Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Another warning on global warming

Did any of you see the report commissioned by the Pentagon (.pdf available at this link) last year on worst-case scenarios for global warming? Here's some new information:

The Atlantic Conveyor, a life-giving ocean current that keeps northern Europe warm, is slowing down, scientists said on Wednesday.

If the 30 percent slowdown seen over the past 12 years is not just a blip, temperatures in northern Europe could drop significantly, despite global warming, they added.

Scientists have long forecast that the Atlantic Conveyor that carries warm surface water north and cold deep water back to the equator could break down because of global warming.

According to the theory, rising air temperatures cause ice caps to melt, making the water less salty and therefore less dense so it can't sink and flow back south.

The scientists on Wednesday said this was the first time that observations had put flesh on the bones of the theory.

"This is the first time we have observed a change in the current on a human timescale," oceanographer Harry Bryden said, noting that it had completely shut down during the ice ages.

But he said the latest figures were far from proving a trend and that constant and long-term monitoring was needed.

"It is like a radiator heating the atmosphere and is too important to leave to periodic observations," Bryden told a news conference to flesh out a paper he co-authored in Nature science journal....

The Cowboy Hits a Triple?

On the way to work today, I got to hear bits and pieces of Bush's speech concerning the release of the National Security Council's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." As W's speeches go, it wasn't totally unlistenable (this maybe had more to do with the fact that it was broadcast from a station 150 miles away and intermittently interrupted by norteño strains from just across the river . . . man, I wish I could have listened to the immigration speech under those conditions).

The president--and the NSC, apparently--are taking a new rhetorical approach to the conflict in the wake plummeting support and criticism from political opponents. I found myself thinking that it wasn't bad (relatively): our enemy has now been more carefully defined. We're no longer fighting just "terrorists," which was never true anyway. Now it's a tripartite resistance--"rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists"--and the president avoided suggesting (in the parts of the speech I could hear) that the three groups are working together, which is an old story we no longer really buy, if we ever did, like WMD, mobile weapons labs, Iraqi-sponsored 9-11 plots.

This "three enemy" approach interests me because it seems a deliberate attempt to hang on to the simplistic kind of reasoning that has made the president so attractive to so many Americans while showing the rest of us a bit of sophistication (I mean by that word what you think I mean by it).

It's a foul ball, after all. There is comfort, this holiday season, in drawing such simple, bold lines, even if they don't help us to understand when soldiers can come home. But it's our responsibility to demand of the president that--now that he's willing to discuss the issue--he not be afraid of genuine, careful, analysis. Aren't there some blurred lines? What about our allies, now presumed to have been torturing--and conflating--members of the resistance? He insisted that the terrorists have made this the main site for the "war on terror," that our leaving would grant them a kind of base for operations throughout the middle east. Now that he's got us into this damned mess, sure, he's right. So: what's the actual plan? Ultimately, everyone has already recognized that there isn't one, beyond "stay the course."

That should shake the comforts of simplistic classification.

Venezuela absolutely

This little article in the NY Times today points out something that has been coming. In fact, it already came in 2004. Three of the main opposition parties (and there are only about four or five that have any political presence out of the 20-30 parties that exist in Venezuela) have called for a boycott of the congressional elections on Sunday. This boycott has been led by some of the opposition newspapers and others in the media who, some point out, don't face any electoral consequences.

One of the main criticisms of Chavez in Venezuela is that he is reaching for dictatorial powers. Opposition members -- who are on both the left and the right -- say that Chavez has absolutist tendencies. Representatives, as in the US, are elected at the executive and congressional levels. The rest are appointed by the president. So, the lone area of opposition presence in the government is in congress at this point.

But the reality is a ridiculous Nader-like strategy of making things worse so that an opposition savior can arise in 2007 out of a Chavez-caused rubble (a beautiful woman who Bush met at the White House while snubbing Chavez). The main reason set forth is that they do not wish to legitimate Chavez's government by participating in the elections. The elections last year were also boycotted by the opposition. Pro-Chavez candidates boosted their number of seats in congress as a result. Now, with the new call for a boycott, pro-Chavez candidates are expected to take majority control of the congress. On Sunday we're going to see Chavez take complete control of the Venezuelan government. He's very popular, after all, among the majority poor. But then the opposition will cry "dictator" to casual observers from abroad. We'll have to see how the US media reports this all. But it has to be remembered that, like him or not, Chavez is democratically elected and his congress is democratically elected. The opposition strategy is ridiculous and divisive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ice cream flavors, Merida, Venezuela

There's a famous ice cream shop in Merida, Venezuela. It's famous for its experiments with different flavors. I tried all the nasty ones and then settled on guayaba. If you ever travel there, I do not suggest the squid ice cream, even though the proprietor says it goes best with a beer. The sardines and brandy ice cream, bizarrely, was actually somewhat intriguing.

Two more ice cream photos.

Photos by Helmut

Comments on Venezuela

OK, I recently returned from nearly a month in Venezuela. I was invited there to give an eight-day faculty seminar and a series of lectures on democracy, philosophical pragmatism, and globalization. I went as a Fulbright scholar with funding also from Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas and the Polar Foundation, a terrific cultural organization funded by the Polar company. Apart from other academics, I met and had dinners with a number of important figures in Venezuela including former and present government ministers, the president and the CEO of Polar (the Mendozas -- Lorenzo Mendoza is the CEO), the greatest contemporary writers in Venezuela (Jose Balza, Rafael Cadenas, and others), respected artists, various opposition and government figures, students, and local people of all stripes. I did not meet "The Boss," Hugo Chavez himself, although Lorenzo Mendoza comes in second in VZ given that he's one of the richest men in South America. Many opposition figures revolve around Polar.

I have a lot to say about the trip, so comments will likely dribble out over the next week or two. I'm working these up and will have more to say very soon. For now, it's important to understand that absolutely everything is seen through the political lenses of anti-Chavez or pro-Chavez. The middle terrain is inhabited by only very few people and they can be ostracized by both sides at the same time. It is a highly polarized country, as I've said. I found myself in the straddle position there, given that I'm an outsider. This didn't do me a whole lot of good, especially with some of the opposition figures. The stories to come should show that the situation there is complex, Chavez is complex, the policies are complex, and absolutely everything has some successes and some failures. Nothing is easy about the place. Nothing is as clear as the internal polarization would seem to suggest or as American policy towards Venezuela makes it out to be or even as Chavista Cuba-lite anti-imperialist revolutionary Bolivarian rhetoric suggests. As an outsider, I found some interesting policies by the Chavez government and I found some legitimacy to opposition claims. But I also found myself constantly probed and mined for signs of which side I would take. There are only two sides, after all, and you are on one or the other. My conclusions at the end of the trip keep me straddling the middle ground. This is the luxury of the outsider, the person who does not have to live there and face the future of Venezuela.

So, all this said... more soon....

Back to Iraq

Seymour Hersh, in the New Yorker, has a piece on pulling out of Iraq.
...Many of the military’s most senior generals are deeply frustrated, but they say nothing in public, because they don’t want to jeopardize their careers. The Administration has “so terrified the generals that they know they won’t go public,” a former defense official said. A retired senior C.I.A. officer with knowledge of Iraq told me that one of his colleagues recently participated in a congressional tour there. The legislators were repeatedly told, in meetings with enlisted men, junior officers, and generals that “things were fucked up.” But in a subsequent teleconference with Rumsfeld, he said, the generals kept those criticisms to themselves....
Iraq is still a mess. In fact, we may now be looking at a low-level, under-the-radar genocide that any pullout would give sanction to. See this New York Times piece on assassinations in Sunni neighborhoods.
As the American military pushes the largely Shiite Iraqi security services into a larger role in combating the insurgency, evidence has begun to mount suggesting that the Iraqi forces are carrying out executions in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods.

Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation.

Some Sunni men have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished.

Some of the young men have turned up alive in prison. In a secret bunker discovered earlier this month in an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad, American and Iraqi officials acknowledged that some of the mostly Sunni inmates appeared to have been tortured.

I have never advocated an immediate pullout in Iraq. But I'm stuck with that useless minority Democratic observation that we should have never been there in the first place. The pragmatist in me says that the further step is what to do when the broader US, for the sake of its own dignity if nothing else, now has responsibility for not leaving the "fucked up" mess the Bush administration has created. The administration is looking for any way out that can be managed by their expert propagandists. This includes -- as always with the Bushers -- denying reality in the name of unicorn-ish fairy faith in a bizarro-world God who allows artificially drawn and historically contingent national boundaries to be the determinant of good and evil in the world. This is a lost war and there will be and ought to be an eternally ingrained picture of Bush in front of the "Mission Accomplished" sign as the grand symbol of the idiocies of this administration and the sad moment in American history of this ridiculous and dangerous presidency.

