Sunday, May 25, 2008

Footnote to the preceding

One related bit of voting good news was reported in the Tennessean newspaper last week and relayed via The Brad Blog:
The [state] Senate voted on Thursday to require all voting in Tennessee to be done on machines that leave a paper record, although the bill's passage comes too late for a statewide switchover before this fall's presidential election.

The Senate's unanimous vote on the so-called "Voter Confidence Act," which has also passed the House, will eventually require every county to use voting machines by 2010 that generate a paper record of ballots that can be checked in recounts or audited. ...

Tennessee, like other states, first adopted touch-screen machines that don't create a verifiable paper trail.
And now, like a number of those other states, has come to realize it was a dumb idea. Good.

A few bits of good news, four

The drive to limit access to the voting booth among the elderly, the poor, and minorities by imposing requirements for government-issued photo IDs to be presented at time of voting no longer has the air of inevitability it gained in the wake of the Supreme Court's foul endorsement of Indiana's law, thanks to two bits of good news.

First, last week a bill in the Missouri legislature to create the nation's strictest voter ID law failed to reach the floor of the state Senate and so died with the end of the legislative session. As Art Levine at the Huffington Post had it,
[a]n angry outpouring from senior citizens, nuns, the disabled and others who would be blocked from voting under the proposed constitutional amendment, led by a broad-based progressive coalition that included the AARP, swamped Republican legislators with over 4,000 phone calls and an outcry from local newspapers.

Julie Terbrock, the legislative director for Missouri ACORN and a member of the Missourians for Fair Elections coalition, points out, "The legislators felt the heat from average people in their district, including senior citizens, and it became too much for them to take."
The bill had already passed the House and supposedly had enough votes in the Senate, but never came up. Supporters made a number of lame excuses like too much time was spent on other measures, but that seems like nothing more than a feeble attempt to save face: If it really was so vitally important to stop the supposed flood of fraudulent votes the GOP is forever claiming exists, surely the session could have been extended a few hours or some other measure put on the shelf to make time.

The proposed measure would not only have required showing a government-issued photo ID at the time of voting (despite the fact that there has never been a prosecution for voting with phony ID in Missouri), it would have required the presentation of a passport or a birth certificate in order to register to vote, the better, apparently, to deter those hordes of illegal aliens flocking to Missouri to vote there. The Missouri Secretary of State's office estimated that 240,000 Missourians could have lost the right to vote under this law and thousands more might never be able to register for lack of the demanded documents.

And second, a few days later, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius vetoed a bill that would have required photo ID to vote in that state.
Sebelius said “HB 2019 seeks to solve a problem of voter fraud which does not exist in our state due to the tireless efforts of our local elected officials.”

She said the voter ID proposal wasn’t needed and “will only work to disenfranchise many of the electorate and serve as a barrier to their participation in the democratic process.”
Hilariously, the Kansas GOP responded by saying that Sebelius had "taken fear mongering to a whole new level" by mentioning the potential for disenfranchising voters.

So two good bits. There is, of course, a "but," although this one might be considered a "semi-but." A big campaign against "voter fraud" - none of which fraud, oh so curiously, seems to involve GOPpers - continues in Texas. But it's starting to look odd even to people there. From the Dallas Morning News for last Sunday, via TPM:
More than two years ago, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott pledged to root out what he called an epidemic of voter fraud in Texas.

He established a special unit in his office, tapped a $1.4 million federal crime-fighting grant and dispatched investigators.

Since then, Mr. Abbott has prosecuted 26 cases - all against Democrats, and almost all involving blacks or Hispanics, a review by The Dallas Morning News shows.

The cases usually have resulted in small fines and little or no jail time, and for all the extra attention, Mr. Abbott has not unraveled any large-scale schemes with the potential to swing elections.
Eighteen of the 26 cases involved people who collected and mailed absentee ballots without putting their own names and addresses on the outside of the envelopes, the latter of which violates state election law, a technical point about which it's reasonable to wonder how many people knew. Of the rest, only one and perhaps two - a woman who voted for her dead mother and a man who voted twice - could even possibly have been affected by a voter ID law; the others involved illegal registrations.

So after two years and $1.4 million in other people's money, Abbott came up with 26 cases, 18 of which are minor technicalities and none of which could even potentially affect an election. Some epidemic.

Meanwhile,
[i]n 2005, more than 100 ballots – potentially more than in all of Mr. Abbott's other vote-fraud prosecutions combined – were mishandled in an election in Highland Park. ...

Then Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill's office forwarded the complaints to Mr. Abbott, but no acton was taken.
Are you surprised to find that Highland Park is over 97% white and has the third highest per capita income in Texas?

A few bits of good news, three

I was pointedly informed just the other day that "war knows no morals." I replied at the time that while that may well be true (even though it's more often an excuse for perversity than an philosophical observation), the decision to go to war does. I could have added that so does the decision to employ weapons which not only are designed to maim rather than kill but can keep doing so long after the morality-ignorant war in which they were used has ended.

It develops, however, that there are efforts going on to ban such weapons. The Boston Globe reported last week that
[d]elegates from more than 100 countries will open a conference in Dublin tomorrow that will try to hammer out a treaty banning the production, use, stockpiling, or transfer of cluster munitions - bombs or artillery shells packed with up to several hundred bomblets or submunitions that are sprayed over wide areas of territory. ...

Support for a ban on cluster weapons has risen sharply since the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon, when, according to United Nations estimates, Israeli troops fired some 4 million Vietnam War-era submunitions, of which a quarter failed to explode.

These have reportedly caused more than 200 casualties since the end of the war and required a costly and hazardous cleanup operation by international aid agencies - often funded by Western governments.

In Laos, where the United States dropped 2 million tons of ordnance in the 1970s, including an estimated 260 million submunitions, unexploded weapons still kill and maim people and hinder economic development.

As many as 10 percent to 15 percent of cluster munitions normally fail to explode on impact but those who support the treaty say the figure could be much higher. A study by Handicap International, a nongovernmental organization based in Belgium, found that 98 percent of recorded victims were civilians and one-third of casualties were children.
The "but" in this case is that despite all that, the big boys, the bully boys - the US, Russia, and China - will not be at the conference and are opposed to any such treaty. They are not alone in their reluctance: Some of the more industrialized nations, while attending, are pushing to have "sophisticated" cluster weapons with self-destruct mechanisms and target sensors - in other words, the sort that they have - excluded from the treaty's definitions. A lot of "bruising" negotiations are expected.

Still, there is hope that this conference, building on a series of regional and international gatherings that have laid the outlines of a treaty, will succeed in turning those principles into a legal agreement. And even if the bully boys are not there,
disarmament specialists liken the cluster treaty to the Ottawa Treaty of 1997 banning land mines, which was shunned by the major powers but has proved influential in shaping the policies of countries outside the convention.
What's more, there is some cause for optimism that goes beyond the speculative. On Friday, the end of the first week of the conference, France announced it is going to "immediately withdraw the M26 rocket" - which accounts for over 90% of France's cluster munition stockpiles - "from operational service." It is being done, the French foreign and defense ministers said in a joint statement, to maintain the momentum of the talks. So perhaps this all will achieve the same sort of result as the landmine treaty, whose diplomatic path it has followed.

Footnote: Two, in fact. One is that, interestingly and revealingly, India, Pakistan, and Israel are also no-shows. And two sources of more information are the Cluster Munition Coalition and Handicap International's page on banning cluster bombs.

A few bits of good news, two

This, somewhat related to the previous posts, comes via the good JayV of Blazing Indiscretions, quoting The Independent (UK) for Wednesday.
A gay man who faces the death penalty in Iran has won asylum in the UK after protests prompted the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to reconsider his case.

Family and supporters of Mehdi Kazemi, now 20, welcomed the decision yesterday not to send him back to Iran where his boyfriend was arrested by the state police and executed for sodomy. ...

Mr Kazemi came to London to study in 2005, but in April 2006 discovered his gay partner had been arrested and named him as his boyfriend before his execution. Fearing he might suffer the same fate if he returned, Mr Kazemi decided to seek asylum in Britain. His claim was refused and he fled to the Netherlands where he also failed to win asylum before returning to Britain last month.

His case won support from MPs and peers who signed petitions supporting his claim for refugee status in this country, prompting a surprise intervention by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, who agreed to reconsider the case. ...

Yesterday, the UK Border Agency said it had decided to allow him asylum, granting him leave to remain for five years.
The "but" in this case - and it's a big one - refers to another man also potentially condemned for what would seem to be a basic human right, in this case the right of free speech. Another connection is that The Independent has been running a petition campaign on his behalf.

