31 December 2009

The mounting costs of Afghanistan -- and for what?

Yesterday was not a good day for Westerners in Afghanistan.

First, a suicide bomber killed eight CIA officers at a base near the border with Pakistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Meanwhile, four Canadian soldiers and a Canadian female journalist were killed in an explosion in Kandahar.

This is what we get for continuing our occupation of Afghanistan. It's the fate of any and all of the nations that have tried to occupy Afghanistan over the centuries. It just doesn't work.

So can someone tell me why we're still there, and why Obama is going to send even more of our young people into Afghanistan with targets on their backs, even though al-Qaeda no longer has any significant presence in that country?

Oh, yeah -- we need to prop up the corrupt Karzai government. That's apparently a wiser use of our tax dollars than spending them here at home on job creation, education, or health care.

God bless America.

30 December 2009

Doctors Without Borders: Top 10 humanitarian crises of 2009

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.

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

Unrelenting violence stalks civilians throughout eastern DR Congo
"Throughout 2009, the civilians suffered continuous violence from different armed groups in eastern Congo. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands of women, children, and, sometimes, men were raped and hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. Guerilla warfare has replaced armed clashes in North Kivu where combatants spread terror by looting and burning houses in reprisals against the perceived support of communities to different factions..."

Somalis endure violence and lack of access to health care
"In 2009, the Somali population continued to fall victim to indiscriminate violence, while severe drought plagued parts of the country. Millions of people urgently require health care, yet the enormous gap between the needs of Somalis and the humanitarian response on the ground continues to widen. Ongoing abductions and killings of international and Somali aid workers is thwarting the efforts of humanitarian organizations to respond, and the public health-care system remains in near total collapse..."

Precarious situation for people in southern Sudan and Darfur
"Medical humanitarian emergencies persisted throughout 2009 in several parts of Sudan. In addition to the ongoing crisis in Darfur, people in southern Sudan faced a deteriorating situation marked by escalating violence, disease outbreaks, and little or no access to health care..."

Thousands injured during the final stage of Sri Lanka's decades-long war
"As fighting raged earlier this year between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in northeastern Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of civilians were trapped for months in a war zone reduced to a narrow strip of jungle and beach, with no aid and limited medical care. A few months before the final phase of the country’s decades-long civil war, humanitarian aid agencies, including MSF, had to leave the areas most affected by the fighting, at the request of the government..."

Civilians suffer from violence & neglect in Pakistan
"Pakistan was convulsed by intense violence throughout 2009. Conflict between the Pakistani army and armed opposition groups in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) displaced more than two million people, while numerous bombings in major Pakistani cities killed hundreds and injured thousands. In the province of Balochistan, a long-running conflict continued beyond the media’s glare. Across the country, people suffer from a general lack of health care, and Pakistan features one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the region..."

Politics of aid leaves many Afghans cut off from humanitarian assistance
"As the war in Afghanistan escalated in 2009, Afghan civilians endured increasing levels of violence throughout the country. The insecurity has damaged an already beleaguered health-care system, leaving only a few poorly functioning hospitals and clinics in provincial capitals. Afghans in need of any health care must now make an impossible choice: risk traveling hundreds of miles through a war zone to seek a medical care or allow a condition to worsen until it becomes life-threatening only to arrive at a health structure where services are greatly diminished..."

Civilians trapped in violent war in Northern Yemen
"Five prior unsettled wars in Yemen’s northern Saada Governorate led to a sixth in 2009, the most intense so far. The Yemeni army ratcheted up its offensive against a rebel group drawn from the dominant community in the region, and the humanitarian fallout was unprecedented. Civilians and non-military targets such as hospitals were heavily affected by fighting. Hundreds of thousands were displaced and humanitarian assistance came to a virtual halt. A malnutrition emergency was discovered among children uprooted from their homes. For the first time, a foreign neighbour, Saudi Arabia, was drawn into the conflict, further complicating the plight of civilians..."

Woefully inadequate funding undermines gains in childhood malnutrition treatment
"An estimated 3.5 to 5 million children die each year from malnutrition-related causes -- one death every six seconds..."

Funding for AIDS treatment stagnating despite millions still in need
"In 2005, world leaders at the G8 summit in Scotland pledged support for universal AIDS treatment coverage by 2010, a promise that encouraged many African governments to launch ambitious treatment programs and that helped to expand coverage to more than 4 million people in developing countries. And now those same leaders are retreating from the pledges made, leaving governments and millions of people with HIV/AIDS at a dangerous loss..."