But what to do? That's the difficult question, and no one has a very good answer. An immediate pullout is important for the troops, but it is also an abnegation of US responsibility. It's a responsibility we anti-war folks didn't want, but we're in it now. So, what to do.... The first thing to do is tell the truth about the Iraq situation and tell this truth to both the American public and the Iraqi public. I don't think this is possible from the Bush Administration. Not that they're incapable of it, but that they're so entangled in their own lies that they're flies in a spiderweb. The truth is that the administration has so screwed up Iraq that it doesn't have an answer to the question of what to do. Bush then ought to commit public hara kiri in shame -- this would be the honorable thing to do. I know this isn't much of an answer. I don't have one. And the administration clearly does not have one. I watched a bit of CNN yesterday and saw Carville and some other talking head suggesting Bush do a version of fireside chats to explain what's going on in Iraq. That's the best they can do -- muster up a new form or forum of propagandic spin for a failed and immoral policy. Ick.


See also this interesting post by Elyas at Ablogistan.

From the Onion...

Topeka Mayor Now Highest-Ranking Non-Indicted Republican Official

Monday, November 28, 2005


Thanks to Neddie Jingo for existing.... See this post.

In Venezuela, I met a trio of women in the slums ("ranchos" -- what Californians call the houses Neddie is pointing out) who ran a soup kitchen in one of the worst -- poorest and most violent -- ranchos of Caracas. The women received a minimal amount of basic groceries from a state-funded grocery store and cooked for over 100 people per day. Beggars, destitute children, handicapped, and others generally ignored by most societies. The women were glad to do their work. The recipients of the meals were happy to have something to eat. And they were all very pleased with Chavez. The little extra funding the women received had enabled them to build a wall in their tiny house that separated the bedroom from the kitchen/main room. For this, they were extremely thankful. A wall. Now look at Neddie's post again.

Pico Bolivar, 16K Feet, Venezuelan Andes

Photo by Helmut

A damn good blog

Helmut here. Back in the US. I have to say once again thanks to my pal Barba for the great blogging during the past several weeks. He has helped make this what I think is a damn good blog. We'll give him a break with the courseload and end of the semester, but demand his continuation. I've really enjoyed reading his posts when I've had the chance (and thinking, "damn, that's good stuff"). Thanks also to Flaco and Rollo for their contributions.

We're running a little blog here that still has a fairly low readership. I don't know why. The content is really good. Barba has shown this. The photos are obviously excellent. We have a nice core of smart and loyal readers. The comments are consistently good, and we've managed to avoid the loudmouthed nonsense in much of the comments on other blogs. So, all good, and we're building.

More soon on Venezuela....

Fruit, Merida, Venezuela

Photo by Helmut

The Ruins of an Empire, Part I

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A chunk of marble fell from near the roof of the U.S. Supreme Court onto the stairs in the front of the building but no one was injured, a court spokeswoman said.

Spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said the marble, from what was believed to be dentil molding at the top of the building, fell at midmorning, about a half hour before the court was to open. There was no one on the stairs at the time.

The marble was right above the inscription near the top of the building saying, "Equal Justice under Law."

Flatulent Herring

I promised Helmut the occasional Phronesisaical posting as a food correspondent and I've been sorely remiss. I attended a number of Thanksgiving feasts this holiday season. I usually like to pack in as many meals as possible during these festive occasions while avoiding the generally inferior hybridized turkeys which have been inflicted on us by the American agroindustrial complex.

As a light, pre-dinner snack, I attended a Norwegian inspired Thanksgiving party given by a colleague from North Dakota of Norwegian ancestry. The pickled herring in mustard sauce were wonderful, as were the beef ribs. Later that evening, at the next event, we were served wonderful heirloom turkey from Anderson farm outside of Austin. This was a turkey that Benjamin Franklin could look upon without shame.

And, on the subject of herring, an old but cherished article from National Geographic News:

Herring Break Wind to Communicate, Study Suggests
James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
November 10, 2003

"In polite society, flatulence is often a social faux pas—especially when issued deliberately. But in the world of fish, group "raspberry-blowing" sessions appear to perform an important social role.

This intriguing idea comes from scientists who discovered that herring create a mysterious underwater noise by farting. Researchers suspect herring hear the bubbles as they're expelled, helping the fish form protective shoals at night. It's the first ever study to suggest fish communicate by breaking wind.

The study's findings, now published online in the U.K. science journal Biology Letters, reveal that Atlantic and Pacific herring create high-frequency sounds by releasing air from their anuses.

"We know [herring] have excellent hearing but little about what they actually use it for," said research team leader Ben Wilson, a marine biologist at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, British Columbia, Canada. "It turns out that herring make unusual farting sounds at night."

Wilson and his colleagues named the phenomenon Fast Repetitive Tick, which makes for the rather mischievous acronym, FRT. But unlike the human version, these FRTs are thought to bring the fish closer together.

Two teams carried out the research in Canada and Britain. One team studied Pacific herring in Bamfield, British Columbia, while the other focused on Atlantic herring in Oban, Scotland. The fish were caught locally and transferred to large laboratory tanks where their behavior was monitored using hydrophones and infrared video cameras.

The fish were found to produce high-frequency sound bursts up to 22 kilohertz. The noise was always accompanied by a fine stream of bubbles.

High-pitched "Raspberry"

"In video pictures we can see the bubbles coming out of the anal duct at the same time," said Robert Batty, senior research scientist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban. "It sounds very much like someone blowing a high-pitched raspberry."

Further tests revealed these outbreaks of "flatulence" are not a response to fear or feeding. When high concentrations of shark scent were introduced to the tanks, there was no noticeable increase in bubbles or sound. Similarly, unfed herring maintained the same level of emissions.

"The evidence suggests it's not gut gas that's responsible," Batty said. "If you starve the fish, they still produce this sound." Instead of gas, he says the fish use air gulped from the surface which is then stored in their swim bladders and expelled through a duct with an opening next to the anus.

What seems to trigger the noise is darkness and high fish densities, suggesting that herring use farting as a means of communication.
"Herring and other clupeids such as pilchards and sardines have a sophisticated auditory system," said Batty. "This is made even more sensitive by a gas-filled sac near the inner ear which acts to amplify sound pressure."

Sensitive Hearing

Clupeid fish, like herring, anchovies, and sprats, can detect sound frequencies up to around 40 kilohertz, way beyond the hearing range of most other fish. (The normal range of human hearing is 20 to 20,000 kilohertz.) So a method of nighttime communication using pulses of air would be extremely useful. It would enable herring to maintain contact after dark, but without giving their position away to predatory fish.

While unusual, other marine fish are known to communicate using sound. For instance, male cod make a noise to attract females when they breed. But Batty adds: "These are produced using the swim bladder, which vibrates to create a kind of drumming sound. However, the method we found hasn't been noticed before."

The researchers say further studies into how herring produce such sounds could help fishermen in locating shoals. Pacific and Atlantic herring are both important commercial species in the Northern Hemisphere.

Furthermore, given the herring's sensitivity to underwater sounds, and the likelihood they use them to communicate, there are concerns about the possible impacts of noise pollution. For example, engine noise from shipping or seismic guns used for oil surveys could all interfere with the fish's hearing.

Similarly, herring-eating dolphins and whales, which can pick up high frequency sounds, may use FRTs as a foraging clue. Consequently, noise pollution may seriously impair their effectiveness as hunters, researchers say.

"There are pods of killer whales that specialize in feeding on herring," Batty said. "The fear is they won't be able to pick up the sounds the herring are making."

It might seem an amusing idea to us that herring communicate using farts. But for herring and the mammals that prey on them, FRTs may signal safety, or the next meal."

Our friend Political Islam

Today's Salon has a review of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and an interview with its author, Robert Dreyfus. James Norton, the reviewer and interviewer, describes this book as an account of "the Machiavellian use of political Islam as a sword and shield against communism and Arab nationalism. Contextualized by the modern-day neoconservative push for war with Iraq, "Devil's Game" records the long and sordid history of right-wing and hard-line elements in the U.S. government finding common cause with fundamentalist groups in the Middle East." In the interview, Dreyfus provides us with a historically informed critique of the long term and empirically uninformed policy of cooperation between American policy makers and Political Islamicists. I'm eager to read this book.

