31 December 2008

Barack and Caroline: Do Americans long for a new Camelot?

Some pundits have speculated that the American people long for a return to the storybook feeling of the Kennedy administration -- a new Camelot, with a youthful, handsome, energetic, charismatic, and benevolent president in the White House, along with his picture-perfect family.

Bill Clinton tried. It just didn't work out quite so well for him.

But now, they say, Obama's win may be at least partially due to his "Camelot appeal". We're fed up with the status quo and we are looking for some glamour and a little bit of enchantment in our political lives again.

Enter Caroline Kennedy, princess of the first American Camelot. After decades of working mostly out of the spotlight, Caroline is now interested in filling the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton will be vacating. And the spotlight is now glaring upon her. The reviews are very mixed.

I have always felt a special affinity for Caroline. My earliest political memory is of her father's assassination. Being about the same age as Caroline, my heart went out to her at the time. I couldn't begin to comprehend what it must have been like for this little girl, someone my age, to lose her father -- especially a father as famous and well loved as JFK. And I was sad to see Camelot crumble, only to be replaced by the Vietnam era -- and everything that's come since.

I am not a New Yorker, and I am not familiar enough with Caroline's credentials (or lack thereof) to judge her fitness for that Senate seat. She is obviously a very intelligent, well educated, and accomplished woman. But I have to wonder if the Camelot image is part of her appeal today.

On the other hand, assuming that Caroline is indeed adequately qualified, is wishing for Camelot really such a bad thing?

30 December 2008

Three more weeks

We're almost there. We've almost reached the end of the worst U.S. presidency ever, at least in my lifetime.

As of this writing, we have only three more weeks to go with the smirking George W. Bush and the snarling Dick Cheney in charge of this country.

On their watch, we've seen the 9/11 attacks, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, torture as U.S. policy, the systematic dismantling of the U.S. Constitution, the outing of a covert CIA agent for political revenge, the collapse of the economy, and the deaths of more than 4,200 U.S. troops in Iraq. Each of these things was preventable.

Good riddance, you two.

It can only get better from here.

As Ruth Conniff points out in her column in the December issue of The Progressive:
There will be much to hash out and much, no doubt, to criticize [in the Obama administration]. But the huge change -- from Dick Cheney to Joe Biden, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, from good ol’ boy heckuva job cronyism to brilliance and competence -- is worth savoring. So, too, is the hoped for change from cowboy unilateralism to internationalism, from torture and illegal wars to a more humane and sane future.

29 December 2008

Jail instead of rehab: Not just for grownups anymore

The United States is a nation of prisoners. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the National Institute of Corrections, some 0.7 percent of Americans are incarcerated. In fact, almost 50% of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons, even though the U.S. comprises only 5% of the world's population. Prison overcrowding is the status quo.


I doubt that the average American is more innately predisposed to criminal behavior than our counterparts in Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else in the world. No, we're just victims of a broken system that favors incarceration over rehabilitation.

Our prisons are chock-full of nonviolent offenders -- drug addicts, crack whores, etc. And, due to the closures of so many mental health facilities across the country in recent years, the mentally ill often find their way into our prisons due to a lack of more appropriate options.

They serve their time in prison, are released but not rehabilitated, and so they often return to the lifestyles that got them into trouble in the first place.

And so the cycle continues.

Our warped system treats these unfortunate individuals as criminal statistics, not as human beings worthy of help and compassion.

And now the problem is not just for grownups anymore.

The Associated Press explains:
State budget cuts are forcing some of the nation's youngest criminals out of counseling programs and group homes and into juvenile prisons in what critics contend is a shortsighted move that will eventually lead to more crime and higher costs.

Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia are among states that have slashed juvenile justice spending -- in some cases more than 20 percent -- because of slumping tax collections. Youth advocates say they expect the recession will bring more cuts next year in other states, hitting programs that try to rehabilitate children rather than simply locking them up.

"If you raise a child in prison, you're going to raise a convict," said South Carolina Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars, credited with turning around a system once better known for warehousing children than counseling them and teaching them life skills.

Now, he's been asked to draw up plans to trim an additional 15 percent from a juvenile justice budget already cut $23 million, or 20 percent, since June as part of the state's effort to pare $1 billion from its $7 billion budget.
This is shameful. In my opinion, it constitutes child abuse.

As Lex Wilbanks, an 18-year-old delinquent, put it:
"When you did something wrong or you fight or you disrespect staff, they just throw you into lockdown. They just throw you in and make them fight to survive. You're just making them a hardened criminal."
It is illegal in all 50 states to engage in dogfighting, which involves the breeding and training of dogs in a way that will bring out and exploit their violent tendencies.

Still, we routinely treat our misguided youth like fighting dogs -- throwing them into prisons where they can hone their criminal instincts, instead of rehabilitating them and giving them a fair chance at becoming productive, law-abiding, tax-paying adults.

We justify it because it seems cheaper this way, even as we piddle away $341.4 million per day to continue our occupation of Iraq.

This is where our priorities lie.

They say that a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members.

So what does this ultimately say about us?

28 December 2008

Israel vs. Hamas: Here we go again -- with a twist

Things have heated up again in the Middle East.

Yesterday, more than 225 people were killed as Israel bombed alleged Hamas-related targets in Gaza, in retaliation for recent Hamas attacks on southern Israel.

And, as usual, each side is blaming the other.

While we've seen ongoing violence in those parts for as far back as I can remember, it's a little different this time, since it's Israel vs. Hamas, not Israel vs. Palestine per se.

In fact, we've got the subplot of Arab governments in the area that are opposed to Hammas, which now find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. The New York Times explains:
Governments that dislike Hamas, like Egypt’s, Jordan’s and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, are in a delicate position. They blame Hamas for having taken over Gaza by force 18 months ago in the aftermath of its election victory in the Palestinian Parliament, and they oppose its rocket fire on Israeli towns and communities.

But the sight of scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli warplanes outraged their citizens, and anti-Israel demonstrations broke out across the region.
And again, civilians are paying the price for radicals run amok, as the Times goes on to describe:
Israel, backed by the United States, Europe, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, has sought to isolate Hamas by squeezing Gaza economically, a policy that human rights groups condemn as collective punishment. Israel and Egypt, which control routes into and out of Gaza, have blocked nearly all but humanitarian aid from going in.

The result has been the near death of the Gazan economy. While enough food has gone in to avoid starvation, the level of suffering is very high and getting worse each week, especially in recent weeks as Israel closed the routes entirely for about 10 days in reaction to daily rocket fire.
I can't help but think that the Bush administration bears some of the responsibility. Bush's cowboy-style foreign policy, his "bring 'em on" attitude, and (of course) his unprovoked invasion of Iraq have inflamed anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world, and have made the extremists on all sides even more extreme -- be they Hamas, or al-Qaeda, or the religious right in our own country.

This is the same George W. Bush who long ago had campaigned on the claim that he was "a uniter, not a divider."

