Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Time for some good news

Polio. The word can still send a chill of fear through people above a certain age. A crippling, uncurable disease that can leave its victims paralyzed - or dead. As recently as 1952, in the US alone there were 60,000 cases of polio and 3000 deaths.

I had an uncle who was stricken with polio as a child. He lived, but as a bed-ridden invalid unable to walk or even feed himself for the rest of his life. It is something we grew up with; we all knew what an iron lung is. My brother, not three years older than me, was a "polio pioneer," one of the 1.8 million children who participated in the first full field trial of the Salk vaccine, the first polio vaccine.

As a result of the Salk and later Sabin vaccines, polio has all but disappeared from the US; there has not been a naturally-occurring case since 1979. The disease is so rare here that in dealing with the teenagers I meet in my work, I often encounter ones who had never heard of it.

With aggressive immunization programs, that success has spread acoss most of the world. As recently as 1988, the number of countries where polio is endemic stood at 125. By 2005, the figure was four. The number of cases dropped from 350,000 to just 1600 in 2009.

Still, the disease continues to appear in outbreaks in various areas - but those outbreaks can be contained with immunization programs. The real problem area has been central Africa, most recently in Angola, where a 2007 outbreak has spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo because, the World Health Organization says, too few children were vaccinated in previous campaigns to eradicate the disease. Now, the intent in Angola is to vaccinate every child under five.

So where's the good news? It comes in two parts. First part is that Oliver Rosenbauer of the WHO's Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said that
"[W]e know this outbreak [in Angola] could be stopped very rapidly.

"If these upcoming immunisation campaigns are effectively implemented, this outbreak can be stopped in its tracks even by the end of the year.

"Africa is on the verge of being polio-free...."
I added the emphasis and I think it is well deserved.

The other part is that according to research published in the medical journal The Lancet, a new polio vaccine already in use in Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria
is about 30% more effective in protecting against polio than the most commonly used vaccine to date. ...

In India the number of cases this time last year was 464. Over the same period this year there have only been only 39 cases.

Nigeria has seen an even greater difference, with cases falling by 95%. ...

Dr Roland Sutter, from the WHO and the lead author of the study, told BBC News: "This (new) vaccine could get us over the top and get us to the finish line for eradication."
I don't want to get over-excited: We have been here before. The WHO once predicted that polio could be eradicated by the end of 2004. And there have been both disappointments when immunization campaigns didn't reach as many children as was intended and setbacks as outbreaks spread to countries that had been polio-free. But with the new emphasis on inoculating every child under five, not just those "at risk," and with a new, even-more effective treatment, maybe, just maybe, this time it can be done and polio can join smallpox in the trashbin of history.

And wouldn't that be sweet.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Unintentional humor, European Div.

The BBC reports that the Italian government of flakoid Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently granted extra powers to mayors, supposedly to fight crime and "anti-social behavior." But as is typical in the case of small minds given extra power, it hasn't gone quite according to plan. Among the activities banned in some places have been
sandcastles, kissing in cars, feeding stray cats, wooden clogs and the use of lawn mowers at weekends.
Now, the seaside city of Castellammare di Stabia wants to enforce a dress code
which would effectively outlaw everything from miniskirts to low-cut jeans....

There will also be a ban on sunbathing, playing football in public places, and blasphemy, if the proposals are approved at a council meeting on Monday.
And who is behind this inane concoction of restrictions drawn from 1950s fantasies? Mayor Luigi Bobbio - of the People of Freedom party.

Unintentional humor, Middle East Div.

In a communique at the end of a two-week meeting, Middle East bishops gathered at the Vatican
demanded that Israel accept U.N. resolutions calling for an end to its occupation of Arab lands, and told Israel it shouldn't use the Bible to justify "injustices" against the Palestinians. ...

The Mideast meeting at the Vatican involved about 185 participants, including nine patriarchs of the Mideast's ancient Christian churches and representatives from 13 other Christian communities. A rabbi and two Muslim clerics were invited to the meeting as well.
In response to the statement, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said "[t]he synod was hijacked by an anti-Israel majority."

Uh - what? "Hijacked by the majority?" Um, I think you're a little confused about this "democracy" thing that Israel supposedly has nailed down.

Footnote: Ayalon also called the statement "in the best history of Arab propaganda," which does prompt a "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:3-9) thought, but surely it would be odd to address a New Testament reference to an Israeli official.

Except it wouldn't, it seems: Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor made exactly that reference in grousing about the bishops' assertion that Israel shouldn't use Biblical arguments to justify injustices.
"This has never been a policy of any government in Israel, so this position sounds particularly hollow," he said. "Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone."
Maybe he wanted to use the New Testament since the Old Testament describes justice as "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21:23-25) Be that as it may, I hate to break it to friend Palmor, but every time your government uses the terms "Judea and Samaria," every time it refers to Jerusalem as the "undivided and eternal capital of Israel," using the Bible to justify oppressing Palestinians is precisely what you are doing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I'll believe it when I see it

This should be good news: At the end of a three-day visit to Sudan during which he met with senior officials, Sen. John Kerry said that those officials
assured him that they are committed to holding a referendum on southern independence on time. ...

[Kerry] says Sudan's leaders "are absolutely committed" to making the Jan. 9 referendum take place as planned.

The vote will decide whether the south will split from the north and become an independent state.

Kerry told reporters Sunday the U.S. is committed to playing a "positive role" in ensuring a peaceful outcome to the vote.
Yes, that should be good news, as it is part of implementing a peace pact putting an end to a civil war that lasted over 20 years and saw 2 million dead and 4 million driven from their homes. But the truth is, I can't be too enthusiastic just yet.

I had a few posts on the progress of the peace talks that eventually lead to this point. There was the early optimism in December 2003 that a deal was possible. Then there was an actual outline of a deal in May 2004, the heart of which was that the south, which is largely Christian and animist, would be autonomous for six years, including with its own monetary system, with a vote on independence to come at the end of that time. That is the vote now scheduled for January. Meanwhile, the largely Muslim north would continue to be ruled under Sharia law.

It took more than six months to turn that outline into a preliminary accord, but it was done and in January 2005 the deal was signed.

Then came the crashing of hopes that June when the leading figure among the southern rebels, who under the pact had become vice-president, was killed in a helicopter crash. Things have been on a knife edge since with the risk of incidents leading to renewed civil war ever present. Oddly but still understandably, a clash in May 2008 in an important oil-rich area coveted so much by both sides that under the preliminary accord it is guarded by joint patrols, was seen as something of a blessing in disguise - because it did not lead to more general fighting. People, it seemed, really were tired of war.

So here we sit, months away from a referendum that could well lead to a final resolution. There are still issues outstanding, including the status of that oil-rich region straddling the northern and southern regions, but there always are in such cases until the very end. So why am I not as enthusiastic as might be expected?

One big reason is that quite bluntly I do not trust Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In Darfur, he proved himself a master at
the compromise-and-stall game: Hold out until the pressure is too much, then "compromise" to take the heat off - and promptly forget about it once people look the other way.
In fact, a couple of years ago I noted seven times he had pulled that off over the preceding three years.

And now? This is from al-Jazeera for October 10:
Sudan's president has accused the country's southern autonomous leadership of breaching terms of a peace deal, warning that a conflict could re-erupt if the two sides did not settle disputes before a referendum on the south's secession, state media reported. ...

[Omar Hassan al-]Bashir said he was still committed to holding the vote on the south's independence, which is set to take place on January 9, but insisted both sides first had to settle differences over the position of their shared border and how to share oil, debt and Nile river water.

"He [Bashir] said a new conflict between the north and south will ensue if there was a failure to address these issues before the referendum and that such a conflict could be more dangerous than the one that took place before the peace agreement," Suna reported, referring to a speech Bashir gave on Saturday.
What's more, according to the VOA,
Mr. Bashir's foreign minister has suggested the government could reject the referendum results if it sees "interference" in the vote.
The south is strongly expected to vote for independence in the referendum. So it certainly appears that Bashir is positioning himself to be able to refuse to accept the outcome unless he gets what he wants on the outstanding issues.

