Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Season's fleeting

Just to let everyone know, Lotus will be back from hiatus just after the beginning of the year.

I've got a lot of thinking to do about a lot of things over the next few months, and this blog is one of them. Not if to do it, but how. My frustration all along has been the sense that it's not a productive use of my energies because my audience is so small. I have no expectation of being (and truth be told, no desire to be) one of the Big Blogs or even one of the middling blogs with daily hits measured in four and even five figures. But a couple hundred hits, maybe?

Anyway, one thing I'm going to do in an attempt to increase traffic is to sign up with some of those ubiquitous bookmarking services. That, and get over my resistance to blatant self-promotion. There may be other changes, I dunno yet. More as (and if) it develops.

And if anyone has any helpful suggestions, proposals, whatever, I'm all ears. Well, eyes, technically, since I'll be reading it but you know what I mean.

For the moment, happy holidays and my best wishes for peace and joy for you and yours.

Footnote: A trivia question to which I suspect several of you know the answer: Why is December called December?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I just dropped in to see what condition my condition is in

No, I'm not back yet but I did want to note for the record that this did not come as a complete surprise to some of us.

Almost exactly three years ago, I responded to a poll question about "Iran's nuclear arsenal" by demanding to know "WHAT nuclear arsenal?" and noting that Iran denied an intention to go nuclear and that the EU was unsure on tne point.

Earlier that same day, I had noted the Bush administration's attempts to drive war panic over Iran, in the course of which I said regarding Iran's supposed "refusal to cooperate,"
I can and do entertain the possibility that Iran is being deceptive in its dealings and about its intentions. But I also entertain the notion that Iran, like most nations, like most people, may just really dislike the feeling of being bullied and is behaving more out of misplaced pride than a desire to manipulate and mislead the world community. ...

I don't dismiss the possibility of aggressive intent on Iran's part ... I do think other explanations are more likely.
The following June, I said that
Iran might - might, I say - be taking steps toward developing nuclear weapons....

One of the bases for the charge that Iran is conducting a covert nuclear weapons program - traces of weapons-grade uranium on centrifuges - has very likely been refuted....

That, of course, does not completely exonerate Iran, but it does make the case for any sort of sanctions against it much weaker.
And in March and April of this year, I said that I thought that it was more likely than not that Iran was going after nuclear weapons but that "the question isn't closed" and "I'm not convinced."

That is, for the past three years I've been pretty consistent in maintaining that while Iran "more likely than not" was trying to develop nuclear weapons, I was not convinced of it and if it was, it was more likely to be done out of a sense of its regional importance and feeling threatened rather than as a means of aggression. So while I can't claim to have flat-out said Iran wasn't looking for nukes, I can claim to have not been taken in by the WHS* and their fear-mongering.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Monday, October 15, 2007

Parting Shot #5

Just as a reminder.

Parting Shot #4

And why are these called parting shots? Because Lotus is going on hiatus for a time. I've no idea how long.

But I can't find the energy to carry this on, on anything approaching a regular basis. My lifelong companion and occasional foe, the black cloud, has been hovering over me for a while now and I'm tired, depressed, and discouraged. I'm tired of feeling like I'm not getting anywhere with this thing, tired of feeling like I'm talking to an empty room, tired of putting up the work I put into posts against regarding 50 hits as a really good day and feeling like that work could be much better applied somewhere else.

I'm tired of trying to forget only to be reminded again of just how short a distance most of the so-called "liberal blogosphere" really wants to move, how much of it really does think that electing a few more Democrats is the key to all things good. And I'm tired of being reminded that for too many people, "peace" is an abstract concept to be praised and desired but calling for anything specific like a cutoff of funding or even a fixed withdrawal date is "abandoning the Iraqis" and "too political" and thus to be shunned.

I'm not giving up and I'm not disappearing, it's just that my posting will consist of occasional comments on other people's blogs. And I will be on the phone on Friday. And I will be in the streets on October 27.

See you there.

Parting Shot #3

I've said it over and over again, most recently just a few days ago:
We are on our own. We cannot depend on the Dimcrats any more than we can depend on the GOPpers to get us out of Iraq until and unless we make it politically untenable for them to do otherwise. And that will not take quiet, "serious," discussions. It will take public noise and lots of it.
So make some noise!

Demonstrate! Gesticulate! Articulate!

Refuse! Resist! Reject!

Sign a petition. Write a letter. Go to a vigil. Go to a demonstration. Do civil disobedience, maybe sit in at a Congressional office. Make yourself a nuisance. Refuse to pay some or all of your taxes. Call or write Congress, because I don't care who your rep is, they haven't done enough.

Light a damn candle, even! Something! And keep doing it!

Iraq Moratorium is calling on people to take some action about ending the war on the third Friday of every month. I've decided that whatever else I may do, on each of those days, I'm going to call my three Congressional reps and tell them they haven't done enough and that the minimum I will accept is a pledge to vote against any bill funding the Iraq War that does not contain a fixed date for withdrawal.

Here's something very specific to do: Attend one of the 11 regional demonstrations set for October 27 being organized by United for Peace and Justice.

Boston - Endorsed by 95 organizations throughout New England, including the AFL-CIO state federations in Vermont and Connecticut, the demonstration will feature noted historian Howard Zinn, John Olsen (President, Connecticut AFL-CIO), Son of Nun (political hip-hop), David Rovics (topical folk) and representatives from veterans and military families organizations.

Chicago - More than 130 groups and three members of Congress are already endorsing the midwest action. Peace trains and buses are coming from Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and at least 30 African-American churches on Chicago's South Side are bringing busloads of people to the march and rally.

Jonesborough, Tennessee - Jonesborough is home to Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee, one of the largest producers of Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons. That fact, and its central location, led regional organizers to decide this was an ideal location for an October 27th demonstration in the southeast. The day will begin with a rally at the Courthouse steps where the mayor of Jonesborough will welcome the peacemakers.

Los Angeles - Following a march to the Federal Building, participants will be asked to be part of a die-in to represent the more than 1 million Iraqis and almost 4,000 US servicepeople killed in the war.

New Orleans - After a rally in Washington Square, the march will proceed through the French Quarter. People from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are joining this event. In addition to calling for an end to the war in Iraq, this march and rally will address the racial injustice on the Gulf Coast, in New Orleans and Jena, Louisiana.

New York - The labor movement, college and high school students, and community groups from around New York State and northern New Jersey are mobilizing for a massive march and rally to end the war. The march will end at a Peace and Justice Fair, where there will be opportunities for people to find out how they can become more involved in the ongoing work of many organizations.

Orlando - Endorsements are pouring in, and people are coming from South Carolina, Georgia, parts of Alabama, and from all over Florida. Since national marches are usually so far away and such a major trip for people in Florida, folks are responding with a lot of excitement to this call to Orlando.

Philadelphia - A caravan led by Iraq Veterans Against the War will make its way from Arlington Cemetery to Philadelphia, with stops in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Delaware. At each stop, a "coffin," bearing the count of U.S. military deaths from that state, and an estimate of the Iraqi casualties from a particular province, will be loaded on a vehicle to join the caravan. In Camden, NJ, participants in a morning rally will march across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia, and on to Independence Mall. In Philadelphia, a Human Chain for Peace will extend 36 blocks, followed by a march to the rally at Independence Mall.

Salt Lake City - People from Idaho, Colorado, Montana, and around Utah will come together in a major march and rally in Salt Lake City. An Iraq War veteran will give an opening address before the march. The event culminates at Washington Square, where nationally recognized speakers will address the gathering. The Mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, is supporting this effort.

