Friday, January 30, 2009

O-ba-MA! O-ba-MA!

This can be thought of as a footnote to the preceding since what was in that post raised the idea of this one.

Okay, the Obama administration is 10 days old and there have been some mixed reviews. He has done some good things or perhaps made some improvements would be a more accurate description, including supporting and signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act and, word has it, planning
to sign an untold number of executive orders that are friendly to organized labor
at a White House event with labor leaders later today.

But still there are dark clouds and O-ba-ma! could easily turn into Uh-oh-ba-ma! Last week, my sometimes-debate partner Tgirsch over at Lean Left posted "a question for the cynics" about Obama:
What would you have Obama do that:

1. You expect him not to do.
2. You think he has a prayer of getting Congress behind him (if Congressional involvement is needed).
3. Would be supported by a majority of the American public, or at least a very large minority.
In my answer I said that
the structure of the question is, hopefully unintentionally, extremely restrictive. Put a different way, I’m being asked to name something that I want Obama to do, which already has widespread, even majority, public support, and which already has at minimum sufficient support in Congress to build on - but which he would refuse to do anyway.

Something about camels and the eye of a needle comes up here. Did we elect Obama to make changes or merely to endorse what is already popular?

However, I will suggest a few that meet criteria #1 and at least one of the two others:

1. He will not withdraw all troops from Iraq.
2. He (watch the construction here) will not not escalate in Afghanistan.
3. He will not investigate Bush administration crimes relating to national security and Constitutional rights.
4. He will not undo the “Protect America Act” (the changes to FISA) - and, since doing so would require Congressional action, I’ll add that neither will he foreswear the use of the expanded powers it provided.
5. He will not seek to reverse the hideous 2005 bankruptcy law.
6. He will not require of corporations that they provide detailed accounts of how they spent their TARP money before they can get any more and he will not require such detailed accounts from new applicants.
7. He will not, in the pursuit of a few more GOPper votes, refuse to capitulate to demands that the proposed stimulus package focus more than it has on tax cuts and less than it has on spending to create jobs.

That’s enough for now; I’m sure I’ll think of more.
Tgirsch subsequently said the restrictive nature was deliberate.
It comes down to a fundamental difference in philosophy[, he said,] and it has nothing to do with liberal/conservative. It has to do with pragmatism/idealism. There’s room for both, of course, but I slide a lot more toward the pragmatism end of the scale than most of the others in this comment thread.
I replied that
I think it likely that we would not be far apart on what we think is achievable at the present moment. It’s just that in any political fight, not just elections but any political fight, there is what you want and what you will settle for.

I maintain that if you start out shooting for what you’ll settle for, at the end of the day you’ll always wind up with less and too often get into “get worse more slowly” territory.

So with Obama now, I don’t think we should concern ourselves with what will pass Congress or is already popular but with what we want done. Then we can, if necessary, negotiate back to what we’ll settle for - and maybe a good deal more. ...

We should focus on widening the debate, getting more options on the board, before we start saying “X is the best we can get.”
My main "idealistic" objection to "pragmatism" is that all too often being "pragmatic" winds up meaning being so focused on what you can get now that you forget where you were trying to go in the first place. My own notion of being pragmatic is pretty much the reverse: to make the dream central and ask what best advances the chances for that dream. It's like the old story about the stone worker who hammers at a block 99 times without visible effect only to have it shatter on the 100th: The true pragmatist would have given up at the beginning because it wouldn't appear that any progress could be made right now; the true idealist would say "this is the only way the block is going to be broken" and keep at the practical work of hammering.

Just about a week and a-half ago, I quoted a speech I gave oh my word over 24 years ago in which I expressed the same idea a different way, urging listeners to
hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. [Be] steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them.
Ultimately, I suppose it can be said that the best idealists need to be practical but the best pragmatists don't need an ideal - which is unfortunate and can easily turn pragmatists into mere technocrats, concerned less with changing the system than with running it efficiently, or, as Obama supporters (no more than members of his administration) put it, avoiding the dreaded "ideologues" in favor of "competent people" without thought to just what end it is that those people are supposed to be working toward.

Anyway, getting away from this lengthy digression and back to what prompted this post, which was not to re-hash some pragmatism-idealism dispute, and to why it can be a sort of footnote to the preceding: I've thought of a number eight and a number nine for the list.
8. He will not as part of the banking industry bailout require changes in the management or the business practices of the banks and investment houses. (Bonus givebacks do not count as "changes" in this context.)
And the one related to the preceding post,
9. He will not seek to have the Military Commissions Act revoked. Amended, yes, but not revoked - and among the amendments will not be one to remove the stripping away of habeas corpus rights.
I invited Tgirsch to keep a record of my predictions in the hope that at some point he will be able to throw it in my face because it turned out I was wrong. I would rarely be happier to be wrong and the more times I'm wrong on this list, the happier I will be.

Footnote: The Paycheck Fairness Act, a wider pay-equity bill than the Lilly Ledbetter Act, has passed the House. Senate action is predicted by spring.

Another Footnote: You'll notice that there's nothing in the items relating to the banking industry that make any reference to any form of democratic socialism or public ownership of the industry or any parts of it. ("Ownership" that consists of "we pick up the debts but you folks keep running things" is not "ownership" for this purpose.) I didn't bother as that is just too far outside the realm of possibility.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A tale of a shirt-tail, Two

Barack Obama's presidency was still being measured in hours when he
directed an immediate halt to the Bush administration’s military commissions system for prosecuting detainees at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. ...

The decision, which had been expected as part of Mr. Obama’s pledge to close the detention camp, was described as a pause in all war-crimes proceedings there so that the new administration can evaluate how to proceed with prosecutions.
This was to the good, even though it clearly left something to be desired: It was merely a delay, not an actual halt, to those proceedings and indeed, the order to close the camp within a year left open the possibility that some sort of special trial system, doubtless with fewer human rights protections than the regular criminal courts, might be established for some current detainees who would be tried "under terms to be determined."

Even so, it was, again, an improvement. But it's hit a snag.
A military judge in the case of one of the best-known terrorism suspects declined an administration request to delay an arraignment scheduled for Feb. 9. ...

The decision came in the death penalty case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi charged as the chief planner of the attack on the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors.

In the ruling on Thursday, the judge in Mr. Nashiri’s case, Col. James L. Pohl of the Army, said “the request to delay the arraignment is not reasonable.” At times, Colonel Pohl, the chief judge in Guantánamo, took a contentious tone that seemed to challenge the Obama administration,
including in his ruling language about the independence of judges in the system and calling the prosecutors' arguments for a delay "unpersuasive."

His decision could be overturned by Susan Crawford, the Pentagon official in overall charge of the military commission system, who could dismiss the charges "without prejudice," which would end the case but still allow prosecutors to file new charges.

Still, there was the shirt-tail, the significant bit at almost the end of the article, in this case revealing that others had the same reaction to this ruling that I did.
[S]ome critics of the military commission system said the decision appeared to express the views of military officers who would like to complicate the Obama administration’s efforts to close Guantánamo and, possibly, abandon the military commission system.

Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who has praised President Obama’s early actions on Guantánamo, said the ruling in the Nashiri case had raised questions about whether the Pentagon would resist the administration’s efforts.

“It is clear,” Mr. Romero said, “that there are conflicting currents in the Department of Defense under the Obama administration.”
That is a polite way of putting it. I think it reveals the fact that there are elements in the military who are going "This guy isn't one of us. He's not gonna tell us what to do." No, one ruling by one judge is not a trend. Still, for a judge to turn down a prosecutor's request for a delay is rare enough, but to do it under these conditions while labeling the move "on its face ... not reasonable" and declaring that the Military Commissions Act "remains in effect" and he is "bound by the law" - without, it should be noted, any explanation of how granting the postponement would violate that law - is not just a judicial ruling, it smells of open and deliberate defiance.