Bashir doesn't have nearly as much wiggle room here as he did with Darfur, but the bottom line remains: As much as I hope this comes off the way it's supposed to, I will believe it when I see it. And not a moment before.

Go on, tell me this has nothing to do with bigotry

Come on, convince me. Tell me how we can't fuss about this, we can't denounce or even discuss it, because it will alienate those same white voters who need to be shielded from the "presumed" existence of racism. From AP:
New Hampshire's largest newspaper is defending its decision to refuse to publish marriage notices for gay couples.

New Hampshire is one of five U.S. states to have legalized gay marriage. Two men getting married in Portsmouth on Saturday wanted to publish a marriage notice in the Union Leader of Manchester but were refused.

The newspaper says it has a constitutional right to choose what to print and opposes the new law. Publisher Joe McQuaid says the paper isn't anti-gay but believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
Of course you're not anti-gay! Who could ever have even gotten the first hint of such an idea? You just think they shouldn't have the same rights and privileges as everyone else. You just think it's by definition impossible for gays to have a "real" marriage. How could anyone think that makes you anti-gay?

Democratic Senate candidate Paul Hodes called on the paper to change its policy. GOPper candidate Kelly Ayotte ran away from the issue. Which, if we're to listen to some, is what Hodes should have done.

Everything you need to know, The Ultimate Edition

Updated Okay, I've done it. I've found an example of Everything You Need to Know in a single word. A use of a word so revealing of the person that additional explication is unnecessary.

The person in question is Bob Somerby. I have lost interest in Somerby and his increasingly obvious intent to demonstrate he is a realer, truer, liberal than anyone else on the planet and that most liberals have "low IQs" - meaning they disagree with him. So I emphasize that I came across this quite by chance, following a link to a link to a link.

So what's the word, the Everything You Need to Know about Bob Somerby word? On Tuesday, in writing about "interpreting the crazy," he reasonably says that "sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy; it isn’t The Crazy and Racist." And then, immediately after, he says
Presumably, racism still exists in the land.
What th- Presumably?? That's as far as he can drag himself? Presumably there is still racism? How much more revealing can a single word be?

Somerby has repeatedly striven to minimize racism as a political issue and attacked "liberals" and columnists for raising it; he's so hypersensitive to it as to insist that calling conservatives racist "is the only political concept found in [liberals'] tiny small brains."

And now he can barely bring himself to admit - indirectly - that racism even exists? WTF?

I've had my problems with Somerby on various issues, but this is beyond the pale. Now, I am quite confident that Bob Somerby is not a racist. But I am equally confident that he embraces a liberal version of the GOPper's infamous Southern Strategy of "get the white vote" (he pointedly notes that "in 2008, the electorate was 74 percent white") and if that means telling minorities to fend for themselves politically while embracing the meme of whites as economically and socially victimized by "those people" - if that means deliberately turning a blind eye to the very real (not "presumed") existence of racism - well, hey, that's the way it goes.

That is reprehensible. Somerby is correct that not everything coming from the right is based on racism. Some of it is based on selfishness. Some of it is based on ignorance. And a lot of it is based on cynical exploitation of all three. But his bottom-line contention that race is essentially irrelevant and that racism (which merely "presumably" exists) must be ignored in order to pursue white voters is not only insulting to those white voters (who are, apparently, incapable of addressing the issue), it is ethically and morally contemptible.

Contrary to the "novelized tale" Bob Somerby is peddling, real progress, progress that takes root and persists, is never built on lies. And denying the importance of racism is a lie.

Updated with a Footnote: I wasn't going to address this but I changed my mind. Somerby's main argument for "sometimes, The Crazy is just The Crazy" is to point to Bill Clinton. There was craziness about him - so clearly that had nothing at all to do with race!

Is he joking? He can't be that uninformed. So has he forgotten - or does he just not care - how Toni Morrison, with tongue in cheek, called Clinton "the first black president" - and more importantly how the term was eagerly embraced by Clinton supporters?

Has he forgotten - or does he just not care - how the black community embraced Clinton, sensing his relationship with that community "was at least partly in his heart, as well as in his head?" Has he forgotten - or does he just not care - that as a result there was enough concern about the notion that as president he would be somehow "too solicitous" of minorities that the campaign found it necessary to stage the eponymous "Sister Souljah moment" because he had to prove he would "stand up to the minorities?"

Obviously, Bill Clinton isn't black. But the idea that The Crazy surrounding his presidency was wholly unrelated to the exploitation of white racial fears is itself crazy. The example of Bill Clinton does not support Somerby's thesis, it rebuts it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A week late but I couldn't let this pass without notice.

Benoit Mandelbrot died of pancreatic cancer on October 16. He was 85.

You may never have heard of him but you may well have heard of the Mandelbrot set, an illustration/example of his great accomplishment: He basically invented the field of fractal geometry. No, he didn't originate it, but he put it on a firm foundation.

The mathematics of fractals can be extremely complex, but essentially they are about addressing "roughness" in a quantitative, rigorous, way.

For an example of what one related issue is, consider the coastline of, say, Massachusetts. How long is it? Using a kilometer-long ruler, you could draw a line wrapping around the coast and come up with a figure, a rough figure. Now do the same with a meter-long ruler and you can measure into small areas of bays and inlets where your kilometer-long ruler wouldn't fit. You'll come up with a bigger number. Do it again with an centimeter-long ruler and you'll get a bigger number still. Do it with a millimeter-long ruler - and you get the idea.

So how long is the coastline of Massachusetts? It depends on the roughness of your measurement.

Footnote to the preceding

Earlier this month, Abdallah Abu Rahmah was sentenced to a year in prison by an Israeli military court.

You likely have never heard of him, but you should. Abu Rahmah is a Palestinian activist who had been organizing weekly nonviolent protests against Israel's so-called "separation barrier," better called the "apartheid wall," where it was to cut though the land of the farmers of the West Bank town of Bil'in. This is an area where the Israeli Supreme Court had earlier ruled that the wall must be moved - but that order was never carried out. In short, the route of the wall is illegal - but it's still being built.

Last December, Abu Rahmah was arrested. In August, he was tried on charges of "organizing illegal demonstrations," "incitement," "throwing rocks," and "possession of weapons." He was acquitted on the latter two charges; in fact, the charge of weapons possession was based on his gathering of spent IDF (Israeli Defense Force) tear gas canisters and bullet casings to prove such force had actually been used on protestors, an argument that proved too much even for the military court.

He was, however, convicted on the first two. But they are both by their nature bogus charges aimed at obtaining a conviction, not at punishing a crime. For one thing, it is surely true that under the occupation, it would be almost impossible for any Palestinian demonstration to be "legal" in the eyes of the IDF. And "incitement" is such a vague charge that saying or doing most anything that might inspire someone to do something the Israeli government (or the IDF) doesn't like - such as taking part in nonviolent demonstrations - becomes a crime.

The conviction sparked protest from a variety of sources, including Amnesty International, which "condemned" the conviction, the European Union, which described the conviction as "intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest," and Human Rights Watch, which called the trial "unfair" and accused Israeli authorities of "effectively banning peaceful expression of political speech."

Last week, his year-long sentence came down. Having been in prison since December, it would appear he would be out in a couple of months.

But maybe not.

In July, another Bil'in organizer, Adeeb Abu Rahmah, was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in the "illegal" protests. Having been in prison for a year already prior to conviction and sentencing, he should have been released immediately. Instead, upon the motion of military prosecutors unhappy with what they insisted was a too-light sentence, the judge ordered him to be held pending the prosecution's appeal of the sentence.