San Francisco - Several feeder marches from various parts of the city will join people from throughout northern California at the Civic Center for a pre-march rally. The main march will proceed to Dolores Park, where there will be another rally and a Peace and Justice Convergence. The convergence will feature activities designed to help educate people about a number of critical issues and bring them into greater involvement. A massive number of groups in the Bay Area and around the region have endorsed the demonstration and more are expected.

Seattle - Throughout Washington and Oregon, organizing is underway to bring people to Seattle. People will gather in Judkins Park for a rally and then march to Occidental Park. The march is planned to go through communities in Seattle so the antiwar message gets out far and wide.
Do it. Do it all and do it again. Because we are on our own.


Parting Shot #2

In the post immediately below, I said:
What would be the reaction - seriously, ask yourself - what would be the reaction if Syria had bombed an Israeli nuclear facility? You know damn well what it would be: Outrage. Fury. Retaliation not only by Israel but perhaps by the US....

[W]hy is it okay for Israel to bomb Syria but not the other way around?
That post, obviously, had to do with Israel. This one has to do with the other implication of that question: Just why does the one seem okay in a way the other doesn't?

I was going to get all psycho-social philosophical here but the truth is I just don't feel like it so I'm going to cut to the bottom line: It's because no matter what, no matter the circumstances, despite all our claims to being "progressive" and "open-minded," regardless of our self-assured declarations of greater connection to "reality" than others, too many of us, most of us, still go into every situation with the unspoken assumption - with, if you will, the "frame" - that "we" are the good guys and "they" are the bad guys. So when we do it, it's okay but when they do it, it's evil.

One obvious example is torture: We only need imagine what the response would be to American prisoners subjected to head-slapping, waterboarding, extreme temperatures, and stress positions to see the difference.

But while that's an obvious example, it's a bad one, because we'll say, oh no, not us, we're against torture. It's the Pinochet-wannabes, the warnuts, the blood-drinking flakes that populate much of what passes for the right wing of American politics today that think that way. But not us, oh no. We're too, too ... too thoughtful for that.

But it is us, even if not that obvious, even if not that extreme. It's still there. Every day.

Every time you hear someone on the left side of the political divide go after the WHS* for their "lack of planning" about Iraq, it's there. Why? Because I don't give a single goddam fuck about the "planning!" It could have been the best freaking planned invasion in the history of warfare and it still would have been an immoral, murderous crime based on a putrid concoction of lies, paranoia, greed, and power-lust. Planning or the lack thereof was not the issue, never the issue, and any hint that better "planning for the post-war environment" would have made the war more acceptable or even just less egregious is a declaration that might makes right - provided it is our might. Our "good" might.

Every time you hear complaints and accusations about Iran supplying arms to insurgents or militias in Iraq and you worry about that without wondering exactly why it's acceptable for us to arm our friends but not acceptable for others to do the same, you are echoing the "we are the good guys" cry.

Every time you hear someone on the "left" praise without caveat "our brave men and women in uniform," every time you hear them offer up the unspoken notion that somehow, some way, our soldiers are better, more noble, more worthy of respect than the "rebels," the "insurgents," that in some unrealized sense an IED is cowardly in a way that firing missiles from a helicopter gunship is not, every time you hear them ignore or forget the lies about what our troops are capable of, you are hearing an assertion that good is by its very nature nature on our side.

Of course it's not just Iraq and even more of course it's not just us. But that very realization emphasizes the point rather than undermining it. War and its symbiotic partner militarism do not recognize "good" and "bad" but only life and death and, ultimately, only winner and loser and they will feed off one person's blood as readily as another. Or, as I put it some years ago, "Every war is just when modified by the adjective 'my.'" Militarism destroys souls right along with flesh, war blows away conscience as readily as concrete. The sooner we can admit to ourselves that we are not the good guys in Iraq, we are at best just another of the bad guys; the sooner we can face up to the fact that our troops are not engaged in a noble cause but a spirit-destroying crime that leaves them as capable of venality as any terrorist; the sooner we can learn to embrace those troops in their humanity while rejecting their work; the sooner we can break the spell of our unspoken assumptions - the better off we, the troops, the Iraqis, and the world will be.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Parting Shot #1

Sunday's New York Times reported that
Israel’s air attack on Syria last month was directed against a site that Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged was a partly constructed nuclear reactor....

The description of the target addresses one of the central mysteries surrounding the Sept. 6 attack, and suggests that Israel carried out the raid to demonstrate its determination to snuff out even a nascent nuclear project in a neighboring state.
Linking to the story, John Aravosis at AmericaBlog tossed it off with a post that said, in its entirety, "Can't say I blame 'em."

Well, I can. Goddam it, I can. I can blame them and I do blame them. I refuse to pussyfoot around, to step tenderly where Israel is concerned, to accept policies and actions that would horrify us if done by others. What would be the reaction - seriously, ask yourself - what would be the reaction if Syria had bombed an Israeli nuclear facility? You know damn well what it would be: Outrage. Fury. Retaliation not only by Israel but perhaps by the US, where forces eagerly desiring such an attack would leap at the opportunity, as the same Times article made clear:
Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawkish members of the administration have made the case that the same intelligence that prompted Israel to attack should lead the United States to reconsider delicate negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program, as well as America’s diplomatic strategy toward Syria, which has been invited to join Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., next month.
Certainly it is no secret - though officially denied with a wink and a nudge - that Israel has nuclear weapons, that it has nuclear facilities. And Syria and Israel are formally at war. So why is it okay for Israel to bomb Syria but not the other way around? What, defense, the "existential threat to Israel's survival" presented by Syria? Don't be ridiculous; that hasn't been a valid argument for decades.

In fact, it has been some time since Israel showed a genuine interest in peace - provided we assume that "peace" can be differentiated from "dominance." As Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress and until recently a senior fellow at the conservative Council on Foreign Relations, put it this summer,
[b]oth Bush and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert have spoken endlessly of their commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it is their determination to bring down Hamas rather than to build up a Palestinian state that animates their new-found enthusiasm for making [Palestinian president Mahmoud] Abbas look good. ... Palestinian moderates will never prevail over those considered extremists, since what defines moderation for Olmert is Palestinian acquiescence in Israel’s dismemberment of Palestinian territory. ...

In fact, all previous peace initiatives have got nowhere for a reason that neither Bush nor the EU has had the political courage to acknowledge. That reason is the consensus reached long ago by Israel’s decision-making elites that Israel will never allow the emergence of a Palestinian state which denies it effective military and economic control of the West Bank.
"The Middle East peace process may well be the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history," he declared, noting the statement of former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon that Israel's intent is "to sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people."

Nearly four years ago, I noted that Israel had staged a large-scale incursion into Ramallah just two days before Palestinian groups were to meet in Egypt to discuss halting attacks on Israelis.
Does it seem to anyone else[, I wrote at the time,] that Israel always seems to make some "provocative" move - a raid, an assassination, a "clampdown," something - just at the moment when it looks like some radical Palestinian groups might agree to back off on violence or just before some negotiation is supposed to start?
Nothing in the intervening time has given me any reason to question that judgment. In fact, just a month ago,
Israel overshadowed US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest Mideast peace mission by declaring Gaza a "hostile entity" and threatening to cut back vital utilities, drawing Palestinian wrath and putting Rice squarely in the middle of the latest squabble. ...

[Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni said Israel was not obliged to deliver anything to Gaza beyond humanitarian aid.

"When it comes to the humanitarian needs, we have our own responsibilities," Livni said. "All the needs which are more than humanitarian needs will not be supplied by Israel to Gaza Strip."