And he's not the only military voice chiming in. The ex-commander of the USS Cole, Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, said he was "absolutely delighted" that things are "back on track to see an accounting for al-Nashiri's terrorist acts." That is, that the commission is proceding despite the order to halt. And Gen. John Craddock is predicting "problems" with moves to close Gitmo adding that
he's also concerned that some ex-detainees will mount new attacks on U.S. troops and their allies.
A little bit of fear-mongering can't hurt the cause, especially when it's backed up by the quite possibly fabricated Pentagon claim that 18 released detainees have "returned to the battlefield" and another 43 are "suspected" to have done so, which was issued just a week before the inauguration.

So, no, one example does not make a trend. But four? Frankly, I think there are some real rumblings, some real undercurrents, within the military that see Obama as an outsider and are prepared to resist and even undercut (if not outright defy) his moves on Gitmo and the other secret prisons and maybe beyond. I wouldn't say I'm sure of that, but if I was CinC right now, I'd be concerned enough to take steps to make damn sure people know who is in charge.

A tale of a shirt-tail, One

Updated The "shirt-tail" is what my hero I. F. Stone used to call the very end of a new story where quite often the important points get buried. Here is a good example.

I'm sure you're heard the basics of the story:
Bay City, Michigan - A 93-year-old man froze to death inside his home just days after the municipal power company restricted his use of electricity because of unpaid bills, officials said.

Marvin E. Schur died "a slow, painful death," said Kanu Virani, Oakland County's deputy chief medical examiner, who performed the autopsy. ...

Schur owed Bay City Electric Light & Power more than $1,000 in unpaid electric bills, Bay City Manager Robert Belleman told The Associated Press on Monday.
The city had installed a "limiter," which limits power and trips like a circuit breaker if consumption rises past a certain level. (The article said it blows like a fuse, but it also said it could be reset, so I think the circuit breaker comparison is likely more accurate.) Apparently, Mr. Schur went over the limit, lost his power and so his heat, and froze to death. The neighbor who discovered his body said "the insides of his windows were full of ice the morning we found him."

Okay, here's the shirt-tail part. Belleman said that after 10 days, if the homeowner hasn't paid utility bills or made arrangements to do so, power is shut off entirely. Even after admitting that he didn't know if anyone had actually contacted Schur to make sure he understood what was being done, Belleman said
he didn't believe the city did anything wrong.

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."
He doesn't believe the city did anything wrong. After turning off the heat in a 93-year old man's house in the middle of winter in Michigan without even knowing if that man knew what was going on, he still says the city did nothing wrong.

Oh, no, the fault all lies with the neighbors because they didn't watch closely enough. It's all their fault. It's all somebody else's fault, anyway, nothing to do with us, no siree, we're just public servants, certainly nothing to do with me, I'm just the freaking city manager!

And I can just imagine the conversation:
Neighbor: I'm calling about my neighbor because I'm keeping an eye on him, like a good neighbor, and he has no heat.

Appropriate city department: Tell him to pay his bill. :click:
At least some states have laws that bar cutting off power or heat in winter. Apparently Michigan is not among them. It damn well should be before more people die.

Updated with, well, with an update, courtesy of CNN.

First off, it turns out that Michigan does have a state law that bans private utility companies from cutting off service to senior citizens between November and April. But because Bay City Electric Light & Power is municipally-owned, it's exempt.

However, local and state officials say Schur's death was avoidable and have begun a review of Bay City Electric's rules and procedures which could lead to a change in the law so as to put municipals under the same requirements as private utilities.
The utility has stopped its practice of cutting power to customers who don't pay their bills, the utility's acting director, Philip Newton, told CNN. Recently, that had been happening as often as 200 times a week.

The utility also has removed all "limiters".... In Schur's case, the limiter was never reset, and it's unclear whether he knew how to do that.
Maybe that's because
[i]t appears no one from the utility company had personal contact with Schur, in phone or in person.
Meanwhile, City Manager Robert Belleman, the man who insisted the city did nothing wrong and it was all the neighbors' fault, now
admits seniors who may be confused or in no condition to venture outside to reset a limiter in freezing temperatures need extra supervision.
And the mayor is saying "We have to do everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen again."

I truly wonder if they'd be saying those things if this hadn't hit the wires and gained some national attention.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A statement of conscience

A blog I read regularly - but apparently not regularly enough, since I didn't see this until a few days after it was posted - recently quoted Ward Churchill and Malcom X each saying in a different way that they surely didn't advocate violence and how they would prefer to be able to use nonviolence. After mentioning Frantz Fanon and Subcomandante Marcos, the poster said that
[n]one of these cats glorify violence. Rather, they are keenly and painfully aware of the violence - interpersonal, organizational, structural, and intrapersonal - afflicting themselves and their people on an ongoing basis. In each of these activists' words is a preference for using nonviolent means of action ... but also in each of these activists' words is an admonition against a doctrinaire knee-jerk pacifism.
With all respect to my colleague, that's bullshit. Of course they are glorifying violence. They are glorifying violence as a - indeed, as the only reliable - means of self-defense and achieving justice. (Indeed, Fanon went beyond the others to openly glorify violence itself, declaring not only that it was the only way for the colonized people of the world to be liberated but that it was itself liberating.) The argument, stripped to its essence, is that nonviolence, well, yeah, it might work sometimes - but violence always does. Nonviolence can fail, but violence never does; it just hasn't succeeded yet. The argument allows for no option under which violence fails, even less for one where violence fails but nonviolence succeeds - even though that is a much better description of the experience of the Zapatistas than the reverse. Even when the conflict goes on, as some in the world have, for decades, in some - too many - minds, including if not especially among those not directly affected, the thought "violence has failed" never seems to arise.

And just what the hell constitutes "doctrinaire knee-jerk pacifism" in this (or most any other) context? In fact, when do those looking to excuse the bloodshed for which they're responsible (or of which they tacitly or expressly approve) describe pacifism in terms other than "doctrinaire" or "knee-jerk" or other equally dismissive adjectives? When is the refusal to commit murder not brushed off as "hopelessly idealistic," always with the required sighs of regret, by those who imagine that revolution is marked by how many you kill rather than by how many you change - except, that is, for the times it is denounced as a tool of the ruling class, as Fanon essentially does?

And no, I need no lectures on the destructiveness of institutional violence, nor do I need to be reminded that it's easy for those of us not suffering under the yoke of an oppressor to urge the oppressed to foreswear murderous violence, especially when it is equally easy for us to embrace such violence as "necessary" when we do not have to live with the blood and gore and shredded limbs and the screams of the wounded and the wails of the widows and orphans sitting among the smoking ruins of what had been their homes and fields.

That is the painful reality hidden behind that "necessity," a reality of tens - hundreds - of millions around the world, past and present, abused by military power of one sort or another, almost if not always in the name of some supposed “higher purpose.” A reality of the real effect of real violence on real people.

Wars of one sort or another are now going on in the Philippines, Iraq, DR Congo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Indonesia, the Occupied Territories, and probably a dozen more places, and in every one of them you can be damn sure that no one on any side has picked up a gun or dropped a bomb or fired a rocket or laid a mine or set a booby-trap without claiming to be on the side of the angels; no one has blown someone’s head off or burned a village to the ground or tortured a prisoner without claiming it’s in pursuit of “justice” or “freedom” or “self-defense” or the “glory of God” (or "Jesus" or “Allah”). That’s the reality. Not musings about how you'd "prefer" nonviolence or about "self-defense" or the "creative" aspects of violence. The reality, rather, of death, destruction, and despair in which everyone claims that they are the wounded innocents.