More on Israel's Private Prison Plans

This terrific story in Haaretz is worth reading, even if you don't think you care about the crisis--humanitarian and financial--gathering as the result of the industrialization of incarceration. I discussed this issue briefly, here. Will Israel be the next of many countries to ensure that crime pays? Here's a telling bit:
During the 12 years that have elapsed since the establishment of the world's first private prison in the United States, a great deal of experience has accumulated, which mostly is not encouraging. About 30 countries have thus far established approximately 200 private prisons, in which more than 150,000 inmates are incarcerated. Most of the private prisons have been established in the United States, France, Britain and Australia, and a few of them in South American states and in Eastern Europe; and there is also one country - New Zealand - that has reversed its decision to privatize prisons.

In the U.S., however, private prisons have become a huge industry: About 14 percent of all federal prisoners and about 6 percent of the state prisoners are held in private prisons. The prison industry is already in second place, right after the high-tech industry, in the ranking of growth: The four leading companies, whose profits came to no less than $2.3 billion dollars in 2004, are growing at the rate of 5.9 percent annually.

As they grow stronger, so too does their public influence and thus their lobbying efforts with the aim of making criminal legislation and punishment policy more stringent. No wonder then that the number of prisoners in the United States, which a few years before the establishment of the first private prison stood at 280,000, has burgeoned since then to 2.13 million today. This monstrous number is higher than the number of prisoners in China, where the population is four times greater than that of the United States.

"Private prisons are not the only reason for this increase, but there is no doubt that their lobbying activity is one of the reasons for the increasing stringency of punishment and the increase in the number of prisoners," says attorney Aviv Wasserman, the head of the human rights division at the Academic College of Law in Ramat Gan, whose petition to the High Court of Justice against the decision to establish a private prison here is still pending.

Wasserman believes that here, too, we will see such lobbying campaigns in the future. "Even now there is talk about the need for toughness, but today they are discussing this with the participation of the Justice Ministry, the Israel Bar Association, academia and the human rights organizations," he says. "From now on there will also be participation in these discussions, for example in the Knesset House Committee, of Lev Leviev's representatives, who will want to increase the number of prisoners. This is a new player who has interests that are worth billions of shekels and will come with the best lawyers and public relations people. His weight could prove crucial."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bob Jones University Press and the Christian Curriculum

Forgive me for all the references to the New York Times today. The print version is unavailabe within about 100 miles of where I live; I just happened to be about 115 miles from home this morning, and so had the pleasure of inking my fingers with the beast all afternoon.

The linked piece by Thomas Vinciguerra is a little bit disturbing, highlighting, as it does, some passages from textbooks produced by the Bob Jones University Press. Here's a selection on Emily Dickinson:
Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.
Here's the hell-bound heretic herself, modeling a healthy approach to Sundays (and demonstrating that healthy "disrespect for authority in general"):
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church --
I keep it, staying at Home --
With a Bobolink for a Chorister --
And an Orchard, for a Dome --

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice --
I just wear my Wings --
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton -- sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman --
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last --
I'm going, all along.

Nicholas Kulish on Cash

From today's NYT (and I hope quoting a bit isn't breaking the rules). In an excellent short piece on Cash, Kulish reminds us of one of Johnny Cash's noblest traits--a powerful and genuine empathy--even as he impugns our short-sighted disregard for our massive prison population:
In a world increasingly reduced to good and evil, to us versus them, Johnny Cash was a man unafraid to admit that he was both. We've somehow lost sight of the trush that there can be no redemption without sin. It's this kind of reductive thinking that makes it easy to reduce swaths of the country to color codes and political parties; to lock millions away in jails and prisons, then toss the keys without guilt.

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black "for the poor and beaten down livin' on the hopeless, hungry side of town." With hundreds of thousands displaced by Hurricane Katrina, layoff announcements dangling over the heads of 98,000 American auto workers, and 2.1 million men and women in prisons and jails across the country, we still need him.

Welcome Back, Helmut

Helmut, we hope, will be stateside and posting again, tomorrow, and we eagerly anticipate his thoughts on the state of things in Venezuela. As for myself, the end-of-semester demands of a four-course teaching load loom, presently; I shall, I hope, accept Helmut's kind invitation to keep posting here from time to time. For the immediate future, however, expect to see many fewer posts from the goat-beard guy.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Will It Kill You? Story at Eleven

We're still here in Port Aransas, Texas, where we made the rare mistake last night of looking at the television during the local evening news. The top story? An alligator was sunning itself on the banks of a pond situated near a south Corpus Christi subdivision. The local game warden pointed out that this is, well, where alligators live. That people have moved into alligator habitat is unsurprising (for a large-scale discussion of this problem, visit this excellent blog). But we rarely consider the kind of inanity to which such infringed-upon alligators are subject:
"I was just walking really, and looked across and saw it," said Scott Baker. "I was like, 'Is that really what I think it is, or is that a big tree stump?' It seemed more of an attraction Friday than an actual danger, but for the parents of the kids who frequent the pond area it was a bit more unsettling.

"I went home to get a drink, and my mom was like 'Don't try and play with it', so I was like 'all right'," said Zachary Cason.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Majikthise on WAPO on Alito on Gerrymandering

Here's an excellent precis of a Washington Post piece on Alito. I like it because it has a map of the impossibly silly Texas districts.

Another Take on Venezuelan Charity

Steve Bailey, writing for the Boston Globe offers a thoughtful reading of the recent cheap-heating-oil deal between Chavez and MA.

Island Time

Out of commission all day yesterday--we're here in Port Aransas, on the Texas Riviera, for the holidays, and (I should have guessed this) no wireless was to be had anywhere. I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving (for my part, I stumbled into a bar just in time to watch the second half of the Backyard Brawl and was delighted to drink cold Shiner Bock, listen to the Texas Tornadoes, and watch my alma mater beat Pitt; how 'bout them 'eers, indeed?).

Helmut's post from VZ is indeed intruiging. We had been wondering if we'd next hear from him in detention, and we're glad to hear that's not the case. Still, we're looking forward to the full story, and soon.

As for me, I'll be posting lightly from here in Port A for the next couple of days, and I'll try to do it mostly sober.

Quickie from Venezuela

A quickie update from Venezuela.... First, thanks once again to Barba for his nearly lone work at Phronesisaical during the past few weeks. I'm hoping he's not so tuckered out with the blogging business that he'll stay on and we'll have a stronger, better, faster Phronesisaical. I've enjoyed reading his posts. Sorry I haven't been able to do more.

Second, I'm still traveling in VZ. I'm back in Caracas after a few days in the Andes. What a fascinating, beautiful, and bizarre place! I recommend it to anyone considering a trip and I'd be happy to share advice about the many things I've done wrong and the few I've done right.

I've found myself caught up slightly in the politics of the country. This has had some minor ramifications for me personally. No biggie -- I'm not prison-blogging -- but a little painful on this end. Like I've said, it's a polarized country and everything is seen through pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez lenses, no matter how much one may think one's intellect transcends the divide. I've been right in the middle my whole time here, meeting with opposition people and government people. Neither side has liked my efforts to straddle the divide -- because of the lenses.... But, curiously, the lens seems to be the most telescopic on the opposition side from my experience.

There will be lots more to say soon, if you're up for it. I'll be back in the homeland of DC on Monday. Hasta luego.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cheap Heating Oil for the Poor in Massachusetts? Inconceivable!

Can't wait to hear the spin on this one.

The AP, via MSNBC:
QUINCY, Mass. - Venezuelan officials signed a deal Tuesday to ship 12 million gallons (45 million liters) of discounted home heating oil to poor Americans in Massachusetts as part of plan by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to help needy U.S. communities.

The fuel is being offered by Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company which runs roughly 16,000 gas stations in the U.S.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who helped broker the deal, called the agreement "an expression of humanitarianism at its very best," and rejected criticism that the move was motivated by politics. Chavez often blames the plight of the poor on unbridled capitalism and had criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's government for failing to reduce poverty.

U.S. Blocking Trade of Weapons? Inconceivable!

Unless somebody is selling stuff to somebody else we don't like.

