31 March 2009

Is there hope for Detroit?

OK, so maybe the Obama administration is asserting government control over more than just a handful of financial institutions. It seems they're also telling the Detroit auto makers how to do their jobs.

But that is for Detroit's own good. The Detroit auto makers aren't doing so well because their executives have not been in touch with the needs of American drivers. U.S. auto buyers want high MPGs. We get that from Japan, not Detroit.

President Obama is giving the domestic auto industry a chance to reorganize -- to catch up or shut up.

And, despite my status as a Toyota loyalist, I am hoping that the U.S. auto industry can catch up and then surpass the foreign competition.

But I am not optimistic.

30 March 2009

March 30: National call-in day to ban cluster bombs

I've written in the past about the problems associated with the use of cluster bombs in warfare. They are indiscriminate and imprecise, and they are notorious for killing or maiming innocent civilians, including children.

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

How can anyone justify their use when 98 percent of these things lead to these horrific violations of the Geneva Conventions?

So, earlier this month, Congress and President Obama permanently outlawed exports of nearly all U.S. cluster munitions.

But exporting is one thing, and using is another. We need to take another step. The U.S. must have absolutely nothing to do with these weapons. We need to make sure sure the U.S. military never again uses its own vast arsenal of nearly 700 million cluster munitions.

Legislation was recently introduced that would effectively block the use of cluster munitions by the United States (S. 416/H.R. 981). But we need to build strong co-sponsorship of this legislation to make it happen.

To that end, the United Nations Association of the USA's Adopt-A-Minefield campaign has named today, March 30, as a National Call-In Day to give cluster bombs the boot.

To participate, first check to see if your Representative and/or Senators have already signed on. If not, call them and ask that they co-sponsor this important legislation.

Passing this bill will help to restore this country's reputation as one that respects human rights and international law. But, most importantly, it's the right thing to do.

29 March 2009

No, we're not on a road to Communism

I was talking with an old friend recently, a self-described "conservative, but not a Republican". Eventually, of course, politics and current events found their way into the conversation. This included the economic crisis and government bailouts. And my friend shared his two cents' worth on the subject.

"It's not just the banks," my friend explained. "The Democrats think all businesses are evil, and they'll try to take them all over."

That assertion is, of course, ridiculous. The Democrats do not think all business are evil. And the Democrats don't want the government to take over all businesses. We just see this current recession as an example of the problems that can result from unregulated business run amok.

You wouldn't want a toddler to run free around the house without rules -- for his own protection and to protect the house and its other residents. Likewise, we don't want to allow businesses to pursue their self-centered agendas without some protections in place in the form of rules and accountability.

But there is a big difference between setting some rules and adopting the whole child.

And, while we have had to "adopt" some financial institutions that are allegedly "too big to fail", that doesn't mean that the government is going to take control of all businesses. Such a thing would likely never happen in this democratic republic. That rumor is the result of a ridiculous stretch of the imagination. Such is the power of the right wing's newest fright word: Socialism (which they wrongly equate with Communism).

It reminds me of the time my editor at the Philadelphia Daily News showed me a letter that he had received in response to one of my columns a few years ago. My column had called for some corporate accountability, so the letter accused me of hating capitalism. In response, I informed my editor that this was not the case, and that I would therefore still expect to receive payment for my columns.

These are two examples of the kinds of wild-eyed stereotyping and disinformation that can fire up the right-wing base and embolden right-wing lawmakers to stand in the way of any real social or economic progress.

And, as long as progressive Democrats still hold less than the 60 Senate seats needed to avert a filibuster, those on the right will continue to use every trick possible to undermine any attempt to bring about an economy that benefits the workers and the middle class, not just big business.

28 March 2009

In North Carolina, more "Christian" hate

The "Christian" Action League has issued an "urgent" action alert, calling on the sheep to "help counter [the] pro-homosexual lobby".

The (obviously) sexually insecure/confused leaders of this hate group are commanding their blind followers to actively oppose HB 548 and SB 526, the School Violence Protection Act, which would require local school boards to amend their existing bullying policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

The action alert specifically named as an opponent on this issue the group Equality NC, which it called "a statewide lobbying organization for homosexual rights." Now think about this: This implies that rights are a bad thing -- when applied to gays. And it implies that rights are something to be arbitratily distributed or denied.

The truth is that human rights apply to all human beings, not just the straight ones.

The Christian Action League is instructing its followers to lobby for the concept that it's OK to bully anyone perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, with no consequences.

I wonder how many of them (knowingly or not) have gay children of their own, or how many of them (admittedly or not) have gay tendencies of their own. (Hello, Ted Haggard. Hello, Larry Craig.)

And I wonder how many of them have been bullied for it.

27 March 2009

IBM ships more of our jobs overseas

With the U.S. economy in full meltdown mode, and more and more Americans finding themselves out of work these days, what does IBM do?

IBM's response is to lay off about 5,000 of its U.S. employees and ship many of their jobs to India.

IBM has chosen to be part of the problem. IBM has chosen to take this action that will make matters even worse for the U.S. economy and its workers.

Shame on IBM!

