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Midday Open Thread

January 8th, 2010 admin No comments
  • Well, isn’t this special — the attempted murder of nearly 300 Americans is good for Pete Hoekstra (R-MI):

    GINGRICH: In Michigan, I think Pete Hoekstra is putting together such a good campaign and has gotten such a boost out of having been intelligence committee chairman now with the attempted attack on Detroit that Pete really is becoming a dominant figure in the state.

    If by dominant, Gingrich means the disgust normal people felt at seeing Hoekstra trying to cash in on the attempted bombing, then yes, it was great.

  • How much would you pay to hear Sarah Palin wax poetic to teabaggers? And how much does it cost to get her to talk to “real” Americans?

    This morning, I asked whether Sarah Palin’s decision to speak at the Tea Party National Convention — while eschewing the much higher-profile Conservative Political Action Conference — had anything to with money. Conservative blogger Dan Riehl is reporting, based on “forwarded communications,” that Palin is making at least $75,000 and at most $100,000 for her speech. Tickets for the speech along are going for $349 — tickets for the whole convention are $549.

  • You can listen to radio ads for John McCain’s (R-AZ) reelection campaign here. Please listen and then mock liberally.
  • And then check out a tweet from McCain that will have your eyes rolling to the point of pain.
  • It figures:

    “States with the most to gain under health care reform are overwhelmingly represented by Republicans, while those states likely to do worse are much more likely to have Democratic senators,” conclude the study’s authors. From their findings:

    [T]he states most likely to “win” as a result of health care reform are Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. All of these states have a relatively high number of uninsured and all are in the bottom half of states in terms of cost under both financing mechanisms.

  • Sally Quinn’s column in today’s WaPo is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Village mores. – Jake McIntyre
  • Does the inauguration of the Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline that connects Iran’s northern Caspian region with Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields signal the faint notes of a Russia-China-Iran symphony? – Meteor Blades
  • Have you heard of the death star that could wipe out the earth? Well, don’t start panicking just yet. –DarkSyde
  • Alabama GOP gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne gets caught up in a latter-day impromptu Scopes trial, as he is forced to recant his earlier insinuation that there might be some parts of the Bible that are not “literally true”. This led to a mini-kerfluffle where some outraged citizens threatened not to shop at the Piggly Wiggly, whose executive officer was appearing at a press conference endorsing Byrne. –Steve Singiser
  • To steal from an old gag at Sports Illustrated magazine, here is This Week’s Sign of the Apocalypse: Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas is paying The Salahi’s (better known as the WH party crashers) to headline a party at one of their nightclubs. The gig is going to pay them $5000. –Steve Singiser
  • 19-year-old single mom/apparent political phenom Bristol Palin is opening her very own public relations and political consulting firm, BSMP, LLC. Family (and now business) representatives say Bristol does PR as a Candie’s Foundation “Teen Ambassador” on the prevention of teen pregnancy. No, really. Others say it’s a great way for the family to legally pocket the lucre now collecting dust (and interest) in the coffers of SarahPAC. – David Waldman


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , ,

Robert Greenwald: Time to Rethink Afghanistan

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

It’s the economy, stupid, with help from the New York Times. The war in Afghanistan continues to escalate, and more are killed each day — CIA, soldiers, and civilians in Afghanistan.

And while the United States spends billions the Chinese are building industry, jobs and good will.

As the Times detailed, the Chinese government is focused on strengthening its access to resources it needs to keep its industry functioning, and providing jobs for the people in Afghanistan. China is focused on effective security rather then invading, occupying and wasting billions.

Mining cooper and coal, providing work for Afghans, building up infrastructure in the country, all being done by the Chinese.

It is a critical time for the United States to break the grip of a philosophy that the military has a solution for social, economic and education problems.

In my time in Kabul I was struck by the desperate needs that the third poorest country in the world has. They are evident on every block, in every home, in every school. And yet, unlike the Chinese, we are spending a million per troop to occupy.

Join us at Rethink Afghanistan. We need help from everyone to break the hold of military thinking.

More on China


Categories: World Tags: , , , , ,

Johann Hari: As A Dark Year Ends, Remember the Inspirational Peoople of 2009

December 30th, 2009 admin No comments

It was a dark year, 2009, sealing a dark decade. It began with the world in economic free-fall and the Gaza Strip being bombed to pieces (again). We watched the vicious crushing of a democratic uprising in Iran, a successful far-right coup in Honduras, and the intensification of the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It all ended at Brokenhagen, where the world’s leaders breezily decided to carry on cooking the planet.

But in the midst of all this there were extraordinary points of light, generated by people who have refused to drink the cheap sedative of despair. The left-wing newsman Wes Nisker said in his final broadcast: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” I want – in the final moments of 2009 – to celebrate the people who, this year, did just that: the men and women who didn’t slump, but realised that the worse the world gets, the harder people of goodwill have to work to put it right.

