Saturday, March 26, 2016

242.6 - More troops in Iraq

More troops in Iraq

Last for this week: Remember what I said some minutes ago about the antiwar left evaporating whenever a Democrat was in the White House?

On March 20, the 13th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon announced that a detachment of Marines - the number was unspecified - were being sent to Iraq, adding to the well above 4,000 US troops that are already there.

This comes one day after the death of a Marine forced the Pentagon to admit the existence of a US firebase in northern Iraq near Mosul with a "couple of hundred" Marines there in preparation for what one unnamed Pentagon official told CNN would eventually be a "limited" ground combat operation in support of the Iraqis.

Laughably, a Pentagon representative claimed the soldiers are not combat forces because "they won't go off and conduct any type of mission on their own." Is "going off on their own" something Marines are thought to routinely do? Without orders?

I expect all these folks in Iraq are wearing sneakers - because that is the only way I can see that they do not constitute the "boots on the ground" that our Nobel Peace Prize Prez insists won't happen, while all the MoveOn types and the rest of the evanescent "antiwar left" respond to the creeping - or not so creeping - escalation with "OMIGOD! Look over there! It's DONALD TRUMP!"

I repeat what I have said on prior occasions: Watch. This. Space.

Sources cited in links:

242.5 - Drug war used to demonize poor people

Drug war used to demonize poor people

Well, plus ├ža change. In more recent times, drugs have served not so much to attack hippies or the antiwar left - probably in good part because there aren't a lot of hippies around and the antiwar left seems to evaporate whenever a Democrat is in the White House. But they have still proved politically useful to demonize a different group: poor people, who are usually envisioned in the racism-infused public mind as African-Americans, so it's kind of a two-fer.

Patron saint of welfare "reform"
It was in 1996, during the presidency of - and with the urging of - the sainted Bill Clinton, that the US enacted a welfare "reform" law that among other abominations placed a lifelong ban on receiving welfare on people convicted of drug felonies. No other sort of felony was subject to this lifelong ban - not murder, not assault, not armed robbery, not arson, none of them. Nothing except drugs.

As a direct result, to this day, many men and women exiting prison after doing their time don't have access to certain forms of government assistance, including TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, what we used to call welfare, and SNAP, still commonly known as Food Stamps.

It has gotten somewhat better with regard to SNAP: Eighteen states have abandoned the federal prohibition on drug offenders receiving Food Stamps and 26 more, most recently Alabama, have eased the restrictions, allowing benefits under certain conditions. Three more states - Georgia, Indiana, and Nebraska - are considering doing the same.

But six states - Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming - still bar anyone with a drug felony from receiving any Food Stamp benefits and need be damned.

"Need be damned" is even more true of TANF benefits. Thirteen states continue to fully prohibit anyone with a drug-related conviction from getting welfare benefits, and 23 others maintain a partial ban. Only 14 have lifted the ban and treat people who have done their time the same as they do anyone else.

The Marshall Project, which collects this data, suggests that the difference is that, unlike Food Stamps, states have to foot part of the bill for TANF. Put another way, the frequent attitude is, "Sure, you can have benefits on the same basis as everyone else - provided we don't have to pay for it."

But even if there has been some improvement in the possibility of those with drug convictions being able to obtain aid if they need it, there is still an on-going effort to use the specter of drugs to demonize the poor. Only the means, not the intent, has changed.

The means now is drug-testing of applicants or recipients of public aid, of making it a requirement for obtaining or continuing to receive assistance.

State after state after state - 13 states, in fact - have instituted some form of drug-testing regimen for those in need of aid, with 19 more considering it. And it's always, always, always, done on the claims that this will save money and we don't want the tax dollars or hard-working citizens to be subsidizing the drug habits of those poor people and besides we're actually helping poor people because this will force them to get off drugs and get a job!

That stigma of the poor as being druggies, and as being poor because they are druggies, drives the entire enterprise, an enterprise pushing the idea that we are somehow doing poor people a favor by treating them all as suspected criminals who have to prove the purity of their bodily fluids to their governing overlords, those who hold in their hands the power to decide if the accused gets any help with food or shelter or health care for themselves or their children.

So state after state after state has pursued this notion - and state after state after state has shown it to be a fantasy.

Florida tried it and found only 2% of recipients of public aid used drugs, in a state where the rate of drug use among the population as a whole is estimated to be 8%.

Utah tried it and found a rate of drug use among benefit recipients to be just 0.2%. In Tennessee, it was under a quarter of a percent.

In Arizona, more than 87,000 welfare recipients went through drug testing and only one person tested positive. Not one percent, one person.

Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, all with similar results.

And now North Carolina has joined the list. According to the state's Department of Health and Human Services, a mere 0.3% of the approximately 7,600 applicants and recipients screened for drug use tested positive.

But none of this has stopped states from doing testing and it hasn't stopped other states from considering doing the same. How many failures does it take to add up to failure?

Unless - unless it actually wasn't a failure. Unless the drugs were never the issue. Unless the actual intent is to, as I said at the top, demonize the poor, mark them as somehow different, alien, as "not us," and so as undeserving of our concern.