Hopefully Barack Obama will keep his promise of a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than militarism. That is what is needed to repair America's image in the world. And that same approach is what's needed to find a true and lasting solution to the problems in the Middle East -- if such a solution can ever be found.

27 December 2008

Top 10 humanitarian crises of 2008

It's that time again, when everyone compiles their year-end Top 10 lists.

And, given the kind of work I do, one that most captures my attention each year is the list of the top 10 humanitarian crises, compiled by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF).

Below is a list of this year's top 10, presented as hyperlinks to detailed information about each.

One of the items on this list is of our own making -- the unmet humanitarian needs of Iraqi civilians. Our tax dollars have been used to destroy their country, but we haven't done much to rebuild it.

And it goes downhill from there, from the ongoing civil war in the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo to the continued genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, and on and on and on.

Read this list, click through to details about each crisis, and then count your own blessings.

Somalia’s humanitarian catastrophe worsens
"Because of the constant flow of people fleeing Mogadishu, the camps are getting more and more crowded. Families of five have less than a few square meters to settle in, without proper shelter. Despite the insecurity, MSF has still been able to respond thanks to our Somali colleagues, who are taking tremendous risks to provide assistance. We are unable to meet any needs other than the immediate, life-saving needs. Our response is most certainly inadequate when taking into account the gravity of the situation."
-- Kenneth Lavelle, MSF head of mission for Somalia

Beyond the international spotlight, critical health needs in Myanmar remain unmet
"People affected by HIV/AIDS in Myanmar are desperate for more assistance. They want to live healthy and happy lives like any other. The ground-swell is there – HIV patient groups are forming around the country and our medical staff works tirelessly to assist patients. But it is just not enough, the problem is too big. Others must do more."
-- MSF aid worker from Myanmar

Health crisis sweeps Zimbabwe as violence and economic collapse spread
"Imagine a cholera ward with dozens of people under the most basic conditions. For instance, there is only a little electricity so there is hardly any light. It is difficult for the doctors and nurses to even see the patients they are treating. The nurses have to monitor multitudes of IV bags to make sure they don't run dry which is also difficult to do in the dark and when there are so many patients."
-- MSF Emergency Coordinator

Civilians trapped as war rages in eastern Congo
"Year after year everyone waits, and waits, to see if the latest round of violence will bring a period of calm that will last long enough for them to resume a normal life. Year after year people are disappointed. I stayed long enough to live through two of these cycles. The already displaced are displaced again, and then again. Another agricultural season missed. Another school year missed. Another relative lost to violence or preventable illness."
-- Andre Heller, MSF Logistics Coordinator, North Kivu

Millions of malnourished children left untreated despite advances in lifesaving nutritional therapies
"Children shouldn’t have to deteriorate to the point of severe malnutrition to "qualify" for ready-to-use food, which is far more nutritious than the fortified blended flours prescribed and supplied by the United States and other international donors for moderately malnourished children. Yes, ready-to-use food may cost more, but it provides the milk that fortified flours do not... We need to focus on the food quality, not just the quantity."
-- Dr. Susan Shepherd, MSF medical advisor

Critical need of assistance in Ethiopia's Somali region
A drought like the current one is a disaster for us. We lost most of our animals and now we have nothing to eat because all we have is our animals to trade and their milk."
-- A woman living in the camps on the outskirts of Wardher in eastern Somali Region

Civilians killed and forced to flee as fighting intensifies in northwestern Pakistan
"In just a few days, hundreds of thousands of people fled fighting that broke out in the tribal area of Bajuar Agency... The terrorized population fled the region en masse. In the camps we visited, we were told about bombings and people who died. Most of those who fled were unable to bring anything with them. Although they are afraid, they are waiting for just one thing -- to go back home."
-- Fabien Schneider, MSF head of mission

No end in sight to violence and suffering in Sudan
"The media attention and political involvement in Darfur means that everyone knows about the conflict here. But in the last four years, the situation has not improved. In fact, for most people, things are worse. Conditions in many of the internally displaced person (IDP) camps and in rural areas have deteriorated, and the insecurity is a major concern for ordinary people. People are living in fear. Every day is a question mark for survival."
-- Banu Altunbas, MSF head of mission in South Darfur

Iraqi civilians in urgent need of assistance
"The doctors told me I had several facial fractures, and I've already had one operation. They've taken bone from my hip to reconstruct my nose. I'm supposed to have a second operation in two weeks. I don't want to go back to Iraq. I've lost count of the number of friends who've died right before my eyes."
-- Said, 18 years old, an Iraqi patient in MSF's surgical program in Amman, Jordan

HIV/TB co-infections posses health battle on two fronts
"Mortality in co-infected patients is much higher than in patients only suffering TB; their TB evolves much faster as their cellular immune system no longer has control whilst TB infection increases the viral load. No time to waste here: it is a matter of a few weeks before patients die."
-- Dr. Eric Goemaere, Head of mission, South Africa

>> View a slideshow of these crises.

26 December 2008

Let's not forget Iraq

We voted for Obama because we wanted to have some hope for the economy and the U.S. job market.

We voted for Obama because we want universal health care.

But while these issues seem to dominate the political dialogue these days, we must not lose sight of one of the other primary reasons why we voted for Obama: We voted for Obama because he promised to end the Iraq war right away and bring our troops home within a 16-month timeframe.

But now I am reading that Obama has promised Maliki that he will honor Bush's security agreement with Iraq, which could keep our troops there through 2011.

That agreement was not sanctioned by Congress, and a bill recently introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee cites many good reasons why Bush's agreement with Iraq is unconstitutional.

I hope that Obama will either rethink his timetable or else offer good reason why he should propagate Bush's Iraq policies.

After all, while casualties have decreased, people still are dying in Iraq as a result of our occupation. In fact we lost 14 U.S. troops in Iraq in October, 17 in November, and 10 so far in December, according to icasualties.org. If that does not seem like a lot, tell that to the families of our dead soldiers.

We must hold Obama accountable for ending this war as soon as possible.

25 December 2008

On Christmas, don't let the gifts get in the way of the meaning

Today, December 25, Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus Christ.

In recent decades, however, the meaning of this holiday seems to have morphed into a celebration of shopping and receiving. Everyone wakes up wondering what extravagant gifts might be under the tree, waiting to be unwrapped.

It is believed that the Christmas gift-giving tradition began as a symbol of the gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus. I certainly do not fault a tradition based on such good symbolic grounds.

But please remember that the gifts are a symbol of the season, not the reason for the season.

And remember that the biblical Jesus eschewed materialism and preached a gospel of unselfishness and sharing.

Enjoy your gifts, but be truly grateful for them. And remember those who aren't so fortunate this year.

Think of the children in Iraq, who woke up this morning to another day under foreign occupation.

Think of the children of Darfur, who woke up this morning to another day of genocide.

And think of those less fortunate right here in the U.S. Think of the millions of people who are jobless in this country, where unemployment insurance filings just hit a 26-year high. And think of the estimated 12 million children across the U.S. who are currently facing hunger on a daily basis.