Lack of R&D and scale up of treatment plagues patients with neglected diseases
"More than 400 million people are at risk for the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) visceral leishmaniasis (kala azar), sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, and Buruli ulcer. The first three are among the deadliest of all the NTDs, and all four have been highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO) as especially troublesome due to treatment and diagnostic tools that are old, ineffective, or worst, simply non-existent, and with patient populations stuck in remote or insecure areas with little or no access to health care. Even worse, research and development (R&D) of new medicines and diagnostics is woefully under-funded. Unless there is a substantial increase in resources available for national control programs for active diagnosis and treatment of patients, investment in prevention initiatives, as well as dedicated R&D for new tools, victims of these will remain neglected..."

29 December 2009

ExxonMobil wins 2009 Corporate Hall of Shame award

Each year, the organization Corporate Accountability International (CAI) asks the public to submit nominees to the Corporate Hall of Shame. The winner for 2009 is ExxonMobil. The race was close, with Exxon neck-and-neck with AIG.

CAI describes ExxonMobil as "Big Oil's worst polluter, a 'leader' in stalling crucial action on climate change, and the most profitable corporation in U.S. history -- all built on the back of record oil prices and environmental devastation."

The organization goes on to say that in 2008 and 2009, Exxon has polluted our air and water at sites in Texas, Louisiana, California, and Massachusetts.

And, of course, we can recall how badly they handled the 1989 Valdez oil spill.

The Hall of Shame has a real impact, according to CAI: "When we challenge a corporation through the Hall of Shame, the impact is real. Under pressure from Corporate Accountability International, past Hall of Shame inductees -- HCA, the nation's largest hospital corporation, and Waste Management -- halted abusive practices and eventually earned their way out of the Hall of Shame!"

Help choose next year's inductee:

Click here to nominate up to three companies for the Corporate Hall of Shame 2010.

28 December 2009

New Yorker article on Willingham case is named most powerful essay of 2009

Earlier this year, we learned that the State of Texas probably executed an innocent man.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for an alleged arson that claimed the lives of his three daughters in 1991. However, a forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

This travesty of justice led reporter David Grann to write an excellent in-depth article about the case, which appeared in the September 7th edition of New Yorker and can be found online here.

And the article did not go unnoticed, apparently. David Brooks of the New York Times recently called Grann's article the most powerful essay he read this year:
"The most powerful essay I read this year was David Grann's 'Trial by Fire' in The New Yorker. Grann investigated the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for murdering his three children by setting their house on fire.

"In the first part of the essay, Grann lays out the evidence that led to Willingham's conviction: the marks on the floor and walls that suggested that a fire accelerant had been splashed around; the distinct smoke patterns suggesting arson; the fact that Willingham was able to flee the house barefoot without burning his feet.

"Then, in the rest of the essay, Grann raises grave doubts about that evidence. He tells the story of a few people who looked into the matter, found a miscarriage of justice and then had their arguments ignored as Willingham was put to death. Grann painstakingly describes how bogus science may have swayed the system to kill an innocent man, but at the core of the piece there are the complex relationships that grew up around a man convicted of burning his children. If you can still support the death penalty after reading this piece, you have stronger convictions than I do."
Many thanks to David Brooks for calling attention to the New Yorker article and the issue. As more and more Americans learn how the death penalty can go so terribly wrong, perhaps public support for that barbaric practice will finally start to wane.

27 December 2009

Army rescinds pregnancy ban

I recently wrote about a new policy in the U.S. Army under which U.S. troops in northern Iraq could face court-martial and jail time if they become pregnant or if they impregnate another service member.

But now there's good news: In a report for truthout.org, Jason Leopold reports that the new policy "was rescinded following an outcry from women’s groups and fierce criticism by four Democratic lawmakers."

Once again, raising hell has made a positive difference.

26 December 2009

With health care, don't let the perfect be the enemy

Early in the morning on December 24, the U.S. Senate passed its version of a health care reform bill. The next step is conference committee, where the Senate and House versions -- quite different each another -- will be reconciled and merged.

The Senate version contains a lot of compromises -- so many that some progressives feel the Senate should have let the bill die and then started again from scratch next year. But a new Senate bill would require the same 60 votes to break a filibuster, and those 60 votes would surely require similar compromises, since the cast of characters would be the same. To wait until after the 2010 elections would be to continue losing people every day who die from lack of health insurance. That would not be acceptable.