That stigma of the poor as druggies, which drives the entire drug-screening idea, is just one more obstacle faced by those who economically struggle every single day, with all that entails for, again, necessities such as food and clothing and shelter and health care and more, who struggle every day to try to escape the trap of poverty but who find that stigma of them as drug abusers that follows them even as they try to find work, that demonization of their condition, that assumption of their moral inferiority, that classism, our contempt for the poor, is just one more mountain for them to climb.

For the sake of maintaining our sense of class superiority, we have made the poor into more victims of our failed war on drugs.

But I have to add, footnote, whatever, that the stigma goes beyond the false idea of the poor as druggies. It goes to the core of our entire social attitude about poverty.

Consider, for example, how many states have precise rules as to what Food Stamps can be used to buy, in one case going right down to the size and type of canned beans you can buy. Consider how often any sort of treat for a child, a soda, candy, whatever, is on the banned list. Consider how many states have similar rules about TANF, with long lists of things for which welfare assistance can't be used, ranging from the absurd (jewelry, cruises) to the mundane because God forbid if you are poor that you should be able to take your kid to a movie.

Consider, particularly, how often we put demands on the poor that we would never dream of putting on others who are not poor but who are getting public benefits.

CalWORKS is California's welfare program. Everyone who applies for aid and is accepted must agree to have their homes be preemptively searched for evidence of fraud at a time of the agency's choosing, which of course they do not tell you in advance because then you could hide the evidence of fraud of which they assume you are guilty - and if you're not there when they come, obviously unannounced, you can be declared "uncooperative" and denied aid. In short, the Fourth Amendment does not exist for you and neither does innocent until proven guilty - because you are poor and need help.

Can you even conceive of someone who declares their children as deductions on their tax return being told they have to agree to have their home preemptively searched to prove those kids really live there and really are dependent on them? Remember, that deduction is a benefit, a tax benefit that by cutting their taxable income puts extra money in their pocket just as surely as does any cash aid to a poor person. But can you even imagine anyone being told they have to surrender their Fourth Amendment rights in order to claim that benefit?

You know, some of those drug-testing regimens not only want you to be drug-tested to get benefits, they want you to be tested on a regular basis to keep them.

Can you even imagine, can you even conceive of, someone declaring a home mortgage deduction on their income taxes being told that every year that they do so that they have to submit to a drug test to prove that they are not using the benefits we are providing to them to get high?

Of course you can't. It seems absurd. But you can imagine such being done to a poor person; in fact, you know it does and it happens to them every single day.

None of this is about helping the poor. Rather, it is all about being able to say that because you are poor, because you are in need of help, because you are struggling, therefore you are no longer a full human being, therefore you are morally inferior, therefore we have the right and the power to judge you, to look down on you, therefore we have the right and the power to shape you, to correct your (to we superior sorts) obvious failings, to demand that you behave as we tell you to, we have the right and the power to humiliate you, to demean you, to strip away your rights, and you will kowtow and tug at your forelock and kiss our ring or you can just damn well go hungry and cold.

I say it again: None of this, none of this, none of this is about helping the poor. It is about our contempt for the poor, our classist assumptions that those who are poor are simply inferior in some way, morally, ethically, or both, that it's simply a matter of personal failings and they somehow deserve their condition rather than being just the most obvious victims of the economic injustice that has turned too many of us into economic throwaways as power and wealth become more concentrated.

I have in the past referred to classism as our greatest unacknowledged evil. And so it remains.

Sources cited in links:

242.4 - "War on drugs" was a lie from the start

"War on drugs" was a lie from the start

Under the heading "We knew it all the time" comes a 22-year old quote published for the first time in a recent issue of Harper's magazine.

In the article, journalist Dan Baum, writing about legalizing drugs, recalled a 1994 conversation he had with John Ehrlichman, convicted Watergate co-conspirator and aide to Richard Nixon, which took place while Baum was researching what became his 1997 book on the subject.

Baum said he started to ask Ehrlichman "a series of earnest, wonky questions," but Ehrlichman waved him off and said, and this is a quote:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
And so began the so-called "War on Drugs."

In 1971, Nixon labeled drug use "Public Enemy No. 1," signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, and created the Drug Enforcement Administration. By 1973, about 300,000 people were being arrested for drugs every year, the majority of them - whoda thunk - African-American.

So across decades of failure, over the bodies of an untold number of wrecked and ruined lives, comes the message: The "war on drugs" was never about public health. It was never even about drugs. It was about destroying political opponents.

Sources cited in links:

242.3 - Outrage of the Week: citizens deported as "illegal aliens"

Outrage of the Week: citizens deported as "illegal aliens"

One of the things that is in some ways unfortunate about the Obama administration is that it is in some ways fairly liberal. Which means also that it can get away with things with liberals that a more conservative administration could not. Which brings us to the Outrage of the Week.

The Obama White House has always presented two different faces about immigration. It has on the one had supported such worthy proposals as the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. At the same time, it has been deporting such undocumented people in higher numbers than any previous administration.