So enjoy this festive holiday. But also, if you can afford it, please take some time in the next few days to make a year-end-donation, however small, to the charity of your choice.

It will feel good, I promise.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

24 December 2008

Great quotes from a reader

One of my readers e-mailed me the following quotations. I thought they were worth sharing.
"Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved."
-- Aristotle

"In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."
-- H. L. Mencken

"A Conservative Government is an organized hypocrisy."
-- Benjamin Disraeli

"War is a cowardly escape from peace."
-- Thomas Mann
Thanks again, Gerald.

23 December 2008

Bush to women: My religion trumps your health

It seems that the lame duck in the White House couldn't leave office without taking a parting shot at women.

Last week, the Bush administration's Department of Heath and Human Services issued a regulation that will allow doctors and other health care workers to arbitrarily deny information and services to patients on moral or "religious" grounds.

The regulation goes into effect in mid-January.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, describes some potential consequences of this regulation:
Under this new rule, doctors and health care workers of all kinds can deny patients vital health care information and services, without the patient even knowing. No patient is exempt from the reach of this rule: sexual assault victims could be denied information about emergency contraception that could prevent unintended pregnancy, moms hoping to time their pregnancies can be denied contraception at their local pharmacy, young adults hoping to be tested for sexually transmitted infections could be denied treatment by health care employees who oppose premarital sex.
>> Read more of Richards' comments.

In other words, the health care workers are no longer required to do their jobs, i.e., to promote the health of their patients or to fulfill a doctor's orders.

Suddenly, the medical profession is no longer dedicated above all to providing health care. Now the first step in health care is to make a moral judgment about the patient and the potential treatments and services.

It's as if women are mere children who need to have our lives controlled by others who "know what's best" for us.

If men could get pregnant, this surely wouldn't be an issue.

>> Read the text of the regulation.

22 December 2008

In auto bailout, don't make workers pay the price for corporate greed

I don't usually see eye-to-eye with George W. Bush, but I am grateful that he took some steps last week to bail out the auto industry.

After all, how could we bail out the Wall Street elite without also making an effort to save the largest single segment of the U.S. manufacturing industry?

In other words, how can we bail out the white collar bankers without making a similar gesture to save the blue collar auto workers who have traditionally formed the foundation of the U.S. economy?

The price of inaction would have been devastating to our already devastated economy.

Nevertheless, the auto bailout seems to be a soap-box magnet for the anti-worker crowd.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has already had to make some concessions under the bailout. But apparently that is not enough. Some people just want an end to unions. Gotta keep the power away from the little people.

I keep hearing the right-wing propagandists complaining that members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union make more than $70 per hour (thereby somehow justifying their demise). But that allegation is deliberately misleading.

The truth is that the average UAW member makes about $30 per hour in wages, bonuses, overtime, and paid time off, with maybe another $15 in benefits.

So let's do the math:

$30 per hour x 40 hours per week = $1,200 per week.

$1,200 per week x 52 weeks = $62,400 per year.

Plus the usual benefits. Nothing special.

So the UAW members make a solid middle class living at $62,000 per year, for doing some good, hard work. What exactly is the problem with this?

Many of their critics are in positions that easily yield a much more lucrative hourly fee. So why do they want to deny the hard-working auto workers their own chance at the American dream?

That, of course, is a rhetorical question. It's clearly all just a political or ego-driven thing -- or both.

So the anti-worker folks keep calling for labor concessions to keep the industry going.

Never mind the fact that the workers' salaries are a drop in the bucket compared to what the CEOs have been raking in (not even counting their private jets).

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Along with the so-called "free trade" practices that have done so much to support our overseas competition in the auto industry and other major industries. And along with the fact that Detroit lags way behind Japan in designing and producing vehicles that could reduce our dependency of fossil fuels.

Those things are not the fault of the line worker. They are the result of corporate greed. Doing the right thing sometimes temporarily cuts down on corporate profits and CEO bonuses. So doing the right thing is unthinkable, of course.

That is what got us into this mess. Nevertheless, again they want the workers to pay the price for the sins of the backward-thinking corporate executives.

Labor is used to making concessions. The executives are not.

And look where that got us.

It is time to change that paradigm, if the industry is to be saved for the long run. I hope that the Obama administration will do so. You know, change we can believe in.

And it seems that we may have some hope in that regard.

Hilda Solis is Barack Obama's nominee for Labor Secretary. And she has a solid track record on the side of labor.

Unfortunately, the Obama-Biden-Solis administration remains powerless for another four weeks.

Hopefully the holiday season will be enough of a distraction to keep things from getting too out-of-hand in the meantime.

21 December 2008

Gates making plans to close Gitmo; tribunals must go too

Human rights organizations and activists around the world have for years been calling for closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has become a symbol of abuse and injustice in the "war on terror".

And now it looks as though Obama might keep his promise to close it.

From Reuters:
The Pentagon is working on a plan to shut the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would be available to President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office on Jan. 20, a defense official said on Thursday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked his staff to come up with an assessment of what it would take to shutter the prison camp that has become a blemish on the international reputation of the United States.

"If this is one of the president-elect's first orders of business, the secretary wants to be prepared to help him as soon as possible," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
Good. But with closure of Gitmo comes the question of what to do with the detainees.

Gates and the Obama administration should not try to transfer Gitmo's unlawful detention practices and kangaroo court system along with the prisoners. We can do better. We can stand for justice again, for a change.

To that end, four leading rights organizations -- the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch -- have delivered a joint three-page letter to the presidential transition team.

Here is an excerpt:
Our groups firmly advocate an unqualified return to America’s established system of justice for detaining and prosecuting suspects. We categorically oppose the creation of any other ad-hoc illegal detention system or "third way" that permits the executive branch to suspend due process and hold suspected terrorists without charge or trial, essentially moving Guantánamo on-shore.

As you know, the Geneva Conventions allow for the detention of enemy soldiers captured on the battlefield until the cessation of international armed conflict. But what is new - and altogether radical - is the notion that a wartime detention model can be applied to something as amorphous as a "war on terror" that lacks a definable enemy, geographical boundary, or the prospect of ending anytime soon. If a conflict exists everywhere and forever, empowering the government to detain combatants until the end of hostilities takes on a whole new and deeply disturbing meaning.

We are confident that when you take office, you will immediately set a date certain for closing Guantanamo. The new Justice Department should conduct a fresh review of all detainee records to determine whether there is legitimate evidence of criminal activity. Where there is not, detainees should be repatriated to their home countries for trial or release. If there is a risk of torture or abuse in their home countries, they should be transferred to third countries that will accept them or admitted to the United States.