While the Senate bill is surely far from perfect (I would have liked a public option, and I don't like the health insurance mandate), it will at least fix a few of the major issues facing sick Americans today: As I understand it, the Senate bill would force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions, and it would prevent them from dropping your coverage when you get sick and start costing them money. It would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 31 million by 2019. In addition, the bill is fiscally responsible, and would allegedly reduce the deficit over time. Those are good steps in the right direction. And, as Bill Clinton said recently, "America can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

In a recent New York Times column, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman endorsed the bill despite its imperfections, looking instead to its long-term promise. He pointed out that "social insurance programs tend to start out highly imperfect and incomplete, but get better and more comprehensive as the years go by. Thus Social Security originally had huge gaps in coverage -- and a majority of African-Americans, in particular, fell through those gaps. But it was improved over time, and it's now the bedrock of retirement stability for the vast majority of Americans."

Another person I admire, Minnesota Senator Al Franken, has spoken out in favor of the Senate bill. Franken is a progressive, and I think he recognizes that passing this thing is better than doing nothing out of disappointment for not getting everything.

Even self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive hero if there ever was one, voted for this Senate bill, because he believes that it's better than nothing and will help a lot of people overall.

Perhaps most importantly, Vicki Kennedy, widow of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that her late husband would have wanted this bill to pass. And you can't accuse Ted Kennedy of not being a progressive.

So maybe the more radical progressives who condemn the Senate bill should take a step back and look at the big picture. A step in the right direction is better than no step at all. And, as Krugman noted, it would provide a foundation on which to build additional public health benefits in the future. This solid (or at least semi-solid) foundation is certainly better than trying to build something entirely different on a wobbly foundation that doesn't have the support it needs in both houses of Congress.

Do it for the 45,000 people who die in the U.S. each year due to lack of health insurance.

And do it for Ted Kennedy. May he rest in peace.

24 December 2009

Season's greetings

Today I want to use this space to wish everyone a very happy holiday season filled with joy, love, and laughter.

2009 has been an interesting and challenging year, and 2010 will surely be interesting and challenging as well. So let's take some time to unwind a bit, catch our breath, and then gear up for the year ahead.

We're all in this together.

Best wishes to you and yours,


23 December 2009

Mexico City legislature approves equal rights for gay couples

On Monday, the Mexico City legislature passed a bill designed to provide equal rights for same-sex couples.

The LA Times summarizes the the benefits of this new legislation:
Mexico City's initiative goes further than any other in Latin America by rewriting the law to redefine marriage as a "free union between two people," not only between a man and a woman. It gives homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual pairs, including the right to adopt, inherit, obtain joint housing loans and share insurance policies.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard is expected to sign it into law.

But there is a snag, unfortunately. The conservative National Action Party, led by Mexican president Felipe Calderon, plans to challenge the new law in court if Ebrard does not veto it.

Stay tuned for updates as it all unfolds. Meantime, kudos to Mexico City's lawmakers for taking this significant step towards equality.

22 December 2009

For U.S. soldiers in Iraq, pregnancy is now a punishable offense

Former military folks I've talked with have told me that it feels as though the military owns you. Their interest in your activities apparently extends beyond your on-the-job performance and into your personal life as well. And now I'm wondering if they've taken it a bit too far.

According to a new policy that went into effect on November 4, U.S. troops in northern Iraq could face court-martial and jail time if they become pregnant or if they impregnate another service member. This also applies to married couples who are serving in Iraq together. The Army wants them to take precautions to avoid pregnancy, since pregnancy would prevent the expectant soldier from completing her service in Iraq and would thereby "have a negative impact on the unit's ability to accomplish its mission."

And what if Mother Nature doesn't cooperate and a soldier gets pregnant anyway? An ABC News article points out that abortions are not performed in military hospitals, so a desperate soldier who finds herself pregnant might feel she must resort to a back-alley abortionist to terminate the pregnancy. Think about it: The Army won't let you have an abortion, so you either find some seedy abortion provider or face the prospect of jail time.

