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TV SoundOff: Sunday Talking Heads

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

Hello, fellow Muggles, and welcome to this week’s edition of your Sunday Morning Liveblog, your weekly, occasionally witty rundown of the week in political monkeyshines and the Hollow Men who rend their garments over it, whilst you sleep off your Saturday Night USA. My name is Jason, and I will be your sherpa. Today! Well…today we’ll have many of the same topics as last week, and, indeed, many of the same conversations. But today! We’ll also have the people on our teevee attempt to wrap themselves in the corpse of Walter Cronkite. It could get disgusting, watching all these people who fail miserably at living up to his legacy claim to be inspired by him. But that is what our Gag Reflexes are for, and why we keep a fresh paper bag by our sides each morning, when these shows come on. (I also use mine in case the kitties vomit, something which may or may not be related to these shows, I don’t know, cats, they tend to vomit.)

Anyway, as always, leave a comment, send a missive my way via email — like fans of Pat Buchanan and Glenn Beck do! (I have learned this week, for example, that I am a “dirty Jew” who should “kill myself” which sounds delightful, God bless you, fans of Pat Buchanan and Glenn Beck, I have decided to become a Kabbalist.) — or follow me on the Twitters. Let us relax, sit back, and enjoy our first show, FOX NEWS SUNDAY AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN.

FOX NEWS SUNDAY

So, right off the bat we have Peter Orszag, so, I hope you ladies are up early. I know that many of you can barely contain yourselves when he busts out the mad wonk and starts discussing budget figures and cost overruns.

Wallace is all: “Damn, Peter, Douglas Elmendorf thinks your health care reform package is going to be a massive turdie, budget wise!” Orszag says, “Well we won’t sign a bill that expands the deficit.” (I assume he means long term.) He says that the CBO analysis looks good and that there are other parts of the program coming into play that will lower costs. Additional steps that will make it “better than deficit neutral” include AWESOME COMMISSIONS OF DOCTORS COMMISSIONING.

What about the crazy TAXAPOCALYPSE! About 1.2% of America will have to pay higher taxes! Like they do in Denmark! By the way, Denmark: REALLY GOOD SOCIAL POLICY THERE.

What will happen to the teensy portion of small businesses, that may have to pay extra, so that people can have the sort of health care that will keep them from dying. Orszag points out that they are working to save the economy so that people will buy the products made and dols by small businesses. I’m guessing the whole LESS PEOPLE DYING OF TREATABLE ILLNESSES AND INJURIES will probably boost their bottom line as well.

What about taxing health care benefits? Ruled out? “It’s something the President doesn’t favor.” Because of unions? UHM, HOPEFULLY BECAUSE HE MOCKED HIS ELECTION OPPONENT FOR PROPOSING IT, REPEATEDLY.

Wallace then asks if a commitee of doctors will be telling health care providers WHO WILL LIVE AND WHO WILL DIE, like a health care Star Chamber from the depths of Roger Ailes paranoid fantasia? Orszag says, “that’s the biggest canard out there,” and that’s saying something, because there are some BIG CANARDS out there.

Is Peter Orszag prepared TODAY, to tell America that the public funded health plan will not include abortion? He’s “not prepared to rule it out.” Great news for women, I guess! No one is prepared to rule out your personhood!

Why was Peter Orszag so WRONG about unemployment numbers? He says, “almost everyone was wrong about the economy.” He says that you cannot go from massive losses to massive gains in a fingersnap. “It’s going to take time to work our way out of this.”

Meanwhile, Judd Gregg! Remember when this guy was almost in the administration? What a wild time in our lives that was. Anyway, guess what, he thinks Doug Elmendorf is a wise and sage individual. “Those were pretty damning words,” he says.

Gregg says that taxpayers should not have to pay for abortions, if they find it immoral. OKAY, THEN! GIVE ME MY IRAQ WAR MONEY BACK, PLEASE?