Inspiration One: Denis Mukwege. The war in the Congo is the worst since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe: it has killed more than 5 million people and counting. As I witnessed when I reported on the war in 2006, the violence has been turned primarily on the country’s women: one favourite tactic is to gang-rape a woman and then shoot her in the vagina. For years these women were simply left to die in the bush. But one man – a soft-spoken Congolese gynaecologist with a gentle smile – decided to do something mad, something impossible. With scarcely any equipment and no funding, he set up a secret clinic for these women.

He was told he would be killed by the militias for undoing their “work”. The threats said his own daughters would be murdered if he didn’t stop. Everyone thought he was mad. But he knew it was the right thing to do. He became the Oscar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes, saving the lives of tens of thousands of women. In the midst of a moral Chernobyl, he showed that the best human instincts can survive and, in time, prevail. It is rumoured he was number two in the Nobel Committee’s list for the Peace Prize. He should have won.

Inspiration Two: Liu Xiaobo. A year ago, a petition began to circulate in China demanding that its one billion citizens be allowed to think and speak freely. “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” it said. As if they were the Irony Police, the Chinese authorities promptly arrested the authors and many of its signatories. One of the most articulate and brave – Liu Xiaobo – was sentenced to 11 years in a re-education camp for “subversion”.

The Chinese authorities believe human rights are a “plot” to weaken China. In fact, China will be immeasurably stronger when it stops persecuting its citizens when they try to develop their minds and defend each other.

Liu is not alone. Hu Jia is in prison for warning about China’s hidden Aids crisis. Huang Qi is in jail for warning that the poor construction of school buildings in Sichuan – because the builders bribed the local authorities – meant hundreds of children died unnecessarily in the earthquake. There is a long list, and for every prisoner, thousands more are too frightened to speak. But these dissidents stand as models of the truly great nation China will be one day, when it stops persecuting these people and starts electing them.

Inspiration Three: Evo Morales and Malalai Joya. Although they were born thousands of miles apart, these two people embody what real democracy can mean. When Evo Morales was a child, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia weren’t even allowed to set foot in the capital’s central square, which was reserved for white people. Today, he is the President, and for the first time in his country’s history, he is diverting the billions raised from the country’s natural resources away from the pockets of US corporations. It is building schools and hospitals for people who had nothing, and poverty is being eradicated in a stunning burst of progress.

Malalai Joya is the youngest woman ever to be elected in Afghanistan, and she was swiftly banned from taking her seat because she kept speaking up for the people who elected her – against the violent fundamentalist warlords our governments have put in charge of the country. They keep trying to murder her, but she says: “I don’t fear death, I fear remaining silent in the face of injustice … I am ready, wherever and whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.”

She and Morales are authentic democrats, in contrast to the parody of it offered by Hamid Karzai and – too often – our own leaders.

Inspiration Four: Amy Goodman and the team at Democracy Now! It’s not hard to despair of the US at the moment, when even the silver-tongued King of Change seems unable to get real healthcare and cuts in warming gases through his corrupt Senate, and he is ramming harder into Afghanistan. A large part of the problem is the atrocious US broadcast media. The TV news is one lengthy blowjob for the powerful, seeing everything from the perspective of the rich, and ridiculing arguments for progress. It serves its owners and its advertisers by poisoning every political debate with death-panel distractions and silence for the things that matter.

But there is one remarkable exception. Broadcasting from a tiny studio in New York, on a budget raised entirely from its viewers, comes Democracy Now! Every day, the hour-long broadcast – hosted by the wonderful Amy Goodman – tells the real news. While the nightly news fills up with junk and gossip, they calmly, cleverly explain what is really happening. For example, while ABC and NBC were fixating on Tiger Woods’ genitals, Democracy Now! was in Copenhagen, explaining how the world’s rainforests were being stiffed. They, at least, can tell the trees from the Woods. It is the best single source for making sense of the world that I know – and it is a model of what the American media could be if it treated its viewers with respect.

Inspiration Five: Peter Tatchell. Long before it was trendy to support gay equality, there was Peter Tatchell, taking huge risks for what was right. As one of the pioneers of direct action to oppose bigotry against gay people, he was never afraid to put his own body in the path of bigots. In 1999, he performed a citizen’s arrest on the murderous Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, and was beaten so badly by his bodyguards he has never recovered. This year, he went to Moscow to defend the gay rights march there from viciously anti-gay police, and was beaten again. This year, he announced he had to withdraw from running as the Green candidate in Oxford East because the damage was so severe.

Almost unbelievably, some people who claim to be on the left have attacked Tatchell because he criticises homophobes who happen to be black, Arab or Asian in exactly the same way he criticises people who are white. (He tried to arrest Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger for war crimes just as surely as he tried to get Mugabe.) But the real racism would be to hold non-white people to lower standards, as if their bigotries were less real or less deadly. A person who chooses to persecute gay people is monstrous and should be stopped – whatever their skin colour, and whatever their culture. Tatchell has dedicated his life to that cause, and he deserves our endless thanks, not dishonest abuse.