In an article for Think Progress, Amanda Terkel raises another important concern:
"Additionally, it's unclear what will happen to a woman who is raped and becomes pregnant. She would technically be eligible for jailtime, but if she is unable to identify her attacker(s), they may go free. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are severe problems in the military. In May, the Pentagon reported that it had 'received 2,923 reports of sexual assault across the military in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 2008. That's about a 9 percent increase over the totals reported the year before, but only a fraction of the crimes presumably being committed.'"
Will policies such as this prompt women to think twice before signing up for service? Time will tell. (And, if so, the Army loses those skill sets anyway.)

In the meantime, I'll second another point that Terkel makes in her article:
"With the military resorting to these extreme discriminatory tactics to retain soldiers with 'critical skills,' it's another reminder about why the Obama administration needs to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Amen. Don't have to worry about pregnancy among gay soldiers -- at least not from consensual sex.

But, of course, that doesn't solve the straight woman's problem.

So what's next -- throwing a soldier in jail for accidentally breaking an arm or a leg? After all, that could also impact the unit's collective performance. Gotta stop being careless and klutzy.

Methinks the Army may have just erected another slippery slope.

21 December 2009

The Salvation Army: It gets worse

It's that time of year again. At shopping centers everywhere, representatives from the Salvation Army, dressed in their paramilitary attire, ring their bells and aggressively invite your holiday donations. And I always see people eagerly throwing money into their big red kettles. I suspect that most of these generous individuals aren't aware of what their dollars are actually funding.

Last year I wrote a column titled "The Salvation Army's red kettle of trouble", in which I outlined the Salvation Army's long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, and intolerance. An excerpt:
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.
In the year since I wrote that piece, I have heard from several people who have shared their own negative experiences with the Salvation Army. Their stories have reinforced -- and even worsened -- my own impressions of the organization.

A retired U.S. military officer contacted me after considering the Salvation Army for his charitable donations. He wrote:
"I'm glad I came upon your article about the Salvation Army. I have been considering leaving my worldly goods to them because I thought they did nothing but good. I had second thoughts when I was late in answering their charitable request. I have since found many disturbing facts about the Salvation Army."
A former Salvation Army volunteer from Canada shared his experience with some ethical issues:
"Everyone [at the Salvation Army] liked me, because I also went to the service on Sundays. I am a believer in God. After 4 weeks [as a Salvation Army volunteer], I noticed whatever came in the back door for donation, for the poor, also left through the back door, and never reached the vulnerable or needy. All the good stuff the volunteers took.

"I complained to one of the Salvation Army workers, That this should not be happening so close to Christmas. I was told to keep quiet, because the Major and some of the volunteers had an understanding. I was told to look the other way. I tried to ignore it, but it became very hard, especially when a local business donated six big boxes of clothes and shoes for children. All went missing.

"I complained again, and now I was labeled a troublemaker. In the end, I was told to leave."
But by far the most compelling response I got was from an anonymous emailer who contacted me through a Yahoo account, probably accessed via a public library or other community Internet resource. This woman, who signed the email message simply as "Feeling helpless", wrote:
"I am a homeless woman living at the Salvation Army women's shelter. Can you help me expose the Salvation Army? I have so much to tell you but I can not do it by email."
Unfortunately, no other contact information was included, and my attempts at follow-up seem to have fallen through, but hopefully she received my suggestion that she contact the appropriate authorities and the local media for immediate help in exposing and addressing whatever issues she was facing. This woman clearly needed more help than I alone can provide through my own writing and activism. I hope that her situation has since improved.

The bottom line is this: While the Salvation Army may have done some good work over the years in providing assistance to the poor, the addicted, and the marginalized, their methods and practices are not ones that I approve of. There are many other nonprofit organizations out there that provide similar services in a more ethical manner.

And, if you're a Christian, consider this: The ironic thing about the Salvation Army's practices is that they do all that while labeling themselves as "Christian". But think about it: If Jesus were here today, he surely would not approve of their methods.

So please think twice before tossing your spare change into their red kettles of trouble. Think about what you would be supporting with your hard-earned cash.

Happy holidays.

19 December 2009

Thinking of the homeless in winter

As I write this, a major snowstorm is blanketing the east coast. There's already an inch or more on the ground here in the outskirts of Philadelphia, and we're looking at local accumulations of up to 18 inches or more by the time this storm wraps up tomorrow morning.

I don't like snow. Sure, it's pretty, but it's not so practical. I don't like shoveling it, and I don't like driving in it. I don't like the thought of having to spend my day tomorrow digging my car out of a foot and a half of it.

