- in all too many cases -- they got it. It's not the money, it's the unfairness, the insiders' games, the undeserved advantages, that make people angry. And fortunately for any Democrat trying to sell that message, George Bush is the poster boy for unfair advantages. To everything you already know about Bush's legacy admissions to Andover and Yale, and his Harken dealings, add Kevin Phillips' analysis of the move to end taxation of dividends as one more example of the Bush family motto: "Public service means private opportunity." The Bush family has been in the investment business for four generations. As Phillips says, "When the Bushes start talking about investment, ordinary folks should start circling their Chevrolets." Sort of like when you see "Cheney" and "oil" in the same paragraph. It's "not only unfair, but the policy equivalent of self-dealing." Pretty blatant self-dealing: Bush's tax plan would save him $44,500. To most of us, that looks a whole lot like an annual income. Those figures have an uncanny resemblance to the amount of money we expect to have to work for. It's not fair.

I'd take the argument a little farther. In fact, I don't have to, because someone already did. John Balzar had a great piece in Sunday's LA Times arguing that the biggest problem with the tax-cutting fever is not who gets what, but that it destroys the whole idea of "neighborhood values," and the "understanding that individuals do not prosper apart from the fortune of the nation." Most Americans are genuinely patriotic. They want what's best for their neighborhoods, their cities, their states, and their country. And taxes are our contribution toward making it work. At one time we believed that the more you received from the country (and rich people obviously get enormous benefits from living in this country; if they didn't they wouldn't be here), the more you owed it -- and as a result we had a genuinely progressive income tax. Balzar remembers that time, when tax rates at the highest earning levels were above 90%:

Let's pause and remember that Americans were far less greedy and stressed as a consequence. Our overall standard of living progressed by the years. Along the way we built an interstate highway system. Our public schools were first-rate. Our industries led the world. There was no shortage of innovation or ambition. And we surrounded ourselves with personal comforts. We congratulated ourselves that we were the richest and freest nation on Earth.

Gated communities were not the rage. You never saw lawn signs warning of immediate response by private armed security. And we didn't have to face the unsettling news that two decades of growth in personal income had come to an end.

So what happens to the dwindling middle class in 10 more years? You can guess the answer.

We are fundamentally a middle class society that works together to solve problems. We're not an I-got-mine-and-the-hell-with-the-rest-of-you society.

Don't get me wrong. The Republicans are putting out massive amounts of deliberately misleading "facts" about the "stimulus." That needs to be countered. Lies shouldn't stand. But there's more wrong with their plan than just the fact that it's a "preferential option for the rich." It's also a plan that encourages us all to ask not what we can do for our country, but what it can do for us. It says the hell with what my neighbors and my country need, I want more. And that makes downright unpatriotic.

The comment section is causing too many computer problems -- for me and apparently for other people. And I'd rather spend my time writing than trying to figure out code. So, for now, comments are gone. Sorry.

Hesiod has pulled together a lot of important information about the unfinished war in Afghanistan, which has pretty much disappeared from the American media.

The Guardian notes not only the disappearance of the "liberal" American press, but the complete befuddlement of "ordinary reporters who believe their sole job is to get at the truth." The final paragraph looks to blogs as the last refuge for skeptics.

But Dwight Meredith has noticed that (to quote a different Dylan song) things have changed.

You've got to love a guy who asks questions like these:

Ari, other than Elliot Abrams, how many convicted criminals are on the White House staff?

Ari, what was the President thinking when he appointed an alleged war criminal to investigate a war crime?

Ari, you have said the President wants regime change in Iraq, by which I take it to mean the President wants to overthrow the government in Iraq. Why don't you just say the President wants to overthrow the government in Iraq?

Ari, you said earlier that "Democracy is God-given." Didn't Thomas Jefferson have something to do with it?

and my favorite --

Ari, Ari, wait a second. [The president]'s in favor of the death penalty for individuals generally. Is he in favor of the death penalty for corporations convicted of crimes that result in death?

Since 1980, the Emma Goldman Project, which houses Goldman's papers at UC Berkeley, has sent out annual fund-raising mailers with Goldman quotes, usually related to contemporary issues. This year the university insisted that two of the quotes -- dealing with free speech and opposition to war -- be removed because they were "too political."

Once you get past alternately laughing at and being chilled by the irony of censoring a statement promoting free speech, look at the quote the university found acceptable because it wasn't unduly political:

"The most violent element in society is ignorance"

Not political? That's the best explanation of Bush administration policies I've heard. Come back, Emma Goldman.

Aziz Poonawalla has an interesting suggestion for organizing opposition to Bush.

Natasha has put links to her numerous, and well-researched posts on Venezuela on a single page, and Sean-Paul has done the same with his very insightful posts on Korea.

Another interesting poll on Iraq, this time from the Christian Science Monitor, suggests that Bush is losing the p.r. war. Both the percentage of people who see Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States and the percentage of people who think it is "very important" for the U.S. to take military action in the near future have declined.

Monday, January 13, 2003

The latest episode of The Story Point and fictional trolls have invaded the comment section!

(Via Rittenhouse Review)

Bill Frist has done important and laudable work in Africa as a doctor, and understands and appears to be genuinely concerned about the health crisis the continent is facing. But according to an aritcle in The New Republic, as a senator, Frist had to choose between his conscience and his political allegiance. Politics won.

I recently linked to a thought-provoking article in The Village Voice on why Africa may soon become as much a magnet for terrorists as much of the Middle East already is. Corruption, poverty, exploitation by Western companies, and Western apathy about African problems, make anti-American arguments resonate with many people. And countries with failed governments, where chaos and violence are endemic, provide perfect nests for terrorists.

I swear, sometimes it looks like Bush and Company are trying to speed up the process.

Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times ran a heart-breaking story on AIDS in Africa. In South Africa, the AIDS crisis is so bad, people are having to make a choice between buying food for themselves or funerals for their children, and cemeteries are running out of space. Undertakers, however, are having a very profitable year. Stephen Lewis, the U.N. envoy for AIDS in Africa, insists that the world has never witnessed anything as horrible as the AIDS plague: "There are no precedents for what is happening in Africa right now. Not the 'Black Death' of the Middle Ages, not the wars of the 20th century -- nothing has prepared us for the catastrophic mixture of AIDS and famine." Lewis recently warned that if U.S. and other leading industrial counties don't immediately increase their contributions to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, they will be committing "mass murder by complacency." But not only is the United States not increasing its contribution to the Global Fund, it continues to undermine efforts to make antiretroviral medicines cheaper and more widely available in poor countries in order to protect the patent rights of large pharmaceutical companies. That's what you get when apathy meets up with a need to provide goodies for your campaign contributors.

Money for African projects is available -- as long as they're not humanitarian projects. According to a recent story in Mother Jones, Bush, Inc. (relying on a plan developed by -- surprise! -- Dick Cheney) is financing numerous overseas projects for private oil companies. Some of the largest and most politically well-connected oil and gas companies have received millions in government financing in the past year to help develop oil fields and build pipelines. One of the beneficiaries is -- one more big surprise -- a subsidiary of Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton -- which received $135 million dollar loan guarantee last October to expand a natural-gas production facility in Nigeria. The U.S. will spend $500 million this year to help finance a single project -- a pipeline that a consortium of 10 oil companies headed by British petroleum will profit from. By coincidence, $500 million happens to be the total amount the U.S. has pledged to the Global Fund to Fight Aids. To pay its fair share, to equal the European contribution in terms of the size of the economy, the U.S. would need to give $2.5 billion. That's a lot of money. Not as much, however, as the $100 billion in debt that President Bush has authorized the Export-Import Bank to assume in its effort to help the oil companies.

Now keep all that in mind while you read this morning's LA Times article on the Bush administration's increasing interest in African oil, and see if this sentence doesn't make you a little nervous:

The national energy plan drafted by Vice President Dick Cheney's task force spotlighted West Africa as "the fastest-growing source of oil and gas for the American market," and the administration has promised industry officials to do what it can to promote development.