Thanks to Bill, for sending me this link to an El Pais story about the Spanish government's intention to finalize a deal to sell military planes and boats to Venezuela. No secrets about why the U.S. is objecting to the sale of weapons to a country with lots of oil and a charismatic populist leader who doesn't like us; what's interesting is how: it turns out some of the parts are Made in America:
El problema se plantea con los 12 aviones de CASA-EADS (10 de transporte C-295 y dos de patrulla marítima CN-235), que llevan componentes norteamericanos, especialmente en motores y aviónica. Técnicamente, explican los expertos, sería posible sustituirlos por equipos de origen europeo, pero económicamente no resulta rentable, por lo que lo más probable es que no lleguen a venderse sin la luz verde de Washington.
Though the transfer wouldn't even begin for three years, the U.S. is planning to veto the sale. Mmm. More exciting rally opportunities for Chavez and a unique opportunity further to alienate Spain.

So Outlandish and Inconceivable?

From the Washington Post story on the Daily Mirror story on W's "joke" about blowing up al-Jazeera:
"We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press in an e-mail.
It's funny what becomes "outlandish and inconceivable" (one can't help thinking of Wallace Shawn's duplicitous, lisping Vizzini in The Princess Bride) to folks like Scott. For lots of Americans--and for lots of their representatives--it was "outlandish and inconceivable" that their president (or vice-president) would lie , even a little bit, in order to justify a prolonged, costly, ugly war, one that would result in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Most intelligent people have rejected as "outlandish" the administration's insinuations that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The administration itself--quite obviously and obliviously--failed to conceive of the inevitable looting of Baghdad museums just after the invasion. They also failed to conceive of the war's real financial costs, insisting--as though it were not even worth talking about--that Iraq's own oil revenue would pay for the reconstruction. They failed to conceive of the implacable tensions, exacerbated by neighboring countries, generated by clashing religious perspectives.

When one speaks, as McClellan does, of the "inconceivable," he points to the real problem: a failure of the imagination. This administration has shown us a stunning inability to imagine that which they don't already think they know. After all, what stifles the imagination like hubris? Sophocles makes us wince two thousand years later at a king's fundamental lack of imagination. We want to grab Oedipus by the shoulders: "Listen to Tiresias! Think." W, Dick, and all the gang--especially McClellan--have shown us over and over and over that they're incapable of transcending their fixed ideas of reality, incapable of the kind of imagination leadership really requires.

I do not find it inconceivable that W would suggest compromising one of the very freedoms he just lectured China about. The way he smirks all the time, how are we supposed to know--and why should we care, anyway--if he were joking?

Here's hoping the American public grows more imaginative every day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Another Reminder to Switch to

Microsoft announced today that it is developing and submitting for approval its own "Open XML" document standard that will give "a new lease on life" to Microsoft Office documents that have been created in the past. Microsoft is responding to pressure--much of it from governments--to develop an open document standard that will (because of its openness) ensure that documents created and saved in that standard will be accessible in perpetuity.

While this is an important step forward for Microsoft, they're already behind. In fact, the NYT's headline for the story says it all: "Microsoft Plans to Ease Format Rules." Who gives a shit? Such "format rules" are an unnecessary holdover from the era of proprietary software and formats. IBM and Sun have already helped to create the "Open Document" standard (also in XML). This is the default standard for documents created in software, which is open-source, more powerful than you need it to be, free (both as in "free beer" and "free speech"), and not Microsoft. If it took them this long to realize that an open document XML standard was going to be important to people, why should you trust them with your data at all? I say switch now.

Did I mention it was free?

(This message was posted from a Fedora box.)

So It's Old News By Now . . .

I was ridiculously occupied with the mundane today, and so didn't get to post much. But this is great stuff. What is it with Texas Attorneys General suddenly acting like cowboy heroes? Greg Abott, the state attorney general, has sued Sony over its stupid attempt to protect its IP by secretly installing spyware on computers. I rarely have the opportunity to say: "That's my state attorney general, and he's doing good." But looky here:
"Thousands of Texas consumers have bought Sony BMG CDs," Abbot said in a video posted at the Attorney General's Web site. "People buy these CDs to listen to music, what they don't bargain for is the consumer invasion that's unleashed."

Three Years and Six Months

From the NYT:
Mr. Bush, in an order dated Sunday and released on Tuesday, said, "I hereby determine that it is in the best interest of the United States that Jose Padilla be released from detention by the secretary of defense and transferred to the control of the attorney general for the purpose of criminal proceedings against him."
Jose Padilla, who has been held as an "enemy combatant" since May, 2002, has finally been charged with a crime. It's a rare nod to the "constitution" by the president. Are we supposed to be impressed that W realized now was the wrong time to revise the constitution?
Administration officials acknowledge that Mr. Padilla's detention has posed a growing conundrum, with even some conservatives questioning the rationale for detaining an American citizen captured on American soil without charging him.
A "conundrum"? Seriously? "Even some conservatives"? All the intelligent conservatives I know have seen this as a problem all along.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"I Always Smile"

Michael Scanlon--former Tom DeLay aide and Jack Abramoff associate--has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, has agreed to repay $19.6 million to former clients, and faces potential jail time. From the NYT:
Mr. Scanlon, tanned and grinning, referred questions to his lawyer. Asked why he appeared so relaxed and why he was smiling so broadly, he replied, "I always smile."
Ah, yes. It's a conspiratorial smile, we now understand. It's the smile Tom DeLay flashed for his mug shot up in Travis County, the righteous, freedom-fighter smile. The root of this smile that Scanlon always smiles is there in Dick's smirk and W's "what the hell you lookin' at? (what the hell do I say next?)" toothy grin.

The persecution thing must feel so good. I wish I could get me some. But I'll be damned if the GOP looks like it's willing to give up being part of a lion diet. Those guys are Big-Cat Cat Chow, and they love it. Who can blame 'em?

Thirty Years Post Franco

From my friend Bill:
considering yesterday, nov. 20, was the 30th anniversary of Franco's death, i thought it appropriate to see how Emperor Bush is carrying on his legacy:

the Project for the OLD American Century on George W Bush and the 14 points of Fascism.

Los Open Source

Thanks to Eric Gordy at East Ethnia for this clarification of the relationship between Open Source radio show and "Open Source Media." The former is cool. The latter is at the very least ethically suspect (and not really in the spirit of open source anything).

Protecting Intellectual Property by Stealing Intellectual Property

This is sweet. You may know that Sony is recalling hundreds of thousands of CDs that were secretly installing viral software (actually a "rootkit") on users' computers (some credit has been given to bloggers for highlighting the scandal). You probably know that this was a very ill-considered plan by Sony to protect its "intellectual property."

But it gets even better. This is the kind of irony one savors for its simple beauty: it looks like Sony copied--without acknowledgement--a number of lines in its rootkit executable code from LAME, an open-source music encoder. That's right: in order to protect their property, they stole someone else's:
If open source software is tightly integrated into a single executable program, the whole application has to become open source software, even open source software such as LAME whose MP3 encoder is licensed under the more relaxed Lesser General Public License (LGPL), a lawyer said.

"That's the flipside of open source: If you don't respect the open source rules, the old regime of copy protection comes back in full force," said attorney and Internet specialist Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm at law firm SOLV in the Netherlands.
Here's an open letter from LAME developers to Sony:

Several people pointed out that the DRM software used by Sony BMG and the media is talking about lately seems to contain at least parts of LAME, without complying with our license.

None of the LAME developers currently owns a CD with this rights crippling mechanism from Sony BMG and none of the developers is interested in buying one, so we aren't going to analyze this on our own, but we trust those people out there which analyzed it and found traces of LAME on such CD's.

Right now The LAME maintainers aren't interested in initiating a legal battle with Sony BMG. We live in a social competent world where we don't need to pull the weapons and are able to talk about what needs to be done to correct mistakes, right ? But we expect Sony BMG to take appropriate action and tell the public about those actions.

The LAME maintainers.

Speaking of Detention

In preparing for class this afternoon, I just happened to be reading Jefferson's letter to James Madison of Dec. 20, 1787. He's expressing what he does "not like" about the proposed constitution:
First, the omission of abill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations. [emphasis added]

Louisiana Private Prison Moguls in Israel?

Super. I just got off the phone with Sara Leibovich, a reporter in Tel Aviv, who had tracked me down in her internet search for information about Emerald Correctional Management, a privately-held, Louisiana-based private prison operation that runs a "detention facility" on the outskirts of my town. I have been an ardent oppenent of the project here, and I explained some of my reasons to Ms. Leibovich.

Despite the persistent mythology that private prisons--or prisons at all--generate "good jobs" and "economic development" (I can assure you that, only by the most fucked-up subjective standards can the former be claimed; the latter is just total bullshit), despite the "invisible hand" mantra that privateers can do it better and more cheaply, despite the frightening commitment among Americans that anyone in jail deserves to be punished, this is all very, very bad news for Israel. Private prison companies are a cancer, here, malignant out-of-control, nearly impervious to eradication.