What do they all have in common, all these people? When Mukwege built his clinic, they said he’d be dead within a week. When Tatchell said gay people could be equal, they laughed in his face. When Morales and Joya ran for office, they said people like them could never win. They dismiss Liu and Goodman now; but their arguments will win, in time.

They show that when the world gets worse, that’s not a reason to slink away in despair. On the contrary: it’s a reason to work harder and aim higher. As the essayist Rebecca Solnit says: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” That should be the epitaph for these remarkable people – and for 2009.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here.

He is also a contrbuting writer for Slate magazine. To read his latest article there, clck here.

You can follow Johann on Twiter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101


Blast from the Past. Gene Hasenfus: December 1986

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Twenty-three years ago, a complete unknown sprang into the international lime-light. His name was Eugene Hasenfus. Shot down Oct. 5, 1986, while kicking crated cargo to anti-government terrorists from a CIA plane over the back-country of Nicaragua, his capture by Sandinista militiamen led to the exposure of what would become known as the Iran-contra affair. Three other crewmen died in the crash, but Hasenfus, against orders, had borrowed his skydiver brother’s parachute and, luckily for him – his name in German means “rabbit’s foot” – it opened. He landed in a jungle where he would manage to evade a Sandinista militia patrol for less than 24 hours. Upon his arrival at the Managua airport, a Sandinista soldier smiled and asked the sunburned, grime-caked Hasenfus, “What now, Rambo?” With this auspicious event began what should have been the complete unraveling of the Reagan administration.  

José Fernando Canales, who shot down Hasenfus’s plane with a surface-to-air missile, leads his hapless captive through the jungle.

When it came to Central America, that administration, with its ex-CIA Vice President and neo-conservative hatchlings making their early moves to dominate U.S. foreign policy, no deceit was spared the American people. Whether it was Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua, we had your bold-faced lies, crafty lies, lies of the I-don’t-recall variety, revised memorandum lies, exaggerations, omissions, official misstatements, prevarications, phony redefinitions and historical revisions. Not to mention perjury.

From false cover stories about interdicting Sandinista arms shipments to Salvadoran rebels to denials about publishing how-to terrorist manuals, the Reagan-Bush administration observed no boundaries on fictional concoction. When, for example, the original leaders of the contras, the terrorist opposition to the Sandinistas, turned out to be too rough-edged for public consumption, a new set was selected and spit-shined into “freedom fighters.” They were helped in this by CIA-hired journalists in Honduras whose stories found their way back to the U.S. media, a place the CIA had been barred from putting journalists on the payroll since 1977. Various real journalists had for years been hearing hints of contra resupply missions, but they had repeatedly run into dead-ends and had been unable to find any major publications to publish their anonymously sourced, skimpily detailed stories. When queried about whether it was circumventing a congressional prohibition on aiding the contras, the White House denied, denied, denied.

Ultimately, sparked by Hasenfus’s capture and an anonymously sourced article in the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, it was incontrovertibly shown that the  government’s Central American policy had tendrils snaking all the way to Tehran, with huge profits from arms sales having accrued to ex-military and ex-CIA operatives. Several of the big dogs who engaged in this behavior necessitating those uncountable lies were pardoned by George H.W. Bush, who himself was a key player in the whole affair, but protected by “plausible denial.” One of those pardoned, neoconservative Elliott Abrams – who had been fined $50 and put on probation for his part in Iran-contra – was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy by George W. Bush in 2001.

You’d expect that officials with the moral calluses necessary for such lying would also have strong stomachs. On the contrary. Faced by encounters with the truth, administration always took a powder. Whether it was the World Court judging the legality of the CIA’s mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, or President Daniel Ortega criticizing Reagan at the United Nations, the administration ducked out the door. Every time one of the revolving-door ambassadors to Central America suggested diplomacy to resolve U.S.-Nicaraguan differences, the issue was avoided by replacing him. When journalists not on the CIA payroll, such as Ray Bonner, discovered massacres by death squads whose leaders had been trained in the United States, angry phone calls were made to their editors or publishers urging that they be removed from their assignments.

Hasenfus Joins Contra Resupply Effort

Having learned as a Marine how to kick guns and equipment out of CIA-owned Air America planes in Southeast Asia from 1960-65, the out-of-work Hasenfus signed up in June 1986 for the same duty over Nicaragua. His boss far up the secret chain of command was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who had also seen service in Vietnam as part of the infamous assassination program, Operation Phoenix. The colonel had a boss, too. After all, he worked for the National Security Council out of the White House basement. They called the contra resupply operation “Project Democracy.” Its planes were flown under the phantom front of Corporate Air Services, itself owned by the CIA’s Southern Air Transport based in Miami.