Honestly, that Dick Cheney is one busy and industrious little fellow, isn't he?

Needless to say, in order to get at all that oil we're going to have to do a lot more than hand out massive amounts of money to Dick Cheney's friends. We're going to have to overlook minor matters like the fact many African leaders are using oil money to buy weapons, repress dissent, and live in luxury, without making a dent in the region's poverty. Democracy and human rights are not exactly high on the agenda in many of those countries either.

You could try to make a case, of course, that by "investing" in Africa, the U.S. will be in a better position to encourage accountability and respect for human rights. But as Stanford University political scientist Terry Lynn Karl pointed out, "We don't have a single example of oil leading to long-term positive outcomes in developing countries." And it's not like anybody's making an effort to change that history. The oil companies make deals with corrupt African regimes, but since no one knows exactly what the deals are, it's impossible for citizens to hold their governments accountable. Activists have pressed for measures to force companies to reveal the deals. But the Republican way is to hand out favors to big companies, not ask to behave responsibly.

And by the way -- the LA Times mentions that $135 million dollar loan guarantee for the petroleum plant in Nigeria. They didn't mention that it was the vice-president's old company that got the money. I guess they didn't think it was relevant.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

This is my new motto: Mojo is a renewable resource.

Liberal Oasis links to another poll showing support for Bush dropping into the 50s. And while other polls still have him in the low 60s, the trend is definitely downward.

Meanwhile, a Knight-Ridder poll has 83 percent of Americans supporting war with Iraq. That's assuming U.N. approval, support of allies, and unambiguous evidence that Iraq has nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Without those things, support drops to one-third.

In other words, in the real world, support for war is one-third.

The percentage of people who think Bush has explained the reasons for the war is also dropping.

You have to read pretty far to find the most interesting part of the poll, though:

* Two-thirds of the respondents said they thought they had a good grasp of the issues surrounding the Iraqi crisis.

* Seventeen percent knew that none of the September 11 hiackers were from Iraq. They were outnumbered by the 21 percent who thought the majority of them were Iraqis.

* Respondents who actually did know the facts about Iraq were considerably less hawkish than those who thought they knew, but were wrong.

That pretty much sums up the whole issue, doesn't it? Most of the people who know what they're talking about are against the war. The majority of those who support it don't know what they're talking about. That's been obvious for a long time, but it's nice to have statistics to back it up .

Sean-Paul Kelley and I disagree about Iraq (although he's very smart and honest, and I take his arguments seriously), but his response to a recent Newsday article suggesting that Bush and Company are considering appropriating Iraqi oil to pay for the war and occupation is identical to mine. I don't give the Bush administration credit for much anymore. I'm a fairly trusting soul, but not a complete fool. Still, even I was shocked by that level of cynicism, and I still hope the story is wrong (or, as Kevin Drum suggests, since it seems to have hatched in the incompetent Dick Cheney's office, maybe it will eventually wander away.)

One thing especially struck me about Sean-Paul's post: the grace with which he responded to a reader (Kevin, as a matter of fact) who disagreed with him. It's a perfect model of how an intelligent person deals with criticism. You really should read it, because you won't see that kind of class and thoughtfulness displayed very often in the blogosphere.

I didn't see or hear Governor Ryan's speech yesterday, but reading the transcript, I'm sorry I missed it. It's an extraordinary speech, demonstrating that when you're doing the right thing, the simplest and most straightforward language carries enormous weight.

Reading through, I wondered, how many politicians ever ask themselves Ryan's simple questions -- Is that fair? Is that right? Those questions would make a better plaque than "The buck stops here" to put on the desk in the Oval Office.

And the moral struggle implicit in this passage -- I spent a good deal of time reviewing these death row cases. My staff, many of whom are lawyers, spent busy days and many sleepless nights answering my questions. -- brought to mind George Bush's contrasting refusal to engage in thought, let alone an honest moral reckoning, when he responded to an AP reporter who asked about the possibility of innocent people being executed in Texas: "If you’re asking me whether or not as to the innocence or guilt or if people have had adequate access to the courts in Texas, I believe they have." A report had indicated that the death penalty in Texas was a knot of racial bias and incompetent defense, but Bush didn't even think it was worth looking into the issue. The refusal to bother asking yourself ethical questions must be the worst form of laziness. As Governor Ryan put it, "Many people express the desire to have capital punishment. Few, however, seem prepared to address the tough questions that arise when the system fails. It is easier and more comfortable for politicians to be tough on crime and support the death penalty. It wins votes. But when it comes to admitting that we have a problem, most run for cover." Cowardice, as well as moral sloth.

What struck me most about Ryan's speech, however, was that he dealt with more than just the unfair application of the death penalty. He moved on to question whether the death penalty could ever be just, and even to ask a profoundly difficult question: Does the death penalty really help ease the pain of victims' families? Is the "hope of revenge" the best thing we can offer them? What more could we do for those families if we didn't have the enormous cost -- financial and emotional -- of the death penalty?

But it is cruel and unusual punishment for family members to go through this pain, this legal limbo for 20 years. Perhaps it would be less cruel if we sentenced the killers to TAMS to life, and used our resources to better serve victims.

My heart ached when I heard one grandmother who lost children in an arson fire. She said she could not afford proper grave markers for her grandchildren who died. Why can't the state help families provide a proper burial?

Another crime victim came to our family meetings. He believes an inmate sent to death row for another crime also shot and paralyzed him. The inmate he says gets free health care while the victim is struggling to pay his substantial medical bills and, as a result, he has forgone getting proper medical care to alleviate the physical pain he endures.

What kind of victims services are we providing? Are all of our resources geared toward providing this notion of closure by execution instead of tending to the physical and social service needs of victim families? And what kind of values are we instilling in these wounded families and in the young people? As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.

And as if those were not difficult enough questions to ask, Ryan had the audacity to take seriously "the family members of the inmates" -- a group of innocent people whose suffering I can't remember ever hearing a politician mention.

Ryan's speech demonstrates something amazing and wonderful about human beings: Once we start asking simple moral questions -- Is that right? Is that fair? -- it's very hard to stop. We start by trying to deal with one injustice, and the struggle spirals out and we begin to see other injustices growing out of the first. In the end, it's not about victims vs. criminals, but a search for true justice that heals all.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

I'm attempting to add a comments board at the moment, but I'm just tinkering and may drop the whole idea if it turns out to be more trouble than its worth. Drop me a line and say hello, if you like. It will help me figure out whether or not the thing is functioning. Don't be offended if I delete your message though. I'm new at this.

The ever-expanding left-wing cocoon

I like Living Small because it's a quiet, well-written blog that deals more with literature and faith than politics. It also has some nice recipes.

Jenn Manley Lee has, without a doubt, the best designed blog I've ever seen. It would be worth adding to the blogroll just for the way it looks -- as inspiration for the rest of us who settle for bland, slightly tweaked Blogger templates. But on top of that it has a lot of good writing, often personal, or exploring where the personal and political come together. As an example, check out Spent all my money on booze and strippers.

The Nitpicker won't be in the running for next year's Koufax Awards for design (why do so many good blogs use the ugliest Blogger template?), but Terry discovers fascinating stuff and has a great bullshit detector.

Late Night Thoughts makes me think. Emma can rant with the best of them, but she's especially good when digging below the surface, and exploring the connections between personal life and political beliefs. I also appreciate a writer who shares my definition of sin.

And then there are the blogs that I've been reading forever through someone else's link and for some reason (laziness wouldn't have anything to do with it, would it?) never got around to adding to my list. Until now.

Roger Ailes

D-Squared Digest

Mark Kleiman

Oliver Willis

I also finally got around to fixing my link to The Poor Man (I could still get there through the old link, it just took an extra step.) He's been especially good lately, but I don't know how he's going to beat this.

After yesterday's important and heartening news that Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned four men on death row who may have been tortured into confessing, the first site I went to this morning was, of course, Talk Left, where Jeralyn has a succinct explanation of the decision, along with a good round up of articles on the news.