I don't know whether to be surprised Israel is so late to jump on the privitization bandwagon or depressed that they have. I feel more like the latter.

Ms. Leibovich wanted to know about the jobs claim. I told her turnover rates are higher at private facilities, that wages are lower. I told her that--at last count--five people with P.O. boxes at my local post office actually worked in the facility. That number is likely lower, now. Most private prisons--largely because of high turnover and wages too low to encourage settlement--are staffed by commuters. The alleged economic development? The "hotels and restaurants" promised by project proponents? The facility itself used all but a few connections-worth of our existing water supply capacity; it uses--and fucking stinks--all of our sewer capacity. Any further development is now contingent upon our spending millions of dollars to upgrade local infrastructure.

But most, most of all: such facilities as they are currently built in South Texas and all over the United States are creating public-private partnerships that result in an actual demand for prisoners. The United States already incarcerates more of its population than any other country. On the planet. We have recently made the problem worse by allowing prison companies--this is Emerald's modus operandi--to assist local governments in issuing bonds to build speculative prisons. Prison real estate--as companies like GEO have learned--is a big liability. Better to get the contract to operate, and get some other sucker to build. The end result? Counties like Reeves, in Texas, hire guys like Randy DeLay (yep, Tom's brother) to lobby the federal government to send them more prisoners. Reeves pays DeLay $120,000 a year to insist that we don't incarcerate enough people here in the U.S. And yet our prisons are full. Why? Here's a paragraph from an analysis by Not With Our Money (
Finally, the expanding role of private prison companies in the legislative process and the electoral process threaten public control over the law itself. A recent report published by the Western Prison Project and the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows that private prison corporations—like many other corporations—seek to buy off politicians with political contributions. One of the most disturbing pieces of information in the report concerns the close relationship between private prison companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council—an influential right-wing lobby group launched by the founder of The Moral Majority. Corporate members of ALEC "pay to play" in the legislative arena, using the organization to craft and promote model legislation that serves their interests. In the case of the private prison industry, which helps run ALEC’s criminal justice task force, this means not only passing laws that promote prison privatization, but also passing a host of "tough-on-crime" laws (including "Three Strikes" and "Truth In Sentencing") that guarantee them a steady flow of new prisoners.
It's a beautiful system, a goddamned perpetual-motion machine of prison profiteering. Hey, I know: let's export it to Israel.

Renzo Piano

Here's an interview with Renzo Piano who attributes the riots in Parisian suburbs to a colossal failure in urban design.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Neil Shakespeare, Sober

Neil Shakespeare does us the favor of blogging before drinking, here. Among his conclusions:
The American People are finally waking up to the fact that this president has been pissin' down their backs and callin' it rain for four years now. They are realizing they are soaked in presidential urine.

Salon on the Liberal War Against Christmas

Sigh. This piece is well worth reading.
This year the War on Christmas canard has come early, and with it the latest opportunity for religious conservatives to cast themselves as the oppressed victims of secular tyrants. In October, Fox News anchor John Gibson published a book titled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought," which envisions a vast conspiracy with tentacles reaching into many aspects of American life. "The plot to ban Christmas itself is anything but secret," writes Gibson. "It is embedded in the secular 'Humanist Manifesto' (in its three iterations from the American Humanist Association) in the philosophy of teaching of John Dewey, in the legal opinions of Laurence Tribe, in the rulings of the Nine Circuit Court of Appeal on which sits the most liberal jurist in the land, Stephen Reinhardt, who is married to Ramona Ripston, the southern California ACLU executive director and the national group's most liberal and effective leader."

As the holidays approach, the right is making ever more fevered preparations to thwart this ostensible conspiracy. Last week, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a short-lived boycott of Wal-Mart, charging the megastore with "insulting Christians by effectively banning Christmas." The American Family Association called for a Thanksgiving-weekend boycott of Target because of the chain's purported refusal to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" in its advertising (Target denies having such a policy). A few days later, Jerry Falwell announced he was joining with the Christian right legal group Liberty Counsel's "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," which intends to sue officials who try to curb religious Christmas celebrations in schools or other public places. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "The 8,000 members of the Christian Educators Association International will be the campaign's 'eyes and ears' in the nation's public schools. They'll be reporting to 750 Liberty Counsel lawyers who are ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher is muzzled from leading the third-graders in 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.'" Meanwhile, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian right legal outfit co-founded by James Dobson, has ramped up its three-year-old "Christmas project, " organizing over 800 lawyers to defend the sacred holiday. "It's a sad day in America when you have to retain a lawyer to wish someone a merry Christmas," says Mike Johnson, senior legal council for ADF.

Canciones Rancheras in Caracas?

Playing to the gallery last night, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias drew upon a couple of famous Mariachi music favorites to open his speech to followers assembled to show support his foreign policy positions.

The mass rally in Caracas was the setting for the President donning the famous Mexican sombrero and singing El Rey (The King), Mexico Lindo and Soy Monedita de Oro (I'm a little gold coin) to hammer home his affection for the Mexican People.

On the same platform were Foreign Minister, Ali Rodriguez Araque, Venezuelan Ambassador to Mexico, Vladimir Villegas relishing the limelight, a sheepish Nicolas Maduro and an assorted number of State Governors and Mayors and National Assembly deputies.

Here's an AP Photo from the BBC:

The speech, addressed to a rally of thousands, was reportedly mostly about using the recent friction with Vicente Fox as a way of ratcheting up criticism of the United States. Let's see if our president can respond any more intelligently than Fox.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Photo: Dave

Tamalada Tonight

Those of you who are in the neighborhood of Encinal, TX (we're forty miles north of the border with Mexico, on I-35), be sure to visit our Tamalada tonight. It's a tasty introduction to local foodways, with lots of non-local foodstuffs (like my own Pizzelles, made just the way my grandmother in West Virginia made 'em) thrown in for good measure.

This is also a way of saying: I'll not be posting any more today (except perhaps some fruit). Maybe Flaco Delgado or Rollo Groast will jump in to address the Tempest in the House.

WaPo on Woodward

The Washington Post editorial page today addresses Bob Woodward's exciting news about his involvement--and his lack of discretion--in the Plame thing. At least the Post isn't pretending Woodward doesn't exist at all (as appeared, for so long, to be the NYT strategy on Judith Miller).

While the Post points clearly to what Woodward did most wrong here (namely: commenting on the investigation--even impugning Fitzgerald himself--as he declined to admit he played a role), the article judges sufficient his public apology and moves, in its conclusion, to an irresponsibly poor defense of its star reporter:
But over the years innumerable cases of official corruption and malfeasance have come to light thanks to sources being able to count on confidentiality. It's astonishing to see so many people -- especially in the journalism establishment -- forget that now. Many of those who condemn Mr. Woodward applauded when The Post recently revealed the existence of CIA prisons around the world, a story that relied on unnamed sources.

Is there a distinction to be made based on the motives of the leakers? If so, Mr. Woodward might have had to pass up his first big scoops three decades ago, because his Watergate source, Deep Throat -- recently revealed as FBI official W. Mark Felt -- was disgruntled at having been passed over for the post of FBI director. Newspapers face difficult questions all the time in evaluating the reliability of sources and the appropriateness of publishing their secrets. But if potential sources come to believe that they cannot count on promises of confidentiality, more than the media will suffer.
This discussion, of course, has been going on for awhile (see Helmut's post on this very point, here), but the Post presents this argument as if it were new. Worse still, in this context--especially in this context--this argument strikes me as particularly weak, part straw man, part question-begging. The latter is rooted in the assumption that the secret revelation of Plame's identity actually meant anything at all, that the revelation would bring reveal corruption or malfeasance. The straw man? Those misguided lefties who want it both ways, who yearn for the prosecution only of those they don't want in office.

But that's not what's at stake, here. There are better ways to have defended Woodward, starting with--as the editorial did--the acknowledgement that he made some poor decisions. Starting there, don't leave the rest of the connections to us. Point out that Woodward judiciously ignores the scoop (doesn't he?), that, as an experienced reporter, he knows an empty story when he sees it. Say that his silence is about his wanting secret informers to feel safe talking to him, that he is a capable enough reporter to be able to sift a real story from a Rove press bomb. That makes sense.