26 March 2009

Will Congress allow for new financial regulations?

The deregulation of financial institutions in the 1990s has been cited as one major reason for our current economic crisis. Now, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geigner wants to enact some serious regulatory reform to try to rein in the reckless greed.


Geitner has come under fire lately over his agenda, and there is no real consensus amongst top economists over whether his plan for dealing with "toxic" assets will work.

But I am confident that he is right about one thing: New regulatory measures are a necessity.

After all, Alan Greenspan himself has admitted that he had "put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton [i.e., unregulated] mortgage lending."

Still, while regulation may appear to be an obvious necessity at this point, one hurdle remains: Congress

Will they go along with it? Or will the Wall Street lobby win this battle too, as more and more Americans lose their homes and their jobs every day?

The class war continues.

25 March 2009

Saturday, March 28: Participate in Earth Hour!

Did you participate in Earth Hour last year? I did, and the vibes felt great. And now we'll have another opportunity this Saturday.

On March 28 at 8:30 pm local time, individuals, businesses, and municipalities around the world will turn off their lights for one hour -- Earth Hour -- in a show of concern for climate change and commitment to finding solutions.

In 2008, some 50 million people participated in 35 countries.

This year, according to the Earth Hour website, "hundreds of icons and landmarks around the world have signed up to turn their lights off for Earth Hour 2009 including - the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Sydney Opera House, Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens and The London Eye, among many others."

And I just learned that Washington, DC, will turn off all non-essential lighting on city-owned buildings and facilities during Earth Hour.

To find out more, and to sign up, go to www.earthhour.org.

If enough people, businesses, and cities participate, imagine how dramatic it would look from space as darkness rolls through the earth's time zones one by one!

24 March 2009

Feingold moves for federal death penalty ban

Last week, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) reintroduced legislation to abolish the death penalty at the federal level.

A press release on Senator Feingold's website describes the move as follows:
Feingold’s Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009 would put an immediate halt to federal executions and forbid the use of the death penalty as a sentence for violations of federal law. The use of the death penalty has been questioned by a range of prominent voices across the country, recently repealed in New Mexico and New Jersey, and abolished by 123 countries around the world. Feingold’s bill would stop executions on the federal level, which are part of a death penalty system that has proven to be ineffective, wrought with racial disparities, and alarmingly costly.

"I oppose the death penalty because it is inconsistent with basic American principles of justice, liberty and equality," Feingold said. "Governor Bill Richardson and the New Mexico legislature’s action to abolish the death penalty in that state adds to the growing momentum behind ending the death penalty in this country. It is truly unfortunate that we are in a shrinking minority of countries that continue to allow state-sponsored executions."

Feingold is not alone in his opposition to the death penalty. A range of prominent voices have questioned the system in recent years, including former FBI Director William Sessions, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, law enforcement officials and many others across the political spectrum. In 2007, only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan executed more people than the United States.

In 2007, Feingold chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee, Constitution Subcommittee hearing on oversight of the federal death penalty that highlighted the lack of transparency at the Department of Justice in the decision-making process about the death penalty and continuing problems of racial disparities in the federal system. Also in 2007, the American Bar Association called for a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment based on its detailed study of state death penalty systems, which found racial disparities, convictions based on bad evidence, grossly inadequate indigent defense systems, and a host of other problems with the implementation of capital punishment in this country.
Those are some of the same arguments I've been using for years in my opposition to the death penalty.

But, however reasonable these arguments might be, I predict a lot of opposition on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately, many lawmakers seem to believe that you can't appear to be tough on crime unless you support the death penalty.

I would love for them to prove me wrong. But I shall not hold my breath.

23 March 2009

The Pope's reckless comments on condoms

Last week, during a visit to Africa, Pope Bendict XVI said that condoms are not the answer to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In fact, he said condoms worsen the AIDS problem!

The AP reported on his comments as follows:
"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane heading to Yaounde. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.
In other words, abstinence and chastity are the only answers. Just like Sarah Palin preaches. And look what that got Palin -- a grandchild born out of wedlock.

I know that the Pope would like us all to believe that any seed that's spilled outside one's wife's body is a sin against God.

But we've seen plenty of evidence that forcing an abstinence-only approach to sex outside marriage usually backfires. Human beings are, well, human. With hormones. In the U.S., Africa, or wherever.

Knowing that devout Catholics in Africa are likely to follow the Pope's preachings and avoid condom use, this can only worsen the HIV/AIDS plight there.

And that, Your so-called Holiness, is a sin against humanity.

That said, I stumbled upon a very good editorial on the subject in the Baltimore Catholic Examiner, written by a very brave and wise Catholic nun. Check it out: Reality vs. Dogma: The Pope In Africa

22 March 2009

Water: Commodity or human right?

I am writing this on March 22, World Water Day. And I am thinking about how spoiled we Americans are. We use and abuse our natural resources without giving it a second thought.

But our recklessness could soon turn around to bite us -- and the rest of the world.

When people think of water shortages, they tend to think of the Third World. And, indeed, more than 5,000 children die every day as a result of unsafe drinking water, mostly in developing nations.