Part of the issue is that while the idea of "right to counsel" seems firmly ingrained in our social consciousness, we often forget that that only applies to criminal cases in regular court. If you are wrapped up in an immigration case, you have no right to legal counsel. If you can't afford a lawyer, TS Mac, you're on your own. Which is why the Clown Award for two weeks ago involved a judge talking about 3- and 4-year-olds representing themselves in court.

The result of this has been, to what should be no one's surprise, a pattern of abuses and wrongful decisions. They are many and varied, but I'm going to focus on just one as an illustration.

According to extensive research by Jacqueline Stevens at Northwestern University, between 2003 and 2010, the appropriately acronymed ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, unlawfully deported about 20,000 US citizens.

Obviously, most of that happened before Obama became president, but that doesn't absolve him, not only because the pattern continued into his presidency but because he has done nothing to stop it even as overall deportations accelerated.

A study of deportation cases in the period January 1, 2011 to September 30, 2014, discovered that over a quarter of them had to be dropped because the assumed "illegal alien" was somehow able to prove that they are a US citizen. We can only wonder how many others, unable to afford an attorney, got railroaded right out of the country in the midst of - or as the result of - rushed proceedings pushed through overloaded immigration courts without proper research or background.

And the Obama administration, it must be noted, is fighting a suit by the ACLU calling for indigent immigrant children - not even adults, just children - be provided counsel.

At the same time, as part of its ongoing crackdown on undocumented immigrants, at the end of February the administration began targeting so-called "sanctuary cities," cities that shield migrants from deportation, saying that undocumented immigrants released from federal custody who are facing state criminal charges will no longer be turned over to local authorities but directly to ICE.

It appears that we are so ready to sweep up just anyone who looks the part into our dragnet that we don't even care if US citizens are illegally deported - just so long as we rid ourselves of a politically-useful number of brown people.

And that truly is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:

242.2 - Racism is alive and well

Racism is alive and well

By the way, do you still need proof that racism is alive and well in US society? If you do, then consider this:

Public Policy Polling did exit polling of GOPper voters in the South Carolina primary and found that 10% of them agreed that whites are "a superior race" and 11% more were unsure. So 21% of them believe that whites are or could be superior to people of color. Now yes, it was a (1)GOPper (2)primary in (3)South Carolina, but even so, the idea that nearly a quarter of them hold such racist views is disturbing - and revealing.

Want something more specific? Since we were just talking about Tamir Rice, how about the fact that in February, Jamie Marquardt a captain in Cleveland's Emergency Medical Services, posted on his Facebook page that "Tamir Rice should have been shot and I am glad he is dead. I wish I was in the park that day.... I am upset I did not get the chance to kill the little criminal (expletive)."

After an investigation, he was fired, which is good - but does not deny that he had felt free to say it in the first place, that he felt free to be so overtly racist.

More? Here's one showing the difference in the treatment of whites and blacks in all its glory.

In Cincinnati on February 16, police responded to a call of assault at a private home. When they got there, 26-year-old Christopher Laugle pulled a gun out and pointed it at police, who later said they "felt threatened" and did not know the gun was a fake. They thought it was real. He was arrested, charged only with "menacing," and freed on bond of just $2000.

The next day, February 17, Cincinnati police responded to a 911 call. Paul Gaston, 37, had crashed his pickup into a telephone poll. He stumbled out and police found him 650 feet away. They ordered him to the ground, and video shows him on his knees, hands in the air, surrounded by cops with their guns drawn and pointed. After lying on the ground for a moment, he comes back to his knees - and is immediately shot down in a hail of bullets. Cops said he appeared to reach for a gun in his waistband.

So on Tuesday, Christopher Laugle actually points a gun at cops who believe it to be real. He is arrested and is free on bond. On Wednesday, in the same city, Paul Gaston is on his knees and "appears to reach" for a gun - and is instantly killed.

Both men, Christopher Laugle and Paul Gaston, are pictured here. And if you have any doubt as to which is which, you simply have not been paying attention to the world around you.

Sources cited in links:

242.1 - Good News: Cop-shielding prosecutor in Tamir Rice murder voted out

Good News: Cop-shielding prosecutor in Tamir Rice murder voted out

Okay, let's start, as I always like to when I can, with some Good News.

Actually, even before I do that, let me say that something I won't be discussing is the attack in Brussels. At the time I'm doing this, information is still too fluid to make any intelligent comment or have any response beyond the obvious frustration and pain at the loss of life and the ever-present confusion of how people can be so indifferent to the deaths they cause and wondering what it is they think this will achieve that all the rest of the death has not - and know here that I am not talking about only these terrorists or even only about non-state terrorists in general. More when I can get my head around it better.

I'll also note that one bit of clearly good news I won't be spending time on is Barack Obama going to Cuba. The continuing thaw in relations is obviously a very good thing; I expect it will stand as one of the better parts of the Amazing Mr. O's legacy - but it is being so well covered by others that I don't know what I could add right now that would be informative and constructive.

With that said, onward.

This isn't the best Good News ever, but there is real sense of satisfaction connected to it.