“Those who organized this provocation deliberately desired a further aggravation of the international situation by striving to smear us, sow hostility towards us, and cast aspersions on our peace-loving policies.” Something said by, who, I don't know, maybe China? Or about China? Neither. It’s from a TASS wire service dispatch, September 3, 1983. It’s about the US.

“ save the freedom of the world, to save liberty, to save the honor of women and children, everyone who loves freedom and honor, everyone who puts principle before ease and life itself before mere living, is banded in a great crusade - we cannot deny it - to kill Muslims, to kill them not for the sake of killing but to save the kill them lest the civilization of the world itself be killed.” Other than being blunter than most, is this truly different from many sentiments expressed during our War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.)? But in the original version, “Muslims” was “Germans,” and the quote is from a sermon preached by the Bishop of London during World War I.

“We concur in considering [them] totally without morality, insolent beyond bearing, inflated with vanity and ambition aiming at the exclusive domination of the world, lost in corruption, of deep-rooted hatred toward us, hostile to liberty wherever it endeavors to show its head, and the eternal disturber of the peace of the world.” The style may be stilted, but I’d defy anyone to tell me any fundamental difference between these sentiments and those directed against Hamas to justify the attack on Gaza - or, for that matter, different from those directed against Jews by any number of anti-Semites across the ages. But the year was 1815, the speaker was President Thomas Jefferson, and the "them" in question was Great Britain.

It’s always the same. Every time, the same arguments are trotted out. “They” are evil, immoral, corrupt, cruel; “they” can’t be trusted; “they” understand only force; “they” don’t respect human life the way we do; it’s sad, but “they” have given us no choice; blah, blah, and more blah, as we go about convincing ourselves that "they" are "other," are fundamentally different, and when we kill them - except we don't, do we, instead we "secure targets" and "achieve objectives" and "deny the enemy resources" - and when we kill them there are none left behind to mourn, for the "other" has no wife or husband, no sons or daughters, no sisters or brothers, no parents, no aunts or uncles or grandparents or cousins or friends or neighbors or colleagues or co-workers, they are merely an instrumentality of the enemy, denied their humanity so they may be denied their life, because they are not really "alive," not like "we" are.

It has been charged that nonviolence gives “fear and hatred an opportunity to triumph.” Well, I say that with murderous violence, fear and hatred always triumph. I say that might does not make right. I say that the ends do not justify the means - which, no matter how many colors are cast on it, is still the primer under the entire argument - but they are affected by them. That humanity cannot be conveniently divided into our friends, the victimized innocents, and our foes, the venal infidels. That mass murder does not bring any peace except that of the graveyard, that hatreds do not produce love, that a river of blood, no matter how thick, deep, wide, or red, does not, cannot, will not mark the path to justice. Because justice must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for “enemy” the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

Ultimately, I agree with Gandhi's statement that
the only thing worse than violence is cowardly refusal to act in the face of injustice. But nonviolent action is always superior to violent action.
Contrary to the underlying, unspoken conviction of those such as Ward Churchill, Malcolm X, and Franz Fanon, pacifism does not mean passivity and nonviolence does not mean non-action; they do not involve, as I was once accused of advocating, allowing ourselves to “get butchered” in order to “be morally superior.” (I did not include Subcomandante Marcos in that list because I believe this is a lesson he has learned.)

Let me be clear: I believe we are responsible for that which we approve, and that applies to me as much as to others; perhaps more so because I make the choice so consciously. I know the course I’ve chosen carries risks, that nonviolent action isn’t “safe,” that it may (and for some in some circumstances surely would) involve risking one’s life, and that the greatest risk is that of failure, of seeing injustice ascendant. But every one of those risks applies equally strongly to violent action, which carries the added risks, risks so often realized they’re less risks than a process, of destroying that which you say you’d save and of becoming that which you say you oppose.

Nonviolent action is not without risk, not without pain, not without suffering, and aggressive nonviolent techniques - such as economic sanctions - can put such pain and suffering on others, including innocents. No, there are no ironclad guarantees of success, and yes, there would be losses as well as victories. All of that - all of that, despite any romanticized notions to the contrary - is equally true of violence.

I can understand the lure of violence. I can. With violence, more than with nonviolence, you can feel that you're doing something. You can see a result of an action. For an example, we need look no further than the big news of late: Israel and the Palestinians. I'm quite sure that every time Hamas or Islamic Jihad or one of the other, smaller, militant groups fires a rocket into southern Israel, it feels like they are striking a blow against the oppressor - even though after decades of violence against Israelis they are no closer to justice. Israelis, for their part, no doubt feel that the incursions in the West Bank and the slaughter in Gaza are landing telling blows against the "threat" - even though after decades of violence against Palestinians they are no closer to security. Violence has clearly failed for both antagonists, yet neither seems willing or even able to realize it.

So it’s simply not true that there’s “no choice,” even less that the only choice is between murderous violence and passivity. There is a choice: the choice of seeking to preserve life rather than destroy it, to think in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them,” to control conflict rather than to “cry havoc,” to, in short, struggle to achieve just ends while minimizing the suffering of opponents rather than maximizing the suffering of “enemies.” That is the choice of nonviolence and nonviolent action. It is nonviolence, not violence, which eschews hate and fear and thereby offers our best - ultimately, our only - hope for long-term peace and justice.

Most, I fully realize, find that hopelessly romantic. I find it eminently practical. Not only because, as Edmund Burke said, “a conscientious man should be cautious in how he deals in blood,” but because, as a “Life” magazine editorial put it (August 20, 1945), “our sole safeguard against the very real danger of a reversion to barbarism is the kind of morality which compels the individual conscience, be the group right or wrong...There is no other way.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A few Gaza footnotes

Updated After this, I have to leave this issue aside for a while. I need to regain my ethical balance. By that I don't mean that I've been unfair or "unbalanced" - more precisely, any more "unbalanced" than the facts dictated - but that I need to step away from the anger and worse, the stomach-churning, spirit-destroying conviction that our new Change-ident isn't going to change a goddam thing on this and will be every bit as much an Israeli sycophant as those who preceded him. So I guess "balance" isn't the right word. It's my ethical composure I need to regain. I need to think about some other things. But before I do, the footnotes:

- On Monday, Amnesty International formally accused Israel of war crimes for its use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas. White phosphorus ignites on contact with air. Its use is legal under international law if the purpose is to use the smoke produced as an "obscurant" to hide troop movements. However, it is still an incendiary which causes severe burns on contact with skin, so the idea is that it would be used in open ground - not in packed neighborhoods.

AI is not the first to make the charge, but what makes this significant is that it's
made on the basis of an on-the-ground study by a British weapons expert following the ceasefire put into force by Israel and Hamas on Sunday.

Weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith, who visited Gaza as part of a four-person Amnesty team, said he had found widespread evidence of the use of the incendiary material.
Israel, which at first denied using white phosphorus, later changed its story to the bland assertion that all its weapons complied with international law - which is rather slippery, since the issue here is not the weapon but how it was used.

On the lighter side, the IDF said it would investigate itself on the matter. I'm on tenterhooks waiting to see how that one will come out.

- In a Tuesday article about the aftermath of the assault, the Middle East Times gave some examples of materials Israel had banned from going into Gaza, incidentally showing how brutal the economic blockade is.
Previously Israel banned cement, steel and cash, saying Hamas used them for bunkers, rockets and militia salaries.