His name is Sayed Pervez Kambaksh,
[a] young man, a student of journalism, [who was] sentenced to death [in January] by an Islamic court for downloading a report from the internet. ...

He was accused of blasphemy after he downloaded a report from a Farsi website which stated that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet Mohamed.

Mr Kambaksh, 23, distributed the tract to fellow students and teachers at Balkh University with the aim, he said, of provoking a debate on the matter. But a complaint was made against him and he was arrested, tried by religious judges without – say his friends and family – being allowed legal representation and sentenced to death.
Government officials upheld the verdict and several of them demanded the sentence be carried out as quickly as possible, while a senior government prosecutor warned journalists they would be punished if they protested the sentence.

There is one difference, one significant difference, between this story and the one about Mehdi Kazemi: Pervez Kambaksh's arrest and trial did not take place in Iran. It took place in Afghanistan, six years after "liberation" and under the supposedly democratic rule of US ally Hamid Karzai.

Such is the "freedom" we have wrought.

The verdict brought international protests and the government backed off somewhat the following week, with
[a] ministerial aide, Najib Manalai, insist[ing]: "I am not worried for his life. I'm sure Afghanistan's justice system will find the best way to avoid this sentence."
Some even suggested it really was all a political maneuver by some of Karzai's opponents among the various warlords, who wanted to trap him in a position of having to choose between the mullahs and the international community. Be that as it may, just a week ago Kambaksh had his first public hearing after sitting in prison since January. He pleaded innocent to a charge of blasphemy and
told an appeal court in Kabul that he had been tortured into confessing.

Mr Kambaksh, 24, vehemently denied that he had been responsible for producing anti-Islamic literature. He insisted the prosecution had been motivated by personal malice of two members of staff and their student supporters at the university in Balkh, where he was studying journalism.

He was convicted in proceedings behind closed doors in a trial which he said had lasted just four minutes and where he had been denied legal representation.
Get this next part:
Yesterday, in the first public hearing of the case, the prosecution claimed that Mr Kambaksh had disrupted classes at the university by asking questions about women's rights under Islam.
It is the hallmark of the fundamentalist mindset of any stripe to find questions disruptive. Even so, those are questions that certainly need to be asked, particularly about the form of sharia enforced by the mullahs in Afghanistan and endorsed by the government - considering that the emancipation of women from the "severe repression and brutality" inflicted on them by the Taliban was repeatedly invoked by the Shrub gang as justification for the attack on Afghanistan.

The thing is, the answers to those questions won't be pretty.
Six years after the US and Britain "freed" Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime, a new report proves that life is just as bad for most, and worse in some cases.

Projects started in the optimistic days of 2002 have begun to wane as the UK and its Nato allies fail to treat women's rights as a priority, workers in the country insist.

The statistics in the report from Womankind, Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, make shocking reading. Violent attacks against females, usually domestic, are at epidemic proportions with 87 per cent of females complaining of such abuse – half of it sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced.

Despite a new law banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under the age of 16. The illiteracy rate among women is 88 per cent with just 5 per cent of girls attending secondary school.

Maternal mortality rates – one in nine women dies in childbirth – are the highest in the world alongside Sierra Leone. And 30 years of conflict have left more than one million widows with no enforceable rights, left to beg on the streets alongside an increasing number of orphans. Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among women than men.
Meanwhile, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh is appealing a sentence of death for daring to ask, in effect, if this is what the prophet had in mind - and is doing so without legal counsel because fundamentalists have threated to kill anyone representing him. Despite the early assurances of Najib Manalai, the fact that in April the Afghan Supreme Court issued a mass ruling upholding 100 death sentences does not inspire confidence.

Footnote: Women's rights campaigners say things are somewhat better in Kabul than they used to be but that may change:
[A] parliamentary committee [has] revealed plans to ban women wearing makeup, men wearing jeans or jewellery, and couples talking together in public – signalling a possible return to Taliban-style morality rules.
And even in the absence of such a ban, the fact is that whatever improvements exist, just like the Karzai government itself, evaporate just a few miles outside Kabul. Which raises the question: Why are we pouring blood and money into this snake pit of medieval fundamentalism?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Footnote to the preceding

Stateline.org has a good backgrounder on the status of marriage rights. It makes for depressing reading in many ways - 27 states have constitutional amendments limiting or banning same-sex marriage and 41 have laws against it - but the threads of hope are still there, such as in the fact that while only California and Massachusetts now allow same-sex marriage, four others allow civil unions, providing many of the same protections as marriage, and four more allow folks to register as "domestic partners," granting at least some rights and privileges, such as hospital visits.

It wasn't that long ago that none of that existed. There will come a time and I believe not that far off when these bans on same-sex marriage will appear as odd and feel as embarrassing as the bans on interracial marriage do now.

Here's one good solid reason to think so: The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that on matters related to same-sex marriage,
the generational schism is pronounced. Those under 45 were less likely to favor a constitutional amendment than their elders and were more supportive of the court's decision to overturn the state's current ban on gay marriage. They also disagreed more strongly than their elders with the notion that gay relationships threatened traditional marriage.
Later in the story, it quotes a woman who thinks it's "just not right" that "a man and a man should be married."
Even within her own family, however, there are differences of opinion. A younger daughter, she said, feels "there's nothing wrong with that."

"To kids nowadays, it's like 'Oh well.' Maybe it is 'Oh well.' They see it. We didn't see it. It was one of those in-the-closet things."
And while the proposed amendment has the support of a small majority in an early poll, that support is nowhere near the level backers of a ballot issue like to start out with, since such questions tend to lose support as the campaign goes on. So keep a good thought.

A few bits of good news, one

Just for one of those occasional changes from the gloom and doom and fussing and fuming around here, I thought I'd run down a few items of good news that have happened recently. Of course - remember where you are - several of them come with a "but." Still, while even those may not be unalloyed good news, they still are good.

The big thing, in the sense of being the one I suppose everyone knows about and therefore requires little description, is the recent ruling by the California Supreme Court that under the state constitution,
gays have a constitutional right to marry, striking down state laws that forbade it....

The 4 to 3 ruling opened the way for the nation's most populous state to join Massachusetts in allowing partners of the same sex to marry. The court's order becomes final in 30 days, and it told county clerks and registrars to prepare.

Marriage is a "basic civil right" guaranteed to all Californians, "whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples," Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in a 121-page ruling.
The practical legal effect of the decision on individuals is relatively small, as California already had one of the most liberal civil union laws in the country, allowing same-sex couples almost all the legal rights and protections of marriage. But the symbolic effect is huge, as the Court found that sexual orientation "does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights" and that limiting "marriage" to opposite-sex couples denies same-sex couples "equal dignity and respect."

That last is important because it goes to the heart of the "why not civil unions" argument: It offers "separate but equal" when we know from experience that separate is very rarely equal. Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in November 2003 legalizing same-sex marriage, I had an email exchange on the issue with a friend, in which I said that
[m]y concern is that as long as we use different terms, there will always be the notion that one ("marriage") is somehow better, superior, to the other ("civil union"). "Oh, well, we're married, you see. You just have one of those civil union things." It implies a judgment. ...

As long as we allow different terms, we allow the perception - and thus justify the practice - of actual difference.
The Court, to its credit, recognized that.

The "but" here is that of course the bigots and reactionaries are not going to let this lie; they have already filed petitions for a fall ballot question to amend California's constitution to define marriage as one man and one woman and have filed a motion with the Court to delay implementation of the ruling until after then. They claim that otherwise there would be "legal chaos" when same-sex marriages are undone (since they are certain, of course, the measure will pass), but USC law professor David Cruz nailed the real reason:
[T]he prospect of almost six months of same-sex couples getting married, continuing their daily lives throughout the state, letting people see that their lives haven't changed, the sky hasn't fallen and loving relationships have strengthened - that would make it unlikely the ballot measure would pass....
In other words, they know damn well the measure would fail for the same reason the attempt to change Massachusetts' constitution in the wake of that state's Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage collapsed: Nothing happened.

Life went on, social chaos didn't set in, straight couples continued to live and love, fight and forgive, work and play, join and separate, exactly as before. The only change was that there were some more married couples in the state. One legislator who initially supported the amendment and later changed his mind said specifically that was the reason: the conflict and confusion which he feared never happened.