Reading the Los Angeles Times article about the pardons this morning, what struck me most was the victims' families' anger at Ryan's decision, their tenacity in believing the convicted men are guilty, despite the evidence. That feeling is understandable. If you think you've found justice, you'll hold on to it like a child clinging to a blanket, no matter how dirty and ragged it gets. But reading that, I remembered how often I have heard people say that the main reason they support the death penalty is the "comfort" it gives victims families. And I can't help but notice that often victims are so understandably desperate for the pain to be eased that they can take comfort in enormous injustice -- but as a decent society we can't afford to do so.

Which brought to mind Scott Turlow's recent essay in The New Yorker on how he moved from a "death-penalty agnostic" to a still hesitant and unsure opponent of the death penalty. For me, one of Turlow's most compelling arguments against the death penalty was that it is most likely to be imposed in response to the most ghastly and incomprehensible crimes. That sounds right of course, the way it should be. And yet, as Turlow points out, those cases are the ones in which justice is least likely to be found, because the emotions they arouse make all of us -- the public, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries -- feel like victims, who so desperately need "justice" that we're far more willing than we ordinarily would be to settle for a dirty, ragged substitute.

The New York Times has a good article this morning on the decline in the number of death sentences and how, to some extent, it reflects changing public attitudes toward the death penalty. Scott Turlow, in his New Yorker piece notes that most Americans have always had mixed feelings about the death penalty that aren't easily measured by for and against polls. The NYT quotes two poll numbers that suggest that for a significant number of people those "mixed feelings" have reached a strange level. In the past decade, support for the death penalty has dropped from 80 to 70 percent -- still a high percentage of supporters. But between 40 and 50 percent of Americans think the death penalty is unfairly administered. Even if you assume that most people who oppose the death penalty believe it is unfairly administered, that still leaves many people believing that it's unfair, but they support it anyway. A crisis of conscience in the making.

UPDATE: Kevin writes: I think you might be a bit too harsh on the victims' families. In investigations like this, the police and the prosecutors are often in very close contact with the families of the victims. The victims often receive only the prosecution's point of view, since the prosecution and the police can become their main source of information. The first people to provide comfort for the victims are often the police officers delivering the horrible news. Very often, the only people who can give the victims a conduit for escaping their feelings of powerlessness are the police and prosecutors. In many cases, the police and the prosecutors have become as close, or closer, than family in the minds of the victims. I don't think that the victims are taking comfort in an injustice as that they do not understand that an injustice has been done. To believe that, they must believe that people who they have relied upon to get them trough the worse times of their lives betrayed them. And they are often asked to believe that they were betrayed in the face of adamant denials by the police and prosecutors.

That is one of the most disgusting aspects of police and prosecutors who abuse the system or refuse to admit they made mistakes. They leave the victim's with a lifetime of feeling that justice had been ripped from them.

I didn't mean to suggest that victims' families were clinging to an injustice that they recognize as injustice, but only that pain makes it virtually impossible for anyone to see and think clearly. Given similar circumstances, I'm positive I wouldn't be one bit more objective. I also think what you say about police and prosecutors adds a whole other layer to the issue. When I think about police and prosecutors hanging on to what it has become clear is a phony story, my immediate concern is obviously with the person unjustly convicted. I never thought about the effect on the families. Or, if I did, I thought it best to allow them to take comfort in whatever myth eased the pain. But you're right, of course -- encouraging them to believe a lie, in the long run, only increases the pain.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Long story; short pier has a must-read post on the perception and reality of poverty.

U.S. considers seizing revenues to pay for occupation
Bush administration officials are seriously considering proposals that the United States tap Iraq's oil to help pay the cost of a military occupation, a move that likely would prove highly inflammatory in an Arab world already suspicious of U.S. motives in Iraq.

Officially, the White House agrees that oil revenue would play an important role during an occupation period, but only for the benefit of Iraqis, according to a National Security Council spokesman.

Yet there are strong advocates inside the administration, including the White House, for appropriating the oil funds as "spoils of war," according to a source who has been briefed by participants in the dialogue.

"There are people in the White House who take the position that it's all the spoils of war," said the source, who asked not to be further identified. "We [the United States] take all the oil money until there is a new democratic government [in Iraq]."

The source said the Justice Department has urged caution. "The Justice Department has doubts," he said. He said department lawyers are unsure "whether any of it [Iraqi oil funds] can be used or has to all be held in trust for the people of Iraq."

Another source who has worked closely with the office of Vice President Dick Cheney said that a number of officials there too are urging that Iraq's oil funds be used to defray the cost of occupation...

Couldn't you have predicted, as soon as you saw the headline, that if you read far enough into the story, Dick Cheney's name was going to turn up?

Ampersand argues that Josh Marshall's recent piece on Dick Cheney's incompetence was, if anything, too kind. Marshall gives Cheney credit for having been a good Secretary of Defense, but Ampersand finds evidence that even as Secretary of Defense Cheney was "competence-challenged."

Marshall makes a good case (as does Ampersand), but I'm having a hard time shifting mental gears to see Cheney as more incompetent than Machiavellian.

Somewhat (although not entirely) irrelevantly, I have to mention something that recently came to my attention about Cheney. I linked a couple of days ago to a Washington Post article from 1991 in which Pentagon officials admitted that the US deliberately bombed civilian targets, including electrical plants that powered hospitals and water treatment plants, in order to give itself post-war leverage in Iraq, including possibly encouraging the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The article quotes then-Defense Secretary Cheney on this immoral policy: "If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

I've been reading a number of reports recently, particularly from Oxfam about the humanitarian crisis that threatens Iraq. Iraq’s water treatment system has never recovered from the Gulf War bombings that crippled the electrical supply it depends on. More than a decade later, one-third of the national power supply is still down. The water and sanitation system is on the verge of collapse. The past two days, as I've been reading these articles, Cheney's remark -- "If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing" -- has been haunting me. I don't mean that they will deliberately go after civilian targets again. I can't see that they have anything to gain from doing so this time. But Cheney made it very clear in 1991 that the lives of Iraqi civilians were not a concern. There's every indication that they're considered just as irrelevant this time.

Is there such a thing as an incompetent Machiavellian?

UPDATE: I knew that phrase was ringing a bell. As reader Sylvia Li points out, there's a reason why they're called Mayberry Machiavellis.

The Pope has apparently been reading a few of the nastier warbloggers.

I'm probably revealing my ignorance here (not that anyone who reads this site regularly is under any illusions on that score), but what's going on with Tony Blair? The American press portrays him as American staunchest ally, the British press paints him as Bush's lapdog, and yet his relationship to Bush and his attitude toward war with Iraq seem a lot more complex than what either press suggests. On the one hand, he's obviously gearing up for war. On the other hand, there are rumors that he is pressuring Bush to delay the war until Autumn to give weapons inspectors more time. Blair denied the rumor, through a spokesman, but even while denying it argued that the January 27 deadline for the weapons report isn't that important, and that " the weapons inspectors in Iraq must be given the time and space they need to do their job."

Is this just an attempt to calm anti-war British voters, or does it reflect a real discomfort with Bush's determination to have a war no matter what? The BBC suggests both:

What is clear is the British Government is responding both to the criticism of its own policy and to a more generalised dislike of the Bush administration.

And several other British newspapers see efforts to delay if not stop the war. The Financial Times suggests that Blair's statement was a deliberate effort to "quash expectations" of American hawks.

What I don't know is whether or not this makes any difference whatsoever. Even if Blair is backing off from support for Bush, does it matter? Do doubts expressed by our "staunchest ally" have any effect?

Is there a hope any reasonable person can hang on to that this war won't take place?

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times takes note of the fact that there are realities even the most arrogant and war-hungry administration has to deal with -- including skittish allies other than Britain -- but quotes a State Department official who says, "Whatever the talk and whatever the timing, it still feels as if the train has left the station."