Where evidence of criminal activity does exist, detainees should be prosecuted in traditional federal courts. Contrary to the views of proponents of detention without trial who argue that America’s existing courts can’t handle terrorism prosecutions, the United States justice system has a long history of handling terrorism cases without compromising fundamental rights of defendants while accommodating sensitive national security issues. In fact, a recent analysis of more than 100 successfully prosecuted international terrorism cases conducted by two former federal prosecutors for Human Rights First found that "the justice system . . . continues to evolve to meet the challenge terrorism cases pose." Our courts have proven that they can handle sensitive evidence. The Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) outlines a comprehensive set of procedures for federal criminal cases involving classified information. Applying CIPA over the years, courts have successfully balanced the need to protect national security information, including the sources and means of intelligence gathering, with defendants' fair trial rights.
>> Read the full letter.

Fingers crossed in hopes that Obama and Gates will take these points into consideration while making their plans. Only then might we see change we can truly believe in.

20 December 2008

The Rick Warren controversy and Barack's bad timing

One of the many big political stories of the past few days is Barack Obama's newest pastor problem.

Obama has chosen Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation.

This is the same Rick Warren, of the ironically named Saddleback megachurch, who actively pushed for passage of Proposition 8, and has compared homosexuality to incest, polygamy, and child abuse.

Warren's respect for women equals his respect for gays. For instance, he recently compared reproductive choice to the Holocaust.

This guy is the king of zealous exaggeration and deceptive spin. But people follow him and absorb his every word. That makes him dangerous. And that danger led to disaster on November 4th, when his Prop 8 efforts succeeded in stripping gay couples in California of their right to marry.

This is the kind of religious political interference that we voted against when we elected Barack Obama as our next president. But now Warren will play a starring role at the inauguration of the president who promised change we can believe in.

So, naturally, Obama has come under fire in the past few days for this selection. And rightly so, in my opinion.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee has responded to the controversy with a set of carefully constructed talking points, describing how this will be "the most open, accessible, and inclusive Inauguration in American history," bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and views.

While Obama does not share Warren's views on homosexuality, the talking points tell us, Warren "has a long history of activism on behalf of the disadvantaged and the downtrodden," and "[h]e's devoted his life to performing good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis."

The talking points end with the rather tokenesque-sounding announcement that "for the very first time, there will be a group representing the interests of LGBT Americans participating in the Inaugural Parade."


As Joe Soe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign put it, "The anger about this decision? Hey, we're also bringing a gay marching band. You know how the gays love a parade."

This makes me seriously question Obama's sensitivity to the LGBT community and its quest for equal rights.

I understand and appreciate Obama's agenda of inclusiveness. But, in seeking inclusiveness, did he really have to include someone so divisive, who is himself against inclusion of the LGBT community in one of society's most revered institutions?

And, while I appreciate Rev. Warren's work to fight AIDS and poverty, those good works do not erase the bad.

Perhaps in another era, the sting wouldn't hurt quite so badly. But Obama's choice here comes in the wake of Prop 8's passage, and that makes it particularly careless and hurtful.

By including Warren in the inauguration ceremony, Obama will be rubbing salt into the proverbial wound.

And it makes me wonder if he thinks the evangelical vote is more important to his political future than the gay vote.

19 December 2008

Mr. Obama, yes you can (kick the nicotine habit)!

Dear Mr. President-elect,

You've come under fire lately for falling off the nicotine-free wagon during your presidential campaign.

I understand what it's like. I started smoking in junior high school. It was the thing to do. In my small redneck Appalachian coal-mining town, teenagers started smoking long before we could legally drink. It was something to do. It seemed cool. And, back then, I was vulnerable to peer pressure.

And it quickly became an addiction.

I am not familiar with the circumstances by which you started smoking. But we have one thing in common: We both grew up to become smoking adults.

But I quit "cold turkey" while I was still in my twenties.

It wasn't easy. I found it especially difficult during stressful times, like in the spring of 1985, when I was working two jobs, going to college at night, studying for two final exams, and leaving my abusive drug-addicted then-husband -- all at the same time, and all while making $4.00 an hour (with no benefits). But I did not smoke. Instead, hard candies managed the oral cravings while adrenaline, tenacity, and willpower handled the rest. It was worth it.

I have no doubt that a presidential campaign is even more stressful than that episode of my life, but that's over now, and you are clearly a much stronger person than I could ever hope to be.

If I could do it, you surely can do it.

After all, you stood up to Hillary Clinton and won.

You stood up to John McCain and the Republican smear machine and won.

So surely you can stand up to the demon nicotine and win.

Besides, think of the message you want to send to your daughters.

Do you want Malia and Sasha to think that it's acceptable to fall off the wagon when the going gets tough? I don't think you do. At least, I hope not.

You're active and athletic. Smoking seems so contrary to that. You must surely see the irony too. Let it be one more reason to quit for good.

My tax dollars pay for what goes on in the White House. And I want it to remain smoke-free.

And I want you healthy.


Mary Shaw

18 December 2008

UN to consider declaration to decriminalize homosexuality (US declines)

While it is a sad thing that gays and lesbians here in the U.S. still do not have full equal rights in most states, gays and lesbians in some other countries have it much worse. In fact, homosexuality is considered a crime in 86 countries, punishable by prison time or even death.

So today a declaration will be presented to the United Nations General Assembly that calls for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality.

While this declaration, if adopted, would not be binding resolution, it will send a strong and important message to the world.

According to Human Rights Watch, nations on four continents are coordinating the statement -- Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, Japan, the Netherlands, and Norway.

So far, more than 60 countries have signed on to the statement.

Who's missing? The United States of America.

This suggests that the US delegation to the UN believes that it's perfectly fine if some nations want to imprison or execute gay people simply for being gay.

This is an embarrassment and worse.

I hope that the Obama administration will waste no time in signing us on to the new declaration. Better late than never.

17 December 2008

From war to shoes to torture: Violence begets violence begets violence

By now surely you've heard the amusing story of the Iraqi journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at George W. Bush, while calling Bush "a dog", during our president's weekend visit to Iraq.

"This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq," he shouted.

In Arab culture, it is a huge insult to throw a shoe at someone. In fact, it's even rude to show the sole of your shoe to another person.

So a part of me wanted to cheer. Bush certainly deserves a good disrespecting.

When the incident occurred, the authorities dragged al-Zaidi off the premises and arrested him. He has been sitting in prison ever since.

But he's not just sitting there in prison. He's being tortured.

While in custody, al-Zaidi has reportedly been beaten, and is suffering a broken arm, broken ribs, and internal bleeding, along with "signs of torture on his thighs."

This is wrong.

I do not condone al-Zaidi's shoe throwing stunt. While many people around the world are praising al-Zaidi, elevating him overnight to cult-hero status, I submit that it is a crime to attempt an assault on a world leader, and such an act and should not be glamorized, praised, or encouraged. Al-Zaidi should face some charges.

But he does not deserve torture. No one does.

But violence begets violence begets violence.

When I first spoke out against the shoe throwing, I was criticized. The ironic thing was that I was criticized by so-called pacifists, so-called anti-war activists who dislike Bush because of his violence. These pacifists were cheering for al-Zaidi's act of violence against Bush.

I dislike Bush as much as anyone. But a true pacifist will oppose violence against anyone and everyone, by anyone and everyone. No cherry picking. Otherwise, where will we ever agree to draw the line?

