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

Saturday, May 31, 2003

Letter from Krakow
George Bush waves to the crowd in Krakow. Unfortunately the crowd seems to consist entirely of soldiers in the cutest helmets I've ever seen. (Are those feathers or bunny fur?)

John Steppling explains (about the missing crowds, I don't think anyone can explain the helmets):

Just to give you the update on Dubya's visit to our fair city. Secret service crawling all over everything -- and protesters kept well away from the commander in chief -- and then the numbers (BBC reported hundreds "that petered out quickly") were quite low. Busloads had come down from Warsaw and Lodz. This notion that Poles love America is about right, but they don't love Bush. In fact it's becoming pretty clear they really don't like the idea of sending Polish troops off to Iraq -- something that was agreed to with almost no public discussion.

So while the top Polish leaders may want to rub up against the business interests represented by Bush and his pals, the people are starting to get nervous and with the referendum on the EU in about a week or so, the atmosphere is deeply conflicted here in Krakow (and Poland in general).

There will be no waving and smiling crowds for the idiot son of the ruling royal family. There may be some who support him, but trust me, not many.  My lady pharmacist yesterday asked me if I was going to throw tomatoes and eggs. I told her no. She said good, she didn't want me arrested -- and it was a waste of good food -- but she added, he deserves to get pelted.

Such is the feeling here.

But don't worry about Bush's feelings. He'll never know what people really think of him. Not even the mayor of Krakow could get near him.


Just an addendum for you ---

 The crowds today were non-existant. I mean there were more protesters than smiling supporters.  Literally.

We had to go a wedding today, and to get there we had to walk because so many streets were closed -- we were on the route to the airport -- and so as we approached the chapel the motercade sped past, and I have to say I have never seen such a gratuitious display of power than the speeding black limos (with darkened windows) and a couple black sedans with secret service, and then the modified SUVs with special ops (in full black combat drag) and automatic weapons slung over shoulders who hung out the back of said vehicles. And the special helicopter circling overhead (all vehicles had been flown in !)

 Was this really necessary?  I was reminded of Louis IV or Caeser, and I wondered if an old lady had been run over, would the President's car would have stopped, or even slowed.

 I dont know -- it was all a bit chilling -- and Poland is supposed to be an ally and friend of Bush Inc.

 Anyway, that was the brief stopover for the juggernaut --- en route to St. Petes.

Joe Conason rips Ashcroft's decision to side with Unocal and against Burmese villagers who were victims of forced labor, torture, rape, and execution by Burmese military hired by Unocal to provide security for a natural gas pipeline project:

Ideologues like Ashcroft are so disdainful of international law -- and so solicitous of corporate privilege -- that they find themselves excusing the most hideous misbehavior abroad. For a man who has boasted about his piety and uprightness, he seems untroubled by an active conscience.

In related news, the Burmese government just arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, its most famous, charismatic, and articulate opponent, and the person who actually won -- by a landslide -- the last election in Burma.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Matt Yglesias is glad to see a small peacekeeping force going to the Congo. The blogspotted Gary Farber (INSIGNIFICANT UN MOVE ON CONGO) disagrees, and suggests that 1,200 troops (since raised to 1,400) are far too few to make any real difference. I strongly suspect Gary's right. To put it in perspective, the UN mission in Sierra Leone started with 6,000 military personnel and ended up with 17,500. In fact, there are still more than 14,000 troops there. And Sierra Leone is a little smaller than South Carolina and has a population of about five and a half million. The Congo is almost a quarter as large as the entire United States, and has ten times the population of Sierra Leone. Salih Booker, the executive director of Africa Action, recently pointed out that the small number of troops "can help stop the fighting in Ituri, but it's not going to be adequate to implement a successful peace plan in a country that's the size of the United States east of the Mississippi." And stopping a portion of the fighting may not even be in the plan. The force's mandate -- "to protect the airport at Bunia and nearby refugee camps, and if the situation requires it, to contribute to the safety of the civilian population, UN troops and staff and humanitarian workers in the town" -- makes its limitations pretty clear. Far from stopping another Rwanda, it looks like a repeat of that tragedy. In fact, 2,500 UN troops were sent to Rwanda in April, 1994. It wasn't enough, and they weren't well equipped or trained. They couldn't do anything to stop or even slow down the genocide.

What I don't understand is why the UN response is so feeble. Common wisdom has it that Kofi Annan is haunted by the failure of Rwanda. I would expect him to play every card he's got to make sure it doesn't happen again. France, which is providing more than half the troops, has a strong interest in seeing the mission succeed, to prove that "international order" has some meaning. Surely everyone involved realizes this small force is going to fail.

So what's the impediment to sending a larger force?

I'm not sure what to make of Nicholas Kristof. He's no Tom Friedman. His New York Times columns are frequently excellent, and always contain at least something genuinely insightful. But unfortunately he often does a damn good impression of the emperor's loyal servant. Today's column is a good example  The first half focuses on the failure to find any banned weapons in Iraq. Kristof's not the first to go there. Not even the first on the NYT op-ed page. Still -- I'm not going to sneer at the truth on the op-ed pages of the NYT. It's rare enough to cherish.

Even if it is a pale copy of the truth. Kristof seems to find it impossible to imagine that an American president could be capable of...oh dear, this could get us into trouble, couldn't it?....falsehood.  If the information the President gave us was wrong, it must be because devious cads in the Pentagon "seduced" him. Never mind that if he had wanted honest information, he would have gotten it. As Paul Krugman says on the same page, "The failure to find W.M.D.'s has been described as an "intelligence failure," but this ignores the fact that intense pressure was placed on intelligence agencies to tell the Bush and Blair administrations what they wanted to hear."

Kristof is honest enough not to spin any of the feeble excuses for lack of weapons that have been trotted out, but not honest enough to lay blame where it belongs. He'll tell the emperor he has disloyal tailors, but not that he has no clothes.

UPDATE: Jake Tapper has a good piece up at Salon on the Democrat's timid response to Bush's lies, and how it contrasts with the response of angry allies. And Kevin Drum asks, "When is it okay for a president to lie?" and gets some interesting answers from his readers.

Just when you think this administration can't get any more petty, they pull something like this.

UNESCO sent an assessment team to Iraq -- or, more precisely, Baghdad; the occupying forces would not allow them to visit sites in other parts of the country -- trying to compile an inventory of stolen Iraqi antiquities. But one member of the UNESCO team couldn't join his colleagues because the U.S. refused to give him a visa. His crime? He's French.

Trish Wilson has loads of interesting information about the continuing story of the looted Iraqi antiquities -- including a valuable link to Archaeology magazine's regularly updated page on the developments.

We fight a war that virtually the entire world opposes, and insult them for their opposition. We arrange the reconstruction and occupation to benefit our businesses. The main reasons we gave for the war turn out to be false. And we're shocked that we can't find other countries willing to send troops and pay some of the cost of our occupation?

This morning's Washington Post has an article on "the first popular uprising against the U.S. occupation" in the Iraqi town of Hit. The reason for the "uprising" is hard to make sense of in the Post story. It seems to be a matter of violating cultural sensitivities while conducting house-to-house weapons searches. The Post notes that soldiers were "baffled" by the anger that erupted and wrote it off to the fact that, however noble their intentions, they were dealing with "a fiercely conservative people infused with ideas of pride, dignity and honor."

It's such an odd way of putting it. Would Americans not be angry if foreign troops were bursting into their homes? And if they did get angry, would any journalist feel obligated to explain that Americans had some inexplicable notions of "pride, dignity and honor?"