But we've been seeing more and more serious droughts right here in the U.S., like in California and Georgia recently.

In short, water supplies are at serious risk everywhere.

This is the natural result of overpopulation, climate change, and the reckless consumption of our natural resources.

One of the most reckless -- and disturbing -- aspects in my opinion is the commoditization of water. Think back 20, 30, or 40 years. When you were thirsty, you turned on the kitchen faucet and poured yourself a glass of water. You thought nothing of it.

These days, I don't know many people who would drink the water from their kitchen faucet without at least filtering it first. I myself use a Brita water filter pitcher at home.

But that's not convenient enough, or glamorous enough, for some people. So they buy their drinking water in bottles. By the case. I see it flying off the shelves every time I go to the supermarket.

These same people who complained so loudly when gasoline prices hit $4 per gallon think nothing of paying $10 per gallon for their drinking water. And they won't listen to the fact that bottled water is no cleaner and no safer than tap water, and often comes from the very same sources. To them, carrying around a bottle of commercially sold water is a status symbol, just like their big, bloated, gas-guzzling SUVs. If it's expensive, then it must be better.

And, by supporting the commercialization of water -- by willfully paying corporations for something that they could otherwise get for free -- they are compounding the problem. If water is something you have to pay for, then the poor will not be able to afford it. And, without clean water, it is impossible to survive.

That's why I support the effort to add a 31st article to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which would define water as a basic human right.

Here is the text of the proposed article:
Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.
Seems fair.

But, of course, the bottled water industry will surely fight this effort tooth and nail. And, meanwhile, thousands of children will continue to die each day from lack of clean water.

Where will it end? If we willingly pay for water today, will we someday be similarly duped into paying for breathable air?

Will all of nature eventually be privatized and sold to the minority who can afford it?

21 March 2009

Why I might boycott Sunoco

For the most part, the big oil companies have not been models of virtue. And now oil executive greed is taking a toll on the workforce here in Philadelphia.

Last week, Sunoco announced that it will cut 750 jobs, most of which are located in the Philly area.

But, you might say, times are tough and companies of all types are downsizing in order to remain competitive. Can't boycott them all!

This is true. But Sunoco's not having trouble paying the bills.

Sunoco said that these job cuts will save the company more than $300 million annually.

But what they're failing to point out in this context is that Sunoco's combined profits the past two years were more than $1.6 billion. When you're looking at that kind of money, $300 million is a drop in the bucket. But those laid-off workers' lost salaries could have a devastating impact on their personal lives.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell even stepped up and called on Sunoco's board of directors to rescind the layoffs.

Rendell called the layoffs "unconscionable", saying:
"This is no time for a company that's making huge profits to lay off its workers so it can stay competitive, because those workers have virtually no chance in this economy of getting rehired."
Of course, it's silly to think that oil execs might suddenly grow a heart.

And so Sunoco is sticking to its plan.

And, in doing so, it will be contributing unnecessarily to the continuing economic downturn.

20 March 2009

Obama to sign UN gay rights declaration

Good news: The Associated Press reported this week that the Obama administration "will endorse a U.N. declaration calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality that then-President George W. Bush had refused to sign."

This is another good step towards restoring this country's reputation as a defender of human rights and equality for all.

Apparently the Bush administration, which refused to sign the declaration, thought it was OK for gays to be treated as criminals, and punished with prison time or even death in some countries.

Obama is a friend to the LGBT community -- to an extent. As a U.S. Senator, he voted against Senate consideration of the Federal Marriage Amendment of 2006, which would have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, while Obama supports civil unions which would give same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples, he has said that he opposes same-sex marriage for religious reasons. He does, however, concede that it should be left up to the individual states.

And it seems as though he might be warming up to the idea.

This is a huge improvement over the past administration.

One step at a time.

19 March 2009

Another grim Iraq war anniversary

Today, March 19, 2009, marks the sixth anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which at the time posed no threat to the U.S., and which had nothing to do with 9/11. (By the way, that's longer than our involvement in World War II.)

Since then, 4,259 U.S. troops have died in the ongoing conflict, and 31,089 have been wounded, along with countless innocent Iraqi civilians -- men, women, and children.

Per President Obama's Iraq withdrawal timeline, all U.S. combat brigades will be removed by August 31, 2010. After that date, some forces will remain behind until the end of 2011 to "train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Security Forces; conduct targeted counterterrorism operations; and provide force protection for military and civilian personnel." You know, the stuff George W. Bush said we were doing for the past five and a half years, since the declaration of "Mission Accomplished".

So that's almost three more years that we'll be involved there!

I wonder how many more will have to die for Bush's senseless adventure.

18 March 2009

AIG gave "retention" bonuses to ex-employees

Today, AIG CEO Edward Liddy testified before Congress on the executive bonus scandal, and he got a righteous grilling.

Liddy called the bonuses "distasteful", in an apparent attempt to play "good cop, bad cop". But then he went on to defend the payments as a legal commitment that the U.S. government, which now owns 80 percent of AIG, should honor.