16 December 2008

An eye for an eye - literally

When I advocate against the death penalty, the pro-death crowd will often react by quoting the Bible: "An eye for an eye."

My usual response is to point out that when someone is convicted of rape, we do not turn that person over to an official State Rapist to be treated in kind as punishment. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why some people find it appropriate to kill in order to show that killing is wrong. It offers society not further protection but further brutalization.

And now a new case out of Iran shows us what can happen when "an eye for an eye" is taken too literally.

From CNN:
An Iranian woman, blinded by a jilted stalker who threw acid in her face, has persuaded a court to sentence him to be blinded with acid himself under Islamic law demanding an eye for an eye.
I wonder how the pro-execution folks here in the U.S. would feel about this. After all, it's just a more literal case of the "eye for an eye" principle that they so strongly espouse.

Matahma Ghandi once said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Apparently that's true not only in a figurative sense.

15 December 2008

Bush goes to Iraq to celebrate his illegal pact

Over the weekend, George W. Bush made a suprise visit to Iraq. The purpose was to celebrate the recent passage of Bush's security pact with Iraq, called the Strategic Framework Agreement and the Status of Forces Agreement.

But maybe he should take a step back.

Maybe that security agreement is unconstitutional.

So argues a resolution introduced in the House last week by Rep. Barbara Lee.

The resolution cites many good reasons why Bush's agreement with Iraq is unconstitutional.

The main reason revolves around the Founding Fathers' intent that the Constitution affords Congress the power to make rules governing our military forces and that the President cannot make such far-reaching agreements without the approval of Congress.

Rep. Lee's bill will likely be reintroduced in January. Chances are good (fingers crossed) that it will pass.

At that point, Congress will not be bound by the terms of Bush's agreement with Iraq.

Neither should Obama.

14 December 2008

Blago reminds me of Bush

The Republicans don't have a complete monopoly on corruption, as we find out once again.

As you surely know by now if you haven't spent the past week living in isolation, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is in hot water.

He was caught on tape talking about his plans to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. The Senate seat, he says on tape, "is a f***ing valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing." Et cetera.

And, as a result of this and other misdeeds, Blago could face some serious jail time.

So what does he do? He ignores the numerous calls for his resignation and continues to go to work each day. This reminds me of George W. Bush, who goes to work each day acting like everything is normal and fine, despite eight years of misleading the people of this nation, causing the needless deaths of thousands of our troops and countless innocent Iraqis, and systematically dismantling the U.S. Consitution.

Blago's arrogance is unfair to the people of Illinois, just as Bush's arrogance is unfair to the people of the U.S. and the world.

But, unlike Bush, it appears that Blago will soon be held accountable under the law.

In the meantime, though, how can he expect to do his job effectively under these these circumstances?

And how can his staff expect to do their jobs effectively with that dark cloud surrounding his presence?

Even Richard Nixon had the good sense to resign when the Watergate scandal pointed straight at him.

Blago should do the same.

13 December 2008

The Salvation Army's red kettle of trouble

It's that time of year again. Outside the shopping malls and supermarkets we encounter the bell-ringing representatives of the Salvation Army, dressed in paramilitary uniform, with their big red kettles, begging for a share of our holiday dollars.

And, as I do every year, I will ignore them.

Not because I am selfish or stingy. In the past few weeks, I have contributed a healthy sum in end-of-year donations to the non-profit agencies that I choose to support.

But I choose not to support the Salvation Army.

My reasons? Read on.

First let me say that the Salvation Army has done some good work in the past in providing assistance to the poor, the addicted, and the marginalized.

But their methods are not ones that I approve of. The Salvation Army has a long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, and intolerance.

I have spoken with a number of people who have sought assistance from the Salvation Army in the past, particularly for disaster relief. I was told of how these people were preached to and forced into praying with the Salvation Army folks to their Christian God as a prerequisite for receiving services. If you're Jewish, tough. If you're Hindu, tough. Gotta pray their way, to their God, or else you're not worthy of assistance. It's quid pro quo. Gotta take advantage of people when they're most vulnerable. Contrast this with the secular Red Cross, which just wants to help disaster victims, not save their souls. (In the interest of full disclosure, I personally received help from the Red Cross when my apartment building burned down in 2001. They were extremely helpful and compassionate, and expected nothing in return.)

As if the religious coercion isn't enough, the Salvation Army has also been implicated in a number of cases of alleged sexual abuse, ranging from molestation of child members of the Salvation Army's Red Shield swim team in Seattle to pedophile rings that operated out of Salvation Army run orphanages in Australia and New Zealand. (Yes, they like to "spread the love" worldwide.)

The Salvation Army is also homophobic -- so much so that they would stop helping the poor if it meant they had to respect equal rights for gays and lesbians. In 2004, they threatened to close their soup kitchens in New York City rather than comply with the city's legislation requiring firms to offer domestic partnership benefits to gay employees.

Another fact that many people are likely unaware of is that the Salvation Army is technically a church as well as an openly Christian charity. As such, they are certainly entitled to promote their church's dogma and operate their organization accordingly.

But I will not support it with my hard-earned money, especially given the organization's disturbing history, coercive methods, and unchristianlike intolerance.

So please think twice before tossing your spare change into their red kettle of trouble. Do you really want to support this with your hard-earned cash?

12 December 2008

Senate report confirms Bush administration authorized torture

The Bushies blamed it all on "a few bad apples", like little Lynndie England.

But a bipartisan report released yesterday by the Senate Armed Services Committee alleges that Donald Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials were directly responsible for the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo and elsewhere.

This should comes as no surprise, but it's nice to see the truth made official.

Here are some of the ugly details, from the Associated Press:
The panel's investigation focused on the Defense Department's use of controversial interrogation practices, including forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures and use of dogs. The practices, some of which had already been adopted by the CIA at its secret prisons, were adapted for interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and later migrated to U.S. detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

"The Committee's report details the inexcusable link between abusive interrogation techniques used by our enemies who ignored the Geneva Conventions and interrogation policy for detainees in U.S. custody," McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a statement. "These policies are wrong and must never be repeated."

White House officials have maintained the measures were approved in response to demands from field officers who complained that traditional interrogation methods weren't working on some of the more hardened captives. But Senate investigators, relying on documents and hours of hearing testimony, arrived at a different conclusion.

The true genesis of the decision to use coercive techniques, the report said, was a memo signed by President Bush on Feb. 7, 2002, declaring that the Geneva Convention's standards for humane treatment did not apply to captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. As early as that spring, the panel said, top administration officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, participated in meetings in which the use of coercive measures was discussed. The panel drew on a written statement by Rice, released earlier this year, to support that conclusion.

In July 2002, Rumseld's senior staff began compiling information about techniques used in military survival schools to simulate conditions that U.S. airmen might face if captured by an enemy that did not follow the Geneva conditions. Those techniques - borrowed from a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE - included waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and were loosely based on methods adopted by Chinese communists to coerce propaganda confessions from captured U.S. soldiers during the Korean war.