On Thursday, his sentence was lengthened to 18 months.

So with the prosecution in the case of Abdallah Abu Rahmah having been given a month to appeal the sentence, it may be some time yet before he is freed.

And by the time he is, the struggle may be over. The Jerusalem Post says that the wall in the vicinity of Bil'in will be completed in a few weeks, with a tall concrete wall replacing the current fence.
About 650 dunams [about 160 acres] of agricultural land will be given back to Bilin. Nonetheless, according to attorneys representing the village, roughly 1,300 dunams [about 320 acres] of private farmland will remain on the Israeli side. It was decided a concrete wall would be constructed in place of a fence, since this replacement barrier will skirt a new neighborhood in Kiryat Sefer, known as Matityahu East. If left as a simple fence, the Israeli residents might be at risk[, the Post reported].
So because the residents of a settlement that is illegal under international law "might" be at risk, Palestinians are denied access to their own land, in essence that land is stolen, in direct defiance of a Supreme Court decision.

What was that about Israel being "democratic?"

Everything you need to know, The Continuing Story

Well, I had everything you need to know in two sentences, in one sentence, and even in one phrase. I can't beat that, but this certainly makes the cut for the category. It was prompted by the first part of what follows, drawn from an article a couple of months old but which I just came across:

I can get a tax deduction for a donation to various Zionist groups seeking to help radical settler Jews establish an imperialist, peace-destroying permanent presence on the West Bank though their illegal settlements built and maintained in violation of international law - but if I donate to the legal activities of a group like Hamas or indeed if I even talk to it about how it could abandon terrorism in favor of nonviolent appeals, I can get thrown in prison for 15 years as having "supported terrorism."

Footnote: Just to add a lighter note, I'm reminded of the story Pete Seeger has told to tell about some king who, being too lazy to actually study, directed his council of wise men to reduce all the world's wisdom to a single page. When they had done that, instead of reading it he directed them to cut it to a single paragraph. Later, to a single sentence. Later still, to a single word. Omitting the fleshed-out details and going straight to the punch line, the single word was "Maybe."

Five Million Geeks to Earth

A couple of recent space-type things.

First, you may or may not recall that last year a NASA project to slam a missile into the Moon to see what it kicked up was regarded as something of a dud by media and a lot of the public when the plume it produced was not some big dramatic blast like an exploding volcano.

Well, scientists cared more about what the test revealed than what it looked like and they were excited by the fact that the results indicated that there is water on the Moon.

But wait! There's more! In fact, a whole jumpin' lot more. The latest analysis says that
[t]here's more water on the moon than on certain places on Earth.

That's the conclusion of many scientists who have spent the past year analyzing data from NASA's LCROSS spacecraft, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which was intentionally crashed into the south polar region of the moon.

LCROSS's original 2009 mission was to search for traces of water when it hit the perpetually shadowed crater called Cabeus. Not only did it find water, it found tons of it.
In fact, the estimates run as high as a billion gallons in that one crater. How much water is that? To hold it you'd need a cube over 500 feet long on each side. If you wanted to drain that cube in one day, the water would have to flow out at nearly 700,000 gallons a minute, nearly 12,000 gallons a second. In short, the evidence to date indicates that there is more than enough water on the Moon to supply a hypothetical Moon base.

Besides water, there was evidence of a variety of elements and compounds including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, sodium, silver, mercury, magnesium, ammonia, methane, calcium, and gold. Important among those is hydrogen: That hypothetical Moon base might be able to supply its own fuel. Peter Schultz, lead author of one of studies published in the journal Science, called it "a treasure trove."

However, Barack Obama is uninterested in Moon exploration. His reason is, literally and in so many words, "we've been there before." Which is rather like saying that because I've been to London I know everything I need to know and have experienced everything I need to experience about the UK - as well as suggesting that London would not be a good base from which to explore the rest of Europe. For his part, Schultz compared it to no longer going to Antarctica for research. Either way, Obama's argument is just lame and his claim that going to a near-Earth asteroid is a step toward Mars is silly.
Okay, first the closest thing to us, now the farthest from us. And the oldest, which in space is pretty much the same thing.
Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That's a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far. ...

"We're looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age," said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis, who wasn't part of the discovery team. "In human terms, we're looking at a 4-year-old boy in the life span of an adult." ...

The new galaxy doesn't have a name - just a series of letters and numbers. So [Matthew] Lehnert [of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published in the science journal Nature,] said he and colleagues have called it "the high red-shift blob. "Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young - maybe even as young as 100 million years old - Lehnert said. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars, he said.

What's most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them.

"We're looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects," Ellis said. "One hundred million years to a human seems an awful long time, but in astronomical time periods, that's nothing compared to the life of the stars."
Nothing indeed: The predicted life span of our Sun is on the order of 10 billion years. That's 100 times longer than a hundred million years. Some stars are expected to last as long as 10 trillion years. So yeah, 100 million years is not a long time for space.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Another happy moment in our nation's history

Updated Actually, probably not. But enjoy it for now.

At the top, I have to say that my only interest in Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the philosophical one of how it relates to equal rights. I have absolutely no interest in seeing more gays and lesbians in the military because I have no interest in seeing more people of any sort in the military. I do, however, have an interest in equal treatment, equal justice, equal rights. With that in mind, onward.

As you surely know, back on September 9, US District Judge Virginia Phillips found DADT to be unconstitutional. On October 12, she issued an injunction barring the military from enforcing the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. The Obama administration reacted by requesting that she stay her injunction pending appeal.

You know all that. This is the new part:
A federal judge said Monday she is learning toward denying a government request to delay her order halting the military from enforcing its ban on openly gay troops. ...

"My tentative ruling is to deny the application for a stay," Phillips said at the start of the hearing.

Phillips said the government has not proven that her order would harm troops or in any way impede efforts to implement new regulations for the military to deal with openly gay service members.
Phillips also called the government's request for a stay "untimely" because the DOJ had over a month to file briefs relative to a possible injunction before she issued it.

The government threw the "Don't you know we're at war?" argument at her, claiming that the "abrupt change" would damage troop morale. Phillips, happily (and reasonably) was having none of it. Nor was she impressed with the "It's so complicated, we don't have enough time" sniffling. Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights, said Phillips "seems to have lost her patience with the government's position" and expects she will not grant the stay.

One thing unspoken but which might figure in her thinking is that if she does issue the stay, the White House and the Pentagon would have reason to drag things out to force events into their own schedule, which involves changing the policy let's be polite and call it gradually. If she refuses, the question will be put to them immediately and they will have to move on the matter, promoting a more rapid resolution.

If she does refuse to stay her injunction, the DOJ will surely appeal.
Experts say [government lawyers] will likely find friendlier venues in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The farther the decision gets from the presentation of evidence in the trial court, the more likely it is that courts will assume the military must have some critically important interest at stake," said Diane Mazur, a law professor who opposes the policy.
Note the important word in there: assume. Phillips said that the government presented no evidence at trial and nothing at the hearing to show her order would cause irreparable harm to troops, military readiness, recruitment, or any of the rest of the malarky. The government is counting on higher courts to simply assume such harm based solely on the government's assertion, without the need for evidence. And they will probably get their way: Socarides said the DOJ "will probably go to the appellate court or Supreme Court and you'll see in a couple of days that this order has been stayed."

Which why I said "enjoy it for now." Be prepared to be disappointed in the short run. But the day will come. Yes, this is about the military and I do think we spend too much time getting rapturous about things military. But this is also about justice. And advancing justice is always a good thing.

Updated with a Footnote: The DOD has instructed military recruiters to accept openly gay applicants. Those recruiters are also to tell those applicants that they would be subject to dismissal from the military if DADT is upheld on appeal. Meanwhile, all discharge cases againt homosexuals have been frozen.

So much for the "it's so complicated" routine.