Wallace asks if the status quo on health care is acceptable, Gregg says no, and the GOP have three plans that they are pretending will work. Gregg says that the current plans “put bureaucracy between you and your doctor and will lead to rationing in the end,” which makes me want whatever health care plan Gregg has, because my health care plan right now puts a massive bureaucracy between me and my doctor and which rations health care out the yangles, and which keeps me in dread that one day there’s going to be something put on my chart somewhere that will cause an alarm to go off, dropping me from the crappy health care I do have. See, I’d listen to Gregg and people like him if they’d stop pretending that American health care is something that it isn’t.

I think though, that Gregg’s health care plan is called, Being An Impossibly Rich Lawmaker With Many Many Lobbyists To Orally Stimulate On A Daily Basis.

Anyway, their plan would be for young people to stay indestructible, and pay one third of their alreay tiny incomes for catastrophic care, because who needs good preventative care. Also, the plan is for our streets to be clogged with dessperate and sick illegal immigrants. It’s a blighted hellscape of the dead and dying and impoverished, but Judd Gregg will still enjoy gold-plated care, thanks to me.


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Laurence Leamer: Return to Shangri-La

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

When I flew into Kathmandu in a Royal Airlines DC-3 in September of 1964, the old plane wheezed its way across the mountains and into the verdant high valley. I was a member of the fourth group of Peace Corps Volunteers to the mystical mountain kingdom. Nepal had been kept isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years, and Kathmandu was a magical, quasi-medieval city, one of the great cultural jewels of the world.

There were few automobiles and the Nepalese generally either walked, rode bicycles or took bicycle rickshaws. Most men of substance wore the Nepali national dress, the daura suruwal, thin cotton pants that while tight against the ankles then billowed out, a dark Nehru-like jacket, and the ubiquitous topi, a pill box hat. The women wore saris similar to Indian dress. There were many bare -footed porters and laborers in virtual rags, Tibetans in their heavy dress, and a rich mix of cultures and peoples.

There was a broad expanse outside the king’s palace where awestruck villagers looked at the great ornate structure where resided the man considered a descendent of God. But most of the city was a narrow warren of streets, many of them with ornate woodwork often of a religious nature. That only increased the sense of mystery.

Most Nepalese are Hindus, although there are Buddhists and Muslims as well, but their spiritual quality transcended any one faith. One could not be here very long without knowing– no matter how severe one’s agnosticism– that there was a God or at least some spiritual being that motivated everyone and everything. Despite the poverty, Kathmandu was close to the mythical world of James Hilton’s Shangri-la.

Was it any wonder that I wanted to return, to drink once again at those spiritual wellsprings? But why had I waited so long, I asked myself as yesterday afternoon the Jet Airlines jet soared into the valley, a quick hour and a half from Delhi. It had been four and a half decades since I first arrived in Nepal, a lifetime. For minutes, I keep looking out the window, but the mountains sat shrouded in clouds, and I saw little as the plane landed on the tarmac.

I had not even gotten my bag before the touts approached me, and I hurried away from them, and got into a battered taxicab to take me to my hotel. Before I saw anything, the stench assaulted me. I reached to shut the windows in the non air-conditioned car, but the smell remained. The foul odors had metastasized into a malevolent stench that penetrated everything and everyone. There was not so much heavy traffic in the sense of an orderly progression of cars proceeding in two directions, but a mindless jumble of vehicles, seemingly each with a separate route, bleating their horns at each other.

Outside was a mindless jumble of slums, substantial, cheaply constructed cement buildings cheek to jowl with shacks. Block after block. Mile after mile. It was endlessly the same. There were a few women in saris, blossoms in the squalor, but for the most part the people dressed in some fashion of western dress, jeans and t-shirts mainly, but as if every closet in the West had been emptied out and dumped here. There were great piles of empty plastic bottles, guarded like the gold they were, and ragged, forlorn children twisting and turning their way through the traffic carrying clumps of sod. At every traffic light a child beat on the window begging for alms. And everyone there was garbage, all the flotsam of urban civilization, scraps of paper, crumpled cans, rotting refuse. Once there had been stray dogs as efficient scavengers, but even they were largely gone.