But at least I have a warm home in which to spend this snowy day, and plenty of good food in the kitchen. Unfortunately, some aren't so lucky. I'm talking about the homeless, whose numbers have grown since the start of the foreclosure crisis last year. For them, the snow isn't merely an inconvenience, as it is for me. For them, in these days when the homeless outnumber the available beds in shelters, it can be a matter of life and death.

Why does it have to be this way in the United States of America?

Why are there so many homeless people huddling around steam grates in snowy alleyways today while fat-cat CEOs in this country rake in millions of dollars even as they abuse their power at the expense of the workers and the public at large?

Is a CEO's life really worth so much more than the life of that less fortunate homeless child who today has no shelter or food?

Rhetorical questions all, of course. But necessary ones, really.

18 December 2009

It's not because Tiger is black

I don't care about Tiger Wood's personal life, and so I had no plans to write about it. But now I must.

Sitting on a train yesterday, I overheard a conversation between the middle-aged couple sitting behind me. They were discussing the Tiger Woods controversy.

The woman mentioned the news that Tiger's wife was taking their children to her native country of Sweden of the holidays.

The man's response made me want to gag: "Good! Hopefully she learned her lesson," he said. "That's what she gets for marrying a colored guy."

Yes, he used the word "colored". In 2009. On the east coast. I guess old-fashioned prejudices live on even here in the modern urban environment.

I found myself wondering if this man knows of any white guys who have cheated on their wives. If he reads the papers or listens to the evening news, certainly he's aware of the pasty likes of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, evangelical former pastor Ted Haggard, and former U.S. Senator Larry Craig, all of whose marital infidelities are well documented. And they are just the more high-profile tip of the big white iceberg of Caucasian infidelity.

A 2005 article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy titled Infidelity in Committed Relationships II: A Substantive Review, by Adrian J. Blow and Kelley Hartnett, noted that "African Americans and Whites do not differ in terms of lifetime incidence of infidelity."

But, unfortunately, some people will still not let the facts get in the way of their bigotry.

17 December 2009

Good news: Some children of haters turn out OK

So often I see pictures of demonstrations by white supremacists in which their children are right there spewing the same kind of hate as their parents. It's what they've been taught. It's all they know.

Fortunately, however, not all children of haters grow up to be haters themselves. Some rise above the brainwashing to think for themselves and choose tolerance over hate. Some even fight back against their racist parents. This was recently confirmed in a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and fights against discrimination.

It was refreshing and inspiring to read the several case histories of children who grew up to reject their parents' lifestyle of hate and intolerance.

>> Read the report: Children of Hate

16 December 2009

DC City Council approves same-sex marriage

Another step forward for gay rights:

Yesterday, the Washington, DC, City Council voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the district. Mayor Adrian Fenty has indicated that he will sign the bill.

Once it's signed, Congress has 30 days to intervene before the new law takes effect. But, according to CNN, "It is considered unlikely that the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill will block the bill."

Kudos to the DC City Council for voting for marriage equality for all the District's citizens, not just the straight ones.

15 December 2009

Supremes refuse to hear Gitmo torture case (because prisoners are not "persons")

Again the torturers get away with it.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case against Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officers for ordering torture and religious abuse at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The case was brought by four British citizens who had spent more than two years at Guantanamo and were returned to the UK in 2004.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the Obama administration "had asked the court not to hear the case," and "the Court let stand an earlier opinion by the D.C. Circuit Court which found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a statute that applies by its terms to all 'persons' did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo, effectively ruling that the detainees are not persons at all for purposes of U.S. law."

Yes, you read that right: The Supremes let stand the notion that the detainees are not persons under the law!

And again Rumsfeld and his henchmen get away with torture.

God bless America.

>> Read the CCR's press release on this case.

14 December 2009

Rights groups call for Justice Department probe into Mumia Abu-Jamal case

December 9th marked the anniversary of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal continues to sit in prison for the crime, which he maintains that he did not commit.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal by Abu-Jamal, thereby letting his murder conviction stand. The appeal argued that some blacks had been unfairly excluded from the jury. Prosecutors are currently seeking to reinstate Abu-Jamal's death sentence in follow-up to a 2008 order by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeal for a new capital sentencing hearing over concerns that the original jury was improperly instructed.

At this point, it appears that Abu-Jamal is running out of options. And so his supporters are taking the matter to the U.S. Justice Department. And this is not just the work of a few radical black revolutionaries.