That's the thing: The bigots and reactionaries don't want people to have the experience of seeing same-sex marriage exist - because they know damn well that if that happens, they lose. The biggest weapons in their increasingly-anachronistic arsenal are the simple fear of the unfamiliar, of change, which is especially potent in a time of economic or social stress, and - to be crudely blunt - a certain "ick" factor about gays and lesbians that many straights hold. Let same-sex marriage become a reality and the fear rapidly dissipates as the world doesn't doesn't cave in - and without that fear the "ick" factor, even if it remains, loses much of its political motive force.

In short, the bigots and reactionaries aren't afraid that same-sex marriage will undermine either society in general or traditional marriage in particular. They're afraid it won't, that instead it will undermine their bigotry. So cheer the Court and cheer that Cruz predicts that the Court will not grant the motion to delay the effect of its ruling (so "we are definitely going to be seeing same-sex couples getting married") and prepare for all the old lies to be spread again as the bozos and buffoons of the right try to protect their shrinking turf.

Footnote: A fantasy that will come from the Dummycrats is how they have to run scared from the issue because, after all, remember all those states that had constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the ballot in 2004! And Bush won all those states!

Which is true, but: He won all the same states in 2000. Overall, he did no better in the states with the amendments than he did in those without them. And in one state, Ohio, he actually did a little worse than he did in 2000.

Friday, May 23, 2008

You had to know this was coming

It happened in Boulder, Colorado, a week ago. A security guard claimed a van owned by an employee of a neighboring restaurant was on property the guard was hired to patrol. He booted the van. The van owner denied the claim, the restaurant's owner and the guard got into an argument, it escalated, each later claimed the other was being threatening, and, and -
Both men drew Tasers.

"They shot each other," Police Sgt. Pat Wyton told [a local] newspaper. "It was just kind of a bonehead deal."
Neither man was injured. This time. But I do wonder if when, and it will happen, the first person dies from a taser hit that wasn't done by a cop if everyone will be so quick to claim the taser had nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Just quickly

Updated People might be interested in the interesting back-and-forth in comments generated by this post from a week ago.

Updated with an annoyance: Haloscan keeps messing this up. The exchange is 16 comments. First it insisted there were only 9 comments although it showed all 16; now it says there are 16 comments but sometimes only shows the first 9.

If it keeps doing this, I may just post the whole exchange.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Times after Times

The New York Times continues to demonize Hugo Chávez, shading its coverage and - shall we say - choosing its terms carefully. Here are the first two paragraphs of a story to be printed in Monday's edition:
Faced with shortages of foods, building materials and other staples, President Hugo Chávez is intensifying state control of the Venezuelan economy through a new wave of takeovers of private companies and the creation of government-controlled ventures with allies like Cuba and Iran.

The moves come just months after voters rejected a referendum to give the president sweeping constitutional power over the economy and public institutions, leading to new accusations that Mr. Chávez is more interested in consolidating power than in fixing Venezuela’s problems.
So the very first sentence raises the specter or a failing economy, references "intensifying state control" through a "wave of takeovers" and rings in "allies ... Cuba and Iran," and the second implies (falsely) that this is in contradiction to the results of the constitutional referendum and gives voice to Chávez's opponents before providing a single detail about what is actually going on.

It continues in that vein, referring to "socialist-inspired changes" and intoning darkly that foreign investment - the Holy Grail of the globalization crowd - has declined before bringing up investments with Cuba and Iran a second time.

It's only after all that, in the 12th paragraph, that the article mentions an investment "potentially of greater impact" than the ones with the scary, scary bad countries: one with China, no longer a scary, scary bad country to people like the Times and therefore, it would seem, unworthy of mention higher in the story. What's more, it's only in the 14th paragraph that the story admits that the new policies "are working relatively well."

And it's only in the 21st paragraph and only after reprising "threats of expropriation," that the story manages to gulp out the single admission that
the public sector accounts for less than a third of the economy even after the latest nationalization wave. “The present government is so far mainly just reversing some of the privatization that took place in the 1990s,” [Washington-based economist Mark] Weisbrot said.
That, however, just prompted a final wave of accusations - with no response - of aspirations to unlimited power on Chávez's part. Such expressions of fear of an imminent but somehow never quite achieved Chávez dictatorship have been a consistent feature of US official attitudes toward (and US media coverage of) Chávez virtually since the day he was first elected. (I first mentioned it over four years ago.)

It's also clear that concerns about freedom and democracy are not the real driving force behind those expressions, since one thing that has been well-established over generations of human experience is that subjecting someone to continual threat and continual pressure is not the way to make them more open and trusting. It is, rather, Chávez's existence as a thorn in the US's side, his resistance to the globalized, bank-oriented, export-driven, elite-dominated, world economy so dear to the hearts of the neoliberals (in whose ranks the New York Times occupies a prominent position) that produces the steady drumbeat of opprobrium and doom-saying.

It's not necessary to approve of everything Hugo Chávez has done or will do to recognize that US officials and media both have displayed continual and deep bias against him and his government, a pattern in which the Times has been a major - and, as this article demonstrates, unrepentant - offender.

Footnote to the preceding, Birds of a Feather Div.

Speaking of there being no need for lessons, something our conservatives don't need to teach British conservatives, it seems, is how to ignore or distort scientific fact for political purposes - as we can see from this bit from the Guardian (UK) for Monday:
The Conservative leadership has been attacked by leading scientists for distorting evidence to try to restrict abortion and limit key research on so called "hybrid" embryos.

On the eve of a series of Commons votes on the human fertilisation and embryology bill, one scientist accuses the Tory frontbench of misrepresenting his research on abortion to call for a cut in the upper limit. Another, who has worked in a Nobel prize-winning laboratory, accuses the frontbench of tabling "destructive amendments" to the parliamentary bill without speaking to senior figures in the scientific world.
The UK restructs abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy on the grounds that the fetus at that point is viable, while survival rates for premies just a week or two younger drop dramatically to less than one in five. The anti-choices want to cut back the limit to 22 weeks or even 20 weeks, thereby breaking, in the words of Liberal Democrat MP Dr. Evan Harris,
"the crucial link with what the medical consensus says is viability. Once that happens it becomes extremely difficult to defend any particular time limit against attack from anti-abortion campaigners."
Which of course is likely the point. In the course of this, Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley defended his call for a 22 week limit by citing the work of David Field, president of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine and lead author of a 12-year study into the survival of very premature babies.
But Field said last night he could not see how Lansley could draw this conclusion, because his report made clear there had been no change in the evidence in recent years.
While over the term of the study there had been some improvement in the survival rate of babies born at 24 or 25 weeks, there was no improvement in those born earlier: In the first six years of the study, the survival rate at 23 weeks was just 18.46% of those who got into a neonatal unit; over the second six years, the rate was 18.52%, "almost as identical as you can get it," Field said.

In short, Lansley lied.

Meanwhile, Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the UK's National Institute for Medical Research, charged that a letter from the shadow health minister, Mark Simmonds, that went to all Tory MPs urging restrictions on so called "hybrid embryos" contained statements that were "absolutely not true" and misrepresented the state of the relevant science.

Still, the Tories seem prepared to press ahead with this as part of their "broken society" campaign theme, rattling on about "teenage abortions" and other social ills of the modern age while rattling off bogus claims about the science. I'd feel right at home there.

Good news and bad news

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown appears to be heading for a "humiliating" defeat in the House of Commons in his attempt to get approval for a measure to hold terrorism suspects up to 42 days without charge.
Rebel Labour MPs will seize on criticism from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), which said the Government had failed to provide proof that the threat from terrorism had increased over the last year.

It said it was disappointed that the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, could not even guarantee that the extension complied with Britain's human rights laws.
In fact, Parliament's Joint Human Rights Committee said on Friday that the proposals are "fundamentally flawed" and the government has not made its case.

All of which is to the good, but there is - I usually manage to find one - a downside, which in this case is the reasons that report gave as to why the proposal was flawed.

One is that the government can already hold people for 28 days without charge. (Which I assume, by the way, is where the figure of 42 days came from, 42 being 150% of 28.) Another is that the threshold for charging terrorism suspects has been lowered from a "realistic prospect of conviction" to a "reasonable suspicion an offense has been committed," thereby avoiding, it's said, the "danger of having to release a terror suspect because police have been unable to amass strong evidence." Or, to put it another way, creating the ability to hold you without having real evidence you're guilty of anything. Then there's the proposal to allow "post-charge questioning," currently a no-no.

All of this, the committee held, constitutes a "human rights compliant package of measures." Quite a dark backdrop for "human rights compliance."