But don't stop there: this argument is meaningless without the follow-through, without the condemnation of those folks too stupid or arrogant or politically-motivated to have ignored the "leak." One has to be willing, in saying this is about sources, to say that it was Novak's fundamental lack of journalistic discretion--how could anyone really believe Plame's identity mattered? that it really made a difference in the debate?--that put journalistic ethics on the line. Indeed, guys like Novak are a bigger threat to the future use of anonymous sources than anyone else.

So why isn't anyone saying that?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Cocaine Is Getting Pricier

John Walters, Head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is thrilled to see the street price of cocaine creeping upward, even as it becomes less and less pure. He cites an expensive crop-spraying program in Columbia for the "success." While he has noted elsewhere that government spending to address demand for drugs outpaces the spending on these kinds of supply-side controls, doesn't a rising cost suggest--especially if he wants to claim credit for restricting supply--that demand is somewhere around static?

I'm not an economist or anything, or course, but this next part just doesn't make any sense to me at all:
"What we see on the streets of the United States is the clear and irrefutable evidence of a change in availability that will help us reduce demand and will change the profitability of the cocaine market for those who make money off the death and destruction of lives through addiction," Walters said in a telephone interview from Washington.
I'm not even sure that this is "clear and irrefutable evidence of a change in availibility." I mean, can't demand have increased? But let's say it is: it is assuredly not "clear and irrefutable evidence of a change in availability that will help us reduce demand and will change the profitability of the cocaine market." That's not clear. It is refutable. In fact, it's stupid: how does a change in supply or price help reduce demand? How does it change profitability?

Here's what it will change, short of any real success in limiting demand: we'll see continued, even increased, violence related to trafficking. Particularly in places like Nuevo Laredo. Great. Nice job, Walters.

What kinds of chemicals are they spraying all over Columbia, anyway?

Legitimacy, Hegemony, Resolve

Cram over at dcat addresses this report about a new survey conducted by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations. Among the conclusions: a "sharp rise in Americans’ distaste for the nation’s leading position in world affairs, which the survey indicates reflects a deeper distrust of foreign institutions in general."

We know what this is about, of course, and its an interesting inversion, I think, of Helmut's reflections on international legitimacy; here, what we're thinking about is internal. More and more folks within the United States--many clearly influenced by the recent series of profound failures by the current administration--think perhaps we might play a more modest international role.

Be sure to have a look at Cram's argument. Here's a bit:
Americans who simply want to close their eyes and facilitate these new trends do so at their peril. This country already suffers from massive trade deficits and outsourcing of jobs to more lucrative areas overseas, and one of the only reasons China does not reevaluate the value of the dollar (given how much of American debt it owns) that doing so would disrupt the global economic market. Our education system is barely even competitive any more compared to other countries and we are producing far fewer skilled workers than many other industrialized countries. In short, things seems to be going downhill.

But wait, you might ask. Wouldn’t America minding its own business improve our image in the world and thus prolong our dominance? The answer to this is no, although it is without question that the arrogance and incompetence of our current administration has certainly accelerated our downfall. The reality is that the more we retreat from international obligations, the more likely others will rush in to fill the void. We have already seen a reluctant China take on increasing importance in the North Korean problem. Ditto with Europe and Iran. This is only the beginning.

Bush Mentally Fit For Trial

Oh, wait a minute. Wires must have gotten crossed there, somehow. I'll log back in and fix it later. I mean, Pinochet. Pinochet has been found "apt" to face charges of crimes--lots of them--against humanity. I guess I got a little confused by his claim that:
"Dios hace las cosas; él me perdonará si me excedí en algunas, pero no creo."
Which I can't translate any better than the BBC:
"It was God's will. He will pardon me if I committed excesses, but I don't think I did."
The great part is, as far as I can tell, that claim is not part of his attempts to appear mentally unfit for trial. He seems, like W, to believe it! Wow!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Accountability, Western Style

We're told by the NYT here, and others that Americans and Iraqis now plan a full-scale investigation of Iraqi-run prisons:
But it came in stark contrast to comments made earlier today by the Iraqi interior minister, Bayan Jabr, who tried to play down the discovery of torture at the prison by American soldiers. Mr. Jabr is a conservative Shiite, and almost all the prisoners were Sunni Arabs.

"There has been much exaggeration about this issue," Mr. Jabr said at a news conference, speaking in an angry, sarcastic tone. "Nobody was beheaded or killed."

Mr. Jabr acknowledged that seven of the 169 emaciated, malnourished prisoners discovered by Americans on Sunday night had been tortured. He said the Iraqi officers responsible would be punished. But he added that many of the Iraqis and foreign Arabs being held in the prison were suspected of heinous bombings and assaults.

Mr. Jabr also suggested that the furor over the prison was being drummed up by "those who support terrorism" since "it's natural for them to attack the Interior Ministry."

The logic here is familiar, of course, even in the way it implicates those of us in the United States who express furor over the prison: we are, Bayan Jabr insists, supporters of terrorism. We are either with him--come on, these are people suspected of heinous bombings and assaults--or we are against him and support such measures.

We're used to hearing this from Bush, of course, and we have mostly trained ourselves (at our peril, probably) of ignoring it. Jabr sounds--especially given the way he's characterized here, sarcastic, angrily righteous--like Cheney. But whereas I know Cheney's just a battery-powered jackass, Jabr scares the hell out of me. Not because I thought Iraqis were incapable of such a dangerous, simplistic rationale for abuses of human rights, but because now we're hardly in a legitimate position to criticize him for these kinds of remarks. What do we say? "The new Iraqi constitution has outlawed torture, so it can't have happened"?

The dominoes are falling in the middle east, all right. If what we meant to inspire was "Western Style" democracy--i.e. to hell with judicial processes, with transparency, with universal respect for human rights when you're faced with an enemy you don't understand completely--we're succeeding wildly.

The simplistic desire for black-and-white logic is contagious, it turns out. What I hope happens: that this guy, this Jabr, is appropriately impugned by what little free press is available and accessible to folks in the Middle East; that he resigns his post in shame. That would be an excellent, illustrative example of what "freedom" is. What I fear is that his parroting of the infantile logic of Bush will lead only to additional terror, that Bush and Cheney will back him up like overzealous parents at a high-school hockey match, that this thing will last forever.

Juan Cole on the Ceaseless Bad News

The whole piece is worth a read. Here's the opening:
Al-Quds al-Arabi: First, the Pentagon was forced to admit that it had in fact used white phosphorus as a weapon (and not just as a smokescreen) in Fallujah, though it insisted that it was used only against combatants, not civilians. (When you attack a civilian city, how could you be sure who was who?)

Then there was more bad news when 8 GIs were killed within 24 hours. They included 5 Marines killed while fighting in al-Ubaidi in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The Marines killed 16 guerrillas in the battle. Also on Wednesday, the US Department of Defense announced that 3 GIs were killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad.

In a third wave of bad news, the scandal of the tortured Iraqi prisoners has continued to grow. The Iraqi Islamic Party demanded an international investigation, and also called on Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual guide of the Shiites, to condemn the torture. Most of the men who were mistreated and half-starved were Sunni Arabs, and they were in the custody of the Ministry of the Interior, which is dominated by the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although some Sunni Arabs have some influnce in the ministry, efforts are being made by the Badr Corps Shiite paramilitary of SCIRI to infiltrate the special police brigades run by the ministry of the interior.
The rest is here.

Should New Jersey Apologize?

Thanks to Flaco Delgado for pointing me to NPR's "Morning Edition" from November 16:
Here's an update on New Jersey's effort to find a tourism slogan. The state rejected the slogan of an image consultant, so residents are making suggestions -- including: "New Jersey -- it's not as bad as it smells." "New Jersey -- why should death end your voting rights?" In honor of the state's governor-elect, one slogan said, "New Jersey -- sold to Corzine." Another slogan offered by the state's own residents says, "At least it's not West Virginia."
Oh, man. Why does everybody want to malign the Wild and Wonderful? Though I am a native West Virginian (close Phronesisaical readers may object that I was born in Maryland and have lived in Texas for what seems, now, like an eternity; I didn't get any say in the former and I'm trying hard to rectify the latter) I am not--as an example to Vicente Fox--I am not going to demand an apology from New Jerseyians. After all, the only reason they know anything at all about West Virgnina, in my experience, is that so many of them attend college there, having failed to qualify for any of the fine institutions in their own state. I say: let's forgive and forget. Folks from West Virginia, if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be driving through the shithole that is New Jersey on your way to some actual tourist destination, be nice: pass your jug of moonshine around, regale the chemical-smelling locals with stories of squirrel hunts gone awry, don't piss on the seats in their fancy indoor toilets. In short: make them wish it were West Virginia, Almost Heaven, instead of New Jersey, Almost New York.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

CIA: Secret Spanish Stops?