In July, the 95th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed an emergency resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the cases of Abu Jamal and some other prisoners.

A coalition of organizations and activists followed the NAACP's lead and delivered more than 25,000 letters to the Justice Department on November 12, calling for a civil rights investigation into the Abu-Jamal case. This was accompanied by a press conference that included representatives of the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Riverside Church Prison Ministry, and other groups.

Amnesty International is no newcomer to the case. In 2000, after an extensive investigation, the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights organization concluded that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings." Amnesty expressed concerns about judicial bias and hostility, police misconduct, and the apparent withholding of evidence from the jury. Amnesty called for a new trial "in a neutral venue, where the case has not polarized the public as it has in Philadelphia."

Abu-Jamal's supporters insist that he is innocent, that he was set up, and that racial bias and witness coercion had played a big part in an unfair trial. They also point out that Faulkner was killed with a .44 caliber gun, while the gun that Abu-Jamal was licensed to carry as a nighttime taxi driver was a .38 caliber.

At the same time, there are many people here in the Philadelphia area, and probably elsewhere, who want to believe that Abu-Jamal is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and who can't wait for his execution. They say that his execution will finally bring "closure" to Faulkner's family and his colleagues in Philadelphia Police Department.

But I ask them this: How can true closure be achieved unless we are absolutely certain that justice was served in a fair and unbiased manner?

Without that, we're not looking at justice, but rather at a case of knee-jerk revenge against a conveniently controversial character.

And that, I contend, is just not good enough.

13 December 2009

Houston elects openly gay mayor

Good news for LGBT equality: The people of Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., situated in a decidedly red state, have just elected their first openly gay mayor. Mayor-elect Annise Parker is also only the second woman in Houston's history to be elected mayor.

This news is the result of a runoff election that was held yesterday since neither Parker nor her challenger Gene Locke had won more than 50 percent of the vote in the November 3 election.

While this is good news, the City of Houston and the State of Texas still have a long way to go to achieve true equality for its LGBT population. As CNN points out, "a few years ago, Houston rejected a referendum to offer benefits to same-sex partners of city workers. Also, the city sits in a state where gay marriage is against the law."

But each small step in the right direction is nonetheless worth celebrating.

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Parker. And kudos to the people of Houston.

12 December 2009

White House party crashers to plead the Fifth

A Congressional committee that oversees the Secret Service has voted to subpoena the White House party crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. And their lawyer has indicated that they will plead the Fifth.

The Fifth Amendment allows people to remain silent rather than incriminate themselves.

And that implies that their answers to Congress's questions would likely incriminate the Salahis.

Perhaps they are finally coming to realize that all of life is not just a big reality TV show -- especially where our government and White House security are concerned.

11 December 2009

Nobel irony

Yesterday, President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

This came just nine days after Obama announced that he would be sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, like sheep to the slaughter, in a major escalation of that unnecessary, ongoing, needlessly long-standing conflict. In fact, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Obama tried to justify it as necessary.

Call me cynical, but it strikes me as somewhat ironic.

Call me idealistic, Mr. President, but I don't think your war is necessary at all.

I think war in general is a misguided physical reaction to a difference in world views and philosophies that would be much better addressed via a meeting of the minds rather than a meeting of the fists, missiles, and bombs.

I think the prize would have been better deserved had Obama instead announced a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Of course, the Nobel Prize Committee could not have foreseen this when they cast their votes earlier this year. And so I suspect some crow sandwiches were on the menu in Norway yesterday.

10 December 2009

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 61st anniversary of the UDHR, as I have done for the past few years, 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 2009

Sarah Palin's Hawaiian adventure

I've got to hand it to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. She's a gift that keeps on giving.

Even though she no longer holds a public office, Palin still keeps providing us all -- bloggers, pundits, comedians, talk show hosts, and interested laypersons -- with a steady stream of material.

And her latest is a doozie.

As you may know, Palin attended five different colleges before receiving her Bachelor's Degree. (It only took me two colleges in around the same era. Meow.)

And her father may have shone some light on why she moved around a lot in the academic world:

Palin's father, Chuck Heath, had told reporters who biographed his daughter that Sarah had left her first college, Hawaii Pacific University, because, as the Huffington Post explains it, "the presence of so many Asians and Pacific Islanders made her uncomfortable."