OK, I don't like to see my tax dollars flowing into the pockets of the wealthy AIG executives who helped to create the company's (and our economy's) demise; but my sense of integrity drives me to reluctantly sympathize with the contractual-obligation defense.


Then I learned that 11 of the recipients of these so-called "retention bonuses" are no longer working for AIG, including one who received $4.6 million!

I guess "retention" doesn't mean what it used to.

And, by the way: Back in October, AIG had agreed to suspend executive bonuses.

Fire them all. They're rich enough.

In defense of Meghan McCain

My goodness, those right-wing talking heads can be mean! But usually their targets are the poor, the disabled, the highly educated, and the Democrats.

Now they're apparently so bitter over how things went in November that they're resorting to the unthinkable: They're eating their own young.

And their target of choice these days is the offspring of their most recent presidential candidate. They are picking on Meghan McCain.

Meghan's sin? In a recent column for the Daily Beast, Meghan described Coulter as "offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time" (which she is).

Then Meghan went on to talk about how extremism is unhealthy for the party (which it is).

In response, does she get a well-thought-out point-by-point retort? Nope.

Instead, right-wing radio talk show host Laura Ingraham attacked Meghan's weight. And one can only guess what Coulter will fire back with.

I never thought I'd find myself defending a McCain. But, in Meghan's case, we have a Republican woman who shuns extremism and actually wants to get along with everyone. And she is crucified for it by her own party -- the party that nominated Meghan's own father to the 2008 presidential ticket.

If Meghan deserves any criticism, it is for being a bit naive. This is no longer the party of Lincoln, no longer the party of Teddy Roosevelt, and no longer the party of Eisenhower or Goldwater.

It is now the party of the neocons.

And Ann Coulter is the female counterpart to their beloved Lord Limbaugh.

17 March 2009

Enemy combatants by any other name ...

Over the weekend, the Obama administration announced that Guantanamo inmates would no longer be referred to as "enemy combatants".

However, as the Washington Post reported on Saturday, the administration nevertheless "maintained a broad right to detain those who provide 'substantial' assistance to al-Qaeda and its associates around the globe."

Furthermore, the Justice Department is quoted as saying, "The particular facts and circumstances justifying detention will vary from case to case."

I hope this isn't going to be more of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along style of "justice" that the Bush administration practiced for more than seven years.

My friend and fellow journalist Bill Fisher collected the reactions of several human rights activists and Constitutional law experts. Here is a sampling:
[The Center for Constitutional Rights] called the government's position "a case of old wine in new bottles," adding, "It is still unlawful to hold people indefinitely without charge. The men who have been held for more than seven years by our government must be charged or released."
[Human Rights Watch] said, "The Obama administration's take on detainees is essentially the Bush standard with a new name. The Obama administration's newly issued position on Guantanamo detainees is a disappointment. Rather than rejecting the Bush administration's ill-conceived notion of a 'war on terror,' the Obama administration's position on detainees has merely tinkered with its form."
This is a huge disappointment.

I was encouraged when one of Obama's first presidential actions was to order the closure of Gitmo by January 2010. In the meantime, however, it appears that detainees' rights will continue to be violated in our name.

This is not change I can believe in.

>> Read Bill Fisher's full article: Legal Scholars, Rights Groups Condemn Obama's New Detainee Policies

16 March 2009

In memory of Rachel Corrie

Today, March 16, 2009, marks the 6th anniversary of the death in Gaza of American student and peace activist Rachel Corrie. This brave and compassionate young woman died at the age of 23 when she was mowed down by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a Palestinian home. The Caterpillar refused to stop.

"Rachel took it as self-evident that no Israeli soldier or bulldozer driver would dare kill the citizen of a country from whom Israel was requesting a $11 billion aid package," noted Morgan Guyton in a CounterPunch article two days after Rachel's death. Sadly, if that was indeed Rachel's assumption, she was wrong. Dead wrong.

And now, six years later, the destruction of Palestine continues, paid for with our tax dollars and equipped by Caterpillar.

God bless America.

In 2004, Amnesty International published a comprehensive report on the demolitions from a human rights perspective. Download it now: Israel and the Occupied Territories: Under the rubble: House demolition and destruction of land and property

15 March 2009

Challenging the right on national health care

Whenever I advocate for universal single-payer health care for all Americans, the right-wingers flood my inbox with all the predictable myths.

First, they tell me that health care is not a right. They say it's each citizen's responsibility to provide it for his or her family. I guess this myth gives them another excuse to look down on the poor who cannot afford the luxury of medical insurance. It makes them feel superior.

In response to that, I point out that health care is indeed a basic human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which the United States is a signatory.

Article 25(1) of the UDHR states:
"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."
But human rights standards don't tend to sway these folks.

Then they cry "socialism", as if that's a bad thing. Certainly the word has taken on some bad connotations through the years, but that's only because the radical right too often (and very vocally) equates socialism with Communism or Marxism, which are extreme flavors of socialism. They fail to see that national single-payer health care managed by the government would not be much different from our current system of socialized libraries, socialized fire departments, and socialized police departments. These services are paid for with our tax dollars, and they're readily available to us when we need them. It's all for the greater good.

