Monday, January 31, 2011

Footnote to the preceding, Meanwhile... Div.

Since 1994, homosexuals have been among the groups eligible for asylum in the US if they can demonstrate past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution based on being one of that group.

However, human rights groups and asylum-seekers bemoan the fact that while even a hint of being gay or lesbian can cost you a military career, you risk being denied asylum if you are not "gay enough."

The New York Times tells the story of Romulo Castro, a homosexual and native of Brazil, who, trying to be sure he would gain asylum,
considered attending his asylum interview in Rosedale, Queens, dressed as Fidela Castro, a towering drag queen in six-inch stilettos, a bright green poodle skirt and a mane of strawberry blond hair. In the end, Mr. Castro, 34, opted for what he described as understatement: pink eye shadow, a bright pink V-neck shirt and intermittent outbursts of tears. ...

"I knew I had to put on the performance of my life,” [he said.] ...

“Judges and immigration officials are adding a new hurdle in gay asylum cases that an applicant’s homosexuality must be socially visible,” said Lori Adams, a lawyer at Human Rights First.... “The rationale is that if you don’t look obviously gay, you can go home and hide your sexuality and don’t need to be worried about being persecuted.”
Jhuan Marrero was challenged about his "macho demeanor" by the immigration officer at his asylum interview. Victoria Neilson of Immigration Equality referred to a 21-year-old lesbian who was initially denied asylum because she was young, attractive and single, apparently not conforming to the officer’s stereotype of a lesbian.

What, wasn't she butch enough? This is insane and just shows how, sixteen years after the immigration rules were changes, a bigoted, stereotyped view of homosexuals persists.

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said such behavior by immigration officers would not be condoned.
“We don’t say that someone is insufficiently gay or homosexual, whatever that would mean, or that he or she could be saved by hiding his or her homosexuality,” Ms. Rhatigan said. “Sexual preference is an immutable characteristic. It is something an individual can’t or shouldn’t change.”
Well, good for the words. Now how about backing them up with some actions, such as making clear to every immigration officer what you just said.

Footnote: It seems that the Czech Republic has been testing the claims of homosexual asylum seekers by attaching genital cuffs to monitor their responses to pornography. The Times reported that human rights groups in the US expressed relief that the use of such a device is impossible to imagine here.

Considering how recently it would have been equally impossible to imagine the US government openly advocating, justifying, and engaging in illegal domestic spying, indefinite imprisonment without charge, and torture, I think they had better think again about tossing around the "it can't happen here" line.

It ain't over 'til it's over

On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lawsuit challenging "don't ask, don't tell" policy can continue at least for now.

The White House had asked the court to set the case aside because of the decision of Congress to end the ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers and, it said, the Pentagon was moving as fast as it could to implement the change. President Hopey-Changey (President H-C for short and no, dumbos, get a grip, that is not a sly reference to a President Hillary Clinton) has said he expects to finalize the repeal by the end of 2011.
The Log Cabin Republicans, the gay political group whose lawsuit challenging "don't ask, don't tell" persuaded District Court Judge Virginia Phillips in September to enjoin the military from enforcing the policy, had opposed the government's effort to put the case on hold.

R. Clarke Cooper, the group's president, said Saturday that while he thinks the Pentagon's efforts are sincere, the case should proceed as long as gay servicemembers still can be discharged.
The case, that is, could be thought of as a kind of backstop in case the Pentagon's plans stall.

The court agreed to proceed, at least for now, ordering the DOJ to explain why it should overturn Phillips' ruling. The deadline for filing is February 25. And I still wonder how the Log Cabin Republicans can stay in a party that hates them.

State of de Nile

I haven't said anything about the events in Egypt, much as I'd like to and as much as I've been following them, because - well, for a couple of reasons, central to which in that it's not really a matter of separate "events" but of a single ongoing event. It's an admittedly weak analogy, but think of it like a beating heart: It pulses with a series of individual beats but they're not the point; it's the continuing series of them that's meaningful and you have to look at the whole to see what's really going on.

Considering that I'm surely not a source anyone looks to for up-to-the-minute coverage of events - nor should they - and the fact that the "whole" is constantly changing, it's hard for me to say anything worthwhile that others haven't said or won't say sooner and probably better. So consider what follows some blue-skying about the future.

My own impression is that Mubarak is going down and that his regime will not survive much longer. The first hint was when the government, faced with the single focused demand of "Mubarak must go" made some totally-unrelated changes and promises that would not impinge on his control. That is always - always - the first step, a clear sign of a regime that has realized that it faces a serious challenge and it is trying to buy off the opposition on the cheap. When that didn't work, the result was more promises combined with threats.

Government's like Mubarak's always face the same dilemma when faced with a mass protest movement - especially when those protests appear in multiple places - when that movement is not coupled with outright violent insurrection: Go easy, you might encourage more protest. Crack down, and you also might encourage more protest as the result of outrage. There is a risk either way. Most repressive governments, in such cases, wind up doing both. After the fig-leaf promises, comes the hope that the protests will fade away. When they don't, comes the crackdown.

Most cases, just like this one, run that same course. The break point comes when the crackdown turns from a show of force to real force, real state violence. What happens then often tells the future.

By the third day of the protests in Egypt, police were shooting demonstrators; by Sunday, when Mubarak gave the army orders to shoot to kill when it saw fit, at least 150 people already had been killed and thousands more wounded. But the demonstrations didn't stop. They kept right on going, even grew as the spirit grew. That's when I became convinced Mubarak was finished.

You want other signs beyond the on-going protests? How about this:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad ... said that he will advocate for political and economic reform in Syria, following the massive protests that have recently swept the Middle East, which he said have ushered in a "new era."
Assad, that is, intends to be out in front of protests, to try on some reforms before the protests break out in Syria, the better to head them off. That's how seriously he takes what's going down in Egypt and how seriously he regards the potential of a threat to his own regime from the spread of protest, even as he also insists that his government is "more stable" than Mubarak's.

Here at home there is that fact that according to the Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration is
preparing for a post-Mubarak era after three decades. ...

As early as last Wednesday, the Obama administration recognized that they would not be able to prop up the Mubarak regime and keep it in power at all costs, [one former senior administration advisor] said.

"They don't want to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand that the Mubarak era is over...."
This in addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of the word "transition" and the reference to US aid to Egypt being "reviewed" as events unfold. The implied threat about aid is unlikely to be carried out, but it does signal to Mubarak that yes, he can go too far. Then there is the attitude of the US toward Mubarak's newly-sworn in cabinet, an attitude the Voice of America described as "dismissive." The US is hedging its bets in case Mubarak does manage to survive, but what's clear is that his biggest sponsor, his long-time backer, is more than ready to see him go.

Like the man said, the Mubarak era is over.

At this point, Mubarak's only remaining clear option if he wants to maintain his regime is large-scale violent repression, which would require the cooperation of the military. That cooperation appears unlikely to come, especially after the military issued this statement, as translated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which I spell out because if I said ABC you'd get the wrong idea:
Your armed forces acknowledges the legitimacy of the people's demands and is adamant on carrying out its responsibilities and protecting the country and its citizens as ever.

The armed forces' presence on the Egyptian streets is for your own sake - safety and security. Your armed forces have not and will not resort to the use of force against this great people.
(Al-Jazeera had a slightly different version of the statement, which added the line that the army "affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.")

Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian diplomat, declared the army "is not a puppet" in anyone's hands.
“The army does not want to confront the youth,” Mr. Shokry said. “If they think this will make a kind of civil war, they will ask Mr. Mubarak to leave the country, I am sure.”
Meanwhile, on the ground, the military allowed citizens gathered in Tahrir Square to ignore the curfew and the soldiers freely mingled unarmed among the crowds. Their immediate superiors, the middle-rank officers,
try to avoid talking about politics but appear to sympathize with the sentiments of the masses demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Clearly, Mubarak can't count on the army to save his pitiful hide. In what can only be seen as a last-ditch attempt to save himself, minutes after the military released its statement, Mubarak had his new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, declare
"I was assigned by the president today to contact all the political forces to start a dialogue about all the raised issues concerning constitutional and legislative reform...."
With force having failed, it's back to placate and stall. But I strongly suspect it will not be enough. Al-Jazeera reports that opposition leaders in Cairo rejected the offer of negotiations, saying that the protestors "say it isn't an issue of a different approach from Mubarak, they just don't want Mubarak." As for the pledge to institute economic and political reforms, it's regarded as too little, too late. What's even more, Suleiman is damaged goods: His history of working with the CIA on rendition may not be widely known in Egypt, but his role in Mubarak's intelligence service surely is. Indeed, there is speculation that he was chosen as VP because it would please the army, with which Mubarak was and is trying to strengthen relations, rather than with any eye to pleasing the protestors.

All of this is not to say Mubarak is totally without friends, however: On Saturday night, the Israel Foreign Ministry
issued a directive to around a dozen key embassies in the United States, Canada, China, Russia and several European countries. The ambassadors were told to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt's stability. In a special cable, they were told to get this word out as soon as possible.
Put more bluntly, Israel was telling its ambassadors to encourage other countries to "lay off Mubarak."
"The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren't considering their genuine interests," one senior Israeli official said.
Apparently justice, freedom, democracy, human rights, economic improvement, and all the rest of that leftist rot are not to be counted among "genuine interests." The attitude of "Wait a minute - how does this affect me?" is not limited to Americans.

As I type in these last few lines, it is a little after 6am in Egypt and we are hours away from the "march of a million people." Al-Jazeera's live blog quotes one of its correspondents in Tahrir Square as saying
[t]he protesters seem to be increasingly energised this morning. They clearly are determined to get today's march starting with a big bang. The atmosphere on Tahrir Square is very good. People seem to feel that some sort of victory is the air.
Perhaps they're right. They well could be. The dying Mubarak regime is trying as best as it can to limit the size of the action by blocking transportation and communication: The internet is down, there are predictions that the mobile phone network will be shut off, and all train traffic has been stopped. But while those trains can be stopped, there is a bigger train here, the train of history. And while I freely admit I have been wrong, even embarrassingly wrong, in predictions before, I think that that train is not one that will be derailed.

Everything you need to know in two sentences

In this case it's everything you need to know about US media. It comes from the valuable The opening quote is from Al-Jazeera:
"We go now to two reports from Cairo, but we won't show or name our reporters on the scene as they're violating restrictions imposed by the Egyptian government." Have you ever heard a line like that on CNN?
Preach it, friends.

I'm reminded of an incident from when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The official claim was "national defense" plus the assertion that the Afghan government had actually asked for the "assistance."

A short time later, a news anchor on Radio Moscow over the course of a day gradually referred to the action in tougher terms until finally using the term "invasion." He was not to be found on subsequent broadcasts.

In response, someone - I don't recall who - pointedly asked if anyone could recall a single time across the entire length of the Indochina War when a single network news person had on the air referred a single time to a US "invasion" of Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia. No one could.

It has gotten no better and in many ways worse in the years since.

Several people died at once

Impressionist David Frye died this past Monday of a heart attack at the age of 77.

He was not the best voice impressionist I've ever heard; in fact when he tried to maintain a voice for more than a few sentences, there were occasions where the impression seemed to slip away from him and the inflection or pacing just sounded off. But his ability to capture the (if you'll pardon the cliche) essence of a person's mannerisms and facial expressions more than made up for it. And when he nailed someone, damn did he nail them.

And another part of my younger days slips away.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Footnote to the preceding

There is another, often related area, besides serving economic power where the demand is to justify the "don't" rather than the "do." That is serving military power. Since the former provides for the latter which is used to protect the former, a nice and historically long-standing symbiotic relationship, the same flipping of the burden of proof from the claimant to the questioner is not surprising.

Amtrak and other mass transit projects are not, of course, the only targets of the Republican Study Commission I mentioned a couple of posts earlier. Their list is a veritable plethora of traditional right-wing targets, most of which have the common feature of being something that government does well or where it provides a genuine service or in some other way makes an actual contribution, which is the one thing the wingers can never allow or admit to.

However, and again this will come as no surprise, there is one area where they had a strict hands-off policy, one area exempt from cuts or even any consideration of them: anything to do with war. Past, present, or future. Military spending is off the table. Veteran's benefits are off the table. "Security" is off the table.

Because we can always find money for war. Always. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Iraq war - Oh yeah, remember that? - is now costing about $5.4 billion every month. The Afghanistan war is costing $5.7 billion every month. In July, there was a "supplemental request" (of which I thought we were told there would be no more) of $34.4 billion, mostly for the cost of the escalation in Afghanistan.

In FY2010 $171 billion was spent on our wars and that same amount is desired for FY2011. Together, those two wars so far have cost about $1.1 trillion, says the CRS.

That same figure, by coincidence, represents something else: a minimum figure for military-related spending proposed for FY2011. A trillion dollars a year. Even the White House's own figures (see Table 3.2 at this link to the OMB or go directly to the file), which conceal some of the costs now being incurred due to past military spending, peg the figure at $778 billion ($750 billion for "national defense" plus $28 billion for "international security assistance"). Despite some TPer huffing and puffing, no official is going to be called before any committee with a requirement to justify it, as the "presumption of correctness" lies with the war chiefs and it's the opponents who not only have the burden of proof but must somehow overcome that presumption even to get a serious hearing.

Money to save life? You have to justify spending it. Money to take life? You have to justify not spending it. Money to raise people to health? Can't afford it. Money to lower people to hell? Can't afford not to. Money for smarter students? Prove it. Money for smarter bombs? Goes without saying. Money for railroads? No. For railguns? Yes.

While I started this by referring to the Republican Study Committee, I should emphazie that this is not a GOPper vs. Dimocrat thing - those budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for FY2010 and FY2011 did not come from the George Bush White House, after all - and it's not even, strictly speaking, a left-right thing: The far right, driven by its isolationism, is sometimes even harsher on such matters than the left. There is, rather, a broad conservative-to-liberal consensus that spending on the military, on arms, ultimately on war, is all but sacrosanct. That consensus is not new and it did not originate in the US; it is, as I said at the top, historically long-standing. But that makes is nonetheless real and nonetheless deadly both because of what it enables by its biases and what it prevents by its sucking up of emotional, physical, financial, and scientific resources.

The thing that gives some hope in the short run is that Americans on the whole have come to realize that war spending is not and must not be given a special pass. Asked in a recent NYT/CBS poll whether they would cut Social Security, Medicare, or the military budget in order to reduce the deficit, a majority of Democrats and independents and a plurality of Republicans chose the military; 55% overall.

But the pushback among The Serious People has already begun: A couple of weeks ago, "Newsweek" carried a piece that called moves to cut war spending a "risky rush" which no one knows how to do "without jeopardizing security and our place as a world leader." Making actual cuts, cuts that are not merely symbolic or PR, will take a lot of work. A good place to start, not the only place but a good place, is the Friends Committee on National Legislation, while the more radical among you might try the War Resisters League while the more centrist could check out the Center for Defense Information.

Wishing us good luck.

Footnote: In case someone thinks this as I am almost certain someone will, while I do regard veteran's benefits as a present cost of past military spending and therefore part of current military spending, I do not object per se to such benefits nor do I object to veterans applying for them. They are there to be used. What I object to, as I explained (or at least tried to) in my post Heroics and later here, is veterans getting benefits simply because they are veterans, benefits that others are denied, and getting them without regard to need. Benefits, that is, which they receive as a kind of reward and which have the effect of declaring their lives and their contributions more important, more valuable, than those of non-veterans.