The decision is likely to reinforce perceptions among Palestinians and their Arab backers that Israel will do as it sees fit, regardless of the cost to civilians, and that the US will not block Israel's hand. That could cripple preparations for the Mideast conference.
And now, a bombing raid on a facility in Syria which, even if we take all official statements at face value and assume evil intent on Syria's part, was not a threat and could not become one for a minimum of three years - just a month before, as noted, the start of Middle East peace talks to which Syria has been invited. I can't say I'm surprised.

So yes, I can and do blame Israel. I blame it for its "separation barrier," the internationally-condemned massive wall intended to turn the West Bank into a series of bantustans.

I blame it for its continuing seizure of Palestinian land, sometimes in violation of its own laws.

I blame it for its continued stalling on West Bank withdrawal with excuse after excuse, now including the supposed need to have a missile defense system in place, which will take, says Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at least 21/2 years.

I blame it for making fake "peace" offers that it knew in advance would not, could not be accepted by any Palestinian leader, offers made only for political manipulation.

I blame it for playing up the deaths of Israelis while burying the deaths of Palestinians under layers of silence sufficient to hide the fact that, according to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, more than four times as many Palestinians have been killed by Israelis than the reverse since September 2000. (The numbers are 1025 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed by Palestinians between September 29, 2000 and September 30, 2007 and 4308 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers and civilians in that same time. In some categories, such as minors, the discrepancy is over seven to one.)

I blame it for fanning the flames of tension and war by its provocative, aggressive, what Science, Sport and Culture Minister Ghaleb Majadele called "regular" intrusion in Syrian airspace by the Israeli military.

I blame it for its illegal, immoral imposition of collective punishment on the people of Gaza.

I blame it for turning even its roads into servants of apartheid.

And I blame us for putting up with it, abiding it, ignoring it except to accept it, and most especially for our role in paying for it over the years.

Am I saying that the Palestinians, that Fatah and Hamas, are blameless? Of course not and don't even try to lay that crap on me. But the fact remains that it is not the Palestinians whose actions we are effectually endorsing with $2.4 billion in military aid every year. That aid should be stopped. Immediately. Period. Not one dime for occupation and oppression. Not one penny.

Because yes, I damn well can blame them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A tale of shirt-tails

There has been a fair amount of coverage of the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who sued the US government for damages because, he says,
he was mistakenly identified as an associate of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and was detained while attempting to enter Macedonia on New Year's Eve 2003.

He claims that CIA agents stripped, beat, shackled, diapered, drugged and chained him to the floor of a plane for a flight to Afghanistan. He says he was held for four months in a CIA-run prison known as the "salt pit" in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

After the CIA determined it had the wrong man, el-Masri says, he was dumped on a hilltop in Albania and told to walk down a path without looking back.
The claims are not idle; they
were backed by European investigations and U.S. news reports. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that U.S. officials acknowledged that el-Masri's detention was a mistake.
The WHS*, however, refuse to acknowledge that he was taken and demanded that the courts dismiss his claim on the basis of the so-called "state secrets privilege," claiming that even considering the case, even providing evidence to the judge in chambers, would reveal vital national security information "concern[ing] the highly classified methods and means of the program." It is a "trust us, we know what's best" defense - and traditionally, albeit it shockingly, the courts have deferred to it.

And now the Supreme Court has done precisely that, dismissing without comment el-Masri's suit, putting an end to any hope he had for recompense, justice, or even a simple acknowledgment of error.
"We are very disappointed," Manfred Gnijdic, el-Masri's attorney in Germany, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his office in Ulm.

"It will shatter all trust in the American justice system," Gnijdic said. He said the United States expects every other nation to act responsibly but refuses to take responsibility for its own actions.
So very true. Of course, the Court will grandly insist that in denying his appeal without comment the justices took no position on the merits of his case, that the issues raised have not been adjudicated, that the Court has not approved "rendition," as the process is called, it has not approved kidnapping or torture, especially of innocent people.

It will say that even though for those of us who live in the real world instead of the fantasy of legal briefs, that is exactly what it has done. It has informed the thugs and goons who populate the White House that they can kidnap, beat, torture, imprison, with absolute impunity, that they are beyond the reach of both the law and justice, that they can't be touched by cop or court, that they have powers barely dreamed of by kings of old - because whatever they have done, whatever extremes they have reached, and whoever they have done it to, when challenged all they need do is say "we don't want to tell you about it" and the courts will say "oh, okay." As Gnijdic said in an obvious understatement, "That is a disaster."

That wrapping their cruelties in secrecy is the intent can be read in the numbers. According to, whose "Secrecy Report Card 2007" can be found at this link, between 1953 and 1976, across the span of the Cold War, the state secrets privilege was used precisely six times. Since 2001, it has been used 39 times. To silence such people as Sibel Edmonds. To silence such people as Khaled el-Masri. To silence the truth.

And then there is the shirt-tail, one of I. F. Stone's shirt-tails, the important bit buried at the end of an article.
The state secrets privilege arose from a 1953 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the executive branch to keep secret, even from the court, details about a military plane's fatal crash.

Three widows sued to get the accident report after their husbands died aboard a B-29 bomber, but the Air Force refused to release it claiming that the plane was on a secret mission to test new equipment. The high court accepted the argument, but when the report was released decades later there was nothing in it about a secret mission or equipment.
The entire states secret privilege is based on a goddam CYA lie. I wrote about this back in March 2005:
It turns out when the documents were finally declassified in 2000 that the accident report - which the Justices never actually saw, having taken the word of the Air Force as to the significance of its contents - had no material information about the plane's mission or the secret equipment being tested, but did contain information that the plane had suffered numerous safety problems and was considered unsafe to fly.
The documents ascribe fault for the crash to the Air Force's failure to comply with orders to modify the B-29's exhaust assembly, the apparent source of the fire that caused the crash. In addition, the service was at fault for failing to brief the civilian contractors that were on the flight in proper emergency procedures....
That is the "secret" the Air Force was trying to conceal.
When the information was released, the one surviving widow asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. It dismissed her in a single sentence.

El-Masri is in good company. And, like the man said, "the law is an ass." And so is the Supreme Court.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Racing to the bottom, redux

Updated As I expect you have heard, a noose was found hanging on the door of Madonna Constantine, a black professor of race, racial identity, and multiculturalism at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. Hundreds of people demonstrated in her support the next day.

But beyond the noose itself, there are two bits which should give pause to anyone who still wants to cling to the absurdity that race is no longer an issue in the US.

The first is that almost immediately, the hanging of the noose itself was overshadowed in the media by the initial refusal of Columbia to turn over surveillance videos of the building without a court order. For much of the coverage, that, rather than the blatant racism of the noose itself, became the issue. The university was "stonewalling," and when it agreed to give over the tapes, it had "flip-flopped." This was despite the fact that the university said it's policy was to wait until it got a subpoena - a policy I whole-heartedly endorse for its protection of privacy rights - and it appears it released the tapes immediately once a subpoena had been secured.

Anything, it seemed, to avoid focusing on the actual crime.

The other bit is the opening that this mis-aimed coverage provided for various jerks, jackasses, and bigoted lamebrains to suggest on various message boards that the reason Columbia was withholding the tapes was because they showed Constantine hanging the noose herself in order to spark a racial incident. Because as everyone knows, there is no racism. Nobody is racist - well, except for people like Al Sharpton and some liberals who support affirmative action. They're the real racists, y'know.

This was despite the fact that
[a]t an afternoon news conference, Deputy Inspector Michael Osgood, commander of the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force ... ruled out any possibility that Professor Constantine had hung the rope herself.