Then sometimes they wave the flag and tell me that we must not change our health care system because, in their opinion, the U.S. offers the very best health care available. Why mess with a good thing?

Here, too, they need a bit of education. In fact, the United States ranks 37th in the World Health Organization's rankings of the world's health systems (below Malta, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries that might surprise you).

Furthermore, a recent report from the Business Roundtable suggests that "the costs and performance of the U.S. health care system have put America’s companies and workers at a significant competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace." In a nutshell, Americans spend a lot more on health care than other countries, but we aren't as healthy. That seems to confirm the World Health Organization's assessment of our less-than-stellar level of care, with the added issue of how we're paying so much more to get so much less. Corporate profits over the health of the people. God bless America.

And, on a final note, most of these right-wing types describe themselves as "Christian". Well, wasn't Jesus Christ all about healing the sick? And, as the bible describes his ministry, I don't think Jesus ever charged a penny for his healing services. (Imagine the bill he might have sent to Lazarus!)

I have yet to see a valid, logical response to this last point.

And I don't expect to.

14 March 2009

Gov. Richardson to decide future of death penalty in NM

On Friday, March 13, the New Mexico Senate voted 24-18 to repeal the death penalty in that state. This action follows a corresponding vote in the New Mexico House of Representatives in February.

So the bill is on its way to Governor Bill Richardson's desk. The future of the death penalty in New Mexico is now in his hands.

And, unfortunately, he appears to be on the fence.

After yesterday's legislative victory, Richardson issued the following statement on the subject:
"This is an extremely difficult issue that deserved the serious and thoughtful debate it received in the Legislature. I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision."
The governor has three days from the time he receives the bill until he must take action (excluding Sunday).

I urge everyone interested in this important issue to contact Governor Richardson today and ask him to support the death penalty repeal. You can call the governor's office at 505-476-2200 or email him through his website at www.governor.state.nm.us.

If you are undecided on the issue, like Richardson, or if you want to refer to some talking points while contacting his office, here is a summary of the reasons why I personally oppose the death penalty:

The death penalty is applied unevenly and unfairly, and minorities are victimized in the process. Studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. Where is the justice here?

In addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent, and is irreversible, which is a problem given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. (How many other innocent persons weren't lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.)

On a more philosophical note, Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

These are some of the reasons why most European nations have abolished the death penalty.

It has been more than a year since New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and prosecutors -- yes, prosecutors! -- in that state have found no problems with the new system, which replaced execution with life in prison without parole.

Ergo, I see no good reason to retain the death penalty, but a lot of good reasons to abolish it.

Fingers crossed for New Mexico.

13 March 2009

Hillary, China, and rights -- oh my!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post in praise of the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy, as demonstrated via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Asia. I pointed out how we've quickly progressed from a policy of aggression, finger pointing, and fear mongering to a policy of warmth, listening, and learning -- exactly what is needed to repair our relationship with the rest of the world.

And the responses continue to find their way into my inbox.

Most of the responses I've gotten, aside from the usual abuse from right-wingers, have been from my human rights colleagues who point out that Secretary Clinton missed a big opportunity to pressure China on its human rights violations.

I've been responding to most of these comments individually. But, for the rest of you, here is a summary of my feedback on that point:

First of all, I hadn't set out to write about China's human rights record. The purpose of that post was to note the fact that the Obama administration is already demonstrating a more effective style of diplomacy and foreign policy than we've seen in the past eight years. Diplomatic style. Period.

That said, while writing it, I did think about throwing something in there about China's human rights abuses. But then I thought better of it. Not only was it not the point of that piece, but I felt that the U.S. is not yet in a position where we can judge others on human rights issues.

The Obama administration seems to be taking us there, slowly but surely. For instance, in January, Obama signed an executive order calling for closure of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and an immediate review of all Guantanamo detentions, along with a requirement that intelligence gathering by U.S. agents comply with the Geneva Conventions.

That's a good start. But our human rights reputation in the world has declined so significantly over the past eight years that it will take more than just an executive order or two to restore our credibility.

In the meantime, to point the finger in China would likely be perceived as just another case of the pot calling the kettle black.

I look forward to seeing our reputation healed so that we can once again be that beacon of human rights and then be in a position to spread the goodness around the world.

In the meantime, though, it wouldn't hurt for Secretary Clinton to invite other world leaders (like China's) to work together with us to promote human rights, while pointing out that we are making every effort to get our own record back on track.

12 March 2009

UN says US rendition program broke intl law

On Tuesday, March 10, Martin Scheinin, a United Nations special rapporteur and expert on international law, presented his annual report to the UN's Human Rights Council. The report alleges that the United States and some of our allies violated international law when we sent our terrorism suspects to other countries for interrogation, a process known as "extraordinary rendition". Many of the countries we've sent them to are notorious for their use of torture in interrogations. You know, let someone else do the dirty work.

Of course, the human rights community has been saying for years that it was wrong and illegal. That, of course, never stopped the Bush administration.