How they really think about you

At the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday, Larry Summers, former head of the White House National Economic Council, endorsed Barack Obama's stimulus spending.
"The highest priority has to attach to establishing strong and significant growth," said Summers....
He got immediate pushback from Edmund Kelly, CEO of Liberty Mutual insurance company, one of whose first actions on joining the company in 1992 was to fire 1500 employees. He said
the U.S. fiscal expansion was acceptable on condition that the country lowers the long-term cost of employment by slashing benefits.

The U.S., he said, "can stimulate in the short term and at the same time give the world the confidence that we as a country are willing to make the tough decisions on the long-term cost of benefits, whether heath care or pensions," he said.
But not, it would appear, on corporate salaries - Kelly took in a cool $27 million in 2005 - and perks.

Danish labor leader (or, as the article labeled him, "union boss") Peter Waldorff objected, pointing out that 30 million people worldwide had lost their jobs over the past two years and said nations should "secure people a minimal salary, some social security, some pension benefits."
What's affordable, Waldorff said, was a matter of priority: "How many trillions could we raise overnight to save the biggest business in the United States?"

Kelly countered that the U.S. bailout fund, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was likely to recoup most or all of the money disbursed.
Which is true and so sounds like a clever retort - provided you don't actually think about it. What it actually does, though, is ignore or perhaps better said evade Waldorff's point, which was that the money to bail out the banks and the bankers was raised and it was raised more or less overnight. When it was decided the corporate world needed the cash, it was found. It was there. When that TARP money went out, the feds hoped to recover most of it - but they had no real idea if they would or not. That was not a requirement of the program going in and while it was a consideration, the consideration was "Big powerful companies need our help! We must not fail them lest the thunder of their fall doom us all!"

It's always the way: When people need help, you have to justify doing it. When big corporations need help, you have to justify not doing it. Because that is how they think of you: You are just not that important.

Footnote: It's attitudes like Kelly's that always tempt me to say these meetings are held in Davros.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

It's also good to be a corporation

On September 9, an explosion and fireball ripped through part of the California town of San Bruno. A natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the nation's largest utility, had exploded. Eight people were killed and more than three dozen homes were destroyed.

In November, the utility admitted that its records about the pipeline were all wrong. Not only wasn't it "seamless," as the company had said, "even a layperson could see the patchwork of welds marking the pipe" in the words of Deborah Hersman, who chairs the National Transportation Safety Board.

And now it emerges that the utility can't locate any testing records for 30% of its lines going through urban areas. That is, PG&E has no idea of the condition of nearly a third of its pipelines passing under areas where people live and has no idea of how much pressure they can withstand.

The result so far has been a call for "a new perspective on safety culture" and some hearings. I wonder what would have happened to an individual whose clear negligence had killed eight people.

It's good to be a cop

A few items to compare and contrast.

First, there's this:

Trying to win some internet cash prize, Juan Rodriguez streaked an Obama rally in Philadelphia in October. He was sentenced to two years probation - but prosecutors had wanted to see him jailed for nearly two years.

Then there's this:

Two Japanese men have been indicted in Los Angeles on charges of animal smuggling, conspiracy, and wildlife trafficking for allegedly smuggling more than 50 live turtles and tortoises into the US. If convicted on all charges, they each could be sentenced to 26 years in prison.

And then again, there's this:

In 1993, Chicago police commander Jon Burge was fired over the case of Andrew Wilson, who an investigation found had been beaten and tortured while in police custody in the unit Burge oversaw, part of what another investigation said was a "systematic" pattern of abuse within the unit over more than a decade.

A slowly building case against Burge related to more than 100 cases of serious abuse - all of them against black men - hit a roadblock in 2006 when it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired on most of them. However, federal prosecutors found a way around that:
Burge was not charged with abuse; he was charged with lying about it. The allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice were based on answers he provided in a civil lawsuit filed by a freed death row inmate when Burge denied he and other detectives had tortured anyone.
Last summer he was convicted, and last month he was sentenced - to 4½ years in prison. After being involved with and/or deliberately turning a blind eye to and helping to conceal the torture, the quite possibly racially-biased torture, of over 100 people.

In fairness to the judge, as I understand it, the sentence was relatively tough considering the actual charges on which he was convicted. But it is still true that that occurred after Burge walked on what should have been the charges when earlier investigators found "a wall of resistance" among cops.

Less than a week after Burge was sentenced, a move to deny him his pension failed on a tie vote when the police pension board ruled that his conviction, which was for lying about a pattern of torture committed under his watch, was unrelated to his role as a police officer. He will receive about $3000 a month for the rest of his life.

Environmental credit where it's due

Updated One good thing Obama offered in the SOTU was a continued commitment to high-speed passenger rail. In particular, he proposed to have 80% of Americans have access to that form of travel within 25 years.

The proposal, however, worthy as it is on its own merits, is not without its difficulties and shortcomings and I'm not referring to financial or technological problems but problems in the proposal itself. The central one is inherent: Its focus is on the glitzy toys of 220-mph trains running in high-traffic areas rather than on building and maintaining an actual nationwide intercity mass-transit system; that is, a national modern railroad system. The National Association of Railroad Passengers put it more delicately but with the same botton-line point:
“The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) pledges to support the President’s visionary plan for high-speed rail” said Ross Capon, president of NARP. “And we are asking the President—along with the rest of the nation’s leaders and transportation officials—to work towards expanding the existing intercity passenger rail network to give 100 percent of Americans access to reliable, modern train service.”
The real goal, that is, should not be 80% having access to high-speed trains but 100% having access to good trains.

The other problem is a bit more subtle but still quite real: Focusing on high-speed rail actual undermines rather than advances that broader goal. What's envisioned is a relatively few regional hubs with rail lines reaching out like spokes to other cities in the region, an arrangement whose primary purpose seems to be making it more convenient for business travelers than taking planes. It proposes, that is, to enhance regional train travel at the expense of long-distance train travel. Want to go from Milwaukee to Chicago? You're cool; take the train. Want to go from Boston to Chicago? Um, yeah, you're still gonna fly.

Over the long term, the idea, supposedly, is to link those hubs into a single network, but the economic and environmental questions of completely revamping our rail system just to do the regional hubs are so great that anyone who thinks that we can skip the long-distance trains and get back to them later - especially when the criterion is "better than flying" - is dreaming. In fact, I think that is so obvious that I have trouble believing those pushing for high-speed rail don't see it.

A related point is that we have been here before. This is very similar to the notion advanced by the Shrub gang back in 2005-2006 and again in 2007-2008 as part of its attempts to dismantle Amtrak, just without the panache of high-speed rail: They proposed to break it into a series of disconnected regional lines. And then as now, the primary concern seems to be how to get business travelers from one place to another in the shortest time.

There's another "same as it ever was" aspect to this: The Shrub gang wanted to "split off" the Northeast corridor, which would effectively wreck the system. Now we have this:
Sitting beneath the famous zodiac mural of Grand Central’s main concourse, with the rumble of commuters and trains in the background, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first field hearing of the new session this morning. The topic was the future of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Chairman John Mica led the committee’s Republicans towards what appears to be their emerging message on high-speed rail: they’re for it, so long as it’s built through public-private partnerships and largely limited to the dense Boston-Washington corridor.
While I'm tempted to think that this is because it's the line these people are the most likely to use, I think the real reason is more fundamental: The Northeast corridor was and remains Amtrak's only profitable long-distance line. So of course private industry, which abandoned passenger rail, which deliberately drove it into the ground to justify doing so, now that government has proven this line can be run profitably which of course we can't have, we can't have the government being able to do anything well, of course private industry is to be brought in as a "partner." Of course it's time for another "public-private partnership," which generally means, as here, public investment and private profit.