We finally reached the tourist area of Thamel, and drove along the misnamed Kings Way to my hotel. It is the same narrow street I remembered, but there was generic rock n roll blaring from windows, stores selling Internet services and trekking gear, restaurants serving hamburgers and French fries, tacos and lemon meringue pie, and village girls who had learned enough English words to turn a trick or two with the foreigners. Few westerners have come to Nepal this summer, but the young Nepalese have made Thamel their own, and they paraded up on down what has become the Times Square of Nepal.

Last evening I had dinner in the center of Thamel at the Northfield Café with Rajeev Goyal . I have been working with Rajeev in Washington the past few months trying to double the size of the Peace Corps. Rajeev had also been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal from 2001 and 2003 stationed not far from where I had been posted. Since returning to the States, he has been helping the Nepalese in that area in eastern Nepal by building schools and water facilities. He has returned this summer to take a group of these villagers around the country to show them the bad and the good of what “development” has done to their country, and I was accompanying them.

The Northfield Café is a sprawling restaurant, one of the most popular places in Tamel. It serves a large menu of dishes from most cultures except Nepal, but whether it is Southern chicken, salami pizza, tacos, or chocolate cake, the commonality is mediocrity. In the far dark corner a group of three Nepali musicians sat squat legged playing traditional Nepali music on a one-string fiddle, and a drum, but the tourists didn’t notice them and their subtle sounds were overwhelmed by rock music projected from a bar across the street.

The Northfield Café is one of several restaurants and hotels established by Mike Frame, a farm boy from Northfield, Minnesota. Mike was a volunteer in Nepal One. He signed up for a second tour and established a tiny experimental farm in Marek-Kathare, the remote village where I was also stationed. Mike was a peculiar man and he did not want to go home. So he became the father of tourist Thamel. Mike died a few years ago. Thamel is his legacy.

“For years these people have lived under two fears, ” Rajeev said, looking out on a street full of hundreds of young Nepalese men milling aimlessly. “The Maoists on one hand imposing upon them and the government wanting to have their allegiance. Many of the young men left and went to Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries and worked essentially as slaves for a hundred dollars a month. Scrubbing toilets in airports in Dubai or Kuala Lumbar where were hated as being Hindus, hated for not knowing English, hated for being Nepali. Now in Nepal there are millions of young people with nothing to do. They are frustrated and rightfully so. They have no work and yet there is so much work to do.”

Rajeev paused and looked out at this room full of tables of gestilatating westerners enjoying their sojourn in exotic Nepal. ” This bitterness is going to get so bad that this respect for foreigners will go too,” he said biting down intensely on each word. “They will wake up and realize that the westerners have done much of this to them. They will realize worship of westerners is part of the insidious caste system that has caused many of the problems.”

There is already a glitch in Rajeev’s summer project. One of the frequent strikes has shut down the East-West highway and the eight villagers have had to hire a mini-bus to get them to Kathmandu. But the bus has broken down in the jungle and the driver has left the group, saying he has to get what he needs to repair the vehicle. And there is no telling when they will arrive.

I am glad I have come to Nepal, but for far different reasons than I thought. God left Kathmandu long ago, and I know this journey of mine will be far different from what I had anticipated.

More on Poverty


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Newsweek: Why Is Washington Ignoring "Economic Prophet" Stiglitz?

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

Such is the lot of Joe Stiglitz. Even in the contentious world of economics, he is considered somewhat prickly. And while he may be a Nobel laureate, in Washington he’s seen as just another economic critic–and not always a welcome one. Few Americans recognize his name, and fewer still would recognize the man, who is short and stocky and bears a faint resemblance to Mel Brooks. Yet Stiglitz’s work is cited by more economists than anyone else’s in the world, according to data compiled by the University of Connecticut. And when he goes abroad–to Europe, Asia, and Latin America–he is received like a superstar, a modern-day oracle. “In Asia they treat him like a god,” says Robert Johnson, a former chief economist for the Senate banking committee who has traveled with him. “People walk up to him on the streets.”