Another sad moment in our nation's history

A group of bigots in Tennessee has filed suit in County Court to prevent the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.
Their complaint claims that the county failed to determine whether the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is entitled to protection under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment which guarantees basic rights, including freedom of religion. They have also claimed that the county violated the state's Open Meetings law in the approval process.
Well, on Monday US Attorney Jerry Martin of Nashville filed a brief with the court offering legal proof that Islam is a recognized religion entitled to constitutional protection. Martin said his office was not taking sides in a "local matter" but that the office
would not sit by while mosque opponents raise questions in court about whether Islam is a recognized religion. Martin said in a statement that to suggest otherwise "is quite simply ridiculous."
Well, good on Jerry Martin.

So why is this "another sad moment?" Because he found it necessary to say it!

There are no accurate figures because the Census Bureau does not ask about people's religion, but its 2010 Statistical Abstract, citing a standard survey, says Islam is the third most followed religion among adults in the US. It is exceeded only by Christianity (which comprises 76% of the total) and Judaism. There are more adult Muslims in the US than there are adult Buddhists, Hindus, or Unitarians. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, worldwide there are over 1.5 billion Muslims, over one-fifth of the world's population.

And yet there are people going into court suggesting in their arguments that Islam is not a "real" religion, people who in pursuit of maintaining their bigotry, their ignorance, their paranoia, are insisting that Islam does not deserve the protections of the First Amendment.

That is indeed sad. It is also frightening, but today I find it just truly sad.

Deliberately missing the point

A little over a week ago in a post about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks - or rather their absence - I referred to a new proposal from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to change the law related to becoming a citizen so as to require all non-Jewish candidates for Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the country specifically as a "Jewish and democratic" state.

Thousands protested the bill and Arab members of the Knesset denounced it as racist and as undermining the rights of Israel's minority Arabs.

So now Netanyahu has taken the painfully obvious step of asking that the bill be amended so that all immigrants, including Jews, would have to swear the same oath.

Yeah, well.... While that change may address some legalistic concerns it does not address the central issue: the requirement for non-Jews to swear allegiance to Israel as a specifically, officially, Jewish state, in effect declaring themselves outsiders in their own chosen home.

As I also noted at the same time last week, there is an inherent tension between being both a "Jewish" state and a "democratic" state. You cannot truly be both because the demands of the former for adherence to Biblical law and principles will inevitably come into conflict with the requirements of the latter for open debate and majority rule. The proposed change does not address that conflict and does nothing to resolve it.

In other word, it misses the real point - I believe deliberately.

Footnote: Again as noted before, this tension does not exist only in the case of Judaism. Turkey faces some of the same problems and conflicts in trying to be both Muslim and democratic. The only way to minimize that conflict is to have a nation that is so overwhelmingly of one religion (and even of one school within that religion) that the question just doesn't arise.

Even that may not be enough: Ireland is not officially a Catholic country, but it is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Despite that, it has still had real political conflicts in areas where the law has sought to follow Catholic teachings, such as marriage, divorce, birth control, and abortion.

But leave that aside because that sort of homogeneity does not exist in Israel. So unless it is prepared to forcibly expel its Arab residents and citizens (which some right wing parties do espouse) that conflict will persist.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The right wing is the same around the world

Wherever you go in the world, whatever nation you're in or culture you experience, there is a constant: The right wing of that nation, that culture, that society, is all about "Mine! Mine! And fuck you!" It's all about selfishness.
Over four months after elections, efforts to form a new government flopped again Monday in an enduring spat between Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking camps that touches on the fate of the country as a unitary state.

Since the June 13 elections, half a dozen politicians have failed to form a government that would enact more self-rule for Dutch-speaking Flanders — Belgium's economically dominant north — and Francophone Wallonia in the south.
The latest failed attempt was lead by Bart De Wever, head of the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium's largest party, which advocates an "orderly breakup" of Belgium.
Gutting Belgium was long a dream of the far right in Flanders, and in recent years the idea of a breakup has become a mainstream politics among Flanders politicians.
Among the "reforms" De Wever proposed - besides one that would limit Francophone language rights in Flanders - was that
the regional governments of Flanders and Wallonia would raise half or more of their budgets through direct taxation, a job now done by the federal government.
But why? Is this just a culture war writ large? A Netherlands-France proxy fight? For some, certainly. But the real core can be found in the fact that
Wallonia would lose up to 70 percent of its revenue if that [taxation] proposal went through, said Elio di Rupo, the head of the Francophone socialists.
That's because Flanders
has 25 percent higher per capita income than Wallonia and half of its unemployment rate.
In other words, same as it ever was: It is the richer side saying to the poorer side, "I got mine, so screw you." The difference between right and left - the difference between "me" and "we," between selfishness and sharing, between coldness and compassion, between fear and hope, the clash of yesterday versus tomorrow - is universal.

I like the side I'm on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Geek From The Black Lagoon

Easing back into the saddle while still trying to extend my politics-free vacation a bit longer, here are some science-related bits that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.

1.- In 2008, some language researchers were documenting some unwritten languages spoken in the northeast corner of India, near the borders of China, Tibet, and Burma. At the time, there were 6909 documented languages. When they were done, there were 6910.

In doing their research, they discovered that a language known to its speakers as Koro, which was thought to be a dialect of a language called Aka, is actually an independent "hidden" language - one never before recognized.
"Koro is quite distinct from the Aka language," said Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. "When we went there we were told it was a dialect of Aka, but it is a distant sister language."
Koro is an endangered language, spoken by only about 1000 people. Anderson said if they had made the trip 10 years later, they might have discovered only a handful of speakers. Linguists estimate that a language disappears about every two weeks as the last of its speakers die.

National Geographic, which supported the research as part of its Enduring Voices program, has a video about the discovery here.

2.- Around 5500 years ago, a Scandinavian Stone Age settlement, likely of the neolithic Funnel Beaker Culture, was hit with a disaster, possibly a fierce sandstorm or maybe a sudden flood that drew sand from the river. However it happened, the town was inundated and encased in a thick layer of sand.

And so it remained, undisturbed. Until now.

Archaeologists working in southern Norway dug through two meters of soil and sand, expecting to find an "ordinary" Stone Age site, one small and badly preserved. Instead, they uncovered what Håkon Glørstad, a spokesman for the dig, called "an archaeological sensation," an unspoiled dwelling site with stone structures and the most well-preserved Stone Age pottery ever found in Norway, including at least one entirely intact clay vessel.

More than 300 square meters have been excavated so far. It appears the complete settlement is much larger.

3.- The common belief among scientists is that life on Earth began forming in a “primordial soup” in the oceans. However, it develops that there is another possibility.

A study simulating chemical processes in the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, discovered that molecules known as nucleotide bases and amino acids could have formed there. They are components, respectively, of DNA and proteins: the basic building blocks of life.
Intense radiation hits the top of Titan’s thick atmosphere and can break apart normally stable molecules, members of the research group explained. They studied what happens after these molecules fall apart. The researchers beamed radiation into a chamber containing chemicals believed to replicate those in Titan’s atmosphere, nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Formation of the life-building molecules, called complex organic compounds, followed.
In fact, the simulations generated all five of the nucleotide bases used by life on Earth, plus the two smallest amino acids. Team member Sarah Horst noted this means that to start building organic molecules, "We don’t need liquid water, we don’t need a surface."

Which means in turn that instead of starting in that "primordial soup," the building blocks of life on Earth might have arisen in a "primordial haze" high in the atmosphere. Life again proves to be more creative and more robust than we imagine.

4.- Finally, and speaking of evolution, while it wasn't their goal, a team of scientists at the University of Bristol in the UK has given what amounts to a big "Buzz off" to creationists and their "intelligent design" fellow travelers. After studying the impact of various fossil discoveries, they have concluded that despite various claims by various palaeontologists about "rewriting evolutionary history,"
most fossil discoveries don’t make a huge difference: they confirm, rather than contradict our understanding of evolutionary history.
That is especially true in the case of human evolution, where most discoveries of new fossil species simply fill in previously-known gaps in the fossil record.