“Our victim is a victim,” he said at police headquarters.
But that doesn't matter, because, I mean, y'know, it's just not an issue. After all, as one person commented, "It's just a knot in a rope. Stop reporting this." Dammit it all, those people should just get over it. Even though
[i]n July, a noose was left in the bag of a black Coast Guard cadet aboard a cutter. A noose was found in August on the office floor of a white officer who had been conducting race-relations training in response to the incident.

In early September, a noose was discovered at the University of Maryland in a tree near a building that houses several black campus groups.

On Sept. 29, a noose appeared in the locker room of the Hempstead, N.Y., police department, which recently touted its efforts to recruit minorities.

On Oct. 2, a noose was seen hanging on a utility pole at the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama.
Even though on Thursday a noose was found
hanging from a light pole outside the Church Street post office, near ground zero [of 9/11].
Even though on Sunday, a white woman was arrested
on hate-crime charges alleging she hung a noose over a tree limb and threatened a black family living next door in New York City.
Even though there have been at least a dozen noose-hanging incidents in the last two months, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Yeah, even though.

Updated with some additional recent noose incidents.

If you ever doubted it...

...this should resolve the question once and for all: We are on our own.

From yesterday's Washington Post:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in a determinedly good mood when she sat down to lunch with reporters yesterday. She entered the room beaming and, over the course of an hour, smiled no fewer than 31 times and got off at least 23 laughs.

But her spirits soured instantly when somebody asked about the anger of the Democratic "base" over her failure to end the war in Iraq.

"Look," she said, the chicken breast on her plate untouched. "I had, for five months, people sitting outside my home, going into my garden in San Francisco, angering neighbors, hanging their clothes from trees, building all kinds of things - Buddhas? I don't know what they were - couches, sofas, chairs, permanent living facilities on my front sidewalk."

Unsmilingly, she continued: "If they were poor and they were sleeping on my sidewalk, they would be arrested for loitering, but because they have 'Impeach Bush' across their chest, it's the First Amendment."
Oh, well, cue the violins, Nancy Pelosi doesn't like being the target of demonstrators, who she wishes could be arrested for loitering. Poor baby. If she actually did what was necessary to rein in the militarist fantasies of President Shrub, she wouldn't have that problem. Instead, she flat out refuses to cut off funding for the war by blocking passage of funding for it, saying she "will never cut funds for troops in the field." She cravenly capitulates to Bush vetoes of any sort of restrictions by giving him whatever he wants while whining that without the votes to override, she's helpless - rather than, for example, passing the same damn bill again and telling Bush if he wants his blood money, these are the conditions, take it or leave it, and make up your damn mind. And let's not forget that originally, last spring, she didn't even want to allow a vote on a Progressive Caucus alternative with a fixed (relatively) short-term deadline for withdrawal.

But oh my the poor dear is so terribly upset. In fact, she's "seething."
"We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow," Pelosi told the gathering.... Though crediting activists for their "passion," Pelosi called it "a waste of time" for them to target Democrats. "They are advocates," she said. "We are leaders."
A revealing statement in so many ways. First, Nancy Pelosi regards antiwar protesters as irresponsible. That's a rude, wrong, rant, but ultimately not surprising; "passionate" "advocates" are always disparaged in such terms by "serious" people. Then there is her contention that going after Dems is "a waste of time." Which is also not surprising but still it's nice to have it confirmed that for Pelosi it's not about ending the war, it's all about attacking Republicans, it's all about electing Democrats, it's all about, as I have said so many times, positioning for the 2008 elections and continued death, destruction, and devastation are preferable to running the risk of being called "soft" on "national security."

That was actually reconfirmed by another Pelosi comment.
[A]pproval ratings for Congress, in the teens and 20s, didn't evoke regrets. "I don't like the numbers for Congress," she admitted, but "I'm very pleased with the Democratic numbers." She then took an unusual detour into polling minutiae. "Today the Rasmussen numbers were the third time that we were double-digit ahead in the generic," she reported, "and the third month in a row we were in the high 40s."
Do you get what that means? The "generic" refers to those "Are you more likely to vote for a Democrat or a Republican for Congress" questions, i.e., asking about party support rather than particular candidates. So Pelosi doesn't care that the voters who put the Democrats where they are, are pissed off at the crappy job they've done, particularly on the war - not so long as Democrats are ahead of Republicans. It's all about the politics, not about the policy. It's all about winning, not about governing. It is, when it comes right down to it, all about the party, not about the people.

Oh, but at least she finished with a joke. "We are leaders." I mean, that is a joke, right? Since the Dummycrats came into control of Congress, there are more US troops in Iraq, hundreds of billions of additional dollars have been approved for the war, no restrictions have been placed on the Shrub gangsters (the utterly toothless "benchmarks" which even the White House can't bring itself to claim are being met, an admission met with almost complete silence from Pelosi's "leaders," do not count), and based on her own accounts, Dims in the House have engaged in nothing but pure self-serving symbolism, passing legislation they know will not become law and by which, when push comes to shove, they will not stand.

If that's "leadership," I'm Fred Thompson.

I've said it, I've said it, I'm going to keep saying it: We are on our own. We cannot depend on the Dimcrats any more than we can depend on the GOPpers to get us out of Iraq until and unless we make it politically untenable for them to do otherwise. And that will not take quiet, "serious," discussions. It will take public noise and lots of it. Which means, by the way, that Pelosi's annoyance at demonstrators outside her house is a good thing because it means they're getting under her skin.

So carry it on.

Footnote: Two quickies on other Pelosi-isms.

- In response to a question about complaints that Democrats didn't go far enough on climate-change legislation, she said "We did not say we were going to do any more than we did." And just how is that an answer to the complaint? What, "We said from the beginning we were going to offer an inadequate program that doesn't solve the problem" and we're all supposed to say "Okay, yeah, great job?"

- Asked about her "greatest mistake," Pelosi said "Why don't you tell me? 'Cause I think we're doing just great." Remember when Georgie stumbled over a similar question and couldn't recall any mistakes? It seems Our Only President is not the only one so afflicted.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Journey to the Center of the Geek

I was going to post about this last Saturday, but that was the day of One Blogpost for Burma, so I didn't. But I did want to mention it before it got too far away. Because, y'see, October 4 was kind of a special day: It was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184-pound, pumpkin-sized sphere into orbit around the Earth, the planet's first artificial satellite. Its name was Sputnik.

Things haven't worked out in the years since like some folks predicted, but then again, they rarely do in science.
Humans have not set up space colonies or left boot prints on Mars, as widely predicted, but we have launched a stunning number of new Sputniks - thousands of satellites for communications, navigation and surveillance that have changed everything from how we fight wars to how our rental cars guide us to our hotels.
And while no one has set foot on the Moon since 1972, space scientists have done some genuinely cool things. They have, just for example, sent probes past all the outer planets; one such probe is now about 9.6 billion miles (about 15.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. They flew a spacecraft through the tail of a comet - and then later flew a spacecraft into one. They landed a spacecraft on an asteroid. And, of course, there are still Spirit and Opportunity.

Oh, and one other thing: One response to Sputnik was the establishment of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, intended to examine and promote new technologies. Some of those projects were altogether flaky, but one project involved developing a computer network linking several universities and research centers. It was called Arpanet. You know what happened next.

Racing to the bottom

Consider this some updates and footnotes to the continuing story of the Jena 6, specifically aimed at those bozos and bigots who insist it had nothing to do with race and that racism is a dead issue in the country. The items are sort of old - ancient in blogtime, in fact - but they need to be noted and recorded. First up is this:
No sooner did tens of thousands of African-American demonstrators depart the racially tense town of Jena, La., last week after protesting perceived injustices than white supremacists flooded in behind them,
reported the Chicago Tribune on September 24. First a neo-Nazi Web site posted the names, addresses, and phone numbers of some of the Jena 6 and suggested people should "drag them out of the house."