My daughter has a birthday coming up, so yesterday I went to a party supply store looking for a piñata. While browsing, I noticed a gag gift -- a single condom with a picture of an old man on the front and the words Over the Hill Condoms -- Full Year's Supply." Dumb joke

In Botswana, the average man receives less than one condom per year from international donors. Botswana has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world -- 39 percent of adults. Deadly joke.

When George Bush I was president, the U.S. donated 800 million condoms per year around the world. The number's now down to 300 million.

Part of the problem is that President Bush Jr. owes a few favors to right-wing religious groups who are bizarrely anti-condom -- unlike the many religious groups that do important work combatting AIDS in poor countries. As one conservative Catholic website noted, "The only absolutely guaranteed, permanent contraception is castration." So far there haven't been many takers for that form of birth control and disease prevention. Maybe the president would like to volunteer, just to set a good example.

Bush hasn't completely signed on to the anti-condom cause, but he's made previous unholy alliances with the Christian right over health issues and that makes small moves his administration has made -- demanding that a reference to "consistent condom use" to fights AIDS be removed from an international agreement, removing a fact sheet about condoms from the CDC website -- extremely worrisome.

There is an AIDS epidemic in Africa, which this administration has been extremely cavalier about. Seventy million Africans may die from the disease in the next twenty years. The UN recently warned that the international response to the crisis has been miserly, and as American money and attention flow toward Iraq, little improvement in that situation can be expected. And on top of that, Bush seems ready to endanger more lives as a sop to a few of his crazier religious supporters -- the ones who believe Jesus hated sex and thought death was an appropriate punishment for it.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

The third is installment of The Story Point is up.

Yesterday, in the LA Times, I noticed this small article about Republicans, now that they have complete control of the government, undoing their own ethics rules, and it seemed to me a pretty significant story to stick at the bottom of page 10, without any details. But as Sean-Paul, over at The Agonist points out, the LAT wasn't the only memerber of the "liberal media" to miss the point of the story.

I've written many times about religion as a catalyst for change. The Goblin Queen (hearby added to the blogroll) has an interesting exploration of religion as a source of stability.

Now if we could just get George Bush to this church.

In this week's Village Voice, Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that sub-Saharan Africa may be the next center of terrorism. It has all the requirements -- economic instability, political unrest, corruption, failed governance, and a combination of exploitation by Western corporations, and apathy on the part of American policy makers (following decades of support for corruption and thuggery) that feed anti-Americanism. It also has a long history of religious conflict which most Americans only became aware of during the Miss World riots in Nigeria (and even then understood in very simplistic and ahistorical terms.)

But -- warbloggers beware, cliche-breaker approaching -- Islamic fundamentalism doesn't seem to be a necessity. As the Washington Post reported last month, al Qaeda found lucrative refuge in Liberia -- an authoritarian, but secular country.

What Africa needs is not an attack on religion, it's an attack on the conditions that breed terrorism. And it needs that attention now.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

I can never keep up with how many good things Dwight Meredith posts, but do not miss his recent post on how the president has changed his tune on government's role in the economy, nor his post on the heroism of the freedom riders. I would only add, that in addition to the Taylor Branch book that Dwight cites, the autobiography of John Lewis (one of the original freedom riders, and now a Congressman from Georgia), Walking With the Wind is not only a good source of information about that period in our history, but also one of the most inspiring books on the value of religious faith that I've ever read.

It takes a conservative to insult a conservative.

If no one knows, it didn't happen...
In 1991, a Census Bureau demographer estimated that 158,000 Iraqis died during the Persian Gulf War -- three-fourths of them civilians. She was reprimanded, her report was rewritten, and she threatened with losing her job. She challenged the dismissal, but she subsequently received no assignments and was forbidden to speak about Iraq. Despite her treatment, she says, "Nobody has ever said the numbers were wrong."

She has no intention of trying to estimate Iraqi deaths in the approaching war.

U.N. emergency planners estimate that in the early stages of war in Iraq:

* Half a million Iraqis could require medical treatment as a result of serious injuries.

* 4.5 million to 9.5 million Iraqis could quickly need outside food to survive.

* 900,000 Iraqi refugee requiring immediate assistance could be driven into neighboring countries.

* 2 million refugees could be driven from their homes but remain inside Iraq, where access by relief agencies would be problem because of the fighting.

Little has been done to prepare for the looming emergency, and the U.N. fears that if the United States bombs or blockades key roads, rails, bridges and ports, delivering relief to Iraqis may be impossible. War could also lead to the outbreak of diseases, including cholera and dysentery, in "epidemic if not pandemic proportions."

Ari Fleischer is comfortable with that. I mean, it's not like they're Americans or anything:

Q: Would the President attack innocent Iraqi lives?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants to make certain that he can defend our country, defend our interests, defend the region, and make certain that American lives are not lost.

For sci-fi fans: Kevin has posted the second installment of The Story Point.

From the e-mail box:

On the Iraqi sanctionsGlad to see your post on the sanctions, but one point you didn't mention -- if you read a report by Barton Gellman in the Washington Post, it turns out the US deliberately destroyed the Iraqi water treatment system, knowing it couldn't be repaired under sanctions. The Pentagon officials told Gellman that the idea behind this was that by making the civilian population suffer, Saddam would be pressured to cave in to UN disarmament demands, or better yet, his regime might be overthrown.

The NYT ran a story (October 6, 2002) about possible modifications to the Geneva convention. One area of interest is whether facilities such as water treatment plants should be explicitly declared off limits for military attacks. The NYT didn't mention in this story that the US had done this during the Gulf War.

I think the Washington Post article from 1991 shows beyond doubt that the US was deliberately targeting civilians back then. I don't think the case is quite so clearcut later in the decade, mainly because it is extremely rare to find American government officials naive enough to openly tell reporters that they were trying to make civilians suffer. But all this pretense in the mainstream press that civilian suffering from the sanctions is unintentional on our part and that the suffering is 100 percent the fault of Saddam is a deliberate lie. They know better.

Incidentally, the NYT reporting of John Burns has been disgraceful on this issue -- he has gone out of his way to put all the blame on Saddam. I haven't checked your LA Times weblink, but it is probably very similar to what Burns has been writing. -- Donald Johnson


On Mother Teresa
"Mother Teresa's view of charity. It's a view with a strong appeal for powerful people who want to feel good, but don't want to see any real change. The canonization of Mother Teresa contains a political message as well as a spiritual one ..."

This struck me as analogous to the pedophilia scandal ... on the one hand you have the institutional church, "powerful people who want to feel good, but don't want to see any real change" struggling to deny the existence very real spiritual and physical crimes in order to maintain the hierarchy and difference by which they have accumulated power. It's the ugly underside of the Church that some of us struggle with endlessly .... how to ignore the Powerful Institution, with which we disagree so wholeheartedly, an Institution willing to chuck it's own rules to rush the canonization of Mother Teresa (while simultaneously telling us all to obey the rules or we'll be exiled). That the Church is willing to overlook/deny M.T's close relationship with really evil dictators seems to me connected to the same Church being willing to overlook/deny the deep-seated sexual dysfunction that has corrupted the clergy (or by which the Church, in its insistence on celibacy and on the inherent evil of all sexual pleasure has corrupted its own clergy). If sex itself is always evil, then the difference between abusing a child and healthy marital relations is only one of degree, right?

All I can do is pray that the receding tide of post-Vatican II Catholicism, the Catholicism of social conscience will somehow rise again ... but it looks for now like it's going to be a long wait. In the meantime, what's one to do? Take refuge in a local parish? Try to find local means to practice the radical Catholicism of those like Romero? Or just take refuge in the Mass itself? I don't know ... I've been unable even to go to Mass for months, because if it is the sacrament I believe it to be, how can I take it from the hands of a priesthood that as a corporate body is so soiled with sins against children? So it's just been me at home with my little altar and my beloved Virgin of Guadalupe ... --

It would be fine for people to be inspired by Mother Teresa's reputation for holiness if she had settled for leading by example (hell, it would have been holy of her to do it that way).