Put another way, the more we learn about human evolution, the more we discover that while they may have had some of the exact details wrong, those dang evolutionists had the right idea all along.

Footnote: There are, of course, the Ig Nobels, awarded this year on September 30.

Another leftover from before the trip

In the face of those who argue that "the media controls what you think," I have always insisted that that is not true - but it is true that the media has a great deal of influence over what you think about. Case in point:
About 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the Gulf of Mexico, Dave Edmonds is struggling to remind people about the BP oil spill.

There aren't many magazine covers with photos of oil-drenched birds now that BP has capped its massive gusher at the bottom of the sea. ...

So Edmonds, who lives on the Delaware coast, has started a nonprofit organization [called Taking Back the Gulf] to keep the disaster on people's minds with a website and social networking campaign. ...

For Gulf residents fighting for economic survival, a nation's short attention span is deeply unsettling, especially with oil still washing ashore. Yet it's unclear whether Americans are turning their attention elsewhere, or whether it's just the media that have.

Either way, people like chef Chris Sherrill feel abandoned.

"It's amazing how quickly the American public forgot that this was one of the worst manmade disasters in U.S. history," he said.

His wedding catering and event business in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is teetering because few brides are still coming to the beach for weddings.
Yeah, but be fair: What are the interests of a bunch of just ordinary people like you compared to the protection of the oil industry?

After all, the Obama crowd's own investigating panel says that the White House
blocked efforts by government scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could become and committed other missteps that raised questions about its competence and candor during the crisis....

Among other things, the report says, the administration made erroneous early estimates of the spill's size, and President Barack Obama's senior energy adviser went on national TV and mischaracterized a government analysis by saying it showed most of the oil was "gone." The analysis actually said it could still be there. ...

The report shows "the political process was in charge and science really does not have the role that was touted," said Christopher D'Elia, dean of environmental studies at Louisiana State University.
In fact, those early estimates were not only "erroneous," they were downright silly.
At first, BP claimed the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day. By early May, the administration had revised its estimate upwards to 5,000 barrels a day, but based its assessment on the work of a single NOAA scientist using "overly casual" analysis of satellite images of oil on the surface of the ocean.

The administration clung to that estimate – which turned out to be 12 times lower than the actual spill size – despite known inaccuracies in the scientists' work, the report said.
Despite those facts - or more likely due to their cause - the O-gang
announced [this past] Tuesday that it is ending the temporary, six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling operations. The announcement means that new drilling could take place in the Gulf "very soon," said Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, though rigs will need to undergo new inspection and permitting procedures before companies can start drilling.

The moratorium was supposed to remain in place until Nov. 30....
Despite there still being questions of exactly how the disaster happened, exactly how big it is, and what the long-term impacts will be, "we are open for business," Salazar said.

Why? Well, because, we're told by Salazar and Michael Bromwich of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement,
enough work had been done in the months since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon to prevent another disaster. "The risks of deepwater drilling have been reduced sufficiently to allow deepwater drilling to resume," said Bromwich in a call with reporters.
These smiling assurances are based in part on the existence of those "new procedures" - even though the agency lacks the resources to do adequate inspections. Bromwich would only promise to "do the best we can with the resources at our disposal." In other words, to do crap.

(Interestingly enough, this announcement came the same day the European Commission announced plans for tougher controls on offshore oil and gas drilling, ones that would force national governments to abide by Commission rules and increase liability for oil companies in the event of a disaster.)

All this while the spill is actually still going on. The well may have been plugged - finally - but oil continues to wash ashore, albeit not in the amounts seen over the summer. Meanwhile, Florida State University professor Ian MacDonald and Georgia Tech scientist Joseph Montoya
said NOAA is at it again with statements saying there is no oil in ocean floor sediments. A University of Georgia science cruise, which Montoya was on, found ample evidence of oil on the Gulf floor.
So while no, it has not been the "environmental Armageddon" the direst of the predictions foresaw, it has been an environmental disaster that has yet to play out and whose worst effects will not be found in the immediate, media-drawing drama but in the slow grind of time in altered landscapes, environments, and food chains and through them human economies. It's not over - either environmentally or economically - and it won't be for some time.

Footnote: And an entirely fitting one it is. BP has announced that it
is disbanding the external safety ombudsman it set up after the fatal explosion in 2005 at its Texas City refinery, despite the growing number of concerns raised by the oil company's employees. ...

BP said that it would not extend the office's tenure beyond June next year. ...

Scott Schloegel, chief of staff for congressman Bart Stupak, who is chairman of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said: "Every time there is a disaster, BP sets up a new programme and says they are going to change the culture within BP." ...

Independent of BP, the ombudsman's office is run by Stanley Sporkin, a retired federal judge, with a full-time staff of five and with a budget to hire external contractors to investigate BP's operations. ...

A BP spokesman stressed that the ombudsman's role was never meant to be permanent, adding: "It has always been our intent to internalise the employee concerns process [into the corporation's OpenTalk programme], but only at the point in time when we felt the internal processes were sufficiently robust."
In other words, BP just put up with this until they could find a way to weasel out of it with platitudes about employees "trusting" management.
According to the internal figures, the number of concerns received by the ombudsman's office increased almost fourfold between its inception and last year. Last year alone, the figure was up by two-thirds on 2008. Of the 252 known concerns received in total since 2006, 148 relate to BP's Alaska operations. These include 50 specific safety-related concerns at the North Slope operations.
Apparently, there were a lot of people who felt they couldn't trust management. With a signficant amount of employee concern being raised about another, ongoing, BP operation, one truly wonders why they should feel differently now.

"Come into my parlor," said BP to its crews.

A leftover from before the trip

I can almost see the tear in his eye, the quiver in his voice as he cries out in his emotional pain "The child- I mean, the banks! Think of the banks!"
A top White House adviser questioned the need [last] Sunday for a blanket national stoppage of all home foreclosures, even as pressure grows on the Obama administration to do something about mounting evidence that banks have used inaccurate documents to evict homeowners.

"It is a serious problem," said David Axelrod, who contended that the flawed paperwork is hurting the U.S. housing market as well as lending institutions. But he added, "I'm not sure about a national moratorium because there are in fact valid foreclosures that probably should go forward" because their documents are accurate.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that Axelrod expressed concern about the housing market and the banks - but not the homeowners being wrongfully evicted. Rather, consider that the specific purpose of the sort of moratorium being proposed is to stop things long enough to separate out the "valid" foreclosures from those based on incompetence or outright fraud. What that means is that what Axelrod is actually suggesting is that we knowingly allow the bogus foreclosures to continue until some unknown future time when the "flawed paperwork" is straightened out, although lacking a moratorium, it's hard to see what the incentive is for the banks and their partners in crime - excuuuuse me, "flawed paperwork" - to act with any alacrity.

Ultimately, though, isn't Axelrod's argument rather like saying we shouldn't have laws against, say, passing bad checks because, after all, some checks are legitimate?

Footnote: One little bit of good news on this front is that a week ago Obama vetoed a bill that would have
require[d] courts to accept as valid document notarizations made out of state, making it harder to challenge the authenticity of foreclosure and other legal documents. ...

The legislation could protect bank and mortgage processors from liability for false or improperly prepared documents.
The bill had been passed twice by the House only to die in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It appeared to be headed for the same fate this time. However,
[a]fter languishing for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill passed the Senate with lightning speed and with hardly any public awareness of the bill's existence on Sept. 27, the day before the Senate recessed for midterm election campaign. ...

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy pressed to have the bill rushed through the special procedure [by which the bill is discharged from the Judiciary Committe and passed by unanimous consent], after Leahy "constituents" called him and pressed for passage.