Every flight into Nicaraguan airspace added a $750 bonus to Hasenfus’s $3000 monthly salary. He had already made 10 trips. On the 11th, however, when a teenage anti-aircraft crew fired their Soviet-made surface-to-air missile and turned the plane into scrap, they killed pilot William Cooper, co-pilot Wallace Blaine Sawyer – both U.S. citizens –  and radio operator Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan. Hasenfus hit the silk and escaped with his life.

Within a day of his capture, every executive branch niche-clinger in Washington had disavowed any link to the downed mercenary and his plane’s cargo of 60 collapsible AK-47s rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots. Secretary of State George Shultz said the aircraft “was, for all we know, a plane hired by private people, apparently some of them American. … They had no connection with the U.S. government at all.” Yep. A maverick operation. Ring up retired Major General John Singlaub, some officials told reporters, fingering the right’s leading privateer. Singlaub denied it was his plane. And soon the scheme was being reported for what it was, a CIA and NSC operation from top to bottom, flown out of Honduras and El Salvador. As would also soon become known, the operation was financed by selling weapons to Iran as part of an arms-for-hostages deal with the ayatollah’s regime.

Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams was the only member of the administration who stood up for Hasenfus, without conceding that he worked for the government. He gamely praised him as an American hero. In the months ahead, it was a label Ronald Reagan would pin on Lt. Col. North.

But just as there had been no Fawn Hall on board to shred the C-123’s incriminating documents before they fell into Sandinista hands, there would be no Hasenfus doll. No Eugeneburger. No lucrative book contracts. No movie producers nosing around. No calls to run for high office. In short, none of the trappings of late 20th Century herodom.

Gene Hasenfus at his trial in November 1986.

Instead, the Sandinistas, following the example of their Yankee tormentors, coaxed every pint of public relations juice they could from their prisoner, finding him guilty of terrorism, violation of Nicaragua’s public security laws and conspiracy. The Reagan administration ridiculed the proceedings before the People’s Anti-Somocista Tribunal as a judicial parody. At the time, the court had tried 243 people without a single acquittal. But no court anywhere could have found Hasenfus innocent. At the end of the trial attended by Hasenfus’s wife and brother came the first hints that he would be shown mercy. One of the nine comandantes of the Sandinista leadership, Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto, called Hasenfus a “father” and “common citizen” who himself was a victim of the “irrational and unjust policy of the U.S. administration.”

Pleas for a pardon (aided by a swap for Sandinista soldiers held by the contras) were made by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Senator Chris Dodd. On a visit to Nicaragua, Dodd told President Ortega that Hasenfus would be helpful in the congressional investigation of illegal arms sales to Iran funding illegal arms deliveries to the contras. “I think he’s got something to say. He expressed a willingness to talk to members of the staff and the members of those committees,” Dodd said. “I think it would be worthwhile to get him home.” So after he had served just 32 days of his 30-year sentence, the Sandinistas packed up their propaganda windfall and sent Hasenfus back to Marinette, Wisconsin, in time to enjoy Christmas with his family, a lucky fellow indeed.

Hasenfus Falls on Hard Times

But expenses from the trial put his house at risk to the bank. On the phone in the months after his return, you could hear the stress in his family’s voices. He’s didn’t feel so lucky those days. So he sued his ex-employers – retired Major General Richard Secord and Secord’s partner, Albert Hakim, as well as three companies, including Corporate Air Services. He sued the government and lost.

So what happened? Why didn’t someone in the network of millionaire contra donors bail Hasenfus out? Could it have been because he told the truth?

He had worked with two CIA agents, Hasenfus said, one of whom he knew as “Max Gomez,” but who was actually Felix Rodriguez, a CIA operative who had been involved in the 1961 fiasco known as the “Bay of Pigs,” wore Ché Guevara’s watch taken from the guerrilla leader’s body in Bolivia in 1967, and in 1986 had become the liaison between the contras and North. The other went by the nom de guerre of “Ramon Medina.” His real name was Luis Posada Carriles, who, with Orlando Bosch, had planned the 1976 bombing of a Cubana plane carrying a fencing team to Venezuela. Seventy-three passengers and crew died. Hasenfus also told his captors that he knew more than 30 other people working for the resupply mission based at the Salvadoran Air Force Base in Ilopango.

In the view of the contra resupply network, it was bad enough that Hasenfus admitted to the world that he was working for the CIA, just as he had done in Vietnam earlier. But then he admitted that he was only doing it to pay his bills, not for patriotic reasons. Most unheroic.

If he had wanted sympathy from the promoters of the contra war he should have lied, just as they had done. Or, as his handlers who told him not to wear a parachute had apparently intended, he should have gone down with the plane. For telling the truth about his mission and his paltry pay, they turned their backs on him. Lt. Col. North, on the other hand, lied under oath, criminally obstructed a congressional committee, destroyed public records to foster a cover-up, and accepted money under the table. He wrapped himself tightly in the flag and emerged a heroic icon who continues nearly a quarter-century later to rake in the dough.