McClatchy Newspapers quotes Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as saying it is "a fairly major black mark" for any country to be targeted in such a report.

Indeed. This is another of many black marks on the Bush administration's very dark record of human rights violations. Kidnapping and torture, paid for by my tax dollars.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has already taken some measures to reverse some of Bush's most egregious policies in the "war on terror". That will help to restore our credibility to the world.

Holding the perpetrators accountable would be another. But so far, aside from much talk, I don't see that particular light at the end of the tunnel.

>> Download the UN report. (PDF)

11 March 2009

Obama puts science back in government

Environmental attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has described George W. Bush as "the worst environmental president we've had in American history." And I don't think that's an exaggeration.

During the eight years of the Bush administration, pollution, climate change, and scientific research all took a back seat to Bush's agenda of a corporate free-for-all. The Bushies even went so far as to censor scientific reports to suit their agenda.

But all that is changing now. We finally have a guy in the White House who respects science and appreciates its benefits to society.

On March 9, President Obama signed an executive order lifting the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

An excerpt from the order:
For the past 8 years, the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to fund and conduct human embryonic stem cell research has been limited by Presidential actions. The purpose of this order is to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry, to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research, and in so doing to enhance the contribution of America's scientists to important new discoveries and new therapies for the benefit of humankind.
Obama understands that a blastocyst is not a baby any more than an unplanted apple seed is a tree.

The Obama administration also has a good, solid plan for addressing climate change, investing in clean energy resources, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. And they started putting that plan into action on March 10, when they appointed environmental activist and author Van Jones as a special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation.

MSNBC quoted Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as stating that Jones will "help to shape and advance the administration’s energy and climate initiatives with a specific interest in improvements and opportunities for vulnerable communities."

So we can build a green economy and put underprivileged people to work in the process. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

The religious right won't like the new stem cell edict, and Big Oil won't like the move to sustainable energy. They will all put up a fight.

But at least they finally will have a fight on their hands. Hopefully.

10 March 2009

From Lincoln to Limbaugh

It seems to be official: Rush Limbaugh is the new unofficial head of the floundering Republican Party.

The media have been all over it in the past few days.

The GOP leadership grovels.

And the dittoheads rejoice, even as they fail to realize that this could be their Waterloo.

This latest media-rich expose' of the GOP status quo underscores the desperation of today's Republican Party: When you fall short on policy, you try to make up for it in noise. And that's about all that Limbaugh is good for. Well, that and fear and hate.

This is quite the de-evolution of the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, which once was much more concerned with issues of conscience.

How bad is it? Just check out these charming quotes from the GOP's new Dear Leader:
"[Abu Ghraib] is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation...I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off?"

"Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society."

"We're not sexists, we're chauvinists -- we're male chauvinist pigs, and we're happy to be because we think that's what men were destined to be. We think that's what women want."

"She comes to me when she wants to be fed. And after I feed her -- guess what -- she's off to wherever she wants to be in the house, until the next time she gets hungry. She's smart enough to know she can't feed herself. She's actually a very smart cat. She gets loved. She gets adoration. She gets petted. She gets fed. And she doesn't have to do anything for it, which is why I say this cat's taught me more about women, than anything my whole life."

"[Hillary Clinton] sounds like a screeching ex-wife."

"The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies."

"Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it."
"Too many whites are getting away with drug use... Too many whites are getting away with drug sales... The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river, too."
But then:
"I am addicted to prescription pain medication."
And just last week:
"So [Obama]'s moved on to health care. This is highly visible, it's news leading, gets a great focus, plus it has the great liberal lion Teddy Kennedy pushing it. Before it's all over it will be called the Ted Kennedy Memorial Health Care Bill."
And all that, dear reader, is the tip of the iceberg.

God bless America.

09 March 2009

Strategic negotiation is not appeasement

The media are abuzz with the news that President Obama acknowledges that we are not winning the war in Afghanistan and is thinking about reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban.

And the right-wingers are jumping all over it. To them, it's proof that Obama likes to pal around with terrorists.

By contrast, their hero and dear leader -- George W. Bush -- would always swagger and smirk and talk about how we don't negotiate with terrorists. How macho.

And look where that got us. Intelligence experts agree that Bush's cowboy-style foreign policy has actually made us less safe. Therefore, it's clearly time for a new strategy, and not a moment too soon.

The key to Obama's approach is a nuanced one. He's not going to jump into bed with al-Qaeda or the Taliban extremists.

The New York Times explains:
Mr. Obama pointed to the success in peeling Iraqi insurgents away from more hard-core elements of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a strategy that many credit as much as the increase of American forces with turning the war around in the last two years. "There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," he said, while cautioning that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated.
It makes sense from that perspective.

But the right-wing reactionaries aren't very good at nuance.

One of them tried to appeal to my human-rights-related sensibilities. Here is what he wrote to me:
Obama’s foolish policy consigns Afghan women to brutality and death under Sharia Law, while also reversing the substantial gains made during President Bush’s tenure.
I don't know where to begin here.