Then Richard Barrett, the leader of the Mississippi-based Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist group, published interviews he conducted with Jena Mayor Murphy McMillin and Justin Barker. Told of Barrett's desire that the town "set aside some place for those opposing the colored folks," McMillin said he wouldn't endorse any demonstrations but "I do appreciate what you are trying to do. Your moral support means a lot." Barker, for his part, said white readers of the interview should "realize what is going on, speak up and speak their mind." Barker's family claims they didn't know the nature of Barrett's group when they agreed to the interview; Barrett disputes that. In either event I don't know why that's supposed to make a difference in the meaning of what Barker said, especially as the family has not challenged the accuracy of the quote.

A couple of days later, Reed Walters, the DA prosecuting the 6, proved his own non-racist bona fides by declaring at a press conference on September 27 that
"I firmly believe that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened....

"The Lord Jesus Christ put his influence on those people, and they responded accordingly," he continued.
Because, as we all know, a group of black people can't be trusted to be, in fact they can't be, peaceful and dignified except as a result of divine intervention. And it is clearly, unquestionably, not racist to say that. No siree.

There was also nothing racial in the fact that Walters claimed he didn't prosecute the students who hung the nooses in the tree because he couldn't find a law that established "a crime that I could prosecute. There is none." That despite the fact that Louisiana Revised Statute 14:107.2 creates a hate crime for any institutional vandalism or criminal trespass motivated by race. That is, the man who turned a schoolyard assault into attempted murder and sneakers into "deadly weapons" couldn't figure a way to make hanging nooses in a tree on school property a case of vandalism. But there's no racism there. None. Couldn't be: Race was not an issue in the case. Walters and McMillin both said so.

What's more, there also was no racism on display in Palmdale, California, late last month, when a white security guard at the local high school attacked a 16-year old black girl after he claimed she didn't completely pick up a piece of birthday cake she accidentally dropped on the lunchroom floor during a lunch-hour birthday celebration for a friend.

He grabbed her, slammed her head against a table, twisted her arm behind her back so violently that he broke her wrist, handcuffed her, and called her a "nappy-head." When he realized he was being videoed, he tackled the student, a 14-year old black boy, doing it. When the boy's older sister tried to help him, she was also assaulted and handcuffed - and also suffered a broken wrist as a result. When the first girl's mother got to the school and demanded to see her daughter, she was accused of battering the school principal (who is white) and was arrested.

So here's the result: The first student, Pleajhia Mervin, has, again, a broken wrist. She has been expelled from school and will have to go to an expulsion hearing. She was ticketed for littering. She was accused of battering the guard - who, hilariously, claimed he felt "threatened" by her.

The boy, Joshua Lockett, was on probation for robbery and was held on suspicion of violating his probation, which, I take it, must have included requirements that he not document a case of brutality or get tackled by an out-of-control security guard.

Lockett's sister Kenngela, also with a broken wrist, was also arrested.

Mervin's mother, Latrisha Majors, spent the night in jail. She was suspended without pay from her job as a special-education instructional assistant pending the outcome of her criminal case.

Oh, and the guard? He has been placed on leave - not suspended, placed on leave - with pay pending an investigation by the school district. His name, unlike the others, was not publicly released.

There is, needless to say, no racial component to any of this.

I'm so glad racism is not a problem any more in the US. Just imagine what could happen if it was.

Friday, October 05, 2007

More notes on Burma

The plight of those under the boot of the Burmese junta remains serious, but so do the hopes of a better future. While the streets of Rangoon are largely quiet during the day, at night the roundups of dissenters continues.
"I have heard that 6,000 people may be missing - that sounds plausible," said one Western diplomat, on condition of anonymity. ...

"It's frightening to even think about the fate of those monks," said Shari Villarosa, the senior US diplomat in Rangoon.

She said conditions in Burmese prisons were "very grim, with reports of torture".
Before anyone says it, I am fully aware, as apparently she is not, of the irony of the US condemning another nation over torture and that we have little moral standing from which to pass judgment. But there is an old saying which is applicable here: "If it's the truth, what does it matter who said it?"

The point, however, is this:
Although the Burmese military has forced the protesters off Rangoon's streets, this does not appear to have broken the resolve of democracy campaigners.

Nilar Thein has been in hiding since the very first street protests, triggered by abrupt fuel price rises, were broken up by police and hired government thugs last month.

Although her husband and many other leading activists from the "88 Generation" (named after the last student uprising of 1988) are now in prison, Nilar Thein is still on the run with a handful of other activists.

Reached by telephone, she broke away from a planning meeting to declare: "There will be more sacrifices ahead. We must find a way to win this battle by joining hands with the monks and the public."
Nilar said she "can't predict" how long it will take to secure a democratic Burma - but neither she nor others have given up.

Meanwhile, there are some other signs that even as the crackdown on peaceful dissent continues, the generals may not be so impervious to outside pressures as we are repeatedly told. For one thing, Villarosa was unexpectedly summoned to a meeting today, Friday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint in the remote capital of Naypyidaw.

And in another surprise move on Thursday, General Than Shwe agreed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi - one day before an image of Suu Kyi appeared on Burmese state TV for the first time in years.
Diplomats and opposition figures were skeptical that the offer was genuine but, nonetheless, expressed hope that the meeting with Suu Kyi - something she has requested for years - would materialize.
That skepticism is well-founded, as the general said there were two preconditions to such a meeting: Suu Kyi
would have to drop her support for international sanctions and abandon her confrontational attitude,
according to state media. Those conditions can be read equally as demanding she confess to crimes she hasn't committed, as members of her party say, or as an offer to graciously accept her surrender. However, the very fact that the offer was made, even as a ploy, is an indication that the junta is concerned with the international outrage and the possibility of additional sanctions.

Such sanctions can be applied not only against Burma but against companies profiting by the repression, and calls for those sorts of sanctions are growing. For example,
[t]he ITUC [International Trade Union Confederation] is writing to several hundred companies known or suspected of having business links to Burma to pull out of the country and “stop propping up the brutal regime”, and is calling on governments to extend economic sanctions to cover all economic sectors. ...

“No company can claim to have clean hands if it is doing business in or with Burma, since the Generals take their cut out of every deal. We have been calling for several years on companies to disinvest, and those who have refused to do so will now be exposed to the full weight of public condemnation for effectively supporting a ruthless, corrupt and bloody dictatorship”, said ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder. ...

The international trade union movement and the European Trade Union Confederation have for many years called on the EU to include Burmese state monopolies covering gas, oil, mining, tropical woods and precious stones in the list of companies with which EU-based multinationals are forbidden to do business.

“The junta’s murderous reaction to the demonstrations in recent days shows how far they will go to maintain total power, and continue lining their own pockets at the expense of the massive majority who are deprived of access to proper healthcare, education, decent food and other essentials. Only a tiny few benefit from Burma’s links to foreign business, and they are the very authors of the murder, torture and violence which is still going on,” said Ryder.
Not all the news is good, of course: China and Russia continue to oppose any Security Council action, claiming it is an internal matter that does not threaten international peace or security. And The Nation newspaper (Bangkok, Thailand) quotes Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking in Singapore's capacity as chairman of ASEAN, as saying
[a]ttempting to isolate Burma's military regime by heaping on sanctions or taking a tougher line is likely to be "counterproductive,"
and only "engagement" and "a fresh approach" will accomplish anything.
"It will have to be based on reconciliation among all parties [including the military] and a peaceful, progressive transition to a government enjoying greater legitimacy at home and recognition abroad," he said. "But it will take time."
These things always do in the minds of those focused on stability rather than justice.