Unfortunately, she leveraged her image into the support of a great many ugly things that served whatever she imagined her larger purpose was (campaigning against first-world support for family planning in the third world springs to mind - should babies have to starve to death, or die of AIDS, on behalf of religion, let alone someone else's? - and playing pattycake with some really noisome people, as long as they would give her large money in return for a few minutes toasting in the penumbra of her "holiness").

The difference between her use of religion and Pat Robertson's escapes me. -- Julia


On Independent vs. Corporate Bookstores
This is more than a matter of large corporate bookstores driving out small local bookstores. It is also a matter of what books get published, and, indirectly, what books get written in the first place. Publishers, especially smaller ones, but even large ones to some extent, must publish works they can sell through Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc. If a book, however well-written and attractive to readers, has no chance of being sold to a large outlet, it may well not be published at all. Authors who make their living writing books are aware of this, and tailor their books accordingly. Of course there are myriad exceptions to this simplification, but in principle, the hegemony of large corporate bookstores actually reduces the range of content available to the reader through any bookstore whatsoever, no matter how physically large a store's shelf stock may be.

Yes, to my dismay, I do shop at Barnes and Noble, though I buy from the few remaining local independents whenever I can.

I draw the line at Amazon, not because of their practices as booksellers but because they have allegedly in the past shown a very cavalier attitude toward privacy issues involving the information you give them when you purchase books. But then again, I may be more sensitive than most to such issues: these days, I purchase stridently liberal or antiwar political books with cash rather than a card, and I no longer check such things out of the public library at all. -- Steve Bates

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

In defense of Mother Teresa.

And another from the e-mail box:

The "role-model" value of Mother Teresa doesn't depend on what she actually did; what matters is what people think she did. That, in my opinion, is what is being canonized in her case: her public image.

This isn't entirely a bad thing; if people are awed by the thought of someone sacrificing everything to care for the utterly wretched, some of them may behave more charitably than they otherwise would have, which is a good thing. The principal drawback to canonizing the public image of a modern-day figure is that such an image can be debunked, and then everyone is worse off than before, and there goes another chunk of the Church's credibility. -- Sylvia Li

Today's gems:
Hesiod on Cheney (and I've got to read that Josh Marshall article)

Kevin on affirmative action.

Seeing The Forest on taxes (okay, it's Sunday's gem -- I'm a little behind.)

Natasha on the slippery meaning of patriotism.

I live in a fairly small college town that, a decade ago, had three bookstores (not counting the two used bookstores and the campus store). There was a little, undistinguished independent; a big independent with great selection in every area I was interested in (good literary fiction, poetry, history, and politics), besides being a cozy, inviting place to browse; and the best children's bookstore I've ever been in (and I never going anywhere without visiting the local children's bookstore.)

Then Barnes and Noble opened up downtown. The big independent, which unfortunately had just moved to a larger store across the street, putting it in a precarious financial position, was out of business within a year. So was the children's bookstore. The little independent, with not much going for it other than a pretty store front on a pretty main street that draws a lot of tourists, is still around. The owners have been trying to play on local guilt since Barnes and Noble opened (If you don't shop here, the big nasty corporations win!) but while liberal guilt trips and anti-corporate sentiment usually work very well on me, it's no sale here. I can go to Barnes and Noble, which has a wide selection, and feel guilty about feeding the corporate beast, or I can go to a little card and gift shop with a few shelves of novels, and nothing else I'm interested in (I have enough cookbooks, thanks.) The book lover in me beats the liberal every time.

Or it used to. When Barnes and Noble opened, I hated it because it was big chain, and a year later I hated it because it because it put two good stores out of business. The children's bookstore was truly irreplaceable. Barnes and Noble has a decent selection of children's books, although not nearly as good as the specialized store it drove out. But it doesn't have an owner who knows and loves children's books and is always ready to make suggestions for customers she gets to know. More importantly, what Barnes and Noble does have is a way of displaying the junkiest books (and the toys that go with them), so that my daughter and I have to plow through aisles of garbage that screams Buy me! to a seven-year-old in order to get to the real books. And every time I shop, there are more Captain Underpants and fewer real books.

And the same thing has happened with adult books. At first, to be honest, as frustrated as I was about losing my favorite bookstore, I had to admit that Barnes and Noble's selection of literary fiction was, if anything, better than the local independent's. And the books were displayed at the front of the store, so I could always see what new novels (and, amazingly, even books of short fiction) had just come out. Little by little, those books have moved to the back of the store, replaced by computer books and right-wing screeds, and they must be ordering fewer because more often than not I end up at Amazon now. Did people really suddenly stop reading real books and start reading Ann Coulter, or is something else going on?

That's one of those questions I don't have an answer to.

What brought all this to mind was a fascinating post on bookstores over at Electrolite, followed by a fuller exploration of the topic by readers (this is what comments boards were made for!)

There has always seemed to me to be something deeply dishonest about conservatives citing Dr. King's dream of color-blind society in their attacks on affirmative action, but I could never explain why. Ampersand explains why.

News from abroad that it would be nice to see in this country

Lula to use defence funds in famine fight
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office as Brazil's president this week, on Friday postponed a US$750m defence programme by a year to finance emergency social spending. José Viegas, the new defence minister, said the purchase of 12 fighter aircraft would be delayed and funds used in hunger eradication projects...

According to a new book, "High and Mighty," SUV drivers "don't care about anyone else's kids but their own, are very concerned with how other people see them rather than with what's practical, and they tend to want to control or have control over the people around them." They are also "willing to endanger other motorists so as to achieve small improvements in their personal safety," and are too dumb to notice that those safety gains are illusory. They don't like minivans because they're driven by "nice" people who volunteer for their churches and carpool other people's kids, and they don't want anyone to think they are "nice."

I know...duh!

But while reading this, it occurred to me that SUVs are not only the symbolic vehicle of the coming war because of the enormous amounts of gas they consume, but because of the personality traits they legitimize and encourage. Once you've bought an unsafe car because it makes you feel big, important and a little dangerous (and if you're big, you must be safe, right?) and have convinced yourself that it doesn't matter that you're endangering other people's lives because you feel safer, and that's all that really counts, it's not a big deal to go to war because you might be in danger, even though a glance at the facts would tell you that going to war won't make you one bit safer. After all, other people's kids don't matter, do they?

An example: To illustrate the kind of selfishness that marks some SUV drivers, Bradsher finds people who rave about how they've survived accidents with barely a scratch, yet neglected to mention that the people in the other car were all killed. (One such woman confesses rather chillingly to Bradsher that her first response after killing another driver was to go out and get an even bigger SUV.)

It must have been a very traumatic experience. I'm sure she'll feel better after invading Iraq.

Monday, January 06, 2003

When was the last time you heard a rational person on talk radio? Go visit skippy and he'll tell you what to do about it.

The poor give us so much more than we give them." -- Mother Teresa

"When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises." -- Archbishop Oscar Romero

Surprisingly, I didn't get a single angry letter about my agreeing with Christopher Hitchen's attack on Mother Teresa. (Tentatively agreeing -- I'm still open to anyone really defending Mother Teresa, something beyond how "everyone knows" what good work she did.) My three conservative Catholic readers must have taken the weekend off. I did, however, get several letters from people who agreed, and said they'd been frustrated for a long time with the difference between popular image and reality in Mother Teresa's case.

Matthew Yglesias wonders if "some little thing like so-and-so should be a saint" really matters. Obviously it matters to millions of Catholics, and to millions more non-Catholic Christians who look up to her as a model of a life of faith. But I think it should matter even to an atheist like Matt.

A saint's life offers an example of how to live, and defines holiness for Catholics. But some saints have cross-over appeal, and Mother Teresa, with her long and deep hold on the popular imagination clearly falls into that category. Ask most Americans, of any religion, to name an irreproachable person, someone who embodied goodness, and I suspect the first name that will come to the vast majority of minds is Mother Teresa's.