It's also useful to compare the Post version of the story with an article on the same events in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. According to the LAT, it wasn't just the house-to-house searches that angered people, but the fact that the Iraqi police conducting the searches with the Americans were Baathists:

The cooperation of local police with U.S. forces in the searches appeared to further anger residents, who insisted that there had been no change in leadership at all in Hit. The same men who harassed, intimidated and oppressed them under Hussein were at work Wednesday leading U.S. troops to the homes of those suspected of possessing concealed weapons, they said.

You could look at it as a rebellion against Saddam Hussein's forces. Except you'd have to explain what we're doing on the same side.

UPDATE: Oddly, today's LA Times suggests that the U.S. military may be trying to portray the uprising in Hit as Baathist resistance:

Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, speaking in Baghdad on Thursday, characterized this week's fighting as a continuation of the war against Hussein's Baathist regime.

"These are not criminal activities, they are combat activities," McKiernan said during a news conference. "What we're seeing is contact between coalition forces and those elements that are trying to hold on to any power they had under the previous regime."

"We will apply all the necessary combat power to make sure that this opposition is removed," he added.

In recent days, U.S. forces have been involved in "a number of combat actions" along a 60-mile belt of conservative Sunni Muslim areas west of the capital, running from Fallouja in the east to the town of Hit in the west, McKiernan said.

He described the attacks as locally organized but shed little additional light on what might have triggered a large-scale riot Wednesday in Hit, which local residents said came after two days of house-to-house searches by American forces. McKiernan said he was checking into reports of the violence.

I'm not positive he's suggesting that the rioters in Hit were Baathists. He may simply be saying that Baathist resistance exists in Hit (and presumably explains the search for weapons.) Still, it's worrisome when an occupying power begins confusing innocent people with enemies. And more than a little ironic that more than a month after Bush's victory speech, Lt. General McKiernan is also saying that the "war has not ended." Maybe I'm being picky, but doesn't the victory speech traditionally come after the victory?

"This is a craven attempt to protect human rights abusers at the expense of victims." -- Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

The Washington Post has picked up the story I mentioned on Tuesday about the Justice Department making it harder for victims of human rights abuses to have their cases heard in American courts. Immediately at issue is a case involving Unocal. The oil company contracted with the notorious Burmese military to clear the forest for a natural gas pipeline (which involved forcing entire villages to relocate for the benefit of Unocal and its French partners), to "hire" labor for the project (they rounded up villagers and forced them to work), and to provide security (villagers were killed, tortured and raped; a baby died after being kicked into a cooking fire.) The question is whether Unocal knew, or should have known, what its vicious partners in the Yadana project were up to.

John Ashcroft recently filed an amicus curiae brief on Unocal's behalf, arguing that the Alien Tort Claims Act -- the law under which the Unocal suit, and many others, were brought -- should not be used when abuses were committed abroad.

The reasons for Ashcroft's stand are disturbing and revealing. First, the administration fears that lawsuits by victims will "complicate foreign policy objectives by targeting allies, including nations helping in the war on terrorism." (Translation: Some of those monsters are our monsters, and if they're on our side, they can get away with murder. Literally.) Second, the statute could be used in claims against the U.S. itself.

But there's an obvious, unstated reason why this corporate friendly administration may have chosen to step in to this case: John Doe v. Unocal is one of the first attempts to use the statute against a corporation, and the first of its kind to go before a jury. Errol Mendes, the former director of the human rights research and education center at the University of Ottawa, explained, "A lot of companies that are involved in these [ATCA] lawsuits are fighting them tooth and nail. One of the them will eventually make it through."

Not if John Ashcroft has anything to say about it.

UPDATE: Matt Taibbi has an interesting piece highlighting the differences between the Justice Department's treatment of the Lackawanna Six case and the Unocal case:

So a kid from a Buffalo ghetto travels to Afghanistan, visits a terrorist training camp and comes home. Before he commits any crime, he goes to jail for 10 years. Even the government admits there was no overt violent crime here: "Material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization" was stretched to include the purchase of a uniform at the camp. But if an American company goes overseas and for six years invests millions of dollars and uses slave labor and torture to build some miserable gas pipeline -- committing not one crime, but many hideous violent crimes, at a systemic level -- it shouldn't even be sued, according to our attorney general.

Moral clarity.

In the spirit of pick on Uzbekistan week
Ruslan Sharipov, an Uzbek journalist and human rights advocate, who has written articles on police corruption in Uzbekistan, was recently arrested on a charge of homosexuality. He told a lawyer and a representative of Human Rights Watch that the police had beat him and threatened to rape him with a bottle. This isn't the first time Sharipov has been targeted by the police.

Your tax dollars at work.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

At last! Alas!

Spinsanity has a good piece on "myths, misconceptions and unanswered questions about the war in Iraq," with a useful collection of links on elusive WMDs, Saddam and Osama (try saying that ten times fast), lost and recovered museum treasure, and Jessica Lynch. Nothing new, but it's a good resource.

The one quibble I have with the piece is about the museum looting. Nyhan and Keefer emphasize the fact that the losses were not as great as originally reported, which is true, and wonderful news. But no one really knows the extent of the losses yet. It won't be as bad as it first seemed, thank God, but it won't be as minimal as some American officials suggested either. That's important to remember, because some right-wingers are already attempting to keep the "it was only 25 pots" lie going. And while no sane person could suggest that the reports of looting turned out to be "wrong, not just in point of fact, but wrong in every way a report can be wrong" -- Christopher Hitchens did.

The process of figuring out what's missing is ongoing. UNESCO hasn't even started looking outside of Baghdad yet, and there have been reports of large-scale looting at museums outside the capital. The Mosul Museum, in particular, seems to have been targeted by professionals, something which raises more fears about the quality of the losses than the quantity. And if you're going to adequately cover the topic, I think you should also mention that the looting of archaeological treasures hasn't stopped, and it is well-organized. And the library has, so far, not proven to have any phoenix-like powers.

UPDATE: Good news. According to the Boston Globe, most of the contents of the National Library may have been moved to a Shi'ite mosque before the library was set on fire.

Paul Wolfowitz: The most important reason for the war in Iraq was that we wanted to get our troops out of Saudi Arabia, but that didn't sell, so we went with the WMD excuse.

Rumsfeld gets it wrong again
In March, Donald Rumsfeld told George Stephanopoulos that we knew exactly where the WMDs were. Two days ago, Rumsfeld broke down and suggested even he wasn't optimistic about finding banned weapons in Iraq any more. Yesterday it turned out he was wrong about the number of troops it would take to "liberate" Iraq, too.

In February, when Gen. Eric Shinseki suggested that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in post-war Iraq, the Pentagon insisted that was nonsense. It might require 100,000 at the very beginning, but the numbers would drop quickly.

Today? "The total number of allied forces involved directly and indirectly in securing Iraq is 200,000 or more, American military officials estimate."

In a smart and thoughtful post (it better be -- it's homework!), Kevin Raybould asks whether international law actually exists, and concludes that it does, although it is flawed and still developing. Stanley Hoffmann expands on the point in The New York Review of Books and points out why it is in the interest of even a powerful country to strengthen that still weak international law, not dismiss it:

It is true that international law and the UN Charter are full of flaws, are not self-executing, and are used frequently as fig leaves for the naked expression of power. But all laws and all institutions exist in a kind of limbo, between the ideals they express and the daily transactions among the passions and interests they seek to control. In world affairs, devoid of central power, of a strong judiciary, of a world police, the gulf between the two is wider than within most states. This is a reason for trying to close it, to persuade states to change their definition of their own interests, to extend and deepen the range of their ideals. A legal code that would merely ratify what people do, and not codify what they ought to do, would be a bad joke.