I wonder if that backdrop is why there seemed to be remarkably little protest, at least in comparison to what I would have expected, when
[a] senior lawyer for the American government ... told the Court of Appeal in London [last December] that kidnapping foreign citizens is permissible under American law because the US Supreme Court has sanctioned it
and therefore US authorities could legally kidnap anyone, including British citizens, if they're accused of crimes in the US. A few British business executives currently fighting extradition were "alarmed" and one member of Parliament objected, but on the whole the response seemed rather muted for what would seem an extraordinary (and extraordinarily offensive) claim. Maybe, in light of what its own government has approved and desires, it didn't seem so extraordinary to UK officials.

Footnote: I'll give them one thing, the Brown government needs no lessons on fear-mongering from us: We keep hearing about "another 9/11," but in pushing for Brown's proposals, Security Minister Tony McNulty once referred to the UK facing "two or three 9/11s on one day."

Star Geek: Voyager

This is cool news, although it probably doesn't mean quite what you think it means.
A scientist at N.C. State University has discovered the youngest known supernova in our galaxy.

It's only 140 years old, NCSU announced today.

Previously, the youngest supernova, or exploding star, in the Milky Way galaxy dates back to 1680 - making it more than twice as old as the latest discovery, according to NASA.
A comparison of images of the object - called G1.9+0.3 - taken in 1985 with others taken in 2007 enabled scientists to observe its rate of expansion and through that calculate when the event occurred.
"My best estimate is that it's 100 years old," said [astrophysicist Stephen] Reynolds. "140 is the upper limit."
The discovery of the supernova is significant for two reasons: One, finding it so early in its development makes it easier to learn about the original star and the effects of the blast. As one astrophysicist put it, "this is a stellar death and the corpse is still warm." And two, it helps to answer the question of the missing supernovas.
Astronomers have scoured the skies for supernovae since [the youngest previously known supernova, called Cassiopeia A,] surfaced in the 1950s. Only a half-dozen of the stellar explosions have been noted in the last millennium, but somewhere between 20 and 30 should be occurring in the Milky Way based on galactic evidence.
It's likely that a number of them have not been observed because they are obscured by clouds of gas and dust that mask their visible light - as was true in this case. Still, they can be found via the X-rays and radio waves they emit. This particular one was uncovered with help from the Chandra X-ray Observatory; some related images can be found at that link and info about Chandra (with links to other images) can be found here.

And one last thing, why this likely doesn't mean quite what you think: As the news articles tend not to make clear, the "140 years" refers to what astronomers call "Earth's time frame." That is, the energy - X-rays, etc. - from the supernova first reached the Earth no more than about 140 years ago. The star, however, is (or, if you prefer, was) about 25,000 light years away, which means the actual event occurred about 25,000 years ago, not 140.

The customer is never right

Another story that's old in blogtime, coming from the LA Times for May 10, but still worthy of quick notice, something to store in your head for future reference:
Bankers and housing market analysts are warning of a chilling new trend in the mortgage world: Homeowners voluntarily defaulting on their loans even though they can actually afford to make the payments.

It's known colloquially as "walking away," or more jocularly as "jingle mail," from the sound your house keys supposedly make when you mail them back to your bank.

It's a way of saying that Americans are beginning to apply a cold financial calculation to home ownership: When a home's value has fallen below what is owed on its mortgage, they feel it makes no sense to keep up the payments. ...

Elsewhere, media reports and Internet postings are rife with stories about the trend and a supposed sea change in American attitudes toward debt. But there's a major problem with all this talk about the phenomenon of solvent homeowners "walking away": There doesn't appear to be any hard evidence that it's actually happening.
A senior executive vice president of Wachovia Bank claimed there was "lots of evidence" for such willing defaults. A representative of Bank of America said that some homeowners were paying off their credit card balances at the expense of their mortgage balances, often by raiding their home equity lines. Someone speaking for the Mortgage Bankers Association said walkaways are "becoming more prevalent." But in each case, when asked for actual numbers, for actual facts, none of those accusing ordinary homeowners of being no-good cheapskates trying to keep decent, hardworking banks from getting their well-deserved, hard-earned payments could back up their charges.

The bottom line? Here it is:
Bruce Marks, CEO of Neighborhood Assistance Corp., a Boston-based nonprofit agency that helps strapped homeowners, says flat out that the notion that legions of borrowers are simply deciding not to pay is an "urban myth" that largely reflects the mortgage industry's desire to blame homeowners, rather than their lenders, for the surge in problem loans.
Just another case where, when you hear tales of the poor, honest, beleagured corporations being victimized by those mean, two-timing, conniving consumers, you should consider the source.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Footnote to the preceding

The troubles for Zimbabweans are not limited to Zimbabwe - nor is the US the only place where "foreigners" are regarded with sometimes violent suspicion during times of economic stress.
Mob violence against Zimbabweans and other foreigners this week has killed at least two people and injured about 60 in an impoverished Johannesburg neighborhood, authorities said Wednesday.

The nightly attacks first began Sunday night and officials appealed for an end to the violence. ...

Police reported two deaths from the violence, but the ANC said that there was a third and that two of the dead were South Africans. About 60 people have been injured and more than 50 arrested while dozens had to flee their homes. ...

Such violence has increased lately as South Africans, growing frustrated by unemployment and lack of services, turn on outsiders they feel are taking away jobs and scarce resources.
South Africa, described in the article as "the region's economic powerhouse," has seen an influx of immigrants from neighboring countries, looking for safety and a better life. When the economy hits the skids, those same immigrants got blamed for it.

Sounds awfully familiar.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It ain't just us

Updated Another occasional set of brief dispatches from places around the world to remind ourselves that we're not the only country on Earth and the impact of the West Virginia primary on Hillary Clinton's determination to stay in the race is not the only issue worth thinking about. I expect you're familiar with some of these, but they still bear notice.

Burma/Myanmar: The dictators continue to block international aid workers from the country even as the death toll from the May 3 cyclone approached 35,000. The UN predicted it would reach 60,000 while the International Red Cross feared it could exceed six figures. People in the stricken nation accused the military of wanting to control relief aid so the best could be stolen and the rest, despite being donated to the country freely, could be sold to the people. That charge has now been echoed by
[t]he directors of several relief organizations in Myanmar[, who] said Wednesday that some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the country’s army.
All this can't help but raise the question of if the aid should simply be halted if it is not going to get to the people who actually need it.

Meanwhile, the country faces the possibility of a second "significant tropical cyclone" striking the same area as the first in the next few days.

China: The death count in the wake of Monday's devastating earthquake has reached 40,000 and there are fears it still could rise by thousands or even tens of thousands more as rescue workers reach more remote areas. More than 30,000 people were missing or out of reach in the city of Shifang, near the epicenter of the quake, which registed 7.9 on the Richter scale - equivalent to the energy released by a blast of nearly 6 megatons. Meanwhile, a new fear arose as the government reported that nearly 400 dams suffered damage in the quake. Fortunately, most are small; still, failure of any significant number would be a serious matter.

India: Eight bombs were set off in the streets of Jaipur on Wednesday, killing 61 and injuring 216. There is fear that the bombs were set off by Islamist militants from either Pakistan or Bangladesh in an attempt to undermine a peace process between India and Pakistan hoping to settle their decades-long border dispute over Kashmir.

Some 400 people have been killed in similar bombings since October 2005. While there is no proof of who is behind the bombings, the BBC describes some suspects.

Lebanon: The political crisis in Lebanon continues to drag its way through turmoil and bloodshed. The political conflict that began
more than a year ago with Shi'ite ministers bolting from the Cabinet devolved last week into Lebanon's worst fighting since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, with at least 54 people dead and scores wounded.
The number of dead isn't clear, with figures ranging from 54 to 81. What is clear is the political standoff between Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government and opposition forces that has left Lebanon without a president since November threatens now to turn into renewed civil war while it provokes a larger, regional standoff and mutual accusations between the US and Saudi Arabia - which support Siniora's government - on the one hand and Syria and Iran - which support Hezbollah's opposition forces - on the other. To perhaps no one's surprise, Saudi Arabia and Siniora are Sunni; Iran and Hezbollah are Shi'ite.

The immediate cause of the violence was decisions by Siniora's cabinet to shut down Hezbollah's phone network and fire the head of airport security, who was thought to be too close to Hezbollah. After six days of fighting in which Hezbollah clearly had the better of it, a ceasefire was achieved when the moves were rescinded "in view of the higher national interest" and at the request of the military, according to the government. Hezbollah, however, took this as a victory and at least one observer called it "a humiliating climb-down" by Siniora.