More on Barack Obama


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Dan Quayle: Obama’s "Biggest Challenge" Is "Taming The Left Wing"

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

STATELINE, Nev. — Former Vice President Dan Quayle gives President Barack Obama high marks for surrounding himself with quality advisers on national security and the economy. But Quayle says it’s not yet clear whether Obama’s Democratic administration will govern more liberally than he campaigned.

“I think his biggest challenge is to tame the left wing of his party,” Quayle said in an interview with The Associated Press at Lake Tahoe.

“I guess we’ll find out how ‘left’ Obama really is, because he’s going to have to make some very tough decisions where he is either going to have to go with the left wing of his party or stare them down and govern more like (ex-president Bill) Clinton governed, which is sort of center-left,” said the Republican who served in the first Bush administration.

Quayle, who is playing golf at Lake Tahoe through the weekend at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, said Democrats had been out of power for eight years so “they just tried to throw everything out there and see what stuck.”

Quayle said Obama ran a “center-left” campaign to get elected, similar to how Quayle and President George H.W. Bush ran “center-right.”

“That’s the normal situation. Same way with Reagan,” Quayle said in an interview after he finished his opening round Friday in a group with former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps and television personality Maury Povich.

“Now I think they will have to make some tough decisions,” Quayle said. “He knows the deficit is menacing. Whether he is willing to stare down the left wing of his party and say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get this budget in order before we take on too many things,’ I don’t know.”
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Obama has surrounded himself with “good people” to advise on the economy and national security, Quayle said. He singled out as “solid” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, budget director Peter Orszag and Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council.

“He has a strong national security adviser, strong State Department and Defense Department,” the former Indiana senator said.

But Quayle said he’s curious about the Obama administration’s division of oversight traditionally left to the secretary of state. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has tended to leave the heavy lifting in the world’s most volatile hotspots to seasoned special envoys like Richard Holbrooke, who is tackling the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, and Dennis Ross, special adviser on Iran and the Persian Gulf. Clinton has focused on Europe, Asia, Latin America and Mideast peace.

“I’m not exactly sure how that’s all going to work out because sometimes you get into all sorts of turf fights and things of that sort,” Quayle said.

As for the GOP, Quayle said the best thing the party may have going for it right now is the Democratic leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., which he views as a negative.

“We’re the out party now. We just need to focus on these congressional elections. I think Pelosi and Reid will help us in that endeavor.”

Quayle is now chairman of the international division of Cerberus Capital Management, a multi-billion dollar private equity fund, and president of Quayle and Associates.

More on GOP


Frank Schaeffer: Do Atheists Borrow Religion’s Morality?

July 19th, 2009 admin No comments

Does morality come from religion or is it merely “the language games of one’s time”? Are the most basic moral boundaries we evolved that make life easier and less chaotic a reflection of the character of God? If there is no God, or if He doesn’t care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also “teach” that a good life depends on the “Do unto others…” ethic.

Richard Dawkins calls himself a “cultural Christian,” which for him is an unusually frank acknowledgment of the fact that the “viral infection” of religion may be comforting. Indeed, as the BBC reported in December 2007:

Prof. Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, [said], “I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions. This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.”

As I discuss in my forthcoming book– Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism) — ew atheists are willing to admit that they’re borrowing ethical and aesthetic cultural traditions from religion while others, like atheist philosopher Richard Rorty and ethicist Peter Singer, have tried to avoid all assumptions of religious moral norms in their writing. Most atheists cop out, as did Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, topping his slam on religion with a helping of sophomoric, religious-sounding whine. To paraphrase: I know we all need meaning. So hey, how about we embrace a sort of secularized Eastern mysticism to help get us through the night, you know, being that hard-edged secular Truth is, well, absolutely true and all, but it hurts our feelings, being as it’s sort of like, you know, depressing.