[Senate] staffers [familiar with the actions] said they didn't know who these constituents were....
Any guesses?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going away for a few days

Don't expect new posts before Friday.

See you then with a backlog.

Another '60s flashback

This is an update to this post about police raids last month on antiwar activists' homes in Minneapolis and Chicago along with demands that a number of them appear before grand juries supposedly investigating vaguely-defined "connections" with "terrorist groups in Colombia and the Middle East," according to the original article.

I sarcastically remarked at the time about having a "'60s flashback" but now there's another one from the other side of the coin:
14 of the antiwar activists who were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury will refuse to appear, according to their attorneys. The group includes a number of the antiwar activists whose homes were raided on September 24.
Good on them! As I noted earlier, the best weapon in cases like this is continued defiance, a refusal to be intimidated, just keep on doing what you were doing.
At least four of the antiwar activists had been ordered to appear before the grand jury in Chicago today, while others had been called for later dates. The activists could be held in jail for the duration of the grand jury’s procedings for refusing to appear.
Another point here and again related to the experience of the '60s is that if you do go before a grand jury you have no effective ability to refuse to testify even on Fifth Amendment grounds. If you do invoke your rights, the prosecution - with compliant judges on speed dial - will get an order granting you either "use immunity" (where nothing you say can be used against you) or "transactional immunity" (where you can't be prosecuted for anything you talk about - that is, not just your words but the entire subject). After that, refuse to answer and bam! it's contempt of court.

In that case, unless you at some point submit and testify, you can be jailed for the length of the grand jury, which could be as long as 18 months. And even after that, there's nothing to prevent the prosecution from convening a new grand jury and calling you again.

Still, as the article points out,
the open-ended detention of the activists could further fuel opposition to the entire proceding, and strengthen the belief that the operation is designed primarily to intimidate the likely organizers of antiwar protests against President Obama at the 2012 DNC.
Whether or not it is specifically aimed at covering for Obama, since all this apparently grew out of the attempts to repress demonstrations at the Minneapolis GOPper convention in 2008, that this is an attempt to intimidate and suppress dissent seems unquestionable.

Monday, October 11, 2010

They're everywhere!

They're in Afghanistan! No, wait, they're in Iraq! No, wait, they're in Afghanistan again! No, wait, they're in Yemen! No, wait, they're in Pakistan!

No, wait, they're in northern Africa!
While Europe's latest terror threat stems from militants in Pakistan, a potentially greater menace lies just across the Mediterranean: Well-organized and financed Islamic terrorists from al-Qaida's North African offshoot. ...

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb effectively rules a wide, lawless swath of the Sahara and is trying to overthrow Algeria's government. It's active online and media-savvy, and has the globally recognized al-Qaida brand name.
It's really gotten tiresome. Every group of thugs and criminals - the article links the group to a string of kidnappings for ransom and drug traffickers and credits one leader with "building a bridge with the criminal underworld" - so yeah every group of thugs and criminals which wants to seem more powerful and is possessed with the brains to include some radical Islamic messages in their recruiting pitch and the "media savvy" to invoke the name "al-Qaeda" becomes in official proclamations part of some organized worldwide network of which we must be obsessively frightened. ("International Communist conspiracy," anyone?)

The ability to promote that fear in that way may be fading - note the article refers to the "al-Qaida brand name" - but that won't stop them from trying.

Footnote: The link at ABC News has no date, but the cruise missile attack on Yemen to which it refers took place on December 16, 2009. It and an associated air strike by the Yemeni military (which may have been carried out with the assistance of the USAF) reportedly killed 120 people and wounded 44 more.

One last note on this for now

Haaretz reports that
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered Monday to halt settlement construction if the Palestinians were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but the Palestinian leadership was prompt to reject the proposal.

"If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and request a further suspension," Netanyahu said while speaking at the opening of the third session of the 18th Knesset.
Bizarrely, Netanyahu called this "not a condition but a trust-building step." That is, not even something that would get a practical response but something just to make the Israelis a little more comfortable about dealing with the Palestinians. Put another way, it's "'unequivocally' recognize us as a Jewish state even before negotiations on the 'core questions' begin and we'll think about temporarily halting the expropriation of your lands." Yeah, I could see that sort of deal could make Israel more comfortable.

But again, as has happened before, this was a dishonest offer, a "deal" the Israelis had to know in advance the Palestinians would not accept. While Haaretz doesn't mention the reason, AFP does:
The Palestinians have agreed to recognise Israel as part of a final peace deal but refuse to recognise it as a "Jewish state" for fear that doing so would prejudge the thorny issue of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.
The issue of "the right of return" is one of deep importance to Palestinians as a group, every bit as much as the notion of returning to their homeland ("Next year in Jerusalam!") was to the Jews across the many years of the diaspora. It's one of the reasons that in an earlier post I mentioned "the at least symbolic acceptance by Israel of a 'right of return'" as one of the goals the Palestinians feel necessary for a final peace deal. (And, contrary to Israeli PR, that acceptance could be symbolic and its implementation "limited" - and Israel has known that for 10 years.) Openly accepting Israel as a "Jewish state" prior to an agreement about those refugees could be and by some surely would be read as relinquishing that goal, something no Palestinian leader would or could do.

There simply is no way the Israeli government does not know that. Netanyahu's "offer" was made for the purpose of seeing it rejected. The intent was not to make a deal, the intent was to find a way to blame the Palestinians for his own refusal to extend the construction moratorium.

[t]he Knesset's Ministerial Committee on Legislation ruled on Monday that the cabinet would support a bill outlining the referendum that would be held prior to any territorial concessions.
The bill sets our the procedures for carrying out such a referendum related to withdrawals in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, a referendum already required by earlier legislation.
The referendum law is seen as a measure aimed at hindering territorial withdrawals, making it more difficult for the government to give up land under future agreements.
I repeat: Israel. Does. Not. Want. Peace.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sixth and last of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

Just a few folks in which some of you might be interested.

Jewish Voice for Peace says it "provides a voice for Jews and allies who believe that peace in the Middle East will be achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis."

The Jewish Peace Fellowship, established in 1941, is "a nondenominational Jewish organization committed to active nonviolence as a means of resolving conflict, drawing on Jewish traditional sources within the Torah, the Talmud and contemporary peacemaking sages like Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Abraham Joshua Heschel."

J Street says it is "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans." It is a centrist group but serves as a counterweight to AIPAC in the halls and alleys of DC.

Fifth of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

A number of reports have referred to the US as offering "incentives" to the two sides to keep talking. The reported incentives do tend to point up the different treatment given the parties: The Israelis were offered diplomatic, military, and security guarantees in exchange merely for a 60-day extension of the leaky construction moratorium. The Palestinians were offered a statement supporting the pre-1967 boundaries as the starting point for determining final borders - a point on which everyone, even the Israelis, had long since explicitly or tacitly agreed.

But there was another point of those incentives that caught my eye. On Thursday, Israel and the US agreed on a deal for the US to sell 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets to Israel. The F-35 is or rather will be the most advanced fighter jet in the world - in fact, it is so new that it is still under development and the delivery won't be until 2015. Put that another way, we have agreed to sell Israel weapons technology so new even our own armed forces don't have it yet.

The thing is, some reports said that this deal was part of the "incentives" offered to Israel. Those reports are wrong. The Israeli government approved the decision to buy the jets back in mid-September. This had nothing to do with "incentives" to stay in talks; it would be better described as co-dependent enabling of abusive behavior, even if that behavior is, as it was in the IDF attack on the Gaza aid flotilla in May,
unlawful ... unnecessary, disproportionate, excessive and inappropriate and resulted in the wholly avoidable killing and maiming of a large number of civilian passengers....
That was according to a investigation ordered by the UN's Human Right Council. It also said that forensic evidence says that at least six of those killed, including US citizen Furkhan Doğan, were “extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions.”