(Now, give Lee his due: ASEAN has, as I've noted before, taken a tougher line on Burma than the group normally would about a member nation. But even so, you can be sure the cry to be patient clangs on the ears of those under the boot. I'm reminded of the passage from Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" where he wrote that
[w]e know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
So yes to ASEAN's stepping away from postured neutrality - but no to its expectation of unlimited time and its assumption of good will on the part of the junta.)

On the other hand, there is this from Asia Times for October 1, via BurmaNet:
There are indications that the ruling State Peace and Development Council’s (SPDC’s) top two generals are at loggerheads over how to proceed in the aftermath of the crackdown.

SPDC second-in-command General Maung Aye reportedly opposed using force against the tens of thousands of monks who took to the streets, bringing him into conflict with Senior General Than Shwe, according to sources close to Maung Aye. Some soldiers in the old capital of Yangon and the city of Mandalay last week reportedly refused to obey their senior officers’ commands to attack or shoot at protesting monks, according to diplomatic sources in Yangon. Several aid workers in Mandalay reportedly witnessed soldiers there refusing to open fire when ordered by commanding officers.
Clearly, as things have fallen out so far, Than Shwe is in charge. But the very existence of such divisions and the reports of soldiers refusing orders are more signs that the imposing edifice of military dictatorship might - might, I say - actually be riddled with cracks that the iron chains of oppression might - might, I say - actually be about to rust through. Tim at Green Left Infoasis posted a link to an article from The Socialist Worker (UK) which noted aptly that
[i]t is possible for a mass movement to take on a repressive military dictatorship and win – it happened in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, in Thailand against General Suchinda Kraprayoon in May 1992 and in Indonesia against President Suharto in 1998.
Interestingly, last week the BBC carried an article comparing the Burmese junta's situation with that of Suharto and concluded that the generals do not face several of the weaknesses Suharto did. However, the key question for us right now is not what we can determine in retrospect but what can be known in the present, any present. Did Suharto, did either of the others cited in the Socialist Worker article (and they could have cited a number of others outside the region), look weak, vulnerable, before the resistance broke out - or was is the emergence of the resistance that revealed the weaknesses? In most cases of government collapse, it's the latter. So may it may be - so let it be - with Burma.

Reminder: Tomorrow, do something to remember Burma and the suffering of the Burmese. Go to a vigil or a demonstration if there is one near you. If not, wear red or maroon. Write Congress. Write a letter to a company doing business in Burma. Light a candle. Wear an armband. But do something even if it seems pointless because if nothing else - if nothing else - it will remind you of what's important.

Oh, and by the way: The video came via Crooks and Liars.

Footnote: Memo to self - Never again link to a USA Today story. Going back there now to check something, I find a completely different story at the link that doesn't even contain the quote I used. Geez, that sucks.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

After all that...

...I forgot something.

A call has been issued by activists seeking justice in Burma to make this Saturday, October 6, and international day of protest against the repression of the pro-democracy movement in Burma.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the US Campaign for Burma both have information. If there is no protest planned near you, do something anyway. Write Congress. Send a protest message to Chevron. Wear red or maroon. Light a candle. Something.

It may seem like nothing but it's not. You may be merely one rectangle under the curve, but it is still one more rectangle.

Footnote: Why "Burma?"

For those wondering why I use the name "Burma" in preference to the official name "Myanmar," it's because by all I've heard, the pro-democracy movement in Burma prefers it on the grounds that the name change was imposed by a military government which they reject.

According to the BBC, both names have been commonly used in the country, with Myanmar being a more formal term and Burma a more familiar, everyday one. I expect the difference is something equivalent to the difference between "the United States of America" and "the US" or "America" or "the States."

Still, there apparently is something of a political indicator in which name is used, something like whether you called the place in Northern Ireland "Derry" or "Londonderry" during The Troubles. And while the call by the pro-democracy movement in favor of "Burma" is not a "strong" one, I intend to be pig-headed on the matter.

On the other hand, if you're going to call it "Myanmar," at least pronounce it correctly: According to native Burmese speakers consulted by the Beeb, it's not "MEE-uhn-mar" or, as I've often heard it, "MY-uhn-mar" but rather "myan-MAR" where the "my" is pronounced like the "mu" in "mute."

Finally: Thanks to Blue Gal for the picture.

Burma - no time for silence

Updated I've been trying for days to write about events in Burma but haven't been able to get started because what do I say? Describing events seemed a waste: Not only did they run far ahead of me but there was enough coverage not only (of course) internationally - where it was a major story - but even in the US that anyone who cared could easily already know anything I could tell them.

As for offering any personal response, over the time I felt surges of hope and despair, anticipation and resignation. With every change of events, my mood changed so the approach I would take changed so what I had tried to write earlier seemed beside the point. Or pointless. Or just wrong.

On the other hand, I simply couldn't be cooly dispassionate or distantly analytical, and I certainly couldn't adopt the self-satisfied snark of Atrios (for who I have less and less use as his site continues to evolve toward open threads interrupted by links to a handful of pet sites), who, apparently (but, no, not definitely) in response to being among those skewered by Jon Swift for their silence on the issue, said on Friday
News Flash

Right this very moment there's bad stuff happening all over the world.

I don't always get around to mentioning it all.

So, stymied by conflicting feelings in the rush of events and being distracted by my own fluttering demons, I couldn't figure out what to say and so said nothing.

As the marches of dozens quickly swelled to thousands to tens of thousands, I said nothing.

As the streets filled with red-robed monks, I said nothing.

As the junta began to tremble, with reports of some army units disobeying orders to fire on demonstrators and some of those units actually fighting other army units, with reports of some army officials, in a remarkable act of defiance, issuing a letter supporting the opposition in the streets, I said nothing.

And as the dictators struck back, shooting no one seems to know just how many, cutting off information to and from the outside world, beating, arresting, again no one seems to know how just many but at least hundreds if not thousands, as reports circulated of thousands killed and their bodies dumped in the jungle and that the murderers were having bodies cremated to conceal the numbers of the dead, I said nothing.

I should have. Even pointlessly, I should have. Even if just to honor the protesters, to recognize their courage and salute their hopes, I should have. When Jon Swift noted how the Big Name Bloggers had been silent on Burma, I said this in comments:
Even though snark and satire are the usual fare here, this is serious:

As another of those liberal bloggers who hasn't posted on Burma ... I acknowledge my fault and my shame at my silence in the face of a nonviolent uprising strong enough to threaten the existence of a years-long military dictatorship.

I have various excuses and reasons - one being that I actually started to write something but events ran ahead of me and it didn't get finished, another being that my lifelong companion, the black cloud, has been hovering over me lately and it's been a struggle to post anything at all - but the silence remains and I regret it.

It may be true, as some others who have been silent say in their own defense, that there is little we bloggers can do and our words will matter very little. But that's irrelevant and an evasion. Because, dammit, some things should be said even if they fall on deaf ears.

Some things should be said, even if it makes no difference, just so the events they describe are recorded, remembered.

Some things should be said, even if only in the hope that maybe someday someone affected by those events will learn that their efforts did not pass unnoticed.

Some things should be said, even if the individual voice is so small that few can even hear it, to celebrate and embrace a common humanity, a common dream of justice.

Ultimately, some things should be said just because they should be said. And recognizing the struggle in Burma is among them.

So while I can excuse my silence, I can't justify it. But I can express gratitude for those, small and if not "large" at least less small, who did say something.
So I'm trying now, even if belatedly, to say something.

The first sprout of the resistance appeared back on February 22, with
a small group of around 25 people [who] attracted little attention at first in the crowded Rangoon market. Then they brought out home-made posters, and began shouting.