The SERE program became the template for interrogation methods that were ultimately approved by Rumsfeld himself, the report says. In the field, U.S. military interrogators used the techniques with little oversight and frequently abusive results, the panel found.

"It is particularly troubling that senior officials approved the use of interrogation techniques that were originally designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies against our own soldiers and that were modeled, in part, on tactics used by the Communist Chinese to elicit false confessions from U.S. military personnel," the report said.
There is no excuse for this.

Also troubling is that while we now acknowledge all this, it's nevertheless quite likely that these Bush administration officials will never be held accountable.

If this had happened in some other parts of the world, we'd be calling for the responsible parties to be tried for war crimes.

11 December 2008

Class warfare in the Senate

Last night, the House passed a bill to provide $14 billion in loans to bail out the Detroit automakers.

Now the Senate is going to tackle a nearly identical bill, and it won't be so easy there. The Republicans in the Senate are going to do everything in their power to fight it.

The Republicans wasted no time in bailing out the fat cat Wall Street banks. But now that tens of thousands of domestic auto industry jobs are on the line, it's a different story.

Gotta bail out the rich white collar bankers, but the blue collar auto workers are on their own.

We see how bad the economy is right now in this country. Imagine how much worse it will be if GM, Chrysler, and Ford lay off more workers along with the dealerships that sell the domestic cars.

These Republicans all claim to be Christian. But talk is cheap. After all, didn't Jesus stand up for the poor and the underprivileged, and denounce the moneychangers?

The hypocrisy on the right continues to astound me.

10 December 2008

December 10th is Human Rights Day

Today, December 10th, is the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly.

This project was led by Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of World War II, to define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There were lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth in the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

So, on this 60th anniversary of the UDHR, as I did last year, I present the Declaration in its entirety below.

Please read this Declaration, think about what it says, and think about how we still come up short, worldwide and here in the USA, on many (if not most) of the principles contained therein. Then take action to do something about it.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.


09 December 2008

Federal Appeals Court to hear Troy Davis case today

For years, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis has been on a rollercoaster ride for his life. And it's about to climax. Again.

Today, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Davis's case as to why he deserves a new trial.

This appeals court had issued an eleventh-hour stay of execution back in October, just hours before Davis was to be killed. The court finally wants to hear more about the new evidence of his innocence.

Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row for a 1989 murder that he maintains he did not commit. In March of this year, the George Supreme Court inexplicably decided 4-3 to deny a new trial for Davis, despite significant doubts about his guilt.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses. In other words, there is reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt. And there's no excuse to execute someone when there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Yet, despite all these considerations, on October 14, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Davis's appeal. So, in effect, the Supremes chose to allow the state of Georgia to execute a man who very well might be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. An execution date was set for October 27.

Fortunately the appeals court saw fit to intervene.

What happens next:

If the three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals thinks that the case should move forward, Davis will be allowed to petition the lower court (the Southern District of Georgia) for an evidentiary hearing, at which he could present the new evidence in his favor which has never before been examined in court. Witnesses would be called to testify and be cross-examined.

The court could announce its decision in a week or in a few months.

Stay tuned for updates. Fingers crossed.

08 December 2008

Justice (finally) for Blackwater crimes?

Through the years that we've been occupying Iraq, we've heard plenty of stories about misconduct (including unjustified killing of Iraqis) by U.S. mercenaries employed by Blackwater and other corporate war profiteers.

Unfortunately, the perpetrators of these crimes could not be prosecuted in Iraq because of an agreement that L. Paul Bremer, as then-head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, had set up with the Iraqi government. The agreement granted protection to all U.S. military personnel, civilians, and contractors from prosecution under Iraqi law for their actions. In other words, they can do what they want without consequence. They are above the law.

But now it may be time for some Blackwater thugs to face the music here in the U.S.

On Friday, the New York Times reported the following:
The Justice Department has obtained indictments against five guards for the security company Blackwater Worldwide for their involvement in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that killed at least 17 Iraqi civilians and remains a thorn in Iraqi relations with the United States.

The indictments, obtained Thursday, remained sealed. But they could be made public in Washington as soon as Monday, according to people who have been briefed on the case and who spoke on condition of anonymity because the indictments had not been unsealed.

Peter A. Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on Friday. Anne E. Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, also declined to comment.
Maybe we'll see some accountability after all. Fingers crossed.

07 December 2008

Their Saturday radio addresses say it all

I was in my car yesterday doing my Saturday morning errands with the radio tuned to the all-news station. I was just in time for to hear George W. Bush's weekly presidential radio address, followed by Barack Obama's Democratic response.

The differences between the two men and their messages have always been stark. And the contrast was never more apparent than it was while listening to their short back-to-back radio updates.

Bush started out by mentioning the Army-Navy football game, which he attended here in Philly yesterday. He used it to segue into his usual song and dance about what a fine idea it was to attack, invade, and occupy Iraq, and how well things are going there. Just the usual thing -- Bush using our troops -- and our troops-in-training -- as props by which to catapult the propaganda.

Enter Barack Obama and his response. No spin. No bald-faced lies. No whitewashing. Just an acknowledgment of the terrible state of our economy, and some good ideas for ways to turning things around. He described a plan for infrastructure improvements that will result in a better and stronger nation and create a lot of new jobs in the process.

Listening to the two men back-to-back, I was struck by how Obama so consistently represents change we can believe in vs. Bush, whose lies we've all learned we can never believe in.

January 20th cannot get here soon enough.

Meantime, check out their radio addresses for yourself:

>> Bush's Dec. 6 radio address

>> Obama's Dec. 6 radio address

06 December 2008

In Big 3 auto crisis, Moore has the best plan

Yesterday, the executives of the "Big 3" Detroit automakers returned to Capitol Hill on bended knee begging for money. On Thursday, they had pleaded with the Senate. On Friday, it was the House.

These executives have nothing to lose, really. Unlike so many of their workers who have lost their livelihoods and now are struggling to feed their families, these rich white guys with their obscene salaries are set for life financially. The only thing really at stake for them is their standing at the country club.

So I admit that it is kind of gratifying to watch them squirm. After all, these are the fat cats whose greed trumped any kind of responsibility to the environment or the workers. If Detroit had taken Japan's lead a decade ago and had started building better and more fuel-efficient vehicles, they might have avoided this crisis.

But that is water under the proverbial bridge.

Now MSNBC is reporting that "congressional Democrats and the White House reached for agreement Friday on about $15 billion in bailout loans for the beleaguered auto industry."

The House is scheduled to vote on it next week, and the Senate will also be working on the issue.

I am sure that our members of Congress have put a lot of thought into this issue, and I'm sure they will continue to do so until a would-be solution is passed. In the meantime, though, they would do well to consider a plan proposed earlier this week by filmmaker Michael Moore.

I know that most on the right do not take Moore seriously, and many on the left also are quick to dismiss him because of his sometimes over-the-top style. But if you are one of those "Moore skeptics", please leave his image out of your mind right now and just read and consider his words. He makes more sense than any politician I've heard on the issue.