Israel also banned spare parts for water and sewage treatment plants, as well as medical equipment and spare parts needed for Gaza's overburdened hospitals, arguing that these did not fall under the category of humanitarian aid.
It appears that to Israel's way of thinking, there is very little which is humanitarian aid. I have to admit that until now it never would have occurred to me that, for example, medical equipment would fall outside that range.

- Speaking of definitions, Israel's definition of a military target is as broad as its definition of humanitarian aid is narrow. The New York Times had this yesterday:
“The civilian infrastructure provides the administrative, logistical, human resources and funding structure, which supports Hamas’s entire military effort,” said Capt. Benjamin Rutland, a spokesman for the Israeli military.
I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but even so it bears repeating: This reminds me of how in the Gulf War the US systematically destroyed Iraq's civilian infrastructure on the grounds that roads, bridges, telephone switiching stations, railroads, and so on were all military targets because they could "help Iraq's military," a definition which makes it hard to think of anything that's not a military target. Israel has clearly adopted that lesson.

- At the outbreak of the carnage, the New York Times said yesterday,
hundreds of Israeli Arabs were detained; some were “preventative arrests” based on intelligence, a police spokesman said.
Don't worry, I'm sure they all deserved to be taken. You can't be too careful.

- The Independent (UK) carried a follow-up to the story of the Samouni family, who I mentioned on January 10. I was particularly struck by the account of one of the survivors returning to two adjacent houses owned by the clan. The homes were
ransacked and scarcely habitable, with furnishing and electrical appliances tossed out of the window, gaping holes in the wall made for firing positions, furniture smashed, clothes piled on the floor, pages of family Korans torn out and remains of soldiers' rations littered in many rooms.

Stars of David and graffiti in Hebrew and English proclaiming "Arabs need 2 die", "no Arabs in the State of Israel" and "One down and 999,999 to go" had been scrawled on walls. A drawing of a gravestone bore the inscription "Arabs 1948 to 2009".

But the two houses were at least still standing.
Fourteen neighboring houses had been flattened by bulldozers.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) adds some more details, including the reminder that
[t]he United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has already said Israel should be investigated for what happened in Zeitoun on January 4 and 5.
We'll see if anything comes of that.

- Also from the Herald comes an analysis by the paper's chief correspondent, Paul McGeough, published this past Saturday. It's too long to easily summarize here, but there are two bits I want to excerpt. First is this:
At $US1.4 billion ($2.08 billion), the first estimate of the cost of damage caused by more than 2300 Israeli air strikes alone seems too low. In an interview with The Times in London, an Israeli officer who was in Gaza described the damage as unimaginable: "It doesn't look like we have been there for [just] a few weeks. It looks destroyed, demolished, like we were bombing it for years."
The other is this:
Israel is diminished in the eyes of the world. Speaking of the hundreds of dead children in Gaza, a Tel Aviv-based ambassador was quoted as telling Israel: "Your action is brutal … I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government."

At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, a senior official indicated this ambassador was not alone. Acknowledging the overwhelming negativity of dispatches from embassies in Israel even before the onslaught to come - when foreign media finally gets into ravaged Gaza - the official groaned: "You see the reports in the morning and you feel ill."
The rest bears reading.

- Reuters reported on Monday on how the IDF literally destroyed an entire neighborhood - houses, citrus orchards, olive groves, and all.
They pounded it with bombs, blasted it with tanks, then bulldozed the trees and gardens
because it had the misfortune to sit on a ridge overlooking Gaza City and the Israelis wanted it as a firing platform.

- Writing an op-ed in the Washington Times (of all places) a week ago, Professor Randall Kuhn of the Global Health Affairs Program at the University of Denver eviscerates the "what would you do if rockets were fired at you" argument by extending the analogy to cover both sides of the equation.
Think about what would happen[, he begins,] if San Diego expelled most of its Hispanic, African American, Asian American, and Native American population, about 48 percent of the total, and forcibly relocated them to Tijuana? Not just immigrants, but even those who have lived in this country for many generations. Not just the unemployed or the criminals or the America haters, but the school teachers, the small business owners, the soldiers, even the baseball players.
The rest is at the link.

Okay, that's it. Barring some breakthrough, no more Gaza news for a little while. It's something I need to do.

Updated with the editorial cartoon by Rex Babin of the Sacramento Bee and the link to the AI statement.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I suppose I should say something about the inauguration since just about everyone else is.

To the "future question" that some TV network or another has been pushing, "Where were you when history was made?" I can now answer "I was asleep." After suffering through another round of my on-going battle with insomnia and finally getting to sleep around 7am only to be awakened by the dog whining to go out at 10 and again at 11:30, at 11:45 I laid back down and woke up at 12:15. So I missed the whole thing.

And I don't mind. I'm not all oh gee whiz gosh darn about it. Now, yes, I am aware of the historic nature of the event. I remember saying back before the primaries even began, back in March 2007, that I felt "grudging admiration" for the fact that
[j]ust 42 years - and no, that is not a long time in the run of history - just 42 years after blacks were viciously beaten simply for wanting to vote by police who assumed they still could get away with it - just 42 years later, the leading candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president are a black man and a woman.
But I'm also aware that Barack Obama is not what many of the people at the thousands of "inauguration parties" think he is. He is not a "savior" in either a literal or a flip sense of the term and "Yes we can," lacking the rest of a sentence filling in what goals are being declared doable, is an empty slogan inviting everyone to insert their own understandings and desires.

As I've noted before, Obama was not a "peace" candidate, he was just a "I knew Iraq was a dumb idea" candidate.
He's a reliable, accepts-the-common-wisdom, centrist who can be counted on to strive to continue the Pax Americana,
as, among other things, his intent to send additional troops to Afghanistan and his embrace of the fiction of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program show. More generally, he is
a moderately liberal but still a corporatist Democrat who more than once has shown his willingness to burn principle at the altar of political expediency,
that last referring, among other things, specifically to his shameful, cowardly, flip-flop on FISA. And there is still the matter of his views on same-sex marriage, something that the Rick Warren imbroglio did nothing to counter.

Still, as I'm prone to say, skin cancer, bad as it is, is preferable to lung cancer, and so is having a president who disappoints by being less than he could be as compared to one who always seemed to be even worse than you thought. So I felt about his inauguration pretty much the same thing I felt about his election: A certain sense of relief. Not excitement, not enthusiasm, but yes, some relief.

So I do wish Barack Obama well and I imagine that over the next four years there will even be times I'll be able to say "I can agree with that." Which, I'm forced to admit if I'm to be honest, will be a real improvement over the last eight years, even if still on the skin cancer level.

I will add one other thing, though:

I saw the kind of public enthusiasm generated by the event. I listened to pundits with catches in their voices go on about the "profound change" Obama's inauguration represents as if it actually does mean "the end of racism." I watched "Countdown" and heard Ken Burns declare that the US is "the only nation on Earth stitched together with words and ideas" and Keith Olbermann follow up by saying the country had switched from preferring the guy you'd rather have a beer with to the guy you want to lead the nation and asking if there is "another country that has this capacity for re-invention" (to which Burns replied, "I don't think so"). I heard and saw additional crystallized examples of what I have called "the myth of American innocence" and which others, such as James, describe as the notion of "American exceptionalism" until it became almost nauseating, treacle laced with honey.

I saw, I heard, and I thought "Good luck, Barack Obama, you're going to need it. Because no one could live up to the expectations that are being set for you."

Stop in the name of - Just please stop!

My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. - British Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, a Jewish immigrant whose grandmother was murdered by Nazi soldiers.


Be warned: This will be somewhat rambling. These things usually are.

So there is a ceasefire - of sorts - in Gaza. Israel declared a "unilateral" ceasefire on Saturday and Hamas followed with its own "unilateral," one-week, ceasefire a few hours later.