Their complaints seemed innocuous enough. "Down with consumer prices," read one poster. "We want 24-hour electricity," read another. They pointedly avoided saying anything critical about Burma's military government.

That did not spare them. Nine were rounded up and jailed, accused of acting "totally against the law". They were later released, but they had touched a very raw nerve.
That raw nerve was the Burmese economy and the deep poverty that grips the nation. According to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, the poverty rate is 25%, unemployment is over 10%, and the inflation rate was over 20% even before the price shocks of August.

The result is an on-going humanitarian crisis. Nearly one-third of children under five are chronically malnourished. Life expectancy at birth is just 62. Infant mortality is about 51 per 1,000 live births - ranking Burma 161st among nations of the world. The World Bank says infant mortality is 50% higher than that: 76 per 1,000 live births. Average income is below $300 a year. And government spending on health and education as a portion of the economy is among the lowest in the world even as
[d]iseases like tuberculosis and HIV/Aids are increasing at frightening rates
and more than 1 in 7 children have no school.
"The World Food Programme [WFP] provides food aid to 500,000 people across Myanmar [Burma] but that really only represents the poorest of the poor," said Paul Risley at the WFP in Bangkok.

"What we've found is that over the last decade, opposite to virtually every other country in Asia where slowly poverty is being gnawed away at and food security is becoming more commonplace, in Myanmar there are more people living below the poverty line and more people facing food insecurity," he said. [Brackets in original.]
Then came August 15, when gasoline prices were quintupled and diesel fuel prices were doubled.
Within days activists were out on the streets in protest. When they were arrested, the monks - who can accurately measure economic distress by the food put into their begging bowls every morning - took their place.
And for a few days, during that interregnum when a dictatorship, suddenly faced with resistance, freezes, wondering if relenting or repression is the course that will just spark more resistance, when the cracks appeared in the facade of the ruling forces, it was possible to believe that this might be Burma's moment.

It wasn't. And after days of guns, clubs, and mass arrests in the dead of night, the repression has taken its toll. Protests continued through the weekend - for example, on Sunday, more than 800 marched in the town of Taunggok, in western Burma, shouting "Release all political prisoners!" before being forced to disperse by police and army forces - but the numbers were way down as hope gave way to fear.
Witnesses reported slightly fewer troops on Yangon's streets on Tuesday, but raids on homes by pro-junta gangs looking for dissident monks and civilians suggested [UN envoy Ibrahim] Gambari's nascent "shuttle diplomacy" and international calls for restraint had made little difference.

"They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city," a Bangkok-based Myanmar expert with many friends in Yangon said. ...

In another sign the army is confident it has squashed its most serious threat since a 1988 uprising, it cut two hours off a curfew imposed last week during monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship.

The barbed-wire barricades have also gone from Yangon's Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, the focal points of demonstrations which filled at least five city blocks at their height.
(Yangon is another name for Rangoon.) Still, despite it all, there is hope amid the ruins. And resistance, even if tiny, among the ravages.
Where once there were tens of thousands, now there are just a few dozen young rebels daring to venture briefly on to the streets of Rangoon. Unarmed and with 20,000 soldiers combing the city for them, the last few say they will not let the dream of a democratic Burma be killed off by the army's brutality. But, with gun-toting soldiers on almost every street corner, they must use their imagination to find refuge.

Five youths have climbed on to a roof near the Asia Plaza hotel, not far from Sule Pagoda, in the city centre. From this viewpoint they try to locate the soldiers' positions so they can quickly take to the streets to challenge them and call on others to support them.

"There's a lot of them," says one of the youths, pointing to six lorries full of soldiers. "Yes, too many," replies another. They dash downstairs to position themselves in a small street free of soldiers. There they join up with another group and when they number 20, start to shout: "Free our monks!" "Down with the murderers of our people!"
Shopkeepers applaud them but do not join them. When soldiers appear, the group scatters.
Tin, one of the last Rangoon rebels, refuses to accept defeat. "This has been the first assault. We have the most stupid government in the world. Sooner or later the people will rise up again."

But asked whether he and his friends would try again tomorrow, he shrugs and says: "I don't know."
Will they rise up again? Will "again" be, as it was before, 20 years of darkness in the future? That certainly is what the conventional wisdom, secure in the false knowledge that guns always win over flesh, says and maybe it will be so. But maybe, just maybe, not.
The people of Rangoon - and no doubt throughout the country - are frightened. ...

However many people here fear that the worst is yet to come.

And that is because, despite the fear that pervades every part of this city, there remains an equal amount of defiance.

Those with the courage to speak out say the Burmese are not just afraid but intensely angry, and that this is definitely not the end of the protests.

"It's unbelievable what the military has done," one woman said. "In 1998 they attacked civilians, and now they have attacked monks. It's the worst thing they could do."

"We cannot stop our fight now. We just have to think of other ways to go on protesting," she added.

Behind closed doors, anti-government campaigners are almost certainly planning their next move.

One man said he thought that while the majority of protesters were currently lying low, because their leaders had been detained, they would soon be back.

And it appears that the monks have not given up either. Monasteries around the country are still refusing to accept alms from the military - a hugely symbolic act in such a devoutly Buddhist nation.

Sources have also told us that the detained monks are refusing to change out of their traditional robes, and many are on hunger strike.

In several pockets of Rangoon, people are even reportedly guarding monasteries against night-time government raids.

One man described how locals took it in turn to wait outside the monastery gates, to flash warning lights on to any military trucks coming near. Some are even said to be armed with handmade weapons, such as slingshots and arrows made from the spokes of bicycles.

Even now, there continue to be reports of small-scale demonstrations around the country.

It is obvious that despite their best efforts to stifle any opposition, the question Burma's ruling generals need to ask themselves is not if the anti-government protests will return, but when.
One aspect mentioned there which initially went almost unnoticed in the Western press is that refusal to accept alms. It is, indeed, "hugely symbolic" and if continued could have a devastating impact. Burma
has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.

Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the monk. “The people are feeding the monks and the monks are helping the people make merit,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University.
And the monks have broken that bond.
As they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.

It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families - effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.
Indeed, not just passively refusing to accept alms from the military but actively declaring a rejection of them. There is a very real and very significant difference between a society dominated by an oppressive government and one dominated by an oppressive government viewed by its people as illegitimate: The former tends to generate acquiescence except where resistance just can't be avoided; the latter tends to generate constant quiet resistance everywhere acquiescence can be avoided. And the monks have now stripped the Burmese thugs of that legitimacy in the minds of many in Burma, perhaps most.
After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the junta’s violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.

The junta’s action “shows how desperate they are,” [Ingrid] Jordt[, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism,] said. “It shows that they are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you’ve thrown your lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to normal daily legitimacy.”
There are other differences between now and times past that provide sources of hope, even if limited. One is that ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member and which has pretty much ignored the cruelties in Burma to date, last week declared its "revulsion" over the junta's crackdown. After in earlier years taking a more or less neutral stance, ASEAN has become more aggressive in criticizing the junta. In 2006 Burma was blocked from taking its turn as president of the group and it's been reported that in April of this year that ASEAN declared it would not defend Burma at any international forum.

Another, quite possibly more import, consideration is that, contrary to the casual dismissal of the prospect of outside pressures, the "we can't do anything" chorus, there are points of effective even if indirect attack. One is China, which has a close business relationship with the Burma junta and is Burma's biggest trading partner. Some claim China has little influence over the junta, but it appears to be more a matter of not caring to exercise such influence rather than not having any. And right now, China is very sensitive to its international image with the approach of the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing - enough so that at a hastily-called press conference held on a national holiday, a government representative griped that it's "totally irresponsible" to link participation in the games with China's attitude about Burma while insisting that China is working to reduce the violence in Burma. And in fact China has officially called for "restraint," which seems like a platitude and may well be, but it's far more than it has done before.