Here is an excerpt. Use the link at the end of this post to read Moore's full plan.
Let me just state the obvious: Every single dollar Congress gives these three companies will be flushed right down the toilet. There is nothing the management teams of the Big 3 are going to do to convince people to go out during a recession and buy their big, gas-guzzling, inferior products. Just forget it. And, as sure as I am that the Ford family-owned Detroit Lions are not going to the Super Bowl -- ever -- I can guarantee you, after they burn through this $34 billion, they'll be back for another $34 billion next summer.

So what to do? Members of Congress, here's what I propose:

1. Transporting Americans is and should be one of the most important functions our government must address. And because we are facing a massive economic, energy and environmental crisis, the new president and Congress must do what Franklin Roosevelt did when he was faced with a crisis (and ordered the auto industry to stop building cars and instead build tanks and planes): The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.

2. You could buy ALL the common shares of stock in General Motors for less than $3 billion. Why should we give GM $18 billion or $25 billion or anything? Take the money and buy the company! (You're going to demand collateral anyway if you give them the "loan," and because we know they will default on that loan, you're going to own the company in the end as it is. So why wait? Just buy them out now.)

3. None of us want government officials running a car company, but there are some very smart transportation geniuses who could be hired to do this. We need a Marshall Plan to switch us off oil-dependent vehicles and get us into the 21st century.

This proposal is not radical or rocket science. It just takes one of the smartest people ever to run for the presidency to pull it off. What I'm proposing has worked before. The national rail system was in shambles in the '70s. The government took it over. A decade later it was turning a profit, so the government returned it to private/public hands, and got a couple billion dollars put back in the treasury.

This proposal will save our industrial infrastructure -- and millions of jobs. More importantly, it will create millions more. It literally could pull us out of this recession.

>> Read Moore's full statement.

05 December 2008

Why Obama must commit to cluster munitions ban

On December 3, 100 countries signed the Cluster Munitions Convention, which prohibits the use of cluster bombs.

So what rogue nations were conspicuously absent? The primary makers or users of cluster bombs -- the U.S., Israel, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan.

This is the company we keep.

The problem with cluster bombs is that they are imprecise, and are notorious for killing or maiming innocent civilians, including children.

Cluster bombs are indiscriminate weapons, meaning that they cannot distinguish between an enemy solder and a civilian child. They kill whoever crosses their path. Furthermore, the clusters release numerous "bomblets" and many of them do not explode on impact. So they lie around and become de facto anti-personnel mines. Even worse, they sometimes look like toys to a child.

In fact, according to a study by Handicap International, 98 percent of cluster bomb victims are civilians and 27 percent are children.

But the U.S. doesn't want to join the civilized world in banning the use of these cluster bombs. As the Washington Post reported back in May when the new Convention was initially passed, the U.S. calls cluster bombs "an integral, legitimate part of its arsenal."

Dead babies are simply dismissed as "collateral damage".

This is deplorable and despicable.

The Chicago Tribune quoted a spokesperson for Barack Obama's transition team as saying that Obama will "carefully review the new treaty and work closely [with] our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians."

That's not good enough.

If Obama truly wants to restore America's position in the world, he should waste no time in signing us on to the Cluster Munitions Convention.

It's time we started playing by the rules again.

04 December 2008

No time for complacency

Now that Barack Obama has won the presidential election, readers have been e-mailing me asking if I am going to take a break from my writing.

The short answer: No.

The long answer: Read on.

While I may have been focusing more on the election than just about any other issue over the past several months, my work is not limited to U.S. politics. During the campaign season, this nation was at a very important crossroads, one that dominated my thoughts and my writing. Now that the election is behind us, I will get back to covering a broader range of topics related to human rights, social justice, and politics in general.

Obama will be president, but the world is not going to instantly become a human rights utopia.

So I will continue to speak out against the injustices that still take place daily around the world.

And I will hold Barack Obama accountable for keeping his promises to close Guantanamo, end torture by U.S. agents, and address global warming by taking the lead in worldwide pollution control and growing a green economy.

And more.

Now is not the time to back down.

03 December 2008

Georgia reelects Chambliss

Yesterday, voters in Georgia went back to the polls in a runoff election for Senator -- either Republican incumbant Saxby Chamblis or Democratic challenger Jim Martin. During the November 4th election, neither had reached the 50-percent threshold required in their three-way race with a Libertarian candidate.

And, unfortunately, yesterday they reelected Chambliss.

Chambliss is they guy who in 2002 defeated Max Cleland by running ads implying that Cleland (who lost three limbs in Vietnam) would be soft on terrorism.

So now the Dems have a 58-seat majority in the Senate (if you count "Traitor Joe" Lieberman). They'll be at 59 if Al Franken wins his Minnesota race, where a recount is taking place which could drag on for weeks. In any case, there is now no chance this year of achieving the 60 seats they need to be filibuster-proof.

But, regardless of the outcome, we're still in a pretty good position to finally legislate for positive change, especially if the Republican moderates will vote with their conscience.

That assumes, of course, that the Dems will realize that having Obama in the White House and 58 (or 59) seats in the Senate means that they don't have to be such wimps anymore.

02 December 2008

Susan Rice: A UN relationship we can believe in?

Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama formally announced the members of his national security team.

There were no surprises. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security. And Robert Gates (not ideal, but a huge improvement over his predecessor Rumsfeld) will stay on as Secretary of Defense, for purposes of continuity.

In addition, and of particular interest to me, Obama named his campaign foreign policy advisor Susan Rice as UN ambassador. Furthermore, the Associated Press is reporting that Obama will make Rice's ambassadorship a cabinet position.

I see that step as a positive sign that Obama is very serious about mending our relationship with the rest of the world.

This is a welcome change of pace from the Bush administration's defiance of the UN and disdain for international law and accountability.

Perhaps soon we the American people will again be seen as true citizens of the world, rather than the mean ugly stepchildren we've become.

01 December 2008

Thoughts on World AIDS Day 2008

December 1 is World AIDS Day. On this date each year, organizations and individuals from around the world work together to call attention to the global AIDS crisis.

Fortunately, much progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We've seen the development of antiretroviral treatments that can allow HIV-positive individuals to lead relatively normal lives for years or decades. And, according to the UNAIDS 2008 Report, funding has been steadily increasing for HIV programs in developing countries, and the global epidemic is starting to stabilize, albeit at an unacceptably high level.

Despite these advances, however, much work remains. We must continuously urge our respective governments to keep on funding AIDS research, education, and relief efforts, both domestically and globally.

And, perhaps just as importantly, we need to keep working to fight the stigma and discrimination related to HIV.

Whenever I write about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I hear from ultra-conservative folks who still believe that AIDS is a "gay disease", and is God's punishment for "choosing" to live the "gay lifestyle".

To the reasonable person, of course, that assertion is ridiculous. After all, women and children account for a sizable percentage of new HIV infections worldwide.

But the "religious" extremists will not let the facts get in the way of their bigotry.