In fact, the comparison with the Bush years is even closer, as some voices want to throw the whole thing into private hands. One is the US High Speed Rail Association, which wants the Northeast corridor privatized. In an interview with Fox Business, Andy Kuhns, president of the group, said:
We're pushing for some private companies to come in and run the trains but we do need the new infrastructure to get the high-quality trains that are comparable to Europe and Japan.
Which rather blatantly translates to "Government, you do the work and pay the price to make it convenient; corporations, you take the profit."

Besides the obvious GOPpers and other right-wingers, the voices included former Pennsylvania governor (and Rachel Maddow favorite) Ed Rendell, who said
the federal government could lease the operational rights to a private company or sell the assets completely.
So even before any proposal is formally made by the White House, there is already bipartisan agreement that the future of public rail - isn't public. Not when there's a buck to be made.

Not everyone agrees, happily. Representative Nick Rahall, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,
said in his opening statement that a national rail network ought to remain the focus. “After all,” the West Virginia Democrat said,” it was a national vision that led to the creation of the world’s most advanced highway and aviation networks.”
He had already reacted to the SOTU by saying he
supports Obama’s call for more high-speed passenger rail spending as long as Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad, doesn’t get left behind.
Which is exactly the risk I see and that the NARP hinted at.

(Rahall, by the way, was a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act a couple of years ago, which provided some stable funding for Amtrak for the first time by providing around $7.5 billion over five years. “Americans, especially West Virginians, love their railroads,” he said.)

Long-time readers here will likely know that I'm one of those who loves the trains. Not only do I agree with the old Cunard line ad slogan "Getting there is half the fun" or at least it damn well should be, I agree with the travel writer (link misplaced) who said the best way to see the US is from the windows of a train. I say it as I have before: When you fly, you see clouds. When you drive, you see pavement. When you take the train, you see scenery. And yeah, I do walk the walk: I've logged something over 35,000 miles on Amtrak and we're planning another trip.

Amtrak has been a whipping boy of the right ever since it was created, so much so that it has a bad reputation as an inefficient boondoogle - a reputation, while not entirely undeserved in the early years, is now held mostly by people who have never ridden it.

What's not well-known even among its fans, though, is that it was never intended to succeed. In fact, it was set up to fail. How, you ask? Simple: The (claimed) idea was that Amtrak would, after a couple of years of declining subsidies, break even and "stand on its own." But that was a fool's errand and everyone involved either knew it and didn't care, didn't know it and didn't care, or knew it and looked forward to the failure.
[Amtrak] has struggled ever since it was formed," said John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor of supply chain management at Pennsylvania State University.

He said Amtrak has been systematically starved of investment over the years and subject to unrealistic expectations that it could somehow get up on its own feet and become a profitable enterprise. "You cannot operate intercity rail service at a profit," he said.

Some individual lines may make money "above the rail," excluding the cost of basic infrastructure and maintenance, but "there is no way those systems as a whole are going to make money on passenger traffic," he said.
In fact, there is hardly an example any time anywhere in the world where intercity passenger rail has made money "above the rail" and none have done so when the other costs are considered. Amtrak was set up to be a failure.

But it has survived. Just barely sometimes, scraping by, but it has survived because it has proved sufficiently popular - increasingly popular, it would appear, as ridership was up 14% in November over the year before - that the wingnuts have been unable to kill it. Like the man said, "Americans love their railroads." The very fact that it has survived, it has done better than was expected, that it has even improved, is precisely why the wackos of the right hate it and why they are again trying to kill it. As part of its maniacal plan to slash government spending, the Republican Study Committee has proposed
eliminating federal subsidies for Amtrak ($1.6 billion annually), the Transportation Department's New Starts program for commuter rail and rapid transit systems ($2 billion annually), and all grant programs for intercity and high-speed rail ($2.5 billion annually).
So it's not good enough to spin visions of bullet trains and 220-mph trains getting you from one city to another faster than you can read your paper while at the same time failing to openly and aggressively support long-distance public rail as well as regional public rail. Not when the real system we already have is under threat.

Let me be clear: Obama's support for high-speed rail can't be doubted. Remember that the stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included $8 billion for related projects around the country, an investment which is already starting to show results in a number of those areas. I have no doubt he is sincere in his desire for the "80% access to high-speed rail" goal.

But high-speed is not the only issue here and, putting it perhaps overly-colorfully, in considering mass rapid transit we shouldn't - in fact we can't, we dare not - put all the emphasis on the "rapid" to the detriment of the "mass."

Updated with a Footnote: Coincidentally, the day before this was posted the Wrexham & Shropshire line, which since 2008 had run trains from Marylebone Station in London to the town of Wrexham in northern Wales, closed down despite getting extraordinarily high ratings from its riders. What makes this relevant is that the line was one of three in the whole of the UK that ran without a government subsidy - and despite the high approval ratings, the company that ran it felt there was no chance it could be made profitable.

Which just goes to show yet another time that if you want to have an environmentally-friendly, efficient, intercity mass rapid transit system - that is, a modern railroad - you have to have public investment. Which is one of the reasons right-wingers hate it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Environmental bullshit

Bullshit and blather. That's what it is. Bullshit and blather masquerading as an environmentally-sound energy policy. And oh how I bet it's giving the Obamabots an Obamagasm.
Facing a Congress that is more hostile to environmental regulation, President Barack Obama is moderating his environmental goals: a clean energy standard that mixes nuclear, natural gas and "clean coal" with renewable sources such as wind and solar.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama called for 80 percent of the nation's electricity to come from clean sources by 2035.
Yes! Eighty percent clean in 25 years! Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Amazing Mr. O!

And how is he going to do that? By, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu essentially admitted, simply changing what is meant by "clean." In Chu's words, what constitutes "clean" energy "depends on how you define it." Obama will do it, that is, by bullshit and blather.

I'd wager that when most people think of "clean energy," they think of things like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. But oh, no, now that's what, old school? Now it's more nukes! More natural gas! More "clean coal!"

More bullshit and blather!

Natural gas is very likely the least dirty of the fossil fuels, but it is still a fossil fuel, it still taints water supplies in the course of production, and it is not "clean" in the (until now) normally-understood sense of the term.

And nukes? Do we still have to argue about nukes? When, contrary to industry lies, there is still no safe, reliable means for disposal of the waste? (Even the World Nuclear Association, an international trade group, can only bring itself to claim that methods for long-term disposal "are currently being developed.") When, contrary to industry and politician lies, it is still no answer to global warming? When the entire damn industry still would not be economically viable but for government largesse?

What's more, contrary to the fanciful visions of some who should know better, nuclear power is not and will not be a "partner" to developing renewable energy and energy efficiency. Rather, according to a study from last fall, investment in an expansion of nuclear power will crowd out investment in renewables and actual clean energy, making matters worse, not better.

And "clean coal?" Oh my nonexistent lord have mercy, "clean coal?" Are we - is anybody - still talking about the chimera, the industry shibboleth, of "clean coal?" Really? Seriously?

First, recall that coal is most commonly mined now by a process known as MTM/VF, for "mountain top mining with valley fill." Simply put, you blast away the top of the mountain, dig out the coal that's exposed, and dump the debris over the side, there to fill the valley and often to clog up the streams or rivers running through it.

Okay. Two years ago, in the wake of the failure of a retaining pond that resulted in 500 million gallons of coal ash sludge being dumped on Harriman, Tennessee, that hotbed of radical leftwing rhetoric, "Time" magazine, had an article titled "Exposing the Myth of Clean Coal Power" which concluded
coal can be cheap or it can be (somewhat) clean. But the sea of ash in Tennessee shows it can't both.
Right around the same time, Fred Pearce, the environmental columnist for The Guardian (UK), who often bends over backwards to find a way to say "the critics of environmentalists have a point" in order to appear reasonable (aka Serious), called "clean coal" a case of "utter greenwash" - that is, just industry PR crap.