Actually, as the American scholar David C. Hendrickson reminds us, most international legal and ethical norms are "also prudential in character," and often simply register "the lessons of experience." Observing them is in the interest of the US because the responsibility for world order cannot be carried by the US alone. The task would exceed the capacities of the US, despite its huge military forces. "Observance of basic principles of the law of nations, together with action within the constraints of an international consensus," Hendrickson writes, "are two basic ways in which the United States has acquired such legitimacy as it now enjoys in the international system."

The rule of the strongest, in other words, is not necessarily good, even for the strongest, because if you remove all constraints on power, you leave the powerless with no tool except terrorism (or at least believing they have no other options), which makes the "powerful" less secure than they would otherwise be (a point underscored in Amnesty International's annual report, issued yesterday). Removing constraints and discounting international co-operation also place the powerful country in the impossible position of either guaranteeing order in the world, or else trying to pretend that disorder doesn't matter.

That's the position we're in in Iraq right now, swinging wildly between playing king of the world and whining that we can't be expected to do everything. To be fair, I suspect we'd probably be close to that position no matter who was president -- if that imaginary perfect president had also chosen this war. Even an intelligent administration, or even the UN, would face the same fundamental problems: Should it encourage "democracy" that is both hostile to the United States, and threatening to many of its own people, or spend enormous resources helping to nurture a real democracy? (After first, of course, figuring out how in the world to do such a thing.) Should it insure order (and risk becoming nearly as dictatorial as what it replaced), or get out quickly and not worry about the resulting chaos?

There's no doubt this administration made things worse because it is arrogant, dishonest, feckless, aloof, inhumane, irresponsible, and friendly with very greedy people. But the fundamental problems would be there in any case. When one country tries to run another country, you've got problems, no matter how good your intentions. (Not to say I told you so, but that's one of many reasons you don't fight a war you don't need to fight.)

The most frustrating thing right now is that the only hope of building on the one good thing to come from this war -- the overthrow of a brutal dictator -- is through international law and cooperation with international bodies. And international law is weak. And the UN is weak. And this administration is determined to make them weaker. As Hoffmann argues:

In occupied Iraq the best advice would suggest what not to do: don't hand-pick favorites who will be discredited; don't allow the men in the "deck of cards" to be tried by a purely American instead of an international court; don't appoint or select American companies to rewrite the history textbooks for young Iraqis or to exploit the oil fields. In foreign policy, following norms of self-restraint and international law and institutions can augment the real power of a strong country even if such norms curb the harshest uses of military power. The anti-Americanism on the rise throughout the world is not just hostility toward the most powerful nation, or based on the old cliches of the left and the right; nor is it only envy or hatred of our values. It is, more often than not, a resentment of double standards and double talk, of crass ignorance and arrogance, of wrong assumptions and dubious policies.

Hoffmann also says -- and I tend to agree, sadly -- that it's "futile" to even bring this up. This administration, with its crude sense of power, isn't capable of understanding real American interests.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

This day is loaded with bad human rights news.

Unocal has a human rights problem. In 1993, in order to build a pipeline through tropical forests in Burma, they had Burmese troops clear the forest, and provide labor and security. The troops raped, beat and executed villagers, and forced many into slave labor. Villagers' lawyers say Unocal knew about the atrocities, and profited from forced labor. In 1996, they filed a suit claiming that UNOCAL was partly responsible for what happened.

Imagine corporations unable to cover up human rights violations that they profit from. But don't let your imagination carry you away. John Ashcroft is trying to make it a little harder for victims to bring violators to court.

The Washington Post has a pretty white-washed piece on the return of Elliot Abrams. Setting aside Abrams' credibility problems, does it make anybody uncomfortable that a man with a complete inability to conceive of human rights issues except as political tools, and who harkens back to a time when the job of an Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights was to defend friendly human rights abusers, is helping shape U.S. policies on the Middle East?

For Abrams, fighting communism and promoting human rights were one and the same. Although he criticized the right-wing Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile, he played down or ignored human rights violations by pro-American governments in Central America, where the struggle for geopolitical influence with the Soviet Union was most intense. In an exchange with the human rights activist Aryeh Neier on ABC's "Nightline" in 1984, Abrams insisted that widely reported massacres by right-wing death squads in El Salvador "never happened."

"Elliott was willing to distort and misrepresent the truth in order to promote the policy adopted by the administration," Neier said. "His approach was that the ends justified the means." Abrams has replied to past criticism by Neier by describing his human rights work as "garbage."

Just what we need, more Guatemalas.

Hesiod has a great post up, pulling together several links on U.S. support for one of the most brutal dictators in the world -- Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. We're not talking about overlooking human rights abuses, but about fostering them. We gave $79 million dollars last year to the Uzbek police and intelligence services, which even the diplomatically worded State Department report on the country's human rights record notes, is prone to planting evidence, making arbitrary arrests, and torturing people. From the State Department report:

Although the law prohibits these practices, both police and the NSS routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions or incriminating information. Police and the NSS allegedly used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse; however, beating was the most commonly reported method of torture. Human rights observers reported that the use of torture abated in some prisons following the January conviction of four policemen. Torture nonetheless continued in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts; and the severity of torture did not decrease during the year. At the end of his visit in December, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that the use of torture in the country was systemic.

You think Saddam Hussein was unique?

On November 10, three intoxicated NSS officers in Surkhandarya province tortured Musurmon Kulmurodov to death with pliers, a screwdriver, and a metal baton in front of his mother, wife, and their two children. He and his family had been stopped at a traffic checkpoint and transferred to NSS custody on suspicion of narcotics trafficking. At year's end, authorities had failed to hold any of the officers criminally liable.

Another torture technique practiced in Uzbekistan is boiling prisoners to death.

And our tax dollars are paying for it. And our government is morally responsible for it. And as long as this is a democracy, so are we.

L'etat, c'est moi
There's a good op-ed in the New York Times about the majority party's obvious belief that the rules don't apply to them, that if anything gets in the way of their power grabs, it should be swatted away. You'd think controlling all three branches of government would be enough, but I guess power creates a hunger for more. The piece ends with an interesting anecdote about Tom Delay, who, when told that he couldn't smoke his cigar in a restaurant on federal property, replied, "I am the federal government." The Sun King would be proud.

Paul Krugman argues that Bush's $320 billion tax cut will really cost $800 billion (the mirror image of the $15 billion for AIDS prevention and treatment that will turn out to be a fraction of what it was advertised to be), and that while you can't rule out incompetence as a factor in this administration (and I'd add -- along with Arianna Huffington -- that you can't rule out the possibility that fanaticism makes them believe things no rational person could believe), it is so obvious that you can't have the tax cut without gutting social programs that it looks a lot like the primary purpose of the cuts is to destroy social programs.

How can this be happening? Most people, even most liberals, are complacent. They don't realize how dire the fiscal outlook really is, and they don't read what the ideologues write. They imagine that the Bush administration, like the Reagan administration, will modify our system only at the edges, that it won't destroy the social safety net built up over the past 70 years.

But the people now running America aren't conservatives: they're radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need. The Financial Times, it seems, now understands what's going on, but when will the public wake up?  