I say "of sorts" because both sides, Israel in particular, have made it clear that this will not be the end unless they get what they want. Indeed, Israel is already violating its own ceasefire. AP reports that
Israeli warships off the northern Gaza coast fired sporadic rounds of heavy bullets at beaches through the afternoon.
An IDF representative said these were "warning shots" - whatever that could possibly mean in a ceasefire - but they wounded one Palestinian. I find it hard to call that a "warning shot."

All this does not bode well for the future since neither side gained what it wanted this time around.

On the Israeli side, we have Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declaring "We won." As Haaretz (Israel) reported it, he said
[t]he Israel Defense Forces objectives for its operation in the Gaza Strip were "obtained in full." Hamas was "surprised and badly beaten," the government "made decisions responsibly and wisely," the IDF's performance was excellent and the southern home front "displayed resilience."
Obtained in full? Who is he kidding? Israel claimed the purpose was to stop rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. The BBC noted that Israel's ceasefire began at 2am local time (midnight GMT or, if you're into technical applications or set your clock by WWV, it's UCT). But
[h]ours later, at least 18 rockets were fired into Israel, Israeli sources said, triggering an Israeli air strike in response.
So unquestionably, that objective was not "obtained in full." (I don't know if those rockets were a ceasefire violation since it's unclear if they were fired before or after Hamas made its own declaration that it was standing down.)

Likely, a truer goal was to, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, "topple Hamas," to, as Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier-General Dan Harel put it, "erase every trace of Hamas," asserting that "there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza."

However, AP observed that
[u]niformed Hamas security teams emerged on Gaza City's streets Monday as leaders of the Islamic militant group vowed to restore order in the shattered Palestinian territory after a three-week pummeling by the Israeli military. ...

Hamas ... raced to capitalize on anger toward Israel and sought to show it remains unbowed and firmly in command of the Mediterranean coastal strip.

"We are still ready and capable of firing more rockets. We are developing the range of our rockets and the enemy will face more, and our rockets will hit new targets, God willing," said Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas' military wing. ...

The high visibility of uniformed Hamas police stood in contrast to the furtive movements of Hamas fighters in civilian clothing who confronted or tried to evade the Israeli onslaught that began Dec. 27. Some have suspected the Islamic group was in disarray, but even some Israeli observers have acknowledged that the tightly knit organization remains largely intact.
So that "objective" was not reached, either. What, then, are the "objectives" that have been "achieved in full?" Two possibilities present themselves, neither pretty, in fact both ugly. Not that anything about the last three weeks has been otherwise.

One is that, in the words of Thomas Friedman, whose blood lust belies his claim to a bleeding heart, the intent was to "educate" Hamas. The "education" in this case consisting of
inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population.
The lesson to be learned, it seems, is "challenge our power and we will kill you by the thousands," to, as former IDF Chief of Staff and current Likud candidate for the Knesset Moshe Ya'alon is supposed to have said, "sear into the consciousness of the Palestinians that they are a defeated people."* Now, Friedman is the one who infamously said that the whole purpose of the Iraq war was to tell some country in "that part of the world" - didn't have to be Iraq, he said, could have been Saudi Arabia, could have been Pakistan - to "Suck. On. This." So maybe he's not the best source on this.

However, he's not the only one. That AP report also said that
Israelis hope Gaza's civilians, who suffered heavily in the fighting that ended Sunday, will blame their militant rulers for provoking the Israeli assault with rocket attacks on southern Israel.
That is, the purpose was to attack civilians. To make them "suffer." To inflict "heavy pain." To destroy, to kill, to maim, all in the hope that it would provoke the people of Gaza to blame Hamas rather than the people who were actually bombing and shooting them. Which makes the IDF's actions make a kind of perverted sense. That's why you bomb mosques and schools and UN sites and hospitals and clinics and food distribution centers. That's why you shell houses full of unarmed civilians. That's why you shoot at ambulances and keep medics from getting to the wounded. That's why you kill 100 times as many Palestinians as Palestinians killed Israelis and over 200 times as many civilians as the reverse. That's why you leave 400,000 without running water and entire neighborhoods "flattened," looking like "they have been hit by a strong earthquake."

That's why you destroy 80 percent of the crops.

That's why you produce 100,000 refugees, including at least 35,000 homeless.

All that, all of it, based on "responsible and wise" decisions and an "excellent" performance by the IDF, had one goal: to "inflict pain." To "educate" Palestinians that they have the choice between hunger, pain, squalor, and death on the one hand and abject, crawling surrender on the other.

I have to say that Palestinians are not the only ones getting an education. A lot of the rest of us are, too. There is a saying that those who deal in vengeance become what they say they oppose. There is no better example of that than Israel, which has engaged not only in repression, illegal occupation, and war crimes, but has become a terrorist government, deliberately targeting civilians for political purposes - which is the very definition of terrorism.

I can remember things I wrote and not all that long ago, it seems, when I expressed sadness about the Middle East, when I felt the deepest tragedy of the region was that just at the time when the Arab states and the Palestinians were coming to accept, even if grudgingly, Israel's existence and permanence was just the time when Israeli hearts, hardened by war and a constant sense of looming danger, would no longer accept that as enough, that "security" through dominance had come to fill their thinking. Still, I said,
[t]he truth is, there’s blame enough for all sides in the on-going tragedy of the Middle East, enough pain both suffered and inflicted by each to rouse both compassion and anger.
But I must confess that my compassion for Israel has about run out.

And it would completely die if the second possible "objective" that has been "fully met" is the real one. Even though it has been suggested as a possibility by some who would not be thought unkindly disposed toward Israel, I still find it too hard to accept: It's the idea that the bottom-line purpose of the attack was to help Olmert's chosen successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, look "tough" in the run-up to the February elections. That the whole thing was simply a political stunt. That is just too far beyond my understanding of what it means to be human, too truly sociopathic, for me to grasp. Hardened hearts and calloused souls, that I can understand. That level of subhuman, casual cruelty, I can't.

Nevertheless, nevertheless all the considerations of why and how, of which cruelty was the source of the attack, there is now a ceasefire - again, of sorts - and it appears to be holding. Israel initially made only vague promises about withdrawal, all conditioned, of course, on a total end to rocket fire from Gaza. Olmert grandly allowed as how if that happened, Israel would "consider" withdrawing. That is, "you be good little submissive boys and girls and maybe we'll stop. No promises, though."

Despite that, within hours of the ceasefire, Israeli troops began withdrawing from Gaza. At first that was called a "partial" withdrawal, and the situation right now is somewhat confused. Reuters is saying that
Israel planned to complete a troop pullout from Gaza before Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, Israeli political sources said, in what analysts saw as an effort to avoid any tension with the new U.S. president.
But AFP said that
[h]ours before the inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama, the army said a full troop pull-out from Gaza was not under discussion.

"For the moment, no one is talking about the total withdrawal of troops," said army spokeswoman Avital Liebovich.
So while troops are pulling out, how many and if they'll be out before Obama is inaugurated at noon today is unclear.

What is clear is that troops or no troops, Israel intends to continue its economic and ethical suffocation of Gaza. It still controls the borders, it still controls the air and the sea, and it still, even in the face of the devastation it has caused, is agreeing to allow in merely a trickle of humanitarian aid. I say it again: That is terrorism. How can you say it isn't?

A final, related, thought here:
"Our fight is not with the people of Gaza," Olmert said....