But Teresa represented a particular -- and political -- notion of faith and holiness. Although she was associated with the poor of Calcutta, Teresa's deepest alliance was with the rich and powerful -- sometimes the relatively benign rich like Princess Diana, and sometimes thugs like the Duvaliers. Her ministry was primarily to them -- she offered them a way to save their souls, by giving money to ameliorate the lives of the poor without questioning why the poor were poor. And, as Hitchens documented in Missionary Position, his book on Mother Teresa, that amelioration was far less than most people believe. For Mother Teresa, poverty was necessary, for if it didn't exist, how could the rich demonstrate their goodness?

Think of President Bush, whose policies have done so much to harm the poor, doing a photo op at a food bank and encouraging Americans (presumably the poor don't count as Americans) to give more to their suffering fellow citizens, and you have a red, white and blue version of Mother Teresa's view of charity. It's a view with a strong appeal for powerful people who want to feel good, but don't want to see any real change. The canonization of Mother Teresa contains a political message as well as a spiritual one. As Hitchens notes, the speeded up canonization process for Mother Teresa is odd, and suggests that the Vatican is anxious to send that particular political and spiritual message.

Another Catholic associated with the poorest of the poor is on a slower track to sainthood. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered in 1980 while celebrating Mass, could not have been more different from Mother Teresa. His real allegiance was with the poor. At the time he became Archbishop in 1977, small groups of poor Catholics were banding together to worship and study the gospels and their implications for society. Uneducated peasants organizing, choosing leaders and speaking of social justice in the name of Christianity made landowners uneasy. Death squads roamed the country, killing the leaders and the priests and nuns who worked with them. Archbishop Romero, who before he became Archbishop was considered a moderate conservative, cast his lot with the poor and with the fight for social justice. He didn't tell the powerful that they could go on oppressing the poor as long as they threw them a few crumbs from time to time. He told them that the Church "says to the rich: do not sin by misusing your money. It says to the powerful: do not misuse your political influence. Do not misuse your weaponry. Do not misuse your power. It says to the sinful torturers: do not torture. You are sinning. You are doing wrong. You are establishing the reign of hell on earth."

It remains to be seen whether the Church really does say those things to the powerful. The canonization of Mother Teresa would say exactly the opposite.

Mother Teresa and Archbishop Romero represent two very different views of what it means to care for the poor. The offer polar opposite models to follow. Mother Teresa was honored by the powerful, Oscar Romero was killed by them. And that's one of the reasons it matters which one first becomes a saint.

A survey done at St. Louis University, paid for in part by several orders of Catholic nuns, found that about 40% of nuns in the United States have been victims of some form of sexual abuse or harassment, in a significant number of cases by priests. The researchers believe that the numbers probably underestimate the prevalence of sexual abuse because many nuns feel shame and guilt, and fear speaking out.

What's especially disturbing about the story is that the study was done in 1996, and published in two small circulation religious research journals in 1998, but the findings were never reported in the mainstream press -- not even in a year in which sexual scandals in the Catholic Church received wide coverage.

Many people in and out of the Church have felt that over time the pedophilia scandal developed into a witch hunt directed at gay priests. Sexually abused nuns didn't fit the storyline. Does that have anything to do with why we haven't heard about them until now? And will we stop hearing suggestions that if the Church just eliminated gay priests, the problem would go away?

I suppose I should be grateful to the Los Angeles Times for at least mentioning the fact that the sanctions imposed on Iraq do more harm to ordinary Iraqis than to Saddam Hussein, even if the mention comes in an article this stupid. But honestly, this is just plain offensive. It's never been possible for the media to mention sanctions without rushing to add that there would be no sanctions if Saddam would just behave, which, while undeniably true, is also beside the point. Saddam was just as greedy, just as monstrous a dozen years ago, when there were no sanctions and Iraq was a relatively wealthy country. It gives no credit to Saddam to admit the sanctions are not doing what they were designed to do. They aren't touching Saddam; they are killing ordinary Iraqis.

This LA Times piece, though, carries the argument to the highest levels of nonsense. They start by affirming that the sanctions keep Iraqis from getting needed medicines, and move on to point out that obviously it's all Saddam's fault, because he has plenty of money and material to build mosques.

Run that one by me again? If someone needs antibiotics, bricks and mortar don't make ideal substitutes. I'm sure Saddam, the old secularist, is laying down mosques at record rates to try to paint himself as a good Muslim and distract people from their misery. Of course it's an enormous con job. But that doesn't mean that if he stopped pulling that con he could use the money to buy medicine for Iraqis. Under the sanctions, Iraq can't spend its oil revenues on domestically produced medicines. And Iraq is not allowed to buy certain medicines from other countries. Just last week the UN Security Council placed tighter limits on doses of antibiotics that can be sent to Iraq. It doesn't make any difference how much money you have if you're forbidden to buy what you need.

In 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did a series on the effect of the sanctions called Life and Death in Iraq. They updated it late last year. Read it. We're on the verge of war with a country where the population has been devastated by sanctions, and for a number of reasons there has been virtually no preparation for what almost everyone recognizes is an approaching humanitarian disaster. The LA Times ends their article with a little sanctions humor. But if you read the whole story, it's pretty hard to find anything to laugh at.

"The more you examine the religion [Islam], the more militaristic it seems. After all, its founder, Mohammed, was a warrior, not a peace advocate like Jesus." -- Kenneth Adelmen

I've read dozens of variations on that statement, and every time the logic, or lack of it, drives me mad. Never mind mentioning that Christianity has its own militaristic streak, does it make any sense whatsoever to argue that Islam is violent because Mohammed was a warrior, and Christianity is peaceful because Jesus was a peace advocate, and therefore, as followers of Jesus we must attack?

Saturday, January 04, 2003

I know I'm setting myself up for angry mail here, but I think Christopher Hitchens makes a good case against sainthood for Mother Teresa.

Can you do fiction on a blog? I'm primarily a fiction writer -- or I used to be, before this blog started consuming my writing time -- and I've often wondered about that, and considered trying it. Kevin Raybould, who's already proven his ability to write clear and well-reasoned political commentary at Lean Left, has taken up the challenge with a science fiction novel he has begun serializing at The Story Point. If you're interested in fiction, especially sci-fi, you might want to go over, take a look, offer some encouragement, or even make suggestions. Or just read and enjoy.

Gene Healy has pulled together the strongest case I've seen against the national security argument for invading Iraq. (You might also be interested in reader comments on the essay posted at STAND DOWN). My only quibble with the piece is that Gene early on dismisses both the humanitarian argument for war and the notion that "venal or frivolous motives lie behind the administration's push for war." I think focusing primarily on the national security argument is the right approach, both because that is the argument the administration has emphasized, and because it is the one with the most resonance for ordinary Americans. If Americans support war with Iraq, it will not be because they are concerned with the human rights of Iraqis, but because they fear the possibility of a nuclear attack on the United States, and believe that is a genuine threat.

Nevertheless, I don't think it's fair or wise to completely dismiss the humanitarian argument. A concern for human rights may not move the majority of Americans, but many liberals take it seriously. I take it seriously. And it is the crowd-pleaser Bush is using to rally the troops, telling them that we will be "liberating" the Iraqi people. And while it's possible to make a case against humanitarian intervention without mentioning the administration's venal motives, its history of hypocrisy, corporate bootlicking, lack of concern for human rights, failure to follow through on reconstruction in Afghanistan, and just plain, old-fashioned lying, drive a stake through the heart of the most compelling human rights argument for invasion.

Eve Tushnet has just completed a long and interesting series of posts on race. It begins here and ends here, and in between, you're on your own, but it's worth tracking down the pieces. There's much I agree with, and a few things I disagree with, but they're thought-provoking posts, and well worth your time.

By now you've read skippy's talk radio rant, I'm sure, but don't miss the follow-up, not to mention, in a related vein Digby on Michael Jackson (the other Michael Jackson).

And by the way, Sisyphus says that The Washington Post would like to know what you think of Little Green Footballs?