Even Popular Mechanics piped in:
There's just one problem with this [clean coal] scenario: Coal will never be clean.
It can be less dirty, but it will never be clean.

Then about one year ago, a study published in the journal "Science" of the environmental and health impacts of large-scale coal production revealed “serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.”
[W]e conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems.
Which still leaves the other side of coal, when it is burned at power plants to generate electricity, generating huge piles of coal ash in the process. But meanwhile, to hear the industry tell it, through the miracle of CCS (for "carbon capture and storage" or "carbon capture and sequestration"), the coal is magically made clean, green, and pristine! It's bullshit and blather.

CCS involves forcing gases from the combustion of the coal through a liquid that captures the released carbon dioxide. That gas is then separated, piped to a sequestration site, and injected into underground reservoirs. It is a unproven technology whose one and only commercial-level project, located at Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is under challenge as leaking CO2. It also will quite possibly never become economically viable at industrial scales because of the large cost of the separation equipment and of all the new pipelines that would have to be laid to carry the CO2 to the sequestration sites.

That is what President Hopey-Changey, who spoke just a couple of weeks after the release of "Dirty Business," the new documentary about "clean coal," and who, by the way, did not even mention, not even in passing, global warming, is describing as "clean" energy. Bullshit and blather. Bullshit and blather.

In response to the SOTU,
[Bob] Deans [of the Natural Resources Defense Council] called clean coal an oxymoron and said the government should not be subsidizing nuclear power, because of concerns over waste and nuclear proliferation.

"Coal, nuclear power, biofuels and natural gas are inherently dirty," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. "Telling Americans anything else is just misleading."
But since being misleading is the only way a corporate energy policy of nukes, natural gas, and coal can be sold to the public, don't expect the bullshit and blather to stop.

Footnote: Something from the linked AP article that kinda did piss me off, not like the above but just was irritating, was this:
Chu called the new proposal "a recognition that solutions can be different in different parts of the United States, but ... this is the goal we're looking for and depending on the region, you have different options of getting to that eventual goal."

The administration's plan has echoes of the GOP's "all of the above" approach to energy.

"Let's not pick just wind or solar, let's pick everything," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. "Let's do all of it."
Over 30 fucking years ago I proposed an energy policy specifically to promote and maximize the use of renewable, environmentally-sound energy sources. I called it "No One Answer." It was based on the idea that no renewable source was useful everywhere, but everywhere some form of renewable was useful, so different types should be promoted in different areas. Thirty years later, at least some part of the political establishment has recognized that concept, even calls it pretty much the same thing, only to twist it into a stalking horse for more mining, more drilling, and more radioactive waste.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Everything you need to know in one sentence

In an interview on KQED-TV (San Francisco), Normon Solomon spent the better part of two minutes running down a list of "cascading disappointments" with Obama - and then punctuated it with this:
Obviously, on the one hand, when November comes along we want to stop right-wing Republicans, so we're going to vote Democrat.
After which you will have achieved the goal of building a longer list of disappointments. We are so screwed.

Thanks for John Caruso at The Distant Ocean for the link.

Pointing the way

Thanks for the link go to Blckdgrd, who a different post and in reference to the same report noted in the post below, said this:
Perversely, what gives me optimism we might survive as a species is as shitty as we are we haven't killed each other by now.
Sometimes I think having hope or optimism is itself what is perverse, but be that as it may, it is this sort of thing that keeps my candle in the rain lit:
A local charity is refusing to certify that it does not use United Way funds to support terrorism, saying the request smacks of McCarthyism.

Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham, who since 1968 have operated Viva House soup kitchen and food pantry on the city [of Baltimore]’s west side, say they were surprised to receive a letter in December from the United Way of Central Maryland asking them to sign and return an “Anti-Terrorism Compliance Measures” form or risk losing money that was pledged to them.

“It’s tantamount to signing a loyalty oath,” Walsh says. ...

Bickham and Walsh drafted a letter in reply declining to fill out the form. “We continue to ‘do the works of mercy and resist the works of war,’” the couple wrote in a Jan. 5 letter addressed to the United Way’s [local director of donor services, Gail] James, quoting from Viva House’s mission statement. “Loyalty oaths don’t bring about unity or good health. Instead, they break us apart as a people.” The letter urges the United Way to abandon its USA PATRIOT Act compliance effort.
Viva House, which has been in operation for more than 40 years, is part of the Catholic Worker movement, whose long and highly-honorable history began with it's founding in the depths of the depression: In 1933 Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started the "Catholic Worker" newspaper, which they sold for a penny a copy (and which is still the price today). It sparked a movement of hospitality houses serving the poor.
Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and foresaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.
"Violence" including the slow but continuing erosion of civil liberties and the right of free association. Good on them.

Footnote: Back in 2003, the ACLU initially agreed to sign a related oath from the Combined Federal Campaign for fear of losing the funding it received that way but then rescinded the decision and gave up the funding, rejoining only after it and other nonprofits successfully challenged the restrictions. That's just one indication of how tempting it can be to surrender your principles in the face of ever-constricted budgets, to say "It's just a little thing, it doesn't matter, and think of the good we can do with the cash." But it's not a little thing. It never is, even when (in a sense, maybe especially when) it's hard to see it that way. So good on the ACLU for eventually, and double good on Viva House for immediately, recognizing just what it is they were being called on to do.

And the award for the most unsurprising news of the week goes to...

...the Turkel Commission! (Applause, presenting of the bouquet, tearful walk down the runway, etc.)

The Turkel Commission, in case you don't recognize the name, is the panel set up by the Israeli government to "investigate" last May's assault by the Israeli military on the Mavi Marmara, one of a flotilla of six ships then attempting to challenge the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine passengers - eight Turks and one Turkish-American - were killed and several more wounded.

After carefully considering all the Israeli evidence offered by Israeli government officials and Israeli military officials, this Israeli-government-established panel found that the Israeli soldiers (and therefore the Israeli government and the Israeli military) acted entirely lawfully. What's more,
[t]he Israeli investigation also found that Israel's three-year blockade of Gaza, which the ship was trying to broach, does not violate international law.
Put more simply, once again the accused have investigated themselves and declared themselves not guilty.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the inquiry.

"I hope all those who rushed to judgment against Israel and its soldiers will read this report and learn the truth about what happened," Netanyahu said. "The truth is that our soldiers were defending our country — and defending their very lives."
Indeed, the panel asserted that the soldiers' lives had been in danger - even though, somehow, pure coincidence (or God's will) no doubt, it was only passengers who were killed. Moreover, the commission claimed to have looked at 133 individual cases in which soldiers used force, including 16 involving shooting to kill, and found that in every single case the soldiers had "acted professionally in the face of extensive and unanticipated violence." Geez, you'd think they were cops.

The Turkish government, which had earlier released its own findings, rejected the report, as did Israeli Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, who noted that the report is based entirely on the statements of the same people who ordered and carried out the attack.
"The Commission was not granted the power to investigate the detailed circumstances in which nine were killed, which was the primary motivation behind the Turkish and international demand for the establishment of a commission of inquiry."
She said the commission report "lacks any value."
Israeli human rights group Gisha also criticized the Turkel Commission's conclusions.

"No commission of inquiry can authorize the collective punishment of a civilian population by restricting its movement and access, as Israel did in its closure of Gaza," Executive Director Sari Bashi told AOL News. "A primary goal of the restrictions, as declared by Israel, was to paralyze the economy in Gaza and prevent its residents from leading normal lives."
In September, a UN Human Rights Council inquiry charged that the Israeli attack was “clearly unlawful” and "demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence." Now, as I said shortly thereafter,
[a]dmittedly, 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.
Even so, the US was the only member of the Council to vote against accepting the report - and, significantly, in doing so, offered no criticism of its contents.