Even as accusations fly, with Saudi Arabia saying Iran's support for Hezbollah threatens its relations with the Arab nations and Iran blaming the US (and vice versa), an Arab League delegation is in Beirut trying mediate an agreement on sharing power and a new election law in order to put an end to the crisis.

Although I don't expect it to come about, I can't help but wonder what would happen, what sort of settlement would be reached and how much violence would occur in reaching it, if everybody - the US, the Saudis, Syria, Iran, all of them - just butt the fuck out.

Peru: Peru, according to one study one of the three nations of the world to be most affected by global warming, has established its first environmental ministry on the eve of hosting a Latin America-European Union summit expected to focus on climate change. The government had resisted creating the ministry, despite the fact that many there felt it was long overdue, for fear environmental concerns would affect mining interests. Now, however, the economic effects of climate change are looming large enough to require an attitude adjustment.

Spain: A truck bomb detonated in the northern part of the country, ripping through a barracks housing police officers and their families, killing one officer and wounding four others. Madrid accused the Basque separatist group ETA for the blast, but no group has yet claimed responsibility.
If ETA was behind the bombing, it would be the group's second fatal attack in a little more than two months and would bring to six the death toll since a faltering peace process collapsed in December 2006.
There have been other bombings in the last two years-plus, but they did little damage.

Sudan: Peace in Sudan continues to be "just a dream some of us had," as
[s]outh Sudanese former rebels fought northern government forces on Wednesday in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, killing up to four people and sending hundreds fleeing, south Sudanese and U.N. officials said. ...

Analysts say that Abyei, often called the "Kashmir" of Sudan's north-south conflict and coveted by both sides, could be the flash point to reignite civil war if its status is not resolved amicably and quickly.

Under a 2005 agreement that ended more than 20 years of north-south civil war, Abyei town is to be guarded by special joint units of northern and southern soldiers.
An incident Tuesday involving southern soldiers detaining a northern soldier escalated into a violent confrontation in which a northern soldier was killed - which ignited the firefight. Commanders from both sides were meeting UN staff to try to quiet things down, but the tensions remain amid reciprocal accusations of ceasefire violations.

On a related topic, there was also serious fighting near the capital, Khartoum, over the weekend, in which more than 200 were killed. This, however, was not a north-south dispute. This attack was carried out by JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement, a rebel group in Darfur.

The fact that they were able to penetrate so far into Sudan without being detected was used by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, UN Chief of Peacekeeping, in arguing to the Security Council that the peace mission in Darfur is seriously short of resources. The attack took place "during an alarming increase of violence in Darfur itself," adding to a loss of security that not only could further hinder the already-slow deployment of a planned force 26,000 UN and African Union peacekeepers but already has
impacted humanitarian operations, as banditry and hijackings have led to lost aid supplies, recently forcing food agencies to halve rations to more than three million needy people in Darfur.
The Security Council denounced the rebel attack but Guéhenno urged restraint on the part of the Sudanese government, the better to "move away from the brink" of even worse violence.

Zimbabwe
: Just a few days after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) announced it would take part in a run-off presidential election, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission declared that the 21 days previously given to organize the second round was not enough time and extended it to 90 days.

MDC's candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won a plurality over President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's presidential election on March 29 but had threatened to boycott the second round, accusing Mugabe's ZANU-PF party first of manipulating the vote count - which was not officially released until May 2 - to hold Tsvangirai under a majority and then of trying to rig the run-off.

The MDC called the government's decision to delay the election "illegal and unfair" and charged its purpose was to give Mugabe supporters "time to torment and continue a campaign of violence on the MDC."

A government minister said the election law allowed for leeway and claimed reports of election violence were exaggerated. But considering the reports are coming from the UN and a team of retired South African generals acting as observers and they both conclude that the violence is both widespread and primarily state-sponsored, I expect that's not surprising.

As a footnote, US ambassador James McGee had an interesting confrontation at a roadblock outside the capital, Harare. A convoy of diplomats from four countries and the European Union, plus an AP reporter,
had just completed a tour of hospitals and an alleged torture camp when police demanded they prove they had official permission to visit the sites.

At one point, a police officer threatened to beat one of McGee's senior aides. The officer got into his car and lurched toward McGee after he had demanded the officer's name. The car made contact with McGee's shins, but he was not injured.

McGee climbed onto the hood of the car while his aide snatched the keys from the ignition, then the diplomats used their mobile phone cameras to take photographs of the officer.
I have to admit I would have liked to have seen that. I'm sure than being an ambassdor gave him a fair degree of freedom of action, but pushback against arbitrary authority is always nice to see.

Updated to add the item about Sudan and the BBC story about suspects in the India bombings.

Self-awareness

In an interview with Yahoo! and Politico, George Bushleague said of his legacy:
"I think history, when they look back, will say this is a fellow who knew how to make decisions, and made some tough ones, stood by them, wasn't driven by the latest opinion poll, but was driven by some core principles from which he would not deviate."
In other words, a stubborn, narrow-minded, egomaniacal dolt incapable of incorporating new information into his worldview - who was for some unfathomable but unquestionably false reason quite pleased with himself.

Footnote to the preceding

The Globe & Mail (Canada) reported a few days ago that
[t]asers pose potentially fatal health risks that studies proving their safety don't take into account, a U.S. doctor told the B.C. taser inquiry yesterday.

San Francisco cardiologist and electrophysiologist Zian Tseng became interested in the use and effects of tasers after a taser-related death in San Francisco in January, 2005. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Tseng suggested tasers could induce cardiac arrhythmia[, which would not show up on an autopsy]. ...

Much of the scientific justification for the safety of tasers is based on formulae that don't examine their use in the "real world," Dr. Tseng said.

"What's not allowed in these theoretical calculations are worst-case scenarios," he said. "Tolerability in healthy volunteers under optimal conditions does not mean safety."
Dr. Tseng also noted several flaws in and concerns about the "safety" studies on tasers:

- Many of the studies were financed by Taser International; in at least once case, researchers were company employees.
- They used simulated stun guns, not actual tasers.
- The heart rate of subjects was monitored before and after the shock but not during it.

Note, too, that in all the videos I've seen demonstrating the device, in every single one, it's applied to the back, not across the chest. So to sum up, the claims for the "safety" of tasers are based on studies financed by Taser International, sometimes done by Taser International employees, performed on prepared, healthy subjects who are likely somewhat apprehensive but surely are not terrified, agitated, exhausted, intoxicated, or stoned, who are not shocked repeatedly, who do not have heart conditions, but who are shocked in a way least likely to affect the heart in a test that does not gather evidence at the time the heart is most likely to be affected.

Pardon me if I don't find that establishing a convincing record about real-world effects.

Footnote: Dr. Tseng also said that shortly after his interview appeared in the Chronicle,
I was contacted by [Taser International, Inc.] directly to reconsider my statements to the media," he said. "They even offered to ... give me grant money for research."
(Brackets in original.)

I suppose he should consider himself lucky they didn't sue him.

Current events

This story is a few days old but I just came across it yesterday via Truth Not Tasers and it seemed worthy of mention.

According to the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, the Attorney General's Committee on Less-Lethal Force is considering allowing the use of tasers by police in the state. The panel is being heavily lobbied by - of course - Taser International and - of course - the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, the latter of which said through a representative that
[i]f there is a way that officers can perform their sworn duty without employing deadly force, then we have a moral obligation to do so.
Interestingly, that "moral obligation" did not seem to revolve around saving lives but about sparing police the trauma of shooting someone, which "often require[s] thousands of hours of counseling and support to overcome."

Typically, supporters of tasers arranged for a parade of witnesses who "trumpeted the praises" of what they described as a "tool" rather than a weapon and downplayed its effects, saying it
said sends small projectiles onto a suspect's skin, scrambles the nervous system for about five seconds, then leaves one blinking but unharmed.
They also presented it as something used only in the worst situations. Aside from the NJFOP's connection of the use of tasers to avoiding "deadly force," there was this:
Toms River's Frank Rogers, a retired deputy superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told the panel the weapon allows an officer to stay safely away from a suspect while still disabling the person without having to use a conventional gun.
In short, the same old bullshit. Fortunately, there was some skepticism among panel members.
One panel member, Robert Davison, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Essex County, said he worried police might rely on the Taser when time and talking might restore calm to a chaotic moment.