The question of the year, it seems to me, is what do we do to wake them up?

UPDATE: In an interview over at Liberal Oasis, Sidney Blumenthal at least partially answers the question:

The Democrats have taken the wrong strategy on the economic program.

They have not criticized Bush clearly enough on his economic mismanagement, pointed out that the first tax cut failed.

And [they have not] shown, as President Clinton did, that this is an either-or proposition.

You either get Bush’s regressive tax cut -- that is redistributing money to those people who contribute to his campaign at the highest levels.

Or you get the programs that have built the great middle-class in America, and that benefit the great majority.

Including programs that Bush is now trying to use policy wedges to destroy: Medicare, Social Security.

Even on education, his one accomplishment, the Leave No Child Behind Act, and he has left it unfunded.

So it's a crushing burden on the schools, and the schools must be forced into failure.

That's his compassionate conservatism.

Democrats have not been clear in pointing out precisely where people's interests are.

Some Democrats have been pretty articulate in pointing out that choice, but still, the point is well-taken.

"Girls lost most of their freedom here a long time ago, but now we've lost it all."
Women in Iraq at the mercy of clerics and chaos. The future doesn't look promising.

Monday, May 26, 2003

I can't believe I'm citing Howard Kurtz, but this is certainly interesting: It turns out that Judith Miller, who's had a few holes in her reporting on the search for WMDs in Iraq, has been relying on a strange source for her information -- Ahmad Chalabi, who, as you no doubt remember, supplied a lot of the suspicious information that the Pentagon relied on to sell the war in the first place.

UPDATE: Julia wrote to remind me that there are other reasons to question Miller's impartiality.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Finally they noticed
Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the front pages of major newspapers have regularly featured photographs of crowds of Iraqi men -- men bringing down Hussein's statue, men in the streets protesting the American presence, men swarming the road toward Karbala in a long-forbidden religious pilgrimage. Invariably, the captions and the accompanying stories have referred to the crowds as "Iraqis" or perhaps "Shiite Muslims" -- never as "Iraqi men" or "Shiite men," despite the conspicuous absence of women and despite the fact that a crowd of Iraqi women would surely be referred to as just that.

The failure to note that the crowds are all-male is part of the larger failure to ask the question that should follow automatically from such images: Where are the Iraqi women? -- Elizabeth Goitein, The Washington Post

Julia blames George Bush for all the negative effects standardized testing has had on public schools. Now God knows I'd normally leap at the chance to blame Bush for anything, but in this case, I can't because I live in California and we've been test obsessed for years. I can't even blame the Republicans, because Gray Davis has been at least as bad.

Damn. I hate it when I can't blame Republicans.

But even though Californians have to be a little circumspect about flinging blame, the rest of the country has my permission to let it fly! It's Bush's fault! Stop calling them "standardized" tests and just start referring them as the George Bush tests. And put up voter registration tables near the schools.

I don't think people without kids in school realize how deep the hatred of standardized testing runs. You can make 110 pound soccer moms look like the Incredible Hulk just by mentioning the words "standardized test." Veins stand up on their necks and words you wouldn't believe pop out of their mouths. Two weeks into first grade, my daughter, along with all the other 6-year-olds, was spending time each day learning how to bubble in a standardized test (they start taking them at the end of second grade). That bit of information was passed from parent to parent in the hallways with more urgency and frustration that the inevitable yearly rumor of lice. ("Can you believe they're doing this? These are babies. Are they nuts?")

A couple of years ago, a group of kids at my son's high school sabotaged the test by deliberately answering questions wrong. The test scores plunged that year, and the school lost a lot of money. At back-to-school night the following year, the principal told us what had happened and asked parents to talk to their kids and make sure they understood how serious and important these tests were. I glanced around the gym and half the parents looked like they were choking on a laugh they couldn't let out. We know losing money is important. But those kids had been taking standardized tests every year since fourth grade. It would be inhuman if somewhere deep down in our hearts we weren't applauding their common sense.

If you could restrain the urge to laugh at the idea of Bush pressing for gun control, as well as the realization that an occupying power doesn't necessarily want to disarm the people only for the good of the people, the announcement a few days ago that the U.S. was planning to start seizing weapons sounded like a positive move. Whatever the motive, getting heavy weapons off the streets of Baghdad has to be a good thing.

But it looks like they've changed the policy. Kurds keep their weapons, Shiites lose them. And it doesn't look like an attempt to control the criminals, as much as keep private militias from growing in power. And if that's the case, in a country where ethnic strife is killing people, does it make sense to take weapons from some groups, but not from others?

Somewhat surprisingly, among the militias being "demilitarized" is that of Ahmad Chalabi. Did someone at the Pentagon decide he was more trouble than he was worth? Well, he was getting a little uppity.

Even Republicans are beginning to ask questions about the fishy contracts for Iraq's reconstruction.

Today's New York Times has an interesting article on how increasing Shiite power in southern Iraq is eroding the freedom of women there.

Rick Bragg is a wonderful reporter. Suspending him from the New York Times seems like an over-reaction to a small sin, suggesting that the Times wants to show that it will now take even small credibility issues seriously (for a while maybe too seriously). But, honestly, how anyone draws the conclusion that Howell Raines was just looking for a white guy to hang is beyond me. Paranoia strikes deep.

UPDATE: Hmm. Seems to be a pattern of mistakes in Bragg's work. Maybe it would have been more accurate of me to say he's a wonderful writer, if not necessarily a wonderful reporter. But of course that makes the cheap shot about race even cheaper.

Genetically modified food will help cure AIDS (and other bushy myths)
Something is very weird here.

In the early hours of May 16, the Senate passed an AIDS relief bill which, as I've said before doesn't really offer more than a small fraction of what it seems to promise.

A few days later, George Bush made a "look, ma, I'm a liberal" speech at the Coast Guard Academy graduation, bragging about the AIDS bill and excoriating Europe for not doing enough for the starving people of the world. CalPundit had a great post on the speech, pointing out Bush's hypocrisy: It's not the poor he cared about, it's pushing genetically modified food for the benefit of American agribusiness.

That started an interesting discussion of GM food. I won't get into the merits and demerits here, but the most obvious thing to me is that nobody holds the high ground on this issue. I'm hardly an expert, so if anyone wants to take exception to this characterization, be my guest, but my impression is that the safety of GM food seems pretty well established, the environmental impact and the effect on the local agriculture (and, long-term, on local economies as a whole) a lot less so. There are reasons to accept GM food and there are reasons to be wary of it (plenty of American farmers are wary), but almost nobody is arguing the case on its merits. Europeans are blowing smoke about safety because they want to protect their farmers. Americans are blowing smoke about miraculous superfoods because they want to crack open a new market. Don't expect much honesty from either side. Both deserve plenty of condemnation for trying to exploit a famine for the benefit of their agricultural interests.

Now what does this have to do with AIDS?

I'm getting there.

Yesterday a Friends of the Earth "fact sheet" (pdf.) on genetically modified food showed up in my e-mail box. It's mostly anti-GM (and pro-EU) boilerplate, but one thing in it was new to me:

Another area of serious concern appeared when the US Senate passed a bill tying assistance on AIDS to acceptance of GMOs on May 15th. The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, passed in May, allows the US authorities to apply pressure on African states to accept GM food aid before releasing support for the AIDS/HIV and related illnesses alleviation programmes.