What Harris doesn’t do is reexamine his atheistic ideas based on the fact that if he’s right (and in a raw, pure and absolutist form atheism is unpalatable to most people), then that might be an indication that there is something to all this “religion stuff” besides the temporary emotional analgesic he describes. Maybe, if wanting meaning is the way people are, and we are part of nature, then those feelings–however they express themselves–might indicate something true about the reality of nature and the way it actually is, rather than just signaling an emotional need for religious therapy.

Or, as author and brilliant writer on evolutionary psychology Robert Wright puts it in his new book The Evolution of God, “If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe — conceivably — the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.”

The Problem with an “Invented Vocabulary” of Morality

As I said, one atheist who tried to bite the bullet in a way that Harris lacked the testicular fortitude to do was Richard Rorty. Rorty argued that we make up morality. He believed that bright people are “ironists” who understand that we know nothing except our own “vocabularies.” He said that morality is merely “the language games of one’s time.”

Rorty was the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian, Baptist minister, and leader in what was called the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So Rorty’s nihilism is nihilism with a twist of religious awareness. Rorty is clear about his legacy from the Social Gospel/theological liberalism of his grandfather. Maybe that’s why he brings a bare-knuckle honesty to his work that, by comparison, makes Harris seem positively wimpy. In Rorty and his Critics, Rorty writes:

The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point… [W]e do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. I am just as provincial as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.

Rorty was honest enough to admit that he had problems with selling his idea of an individually invented moral vocabulary because no society raises children “to make them continually dubious,” as he said. So he wrote that “ironists” like himself should keep their views secret or at least separate their “public and private vocabularies.” In other words, Rorty admitted that his ideas had to be lied about in order to succeed, because the way people actually are does not correspond to his stark atheist philosophy.

Then there is Princeton professor, atheist, and bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer also tried to invent an ethic with no nostalgic nod to religion, especially not toward Judaism or Christianity’s sanctity-of-life beliefs. He has said that some defective children should be destroyed during a trial period after their births. Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues in his Practical Ethics, (2nd edition, 1993) that newborns lack the characteristics of personhood (”rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”) and that therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” In Germany, his positions have been compared to the Nazis, and his lectures have been disrupted all over the world by groups representing the handicapped.

According to my friend Angela Creager (one of Singer’s colleagues and a professor of the history of science at Princeton), Singer is a kind man moved by compassion. Nevertheless, he seems not to understand how his ideas strike others; for instance, as evidenced by his protesters, people with disabilities. Singer gets upset when commentators compare his proposals to Nazism, because his family lost people in the Holocaust. Singer’s objections don’t seem reasonable to me.

As Michael Burleigh, a leading historian of the Third Reich, has pointed out in a commentary on Singer’s work, eliminating defectives in pre-Nazi Germany was exactly what opened the door to the Holocaust. In his book Confronting the Nazi Past, Burleigh writes, “Singer omits to mention that one of the essential elements of [Nazi] propaganda was the denial of personality to their victims.” He adds that Singer is “displaying remarkable naiveté” when he suggests that the choices that would have to be made in evaluating a prospective defective for elimination would be in trustworthy hands if doctors were in charge. Burleigh notes that the Nazi euthanasia program was led by scientists and psychiatrists, people drawn from the best-educated and most “civilized” ranks of a sophisticated secular medical class not too different from the academic class Singer himself belongs to.

Atheists say that morality isn’t derived only from religion. I think they’re right. But they seem to have problems when deciding the limits of what is permissible under the rules of their “invented vocabulary” of morality à la Rorty and Singer. Maybe the point is that religion is derived from morality.