Dentist Maryam Seluki of Willingboro said she opposes such weaponry. "These have a great potential for being lethal and for being abused."
Meanwhile, Tom Smith, CEO of Taser Int., claimed in response to being asked if being tasered was painful that "We have had people describe it as pain. We've had people describe it as pleasure." However, he didn't specify whether the latter group consisted of people being tased or of people doing the tasing.

He also said that New Jersey is the only state where the use of tasers is banned. Another good thing to be said for my old home state. May it lose that honor only by becoming, initially, "one of a few" states to ban the suckers.

It's like the old saying

Now they said it, ...
Democrats may be risking a backlash at the polls in November by pushing hard to use taxpayer money to rescue homeowners who can no longer afford their mortgages....

The Democrats in Congress and the party's presidential candidates frame the issue as doing at least as much for beleaguered homeowners as the government is doing for Wall Street. The White house and most House Republicans counter this amounts to using taxpayer money to reward bad behavior.
... now they didn't.
The State Department has just renewed its contract with Blackwater Worldwide to provide security for American diplomats in Iraq for at least another year.

Guards for the security company were involved in a shooting in September that left at least 17 Iraqis dead at a Baghdad intersection. Outrage over the killings prompted the Iraqi government to demand Blackwater's ouster from the country, a criminal investigation by the FBI, a series of internal investigations by the State Department and the Pentagon, and high-profile congressional hearings.
Consistency, after all, is the hobgoblin of small minds.

The first item is from the Wall Street Journal for May 12 (via The American Street), the second from the Seattle Times for May 10.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Unintentional Humor Award

This award is given at irregular intervals to some deserving recipient, defined as someone who has made a hilarious statement while attempting to be completely serious.

The winner this time is John Bolton, former (temporary) US Ambassador to the UN, former member of Shrub's inner circle, one of those purveyors of paranoia responsible for the Iraq war, who told the BBC just over a year ago that the US had no responsibility for maintaining order or providing security in the wake of the invasion while insisting - again, this was in April 2007 - that "all of the evidence is not yet in" on Iraqi WMDs, and after all is said and done still a top-notch dipshit.

A few days ago he told the Daily Telegraph (UK) that the US should launch air strikes on Iranian camps where, he insists, insurgents are trained for war in Iraq. He dismissed the conclusion of British intelligence that the US was overstating how much support Iran is giving to those insurgents as "dead wrong." But here's the punch line:
Mr Bolton said that striking Iran would represent a major step towards victory in Iraq.
It just doesn't get funnier than that.

Footnote to a link

Updated I linked to The Daily Howler in the previous post and I list it under my "News, Analysis, and Other Information" heading. So obviously I think it's a good source, even as I admit I don't read it every day.

But y'know, there's this thing about Bob Somerby. He's often right and often insightful: His notion of "the script," the idea that the mainstream media quickly settle on an easily-expressed storyline about a candidate or story into which all future coverage must fit, is one of the most useful tools for media analysis I've come across. (As an illustration, in 2004 the script was "down-to-Earth, like-to-have-a-beer-with-him George Bush" versus "elitist, flip-flopping John Kerry.")

But when he goes wrong, he in most such cases doesn't just go wrong, it's a full-fledged train wreck. Such is his effort for May 9 about "The Divine Right of Pundits" in which he first trashes "white liberals" in general and then black columnist Gene Robinson in particular for considering racial aspects of the Democratic primary campaign. (Yes, I know I said I wouldn't write about the primaries. But like the last time I brushed by them, the primaries aren't really the issue here. Bob Somerby's post is.)

The "white liberals" were indicted, tried, and convicted of being "pseudo-liberals" guilty of "class condescension" and making "sweeping assertions about downscale white rubes." This was based entirely on the fact that some liberals or presumed liberals or some such have argued that race plays a role in the amount of support Obama gets from working-class whites and pointed to the fact that his support among them dropped in the wake of the Rev. Wright crap as evidence. Go ahead - read the column and see if you can tell me honestly that that is not his entire argument.

But of course race plays a role and of course the Wright flap played a role in increasing racial fears and of course those fears affected Obama's support among all whites and particularly among working-class whites (the latter argued on the basis that that's where the effect of Rev. Wright appeared greatest). For Somerby to claim otherwise, to insist it's "presumption and condescension" to suggest any such thing, is, to use an old favorite word of his, clownish.

In fact, he even admits as much:
Did some working-class whites vote against Obama this week due to “race?” Presumably yes - though we don’t know how many.
Leaving aside the notable curiosity of putting the word "race" in quotes as if it was an oddball concept that doesn't exist outside the minds of "pseudo-liberals," Somerby's ability to deny the significance of his own admission lies in the escape clause provided by the last phrase: "We don't know." Interestingly, that inability to quantify doesn't bother him when he makes his own "sweeping assertions" about "liberals."

But it's when he gets to Gene Robinson that it gets really - to use another favorite Somerby word - dumb.

First, Somerby excoriates Robinson for referring to Clinton as having campaigned as if she had "a divine right" to the nomination out of a "majestic sense of entitlement." Feh! cries Somerby. You pundits, you're the ones with the sense of entitlement! After which he goes on to complain for the 1500th time about the press treatment of Al Gore and to quote something George Will just said.

Well, I absolutely agree that the press treatment of Al Gore was (and often still is) horrendous and that media pundits quite often have an overweening sense of entitlement. How that in any way rebuts what Robinson said about Clinton, how it in any way disproves her own sense of entitlement, escapes me and I strongly suspect it escapes you as well. (As I'm fond of saying, the fact that it's the pot that's calling the kettle black doesn't mean the kettle isn't black.)

Because the fact is, that is exactly how Clinton campaigned, that is exactly the attitude she took, she did come across with an "of course, me" air, Robinson was far from the first to have said it, it did undoubtedly cost her early on, and I even read some of her own supporters at various websites complain that she didn't take Obama seriously enough until it was too late. Or at least almost too late if you want to be a rosy optimist. But none of that matters to Somerby. If you're a certain type of person - specifically, a pundit - you're apparently not "entitled" to say it even if it's true. I'm not clear why.

It gets worse. Robinson's focus is on Clinton's statement on Wednesday that an AP article "found how Senator Obama's support ... among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again. I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on." Robinson calls that
a slap in the face to the party's most loyal constituency - African Americans - and a repudiation of principles the party claims to stand for. Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry.
That last bit is what really sent Somerby around the bend and off a cliff. He calls it a "tirade," sneering unreservedly at Robinson's description of what Clinton is "really saying" as having "showcased his sense of entitlement." Note first that Somerby again grants to himself an ability he would deny to others, in this case that of being able to discern the underlying importance of another's words. Note second that again he does not deal with the actual argument but with whether or not Robinson is allowed to make it.

But that is the meaning of what Clinton said. There is no other rational explanation. There is no other way to interpret that statement than to say that Clinton is arguing she is more electable because those white working class voters will vote for her but will not vote for Obama (or at least not in sufficient numbers). There is no policy difference between them large enough to justify that assertion. There is only one difference. As Robinson put it,
Clinton implies but doesn't quite come out and say ... that Obama is black - and that white people who are not wealthy are irredeemably racist.
Somerby's attempt to dismiss that idea is simply childish:
Why might these people vote for McCain? Perhaps because they’re part of that group long described as “Reagan Democrats?” In short, people in this group have sometimes voted Republican before ... and some may vote Republican again....
Oh, please. The question is why would these white working class voters who are now casting ballots for Hillary Clinton turn around and ignore someone who on policy and program is 95% the same as Clinton in order to vote for someone who is not. What is the factor that is so much more important, the factor that outweighs political compatibility? What do Hillary Clinton and John McCain have in common that differentiates them from Barack Obama in such a way that a Clinton supporter becomes more likely to vote for McCain than for Obama? Somerby's answer that "well, you know, sometimes they vote Democratic, sometimes they vote Republican, it's just, you know, the way it happens" is unworthy even of the "third-graders" he invokes. In fact, when you recall that so-called "Reagan Democrats" were built into a political demographic by playing on fears of (black) crime and resentment over (black) "welfare," Somerby's I will stretch the word enough to call it logic doesn't get out of kindergarten.

(It's important to note at this point that Somerby's defense would likely be - he hints at it in his column - that he's not talking about what Clinton said, he's talking about Robinson's "sense of entitlement." But the plain fact is, by raising the argument about "Reagan Democrats," Somerby was attempting to refute one of Robinson's central contentions about Clinton's statement. So he did indeed argue about what Clinton said and that "defense" is utterly unavailing.)