The Human Rights Council report is separate from the four-member investigating committee set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which has yet to issue its own findings.

Footnote: The Gisha site has an interesting little game called "Safe Passage" which points out the legal and bureaucratic means Israel uses to restrict movement between Gaza and the West Bank in pursuit of a policy of "separation," using quotes from Israeli laws, regulations, and court filings. It's an interesting experience.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Passing thought

When was the last time you heard anything about the Park51 project, the one dubbed by the wingers the "Ground Zero mosque?"

It's been a while, hasn't it?

I mean, it was the news story for a while, a matter of vital national importance, all about how those people were mocking 9/11 of sacred memory and how we had to stop them now before Sharia law comes to your town! But as soon as the election was over and it was no longer useful as a boogeyman :poof: it vanished.

As Phil Ochs said "and all the news commentators are saying 'Thank God for coincidence!'"

Now, however, truth be told there is some recent news about the project: A NYC firefighter is suing the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission seeking to overturn its refusal to make a former Burlington Coat Factory warehouse surrounded by fruit stands, convenience stores, and porn shops a "landmark" of such historic or architectural interest as to prevent it from being developed into a Muslim community center.

Or rather, he isn't suing, he's just the front for the far-right wack-a-doodles of the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Pat Robertson (yes, that Pat Robertson), who are paying for the whole thing. If the suit sounds silly, it's because it is. But silly doesn't faze the cretins of the ACLJ, who, unlike for example the ACLU or the National Lawyers Guild, are financially able to need pay no attention to the chances of winning before running to court and so are free to engage in Hail Mary suits such as this one.

So far, it hasn't gone well for them. On Thursday, state Supreme Court justice Paul Feinman rejected a motion for a temporary restraining order blocking any work on the site, a ruling the ACLJ denied was any kind of setback on the grounds that no work was expected imminently anyway, in which case I'm wondering why the outfit doesn't get fined by the judge for filing a patently frivolous motion but never mind. The developers have filed a motion to dismiss the suit; the hearing on that is set for February 22.

The point here is two-fold: One, the only significant (if I can dignify it with that adjective) opposition to the project is what should be and hopefully will quickly prove to be no more than a nuisance suit by a wingnut outfit seeking only to hassle, delay, and harass the developers of the project and to fundraise for itself.

Two, searches on both Google news and Yahoo! news revealed no national media coverage. That is, it is now all but exclusively a local, New York City story. Which is what it should have remained and the fact that it was a local issue before becoming this big national point of contention only to become a local issue again once the election was over is proof of it being a case of what we knew it was all along: the rightwing Big Lie machine trying to stoke and then manipulate fear, hostility, division, and religious bigotry to advance their own sociopathic interests.

Oh, one last thing before anyone reminds me of how we're all supposed to "tone it down." That was toned down.

Totally pointlessly nonpolitical

Really. I mean it. It's completely non-political and isn't even one of my "science is cool" aka geek posts. This is something I hardly ever do - maybe a half-dozen times in the whole time I've been doing this - and I don't even know why I'm posting it other than I just damn well feel like it. Maybe 'cause we've been kinda semi-snowed in (defined as we could get out if we needed or just wanted to but health issues put constraints on how much snow and ice I'm prepared to move when I just don't hafta) and this was a nicer way to think about that. I dunno. It's just something I wanted to pass on.

I came across the video below by chance. It was posted on a Democracy for America discussion board by "Reed in VT," who identifies himself as "Heavy equipment operator for 33 years at highway dept." in Vermont and whose email wasn't listed so I can't even let him know I'm doing this. It is a 13-minute video of him plowing a tree-lined road in Vermont. That's it. Seriously. No tricks, no sudden exciting turn. Just 13 minutes and some seconds of going down a snowy Vermont road. At the end of it, you wonder why you spent that time watching it - but you're not sorry you did. So do.

Damn! The things I miss!

Unlike, I expect, a lot of political bloggers, I don't obsessively consume the news on a daily (even, clearly for some, minute-to-minute) basis. Instead I tend to do a cram session every couple of days. The advantage of this is that when I do post on a story, it's usually matured a bit and I can refer to multiple sources. The disadvantage, and it's a biggie, is that I miss stuff.

This is a prime example, a NY Times story from nearly a week ago I just learned of today. I find what it says revealing and what it doesn't say telling:
The Dimona complex in the Negev desert is famous as the heavily guarded heart of Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program, where neat rows of factories make atomic fuel for the arsenal.

Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role — as a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iran’s efforts to make a bomb of its own.
That project was and is developing and releasing the Stuxnet computer worm,
a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear arms.
News about the worm is not new; PC World, CNet, and security expert Bruce Schneier, among others, commented on rumors surrounding it and it's then-supposed targeting of Iran last fall. even had an article claiming to have debunked the whole business.

But now, says the Times,
[t]hough American and Israeli officials refuse to talk publicly about what goes on at Dimona, the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program. ...

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.
To quickly sum up this and the rest of the article, the evidence says that the US and Israel were behind the worm - with Mr. Nobel Peace Prize actually accelerating the US side of the effort - and it was indeed aimed at Iran. That is the revealing part.

What is the telling part? The New York Times article is nearly 2800 words long - and in all that space it not only can't find space to raise a single passing question about the assumption that "of course Iran is trying to build nukes and if they did that would be the end of the world," indeed it embraces that assumption. More importantly it also can't find space to mention, just to mention, that what they are describing is the US and Israel jointly committing industrial sabotage against Iran - that is, committing an act of war against a sovereign nation.

That is exactly what this is: an act of war. No arguments, no maybes, no yehbuts. It's an act of war. If you have even the tiniest doubt about that, just imagine what the reaction would be if the situation was reversed and an Iranian-developed worm had caused equivalent damage to a US industrial sector. And our "paper of record" can't even be bothered to so much as breathe a hint of it.

Some time back, I wrote somewhere - I can't find where just now so quoting as best as memory will allow - that "in our relations with other nations, we are suffused with arrogance and consumed with conceit." That we are "the cops of the world" and the rules we impose on others do not apply to us. What's even more telling about the Times' failure to refer to the sabotage as an act of war is that the reporters and editors there are so much a part of that way of thinking, so much involved with what has been called "American exceptionalism," that I frankly think it quite honestly never even occurred to them to look at it that way - and that may be their worst failing of all.

Footnote: Another thing the Times found unworthy of mention was the painfully obvious irony of the worm used to attack Iran's supposed nuclear program for its hypothetical future nuclear weapons being developed at Dimona, the center of Israel's very real nuclear program for its very real nuclear weapons, a program about which the US says nothing. (And yes, I know I used the word "irony" in a technically-incorrect but still popular sense. Go eat a dictionary.)

Another Footnote: On the other hand, something the Times did manage to mention - at the very end and only in passing - is that two Iranian nuclear scientists were killed and a third wounded in separate bomb attacks in 2010. It offered no hint nor diplomats' speculation on golly gee whiz who might be responsible for such a thing, despite adding that
[t]he man widely believed to be responsible for much of Iran’s program, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a college professor, has been hidden away by the Iranians, who know he is high on the target list.
Maybe we should put crosshairs on him. Because then if anything happens to him it clearly will have absolutely nothing to do with us, not even indirectly.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Unhappy anniversary, Two

I'm a few days late on this one, but frankly I don't care.

Monday, January 17, was the 20th anniversary of the start of the Gulf War, the supposedly "good" war that expelled Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. And the old hands were there to pat themselves on the back for their own wonderfulness.
Former President George H.W. Bush and top officials from his administration on Thursday remembered the Gulf War as a time in history when the world stood united against a tyrant as well as a "textbook example" of how to go to battle.

Before a crowd of 3,500 people, including Gulf War veterans, Bush and key members of his national security team gathered at Texas A&M University to discuss the 20th anniversary of the conflict, which began on Jan. 17, 1991. ...