I’m guessing that morality predates religion. We all act as if that’s the case. We don’t have long theological debates about, say, incest or wife abuse as though the jury is still out on what is wrong or that our sense of the matter depends on Bible verses. We evolved ideas that make life easier and less chaotic, as in: I don’t want to be clubbed in my sleep so let’s all agree that clubbing people in their sleep is wrong! Those ideas, including parents not taking kindly to “experts” telling them what they should do about their “defective” child, might be a reflection of the character of God. If there is no God, or if He doesn’t care about us, then our common morality is still the result of practical, reality-based needs, which also “teach” that a good life depends on the “Do unto others…” ethic. Either way, morality is a lot more than an individual’s invented vocabulary, and Singer’s ethic seems monstrous to many people for the same reason that George W. Bush’s torturing prisoners in the name of national security was a threat to us all.

I Want My Attorney and My Wife to Believe in God

How individuals are treated affects everyone. Ideas such as Singer’s and George W. Bush’s have consequences. There may indeed be babies born who’d be “better off” killed, or prisoners who “deserve” to be waterboarded or punched and exposed to hunger, cold, and snarling dogs. But the rest of us aren’t better off when morality becomes a function of expediency, be that in the name of national security or of “sensibly” getting rid of the need for all those expensive ramps for the disabled by getting rid of the disabled themselves at birth.

Who decides who’s next? Do you trust an academic ethicist like Singer to make life-and-death judgments when he’s so far removed from reality that he gets hurt feelings when his seminars are picketed by people in wheelchairs (the very sorts of human beings that Singer says might have been better off being killed at birth)? Should a Darth Vader figure like former Vice President Dick Cheney be kept handy to decide when torture is “okay”? Is national security worth preserving if it entails turning our country into a police state?

Do atheists really believe that morality doesn’t exist just because it can’t be put under a microscope? Do any atheists claim that (and, far more tellingly, live as though) moral propositions have no objective value? If Singer finds himself on a planet where disabled people are the norm and he is a minority of one, will he gladly entrust himself to a panel of experts to decide his fate as, in that context, an “abnormal” person? If Rorty had not been paid the royalties generated by the sale of his books, would he have failed to take his publishers to court had his editor argued that in the “invented moral vocabulary” of publishing, they’d just changed the rules of accounting? For that matter, when Singer gets his feelings hurt by outraged disabled people who compare him to the Nazis, isn’t that a tacit admission that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat people, including Australian ethicist/Princeton professors who feel that their benign intentions are being misrepresented?

And what if the New Atheist agenda succeeded beyond Dawkins and his followers’ wildest dreams? Would everything work out perfectly? For instance, what would happen to the environmentalist movement? The appeal of the environmentalist movement is handily compatible with the idea of stewardship. Maybe that appeal works because a sense of stewardship and a sense of the sacred in Nature are intrinsic to our natures, a part of the divine revelation we are gradually developing a capacity to experience. Watch any TV program on the wonders of life on Earth. Even if there is no religious content, the tone is reverential and a sense of the sacred permeates the hushed narration. Why?

A lot more motivation can be inspired by maintaining that one may do God’s will by conserving the earth than by telling people that their lives mean nothing in an ultimate sense, that they are slaves to their genes, conditioning, and evolutionary quirks — but, oh, by the way, they should sacrifice their comforts to save the planet for equally meaningless and deluded future gene rations that they’ll never meet. Or, as atheist apologist, Princeton University professor, and molecular biologist Lee M. Silver writes (in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontier of Life) about the question of life having meaning and therefore a point: “I have yet to hear a good answer, other than there is no point.”

Now that will really fire people up to make sacrifices!

It seems to me the New Atheists have it wrong. If you deprive people of the solace of faith in a moral system of meaningful connection with something bigger than themselves, and bigger than mere connection to many other “meaningless” people, you aren’t just stripping away window dressing, but demolishing the supporting structure of a happy life. As I said, I think that Harris tacitly admits this by appending his squishy ending to his otherwise hard-nosed book. Atheists, too, depend on some form of spirituality for happiness. Why else do you think that Dawkins’ zeal can only be described as religious, and his followers as disciples? Maybe it’s because the need for meaning won’t be denied, even by people who gather to do just that.