First of all, what gains did Bush make in Afghanistan during his tenure? He attacked Afghanistan with too few troops. Then took his eye off the ball -- and let Osama bin Laden get away -- in order to divert our efforts to Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, and which at that time was an unarmed country that posed no threat to the U.S. That paved the way for the Taliban's regrouping and, as a result, the restored social and political repression of Afghan women.

Second, and perhaps more relevant to the point, by engaging the more moderate elements of the Taliban, we would be in a much stronger position to advocate for human rights in that country.

Currently, we are the foreign occupier. They don't care what we think.

But we've got bargaining chips, and Obama will use them constructively, not destructively, for a change.

It boils down to this: The bullies are no longer running our side of the playground. The teacher is now in charge. This nation, and our foreign policy, are now under adult supervision. And it's our only hope.

08 March 2009

U.S. women should be grateful for Obama

I am writing this on March 8 -- International Women's Day.

And on this day I am thinking about the status of women in these United States of America, and I thank my fellow voters for waking up last November and putting Barack Obama in the White House. The Obama administration will be much kinder and fairer to women than a McCain administration would have. In fact, that's already been proven.

The first piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removed a ridiculous loophole that allowed employers to pay women less than their male counterparts for equal work and get away with it.

John McCain, on the other hand, voted against the Ledbetter Act. Apparently Senator McCain doesn't believe that his own daughter should be paid as much as Sarah Palin's son.

President Obama is pro-choice. He understands that the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions is through comprehensive sex education and access to birth control products and information.

John McCain, on the other hand, seems to believe that teenagers will abstain from sex if you tell them to, and that women aren't smart enough to be trusted with control over their own bodies.

President Obama is working to rescind the Bush administration's "conscience rule" that allows medical workers to refuse to provide products and services that they morally object to. He understands that medical workers are paid to do their jobs, not render judgment on the patients, customers, or doctors who order their products or services. If a medical worker doesn't want to do his or her job, then that person should find a more suitable job.

I doubt that John McCain would agree.

President Obama chose a strong, intelligent woman to be his Secretary of State.

John McCain chose an extremist right-wing woman who doesn't read to be his running mate.

It's like night and day.

So, on this International Women's Day 2009, I am more much optimistic about what the future will hold for the girls and women of this nation than I have been for the past eight years.

And I shudder to think of how it might have been.

07 March 2009

Will the doomsday clock finally stop ticking?

According to the InterPress Service, "The Barack Obama administration's apparent resolve to take U.S. foreign policy in a new direction is creating ripples of hope for an enhanced U.N. agenda on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament."

No longer does the world need to worry about a mad cowboy in the White House who feeds his ego with needless violence.

Alas, however, the nuclear problem isn't so simple that a single change of U.S. leadership can resolve it.

As long as North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Israel, and possibly Iran continue to develop and maintain nuclear weapons, civilization will always be at risk.

But at least one major player -- the U.S., led by the ever calm and rational Barack Obama -- may be ready to approach such matters as an adult.

And only under such adult supervision can we ever hope to negotiate worldwide nuclear arms reductions and make the world a safer place for all of its inhabitants.

Fingers crossed.

06 March 2009

Prop 8 unconstitutional? We'll know soon.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether or not Proposition 8, the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California last November, is constitutional.

The Washington Post describes the angle taken by opponents of Prop 8:
Gay rights advocates are urging the court to overturn the ban, approved in November as Proposition 8, on the grounds it was put before voters improperly, or at least prematurely. Under state law, the legislature must approve significant constitutional changes before they can go on the ballot.
Interestingly, leading the battle in favor of the discriminatory Prop 8 is Ken Starr, who, as special prosecutor a decade ago, led the investigation into Bill Clinton's private sexual business. (Gotta wonder what kinds of deeply entrenched personal issues drive Mr. Starr's obsession and judgmentalism regarding other people's sex lives.)

So will Starr succeed in this latest crusade? Will this set a precedent on which the civil rights of any group could be subject to the whim of a fired-up sanctimonious voting majority?

The Court will rule on whether or not it is constitutional. But perhaps the more important question is whether or not it is right. And discrimination never is.

05 March 2009

U.S. may boycott World Conference Against Racism

Just when I thought we Americans were on track to become full-fledged citizens of the world again....

Just when I thought diplomatic engagement was going to replace knee-jerk unilateralism....

Just when I was once again, after all these years, feeling proud to be an American....

I learned that the Obama administration might boycott the World Conference Against Racism, which will be held in Geneva in April, just because some folks at a previous Conference tried -- unsuccessfully -- to equate Zionism with racism.

In my opinion, this is a grudge that must be shed. It is water under the bridge. It was unsuccessful -- whether or not it was warranted (and I could argue both sides of that question -- but that's for another time). In a nutshell, it's a case of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I thought that stuff went out the door along with the Bush administration. Sadly, I was apparently mistaken, dazzled by the audacity of hope.

It is time for the U.S. to stop allowing itself to be manipulated by Zionist extremists. After all, Jewish moderates I've spoken with understand that, as Jews, whose people have suffered throughout the millennia, they should be especially sensitive to the persecution and suffering of others -- including the Palestinians.