Bush said helping to liberate Kuwait and guiding as commander in chief of the U.S.-led coalition troops was one of the great honors of his life. ...

Sheikh Ahmad Humood Jaber Al-Sabah, representing Kuwait's emir who was unable to attend, thanked the former president, his officials, the U.S. and its military forces.

"Believe me, Kuwait and its people will never forget you," he said. "We carry in our hearts what you did for us each and every day."
Who else joined in the orgy of self-congraulation? How about
then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and then-National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft — and H.E. Mohammad Abdullah Abulhasan, Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the war....

Their discussion detailed the efforts the U.S. made to try to resolve the situation diplomatically and build a worldwide coalition before deciding that military action was the only solution.
In other words, they lied through their teeth, still stained with blood precisely because of the on-going lies.

So herewith a history lesson, because we are also just a few weeks short of the 20th anniversary of the appearance of the print version of Lotus, which survived a couple of years before running aground on the shoals of printing costs. What follows is the full, unedited text of the lead article of that first issue, offered here for those too young (or too forgetful or too unwilling) to recall the truth.
Amid the intentionally mind-numbing drone of "successful sorties" and "significantly attritted" that so far has tricked many Americans into forgetting their "knowledge" of the Persian Gulf war comes through a prism of strict military censorship and while the pile of body bags remains small enough to see over, it's vital that we fix firmly in our minds a single, salient fact: George Bush wanted this war. From the start. He wanted it so much that he refused to acknowledge any hint of compromise, rejected out of hand any proposal, whether from ally or enemy, for a face-saving solution for Iraq, refused to countenance any settlement other than abject retreat - that is, humiliating defeat - for the "new Hitler."

Of course, he affected the highest moral stance, making grand declarations about refusal to "reward aggression." And indeed, the atrocity-laden invasion of Kuwait should not have been rewarded or even tolerated. But the painful fact remains that when faced with a choice between humiliation and war, nations have historically shown a depressingly consistent preference for the latter. If you don't want war, you have to give the other side a way to back out without appearing to back down. And that's exactly what George Bush refused to do.

George Bush wanted war.

That's why there was the parade of rationales-of-the-week, each of which was intended to strike a responsive, pro-war chord in Americans.

George Bush wanted war.

That's why just two months after they'd been imposed, White House officials were declaring economic sanctions had "failed" and Bush was said to be "out of patience."

George Bush wanted war.

That's why there were the posturing and pronouncements, the deadlines and denunciations, the rejection of anything resembling negotiations and the equation (by Vice-President Quayle) of patience with "appeasement."

George Bush wanted war.

It's not necessary to defend the indefensible invasion of Kuwait to recognize the depth of US hypocrisy on the issue, a level not seen since - well, since the invasion of Panama.

Bush's highly selective concern for human rights was perhaps the most obvious example. He quoted from Amnesty International reports about Iraqi savagery in Kuwait, but where were the quotes from AI's equally well-documented reports about outrages committed by Pakistan, by Saudi Arabia, by South Africa? Where were the international economic sanctions against Turkey for its brutal seizure and occupation of half of Cyprus? Where were the troops to stop Indonesian butchery in East Timor? And what of Syria, the once-and-future "terrorist nation" with which the US comfortably schmoozes now that it's politically expedient?

Then there was, again, the insistent denial of any chance of a settlement. Before war broke out, Iraq showed some flexibility - but every sign of compromise or concession was regarded with contempt when not ignored entirely. For example, Bush first said Secretary of State Baker could meet Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz "any time before January 15," then scorned Saddam's proposal of January 12 as deceitful. He refused to speak to Saddam directly, which says to an Arab "You're insignificant, unworthy of my time." The US pointedly ignored the release of the hostages and dismissed as irrelevant Iraq's shifts from demanding a Mideast peace conference as part of a settlement to demanding a commitment to such a conference and from saying "no withdrawal" from Kuwait to "no unconditional withdrawal." After the Baker-Aziz meeting on January 9, the Iraqi's evasions on Kuwait were labeled callous intransigence by the White House. But as Roger Fisher, a leading specialist on international negotiations who advised participants in the meetings that lead to the Camp David peace accords, noted, what actually happened is that "for six hours, the Foreign Minister avoided saying Iraq would not give up Kuwait" - clearly an opening worth pursuing. Except that we didn't want to.

But the greatest hypocrisy may be a hidden one, one that goes to the very roots of the war: For years, the US has striven to keep any Arab nation from becoming preeminent in the Middle East, supposedly to maintain "stability" but in fact to preserve American corporate interests and access to cheap oil. So cynical has been our policy that during the Iran-Iraq war we not only secretly armed Iran, we provided military intelligence to Iraq and may have disinformed both sides to keep either from gaining an advantage even as the deaths mounted.

Pentagon strategists want a permanent base in the region, and a long-discussed scenario for the introduction of American forces is a "request for help from an Arab state attacked by another." Which means it's possible that the July meeting in which the US Ambassador to Iraq in effect told Saddam Hussein the US wouldn't care if he attacked Kuwait was the result of neither ignorance nor incompetence but a deliberate ploy to sucker Iraq into invading Kuwait in order to justify exactly what's followed. As Saudi Arabia openly acknowledges it'd be pleased with a large US military presence in the region and Kuwait says it'd welcome such troops on its soil for the indefinite future, such a twisted, immoral plan seems chillingly plausible.

That's particularly true since it's long been obvious that our goal in this crisis is not and never was the "liberation" of Kuwait - or, rather, the return of the emirs to their palaces. It's the destruction of Iraq and the establishment (or re-establishment) of American hegemony in the region, a goal that's become so clear that no one bothers to deny it.

Indeed, Bush admitted as much in his speech announcing the start of the war, when he said we intended to destroy Iraq's army, a plan going far beyond the UN resolutions he claimed as moral basis for US attacks - and thus also far beyond his Congressional authorization. (Health note: Don't hold your breath waiting for Congress to point that out.) And the Boston "Globe" reports that White House strategists are planning for "an indefinite and muscular presence" in the area including a large naval force in the Gulf and keeping newly-granted basing rights.

In short, this war isn't about "human rights" or "resisting aggression" or any of the other claptrap White House zombies incant. It's about what war is always about: power. Power, control, and domination. If justice was really our goal, we'd have reacted to Iraqi aggression by combining economic sanctions and patience with negotiations to address any legitimate grievances Iraq may have - and the issue of a Mideast peace conference would never have arisen because there already would've been one. But justice isn't our goal. Power is. That's why Iraqis die. That's why refugees stream into Jordan with tales of being bombed on the road out. That's why Israelis spend nights in sealed rooms. That's why thousands of body bags wait in Saudi Arabia. That's why the blood flows thicker and the hatred on both sides burns hotter. Power.

Power. That's why George Bush wanted this war. And we damned well better not forget it.
Even now.

Two if you will footnotes to that history. One is: Was it true that our real goal was, as I charged, to destroy Iraq, to, as I said in a personal letter to someone who challenged my argument, bomb it "back into the third world, deep, deep back?" In the next issue of Lotus I wrote:
In the course of our victory, we proved to anyone who could read or hear or see or breathe that we are liars and hypocrites, whose goals in the war had nothing to do with "freeing Kuwait" and everything to do with destroying Iraq. We bombed power plants, water supplies, oil refineries, roads and bridges, telephone lines and switching stations, and more, labeling them "legitimate military targets" because they could "help strengthen the Iraqi military" - a definition under which its difficult to conceive of anything that's not a "legitimate target."
So yes, I think I can say that was the goal. That's particularly true because - and this is the second footnote - of that July (1990) meeting I mentioned. It was between Saddam Hussein and then-US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie. After being hidden away by the Bush administration for some months, Glaspie emerged to testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that those early reports about the meeting, the ones that had her telling Saddam we didn't care about his threats against Kuwait, were false, that instead she had "flummoxed" a "stupid" Saddam into silence with "clear, repeated warnings" against any "belligerent" actions. At one point she tried to cow the Committee by asking, in effect, "Who are you going to believe - me or Saddam Hussein?"