Excuse me? The money for AIDS relief in Africa is going to be held hostage until countries accept GM food? I've read an awful lot about the AIDS bill in the past week, and I hadn't come across that tidbit anywhere, so I was suspicious. Bush has been out simultaneously whoring for Monsanto and doing his best Bono imitation, so you'd think if he was also exploiting the AIDS crisis for the benefit of biotech corporations, somebody would have noticed.

Nobody noticed -- at least not anyone I read -- but this is a section of the bill:


(1) FINDINGS: Congress finds the following:

(A) The United States provides more than 60 percent of all food assistance worldwide.

(B) According to the United Nations World Food Program and other United Nations agencies, food insecurity of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS is a major problem in countries with large populations of such individuals, particularly in African countries.

(C) Although the United States is willing to provide food assistance to these countries in need, a few of the countries object to part or all of the assistance because of fears of benign genetic modifications to the foods.

(D) Healthy and nutritious foods for individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS are an important complement to HIV/AIDS medicines for such individuals.

(E) Individuals infected with HIV have higher nutritional requirements than individuals who are not infected with HIV, particularly with respect to the need for protein. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the full benefit of therapy to treat HIV/AIDS may not be achieved in individuals who are malnourished, particularly in pregnant and lactating women.

(2) SENSE OF CONGRESS: It is therefore the sense of Congress that United States food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS, particularly African countries, in order to help feed such individuals.

I'm not sure how much of a stick that is, but no matter how you look at it, it's ugly. At best, it's a tasteless bit of advertising for genetically modified food inserted into a bill on one of the most important issues in the world today. More than that, it at least opens up the possibility of withholding aid from countries that aren't friendly to American businesses. After Bush and Company have exploited the famine in Africa in that way, it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see them take this opportunity to exploit the AIDS crisis. The Senate just handed them a means of doing so, but taking it would be shameful. Unfortunately, I don't think we can count on this administration not to do something just because it's shameful.

Friday, May 23, 2003

An interesting and encouraging article on the relatively powerful Kurdish women, and how other Iraqi women are studying their success.

Last night I went to open house at my daughter's school. She had an exceptionally good teacher this year. Last year wasn't so good, although I can't blame the teacher. It was a difficult class, with more than half the students struggling with reading, and one boy whose behavior problems grabbed an inordinate amount of the teacher's time (and two more who would have been regarded as problems in any other class, but with Genghis, Jr. in the room, they seemed relatively manageable). My daughter isn't a problem and she reads a several years above grade level, so it was easy to ignore her and assume she'd be fine. She was fine. She just didn't learn much. The teacher was aware of how little my daughter was getting from the class, but if she had any alternatives, neither one of us could figure out what they were. That Genghis never managed to kill or even seriously wound another student is a tribute to the teacher's skill.

This year the class was easier to teach -- not a behavior or academic problem in the bunch -- and the teacher was nothing short of brilliant. She whipped through the basic curriculum each day, and went on to do other wonderful things. The class planted an amazing variety of plants, built weather instruments, and made quilts. Not construction paper quilt designs -- the teacher actually brought a sewing machine in and taught twenty first and second graders how to quilt, from which they learned design skills, lots of geometry, history (they read books about quilting, as well), and far more patience than you'd dream you could nurture in 7- and 8-year-olds. My second-grader has written several long, complex stories, and she can now do mental math faster than I can (including multiplication and division). I don't think she's naturally gifted when it comes to math (language, art, and music are her real talents), but her teacher had an array of games and tricks at her command that brought out whatever tiny ability my kid had. Because they read and talk a lot in her class about different places, my daughter has developed a fascination with geography, always wanting to know where places are and, how do people dress there (okay, admittedly, she's obsessed with clothes), and what do they eat, and do they eat with forks and spoons, or something else, and -- I haven't figured out why she always asks this -- is it a poor country? (She seems to have caught on somehow that there are more poor countries than rich ones, and that seems to bother her.) Her teacher also noticed at the beginning of the year that she read and re-read Little House in the Big Woods and got her interested in a wider variety of historical novels, and then into non-fiction about life in different times and places. She won't learn any real history for a couple of years, but her understanding of time is strong, and history's going to make a lot more sense when she gets to it.

I love my daughter's teacher. All together, both of my kids have only had one teacher I really thought shouldn't be in a classroom (and that was in high school). A lot of the teachers have been among the smartest, most creative people I've ever met in my life. In thirteen years of helping out in classrooms and school libraries, and getting to know most of the teachers in my kids' schools, I don't think I've met more than two or three who were really bad. In every job I've ever had, the percentage of incompetents, and of people who had no interest in their job other than the paycheck, was higher than it is in education.

Which might be why this article annoyed me as much as it did Jesse.

There were roughly 300 delegates at the US-sponsored conference to plan a new government for Iraq. Five of them were women. One of those women writes in today's New York Times about "Iraq's Silenced Majority."

Good Golly, Miss Molly!
Since I am in the happy position of having predicted a short, easy war and the peace from hell, I think I'm looking like a genius prognosticator about now. I can't figure out why the Republicans are happy about this. Sure, it was a great photo-op for the president on the aircraft carrier, but if you think the American people won't notice $20 billion a year because of some nice pictures, you have sadly underestimated the common sense of this nation. I realize that what we see depends on where we stand, but there is a substantial body of emerging fact here, none of it encouraging for optimists.

We may yet see hopeful developments, but damned if I can see any cause for celebration now, or even for building a presidential re-election campaign.

My political prognosticator broke a few decades ago (and I don't even miss it), but I really want to believe that Molly Ivins is right and there is a limit on how often you can lie and spin. Maybe it's just me, but I have an impression that the press -- the print media anyway -- has been doing a better job of telling the truth since the war ended. At least I don't have to dig quite so far into the newspaper, or rely so heavily on the British press, to get underneath the triumphalism. Does it mean anything that even Norah Vincent and Richard Lugar and a lot of other people not known for their pacifism are complaining about the obvious failures? Or that not just the radicals but even the mushy liberals are paying attention to the scams? Don't know. Just hope.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

And I'll bake the cake.

MacDiva has some interesting ruminations on the quality of prose you find in the blogosphere.

Another myth about this war is slowly unraveling. According to today's Christian Science Monitor, preliminary reports suggest that civilian casualties in Gulf War II were higher than in Gulf War I, and that it could easily be "the deadliest campaign for noncombatants that US forces have fought since Vietnam." And keep in mind that the all-over-but-the-parade war continues to take its toll on civilians.

Speaking of the continuing dangers for civilians in Iraq, if you haven't checked out Salam Pax lately, you should. His most recent post describes a three-day trip from Baghdad to Basra, checking on Campaign for Innocent Civilians in Conflict activities. You can also read the post, with pictures, at Electronic Iraq.

UPDATE: And speaking of war's continuing effect on civilians -- Afghans' uranium levels spark alert

More on Chris Hedges
Tristero takes issue with some of Chris Hedges' comments in the anti-war speech that created an uproar over the weekend, and Steve Bates takes issue with my pessimism over the reaction of college students to Hedges' speech. Are we back to COINTELPRO techniques?

Foreign Policy In Focus took a look at the AIDS bill the Senate passed last week, and confirmed my impression that it sounded a lot better than it really was. And studies by two think tanks concluded that other "increases" in funding for development aid are also playing hide-and-seek. As in the case of the money for AIDS prevention and treatment, Bush announced an impressive program, then made an actual commitment to only a fraction of the amount announced. (In the case of the development funds, when the discrepancy was pointed out, the administration insisted it was a mistake that would be corrected. Three months later, it hasn't been.)