Hillary Clinton was suggesting that white working-class voters are too racist to vote in sufficient numbers for Barack Obama. There is, again, no other rational understanding of her argument. And frankly, I didn't need Gene Robinson to tell me that and I sure as hell don't need Bob Somerby to still be so pissed about something Robinson apparently said about Somerby's (yes) personal friend Al Gore eight years ago that he becomes incapable of understanding the words right in front of his face.

Footnote: I don't believe Hillary Clinton is a racist. I believe rather that she is playing on worries about the very real racism in the US to portray herself as the stronger candidate in the general election. I'm not really concerned about if the tactic will be "divisive" among the Democrats - what I'm concerned about is that it provides an excuse to be racist: "It's okay to refuse to vote for Obama 'cause he's black. Go right ahead. We kind of expected it."

One other thing: Because I believe she is not a racist and because it was said off the cuff, I'm going to give Hillary Clinton a pass on something. But I have to say that the phrase "hardworking Americans, white Americans," as if the two were synonymous, clanged on my eyes like a hammer on an anvil. (Is that a mixed metaphor or just a lousy image?)

Updated with Another Footnote: Another valuable Somerby phrase is "The Cult of the Offhand Comment," where media types feel free to pounce on candidates (and others) for ad lib remarks, acting as if every word out of their mouths was carefully rehearsed and so could be analyzed like a policy speech. The days of pontificating about Barack Obama's use of the word "bitter" was one example, the buzz about Hillary Clinton's reference to "hardworking white Americans" - the precise phrase on which I gave her a pass - is another.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Strange bedfellows

I've remarked at times that civil liberties and privacy are areas where left and right occasionally fold back on each other and cross. This is an example, although I admit to being (pleasantly) surprised by from what quarters some of the support is coming. On the other hand, something else it does is show the difference between actual conservatives, even right wing ones, and the reactionary cabal of proto-fascists that make up the WHS* and its true believer 28% base.
An unusual cast of conservatives has added momentum to a bill that would protect the confidentiality of reporters’ sources, even as the Bush administration has lobbied vigorously against the idea[, says Saturday's New York Times].

The latest flashpoint in the debate came Friday in an appellate courtroom in Washington, as a former reporter for USA Today [named Toni Locy] faced fines of $5,000 a day for refusing to disclose the sources of her articles on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2001 anthrax investigation.

A conservative judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Brett M. Kavanaugh, a former Bush White House official, offered perhaps the broadest defense of reporters’ rights during oral arguments in the case.
John McCainslewabel has offered support - albeit it “narrow” - for a federal shield law offering at least some protection for journalists protecting confidential sources. What's more,
[a] federal shield law passed the House last year by a veto-proof margin of 398 to 21, with a conservative Republican - Representative Mike Pence of Indiana - leading the effort. ...

Shielding reporters’ confidential sources, Mr. Pence said, “is not about protecting reporters; it’s about protecting the public’s right to know.”
So even conservatives can understand how a free press can, at least in theory, function as a counterweight to government power. (Be sure to note that I said in theory.)

And, contrary to what might appear on the surface, so can the White House gang - which is precisely why they are so dead set against any such protections, even weak ones.
The Justice Department has devoted a special page on its Web site to the issue, and six cabinet-level officials in the administration have written recent letters voicing their concerns about the legislation.
The claims are standard-issue, by-now-banal, "the terrorists are coming" fear-mongering, claiming a shield law would "wreak havoc" on national security and would provide “a safe haven for foreign spies and terrorists,” a charge I admit to having a great deal of difficulty puzzling out what it's supposed to mean. Still, the opposition has given Harry "The Weasel" Reid pause: His spokesman will say only that "it's on our to-do list" and they "hope" to get to it "as soon as we can." Ooh, I'm a-flutter with anticipation.

What makes this timidity all the more galling is that even some GOPpers are getting ticked off by the heavy-handed lobbying.
“I’ve been around a while, and I’ve never seen such an avalanche of letters coordinated in such an unrealistic, emotional, unwarranted attack on a piece of legislation,” Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and supporter of the shield law, said in an interview Friday.
Observing Locy's case, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said
“We’ve been trying to argue a common-law privilege for four years now, and who would have thought that it would be Brett Kavanaugh who seized on that?

“Classic conservatives recognize that the media plays a role in overseeing what the government is up to,” Ms. Dalglish said.
"Classic" conservatives, yes. Left and right may and do disagree on the extent and precise form of that role, on how far it (and the associated public right to know) should go, and exactly what sorts of protections for reporters might be needed - but we will agree that the role exists and is an important one. As Thomas Jefferson said (and, unlike some such quotes of noted persons, he actually did say it) "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter" - because, he said later, "our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it."

All of which together should serve to point up a real difference between genuine conservatives, who actually believe in open debate, and the power-worshipping vermin without conscience who lay claim to the name now.

Footnote: Speaking of Jefferson, in the fall of 1785, he wrote this to one G. K. van Hogendorp:
The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.
Sound like any condition with which you are familiar?

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

It's a real mass out there

This has got to be one of those situations that "every dark cloud has a silver lining" was created to deal with. Saturdays's New York Times reports that
[w]ith the price of gas approaching $4 a gallon, more commuters are abandoning their cars and taking the train or bus instead.

Mass transit systems around the country are seeing standing-room-only crowds on bus lines where seats were once easy to come by. Parking lots at many bus and light rail stations are suddenly overflowing, with commuters in some towns risking a ticket or tow by parking on nearby grassy areas and in vacant lots.

“In almost every transit system I talk to, we’re seeing very high rates of growth the last few months,” said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. ...

Some cities with long-established public transit systems, like New York and Boston, have seen increases in ridership of 5 percent or more so far this year. But the biggest surges - of 10 to 15 percent or more over last year - are occurring in many metropolitan areas in the South and West where the driving culture is strongest and bus and rail lines are more limited.
Of coure, no good news goes unpunished, so the article also reports that meeting the increased demand is proving dificult because of delining tax revenues, higher fuel costs, and rising prices for steel needed for expansion. Still, it's good environmental (and fuel efficiency and global warming) news that mass transit use is increasing and in fact has been for a time:
The sudden jump in ridership comes after several years of steady, gradual growth. Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation last year, up 2.1 percent from 2006. Transit managers are predicting growth of 5 percent or more this year, the largest increase in at least a decade.
It's appropriate that this story came out on May 10 because it's National Train Day. The event was organized by Amtrak to celebrate and promote rail travel. The day was chosen because it's the anniversary of the driving of the "golden spike" to mark the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, in 1869. The site is now a national park.

Amtrak is building on five straight years of record ridership despite the best attempts to the Bush gang to kill it off and the failure of Congress to adequately fund it. As the Detroit Free Press said last month,
Amtrak will serve a record 26 million riders this year, but Congress has consistently given the railroad hundreds of millions of dollars less than it needs to pay for capital improvements, including the replacement of worn track, repairing bridges and rebuilding rail cars.

President George W. Bush even tried to end federal assistance for passenger rail service. For next year, Bush has proposed cutting Amtrak by 40%, giving it half the $1.67 billion the agency is requesting. Amtrak spends $500 million a year on debt service alone. Bush's proposed $800 million for Amtrak would require the railroad to cut a large share of its 22,000 miles of service.

Put in perspective, the $1.67 billion Amtrak is requesting for the entire year is little more than the cost of one large planned highway project in metro Detroit: rebuilding seven miles of I-94 in Detroit.
Even so, Amtrak has managed to survive - something it was not expected to do; in fact, it was designed to fail. But it survived. It has been accused, abused, and misused, it has been the butt of jokes, it's path (and sometimes its travel) has been rockier than Marciano, Graziano, and Colavito together, at times it has barely scraped by in the face of simultaneous indifference and hostility, but it has survived. It even has some enthusiastic supporters (besides me, I mean), including a fair number of legislators from those "heartland" and "the real America" areas with which we elitist tree-hugger liberals supposedly have so little connection. For example, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was quite eager to announce that he was a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act to authorize Amtrak funding.
“Americans, especially West Virginians, love their railroads,” said Rahall. “Protecting and fully funding our railroads must be among our government’s top priorities. This bill provides a long-overdue infusion of funding needed to upgrade and rehabilitate our Nation’s rail network and, once again, give Amtrak a needed boost.” ...