It turned out the answer should have been "Saddam." Her own cable to the State Department reporting on the meeting, released some time later, essentially confirmed the Iraqi version of the meeting and denied hers. She told her superiors that she had emphasized the friendship of the US and Iraq and told Saddam the US "took no position" on Iraq's long-standing and increasingly-hostile border dispute with Kuwait, which is diplomat-speak for "Do what you think necessary; we won't interfere."

Twenty years later, the decision of the court remains the same: George Bush wanted that war.

Unhappy anniversary, One

So today, Friday, is the one-year anniversary of the hideously bad Citizens United decision, the one that allowed over $100 million in "outside" contributions to flow into the 2010 elections on behalf of the most pro-corporate candidates.

When it was first handed down, Glenn Greenwald endorsed the ruling. I went after him on that (and in my own never-humble opinion took his argument apart) in a series of three related posts: one on his claim that the ruling expressed a genuine understanding of free speech, even if the results were unfortunate; one on his claim that "corporate personhood" was not a relevant issue; and one on his demonstrably false claim that such personhood was so much not an issue that the minority never even considered it.

One of the things I argued in that second post was to ask if that because of existing precedent corporations must be regarded as "persons" for the purpose of the First Amendment, where does that end? Where or even how can you draw the line?
Do corporate "persons" have all the other rights of people under the Constitution? If not, how do you pick and choose? By your logic, I don't see how you can. So can a corporation reply to a demand for records by pleading the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? Could a US corporation that's been around for 35 years run for president? How, once you say that corporations have the same rights as individuals, could you say no?
I mention that in particular because of this from, appropriately coming right around the anniversary:
For the past 35 years, whenever someone has used the Freedom of Information Act to ask for documents the government obtained as part of a law enforcement investigation, the government has had to assess whether their release would violate a human being's personal privacy. If so, the government had to redact or withhold the documents.

On Wednesday, AT&T tried to convince the Supreme Court that documents violating a corporation's personal privacy should be withheld too. ...

AT&T's core argument was this: Since a corporation is often defined in law -- including a case-relevant one -- as a "person," and "personal" is the adjectival form of "person," then the "personal privacy" exemption to the Freedom of Information Act must apply to corporations too. The argument was persuasive to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled for AT&T.
So even though it involves the FOIA and not the Fifth Amendment, I still say that it's just as I predicted: Business interests are indeed arguing that if corporations are "persons" and so have the right of free speech, they must also have the right of personal privacy. And the 3rd Circuit US Appeals Court agreed with them.
Thankfully, the [Supreme Court] justices' questions were so deeply skeptical of this concept that it's hard to imagine the court agreeing with AT&T when it ultimately decides the case later this year.
Even the reliably pro-corporate John Roberts and Antonin Scalia seemed quite unimpressed with the corporate argument.
The case is a good reminder, however, of just how far our legal system has gone in equating corporations and people. Remember, AT&T won at the appellate court level.
I guarantee this will not be the last such case and the last such argument. I wonder if Glenn Greenwald, who is usually quite good, has considered apologizing for his misguided support.

Monday, January 17, 2011

For Martin Luther King day

He who has done his best for his own time has lived for all times. - Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

Today, Monday, is of course Martin Luther King day. To observe the occasion, I've decided to post a modified version of something I wrote on a previous MLK day which contained a statement of belief linked with various bits and pieces of things I had written (and in some cases posted) earlier.

If you recognize any of what follows from things posted previously, just realize that I have little shame about recycling my stuff if I think it makes the point, which is that instead of another session of grousing and griping, denouncing and decrying, I thought I would try to be positive for once.

Despite that intent, I have to say at the start that even at this distance, even after all these years, I can't watch the video of his famous "I have a dream" speech and even more the end of his last speech, the one he gave the night before he was murdered, without choking up at the memory.

And I'm no softy. I'm no John Boner. I don't get weepy easily or commonly. But the hope, the hope, the hope he embodied and gave to so many, the hope that was drained away drop by bitter drop in the years since as we achieved our "post-racial" society where blacks still are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and the poverty rate among both blacks and Hispanics is still two and a-half times that of whites and even Harvard professors still need to know to say "Yassuh" and "Nosuh" to white cops, the memory of just how great the hope was at that moment, that brief span of years, that memory can still haunt me and still move me.

Watching the video of his last speech - and I believe this is without the benefit of hindsight, but of course I can't prove that - I can see the weariness in his face. This is a tired man, a man who needs some time away from the arena but who knows he is unlikely to allowed it. And I can hear the resignation in his tone and in his words, the magnificent resignation of his namesake, who, not knowing what the future would hold and even possibly doubting he would have one, still stood before the assembled power of the Catholic Church in 1521 at the Diet of Worms and said "it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience" and added, at least according to tradition (although probably not in fact), "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the halls of conscience and could do no other. Unlike his namesake, his resignation, sadly, proved well-founded and we are the lesser for it. But what we are called on to do, still called on to do these decades later, is in the words of a different sort of martyr, "Don't mourn. Organize." To respect the messenger and even more to uphold the message while denying both to the bigots, buffoons, bozos, and bastards of the rabid right who try to reinvent Martin Luther King as Allen West and as well as to the usurpers of history who would mold a preacher of nonviolence into a practitioner of perpetual war.

It's with all that and particularly the last part in mind that I mark the day not by memories or memorials but by again, trying to be positive: offering my own personal credo; not what I'm against but what I'm for. I know that some may find this an inappropriate time to write about what I believe rather than what MLK believed; I hope you understand that my intent is to honor, by embracing, the concept of the dream and the hope that he represented. And I realize what follows may sound pompous; please know that this sort of thing, this sort of sweeping, overarching statement of moral conviction does not come easily to me. I can swing a club of moral condemnation with the best, but I'm not nearly as practiced at "yes" as I am at "no." Be kind.

Anyway. In my very first post here, over seven 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.
Equally to the point, 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 - and they sometimes take us by surprise. 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 those who may hear or see what I say or write - to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to that fundamental, baseline, radical place, that place where there is no logic, no empirical data, no linear reasoning, that place where I say, I can only say, simply, I believe.

I believe, at root, that life is our highest good and embracing life, growth, and learning is our highest ideal. I believe that whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of the crystal-glitter quality of being “human,” of that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from other animals. I believe that which opposes life, which rejects growth, which denies learning, that 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, death of the spirit, the if you will soul, as well as death of the body.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, as based on ties of the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we as human beings, as embracers of life, growth, and learning, are required to 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 even 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 that extends even to the community of humanity.

I believe that 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, of community, of us, to strive to guarantee that right. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we are called by our shared humanity 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 elevates bread over bombs, public good over private greed, and people over profits. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and expand that preciousness. A full justice, one 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.

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 trimmers who, lacking even the minimal courage to stand by the label "liberal" instead falsely claim to be "progressives" while lowering their sights, hardening their hearts, darkening their vision, and then congratulating 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 individuals, what we as a community, what we as a people, 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. We have to be, we are called on to be, our humanity requires us to be, steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but who never for an instant forget just where that work is supposed to take them.

Achieving the sort of wide-ranging justice I envision will not be easy. It will not be cheap. It will not be convenient. But it is possible - and when all is said and done it is simply the right thing, the moral thing, the human thing, to do.

Over the years 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. Because - and thank you, Dr. King, for all of it but most of all for the hope - I, too, have a dream. And - although I have come perilously close to doing so on more than one occasion - at the end of the day and to the end of my life I will not give up on it.
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