"We did not go to war to fight the people of Gaza," [Defense Minister Ehud Barak] said. "Hamas has taken half of the Palestinian people hostage."
So by their own account, at least half the people killed (even accepting the odd standard that Palestinian policemen were not civilians) were, and virtually all who suffer in hunger and cold are, innocents - indeed "hostages." Israeli forces have killed the innocent, have mowed down "hostages," to gain political ends. How is that not terrorism?

At the end of World War II, Albert Camus wrote hopefully of people who could learn to be “neither victims nor executioners.” The Israelis, it seems, have preferred simply changing roles from the former to the latter.

Footnote One: Haaretz reports that
[t]he Immigrant Absorption Ministry announced on Sunday it was setting up an "army of bloggers," to be made up of Israelis who speak a second language, to represent Israel in "anti-Zionist blogs" in English, French, Spanish and German. ...

[Erez] Halfon[, the ministry's director general,] said volunteers who send the Absorption Ministry their contact details ... will be registered according to language, and then passed on to the Foreign Ministry's media department, those personnel will direct the volunteers to Web sites deemed "problematic."
Put more simply, Israel is organizing a mass online PR assault using people falsely claiming to be independent voices. (And please don't bother with anything about "how do you know that" unless you're able to imagine these people going to their assigned websites and saying "hi, I was sent here by the Israeli government." If you can imagine that, you have a much more active imagination than I do.)

Footnote Two: Consider this quote:
The spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York boasted of the masses who attended a solidarity demonstration with the children of Sderot. He did not mention the masses of Jews who do not know where to hide their shame at the sight of pictures of Palestinian men weeping bitterly over the families who perished under the ruins of their houses.

Israeli spokesmen try to cope with the values question by using the following question/argument: "Would the United States have restrained itself in the face of ongoing rocket fire from Mexico at its children, in its sovereign territory?" It is hard to believe that such a comparison will make any impression on an intelligent man like Obama. Mexico is not under an American aerial and naval blockade, nor is it considered occupied territory under international law. The U.S. Army and American settlers have not controlled parts of Mexico for the past 41 years (and the United States was a guarantor of the Oslo Accords, which stated that Gaza and the West Bank constitute a single political entity). ...

Obama has two choices. First, he can let the Israelis bleed and kill all the way to an ostracized apartheid state, observing from the sidelines as Israel endangers peace in the Middle East and undermines his country's interests.... The second option is to stand at Israel's side in its struggle to achieve peace and maintain its Jewish and moral character en route to regional acceptance, which has been offered by 22 Arab states.
The author is an Israeli Jew named Akiva Eldar, writing in Haaretz for Monday. It has been said so many time but it remains true that there is more dissent from Israeli policy in Israel than there is in the US. Which is a good part of the reason why, I suspect, we keep paying for the murder of innocents to the tune of about $2.3 billion in military grants in 2008. The blood on Israeli hands splashes heavily onto ours and our boots are covered with the gore of mangled bodies and the wreckage of ruined lives.

If I can just manage to step away from the day-to-day carnage, I'll be able to write more about our own responsibility and what we as a people should do beyond condemnation and cutting off military aid. That will take a little time.

*The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), the extremist, pro-Israel lobby dedicated to snuffing out any criticism of Israel in US media, claims that the quote is bogus, a misquote of something Ya'alon said in a 2002 interview with Haaretz. Which is partly true; in that interview, he didn't say those words. Rather, he said that it must be "burned into the Palestinian consciousness" that they can't win in a confrontation with Israel. However, since in that same interview he referred to the Palestinian "threat" as being like a "cancer" and Israeli military repression in the West Bank as "chemotherapy," I think it's a distinction without a difference so I don't feel bad about using the quote as I did.

As a footnote to this to be filed under Consider the Source, in April 2008, CAMERA was discovered to be engaging in an organized, secret effort to edit all Israel-related Wikipedia articles to conform to CAMERA's warped view.

Thanks to Eli for the link to the video.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Andrew Wyeth has died at the age of 91.

He was not my favorite artist by any means but he did help to show that there is art in the ordinary and beauty in the bleak - as, in a different way, did Edward Hopper, although in Hopper's case the bleakness was a near-constant undercurrent of loneliness and isolation.

Wyeth was also, and he would deserve mention for this if for nothing else, the painter of "Christina's World," perhaps the most famously and frequently misunderstood painting ever done.

I believe

Today, Monday, is of course Martin Luther King day. To observe the day, I've decided to re-post what I wrote last year on the occasion with the idea that I might do this every year that this blog exists. You may recognize some bits and pieces from other posts; I have little shame about recycling my stuff if I think it makes the point. So with a slightly-truncated opening, this is it:

Instead of another session of grousing and griping, denouncing and decrying, I thought I would try to be positive for once, even if it required raiding some of my old writings. In my very first post here, a bit over four years ago, I referred to a conversation I'd just had with a friend in which I said
"The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going."

So now I have an outlet to express that anger, to discuss what I'm angry about, why I'm angry, and, in my calmer moments, to try to rediscover that hope and offer a different vision of what we as a people, a nation, a culture, might do, might be, might become.
I haven't done as much of that rediscovering as I should, at least not overtly. Still, as I said a long time ago,
[e]ven many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only can be but must be better than they are.
What's more, quoting yet another thing I wrote a long time ago and quoting as accurately as I can from memory, "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to intellectualization, to try to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references, still it's important - for me if not for my listeners - to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to the fundamental, baseline, radical place where I can say, simply, I believe.

I believe that life is our highest good and advancing life is our highest ideal. I believe whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of that special crystal-glitter quality “human,” that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from other animals. I believe that which opposes life, which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, is a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential, to reject death and all that advances death.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, of family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, based on ties the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we must reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community. I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community extending even to the community of humanity.

I believe we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and in the duty of society to strive to guarantee that right. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we should desire to put a floor under everyone’s needs.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in simple human justice, a justice that rejects the ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and even expand that preciousness. A justice that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

As for the application of all that, I'll quote a speech I gave when I ran for Congress - again, it was some years back.
Now I may sound like a philosopher, but the fact is that what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. That means being hard-nosed, practical, and factual in our programs. It was the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci who said “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean practical in the sense of the neoliberals, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their “realism.” No, I mean something different. You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But at the same time we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. So that’s what I call on you to be: steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them.
In that same speech I said that achieving wide-ranging justice "will not be easy, cheap, or convenient - but it is possible" and pledged I would never give up on that dream.

In the years since I've tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; as I said in a different way at the top, usually it was if anything a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down; I know it, I can feel it. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years (nor as much as I'd like to) and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

But goddam it, despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good damn reason, I still believe that things can be, must be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will.

Friday, January 16, 2009

In despero veritas

If someone want to correct my Latin, by all means go ahead. I'm sure I got some gender or tense or some other mistake there.

But the fact here is that I have tried to step away from this, I have tried to think about, post about, other things, but I keep coming back to it - and I'm not sure how much more my heart, my soul, can take. I can't even go into analysis, pretty much just simply listing some items is as much as I can bear right now.

- A neighborhood free health clinic in Gaza City run by the Near East Council of Churches was destroyed by Israeli bombing on Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of medical equipment was destroyed by the strike. ...

Nobody was injured in the attack, in part because the clinic was closed.

The NECC said security concerns had forced it to close the clinic on Tuesday. ...

The clinic was completely destroyed in the attack, along with valuable medical equipment, including ultrasound machines, laboratory apparatus, and computers, which are not freely available in Gaza.
This one can't be chalked up to a "mistake," either: The building's owners got a phone call giving them 15 mintues to evacuate. Which means not only did the Israelis deliberately bomb a building clearly marked with the insignia of the Red Cross and which had ambulances parked outside, it means there can be no excuse of "we were receiving fire" unless you believe Israel makes a practice of giving people shooting at them 15 minutes' warning they were going to shoot back.