OK, so xenophobia is not uncommon in America, especially in those parts outside the immediate east and west coasts of the continental nation. And Alaska might arguably be a bit farther removed from the cultural centers of our nation than even, say, Kansas.

But it boils down to this: If you can't handle the ethnic diversity of Hawaii, you certainly can't handle the ethnic diversity of the rest of the United States of America. (Just have her spend a day in Manhattan, including cab rides to all the major neighborhoods of that fair city.)

And if you cannot handle the ethnic diversity of this nation, then you shouldn't seek national office.

And even if you do, our growing minority population will surely vote you down. Hopefully.

08 December 2009

10 companies to avoid this holiday season

Air America has dug through The Blue Pages: A Directory of Companies Rated By Their Politics And Practices and made a list of the top ten companies you might want to avoid this holiday season.

Here is a summary:

1. The Children's Place: "This is one of the few companies in the book with no redeeming qualities listed. It gets its products from places with human rights and labor violations..."

2. Hanes: "[W]ell-documented human and labor rights abuses..."

3. JC Penney: "[S]weatshop practices and racial discrimination..."

4. The Limited Brands: (Includes Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, and other brands.) "[S]ourced from countries with widespread, well-documented human and labor rights abuses..."

5. IBM: "It's been sued for improperly converting employees['] pension plans and for exposing them to toxic chemicals. Also, it's one of those companies being sued for aiding and abetting South Africa's apartheid regime."

6. Albertson's: "Intimidates workers into refusing unions and, always a classic, allows its pharmacists to refuse to fill morning after pill prescriptions."

7. Chiquita: "They've threatened unionized workers and have been accused of using pesticides which the U.S. has banned..."

8. L'Oreal: "[T]hey've been accused of using chemicals banned in some countries and tried to hide that fact..."

9. Target: "D+ on Green America's score card and an F on the 2006 NAACP Economic Reciprocity Report Initiative report, besides which it had to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit..."

10. Walmart: "It's so obvious..."

>> Read all the dirty details.

07 December 2009

Did Texas just execute a mentally retarded man?

On December 3, Texas executed Bobby Wayne Woods, who had been convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl. His was certainly a horrific crime, but I'm wondering if the punishment was illegal as well.

You see, Woods's IQ has been measured at anywhere from the 60s to the 80s. And, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that execution of the mentally retarded amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The generally accepted cut-off for mental impairment is an IQ of 70. So did Woods qualify as mentally retarded? Some tests said yes, other tests said no.

But the state of Texas apparently decided it would be best to err on the side of death.

05 December 2009

Amnesty's global write-a-thon starts today

Each year, in the days surrounding Human Rights Day -- December 10 -- Amnesty International holds a global write-a-thon, in which activists send "a tidal wave of letters and postcards on behalf of courageous individuals around the world who are being imprisoned or persecuted for their beliefs."

The 2009 write-a-thon begins today, December 5, and continues through December 13.

This year, letters will go out on behalf of:

• Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate from Burma who has been imprisoned for 14 of the last 20 years;

• Mohammed Mohammed Hassan Odaini, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who remains jailed despite being cleared for release over 2 years ago;

• Rita Mahato, a health worker from Nepal who has received death threats for seeking to protect women from violence;

and more.

Get involved:

>> Pledge to participate in this year's write-a-thon.

>> Download case sheets and sample letters for all 10 cases for this year's write-a-thon.

>> Read success stories from previous write-a-thons. Our letters really do make a difference.

04 December 2009

Will there be jobs? Or will the foxes continue to guard that henhouse too?

President Obama inherited a huge mess from his predecessor -- very expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a society in which 45,000 people die each year from lack of affordable health care, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Some 17 million American children -- more than one in five across the U.S. -- lack food security. The official unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and unofficial estimates for the actual rate are much, much higher.

So we can't expect Obama to wave a magic wand and solve all the nation's (and the world's) problems during his first year in office. But the White House is not a one-man show, and Obama has all his various teams of advisors to help him, each in their respective areas of expertise.

But, unfortunately, he is getting his economic advice from people like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, who actually helped to create this economic crisis, and who so far this year have been focusing on bailing out Wall Street while ignoring the plight on Main Street.

And so jobs remain scarce and the unemployment rate continues to climb.

Finally, yesterday, Obama hosted a jobs summit at the White House.