The age-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not be resolved so long as these knee-jerk actions and reactions continue.

The age-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not be resolved so long as finger pointing and defensiveness remain the rule.

The age-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not be resolved so long as either side loses sight of the humanity of the other side.

And the age-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not be resolved so long as either side -- and the U.S. -- stubbornly refuses to attend these conferences and engage on the issue.

04 March 2009

Too big to fail = too big to exist

Here we are, the American taxpayers, bailing out the financial institutions, even though most of us had nothing to do with the misdeeds that caused their demise. It seems like a kind of collective punishment.

The justification? These institutions are "too big to fail". Allowing them to self-destruct, we are told, would so adversely affect our economy that we must not let it happen lest we write our own one-way ticket to economic Armageddon.

The solution: Break them up.

Some are doing it themselves. AIG is already voluntarily breaking itself up.

But I won't hold my breath waiting for other financial institutions to follow suit. There aren't many CEOs who would willingly forfeit portions of their empires.

So I have to agree with the new left-wing motto that if an institution is too big to fail, then it's too big to exist. And that sentiment should be enforced.

If the financial institutions won't break themselves up, the government should force them to.

How? Well, these bloated institutions are the result of the deregulation of the 1990s. Congress needs to re-regulate the industry.

And the new regulations need to be enforced.

Otherwise, there is nothing to prevent this same kind of economic catastrophe from happening again in the future.

03 March 2009

GOP hypocrisy on health care

President Obama has nominated Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In addition to the other challenges that Sebelius will face in this new role, I hope she will be able to implement the affordable health care for all which Obama has promised us. To that end, Sebelius will be working closely with Nancy-Ann Deparle, who will direct the White House Office for Health Reform.

Hopefully Obama's team will have better luck than the Clinton administration did in getting us universal health care, like people have in the rest of the industrialized world.

But it will be an uphill fight. With things like this, which provide for the public welfare, the Republicans always love to cry "socialism". And, in the case of nationalized health care, they like to warn the sheep that such a program would result in bureaucrats deciding what kinds of treatment you can and cannot have.

But that is exactly what we're dealing with today! Today it's the insurance company bureaucrats who are making the decisions on what kinds of treatment you can and cannot have. The insurance companies are in business to make money, so the less treatment they spring for -- at the expense of your health -- the richer the insurance executives become. In his movie "Sicko", Michael Moore brought us statements by former insurance company employees who were paid bonuses for denying claims that could save people's lives.

I hope that Obama, Sebelius, and Deparle will find a way to take those third parties out of the mix and leave health care decisions to the people and our doctors. However, my research suggests that the Obama administration will leave the insurance companies in the mix. Fingers crossed in hopes that we at least clip their wings.

But, to do that, they will need to get some Republican buy-in.

And, as the New York Times recently observed, "Despite a record of working with Republicans in some areas, health care was one where [Sebelius] often had trouble forging bipartisan agreement. She tried raising cigarette taxes to pay for health care for the poor but was rebuffed by a Republican Legislature. She promoted universal health care but never reached that goal. And she proposed consolidating health care programs, but lawmakers made sure she could not control the new independent authority."

Those "Christian" Republicans would rather support the cigarette industry that kills than support the health of the American people.

So this won't be an easy battle to win.

But we have to try, and hopefully our side will win. After all, it's one of the things that the American people voted for in November. And many of those Republicans will be up for reelection very soon.

02 March 2009

Hershey moves 260 U.S. jobs to Mexico

Life is not so sweet these days for workers at the Hershey candy factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they make York peppermint patties and other treats.

After 23 years in Reading, Hershey is moving 260 jobs to Mexico to take advantage of the cheaper labor south of the border.

This is exactly the kind of thing we do not need in the current economic climate. We need to see companies putting Americans back to work, not giving more of our jobs away to our cheaper foreign counterparts.

President Obama's proposed budget would end tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs to other countries. If, of course, the Republicans let that happen. Meantime, however, it's too late for all those men and women who spent more than two decades making those wonderful peppermint patties.

The cost of labor will go down, but surely the price of a peppermint patty will stay the same. The profits can then make the rich corporate executives even richer.

It seems that the American dream today is available only to the rich.

01 March 2009

Paying taxes then vs. now

As I write this, I am planning to spend some time today on TurboTax, preparing and filing my 2008 income tax returns.

And I realize that it feels different this year.

I used to resent paying my taxes each year.

I resented the fact that my tax dollars would be used to fund George W. Bush's an unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq.

I resented the fact that my tax dollars would be used to pay the salaries of torturers.

I resented the fact that my tax dollars would be used to pay the war profiteers like Blackwater and KBR, who terrorize the Iraqi civilians and endanger our troops.

I resented the fact that my tax dollars would be used to keep the prisons running at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and an unknowable number of black sites, under conditions that violate the Geneva conventions and human rights law.

And I resented the fact that my tax dollars would be used to manipulate scientific data in favor of the corporations that pollute our air and rape our planet.

The Obama administration won't be perfect. No administration is. But I feel better this year, knowing that my tax dollars will be spent on constructive endeavors, not destructive ones.