Timothy McGinty - gone
You may not remember the name Timothy McGinty, but you should know how his name came to prominence. He was the - and I use the word very advisedly - "prosecutor" in the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot down by police less than two seconds after the screeched up to him in their patrol car. The case McGinty presented to the grand jury was less a prosecution case than a defense attorney's summary, during which he apparently lied to that grand jury, telling them the cops' behavior leading up to the shooting was irrelevant even though the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Ohio, had already found in an earlier case that in the sort of circumstance that occurred in this case - that of cops putting themselves in danger - it is very relevant.

During the supposed investigation, McGinty did not keep the Rice family up to date on what was going on - but did suggest publicly that their suit against the city was inspired more by a desire for money than a desire for justice.

Okay, with that background and reminder of who Timothy McGinty is, what's the Good News? The office of Cuyahoga County prosecutor, which he holds, is an elected one. And on March 15, Timothy McGinty lost in the primary. He lost big: by 18,000 votes and 11 percentage points. The people of Cuyahoga County, particularly the black community, saw what McGinty did, they organized, and they kicked him out.

Anita Alverez - also gone
It's not the best Good News - Tamir Rice is still dead and his killer, cop Timothy Loehmann, still walks free - but as I said, there is a real sense of satisfaction here, maybe even in some very small way, some sense of closure.

Adding to the Good News, this wasn't the only victory that should be credited to Black Lives Matter activists. Cook County (that is, Chicago) State Attorney Anita Alvarez, another prosecutor accused of mishandling cases involving police brutality, covering up for a killer cop, and allowing miscarriages of justice against people of color while pursuing a brand of justice seen as vindictive and defensive, was also kicked out in a primary.

Again, this doesn't undo a scintilla of the damage done or the pain caused, but it does at least say that it has become clear that people have reached their limits and they are prepared to organize and fight rather then continue to put up with it and they are feeling their power. And that is surely Good News because as the old song goes, "every victory brings another - carry it on"

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #242

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of March 24-30, 2016

This week:

Good News: Cop-shielding prosecutor in Tamir Rice murder voted out

Racism is alive and well

Outrage of the Week: citizens deported as "illegal aliens"

"War on drugs" was a lie from the start

Drug war used to demonize poor people

More troops in Iraq

Monday, March 21, 2016

241.9 - Media failures: scare-mongering headline totally distorts the story

Media failures: scare-mongering headline totally distorts the story

I have on a number of occasions said that our major news media leave us as a people uninformed, malinformed, and misinformed. Part of that involves some good, old-fashioned fear-mongering done in the knowledge that many people do not read - or listen, as the case may be - past the headlines.

A good example of that was to be found on the AOL splash screen, early on March 15. The headline read (quoting exactly)
Missiles found aboard flight headed to US*
The subhead was (quoting exactly)
Bomb-sniffing dogs found two air-to-ground Hellfire missiles on a plane in Belgrade that was headed to Portland, OR, sources revealed on Monday.
If you went to the article, that was headlined
Serbia finds US-bound guided missiles on flight from Beirut
But if you read the actual article, which was from Reuters and which, remember, is not responsible for the headlines that get used, you learned in the very first sentence that the missiles were in reality dummy, US-made training missiles.

It turns out, as the article explains, that these "Hellfire missiles" were such in appearance only: They had neither warheads, nor rocket engines, nor guidance systems. They were in transit because they were being returned to the US manufacturer by the Lebanese army after they had finished using them in training for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Which means the only danger they presented was if one got dropped on your foot.

But what did we get? "Missiles found aboard flight headed to US!" "Hellfire missiles headed to Portland!" That is at best sloppy, lazy, and misleading.

Some will try to defend the headline as mere clickbait but that just makes it worse because it means that falsely-inflammatory, fear-mongering headline was done on purpose. That would take this well beyond irresponsible into outright journalistic malfeasance.

So yes, we are by our corporate media uninformed, malinformed, misinformed - and manipulated. And we are the worse for it.

Footnote: This apparently is a habit for AOL. On Monday, March 21, a splash screen headline blaring that a major city was "on alert" for 10 simultaneous terrorist attacks turned out to be a report that London city police have decided in the wake of the Paris attacks to plan for dealing with a larger number of simultaneous attacks than the three they had been using. No "alert" of any sort was involved.

*There is no link because the splash screen, of course, changes every few hours and the only link would be to the homepage of

Sources cited in links:

241.8 - Clown Award: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

Clown Award: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

Now for one of our regular features. It's the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity.

This week, the dishonor of the Big Red Nose this week goes to Rex Tillerson.

Who is Rex Tillerson? He is the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world's largest fossil fuel company. As such, he is a vocal proponent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and thinks opponents are just, well, this is how he put it:
"Because we have technology that is built on science, built on engineering, and because we have a society that by and large is illiterate in these areas: science, math and engineering - what we do is a mystery to them. And they find it scary."
Rex Tillerson
So fracking opponents are just technologically-illiterate scaredy-cats being deluded by evil, fear-mongering environmentalists who want us all to freeze in the dark.