How fast can money disappear? Bush announced $10 billion (over five years) in new spending on AIDS relief in January. According to Congressional Budget Office numbers, he only requested $450 million, and the CBO estimates that $45 million will be spent.

Okay, at least it's an increase, right? The most you can accuse Bush of is doing a small good thing while trying to claim credit for a big good thing.

That would be a reasonable conclusion, if they weren't at the same time, shifting a lot of that money into the pockets of their drug company contributors. According to a leaked resolution, signed by Tommy Thompson, the U.S. is still championing protection of drug company patents over the right of developing countries to reasonably priced generic medicines. A joint NGO response explains why protecting patents is unreasonable when it comes to health care in the developing world:

The United States proposal asserts that strengthening intellectual property (IP) protection is the best way to stimulate investments in R&D. This assertion disregards mounting evidence to the contrary: the emerging global consensus that the current system of IP protection is failing to stimulate R&D for diseases of the poor. Of the 1,393 new drugs approved between 1975 and 1999, only 16 (or just over 1%) were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, diseases that account for 11.4% of the global disease burden.

Patents that ensure IP protection are part of a complex system that can motivate investment in R&D under certain circumstances, in particular when a profitable return on investment can be expected. However, patents will not stimulate neglected diseases R&D precisely because the people who suffer from neglected diseases do not have substantive purchasing power, and cannot constitute a profitable market.

But reason doesn't matter, profits are all that count.

What I find fascinating in all this is that Bush's rhetoric is so far to the left. He says things that most liberals would applaud and most conservatives I know would sneer at -- for instance, that you can't fight terrorist forces with just an army, you have to "stand for the values that defeat violence and the hope that overcomes hatred," and that means feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. At a graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy yesterday, he specifically mentioned the elusive AIDS money as part of the fight.

But who's he trying to convince? People who care enough about the needs of the developing world to look closely at what's going on obviously know that Bush is scamming them. Liberals won't be convinced, and hard-core conservatives couldn't care less, in fact they'd be laughing if the rhetoric was coming from anyone but Bush. So what does he get from the left-wing rhetoric?

Just a theory: Most Americans agree with the leftist notion that we ought to spend more on foreign aid, both because it's the right thing to do, and because it is in our self-interest to do so. But they don't have time to follow every machination of a skilled scam artist. Bush speaks from the left, because that's where most Americans are. He scams from the right, because that's where the money is.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. According to the New York Times, the C.I.A. will be investigating whether the United States "overstated the threat that Iraq was trying to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons" and mischaracterized "Bagdhad's links to terrorism."

The usual Gray Lady Protect the Powerful Shuffle makes it hard to understand what's going on with this investigation, and whether or not it means anything at all. On the one hand, they discuss the tension between the C.I.A. and the Pentagon and the fact that some C.I.A. analysts complained that Defense Department officials had "politicized" intelligence, and pressured them to produce reports supporting their position on Iraq. And they note that the review is supported by some of those critical C.I.A. analysts. The review was first ordered by Donald Rumsfeld, but seems to have been seized by unhappy spooks. That would be good news for anyone who has some interest in hearing the truth, and bad news for the liars in the administration.

But after laying out a scenario in which the intelligence agency tried to give the administration accurate information, which the Pentagon turned down (and lied about), the NYT concludes by noting that " some current and former intelligence officials say it is becoming increasingly clear that the C.I.A., Pentagon and other agencies did not know as much about the status of Iraq's weapons programs and its ties to terrorists before the war as was previously believed. "

Given the C.I.A. complaints about politicized intelligence, isn't the more obvious conclusion that they knew quite a bit about those weapons and ties, but didn't like what they knew, so decided to lie about it?

UPDATE: Kevin and Tim delve a little deeper.

I mentioned yesterday that after a month of lackadaisical responses, we're finally allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency back into Iraq to check on looted nuclear sites, which endanger both Iraqis and the rest of us, however much the administration would like to pretend otherwise. The sad, and dangerous, thing is that we're still haggling over the "scope and objective of the inspections." My (admittedly speculative) translation: "You're allowed to hunt for the stuff that got away, but not the stuff that was never there in the first place."

The Dixie Chicks were booed at the Country Music Awards, and Bob Herbert has a damn good question about that: "Who's less patriotic, the Dixie Chicks or Dick Cheney's long-term meal ticket, the Halliburton Company?"

Herbert does a good job of summarizing what every American should know about Halliburton -- its sneaky, law-skirting business with Saddam Hussein, and its contract to control Iraqi oil operations, which until recently it managed to keep hidden. He also adds a detail I didn't know: Halliburton is still doing business in Libya and Iran.

"Patriotic" is not the first word that springs to mind when you read about a company trading with the enemy (unless you work at Fox).

And those dictator enablers are welcome guests in the White House. Znet calls attention to an article published in the Wall Street Journal in January about a meeting Dick Cheney held in October of last year on how to re-build Iraq's oil industry. Among those giving advice were executives from several oil companies, including Halliburton. The administration denies that the meeting took place, but oil-industry officials say it did.

It depends on who you believe.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

George Bush delivered many gifts to Iraq, apparently including radiation poisoning.

Elifat Rusum Saber, 14, has been nauseous, tired and bleeding repeatedly from the nose since her brother brought home metal and chemical containers from the neighboring Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center two days after the fall of Baghdad. "I used to take care of my family and my youngest sister," Elifat, her frail figure lost in a billowing flower-print dress, said through a translator this week. "Nowadays, I feel weak. I can't pick up a pot."

A few blocks away, through trash-strewn streets reeking from open sewers, Hassan Aouda Saffah is recovering from a rash that left white blotches on the dark skin of his right arm. The marks appeared the same day he took a dusty generator from the nuclear site to restore some of the electricity the village lost during the war.

Dr. Jaafar Nasser Suhayb, who runs a nearby clinic, said he has treated abut 20 patients from the neighborhood near Tuwaitha over a five-day period for similar symptoms -- shortness of breath, nausea, severe nosebleeds and itchy rashes.

And Suhayb is worried that the residents may be suffering from radiation poisoning since several of the symptoms are consistent with those of acute radiation syndrome.

"All of the patients live near the nuclear site," Suhayb said. "Other cases maybe cannot reach the hospitals because of problems of security, postwar. In some cases maybe they are dead."

Is this his idea of a kinder, gentler foreign policy?

I'm a believer
According to a recent study, politicians lie.

Not only that, it's your fault. Okay, mine too. According to the study's author, the problem is that we ask politicians too many tough questions that we'd rather not know the answer to. In fact, he says, we have a "right to be lied to" about things like "what was done during a war." We want to be lied to.

I'm not sure I have a right to everything I want, so let's skip over that.

I read about that study a few days ago and filed it in the Weird News section of my brain, from which it emerged when I read about a heated exchange between Donald Rumsfeld and Dianne Feinstein over research on "low-yield" nuclear weapons:

Republicans stressed that the bill provides only for research on the new weapons. But Democrats said production and use would inevitably follow.

Feinstein said Rumsfeld told her at a recent hearing that " 'it's just a study, just a study.' "

"Baloney!" Feinstein exclaimed. "Does anyone really believe that?"

I haven't quite forgiven the senior senator from my state for voting to give Bush war powers in Iraq, but she definitely gets points for calling Rumsfeld a liar to his face.