Friday, January 03, 2003


The most interesting takes I've read on the proposal to bring back the draft have come from Kevin Drum and Jeralyn Merritt -- and Jeralyn's also includes interesting comments from readers.

I don't think the draft is likely to return, and I think there are more good arguments against it than for it -- from both a moral and a practical standpoint. But I agree with Kevin that far too many Americans have a great sense of entitlement, and I would add a lack of interest in anything that doesn't effect them personally. Jeralyn mentions being in college in the late sixties and seeing young men's lives ruined by the draft. She's certainly right. But I remember being in college a few years later, trying to help organize opposition to the resumed bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor in 1972 (in supposedly radical Berkeley) and being met with a who cares, let's party response from the majority of students I talked to. There were large demonstrations in Berkeley that spring. But activists who had been there a few years told me that the response was not what they expected, and they chalked it up to the fact that because of the change to a lottery system, more students felt comfortable that the draft wouldn't touch them. It only got worse when the draft was eliminated in 1973.

A draft, whether for military or other national service, makes me very uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. But I'd love to hear some better alternatives for making Americans pay attention to the rest of the world and realize that there are human costs to pay for our government's actions.

UPDATE: Max has more on the topic. But, hey, I liked Country Joe.

Yesterday I mentioned that the Department of Labor had decided to stop publishing information about factory closings . Today Sam Heldman and Nathan Newman explain why it is important, and how the decision demonstrates not only the administration's love of secrecy, but its profoundly anti-labor agenda.

George Bush's addiction to secrecy -- and his ability to get others to feed his addiction -- stuns even those of us old enough to remember Richard Nixon. Adam Clymer has a noteworthy article in today's New York Times about that addiction, which is so extreme even Republicans are objecting.

Clymer seemed to miss one important issue, though. He recalls the administration's fight to keep records from Ronald Reagan's presidency from being made public:

On March 23, 2001, Mr. Gonzales, the White House counsel, ordered the National Archives not to release to the public 68,000 pages of records from Ronald Reagan's presidency that scholars had requested and archivists had determined posed no threat to national security or personal privacy. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, the documents were to become available after Jan. 20, 2001, twelve years after Mr. Reagan left office. Mr. Reagan's administration was the first covered by the 1978 law.

The directive, which also covered the papers of Mr. Reagan's vice president and the president's father, George Bush, was to last 90 days. When Mr. Gonzales extended the sealing period for an additional 90 days, historians like Hugh Davis Graham of Vanderbilt University attacked the delays, saying they were designed to prevent embarrassment and would nullify the records law's presumption of public access to those documents.

On Nov. 1, 2001, President Bush issued an even more sweeping order under which former presidents and vice presidents like his father, or representatives designated by them or by their surviving families, could bar release of documents by claiming one of a variety of privileges: "military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, presidential communications, legal advice, legal work or the deliberative processes of the president and the president's advisers," according to the order.

Before the order, the Archivist of the United States could reject a former president's claim of privilege. Now he cannot.

The order was promptly attacked in court and on Capitol Hill. Scott L. Nelson of the Public Interest Litigation Group sued on behalf of historians and reporters, maintaining that the new order allowed unlimited delays in releasing documents and created new privileges to bar release.

House Republicans were among the order's sharpest critics. Representative Steve Horn of California called a hearing within a few days, and Representative Doug Ose, another Californian, said the order "undercuts the public's right to be fully informed about how its government operated in the past." The order, Mr. Horn said, improperly "gives the former and incumbent presidents veto power over the release of the records."

On Dec. 20, the White House sought to silence the complaints by announcing that nearly all the 68,000 pages of the Reagan records were being released. Legislation introduced to undo the order never made it to the House floor, where leaders had no interest in embarrassing the president. And a lawsuit challenging the order languishes in Federal District Court before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

In other words, the administration played a little game with the records: By releasing most of the papers, they took off the pressure to release all of them -- still managing to keep control of what would and would not be released.

Clymer notes that the administration's control of information could effect how history is written. He might have added that it effects how journalism is written as well. The Washington Post recently published a stunning article on US complicity in Saddam Hussein's war crimes, focusing especially on Donald Rumsfeld's role. The Post's information came from Reagan-era declassified documents. But at least one significant piece of the puzzle is missing:

The U.S. tilt toward Iraq was enshrined in National Security Decision Directive 114 of Nov. 26, 1983, one of the few important Reagan era foreign policy decisions that still remains classified. According to former U.S. officials, the directive stated that the United States would do "whatever was necessary and legal" to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran... Secret talking points prepared for the first Rumsfeld visit to Baghdad enshrined some of the language from NSDD 114, including the statement that the United States would regard "any major reversal of Iraq's fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West."

In essence, the Washington Post can't tell the whole story because Bush has managed to keep the document describing Reagan's policy toward Iraq classified. That's convenient for Bush, but it's an outrage for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Hey thanks, guys and gals -- although, personally, I'd vote for Jim. And I hope everyone goes over to thank Dwight for coming up with the idea and putting in a lot of work. Next year we have to come up with a way to do this so that PLA gets included in the nominations.

 I had one of the first Barbies, back in the early '6Os. The one with the narrow, evil eyes. (Think George Bush with a lot of mascara.) The one in the knitted zebra-striped bathing suit. Unfortunately my Barbie never had a wardrobe beyond that impractical bathing suit, because poor girls get poor Barbies, and Goodwill didn't yet have a Barbie collection.

And in many ways, that was an advantage. I never got Malibu Barbie or Dr. Barbie, but I had fabric scraps Barbie, toilet paper Barbie, and -- best of all -- aluminum foil Barbie. The fabric scraps came from a brown dress my mother tried to sew for me when I was in second grade. My mother could not sew if her life depended on it. Believe me, Goodwill was an improvement. Thank God I wore a Catholic school uniform five days a week and only had to put up with that ugly brown dress on Sundays. But the scraps that were left over, draped over my angry-eyed Barbie, had a fringed-leather look, which I decided made my Barbie an Indian. I also had a cowboy doll, which Barbie regularly beat up. Her stilettos were lethal. In my world, Barbie the Indian princess defeated all the cowboys.

Wrapped in toilet paper, Barbie was an Egyptian queen. She had absolute power. No one would dare defy her or she would send them away to build pyramids. She also defeated the cowboys.

And if your imagination was stifled by a Barbie with all the accoutrements, you may not realize that aluminum foil makes perfectly believable armor. Think of the pen name I use to write this blog, and you can probably guess who aluminum foil-clad Barbie was. She defeated the cowboys as well.

All of this came flooding back to mind when I read Max's Barbie post, particularly about his concern with finding "professional" looking dolls. Doctor Barbie rather than cheerleader Barbie. I admit, I do the same thing when I choose dolls for my daughter. The last one I bought was Pilot Barbie (she came with a suitcase and a passport, but no gun). But when I think about it, I realize Max and I can probably both relax. As long as there have been Barbies, those dolls have led more interesting, heroic lives, and shaped girls' values in more eccentric ways, than most people realize. Forty years later, I'm still determined to defeat the cowboys.

Gimme shelter
Reconstruction of Afghanistan apparently doesn't include homes. Half a million refugees in Afghan cities are homeless, and will spend the Afghan winter in tents, ruins, and half-built structures.

For women, the problem of homelessness is compounded by misogyny. RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) operates shelters for women in Afghanistan and for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, not just for those fleeing abuse, but for unmarried and abandoned women, and former prostitutes, who desperately need the literacy training and work skills RAWA offers. But the shelters have to operate secretly, out of fear of resurgent fundamentalists. RAWA is not even allowed to run overnight shelters. If women need a place to stay, they're taken over the border to Pakistan. Last June, the first Afghan minister for women's affairs, Sima Simar, a powerful advocate for women's rights, was driven out of her job, in part by death threats from fundamentalists who view any protection for women as a threat to their power. The current women's affairs minister insists that Afghanistan has no need for women's shelters, since any problems women can be dealt with by the women's families.