Fracking is cool! Fracking is great!

Except - Tillerson is suing to keep a water tower intended to hold water used in a fracking operation from being built anywhere near his multi-million dollar mansion and 83-acre "farm," which he refers to as living a "rural lifestyle."

Fracking is great! Provided it's done somewhere where he doesn't have to see it.

Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. I mean, be fair, how could he be in that position and not be a clown?

Sources cited in links:

241.7 - RIPs: Keith Emerson and Ben Bagdikian

RIPs: Keith Emerson and Ben Bagdikian

We have two RIPs this week.

The first one involves yet another part of my youth slipping away, but this one hurts more than some others. Keith Emerson has died. He was 71.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, just think Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. If you still don't recognize the name, do some YouTube checking because you are really missing something.

Keith Emerson was one of the best keyboardists of his generation who could almost attack a keyboard with the intensity and fierceness of his playing as he composed on the fly. He could, just by the way he played it, turn an upbeat, sort of sappy song like "America" from West Side Story into a raging indictment of a society at war.

Keith Emerson (in the 1970s)
And why does this one hurt more that some other recent RIPs?

Keith Emerson committed suicide. He shot himself in the head.

It seems he was having increasing problems and pain with his right arm and hand which an operation a couple of years ago didn't cure. He was facing the prospect of no longer being able to play and that, according to his friend Mari Kawaguchi, tormented him. It was, ultimately, a prospect he could not deal with. And so we lost him.

RIP, Keith Emerson.

Our other RIP is for someone you quite possibly have never heard of. But if you were in journalism, you damn well knew who he was.

Ben Bagdikian, reporter, media critic, author, died at his home on March 11. He was 96.

Over his five-decade career, he won a Pulitzer and a Peabody and numerous other awards and obtained the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg for the Washington Post, all before becoming dean of the graduate school of journalism at UCal Berkeley.

Ben Bagdikian
But I will confess that where I knew him from was his book The Media Monopoly, which criticized the mergers that were consolidating broadcast outlets and newspapers in the hands of giant corporations and so narrowing the control of what Americans could see or hear or read in the media. The first edition, published in 1983, cited 50 corporations as controlling a majority of US media. By the time of the last of six editions, in 2000, the number had shrunk to five.

Ben Bagdikian's message to his journalism students at Berkeley was this:
Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.
It sounds sort of, I dunno, sort of quaint, naive - but Ben Bagdikian lived those words and stood by them. We have too few of his sort - and now there is one less.

RIP, Ben Bagdikian.

Sources cited in links:

241.6 - Not Good News: UN excoriates South Sudan over human rights violations

Not Good News: UN excoriates South Sudan over human rights violations

After all that good news, I have not some good news, also from the international file.

I have talked about this a few times before. I don't know exactly why I do since I know few if any of you are interested in this except perhaps philosophically, but this is a story I have been following at least to some degree for years. The last time I mentioned it was last fall, and at the time I said that I don't know why this particular world tragedy affects me more than others do, but I have found it a particularly sad tale. Maybe it's because it is so deeply marked with hopes being raised and then being shot down - usually literally.

It's the case of South Sudan.

The African nation of Sudan went through a 20 year civil war that set the Christian and traditionalist (or animist) southern part of the country against the mainly Muslim north. The war dragged on, brutal year after brutal year. By the time it all ended, about two million were dead, about four million more were homeless.

Finally, with both sides exhausted in every sense of the term a peace deal was worked out in January 2005. In accord with that agreement, in January 2011 a referendum was held in southern Sudan on independence. Over 95% voted yes and South Sudan became a nation.

What you have to understand is that I followed this story, I followed it through the first negotiations to end the fighting, through the draft agreement which looked like it would never come, through the final agreement which looked like it would never come, through the multiple near-breakdowns of the whole process, to the plebiscite which had at one time seemed so very far off it seemed like it would never come. I followed it. I followed it when two old rivals, Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, joined together in the new government of South Sudan.

And I followed it when at the end of 2013 that government broke down into competing tribal rivalries, plunging South Sudan into a civil war as treacherous as the one it had so recently survived. And - and again I don't know why this one more than others - but it breaks my heart to think about it.

And I follow it now as last week the UN Human Rights Office released a report that, quoting the press release,
describes "in searing detail" a multitude of horrendous human rights violations, including a Government-operated "scorched earth policy," and deliberate targeting of civilians for killing, rape, and pillage.
Children and the elderly burned alive. Men hung from trees, or cut into pieces. Parents forced to watch their children get raped. "Searing" barely describes it.

The report says both sides have committed "serious and systematic violence against civilians" since fighting broke out in December 2013, but since 2015 most of the blame falls on government forces and affiliated militias, largely because the opposition forces have been weakened.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called called South Sudan "one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war." In fact, there are reports of soldiers being allowed to rape women as a form of wages.

Salva Kiir                             Riek Machar
Not just the UN, Amnesty International also has condemned the government's behavior, accusing it of a war crime of stuffing 60 men and boys into a hot shipping container last October and leaving them there to suffocate and die.