Admittedly, the Human Rights Council has a somewhat spotted reputation and in some cases, especially as it relates to its member states, a rather tenuous relationship with hard truth. As Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group, writing in Haaretz on Friday, said,
[e]ven the council's chosen rapporteurs on the flotilla rejected their original mandate because of "justified criticism" of its "bias."
But he immediately goes on to say that
the 56-page document deserves careful study. Even the United States, explaining its lone vote against the council's report, did not criticize its contents.

Based on interviews with 112 passengers from 20 countries, the account is thorough, measured and consistent with publicly known facts. ...

The report concludes that "the conduct of the Israeli military ... demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence." It finds "clear evidence to support prosecutions" in eight areas of international law ranging from murder to restricting freedom of expression.

The rapporteurs thank Jordan and Turkey for their assistance. They note their "profound regret that, notwithstanding a most cordial meeting" with the Israeli ambassador to the UN, they were informed of an Israeli position of "non-recognition and non-cooperation."
Israel's non-cooperation extended beyond this investigation. In August, it agreed to cooperate with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's more limited panel of inquiry, only to threaten a week later to withdraw if the panel tried to interview any IDF soldiers instead of just receiving the results of the inquiry by the Israeli military - that is, to put that another way, if the panel of inquiry actually tried to inquire instead of simply accepting the statement of the defense.

So here's the question I can't get away from: If even the "summary execution" of one of our own citizens is not enough, at what point do we say "enough is enough?" At what point do we way "Okay, you have gone too far?" At what point will some president, some Congress, stand up and say "That's it - no more jets for you, no more aid for you, no more vetoes for you, no more covering your ass politically, until you rejoin the community of nations?"

Have you read or seen Waiting for Godot?

Fourth of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

The tendency of too many in the US media to adopt an "assumption of correctness" toward Israel - that is, assuming Israel is in the right and the Palestinians are in the wrong in any conflict unless it can be definitively and irrefutably proved otherwise - continues unabated. One recent example came from columnist Jason Diehl in the Washington Post, who on Thursday idiotically asserted that the settlements are irrelevant not only to the continuation of Israeli-Palestinian talks but to their outcome as well and that the only reason they're a problem now is that "the Obama administration has once again chosen to ask Netanyahu for an unnecessary concession," one that could lead to a "crisis" in US-Israel relations. He then insists that
[a]nother U.S.-Israel crisis is probably what Abbas is hoping for - and why he has taken a hard-line position on the settlement issue. ...

All along, Abbas has shown scant interest in these peace talks - he made a point of saying he was dragged to the bargaining table. ... If he were genuinely interested in reaching a peace settlement with Israel, he could set aside the settlement issue without risking his own hold on power.
In other words, Abbas is trying to make the talks fail for the purpose of sparking Diehl's "crisis." Exactly what the gain for Abbas is in such an eventuality, one more likely to spur Israel to more intensive occupation and population of the West Bank, is not explained. I doubt you're surprised.

In fact, blaming Abbas is an argument that is so far out there that even columnist Herb Keinon of the right-wing Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post didn't make it; instead, he blames Obama for the hang-up over settlements because in May 2009, he called for a complete settlement construction halt - and
if Obama was calling for total settlement moratorium, then Abbas could certainly not do anything less.
Which, on second thought, is not the same argument as Diehl's but it is every bit as weird. They start from similar points, follow different paths, but wind up at the same end: Whatever happens, it cannot be Israel's fault.

Third of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

Ultimately, the new oath Netanyahu endorsed may have little practical impact: Jaffar Farah of Mossawa, an Israeli civil rights group working for equality for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, noted that family members of Israeli Arabs already have been barred from becoming naturalized citizens.

Second of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

That same reference to Biblical law and to "God says so" appears over and over again in official Israeli (and, more generally, Jewish) claims to sovereignty over the West Bank. As the end of this article from the Christian Science Monitor reminds us, the radical Jewish settlers' claims are explicitly based on such arguments, specifically that God "promised" all of Judea and Samaria - i.e., the West Bank - to the Hebrew people.

As the later-composed lyrics to the theme from "Exodus" have it, "This land is mine; God gave this land to me." For too many, that is not merely a song lyric, it's a statement of rock-bottom conviction.

Realize that in too many cases - not all but in too many - when we refer to "the settlers" we are referring to religious fanatics incapable of responding to rational argument.

First of some assorted footnotes to the preceding

In announcing his support for a new loyalty oath, one his cabinet is expected to endorse, Netanyahu said that there is
a very great struggle today to nullify and blur the character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and to say that it doesn't belong to the Jewish people on a national basis.... I think that the struggle on this issue, both on an international and a domestic level, is a necessary struggle.
Concern was expressed about a supposed "campaign" to "delegitimize" Israel, all of which seems to me as translating to "criticism of Israel is antisemetic."

However, there is among some in Israel a feeling that there is an inherent tension, even a conflict, in being both a "Jewish" and a "democratic" state. That feeling exists not only among non-Jewish Israelis but is found even among the Jewish majority, some of who resent the disproportionate role the extreme right religious authorities play in public affairs.

As one example, last month it was declared that
Israeli government offices that provide a wide array of public services are pulling the plug on online payments on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, creating a potential new source of friction between the religious and secular in the Jewish state.

Ultra-Orthodox Cabinet ministers are leading the charge to enforce the religious prohibition on spending money on Jewish holy days.

But for non-religious residents, tourists and foreign workers, the planned ban joins two leading ills of Israeli life — red tape and religious restrictions — in a marriage of inconvenience.
The ministries of interior, health, and religious affairs - all controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties - are the ones imposing the payment blackout. Meanwhile, Israel's social security agency has gone the opposite direction and has begun dealing with payments around the clock. Significantly, the agency is headed by a professional appointee, not a political one.
The inconvenience [of the new restrictions] is liable to fuel already considerable secular resentment of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up less than 10 percent of the population but wield disproportionate influence in Israel's parliamentary democracy.

Few ultra-Orthodox men serve in the military, which is largely compulsory for Jewish citizens. Many ultra-Orthodox families rely on state handouts because the men want to pursue religious studies rather than work.

The ultra-Orthodox also have a monopoly on civil matters like marriage and divorce, creating further tensions.
It's important to point out that the control of the ultra-Orthodox over those latter matters - marriage and divorce - is a matter of law, not a matter of what deals are struck by what ruling coalition in the Knesset. That control can lead to some very difficult circumstances for women seeking a divorce because the courts - acting on Biblical principles - favor the husband by their very nature. In fact, a woman cannot get a divorce unless her husband "willingly" gives her one.

So can your country be simultaneously Jewish, with some matters locked into Biblical law administered by right wing rabbis, and democratic, with the "rule of law" and "rule of the majority?" As soon as you say some laws are ordained by God and so leave no room for open democratic debate, it clearly becomes questionable.

Footnote to the Footnote: As a sidebar, Turkey struggles with the same issue from a different perspective, trying to be both Islamic and democratic. It experiences some of the same sorts of tensions and faces the same question of how religious law can ever be a part of democracy.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Ashes amid the hopes

Middle East peace talks are again - "still" is likely a more appropriate word - moribund, stalled now over the Israeli refusal to extend its moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. The Arab League described the talks as "negative" and "not bearing fruit."

Reuters quoted Arab League chief Amr Moussa as saying Arab leaders will begin drafting alternatives, which in the bizarro world of Middle East peace talks is seen as a hopeful development because it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to put off any final decision about quitting the talks, giving him and others a little time to try to prevent a complete breakdown. As the New York Times noted,
[n]either the Palestinian nor the Israeli leader seems willing to take significant political risks and immerse himself fully in the process, yet, pressed by an American administration that is so heavily invested in the process, neither wants to be seen as the one who walked away.
That concern with the US's position may mean even more than you think. Author and journalist Thanassis Cambanis, an instructor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, wrote this in The Daily Beast on Tuesday:
Not a single person I interviewed in the Middle East during the last two months expected anything to come of the current talks—certainly not anything good—although, for the record, no one predicted either that a failed peace process would unleash a new intifada or wholesale change in Israeli priorities.