- A coalition of nine Israeli civil rights groups has declared there is "a heavy suspicion," that needs investigation, that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza.

The groups spare no words, calling the level of deaths and injuries of civilians "unprecedented" and charging that "military forces are making wanton use of lethal force" that has resulted in the deaths of "hundreds of uninvolved civilians" and physical destruction "on an enormous scale." Chillingly, they say that
Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as "legitimate military targets" solely by virtue of their being "symbols of government."
Put more bluntly, in the Israeli government's view a "legitimate military target" is whatever the military targets.

- Israel has shelled UNRWA's central distribution facility in Gaza, setting buildings ablaze and threatening "hundreds of tons" of relief aid.
"This is a hub of the whole operation, the whole United Nations operation in Gaza, this is the hub, where it all comes to, gets distributed from,"
said John Ging, director of UNRWA in Gaza. As a result, the UN has had to suspend its operations in Gaza.

Ging charged that white phosphorus was used in the attack.
"It looks and smells like phosphorus and it's burning like phosphorus. That's all I can say. That's why I'm calling it phosphorus," said Ging.
Israeli officials earlier denied using white phosphorus, but by Monday, they would only say that ordnance used in Gaza is Israeli "in accordance with international law." It's legal to use white phosphorus as an "obscurant," that is, like a smoke bomb. I wonder what they were trying to obscure in this case.

After getting a furious protest from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli officials offered semi-apologies: Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Ban the incident had been "a grave mistake," while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said "I don't think it should have happened and I'm very sorry."

However, Olmert also insisted that "it is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place," which raises serious questions as to whether it really was a "mistake" or if the mistake was not anticipating the response. Particularly since in a later version of the story, Olmert was quoting as saying the militant fire was coming from near the compound, not in it. In either event,
Ging[, who was at the facility at the time,] denied there were any militants at the compound, and also said that at the time there was "no fighting in the vicinity of the compound."
- CARE International, said it too had been forced to suspend all deliveries of food and medical supplies due to heavy bombardment in and around its warehouses and distribution sites in Gaza City.

- The Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City was bombed twice on Thursday. The first attack, in the morning, was a direct hit that set the second floor on fire and left 500 people "huddled on the ground floor ... in fear for their lives and choking on dust and fumes," according to the International Red Cross.

The second came about 10:30pm,
leaving the facility in flames and forcing the staff and patients to evacuate to the streets.
The IRC and the Red Crescent Society, which operated the hospital, issued "an unusually sharply-worded statement" calling the situation in Gaza
completely and utterly unacceptable based on every known standard of international law and universal humanitarian principles and values.
- At least one Palestinian Red Crescent warehouse with relief supplies was set on fire by Israeli shelling Thursday morning. The ICRC accused Israeli soldiers of firing on volunteers to keep them from putting out the fire.

- Finally for now and also on Thursday, Israeli forces shelled offices of international news agencies, according to the Foreign Press Association.

If you have any strength left, you might read this from Juan Cole. In fact, you might do well to read him regularly.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I did not expect this

I admit it, I did not expect this.

Johannes Mehserle, the San Francisco police officer who shot Oscar Grant in the back, killing him, as Grant lay face down and handcuffed in a BART station on New Year's Day, has been arrested and charged with murder.

Mehserle, who had refused to explain his actions to investigators, was arrested in Nevada.

Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said murder charges were filed
because at this point, what I feel the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act, and from the evidence we have, there's nothing that would mitigate that to something lower than a murder.
Damn. While it remains to be seen what will happen at trial, it's hard to imagine that all the video evidence taken by people at the scene can be overcome. It remains possible, just possible, that, as some have speculated, Mehserle thought he was pulling out his taser rather than his gun. But even in that case, I don't see how he could be convicted of anything less than assault and manslaughter. (Would that use of the taser would be assault with a deadly weapon or at least aggravated assault, but that ain't gonna happen.)

One other good word for Orloff:

"I understand that there's a great deal of emotion in the community and I understand that this situation raises a lot of significant social issues in our community," he said. "I would hope that people would ... let the criminal justice system play this out.

"In terms of those that want to protest on the broader social issues, I think peaceful protest can be a very healthy thing."

A DA endorsing the idea of social protests. Will wonders never cease.

Think of the children!

It seems that with every new technology, indeed every social shift, there are those who will wave around a fistful of real but more usually imagined incidents to declare "Danger! Danger! Our children are at risk!" This is nothing new; when Meredith Wilson had Harold Hill panic a crowd with references to the corrupting influence of dime novels and "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang", he was not just making it up. And that's far from the only example.

A recent panic has been the looming specter of Facebook and its ilk, a web of dark, forbidding places where adult sexual predators seek their prey and danger lurks in every conversation.

Or not.
The Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all[, McClatchy reports on Wednesday].

A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there is not a significant problem.

The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media like NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series and are the latest study to suggest that concerns about the Internet and sex abuse against children are overblown. ...

[An article about a study from last February can be found at this link.]

The Internet Safety Technical Task Force examined the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey on children.

But the report cited research calling such fears a "moral panic," and concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults. ...

The 39-page document was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, childhood safety experts and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook.

The task force, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers are unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do occur, the report says, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper[, who "aggressively pushed" for the study,] in a statement Tuesday criticized the report, saying it "relied on outdated and inadequate research to downplay the problem of child predators."

"Law enforcement officers across the country are telling attorneys general that children are being solicited every day and that technology companies must do more to keep children safer," Cooper said.
And of course if cops are saying it, it must be true. So, y'know, just forget the study, 'cause it's just dumb ol' facts 'n' shit.

After all, in the immortal words of Mary Whitehouse, "We've got to get away from this silly business of having to prove things."

Banning for democracy

In a move that The Guardian (UK) called "a sign of growing confrontation with the country's Arab minority," Israel's Central Elections Committee has banned two Arab parties - the United Arab List and Balad - from running in parliamentary elections scheduled for February 10.

The move was met with almost complete silence in the US media. But that's okay, according to some pro-Israel bloggers, who insisted that this really doesn't say anything about Israel's status as a true democracy and doesn't deserve any attention.

Matt Yglesias, who imagines there has been "relatively cordial relations between the country’s Jewish majority and the 'Israeli Arab' minority" dismisses it as simply "a poorly timed PR move" because, after all, Arabs can still vote for other parties.

Jonathan Singer, while allowing as how "this isn't to say that the move doesn't come off poorly, or that it is particularly wise," insists "this isn't the end of the story" because the parties are appealing to the Supreme Court, which could overturn the decision. Thus, "the country does not yet appear to have crossed the threshold many believe it to have already crossed with regards to the disenfranchisement of Israeli Arab political parties."

And James Kirchick, writing at The New Republic, compares the ban to the banning of Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach party "for its racist and undemocratic platform," saying the Arab parties are being banned "for the same reason." What's more, he insists, "the standards for operating a legal political party in Israel are hardly unreasonable," and besides, echoing Yglesias, he says Arabs can always vote for someone else.
In the United States, if the Ku Klux Klan were to form a political party, advocating the dissolution of the American government and inciting violence from within and without, it would be banned, and rightly so,
he declared.

So, y'know, it doesn't mean anything, it's no reflection on democracy or anything like that, it's entirely just and reasonable and the US would do exactly the same, and stuff, and after all, the Israeli Supreme Court is likely to overturn the ban, just like it did a few years ago when the same thing was tried, so what's the big deal? But we're all three against it because, well, because it's bad PR.

What that is, is bad bullshit, a classic case of trying to have it both ways: A way to say you're against the decision without having to criticize it in any substantive way.