Yet for all this, Commissioner al-Hussein said, South Sudan "has been more or less off the international radar." And that, too, breaks my heart.

But again again again there is hope. There always seems to be a flicker of hope. When I spoke here about South Sudan the last time, last fall, it was to talk about a new peace agreement reached in August.

Now, South Sudan rebels have said that 23 of their top generals are expected to arrive in the capitol city of Juba on March 21 to prepare for the coming of their leader, Riek Machar, who is the designated first vice president in a national unity government that is supposed to come out of that new settlement. They claim that sending the generals is proof of their intention to abide by the peace accord, but at the same time raised concerns by insisting that they be allowed to bring their heavy weapons - including tanks - and some 3000 troops with them.

The rebels responded to concerns by saying their experience with the South Sudan military gave them reason to be distrustful - which frankly is true but the same could be said of them.

And so we wait for March 21 and I try to stitch my heart together one more time. We'll see.

Sources cited in links:

241.5 - Updates about Syria

Updates about Syria

Finally, something here that may be Good News. We'll have to wait and see. It involves developments in Syria.

First, contrary to all expectations, the limited ceasefire in Syria is holding into its third week, opening the possibility - and it as of now is only that, but it is a possibility - of peace. The violence hasn't actually stopped, even in the areas affected by the declared ceasefire, but it is down significantly and humanitarian aid is getting through - and in the context of Syria, that alone is enough to qualify as good news.

What's more, UN-mediated peace talks have actually - yes they have - started in Geneva. Success is far from assured, but this is further than things have gotten before.

Next, Russian president Vladimir Pukin' startled the world community by announcing on March 14 that "the main part" of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, declaring that "the task ... has, on the whole, been fulfilled."

The question all along had been just what that task was. Pukin' said the bombing campaign was to attack Daesh, but in actual practice it was clear the purpose was to support his ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Most of the attacks - 80% by one analysis - were on territory held by Syrian opposition groups where Assad's forces were launching an offensive.

Vladimir Putin
It's thought by many that Russia's bombing campaign has helped Assad regain the initiative against his opponents. But if that's true, then why is Pukin' pulling out now?

Actually, a more immediate question is, is he pulling out? Even after this withdrawal, there will still be a whole lotta Russian stuff in Syria, including two military bases, meaning he could direct his forces back into the war any time. Opposition groups in the rebel-held city of Aleppo dismissed the withdrawal as "propaganda."

On the other hand, and this is where prospects for peace start to brighten, we go back to the question of what it was Pukin' was trying to accomplish. And there are a number of analysts who are suggesting that his purpose was not so much to help Assad defeat the rebels as it was to insure Russia - meaning himself - a greater role in the Middle East. Put another way, the Russian footprint in the Middle East has been more of a toe than a foot of late, and he wanted to expand that. That was his concern.

So once his ally Assad was safe, was not threatened with the possibility of being overrun, that is, once there was a secure base for Russian influence in the region, and once, through that, Pukin' had established himself as a playah, one he had secured a seat at the grown-ups' table, well, as he said, "the task has been fulfilled."

So in that line of thought, why should he stay? Why shouldn't he withdraw? In fact, it would be in his interest to do withdraw.

Bashar al-Assad
What this ultimately means for Syria in not, of course, immediately clear. In the short term, what is does do, for one thing, is to increase pressure on Assad to reach a political settlement if he can no longer count on Russian air support in his war against the rebels, without which his regime had been facing defeat just months ago.

What such a political settlement might be is pretty much up for grabs. At this point, short of a renewed and all-out Russian war on the Syrian rebels - one that would prove to be protracted and very bloody at a time when Russian's own economic troubles put restraints on how many resources Pukin' could actually devote to such a war even as it would also raise the potential for international economic repercussions - short of such an unlikely event, one thing that seems likely is that Assad's new Syria will not look like his old Syria. Power-sharing, a coalition government, even one without Assad, and even more dramatic alternatives such as federated states or outright partition could be in the offing.

The cold, the hunger, the blood, the death, none of it is over for the Syrians. But by a rather bizarre confluence of big-power interests, for the first time in five years it may be possible to imagine an end to it.

And isn't that Good News.

Sources cited in links:

241.4 - Good News: Myanmar chooses its president from first free and open elections

Good News: Myanmar chooses its president from first free and open elections

More Good News comes from the international front.

On March 15, the parliament of Myanmar - or Burma - elected Htin Kyaw as the country’s new president, making him not only the nation's first civilian president but the head of the first government to be chosen there in free and fair elections.

This was after a landslide victory in elections this past November by the National League for Democracy, headed by the well-known democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar had been under direct or indirect military rule for 54 years, since a coup in 1962.

In one sense, he is not the president: Everyone knows he is the proxy of Suu Kyi, who has been the face of the pro-democracy movement for 28 years and has endured threats, harassment, and decades of house arrest by the military dictatorship, becoming one of the best-known political prisoners in the world, without ever abandoning a nonviolent campaign for the freedom of her country and its people.