Despite the adverse effects of the Iran-contra affair whose exposure Hasenfus helped catalyze, deceit remained alive and well on U.S. Central America policy. In October 1987, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the original neoconservatives, gave a speech in Managua condemning the Sandinistas and reiterating what a high value she and the Reagan administration placed on democracy. She embraced opposition leaders, some of whom were still engaged at the time in blowing up schools and health clinics.

Six years previously, she was in Argentina praising and toasting the generals of that country’s oh-so-democratic military junta. They were at the time running their “dirty war” against dissidents, dropping them from helicopters into the Atlantic and adopting out their orphaned children to families friendly to the regime. She made no call for democracy. Hugged no opposition leaders. Shortly afterward, the CIA began paying some Argentine “specialists” to train the contras in more efficient killing. And soon. Lt. Col. North and the basement junta were dipping into the treasuries of sheikhs, sultans, ayatollahs and assorted other lovers of democracy to underwrite the contra campaign of sabotage and assassination in the name of undefined Nicaraguan freedom.

That murderous, unscrupulous effort didn’t quite live up to the administration’s wild fantasy of driving the Sandinistas back into the hills. But it nonetheless turned beautiful, impoverished Nicaragua into a garrison state where bullets were easier to come by than beans and the ideals of a flawed but hopeful revolution were shredded in mutual atrocities, vendettas and recrimination. Today, still suffering the after-effects of the U.S.-sponsored contra war as well as government and private corruption, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, and Daniel Ortega, the fiery comandante who, with his fellow revolutionaries stormed out of the hills in 1979 to topple Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dictatorship, is again the freely elected president, just as he was when Hasenfus came floating down in his parachute. These days, Ortega is far less fiery, except when he is pushing draconian anti-abortion laws.

And Hasenfus himself? On Friday, I called the number listed for him to see if he would reminisce for a few moments. A man answered.
“Hello.”
“Is this Eugene Hasenfus?”
“Yeah.”
“My name is Timothy Lange, and I’m an editor at …”
Click. Buzz.

Hasenfus’s lawsuits failed and then he faded into his old life in small-town Wisconsin. On July 10, 2000, he was accused of indecent exposure in Brookfield, Wisconsin. On June 1, 2002, he killed a bear without a license and fined $260. He was accused of lascivious behavior a second time in January 2003, after exposing himself in the parking lot at Woodman’s grocery store in Howard, Wisconsin, and received probation. He was accused a third time on May 25, 2005, after exposing himself in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Marinette County, Wisconsin. This violated his probation, and he was forced to serve jail time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until December 17, 2005, the 19th anniversary of his release from a Sandinista prison.

= = =
Source material was taken from my personal accounts in 1986-87, my hard-copy clip files, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Web site and here, here, here, here and here.
Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, widely known as the Walsh Report, named for independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nick Mills: Family Feuds

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is having problems with both of his extended families, his blood — and lately bloody – kin, and his extended political family, which includes Afghanistan’s “elected” government, Karzai’s reshuffled cabinet, and the Western governments that are spending blood and billions to prop up the Karzai regime. And as it turns out, it’s all very incestuous

The recent killing of 18-year-old Waheed Karzai, the son of one of President Karzai’s cousins, allegedly by Hashmat Karzai, a first cousin of the President, offers a lesson for the West: Afghanistan is still a nation of men, not of laws, and will remain so for some time to come. Honor killings without legal consequences are accepted practice, notwithstanding the veneer of democracy imposed on the country since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

The story, ably reported by James Risen in the New York Times on December 20, is a tale of a spurned fiancĂ©, a revenge killing, and a nearly 30-year wait to balance the books with another murder. No one was ever brought to justice for the earlier killing, which reportedly took place in 1982 or 1983 in Quetta, Pakistan. And no charges have been brought against Hashmat Karzai – who denies any involvement and blames drug dealers and mistaken identity – and probably never will be. The power of the Karzai family trumps any system of written law, especially since the murder took place in President Karzai’s home village, Karz, in an area ruled Mafia-style by the President’s brother Wali Karzai. What’s more, according to Risen (and here’s where the blood-and-politics incest comes in) Hashmat Karzai owns a security company that holds lucrative contracts with the United States military. The family of the deceased, and several Karzais who live outside of Afghanistan are demanding legal action. Spurred no doubt by the Times account, President Karzai has directed the Interior Minister to look in to the killing. But in time the case will probably blow over, and no one with the authority to do so, in either of President Karzai’s extended families, is likely to push very hard for a prosecution.

I can recall a similar case near Peshawar, Pakistan in 1987 when I was training Afghans in journalism. We got a report of a shooting in an Afghan refugee enclave just outside of Peshawar and sent our student journalists there to see what they could find out. They came back with a story of a revenge killing, and although the Pakistani police got involved at the start, it was left to tribal elders to decide the fate of the accused killer, and the police bowed out.