Of course it's a reflection on Israel's status as a democracy when it bans political parties. Saying "well, you can still vote for other parties" demonstrates an abysmal grasp of basic democratic principles. What kind of "democracy" is it when only officially-approved parties can participate? One is the old Soviet kind, where you could vote for anyone, provided they were a designated candidate of the Communist Party. Another is the Iranian kind, where the Guardian Council, composed of six clerics and six Islamic jurists, must approve candidates. I doubt Israel would like either of those comparisons (even though Iran actually does manage to maintain something within shouting distance of a democracy).

And yes, of course Israel has crossed a threshold. It did it when the idea of banning parties was instituted. It crossed another when these same parties were first banned. It has crossed a third by trying again to ban them despite having been shot down by the Supreme Court last time. And it is crossing a fourth by doing it despite the fact that, as Haaretz (Israel) reported,
[m]embers of the CEC conceded yesterday that the chance of the Supreme Court's upholding the ban on both parties was slim.
That is, it has undertaken an anti-democratic action in the expectation that someone else will undo what it has done.

But oh, comes the answer, there's still the example of the Kach party. This is just the same!

Except it's not. Kirchick himself says "the case for banning these two Arab parties may not be as strong as it was for the outlawing of the Kahane movement" and, tellingly, refers in the case of Kach to the party's platform but refers in the case of the Arab parties to statements by the party heads, not the parties' platforms. (He also calls the leader of Balad "disgraced" based apparently and solely on the fact that he's living in exile because Israeli officials were talking about filing charges of espionage against him - but never did.)

Still, maybe there's a case to be made that their platforms ran afoul of Israel's "hardly unreasonable" standards for being a legal party. According to Kirchick,
[t]he four offenses that could lead to possible banning are:

- Any rejection (in the party's goals or activities) of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
- Any incitement to racism.
- Any support of the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel.
- Any hint of a cover for illegal activity.
Since various Israeli leaders of major parties have referred to Palestinians as "beasts" and "two-legged animals" along with more colorful epithets, and there have been repeated questions raised about corruption, it would seem that on the second and fourth points, at least Labor and Likud could be tossed off the list of parties allowed to campaign. But leave that aside and consider the first and third.

So if you say you want Israel to become a multi-ethnic state, as Balad does, you can't be a legal party. If you opposed the invasion of Lebanon, if you now oppose the assault on Gaza, it could easily be argued that you are "supporting the armed struggle of an enemy," just as those here who opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were labeled "objectively pro-terrorist." So you can't be a legal party.

If your leaders even go to Lebanon or Syria - illegal without permission and one of Kirchick's charges against the head of the United Arab List - you are "supporting an enemy state" and can't be a legal party.

So is there a case to be made that the two parties violated the "hardly unreasonable" restrictions? Yes, there is - and that case is valid precisely to the same extent that Israel is not a democracy. If Israel is a democracy, if it is to be and to continue as a democracy, then the case against them is not valid - which is why the Supreme Court is likely to knock the ban down (again) and why it never should have been passed and why having passed it is an anti-democracy act.

Oh, one last thing: The US doesn't have a KKK Party, but there is an American Nazi Party, a neo-Nazi party called the National Socialist Movement, and the Christian Falangist Party of America - all legal, none banned.

Click here

"Digital marketer" Steve Rubel has declared that by January 2014, that is, five years from now,
almost all forms of tangible media will either be in sharp decline or completely extinct. I am not just talking about print, but all tangible forms of media - newspapers, magazines, books, DVDs, boxed software and video games. [Emphasis in original.]
A poll of his readers didn't support his optimism - and I use the word deliberately as he seems positively giddy at the future he sees, not surprising considering his job. Asked "In the US when will tangible media become extinct?" nearly 37% of those who responded said "Never, you're crazy." Only 15% agreed with his timetable. However, another 40% say while it won't happen by 2014, it will happen by 2040. (A final 8% answered "Not soon enough" which while indicating eagerness, says nothing about how long this process will take.)

The main objection of the naysayers was to the idea of books disappearing. Other forms, especially music and video, seemed more up for grabs.

Leaving those aside, it certainly is true that forms of print media other than books are facing difficulties. Indeed, what prompted this post was the fact that I was in a bookstore recently, looking at a reasonably good selection of magazines, when I noticed an announcement on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists saying that this issue was the last print issue - it was going strictly digital. A check of the inside front cover confirmed it: Due to the continuing rise in the Three Ps that are the bane of any publication - the costs of paper, printing, and postage - BAS would only be available online from now on. And that carries an implication that goes beyond the economic one.

That's not the only example: The Christian Science Monitor has announced plans to go all-digital come April for the same reasons: declining subscriptions and rising costs.

And last week came the news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is being sold - and if there are no buyers within 60 days, the 145 year-old paper will either be shut down or go web-only.
"One thing is clear: at the end of the sale process, we do not see ourselves publishing in print," Steven Swartz, president of the Hearst Corp.'s newspaper division, said in a Web story.
Newspapers across the country are looking for ways to cut costs everywhere they can in attempts to stay afloat. Newspapers are entering into joint operating agreements, or JOAs, with other papers, where they have separate editorial staffs but operate production and distribution jointly. On another front, Jim Hightower notes that the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are cutting back on home delivery to three days a week.

And while that is a serious concern, it also serves to bring me back to the point I wanted to make. In reporting on the Detroit papers' decision, CNN said the
[p]apers will be on newsstands every day, and the papers' online offerings will be expanded, [David Hunke, publisher of the Free Press and CEO of a JOA between the Free Press and the News] said. ...

Paying for delivery vehicles to cover 300,000 miles nightly, he said, did not make economic sense at a time when 63 percent of readers have broadband Internet access.
But if 63% of readers have broadband access, that means 37% - more than a third - do not. Nationwide, the figure is even higher. According to a July 2008 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, some 55% of American adults have high-speed internet access. Which means that 45% do not. What's more,
for poor Americans, as well as African Americans, broadband adoption was slow or negative.

Among adults living in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 annually, broadband adoption has actually regressed: the percentage dropped from 28 percent in March 2007 to 25 percent in April/May 2008, said the report.

Among African Americans, home broadband adoption stood at 43 percent in May 2008, versus 40 percent the previous year.
Look, let's face a simple fact: Without high-speed access, all these on-line services, all the digital magazines, all the "web only content," all the "expanded offerings," it's all crap. It's useless. Even with high-speed access, getting stuff sometimes can be an agonizingly slow process that gets bogged down in traffic and swamped with pop-ups, ads, and unnecessarily graphic-intensive sites. With dial-up, even trying to see a YouTube video is usually an exercise in futility and sysiphean frustration - or at least Zen-like patience.

The point is, as more and more information becomes available only on-line and as more and more of that information effectively becomes available only to those with high-speed access, more and more people are going to be left behind and out.

People have spoken in the past about a digital divide. I fear we are seeing the emergence of an information divide, one where people simply will not have access to what they will need to act as well-informed citizens, one where there will be an information elite just as now there is an economic elite. For all the people chirping about how "information wants to be free," that is, unrestricted, the fact is that while the information itself may be free in a philosophical sense, access to it is not in an economic one.

I remember when Al Gore was promoting what he called "the information superhighway." (Hey, I've been kicking around online long enough that I used Gopher regularly and a 28.8 modem is what you moved up to.) And certainly we've seen and continue to see the emergence of something at least similar to what he imagined. But just like cruising along on the interstate, as we fly down that digital superhighway we can become oblivious to the people traveling the potholed byways and dirt tracks that lie just a little beyond our route's shoulders - and, unlike the interstate, our highway is a toll road with tolls higher than a good number of folks can pay.
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