Aung San Suu Kyi
When, after repeated waves of protest and the increasing opprobrium of the international community finally forced the generals to back down in 2010, they pulled off one last trick of establishing a new constitution under which they are guaranteed three ministries and enough parliamentary seats to give them a veto over moves to change that constitution - and which barred Suu Kyi from the presidency.

So, unable to choose the person who should have been president, the majority of Parliament chose someone who has been her close friend and confidant since the mid-1990s.

There is still far to go in Myanmar and the military still has too much power. But choosing the president of the first government picked in free and fair elections is no small thing. In fact, it is damn Good News.

Sources cited in links:

241.3 - Good News: Interior Dept. says no lease sales for oil drilling off Atlantic Coast

Good News: Interior Dept. says no lease sales for oil drilling off Atlantic Coast

Environmentalists, conservationists, and those concerned about global climate change were understandably upset when in January 2015 the Interior Dept. embraced the desires of fossil fuel corporations and proposed opening an area on the outer continental shelf from Virginia to Georgia to offshore oil drilling.

But after hearing from "thousands" of people in coastal communities from New England to Florida who said, in the words of Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, "now is not the time to start leasing (for oil) off the Atlantic Coast," on March 15 the administration reversed itself and declared there would be no Atlantic leases in the coming five years.

Interior Sec. Sally Jewell
Quoting Sec. Jewell,
When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn't make sense to move forward with any lease sales.
There is - of course - a downside, as it seems there always is. Actually, two. The immediate one is that the same proposal that said there would be no Atlantic leases also said that there still would be two sales of leases for drilling in the US Arctic - one sale each in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska, an area potentially even more environmentally-fragile than the outer continental shelf.

The second, longer term, downside is that the next president could just change the decision. Both Sanders and Clinton have indicated opposition to both Atlantic and Arctic drilling - he, in fact, is opposed to any expansion of offshore drilling - but right now no one can honestly guarantee that one of them will be president. Probably, yes. A dead certainty? No.

Still, for the moment, we will say one battle at a time - and welcome the good news of a win for the Atlantic Coast and the people who live there.

Sources cited in links:

241.2 - Good News: Obama eliminates funding for "abstinence-only" sex ed in federal budget

Good News: Obama eliminates funding for "abstinence-only" sex ed in federal budget

Next up on the Good News front, our only President has actually done a couple of good things this week.

For one thing, over the course of something over two decades, the US has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into so-called "abstinence-only" programs as part of programs to reduce teenage pregnancies. It has done this even though it has been known for just about as long that they don't work.

The Obama administration was not immune to this; not only did such programs continue, in 2012 HHS added a new abstinence-only curriculum to its list of approved programs for teenage pregnancy prevention.

But now, in his final year, President Hopey-Changey has apparently evolved on another issue and in his final proposed federal budget he eliminates all funding for abstinence-only programs while increasing funding for the evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

In the grand scheme of things I suppose it's a small entry - especially given that the rate of teen pregnancy has been dropping pretty steadily for 20 years and in 2014 it was only 40% of the rate in 1991 - but it still is a good thing and so good news.

Sources cited in links:

241.1 - Good News: FCC to consider stronger privacy rules for ISPs

Good News: FCC to consider stronger privacy rules for ISPs

We'll start the week with some Good News.

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has circulated to the other board members a proposal that would require broadband and wireless companies to give consumers more control over how their personal data is shared with third parties such as marketing companies.

The proposed rules would require Internet service providers, both broadband and wireless, to clearly disclose how personal consumer data is collected, how it's shared with third parties, and how it's used by these outside firms. They would call for strengthened security for customer data. And perhaps most importantly, they would say that consumers can't be automatically enrolled in such a data-sharing program but must actively choose to do so - that is, to opt-in rather than having to opt-out.

If approved, the proposal would establish the strongest consumer privacy rules ever for ISPs.

Wheeler expects the FCC to open the proposal for public comment at its meeting on March 31. Actual rules would not be voted on until later this year after the comment period ends.

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler
A limitation to this is that it does not apply to Internet and social media sites, such as Google or Facebook, because they fall under the purview of the FTC, which has limited ability to enact regulations to control corporate activity, such as gathering massive amounts of marketable personal data from users. Generally, the FTC can act only after there is evidence of fraud or other illegal behavior. So of course the corporations - such as AT+T and Verizon - are all whining about how unfair it is and how "all the other boys get to do whatever they want."

For one example, Bob Quinn, senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs at AT+T, thundered that "Consumers deserve consistent privacy protections, regardless of which company is collecting it." Put differently, if you have crappy privacy protection from Facebook, then by God you deserve to have crappy privacy protection from AT+T.

Ah, well. This has a long way to go but the very fact that it's being considered, that privacy is becoming more of a concern even if we're coming to it pretty late in the game, is still good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #241

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of March 17-23, 2015

This week:

Good News: FCC to consider stronger privacy rules for ISPs

Good News: Obama eliminates funding for "abstinence-only" sex ed in federal budget

Good News: Interior Dept. says no lease sales for oil drilling off Atlantic Coast

Good News: Myanmar chooses its president from first free and open elections

Updates about Syria

Not Good News: UN excoriates South Sudan over human rights violations

RIPs: Keith Emerson and Ben Bagdikian

Clown Award: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson

Media failures: scare-mongering headline totally distorts the story

240.6 - Clown Award: Immigration Judge Jack Weil

Clown Award: Immigration Judge Jack Weil

Now for one of our regular features; it's the Clown Award, given as always for meritorious stupidity. And this week we again had multiple contenders, narrowed down to two finalists.