Sadly, as long as the stigma remains, I fear that HIV/AIDS will not get the serious attention it deserves from those in power who seek to appease the religious right. Case in point: Sarah Palin, who advocates for abstinence-only sex education (as opposed to safe-sex education), and whose own teenage daughter is now pregnant. (Coincidence?) They say they care, even as they fight to keep condoms out of the high schools.

We have our work cut out for us.

We need to get active and stay active.

How many more innocent men, women, children, and teens must die of AIDS because too many people in power believe the silly notion that it's God's punishment for "immorality"?

30 November 2008

Deadly consumerism

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Thursday in the U.S., when many Americans have the day off from work and use it to begin their holiday shopping, is generally considered one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The day gets its name from the prospect that the heavy shopping on this date will push retailers' balance sheets out of the red and into the black.

Despite the bad economy this year, countless American consumers still camped out for hours after Thanksgiving dinner outside their favorite shops in order to be at the head of the queue when the shops opened early Friday.

OK, that's fine. If people have nothing better to do, and they have the money to spend, that's their business. Go for it.

But what happened this year on Black Friday at a Long Island Wal-Mart is bigger than that, and much more heinous, be it intentional or not. It demonstrated that some Americans will put their desire to be first in line for that limited inventory of 50-inch televisions above all else -- even if it means that another human being has to die in the process.

If you haven't heard the story, here is a summary, courtesy of the New York Daily News:
A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an "out-of-control" mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store's front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

When the madness ended, 34-year-old Wal-Mart worker Jdimytai Damour was dead, and four shoppers, including a woman eight months pregnant, were injured.
This is America on shopping adrenaline, credit cards, selfishness, and competitive greed.

What seemingly matters to the American consumer -- even today, apparently -- is keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, and exceeding them at any cost. Shopping has become a sport, and consumerism has become a contest, even in what might be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

If your neighbor has a 40-inch television, you have to run out and buy a 50-inch TV with more proverbial bells and whistles -- whether or not you can afford it.

And, if someone stands in your way, trample him to death, damn it!

How cheap really is that big TV if it costs you your soul?

29 November 2008

With new Bush-Iraq treaty, are Obama's hands tied?

On Thursday, while Americans were enjoying their Thanksgiving feasts, the Iraqi parliament formally ratified a security agreement that the Bush administration and the Iraqi cabinet had reached earlier this month.

According to the Associated Press, the agreement will require U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq entirely by January 1, 2012.

That's a good bit longer than the 16-month timeframe for withdrawal that Barack Obama promised while on the campaign trail.

The deal will be put to an Iraqi referendum in 2009. In the meantime, some questions:

• Does this mean that Obama's hands are tied?

• Is this the Bush administration's way of ensuring continued wealth for their war profiteer friends and continued access to Iraq's oil supplies even after the Bushies have left the White House?

• Is this George W's way of stealing Obama's thunder and taking credit for ending the war, albeit later rather than sooner?

It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration deals with this. Along with the economy, this will be an important test for the new president.

We the American people voted for Obama because we're sick of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We will be watching. And so will the rest of the world.

28 November 2008

Is Congress wasting its time on H.R. 1531 (re: Bush pardons)?

There is no question that the Bush administration has abused its power: Intelligence is manipulated. Science is silenced. Torture is routine. Bush's goons spy warrantlessly not only on foreigners of interest but on U.S. citizens as well. Signing statements are the norm. The Constitution is systematically dismantled. And White House advisors thumb their noses at Congressional subpoenas.

Now that Bush is less than two months away from a one-way ticket back to Texas, people are bracing themselves for more pardons in addition to the ones that Bush has already granted.

And some are wondering if Bush will abuse his presidential pardon power via preemptive pardons for administration officials, and possibly even for himself.

To that end, last week Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced H.R. 1531, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the President of the United States should not issue pardons to senior members of his administration during the final 90 days of his term of office."

Here are some excerpts from the bill:
Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the President of the United States should not issue pardons to senior members of his administration during the final 90 days of his term of office.


Whereas the Supreme Court has observed that '[a] pardon reaches both the punishment prescribed for the offence and the guilt of the offender; and when the pardon is full, it releases the punishment and blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offence. [...] ;

Whereas during the Constitutional convention, George Mason expressed the concern that a president could abuse his pardon power to 'pardon crimes which were advised by himself' or, before indictment or conviction, 'to stop inquiry and prevent detection';


Whereas investigations by Congressional committees, and press reports, raise serious concerns that senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush may have committed crimes involving the mistreatment of detainees, the extraordinary rendition of individuals to countries known to engage in torture, illegal surveillance of United States citizens, unlawful leaks of classified information, obstruction of justice, political interference with the conduct of the Justice Department, and other illegal acts;

Whereas President George W. Bush has been urged to grant preemptive pardons to senior administration officials who might face criminal prosecution for actions taken in the course of their official duties; and


Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That--

(1) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the granting of preemptive pardons by the President to senior officials of his administration for acts they may have taken in the course of their official duties is a dangerous abuse of the pardon power;

(2) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the President should not grant preemptive pardons to senior officials in his administration for acts they may have taken in the course of their official duties;

(3) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that James Madison was correct in his observation that '[i]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds [to] believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty';

(4) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that a special investigative commission, or a Select Committee be tasked with investigating possible illegal activities by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush, including, if necessary, any abuse of the President's pardon power; and

(5) the next Attorney General of the United States appoint an independent counsel to investigate, and, where appropriate, prosecute illegal acts by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush.
This all sounds good. In fact, it's music to my ears.

But will it fly? I doubt it.

After all, the Democratic majority in Congress has done little in the past four years to effectively curtail Bush's abuses of power. Whenever some have tried, they have failed.

And Bush doesn't follow the rules anyway. He makes them up as he goes along. In his mind, he and his cronies are above the law. And they always manage to get away with it.

So is H.R. 1531 just another waste of time?

I hope not. I hope that having Barack Obama in the White House and more Dems in the Senate will help. But only time will tell. At this point, I've all but given up hope of seeing the Bush administration held accountable for its crimes against the Constitution, this nation, and the world.

But I will not be quiet.

27 November 2008

This year's Thanksgiving sentiments

Today is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

Americans mark this holiday by sharing a feast with family and friends and giving thanks for the things they are grateful for.

This year, as always, I am thankful to the universe for my health and for my friends, especially those close friends who have become my surrogate family. But these thoughts are selfish, and so I want to move on from the personal stuff.

On a larger scale, a more nationwide and worldwide scale, I am thankful for the fact that the American people have woken up from their fear-induced coma of the past 7+ years and have elected an astonishingly intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful man as our next president -- one who happens to be African-American. There may be hope for this nation after all.

Above all, I am thankful for the fact that George W. Bush will vacate the White House in just 54 days, and that Dick Cheney will be right beside him. Maybe now we can put an end to the cowboy-style foreign policy, the lying, the smirking, the torture, and an executive branch that believes itself to be above the law.

Maybe. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.