The Washington Post reports that "Obama says he does not have the money for the plan many of his liberal supporters say packs the biggest employment punch -- direct federal investment in job creation. Instead, he came close to embracing a to-do list for the private sector that sounded rather familiar: weatherization, small-business incentives, regulatory and other help for exporters, and tax credits for employers who hire new workers."

So again corporate America gets to call the shots. These are the same corporations that continue to outsource their work to cheaper overseas labor as our unemployment rate spirals out of control.

And Obama chooses to continue throwing money at Afghanistan rather than investing in job creation programs focused on public works, infrastructure, and green technology. That surely makes the war profiteers very happy. I guess that's one sector that might still be hiring.

03 December 2009

Bhopal: 25 years of injustice - and what you can do

Something terrible happened 25 years ago. And justice has yet to be served.

At around midnight on December 3, 1984, there was a catastrophic explosion from a gas leak at a Union Carbine pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. More than 7,000 Bhopalis were killed in the explosion, and 15,000 more died later from their injuries.

The incident left behind a derelict plant site full of toxic chemicals that have never been effectively cleaned up. More than 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems. And the water there is still toxic.

Union Carbide is now a fully owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical. The company has still not owned up to its responsibility.

According to Amnesty International, "the full facts of the leak and its impact have never been properly investigated. No-one has ever been held to account for what happened at Bhopal and efforts by survivors’ organizations to use the Indian and US court systems to see justice done and gain adequate redress have so far been unsuccessful."

And again, big business gets away with murder.

What you can do:

Call on Dow Chemical to take action and address the legacy of Bhopal.

Call on the Indian Prime Minister to end 25 years of injustice for the people of Bhopal.

(To take these actions, you will need to register first on the Amnesty International website, if you haven't already done so.)

02 December 2009

More war but still no jobs

It sounds as though President Obama plans to keep us in Afghanistan through most, if not all, of his first term. Is he gambling with his own political future even as he is gambling with our tax dollars and -- more importantly -- our soldiers' lives?

In his December 1st address to the nation from the West Point Military Academy, Obama shared his plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan for at least a year and a half, and then maybe start bringing some of them home.

All this so we can continue to prop up and defend the corrupt Karzai government, and train the Afghan security forces to do their job, even though those same Afghan security forces have refused to step up to the job over the past eight years. Duh.

And what will this cost us?

Our military presence in Afghanistan has cost us almost $233 billion and the lives of almost 1,000 U.S. troops so far.

Our continuing presence there, especially when escalated, will cost us many, many more of our tax dollars and countless more U.S. and Afghan lives.

Is continuing to pursue the Afghan quagmire really the best use of our tax dollars while so many Americans are unemployed and/or losing our homes to foreclosure?

Is continuing to pursue the Afghan quagmire really the best use of our tax dollars while so many Americans are dying from lack of health care?

Is continuing to pursue the Afghan quagmire really the best use of our tax dollars while we desperately need to invest in green technology development to overcome our dependence on foreign oil?

Is continuing to pursue the Afghan quagmire really the best use of our tax dollars when some 17 million American children -- more than one in five across the U.S. -- lack food security?

Is that what you meant when you talked about freedom last night, Mr. President? Freedom for whom, exactly?

And what did you mean when you said that we are "not as innocent as we were when Roosevelt was president"?! I'm sure you didn't mean for it to sound so condescending. If "innocence" passed the New Deal, then please bring it on now!

That said, I hope that Obama's plans for Afghanistan turn out to be successful. I don't want our president or our troops to fail. But, for all the reasons outlined above, and probably more that don't come immediately to mind, I will continue to disagree that this was the best use of our resources.

01 December 2009

On World AIDS Day, no cure yet, but good news on treatment

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. And, while we still have no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are still some reasons to celebrate this year.

According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, new HIV infections have declined by 17% worldwide over the past eight years.

Also, per the same report, there are more people living longer with HIV than ever before, due to the benefits of antiretroviral therapy. And the number of AIDS-related deaths has declined by over 10% over the past five years as more people gained access to long-term treatment.

Here in the U.S., President Obama's recent lifting of the travel and immigration ban on people with HIV/AIDS was a big step forward in overcoming the stigma of the disease and the discrimination that its victims face.

This good news is no reason for complacency, however. After all, every day we still have 7,397 people contracting HIV. That's 308 every hour.

We must not rest until the disease is eradicated. That that will require a cure. In the meantime, however, we need to continue to work on education, prevention, and treatment worldwide.