The Western countries trying to tailor a new suit of democratic threads for Afghanistan will be recutting and restitching for many years to come, and will never achieve a perfect fit.

Meanwhile, President Karzai continues to demonstrate his disdain for the Western nations that keep him, however shakily, in office. In the restructuring of his 24-member cabinet Karzai thumbed his nose at the U.S. and other allies who had pushed for the removal of old-guard warlords such as Ismael Khan who keep Afghanistan mired in the politics of corruption and violence.


Categories: World Tags: , , , , ,

Randall Amster: Schlock Doctrine: Where, and by Whom, was Your Christmas Made?

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Nothing against our friends and neighbors in the Far East, but it seems as if just about everything that came down the chimney for Christmas this year bore a “made in China” label on its underbelly. Even the items that appear to be iconically American in their logos and characters have been shipped here from across the planet. This is the stark reality of globalization.

Children’s toys in particular present a unique ethical conundrum. On the one hand, we want our kids to have stimulating new things to play with and expand their repertoires of dexterity and cognizance. On the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that another kid on the other side of the planet might be toiling in a factory somewhere to make the stuff that potentially enhances our kids’ lives. This is especially the case when nearly every toy — even supposedly “green” ones — seemingly comes from the Middle Kingdom.

Sweatshop labor of course is no secret, but it remains something of an abstraction through the insulation of our lives in the West. That fell apart around here this year, when I noticed that some of the boxes in which our purchases arrived had actual names of people next to the “Made by” category inscribed on them. They also listed factory numbers and product designations in many cases as well, such as “Item #2572 of 32525.” If it’s indeed the case (as Vegan Peace observes) that “the average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour [while] in China, toy workers earn an average of 30 cents an hour,” then someone is obviously making a pretty penny on this system just in the rate of labor exchange alone.

These realities have been thoroughly understood for some time now, as evidenced by this 2005 article in which the complexities of the problem are well documented:

“The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that of the 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries, 61 percent are in Asia. Although we live in an extremely modern age, there is, in fact, child slave labor present in China . Some of these children work in sweatshops. A sweatshop is a workplace where workers are subjected to extreme exploitation, including the lack of a living wages or benefits, poor and dangerous working conditions, and harsh and unnecessary discipline, such as verbal and physical abuse. Sweatshop workers are paid less than their daily expenses, thus they are never able to save any money to invest in their futures. They are trapped in a never-ending cycle.”

Disney products specifically have been singled out in the past for their imbrication in this oppressive system. Wal-Mart, which the United Food and Commercial Workers Union notes is “the largest importer of Chinese goods,” has repeatedly asserted its innocence in such matters, yet speculation continues. Even some Sesame Street products, which discerning parents will often embrace due to the items’ perceived educational qualities and general familiarity, have been implicated in recent years. The full ramifications of this global trade in exploitative toys have not been lost on analysts and activists, including this introduction to a 2008 report from the National Labor Committee:

“In China , the busy toy season is already in full swing as thousands of factories work around the clock churning out millions of holiday toys, which will start arriving in the United States and Europe by September. Like last year and the years before, the American people will spend over $21 billion on 3.6 billion toys this holiday season. At least 85 percent of these toys are made in China by three million mostly young women workers toiling long hours in 8000 factories. And these are only the factories that have export licensees, leaving aside the many smaller subcontract toy plants.”

There are certainly many alternatives for purchasing products with greater ethical standards (the website Vegan Peace, among other sources, provides links to a number of them). But let’s face it — parents are busy, disposable incomes are tight, children need stimulation, time is money, and this is America . In other words, even with the best of intentions, it’s a great challenge to be purists in our parenting. Furthermore, most folks out there don’t give these is sue s a second thought at all, leaving the few making more deliberate choices merely a small drop in a high-volume bucket. Finally, there really isn’t a foolproof, diplomatic way to fully screen out gifts from well-meaning others.

And then, inevitably, the stuff will soon break. I estimate about a one-month shelf life for any new toy given to a child under five. Some items retain functionality with missing buttons and lost pieces, whereas many others wind up in landfills — or, in a feat of wonderful irony, recycled and shipped back to China to be turned into more short-term consumer goods. Thus, in many cases, the things we buy are almost literally garbage.

The most apropos description of this cycle of inherent decrepitude is perhaps the Yiddish word schlock, meaning something “cheap, shoddy, or inferior.” While I would love to claim sole authorship of the ironic phrasing in the title of this piece, it has actually appeared previously in a few places, including in an amusingly caustic critique of Naomi Klein’s persuasive book The Shock Doctrine in which she argues that capitalism foments and (of course) capitalizes upon crises, thus cleverly making a buck both coming (i.e., problem) and going (i.e., solution). Referring to Klein as “the Ann Coulter of Canada — a demagogic sycophant who has parlayed her political shtick into a lucrative business,” this sophomoric article with its sarcastic mien actually almost got it right in the end:

“We Americans and our evil multinationals, it seems, champion a brand of heartless free-market piracy, which robs the good people of the developing world of the fruits of their labor, and forces them to toil in hot, miserable working conditions, just to make our garments and sneakers. Our big multinationals assimilate or obliterate anything in their path towards global domination.”