Instead, the Arab diplomats, analysts, and activists who support Hamas and Hezbollah with whom I spoke seemed in accord that for the time being, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians saw anything to gain from dialogue, except for earning chits with Washington.

The main benefit of a peace process, in this view, is that Washington wants one, and so long as it doesn't cost anything, Washington's allies in Ramallah and Jerusalem are happy to oblige.
In short, the word he's getting is that this is all a show: Neither side expects to gain anything but with an eye on the US, for PR reasons each wants the other to be the one to call it quits.

So okay, then, let's cut through the crap and the posturing and get to the meat of the immediate matter: the settlements. It is true that Netanyahu originally promised a one-time, not-to-be-repeated, 10-month, moratorium. It is also true, as any number of sources have pointed out, that he could face serious internal political difficulties if he supported an extension; it could lead to a major reshuffling or even potentially a fracturing of his ruling coalition.

However, it is also true that this "freeze" was much more a PR stunt than a freeze. As columnist Dror Etkes noted in the Israeli daily Haaretz, citing figures from the government's Central Bureau of Statistics,
[w]hat took place in the past few months is, in the best case scenario, not more than a negligible decrease in the number of housing units that were built in settlements. ...

[T]he truth is that the settlers know better than anyone else that not only did construction in settlements continue over the last 10 months, and vigorously, but also that a relatively large part of the houses were built on settlements that lie east of the separation fence....
And it is also true that the settlements are illegal under international law! Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it quite explicit:
The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
By pussy-footing around that simple fact and going on about a "moratorium" (which, let's not forget, means a pause, not an end, and which even if it became something permanent would leave the existing illegal settlements untouched) the White House and most of the US media are enabling defiance of international law and dodging an issue more central than is often realized.

That's because, and finally on this for the moment, it is also true the one of the avowed purposes of those settlements was to create "facts on the ground," to establish such a strong and widespread Israeli presence in the West Bank that dislodging it in order to create a Palestinian state would be impossible. (Note well that when Israel refers to "illegal" settlements, it means only those that have not gone through the process to receive official government approval.) The intent was and is to present Palestinians with a fait accompli, to say "This land is part of Israel. Get over it." And thus essentially to turn Palestinians into refugees or perhaps "merely" outsiders in their own homeland.

With over 300,000 Israelis already living in over 120 officially-approved settlements in the West Bank now - over 10% of the combined Jewish-Palestinian population and a figure which does not include another 190,000 in East Jerusalem - it's rather hard to imagine why the Palestinians would be willing to accept continued construction and a continued expansion of that number as talks go on. And on. And on.

(Parenthetically, the excuse some Israeli reactionaries have offered to counter that blatant illegality is that the West Bank is not "occupied," it is "disputed." Unfortunately for them, that doesn't help because that runs them up against UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in 1967 and agreed to by Israel in 1968, which opens by "Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and shortly thereafter calls for the "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," that is, the 1967 war, during which Israel seized the West Bank.)

Which bring up the big question, the one no one really wants to address: Do the sides actually want a peace agreement?

I'm convinced the Palestinians - in this case referring to the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas - do, provided certain goals are achieved. The biggest of those are borders that are something like the 1967 borders, the at least symbolic acceptance by Israel of a "right of return" of Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948, and resolving the status of East Jerusalem. That latter is the toughie as the Palestinians want it as their capital and the Jews (I use the term here as an alternative to Israelis because not all Israelis are Jewish) have deep emotional and for some religious connections to the idea of a united Jerusalem as the "eternal capital" of Israel.

But figure what a real settlement would mean to Abbas. For one thing, it would make him a huge hero and through that give him a major leg up in the ongoing long-distance political fight with Hamas. It would open up the possibilities of aid and investment to build the Palestinian economy. And it would expand his administration's authority. It's rarely realized just how geographically limited Palestinian "autonomy" really is, which is why I've included the map on the left. (I'm reminded of Yassir Arafat complaining about an earlier Israeli offer of "autonomy." He said "They offered me autonomy over garbage collection and little else.")

So Abbas has good reasons, more than adequate incentives, to agree to a settlement that meets those base requirements, the first two of which hardly seem outlandish or particularly difficult.

But Israel? Netanyahu? That is a different story.

The truth is, I don't believe Netanyahu is sincere. I don't believe his government is sincere. And I haven't believed for a while now that previous Israeli governments were sincere. In the present case, a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz says Netanyahu spent the second of his three meetings with Abbas arguing over what are the "core" issues - even though at least two previous Israeli governments had already reached agreements with the Palestinians on precisely that. And at the third meeting, he would not even talk about the details Abbas presented on his previous negotiations with former PM Ehud Olmert or the positions Abbas presented on issues such as borders, security, the refugees, Jerusalem, and the settlements. Instead, he simply repeated his position on security arrangements. What's more, according to what Abbas told diplomats after the meeting, Netanyahu wants to reach a framework agreement in a year - but implement it over 20 years. That's a lot of settlement construction.

Certainly, you would not expect all those issues to be resolved at a single meeting. But to go into such a meeting being unprepared if not outright unwilling to even talk about them? To not even be able (or again, willing) to present a position on them? This is not the mark of a serious negotiator.

Too many times there have been the dragged-out, go-nowhere negotiations, too many times there have been the bogus offers, too many times there have been the impossible demands ("a complete halt to all 'terrorism' no matter who did it before talks even begin"). And too many times the squandered - better yet, evaded - opportunities, too many times the provocative action just at the wrong time, just when it could provoke an angry reaction that would undermine the possibility of progress.

I've commented on that last point a few times before: In December 2003, when Israel launched a large-scale raid into Ramallah just two days before several Palestinian factions were to meet in Egypt to discuss halting attacks on Israel. A month later, when right after Syria offered to reopen talks, Israel announced plans for its biggest-ever settlement drive in the Golan Heights. And again in October 2007 when, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was starting a peace mission to the region, Israel declared Gaza a "hostile entity" in a move that provoked Palestinian anger and threatened to cripple preparations for a Mideast conference.

And now, just when it appears that these talks, as futile as they are, may not fall apart after all, particularly not in a way that Netanyahu could blame on Abbas, comes this:
Israel's cabinet next week will consider a bill that would require non-Jewish candidates for Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the country as a Jewish state.

The bill, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls for an amendment to Israel's citizenship law to include "a Jewish and democratic state" in a mandatory oath of loyalty.

In addition to kicking up accusations of discrimination against the country's Arab minority, observers suggested the proposal is timed to push Israel's diplomatic campaign to force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for a peace accord. ...

The amendment was made public at a sensitive diplomatic juncture.
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise. The Israeli government making a provocative announcement at a "sensitive juncture." Will wonders never cease.

Not quite two years ago I wrote "An open letter to Israel" which began by saying
Israel, I write to you as someone who has never, not once, questioned your right to exist. Someone who for nearly 40 years now has advocated the "two-state" solution of mutual recognition between Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Someone who, that is, would like to address you as a friend - but cannot. Cannot because you have made it impossible for me to be anything other than a dedicated foe of the course you have set, a course of war, of bigotry, of colonialism, of oppression. You have demonstrated for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that you do not want peace except the cold, deadly "peace" of domination and control.
The past two years have given me no reason to change that assessment. And more's the pity.
// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / jeffcouturier.com (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src="https://sites.google.com/site/occupybanners/home/isupportoccupy-right-blue.png"}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src="https://sites.google.com/site/occupybanners/home/isupportoccupy-right-red.png"}} document.write('');