Even one of the most church-hating fathers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, to whom Christianity was an “infamy,” found the influence of faith, and of Christianity in particular, useful: “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God,” he wrote, because “then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.”

My beef with the New Atheists and with religious fundamentalists is that their ideas just don’t seem aesthetically pleasing or imbued with the poetry that I experience in real life. Ideas about life are too small. Life trumps description, just as what some severely disabled people actually grow up to do and be trumps sage theories on whose life is “worthy to be lived.”

Is Dawkins correct when he says religious people appeal to mystery as a cop-out? Are unnamed things meaningless? Do we have to understand something in order to experience it? I don’t think so.

This essay first appeared on Religion Dispatches. Sign up for the free RD newsletter here

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism)


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Laurie David: Day 36 of Algalita’s Oceanographic Research Vessel Expedition: A Letter From Captain Charles Moore

July 18th, 2009 admin No comments

On June 10, 2009 Captain Charles Moore set off on Algalita’s Oceanographic Research Vessel for the first leg of a four month expedition from California to past the Northern Hawaiian Islands to test for plastic marine debris.

Captain Moore discovered the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, known as the the Pacific Gyre, and he is continuing his research to help all of us understand that the rapid rise in global plastic production is leading to a rise in plastic pollution and its devastating effects on our oceans and our lives.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting emails directly from Captain Moore so we can follow his journey and better understand what we are doing to our oceans.

July 17, 2009
Day 36
Noon position:36.05N, 179.60E

Dear Laurie,

The main purpose of our voyage to the International Dateline was to see if the concentration of large debris items believed to accumulate there in winter lasted into summer and whether micro debris was also present there in large quantities.

So far we have not found more ghost nets in the area than elsewhere in the gyre, and the micro-debris, while significant, has not been found in heavier amounts than in the Eastern Garbage Patch.

We are here in summer, and it is believed that the nets have dispersed to who knows where by now. We have found fresher debris from Asia, and more Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene), but the concentrations have been extremely patchy.

I think what this voyage has shown us, more than anything else, is that on a scale of meters to a few kilometers, plastic pollution may vary dramatically. While none of our manta trawls have been plastic free, some taken right after each other have had extreme variability in their plastic content.

Just today, as Joel and Drew were filming for a school program using their small net which takes “education samples,” (unquantified trawls mixed together for showing the plastic pollution problem to young students and politicians), they informed me that they saw a particularly heavy amount of Styrofoam beads coming up, along with dozens of other plastic particles.

We immediately deployed our larger manta trawl and pulled it for half an hour, but when we observed the resulting sample in a large petri dish, we were surprised to see that no Styrofoam and only a few pieces of plastic were visible.

Scientists are beginning to become more sophisticated in their ability to understand ocean currents on the smaller, “meso ” scale, and are looking at what they are calling “sticky” parts of the ocean that can accumulate more plastic debris.

We are seeing this phenomenon on a regular basis as we cull debris out of the ocean by standing on the bow and grabbing it as it floats by with various sized pole nets. We will stand there for 10 or 15 minutes and not see many bits float by, and then there will be a “patch” of many pieces in a short interval, or the concentration may last for some time.

We have also seen “rivers” of calm water and/or plankton that we can navigate and find heavier concentrations of plastic discards than in the surrounding sea water. It must be emphasized, however, that on a larger, or “macro” scale, the entire gyre is a plastic soup or stew of debris.

Every day we pull up a collection of plastic bits and bottles, fishing net parts and buoys, and miscellaneous plastic junk, that now occupies several square meters of deck space. The issue of debris “hot spots” is an important one for NOAA and others who wish to implement “end of pipe” solutions to the marine debris problem.