The author of this 2008 missive likely didn’t intend to validate Klein’s logic. But to critique a thesis one must be able to articulate it cogently, hence arguing for its utility as a point of critical reference. In a similar sense, the lesson of this holiday season may well be that the ethical implications of our choices are so woven into the fabric of ordinary commerce that we almost can’t help but be pulled into orbit around a set of values that most would deem both schlocky and shocking at the same time. And so, in explicating the aesthetic of schlock and its uncritical acceptance among many consumers, perhaps we have uncovered something uniquely “made in America ” after all.

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iToos M6HD PMP outputs 1080i without breaking anyone’s bank

December 27th, 2009 admin No comments

There’s really only two things you need to know about the iToos M6HD PMP, and at the risk of repeating the headline: it can output 1080i via HDMI and its price is pretty hard to argue with. As for the fine print, we’re looking at a 4.3-inch TFT screen with 1360 x 768 resolution, 4GB internal memory upgradeable via memory card, and the usual variety of codecs you’ve come to expect from Asian PMPs, including FLAC audio and H.264 video. According to Akihabara News, it technically retails for only $58.50, but for the moment the best we’ve is online retailer Ownta for pocket change under $87.

iToos M6HD PMP outputs 1080i without breaking anyone’s bank originally appeared on Engadget on Sun, 27 Dec 2009 05:38:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Economic Outrage du (Every) Jour

December 27th, 2009 admin No comments

You may have been otherwise engaged on Christmas Eve and missed this story in The New York Times by Ken Belson – Stadium Boom Deepens Municipal Woes:

Years after a wave of construction brought publicly financed stadiums costing billions of dollars to cities across the country, taxpayers are once again being asked to reach into their pockets.

From New Jersey to Ohio to Arizona, the stadiums were sold as a key to redevelopment and as the only way to retain sports franchises. But the deals that were used to persuade taxpayers to finance their construction have in many cases backfired, the result of overly optimistic revenue assumptions and the recession. …

But sales tax receipts have fallen so fast in the last year that [Cincinnati's Hamilton] county is now scrambling to bridge a $14 million deficit in its sales tax fund. The public schools, which deferred taking their share for years, want their money.

The teams have not volunteered to rewrite their leases. So in the coming weeks, the county plans to cut basic services, lower its legal bills and drain a bond reserve fund with no plan for paying it back.

I’ve never had a problem figuring out why mayors, city councils or country supervisors have been eager to make sweetheart deals that pour millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies into the hands of rich – often ultra-rich – sports team owners for new stadiums. There can be many … uh … incentives for them to make such decisions. Free tickets, free VIP parking, their own luxury sky-box seating, perhaps a campaign contribution or two. Moreover, none of them wants to be in office the day the team announces it’s getting a better deal from another city.

What I’ve never been able to understand is what voters are thinking when they participate in their own fleecing for such projects. Team spirit is understandable. But making fat cats fatter – especially when this means socially needed projects and the people they serve have to tighten their belts – seems downright perverse. In good times, this corporate welfare, funded with bonds, may drain the public purse mostly unnoticed. In bad times, the subsidies and tax abatements, which in larger cities may add up to hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run, contribute to the fiscal nightmare of local government.

When Emperor Vespasian began construction of the Colosseum in Rome, he paid for it by confiscating his generals’ portion of the immense plunder stolen from the Jews slaughtered or sold into slavery as a consequence of the destruction of ancient Israel. These days, citizens are asked to loot their own wallets. This happens only after immense propaganda campaigns trumpeting the purported benefits of the new or remodeled edifice and threatening dire consequences to local pride and the local economy if the project should fail to be approved. Barely a step up from extortion by decree.

If these projects were built solely with private money and local governments were asked to streamline the granting of permits, and perhaps loosely interpret a few other laws, no harm, no foul. But the people who truly benefit from these subsidies of the private sector are the team owners and a relative handful of multimillion-dollar players and local politicians.

Oh, sure, the claim is always made that the multiplier effect will redound to the local economy, creating vast numbers of new jobs, attracting tourists and boosting local business. But the pre-project predictions of benefits are inevitably strewn with, shall we say, exaggerations. Meanwhile, the owners lease sky boxes and reserved seating, rent their publicly owned venue for rock concerts and other performances, get cable and broadcast television contracts, and collect their slice of the hotdog and drink and souvenir concessions. So why is it they can’t pay for construction themselves?