This article cuts to the heart of the Bush administration's approach to bad news: Factories are closing, what should we do? Let's keep it a secret.

Devra has some interesting thoughts on the continuing appeal of Bill Clinton

I'm sure you already know this, but the most eagerly awaited blog arrived yesterday and it's already so good I feel like I can just stop writing now (you notice I didn't post anything yesterday -- you think that was a coincidence?). Drop by and visit Hullabaloo. The name, unfortunately, brings to mind a really dumb music tv show from my childhood back in the Middle Ages (otherwise known as the '60s). Now Shindig would have been a good name...

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Devra has a must-read post on Jim Crow laws outside the South.

I agree with Elayne: There is something fundamentally wrong about turning the ashes of murdered people into a warship. Making the building of that warship an $800 million dollar pork project for Trent Lott's home town just compounds the indecency.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden demonstrates that you're not required to buy into your "heritage."

I think I have a similar ancestry on my father's side, although I'm not sure. My family's always been too poor, shiftless, and embarrassed to be aware of what came before. I don't know anything about my relatives -- not even names -- before my grandparents. But my father's from Tennessee, the family's been there since well before the Civil War, and there were a lot of photographs of people in uniform floating around my grandfather's house, so I've always assumed there was a hidden Confederate back there somewhere.

But I don't have to go back that far to find race hatred. That's my "heritage" as much as the spectral Confederate. As a child, I heard my father make statements that Archie Bunker would have considered going too far. And not just racist ones. Like Archie, my father was an equally opportunity bigot. I heard every anti-Papist slur in the air. And of course my father was married to a Catholic from Ireland -- which is probably one of the reasons I consider the psychology of bigotry infinitely complex.

Colleen Rowley may be one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year, but Ted Barlow discovered that the F.B.I. reserved its honors (and cash) for the man who blocked her.

Matt Yglesias looks at (and tentatively supports) Charles Rangels' proposal to reinstitute the draft, and his readers offer several objections well worth considering.

I have to admit that as the terrified mother of an 18-year-old boy, my first thought is, "Don't even think about it." And I'm not sure I buy in to Rangel's exhortation to "shared sacrifice." Society needs people to do many dangerous jobs, but that doesn't mean we expect every able-bodied person to put in time as a police officer or fire fighter. The important issue there (as should also be the case with the military) is that we should make sure people in those jobs have the tools and training to make the job as safe as we can make it, and should pay them adequately for their work.

But I think Matt is right in suggesting that there's a connection between the draft and the seriousness with which people take foreign policy. It is simply harder to convince people to go along with reckless wars if their own lives, or the lives of their children will be put on the line.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Julia's hate mail is worse than my hate mail. But I'm glad she mentioned it because it's a reminder of what uppity women deal with.

So how long do you think it will be before John Ashcroft looks into the connection between right-wing Christians and al-Qaeda?

I'm a word person. Numbers usually whiz right past my brain. But these numbers break down even my resistance:

Three million people died of AIDS this year, 80 percent of them in Africa.

One out of every five people in southern Africa is HIV-positive. In Zimbabwe and Swaziland, more than one-third of adults live with HIV.

In less than twenty years, 70 million Africans will die of AIDS.

That number -- 70 million people -- ought to trigger the same kind of response a looming genocide invokes: the knowledge that we won't be able to live with ourselves in the future if we don't do something to stop it now, that in a few years we'll be asking ourselves the same question we ask now about Rwanda -- how in God's name did we manage to sit by and watch that happen?

Fifty-eight percent of AIDS victims in Africa are women. That isn't significant because women's lives are in any way more valuable than men's lives, but because it extends the reach of the disease far beyond the victim. Seventy to eighty percent of food in Africa is produced by women. In times of famine, women have traditionally been the ones to set up networks to distribute food. But sick and weakened women inevitably devote less time to planting and harvesting crops, and to helping with food distribution. When the people who produce the food die, the entire community suffers. And of course it's a vicious cycle: malnutrition takes a toll on the immune system and speeds up the development of AIDS in people who are HIV-positive.

In Africa, you can't separate the AIDS issue from the hunger issue. People are starving because of AIDS; HIV-positive people develop AIDS because they're starving.

Yesterday's New York Times had an important piece by Kofi Annan on why current efforts to fight the famine in southern Africa depend as much on HIV and AIDS prevention as on traditional food assistance. It's a good piece, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. There are some important pieces of information that the secretary-general of the U.N. is too diplomatic to mention:

The president is too busy to care about Africa. Bush had scheduled his first trip to Africa as president for early next month. The Congressional Black Caucus urged the president to use the trip to promote awareness of AIDS in Africa, and to begin a US initiative to fight AIDS, but recently the president cancelled the trip. His focus is on Iraq. Africa has lost even the minimal amount of attention it ever had.

"Compassionate conservatism" is as much a scam abroad as it is at home. While sending Colin Powell out to lecture the world about fighting AIDS, the administration pledged only $500 million dollars to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS (the U.S. would need to give $2.5 billion to make its contribution equal that of Europe in terms of the size of the economy.) Bush fought a proposal by Jesse Helms, of all people (together with Bill Frist), for another $500 million for a program for HIV-positive African children, and when it passed anyway, he signed it only after convincing Frist to chop $300 million out of it.

Condescending, even racist, assumptions are built into the Bush administration's response to AIDS in Africa. Andrew Natsios, the head of America's foreign aid program, has argued against giving antiretroviral drug treatment to African AIDS patients because, Africans supposedly "don't know what Western time is" and are incapable of taking medicines on schedule. Antiretroviral treatment has been successful in Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Uganda, proving this racist assumption utterly absurd.

Corporate contributors come first. Rich countries, especially the US, continue to block efforts to loosen WTO patent rules so that poor countries can afford generic drugs, including AIDS medicines. Research by Oxfam shows that the availability of generics cuts costs dramatically. The pharmaceutical companies, despite promises, never lower their prices until faced with competition from generics. But the US has threatened sanctions against several countries with severe AIDS problems that have tried to obtain medicines, and has joined with other countries that are home to major pharmaceutical companies in opposing a pledge not to enforce the WTO agreement dealing with patents in cases of health emergencies like the African AIDS crisis. (American Prospect has a good article on the administration's choice of drug company profits over the lives of people in developing countries.)

Corporate contributors come first. (I know, I'm repeating myself. But that single sentence covers a lot of ground when you're talking about the policies of Bush, Inc.) The U.S. and Europe provide enormous subsidies for agribusiness which make it more difficult for farmers in poor countries to compete. We protect our own businesses, while insisting poor countries cut subsidies to their farmers.

You can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading a story about how hard it is to solve health problems and food shortages in Africa because of African governments' corruption and misplaced priorities. But let's be honest: Corruption and misplaced priorities are hardly unique to Africa.

Save the Children/ Oxfam Report on HIV/AIDS and Food Insecurity in Southern Africa (pdf)

Doctors Without Borders Background Information on HIV/AIDS Treatment in Developing Countries (pdf)

Saturday, December 28, 2002

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart? -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

First, read this. Scroll down to the December 18th post if the links are being fussy, but read it before you read anything I have to say.

And now I have one quick comment to add. I will gladly join the battle against the hard core racists and the (to me far worse) people who exploit racism to foster their ambition. But there's a danger in doing that, and it isn't overreaction (you can not overreact to racism). The danger is that we all start to believe that racism is something over there, in some other part of the country, or in the heart of some other guy, and if we just get rid of those people, all the problems will go away. I want to get rid of Lott and Ashcroft and that creep who won a presidential primary in South Carolina by waving the Confederate flag, stroking BoJo University, and running with a rumor about his opponent's dark-skinned daughter as much as anybody else. But when they're gone, the problem won't disappear. You don't grow up in America without racism, and the legacies of slavery and segregation, effecting the way you view the world. Racism shapes the world all of us live in.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this when I think about it some more. But the basic idea has been in the back of my head since the Trent Lott story broke, and Dominion's post made me want to at least bring it to the surface today.