First up: So, you think that same-sex couples have the right to get married? Well, yeah, they do, but do they have the right to get matrimonied?

Kentucky State Rep. Joseph Fischer has introduced a bill called the "Matrimonial Freedom Act" that creates the new status of "matrimony" which is legally separate from "marriage" because any two adults can marry, but only if they are of the opposite sex can they have a "matrimony."

The bill then proceeds for 450 pages, meticulously adding language about "matrimony" to any provision in state law that defines the basic parameters of marriage - and then, in any provision that describes a privilege, benefit, or responsibility of marriage, the word "marriage" is replaced by the word "matrimony," effectively stripping same-sex couples of any and all benefits of marriage.

The reason this is so laughable is that it is painfully obvious that this would never fly in the courts, but I imagine Fischer sitting alone in his dark, silent, office late at night going through the entire state legal code line by line, his brow furrowed in concentration, a bottle of scotch on the desk, a single high-intensity lamp lighting his weary work.

Of course I'm sure he did the whole thing by computer search, but that image just seems more fitting to the undertaking, especially since the bill declares that the Supreme Court has established an "absolute Tyranny over these States," and includes the line "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor," which, in case you don't recognize it, is the conclusion of the Declaration of Independence.

But believe it or not, he got outclassed.

So this week the Big Red Nose goes to federal immigration judge Jack Weil.

The ACLU and immigration rights groups have filed a class action suit against the federal government, demanding that the government provide appointed counsel for every indigent child who can't afford a lawyer in immigration court proceedings, contending by failing to insure they had access to counsel the Justice Department had violated both due process and the children’s right to a fair trial under the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Justice Department is contesting the suit and this bozo, who has the responsibility of training other immigration judges, is one of the government's chief witnesses.

So what did he do? In a deposition taken in October but just recently released, he declared that providing counsel is unnecessary because "you can do a fair hearing" even with toddlers representing themselves in court, claiming he has "taught immigration law" to 3- and 4-year-olds.

I was going to take down his lame attempt at a defense, his claim this was "not representative of [his] thinking" and was "taken out of context" even though he said much the same thing five different times during the deposition, but then I stopped.

Because I really don't have to go on, do I?

Federal immigration judge Jack Weil: Good gosh, what a clown.

Sources cited in links:

Sunday, March 13, 2016

240.5 - Elections in Iran

Elections in Iran

A type of, a sort of, example of - or at least a lesson about - what I mean by "a different path" can be found in some news out of Iran of recent weeks.

You may recall I was ambivalent about Iran deal, the one of lifting economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program, because it seemed to me to be a case of imperialism, of big nations bullying a small one into doing what they wanted and doing it over a supposed nuclear weapons program which I was never convinced existed. But I ultimately approved of and supported the deal because I thought its failure would be worse, that it would open door to increased pressure for, and likely would lead to an actual, military attack on Iran.

Sometimes good things come out of bad. Because it can fairly be argued that it was that agreement and the associated lifting of sanctions that provided the political opening for the dramatic victory of reformist and moderate conservative parties in the elections for the Iranian parliament that took place a few weeks ago. Reformist parties won 85 seats in the 290-seat body, with the moderate conservatives winning 73 more.

Meanwhile, hardliner parties lost 44 seats, dropping them down to 68.

Together, the reformist and moderate conservative parties have an absolute majority in parliament and are expected to work together, at least on economic issues, and overall President Hassan Rouhani will face a friendlier parliament as he tries to push for some increased social freedoms and for reforming the economy.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
It's also likely to lead to greater economic and political openings and improved contacts with the West and some among those elected, particularly among the women, are prepared to argue and fight for greater social freedoms within Iran.

The changes, however, are unlikely to be dramatic; the hardliner old guard, primarily in the person of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, still has a strong grip on power. Indeed, some say such changes will not come at all, claiming that many of those who ran as reformers or moderate conservatives are actually hardliners and the Guardian Council, which vets election candidates, screened out all the real reformists.

But even that, while disheartening to the extent it's true, gives some cause for hope: The very fact those people had to label themselves reformers in order to get elected points to the shifting nature of the Iranian electorate, a shift also revealed in the fact that 60 percent of the population of Iran is under 30 and they show much greater interest in let's call it a less-rigorous lifestyle and politics than do their elders.

So even though I thought that the whole confrontation with Iran need never have happened, the fact remains: Ditch the threats, ditch the war mongering, reach an agreement both sides can live with - and then this happens. Some will insist it was a coincidence, some will insist the nuclear agreement had nothing to do with it. Bluntly, I'm not buying it.

Sources cited in links:
// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');