Spain has begun a congressional investigation to determine whether or not--and under what presumption--the CIA was making secret landings in Spanish territory in its secret transports of secret prisoners.

Thanks to Bill, for sending me this story in today's El Pais (be sure to play the animation of the secret flight routes). Here's one from the BBC in English.

What, now we owe every country whose trust we abuse an apology? Please.

Diamond River Longan

Photo: Ian Maguire

It Gets Uglier

Link here for a good roundup--by The Christian Science Monitor--of current press regarding the latest allegations of torture in Iraq.

Woo Hoo! We Didn't Violate Any Treaties!

That's right: our use of white phosphorous--an agent which many would call a chemical weapon, given its painful internal suffocation of victims--was OK because we never signed the international treaty regulating its use.

Here are two (out of order) bits from the BBC's Q&A on the material:

Some have claimed the use of white phosphorus contravenes the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. This bans the use of any "toxic chemical" weapons which causes "death, harm or temporary incapacitation to humans or animals through their chemical action on life processes".

Professor Paul Rogers, of the University of Bradford's department of peace studies, told the BBC that white phosphorus could probably be considered a chemical weapon if deliberately aimed at civilians.


Washington is not a signatory to any treaty restricting the use of white phosphorus against civilians.

White phosphorus is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas.

The US - unlike 80 other countries including the UK - is not a signatory to Protocol III.

Robert Fisk

I've been a mostly absent guest blogger on Helmut's site and I'd like to offer up this little tidbit by way of an apology. I recently began to read Fisk's excellent Pity the Nation: the Abduction of Lebanon, and I was drawn to his website. It features much of his past coverage of the Middle East.

I promise frozen Jack Fruit in the next few days.

Iraqi Training is Going Better Than We Thought

Huh. I guess Bush wasn't lying when he insisted that training of Iraqi military and police (and detention officers) was making progress. At this rate, they may outpace their mentors. From the BBC:
The 173 Iraqi prisoners were found in a US raid on an Iraqi interior ministry building in the central Jadiriya district of Baghdad.

It followed repeated enquiries by the parents of a missing Iraqi teenager.
Most of those held were Sunni Arabs.

Iraq's prime minister has promised to find those responsible for any abuse and to put all his weight behind the inquiry.

The allegations are a deep embarrassment for the Iraqi government, but, however shocking, they will not come as a major surprise to many Iraqis, the BBC's Caroline Hawley in Baghdad says.

There have been persistent allegations of abuse by members of the Shia-dominated security forces, she says.

But Sunday's discovery is hard evidence and officials believe it may be the tip of the iceberg.

The Old People Are Swarming! Look Out!

"Join us," they intone monotonously. Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post, tells us the AARP's legions of hollow-eyed, nearly dead are imploring him, with their smoke-tarnished old-people voices and their funny hats, to join their ranks. But he's not afraid. He alone can see the truth:
But I won't be joining, because AARP has become America's most dangerous lobby. If left unchecked, its agenda will plunder our children and grandchildren. Massive outlays for the elderly threaten huge tax increases and other government spending. Both may weaken the economy and the social fabric. No thanks.
Most dangerous lobby? Really? Because they threaten to make us spend so much money? Is that it? They're going to destroy our social infrastructure with their unreasonable demands for health care? I see his point; I agree that it is important. But "most dangerous?"

What about lobbies for defense contractors? They're not more dangerous than the AARP?

What about lobbies for private prison operators? You know, guys who are drafting "tough on crime" legislation that our representatives pass as their own--mandatory minimum sentences, increased prison time, appeals limitations? We're now spending huge, unprecedented amounts of money to keep a huge, unprecedented amount of people incarcerated in the United States, proportionally more than anywhere else in the world. Are we really so much more given to crime, here? Prison health care costs alone--as our unprecedented and mandatorily-sentenced prison population both swells and ages--are becoming astronomical. These costs are already straining our system. They're going to get worse. And there are lobbyists working to make sure these costs do get worse.

And Samuelson believes the AARP is our "most dangerous lobby"? He's written about the issue a lot, so it it perhaps the kind of thing that seems urgent and threatening to him. And he's not, on the whole, an unreasonable guy; judging by his approach to fiscal policy in his other pieces, he's at least willing to think things through.

But his central claim should make us ask ourselves: who, really, is our most dangerous lobby? Thoughts, readers? You already know my opinion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

More Cram on dcat

This is well-written, clear-headed--and quite substantial--stuff: Cram's reaction to Bush's Veteran's Day Speech, Parts I and II.

Models for Diplomacy?

Here's a bit from the linked BBC story. I love it that the BBC uses the construction "kept on," as it sounds so wonderfully schoolyardy. Seriously, can't anybody understand that it doesn't hurt just to ignore Chavez? I mean, does Fox believe severing ties with Venezuela gets the hemisphere any closer to a free trade agreement? What does he mean to accomplish? Is anyone surprised by Venezuela's reaction to the reaction?
The Mexican President, Vicente Fox, has threatened to cut off all diplomatic ties with Venezuela.

He said he would take that action if Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez, kept on making comments about him or Mexico.
If only our neighbors in the hemisphere would follow the sensible, dispassionate diplomatic example of Our Leader here in the Most Important Nation in the World, this thing wouldn't even be news.

Spanish Inquisition Indicts Bush

As always, Neil Shakespeare gets to the heart of the matter.


Photo: Selvin Chance

Monday, November 14, 2005

VZ vs MX?

Turns out folks in Mexico are still a little sore over the Chavez remarks about Fox. There's talk of severing diplomatic relations over the inuslt.

Guantánamo & Habeas Corpus: Two Links

One, from The Guardian, here, is a good summary of the current action in the Senate.

The other from, entitled "In Guantanamo; everything is permissible," includes--via AP and others--a couple of Senator Lindsey Graham's more foolish claims. Given what I've seen of his approach to argument, I'm sure Graham would insist we're above worrying about our image in Al Jazeera--and how the idea of our international legitimacy hinges on our perceived committment to liberty.

More on Habeas Corpus & the "Streamlined Procedures Act"

Here's a summary by the Justice Project of HR 3035 and S 1088, the House and Senate bills threatening Habeas Corpus. This is important.

The text below is from ACSBlog, back in July:

The innocuously named "Streamlined Procedures Act" amends the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" (AEDPA). Among other things, it:

· Takes away federal court jurisdiction to review constitutional errors in sentencing that the state court has deemed "harmless";

· Prevents prisoners from obtaining a stay to exhaust their claims that were never presented in state courts;

· Bars prisoners from amending their habeas petition unless the prisoner meets an "actual innocence" standard;

· Limits the grounds for allowing tolling of the one-year habeas deadline to those identified in AEDPA, preventing equitable tolling;

· Places Chapter 154 eligibility in the hands of the U.S. Attorney General, limiting relief to claims implicating evidence of actual innocence;

· Bars federal courts from entertaining challenges to state clemency proceedings.

AEDPA revised federal habeas corpus procedure by placing new restrictions on the power of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus to state prisoners. It also curtailed the ability of federal courts to review state court decisions for constitutional error, mandating that far greater deference be paid to those state decisions. As written in SCOTUSBlog, "The constitutionality of AEDPA, in particular, those provisions that restrict a federal court's authority, continues to be the source of much controversy." If passed, this legislation would further that debate.

Habeas Corpus

Here's an excellent piece in the Washington Post by P. Sabin Willett, a lawyer defending one of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. I've copied a chunk, below, but follow the link to the full column; it's worth reading. As you read, think about the way W pronounces the word "freedom" half through his nose, how he squashes those two syllables nearly into one, how frequently he makes clear--by his pairing of the word with "liberty"--that he has not thought carefully about what it means.

As the Senate prepared to vote Thursday to abolish the writ of habeas corpus, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl were railing about lawyers like me. Filing lawsuits on behalf of the terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Terrorists! Kyl must have said the word 30 times.

As I listened, I wished the senators could meet my client Adel.

Adel is innocent. I don't mean he claims to be. I mean the military says so. It held a secret tribunal and ruled that he is not al Qaeda, not Taliban, not a terrorist. The whole thing was a mistake: The Pentagon paid $5,000 to a bounty hunter, and it got taken.

The military people reached this conclusion, and they wrote it down on a memo, and then they classified the memo and Adel went from the hearing room back to his prison cell. He is a prisoner today, eight months later. And these facts would still be a secret but for one thing: habeas corpus.