Another is Japan, which is Burma's main source of international aid but now
is mulling sanctions or other actions to protest the junta's crackdown, which left a Japanese journalist dead, chief Cabinet spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said Monday.
A third is France, where oil giant Total SA is headquartered. Total has investments in Burma and pressure has been mounting for it to pull out of Burma over human rights concerns, including a reopened investigation into its possible involvement in crimes against humanity for its connections to the regime.

A fourth, perhaps most significant for folks in the US, is Chevron, which also has investments in Burma; indeed it is the only large US company still there and recent events have lead to renewed calls for a boycott of the company. There are plans for a phone/fax protest from 1-3 pm Pacific Time on October 9; details are at this link.

On a more limited front, Chevron has been repeatedly urged to speak out, to use its influence on behalf of democracy, including by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who wrote in a letter to Chevron CEO David O'Reilly on September 28 that
Chevron's silence in this situation makes it difficult to take seriously Chevron's position that Chevron should remain in Burma because Chevron is a more responsible corporate actor than alternative possible corporate partners for the Burmese regime.
And yes, that has been the excuse, the standard bs, the expected whine: "If we don't do it, somebody else will - someone worse!" Well, to be both fair and complete, it's true that there are others looking to exploit the oil and gas reserves of Burma. Those reserves are small, no more than about 0.3% of the worldwide total, but that doesn't mean they aren't profitable. Besides China, Total, and Chevron, companies from Russia, India, South Korea, Thailand, and elsewhere are displaying greater interest in profit margins than in humanity.

Which of course is nothing new and yes, dammit, it's probably true that even if we boycotted Chevron right out of Burma, that doesn't mean the regime would fall. But it would be a blow based on a stand for principle. And frankly, either of those - blow or stand - would be sufficient cause on its own. Because some things should be said.

Perhaps the biggest fear among democracy activists in Burma now is that they will again be forgotten, that they will again become invisible.
After the last rebellion, the generals closed the universities, imprisoned thousands and isolated the country.

"Who's to say the same thing won't happen this time? We are talking about the future of a whole generation being thrown away. The lives of thousands of people will be destroyed," says one western diplomat.
Two ways we can try to prevent that from happening: One is a boycott of Chevron. The other, admittedly symbolic but still worth doing, is to join the call by to forego blogging for one day - tomorrow, October 4 - and instead simply display a banner calling for a free Burma. Information on adding your name plus graphics that can be used as a banner are available at the website with more at the group's Flickr page. (Thanks to Kevin Haydn at The American Street for that link plus one to the US Campaign for Burma.)

Carry it on. And don't be silent.

Footnote: Just in case you read the Wikipedia article on Total and react as I did, you should know that the Fina brand of gasoline and lubricants was bought from Total in 1999 and is now owned by Alon USA and has no significant connections to Burma of which I'm aware.

Another Footnote: The Burma Campaign UK maintains a "Dirty List" of companies doing business in Burma. They also maintain a "Clean List" of companies that either have pulled out of or refused to invest in Burma due to human rights concerns.

Updated by adding a few additional links, the comment about China's influence, and the observation about Japan being Burma's biggest source of foreign aid.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

September 22

Updated It turns out that the feds are keeping far more extensive records on travelers than they have previously admitted,
retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials[, the Washington Post reported].

The personal travel records are meant to be stored for as long as 15 years, as part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to assess the security threat posed by all travelers entering the country. ...

The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but the collection of data for it has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former DHS officials.
John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco whose records were requested on his behalf by The Identity Project, accused the feds of "trying to build a surveillance society," especially after discovering that his own file
included a note from a Customs and Border Patrol officer that he carried the marijuana-related book "Drugs and Your Rights."
Officials from the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland insisted the government is not interested in travelers' reading habit. Really, they mean it. Really. In the words of spokesman Russ Knocke,
We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading.
Apparently, though, if your reading habits run to something a bit more unusual than right-wing Cold War potboilers, well, that's different.
Knocke said, "if there is some indication based upon the behavior or an item in the traveler's possession that leads the inspection officer to conclude there could be a possible violation of the law, it is the front-line officer's duty to further scrutinize the traveler." Once that happens, Knocke said, "it is not uncommon for the officer to document interactions with a traveler that merited additional scrutiny."

He said that he is not familiar with the file that mentions Gilmore's book about drug rights, but that generally "front-line officers have a duty to enforce all laws within our authority, for example, the counter-narcotics mission." [Emphasis added.]
Which means, if it means anything at all, that having a book about the legal aspects of drug use is an "indication" of a violation of "narcotics" laws legitimately provoking a "document[ed] interaction."

What's more, not just what you read but what you write can be of considerable interest to the protectors of all that is good and decent, and not just if you're a software salesman-novelist on a plane:
Zakariya Reed, a Toledo firefighter ... has been detained at least seven times at the Michigan border since fall 2006. Twice, he said, he was questioned by border officials about "politically charged" opinion pieces he had published in his local newspaper. The essays were critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he said. Once, during a secondary interview, he said, "they had them printed out on the table in front of me."
The so-called "passenger name record" (PNR) information stored in the DHS database - and often provided to airlines and other companies when reservations are made - are extensive. They routinely include name, address, credit card info, telephone number, email, itinerary, hotel and rental car reservations, and even the type of bed requested in a hotel. And, we're now learning, they may contain much more besides, including your race, your profession, where and with who you have traveled, contact phone numbers, and even the name of your travel agent along with alternate itineraries the agent may have examined.

Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist who was a travel agent for over 15 years,
said that travel records are among the most potentially invasive of records because they can suggest links: They show who a traveler sat next to, where they stayed, when they left. "It's that lifetime log of everywhere you go that can be correlated with other people's movements that's most dangerous," he said. "If you sat next to someone once, that's a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that's a relationship."
In an unintentionally revealing statement, Stewart Verdery, formerly a top official at DHS, said the data
should be considered "an investigative tool, just the way we do with law enforcement, who take records of things for future purposes when they need to figure out where people came from, what they were carrying and who they are associated with. That type of information is extremely valuable when you're trying to thread together a plot or you're trying to clean up after an attack."
Or, put more bluntly, it's a data vacuum aimed at gathering and storing as much data on as many people as possible just in case they might want to use it later because, ultimately, everyone's a suspect.

Footnote: The Identity Project explains how you can request a copy of your own DHS travel dossier here.

Updated with some links, some additional sorts of information that might be in a file, and the Footnote.

September 20

Again to Indiana and the Indianapolis Star, which wrote that
[s]tudents attending last Friday’s Carmel High School football game received an alcohol breath test before they entered the game.

Students have been Breathalyzed at proms and homecoming dances for the last three years, but it was the first time for a football game, said Superintendent Barbara Underwood. ...

“That (Friday’s game) was the trial period to see if logistically we could do it,” [Amy Skeens-Benton, dean of students and activities,] said. “It worked out just fine. It was a lot easier than we thought.”
As a result, school and district administrators are considering requiring such tests for all student attendees at every football game from now on. Not because it proved to be necessary, but because it proved to be easy. Again, being tested, being checked, being searched, being told by officialdom "we're watching you," is being made a normal part of life, something to be accepted without question.
No student has ever tested positive at any school event, including dances, Skeens-Benton said.
Which, bizarrely, does not give rise to the notion that maybe such testing is unnecessary but rather to the idea that it should be done even more. What a wonderful example of the bureaucratic, power-wielding mindset.
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