Back in the days before sports teams were so immensely profitable, owners built stadiums on their own dime. As the dollars rolled in, their clout with the local powers-that-be increased and soon it became expected that the taxpayers would shell out the bucks. If they are reluctant, down comes the warning that perhaps the team will have to move somewhere it will be more appreciated and not have to play in shabby surroundings. That appeal to civic pride works time and again.

Meanwhile, as the team subsidies continue to flow nationwide, city-funded youth teams slash their budgets and municipal recreation centers cut their hours.

In Cincinnati:

“It’s like the movie where the blob keeps growing and eating away at other elements of county government,” [County Commissioner David] Pepper said. “We’re beginning to cross a line in the sand by taking money from the general fund to pay for the stadiums. Once you put that money in jeopardy, you put the whole county at risk.”

So whose fault is it that, across the country, these operators still have their hand in an increasingly empty public till?


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Midday open thread

December 27th, 2009 admin No comments
  • Airport security tightens and investigation continues a day after a Nigerian passenger attempted to ignite a device aboard a Detroit-bound plane. Immediately after the incident was announced, the race was on as to which Republican could make the most political hay out of the event. Via Think Progress, we have the unbriefed Pete Hoekstra leaping first out of the gate:

       ”It’s not surprising,” U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Holland Republican, said of the alleged terrorist attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit. … “People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration,” Hoekstra said.

    A briefed Peter King did no better, hitting the press circuit ASAP with what he’d learned.

  • Prayers and ceremonies are being held today to mark the five-year anniversary of the deadly Asian tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people. The New York Times takes an in-depth look at efforts to rebuild Aceh.
  • Blizzards continue to slam the Midwest.
  • Now here’s something you don’t read every day:

    HYDERABAD, India—The 86-year-old governor of a southern Indian state resigned Saturday, a day after a television news channel broadcast a tape allegedly showing him in bed with three women, an official said.

  • Little noticed due to the focus on the health care bill, the Senate approved some Obama appointees in the closing hours of the session, but tabled a couple of others, most notably Office of Legal Counsel nominee Dawn Johnsen and Department of Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith, who ran into opposition, most likely for their progressive background, according to Think Progress.
  • Scientists discover that the moon’s gravitational pull may trigger small earth tremors in addition to its effect on tides, according to Wired.
  • James Warren at The Atlantic has long-ish piece on what went on behind the scenes as Stephen Colbert prepared and delivered his infamous remarks at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ dinner.
  • The times, they are a’changin’, if last month’s NYC mayoral race is any indication:

    Black, Hispanic and Asian residents made up a majority of voters in a citywide race for the first time.

    That turnout is a milestone in a city where minority groups make up both a majority of the population and a majority of those eligible to vote. The transformation of the electorate also signals the growing political importance of the city’s diverse tapestry and the challenges that citywide candidates will face as they strive to stitch together successful voting blocs.


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Ann M. Veneman: Tsunami: Reflection and Progress Five Years Later

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

2009-12-26-UNICEFtsunamichild.jpg
Five years ago the world watched in horror as nearly 230,000 people, particularly women and children, perished in the tsunami that struck south Asia. The powerful force washed away homes, schools and devastated communities, many of which were impoverished and in remote areas. So many families not only had to cope with the loss of loved ones, but also the task of rebuilding after their lives were literally wiped away in just a few moments.

In the years since, UNICEF and its partners have worked to ease the pain, rebuild and bring improved social services, clean water, and sturdier schools to the region.

To give children a much-needed head-start in life, we have helped build nearly 100 health centers, equipped more than 7,000 health facilities, and trained 60,000 healthcare workers.UNICEF has also supported campaigns for mass vaccination, mosquito net distribution and nutritional monitoring. All of these efforts are critical in containing the spread of disease and keeping residents healthy.

2009-12-26-UNICEFrebuiltschool.jpg Education helps bring children together with other students, providing an important structure for support, learning and a sense of normalcy back to their lives. This was a top priority in the aftermath and today more than 300,000 students learn in new or repaired schools. And, over 1.3 million children have benefited from psychosocial activities to help them cope with the trauma of the tsunami. In addition, more than 30,000 educators have been trained in child-friendly approaches.

Schools have also seen improvements in clean water and sanitation. Clean water has come to communities thanks to new wells, new toilets and new waterworks. Over 820,000 people across the region have benefitted from restored water points.

Programs such as these, developed during the tsunami response, are not only aiding the affected countries but also helping respond to other humanitarian situations around the world. For instance, improved emergency procedures have allowed UNICEF and its partners to better deliver relief supplies and protection measures children.

The dedication and hard work of so many partners toward recovery will help ensure that those who were impacted by the devastation have more resources and programs in place to help them recover and have a more hopeful future.

While there is still much work to be done, all the heartfelt support from around the world has helped provide much needed relief and resources to help the region cope and rebuild.

Ann Veneman is the Executive Director of UNICEF. UNICEF just released a report, Tsunami Five Years Later, that marks progress and lessons learned from the relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts. To learn more visit www.unicef.org.

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