But that set me wondering. For the life of me, I've never understood how this administration gets away with such extraordinary levels of deception. Bush lies and lies and lies and lies and no one calls him on it. (Senator Feinstein, your country calls....) I've always felt blaming a cowed media was a little too simple. Is it possible that British survey is right and people just want to be lied to, and really appreciate someone like Rumsfeld who lies with wit and finesse?

Sometimes I think the answer to Dianne Feinstein's question -- Does anyone really believe that? -- is, No, of course not. Americans want to pretend that we can research nuclear weapons without any temptation to build them, and we like the old guy who helps us pretend, even if we don't believe a single word he says.

Arianna Huffington takes it a step farther, arguing that Bush and Company aren't even really lying in any ordinary sense of the world. They're just such fanatics that they live in a world in which facts don't have any relevance at all.

I know the truth is complex, but this is getting ridiculous.

Feminism and Aids
Awhile back, as part of a discussion on liberals, conservatives, and human rights, Eve Tushnet suggested that liberals had a blind spot when it came to the human rights problems involved in population control (bloggered link -- May 12). I agreed -- with some reservations. Anytime people with power are trying to control reproduction, there's potential for horrendous abuse, and that abuse will inevitably be directed at the powerless. And although we think of control of reproduction as something that empowers women -- which, for the most part, it does -- it isn't surprising that in places like China and India, where there are deep economic and social biases against girls and women, the same tools that give women control over their lives elsewhere can also be used to decrease the population of unwanted girls.

My caveat is that the people emphasizing the abuse are often concerned not so much with eliminating the abuses as with taking away the tools. But I think that because we're aware of that hypocrisy, liberals may be reluctant to criticize population control programs that deserve criticism, or simply assume that every criticism is nothing but a right-wing excuse to control women.

I got a few politely critical letters from people who felt I was giving up too much of the argument to the right, that the "abuses" were blown out of proportion. My response was simply that I continued to believe that Eve made a valid point, and that was part of the reason that I emphasized women's health and control of their bodies and lives rather than "population control" per se. If women control their own lives -- not just their reproductive lives, but their education, marriage, work lives, etc. -- they make decisions the end result of which is a smaller, healthier, better educated population. What is good for women is usually good for a country as a whole.

Anyway, via Ampersand, I just found an interesting article expounding on my vague and somewhat unsatisfactory (to me, anyway) answer -- Challenges from the Women's Health Movement: Women's Rights versus Population Control. It's too amorphous to summarize easily, but it looks at programs and movements in many countries, and argues that reproductive services "must treat women as their subjects, not their objects." It also looks at the threats to women's rights and health from both population control programs that emphasize demographic objectives, and conservative forces attempting to control women's access to birth control.

I think that's pretty much what I was attempting to say: The key is giving women real choices.

Which brings me to another, related topic. Two days ago, I wrote about the Senate passing a deceptive AIDS bill. There was one rather surprising provision in the bill: It would fund programs to -- as the Washington Post phrased it -- "teach feminism to African men." (Um....can we get one of those programs going here, too? Start with the Senate?)

I'm well aware of the connection between women's rights and sexual health -- particularly when it comes to AIDS. Everyone knows, I assume, about the rumor that traveled through Africa that you could cure aids by having sex with a virgin. But it's not just a matter of education against that kind of nonsense. Where women are subject to violence and coercion, where economic powerlessness leaves them dependent, where lack of education leaves them with no options but childhood marriage, they have no means of delaying sex, abstaining from sex, insisting on condom use or fidelity, or anything else that will slow down the progress of the disease. (The fundamentalists are partly right that abstinence and fidelity help slow the spread of the disease -- they just don't seem to understand that "just say no" is probably even more unlikely to prevent sex than it was to prevent drug use), and that it just isn't going to happen if women, or even young girls, can't get away with saying "no.") Still, even I kind of wondered if there was anything to this provision, or if it was just liberals cramming their pet project in the bill, just as conservatives had stuck abstinence in there.

Silly me. There's nothing like reading a right-wing argument against something to make you realize what a good idea it is. Wendy McElroy goes after the bill at the Fox News website:

Someone should have asked, "Why should the average American, already staggering under the twin burdens of taxation and a weak economy, foot the bill for teaching gender sensitivity to men in Africa?" Why is re-educating men and boys on gender attached to a bill meant to provide emergency medical care?

I love that dismissive word "sensitivity." As if the point were to teach African men to bring flowers or something. I guess Ms. McElroy wouldn't be impressed by the way Pearl Nwashili fights AIDS with soup kitchens, microcredit, and vocational training for women, either. But, for goodness sakes, you can't easily separate women's rights and health care. Remember the heartbreaking piece Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about obstetric fistulas, a painful and humiliating condition that strikes women in poor countries? Look at the means of preventing the condition:

  • Postponing the age of marriage and childbirth until the woman's body is mature is key, along with family planning to space children to allow recovery time.

  • Measures to alleviate poverty and malnutrition can reduce the physical frailties that contribute to obstructed labor.

  • Universal access to basic reproductive health care allows screening and referral to skilled care for pregnant women likely to suffer obstructed labor.

You can treat the condition, but if you're going to stop it, you must deal with the economic and social factors that disempower women. And that's true of many illnesses -- including AIDS.

What are you allowed to say in America these days?

Chris Hedges' recent published book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, is a beautifully written and timely exploration of war's seduction and horror. Drawing on his 15 years of experience as a war correspondent for the New York Times, Hedges writes about the nightmarish reality of war, and also about why people -- including him -- are drawn to it. He's the kind of reporter I wish all of them could be -- thoughtful, intelligent, honest, and possessing humane core values. He spent seven years reporting from the Middle East, including Iraq, and speaks Arabic. He was part of a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on global terrorism. When he talks about war, and about Iraq, he's not posturing, and if we placed more value on experience and intelligence and less on celebrity, we'd all be paying attention to him.

Instead, we pay attention to the "insight" of infotainment sellers and shout down the people who work hard and put their lives on the line to tell the truth.

I'm beginning to wonder if America deserves Bill O'Reilly, if we've all become so intellectually and morally lazy that that's the best we can do.

Chris Hedges gave a graduation speech this weekend at a small private college in Illinois. The speech picked up much of the theme of his book. His prose, as always, is compelling:

The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess -- the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq -- we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war.

Hedges went on to discuss the current situation in Iraq:

This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq.

If anything, Hedges is being quite moderate in his description of what is going wrong in Iraq, as anyone who has been reading the newspapers (admittedly, a small percentage of Americans) knows. We are proving utterly incompetent when it comes to even getting the electricity back on, let alone rebuilding a nation. Iraqi leaders of all factions are pretty blunt about the fact that they want us out. In the absence of justice, revenge killings and ethnic violence are becoming routine. Al Qaeda is back and only now, a month after looters destroyed several nuclear sites, are we finally letting UN weapons inspectors -- the people with inventories of the materials at the looted sites -- back in to deal with the problem, a problem created by this administration's incompetence.

Can you get away with simply saying the obvious -- that war is bad and things are not going well in Iraq today? Are you allowed to tell the truth?

Apparently not. Hedges speech wasn't just booed and shouted down. Protestors twice stormed the stage to cut off his microphone. The situation got so bad, the speech was cut off, and Hedges had to escape in a campus security vehicle. Students later asked the college administration to apologize for inviting Hedges to speak.

And the local paper had a rather bizarre interpretation of who was to blame for this mess. They headlined their article on the incident: Speaker disrupts RC graduation.