“Rising gas prices and air travel delays have spurred a return to rail travel,” said Rahall. “At the same time, these record rail traffic levels are placing added pressure and safety concerns on our aging rail system. This legislation honors the important role railroads have played in our Nation’s history and the benefit they promise to our future by taking steps to improve and modernize our rail system to ensure its success for years to come.”
The bill, introduced with bipartisan support of committee leaders, would provide Amtrak with
$14.3 billion over five years, or an average of $2.86 billion annually, compared with the current budget of $1.2 billion.
What's more, some people want to expand the service: For one example, a coalition of folks - one which has obtained the support of the Kansas Department of Transportation - wants to extend the route of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas, about 200 miles north. There it would link up with the route of the Southwest Chief, running between Chicago and Los Angeles.

So the fact is, a good number of people see a growing future for Amtrak; with a little investment, some even see "a golden opportunity for Amtrak to prove itself." Representative Rahall is right: Americans love their trains, love them too much to let them die. Much of that love is, admittedly, suffused with nostalgia, but it also is a love that increasingly is being overlaid with environmental realism and financial practicality.

Choo-choo!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Speaking of good news

I've been meaning to write about this for days now and I'm finally getting to it.

Back in March I wrote about the intent of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to stage a one-shift work stoppage on May 1, essentially shutting down ports all along the west coast for eight hours, to protest the Iraq War. The bosses made various threats to deter it, including getting an arbitrator to twice order the union to tell its members to report to work as usual.

It didn't work: Although the union couldn't formally support the action, everyone understood the reality of the necessary legal technicalities involved and the difference between, so to speak, de jure and de facto support, and went ahead anyway. As a result,
[c]ranes and forklifts stood still from Seattle to San Diego, and ships were stalled at sea as workers held rallies up and down the coast to blame the war for distracting public attention and money from domestic needs like health care and education.

“We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops and our economy are being destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of $3 trillion,” the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Bob McEllrath, said in a written statement. “It’s time to stand up, and we’re doing our part today.”
The port bosses and the shipping companies, of course, unwilling or unable to attribute the action to anything other than selfishness and determined to downplay it as an expression of opposition to the war by which those corporations profit, claimed it was all a negotiating ploy.
[Pacific Maritime Association]'s [Steve] Getzug said the action came two months prior to the expiration of the current labor agreement.

"Today's actions raised the question of whether this was an attempt to leverage contract negotiations," he said in a statement.
This despite the facts that the long lead time to prepare and the time-limited nature of the protest meant the economic cost would be limited and the effect on shipping at most one of minor inconvenience. This was a not an economic strike, it was principled act of conviction. Which is why, I suppose, the PMA couldn't understand it.

The bosses' claim of other motivations was also belied by the support received from other unions and protestors.
In many cases, dock workers were joined at port entrances or at rallies by other groups protesting the war or frustrated by economic issues or immigration policies. ...

On the Seattle waterfront, members of the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union mixed with self-described socialists while many of the scores of police officers on the scene ate box lunches and petted their horses.

In Oakland, Calif., some truckers who said they were angry about high gas prices decided not to cross picket lines at the port. ...

Kevin Schroeder, director of [ILWU] Local 13’s political action committee, said, “The children of middle-class people are over there dying, so we decided to do something. We are fortunate enough to be in an organization that has a platform to do something.”
And do something they did, and thanks and expressions of solidarity go to them, along with praise for not being intimidated.

Footnote: The General Union of Dock Workers in Iraq sent a message of support and announced an intention to shut down the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Alzubair for one hour in solidarity with the ILWU, which considering their situation is considerably more remarkable than the ILWU's protest and makes the limp support it received from the rest of the US labor movement that much more pathetic.

The Maritime Union of New Zealand also sent a message of solidarity.

Another Footnote: The picture at the top comes from this link to the post about the action at Left I on the News.

Happy talk

Amid the gloom, three bits to make you feel a little better.

- Last week, AP reported that Congress had passed, and Shrub is expected to sign, a bill
forbidding employers and insurance companies from using genetic tests showing people are at risk of developing cancer, heart disease or other ailments to reject their job applications, promotions or health care coverage, or in setting premiums. ...

Researchers supported the bill because Americans have been refusing to take genetic tests or have been using false names and paying cash because they didn't want the information used against them by their employer or insurance company, [Francis] Collins[, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute,] said.
This is not the first attempt to ban genetic discrimination: The National Human Genome Research Institute says that 41 states have laws regarding genetic discrimination in health care and 31 have laws about such discrimination in the workplace. Bill Clinton issued an executive order banning the federal government from requiring any sort of genetic test or considering genetic information in hiring or promotions. Still, there has never been a federal-level law before and it has been a long time coming.

It's also necessary:
A 2001 study by the American Management Association showed that nearly two-thirds of major U.S. companies require medical examinations of new hires. Fourteen percent conduct tests for susceptibility to workplace hazards, 3 percent for breast and colon cancer, and 1 percent for sickle cell anemia, while 20 percent collect information about family medical history.
The fact is, in the absence of a law specifically banning the practice, employers and insurers will use any information they can gather about you in whatever way they think will help their bottom line. Even with the law, they are likely to continue to do so until there are actual consequences for doing otherwise.

The bill is by no means perfect and some language was changed at the behest of the insurance industry; nonetheless, it is a real step forward. And about time.

- Speaking of things genetic, this story from The Independent (UK) is over a week old but I just became aware of it.
A pioneering gene therapy trial has helped a blind man to see in a breakthrough that brings hope to millions affected by eye diseases. British scientists have claimed a world first for the revolutionary treatment, which involved a single injection into the retina at the back of the eye.

Steven Howarth, 18, from Bolton, who has a rare inherited eye disorder which has left him with extremely poor vision and completely unable to see in the dark, improved sufficiently after the treatment to be able to navigate a "maze" in conditions similar to street lighting at night.
The video of him before and after the treatment is startling:

video

There have been six trials of this gene therapy, three in the UK (including Howarth) and three in the US. The other two in the UK showed no ill effects but no improvement from the treatment, while those in the US showed improvement but not as dramatic as that of Howarth. Still, that means of six subjects, four showed improvement and none showed ill effects (one suffered some retinal damage but that is believed to have been caused by the surgery, which is quite delicate, rather than the gene therapy itself). That can only be described as quite promising.

Let's not get too excited about gene therapy:
It is only the second time gene therapy has been proved successful in humans, after trials showed it was effective in the rare inherited disorder called SCID (severe combined immune deficiency) which leaves babies without a functioning immune system so they have to live in a bubble to protect them from infection.
Still, it is definitely worth a smile.

- But if you really want to smile, this is the story. I heard about it at The Core 4.
With two runners on base and a strike against her, Sara Tucholsky of [the] Western Oregon University [softball team] uncorked her best swing and did something she had never done, in high school or college. Her first home run cleared the center field fence.
But after she rounded first base, her knee blew out. She collapsed and crawled back to first.

What to do? Continuing on her own was out of the question. If they sent in a pinch runner, the substitute would have to stay at first and the home run would become a single. If her teammates helped her, she'd be called out. But there was somebody that could help: the opposing team.
Central Washington [University] first baseman Mallory Holtman, the all-time home run leader in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Tucholsky.

The umpire said there was no rule against it.

So Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace put their arms under Tucholsky's legs, and she put her arms over their shoulders. The three headed around the base paths, stopping to let Tucholsky touch each base with her good leg. ...

"We didn't know that she was a senior or that this was her first home run," Wallace said Wednesday. ... "We just wanted to help her."
What makes it an even better story is that in helping Tucholsky's three-run homer count by literally carrying her around the bases, Holtman and Wallace were helping to end to their own team's chance to make the playoffs: Western Oregon won the game, 4-2. Even with that, Holtman brushed it off as something she and Wallace figured anyone else would do.

It's a wonderful story. But it also occurs to me: What does it say about us, about how we think of sport, of competition, of the drive to win win win here there and everywhere that we find this story so amazing?

It wasn’t all the long ago that even in professional sports some measure of sportsmanship was to be found. I still remember seeing a tennis match between Rod Laver and John Newcombe at a time they were both professionals, during which a linesman made a blatantly bad call against Laver. As Laver stared in disbelief and the normally docile audience moaned, Newcombe motioned to Laver to serve in a way that made it clear he had no intent of trying to return serve: He was in effect going to give the point back. Laver refused. The two went back and forth for a few moments until Newcombe agreed to play the point.

That was sportsmanship on both sides.

Still, I shouldn't be quite so much of a cynic here and just appreciate what was done by a couple of people who cared more about doing the decent thing than about their own personal benefit.

Footnote: I don’t remember who won the match, but I do remember Laver won the point. Which is another smile.
 
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