Only habeas corpus got Adel a chance to tell a federal judge what had happened. Only habeas corpus revealed that it wasn't just Adel who was innocent -- it was Abu Bakker and Ahmet and Ayoub and Zakerjain and Sadiq -- all Guantanamo "terrorists" whom the military has found innocent.

Habeas corpus is older than even our Constitution. It is the right to compel the executive to justify itself when it imprisons people. But the Senate voted to abolish it for Adel, in favor of the same "combatant status review tribunal" that has already exonerated him. That secret tribunal didn't have much impact on his life, but Graham says it is good enough.

Freed'm, heh, heh. L'b'rty, l'b'rty, freed'm. Terrists.

Bigot Baiting Belies Burgeoning Bigotry

It's too bad for Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove that Supreme Court nominee Alito's name isn't "Asito," because if it were maybe people would be calling him "Thomasito" on account of the similarity of Alito's judicial philosophy to that of Clarence Thomas. And wouldn't that be marvelous? Two besmirchments at a bare minimum (an Eye-talian and a Colored) for the price of one, but sadly, for Mr. Rove, that just didn't work out. So the filth machine has to make do with the less brilliant red herring of "the implication against his (Alito's) Italian-American heritage" to distract us from the fact that the nickname "Scalito" is based on the similarity of Alito's and Scalia's judicial views, not their shared heritage. Some Americans might find this judicial similarity discomforting if not frightening--so why not pretend it's based on discrimination instead?

That this administration would use these sorts of tactics is no surprise, but I had thought, naively, that maybe they would back off a little considering how things hadn't been going so well recently and the public in general was becoming increasingly dissatisfied and distrustful. Still, I wasn't surprised when the "discrimination" against Alito was trumpeted throughout the network of right wing talking heads. But I really was surprised, naively, to hear former Senator Dan Coats, Alito's "sherpa" for the Supreme Court confirmation process, parroting this particular talking point. This seems less than dignified work for a Sherpa or a former Senator. Sherpas are skilled mountaineers who often guide climbers through the Khumbu Icefalls, not carry yak dung for them. And Senators are, well, Senators.

The most disturbing thing about the "prejudice" accusation wasn't those who made it though. It was the playing of this "prejudice" card as a means to an end, and how doing this works to trivialize actual problems and real instances of prejudice, be they individual or systemic, accidental or active. Incidents involving arbitrary barriers and real inequalities become indistinguishable from those that the administration (or anyone else) conveniently invents to further their own ends. So this strategy of playing fast and loose with prejudice, here localized in the context of a Supreme Court confirmation, is already despicable and dangerous based solely upon its disingenuousness and potential for making real discrimination seem unimportant.

But this plan of action, the playing of the discrimination card, was not hatched and launched in a vacuum. The world marches on no matter the newest talking points or their timing. So the administration's strategists started crying "prejudice" on October 31, and it took a while for me to realize what else was taking place on October 31: Rosa Parks was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. I doubt John Donne would have adequate words to describe how absolutely disgusting this is, both in timing and lack of respect. But it shows yet again that this administration cares about nothing and nobody other than getting its way--or "winning" as some of its members probably see it. And still, still I think that somebody in the administration must retain a sense of shame and propriety--somewhere deep down--and will someday soon say, "enough, just stop it." Then I read about the decline of the Civil Rights division at Justice and realize that not only am I naive, but stupid too.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Survey Sez: What Was He Thinking?

Check out the link, above, if you enjoy reading numbers in Spanish. According to a recent survey, 69% of folks who live in Lima, Peru, believe Alberto Fujimori, recently detained in Chile on his way back to Peru, is guilty of human rights violations and corruption. Over 70% believe he should be extradited.

He was on his way back in order to run for president, again, after having resigned from that position in 2000 by fax from Japan. Really. He's been hiding out there ever since.

Makes Our Leader look pretty fine, doesn't he? I mean, only about 60% of Americans think our president is just dishonest. Nobody's calling him a criminal.

Caracas Dispatch

From our man on the ground in Venezuela, Helmut, here are a couple of e-mailed dispatches (compiled and edited just a bit):

I met some [among the opposition] at a Polar reception [Thursday] night. [A former Finance Minister] introduced me to all sorts of interesting people, though the whole thing was pretty much high-society, lots of clearly inherited money there. I've mostly met opposition people here from the universities and from high society -- the opposition is from the left and the right, but even the right is socially conscious comparatively. They're realistic, but no one likes Chavez. I haven't met any Chavez people until, hopefully, tonight. The opposition is trying to build bridges with the Chavez government. It's complex and there's a lot to say on this, but I can only explain it briefly here. Chavez is an important event for the country in many ways, although he has garnered nearly absolute power. VZ has had two hundred years of an elite European-descended class mostly running the country, while the poor (mainly indigenous people, former black slaves, and mestizos) languished. Chavez has turned this on its head by being elected by the poor.

He does indeed have a lot of Catsro-style bluster, and his main ideological advisors are three radical leftist intellectuals from Germany and Hungary, but he's also trying to build social programs to take people out of poverty -- education, hospitals, housing. Things that the poor, the majority, haven't had. Yet, poverty has increased five percent, and Chavez is trying to develop a new measure of poverty to hide this. Guys like the former Finance Minister, who's an opposition member, understand all this and say that Venezuelan society is now reaping what it has sown. But while the Chavez government has all the power and enormous wealth from oil, it doesn't really have the know-how. They can build 10,000 houses per year for the poor while they should be at a rate of 200,000. Some opposition members see this as a potential bridge between the opposition and the Chavez government -- to draw on the know-how of the educated, high-tech, elite class that forms much of the opposition. I've been watching this before coming to Venezuela and came to similar conclusions, though I enjoy his jabs at Bush, so the former Finance Minister and I see eye-to-eye. But the Chavez government is still resentful for the history of oppression, and with absolute power doesn't have to speak with the opposition.

So, it's both of moment of great potential -- I think globally historical potential -- and a moment of tentative bridge-building. So far it's not going so well. The worst case scenario is civil war, and it's a very real possibility, especially (I think) if the US govt gets further involved in its support for the opposition and acts further on its anti-Chavez policies. The best-case scenario could be a real ground-breaking model for democratic and just governance in the developing world. It's a very exciting time here. Even momentous. If the bridge-building succeeds, we could see a country of wealth and beauty and intelligence form a just democratic society on its own terms.

I was invited here to lecture on John Dewey's conception of experimental democracy -- which has roots in Jefferson's thought, Darwin's notion of adaptation, and general scientific method as a way of going about figuring out most intelligently what's good for a pluralistic society in a globalizing world. I see all the potential here. Others see it too. There's great potential for experimental democracy (I, like Dewey and Jefferson, view democracy as an always unfinished project because history always presents new challenges, not something where you get some basic institutions like the vote and you're all done). I can think of no better place in the world right now to be than Venezuela for thinking through these issues, and looking at real practices, and thinking about the potential beyond genuine bridge-building between different groups in society. It's really fascinating.

But tonight [Friday] I met with my very first real Chavista, a government Vice-Minister. We went to a bar in Sabana Grande, a politically mixed part of Caracas, for tapas and drinks. An interesting man, also very intelligent and full of ideas. Chavez may be a demagogue -- this just isn't clear to me (or lots of people here) -- but one thing I think is becoming clear to me. He has given dignity to the poor. He speaks to the majority of the country in this way: You are real citizens too. You are intelligent too. You are capable of great things too. You can aspire to more than you have. It's important -- even if material well-being lags behind, the symbolic gesture of providing dignity to the mass of the public is crucially important for a country that wants to be a decent place. There's all this revolutionary rhetoric and so on, and a lot of anger (the symbolic gesture of the Chavista is the right fist pounding the open left hand), but the Vice-Minister was very careful to listen to me tonight on the kind of pragmatist democracy I think about -- the kind that transcends political party rhetoric and class structure and looks at what an intelligent democracy can be. We also had a fun time making light of Bush. I had the opportunity to call him a "Bushista" when he told me about trying to eliminate advertising of beer and tobacco in public places (and remember that Polar is most well-known as the Budweiser of Venezuela). He told me about regional projects they're working on -- supplying energy to northern Brazil, for example (which is easier than getting it from southern industrialized Brazil). It's a less grandiose way of thinking about developing cooperative networks of trade. I think the country is overflowing with ideas. Still, there's the divide. The opposition is multileveled -- from both the right (worried about preserving a way of life) and the left (worried about the consolidation of power). So much opportunity to build bridges . . .