Don't you just hate it when people are peacefully booing, singing, shouting and ripping out microphones and some insane person disrupts it by speaking? Don't know what got into him, but someone should do something about this anti-American behavior. If Hedges has something to say, he should unplug microphones and scream like a real, patriotic American.

I must be getting old. I'm stunned at the very idea of college students begging the administration to please not assault their little brains with any idea more complicated than they'd get in an hour of television. I'd like to believe that America is better than the Bush administration, but when I read about this kind of reaction to a moderate and sensible speaker like Chris Hughes, I'm pushed to the limits of that belief. Maybe there's just an ugly, jingoistic American spirit, drugged on war, that Bush has tapped into. And if that's true, I'm going to have a very hard time hanging on to any optimism that things can change.

And the press is as ready to play to that ugliness as Bush is. Brit Hume was, typically, mischaracterizing Hedges' speech on Fox today, and gloating over another problem reporter at the New York Times -- with the truly strange suggestion that making up stories and expressing an unpopular opinion are pretty much the same thing. What are we supposed to make of a reporter who can't make a distinction between lying and telling an uncomfortable truth?

Please don't tell me we deserve Brit Hume too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Breakdown in the message machine

Ridge says U.S. safer from terror threat
"We are significantly safer than we were 20 months ago," Ridge said. "We are safer because as a nation we are more aware of the threat of terrorism and much more vigilant in confronting it. We are safer because our homeland security professionals now have a single department leading them and our states and cities have a place to turn for financial, technical and operational support."

Fleischer: 'Chatter' suggests new U.S. attacks possible

The car-bombings in Saudi Arabia last week indicates the al Qaeda terrorist network remains active and could launch new attacks in the United States, the FBI is warning.

Not only that, the terrorist organization also could hit U.S. and Western targets overseas, the bureau said in an advisory to state and local law enforcement agencies.

The bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh show that al Qaeda "remains active and highly capable," the FBI bulletin said.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Fifteen Billion Reasons Why I Don't Trust George Bush
President Bush got some great headlines back in January when he vowed to triple the amount of money the U.S. would spend to fight AIDS in Africa, to $15 billion over five years. He even managed to squeeze some gratitude and applause from me, and that doesn't happen often.

I take it all back.

On Friday, the Senate approved the AIDS initiative -- all $15 billion of it. That sounds good, and it will give Bush cover to say he kept his promise, but if you look a little closer, the games that are being played with that $15 billion -- and with people's lives -- are sickening.

Now you see it, now you don't
The Senate bill promises to spend $3 billion this year. But it doesn't actually provide any money, it just gives legislative authority to spend the money. The actual funding, of course, is decided in the appropriations process. There's a little oversight in Bush's budget plan for 2004, though. It only includes a little over half that amount -- $1.7 billion. In order to spend the full $3 billion, Congress would have to make cuts in other programs.

It gets worse. The House is also considering cutting $2 billion out of Bush's proposed budget for international programs. If they do so, even the $1.7 billion that Bush proposed would probably have to be scaled back.

Sex tips from celibates
A provision inserted by conservatives in the House requires that a third of the money spent on prevention go to programs that promote abstinence until marriage. Another enables groups to participate without agreeing to distribute condoms or use any other AIDS-fighting strategy they object to. Opponents argued the restrictions would impede prevention efforts. What's more, it will peel off more of the money for useless programs that aren't much more than proselytizing. Denying people health care in the name of religion -- this administration is turning it into a well-established tradition.

Americans are the only ones who know anything about AIDS
The measure authorizes the United States to donate as much as $1 billion next year to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS -- the already operating, but drastically under-financed international program -- but caps American contributions at a third of what foreign donors provide. And, once again, it doesn't provide any money, it just gives authority to spend up to that amount. The Senate turned down a proposal to spend at least $500 million on the Global Fund, and the Administration plans to spend no more than $200 million. That's actually a decrease in funding -- we contributed $350 million to the Global Fund this year.

What's in it for my buddies?
The Senate rejected proposals to require that AIDS drugs be purchased at the lowest possible price. Pharmaceutical companies, by odd coincedence, were among the biggest backers of the bill.

This is the way it looks like the game is played:
  • Announce that you will spend a lot of money on an important program and pass a bill that will allow you to spend it.
  • Don't allocate the money.
  • Waste whatever's left on political pay-offs and schemes for your friends.
  • Pat yourself on the back for all the good work you've done for needy people.

First, go read MacDiva, Atrios, and David E., all of whom know a great deal more about this than I do. I don't even know who John Fund is, or didn't, until I learned from that blogging trio that he was a nasty right-wing pundit who for some reason was defended by Eric Alterman.

Attacks on journalists. Defenses of journalists. It's not a topic that interests me much, unless it's done by a master of the genre, and so I didn't bother to read Alterman's column past the first comma (So the right-wing journalist John Fund may not be a model citizen... -- nothing here, move along) until after I read MacDiva's comments this morning.

She accuses Alterman of short shrifting domestic abuse.

She's right.

In an earlier post on the subject, Atrios makes what strikes me as the entirely sensible argument that when public figures are accused of domestic abuse, it's going to get some publicity -- and that the publicity the charges against Fund received didn't even rise to normal levels. To attack liberals for even bringing the matter up -- as Alterman does -- is crazy.

But there's another level to this that I think Atrios missed, and MacDiva caught. Alterman's column is built on one of the oldest tricks in a despicable book. In order to defend an alleged abuser, he attacks the character of the woman who accuses him of beating her.

John Fund is, according to Alterman, a "gentleman." To anyone who knows anything about domestic abuse, that comment sets the alarms ringing. Abusers are often charmers, described as "the nicest guy in the world." One of the problems in media coverage of domestic violence, in fact, is that the abuser's nice face is often the one that ends up in the newspaper -- at least if the guy is white -- as a FAIR study of San Francisco newspapers showed in 1994. Batterers are very good at fooling the neighbors, the cops, and the press.

Obviously that doesn't mean that every seemingly nice guy is a suspect. It does mean that when there's reason to suspect abuse, the fact that the guy seems like a decent sort to his acquaintances means nothing whatsoever. And I have to add that Alterman's use of the word "gentleman" is disturbing in another sense. It carries an implicit class bias, suggesting that only uneducated and unmannerly slobs beat women. That's one of the dumbest and most tenacious myths advocates for battered women face.

Alterman considers the woman making the charge to be "a deeply disturbed person." That could be. But the fact that Alterman uses the infamous phrase "a little bit nutty," which David Brock used to smear Anita Hill should have reminded him how easy it is to use that technique, and how often it is misused. Women who make charges of abuse are so often accused of being "a little bit nutty" that any reasonable person dealing with the issue ought to be very careful about hurling that charge. It's amazing that Alterman would suggest that it was terribly unfair of anyone even to mention the complaints against John Fund, and yet feel no twinge of misgiving whatsoever about calling his accuser "disturbed."

Equally important, women who are abused often come across as unstable. Try living for awhile in a situation in which you never know when or why you will be attacked, and which you have absolutely no control over, and see how stable you seem to people with calmer lives. Once again, if you know anything about the patterns of domestic abuse, you ought to realize that the fact that a possible victim seems odd to you doesn't mean she isn't telling the truth.

MacDiva picks up on something even more disturbing in Alterman's language -- the idea that the story was "too good to be true" and that it would be "fun to imagine...that Fund was really a monster who had walked out on a planned marriage with his girlfriend and then beat her up."

I spent the first thirteen years of my life witnessing that kind of relationship. It's not "fun to imagine." It's horrible. And nobody should treat it that lightly.