If they are to be able to make any kind of a dent in the 52 tons a year of ghost nets that impact the new Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument, they need to know where to go to find them in high concentration, as doing what we are doing, sailing along a random transect, has not yet produced even one ton for us.

Their basic strategy is to use known oceanographic parameters that can be measured from satellite, and get a general concentration zone they can then send drone aircraft deployed from ships to find specific targets worth picking up because of their large size.

While NOAA still believes this to be a promising strategy, their first trial voyage last March with a drone aircraft did not succeed in locating any nets. Targeting the areas where derelict fishing gear accumulates and going out and trying to pick it up is what is known as an “end of the pipe” solution.

This term is often used by stormwater managers and refers to the difficulty of treating the storm runoff from urban areas at the end of its journey. Stormwater, running off of the urban hardscape does not have the pollutants it collects along the way filtered out by soil, plants or sand as it would in a natural watershed.

A new strategy is to create settling ponds and natural habitats where pollutants can be mitigated before they arrive at the receiving body, which is usually the ocean or a river or lake.

The problem is creating the political will to convert expensive urban real estate into what amounts to bio-filtration media, and some municipalities can only install expensive ozone treatment systems at the end of the pipe to protect swimmers from bacteria.
These systems may not be able to remove excess nutrients or other contaminants that might still affect sensitive habitats that receive the runoff.

With an internaltional community of nations in disarray, it is also very difficult to develop the political will to deal with the worldwide increase in fishing and synthetic polymer fishing gear. After the establishment of 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones around the coastal nations of the world, the incentive to develop the capability to exploit a nation’s marine resources or sell the right to one that could increased dramatically.

The world’s fishing fleets became markedly overcapitalized, meaning that there were more nets and boats than fish to catch. With increasing pressure to supply world demand for seafood, it was inevitable that the more economical synthetic polymer nets, lines and floats would be lost in increasing quantities. Accidental loss is not covered under MARPOL Annex V, which prohibits the dumping of plastics anywhere in the ocean. Therefore, no reporting of such losses is required.

Faced with the possible extinction of the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk seal, the only tropical seal, our nation has no choice but to try to remove some of the 52 tons of such nets and gear that impact the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument annually. A long term solution will require the invention of photdegradable or biodegradable fishing gear and reporting and take back schemes on an international level.

It is imperative that more strict regulation of international fishing be implemented and many conservation organizations are working toward this goal. It is our hope that changes in the polymer chemistry of the gear will also be on the table during these discussions.

The schooling fish in the deep ocean are practically gone. We have only caught one tuna in over a month of fishing, and it was a baby skipjack weighing less than half a pound. What we catch are Mahi Mahi which do not school and feed mainly on the pelagic flying fish which we are also seeing in fewer numbers than on previous trips.

We have found plastic in some of the Mahi Mahi and also found them consuming lantern fish and rainbow runner, species which are known to eat plastic fragments.

From the Asian side of the International Dateline
Captain Charles Moore, Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita


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Tallulah Morehead: Big Brother 11: Deride the Wild Surfer

July 18th, 2009 admin No comments

Good grief. It’s only my second Big Brother posting, and already I have had to break my vow to base this column only on what was broadcast on CBS. Why? Because CBS decided, for reasons not known to me, to withhold the real story of what is going on in the Big Brother House, particularly about the racism, the inept racism I must add, of surfer dude Braden, who was evicted on Thursday’s live show.

(Incidentally, if, like me, you found Braden soothing to the eyes, and would like to see all of him, go to You Tube and look at a video titled “Dante’s Cove 205 pt 3.” It turns out that in addition to surfing, he acts, and he has a full-frontal nude scene in that video. This boy doesn’t need a board to surf. He is “Hanging 10″ all the time. Very impressive, Braden. And while I’m admiring the houseguests’ genitalia, – I confess, it’s my hobby – I saw a screen cap of Russell emerging from the BB House shower that shows that a lot of his body weight is dangling from his crotch as well. Ladies and gentlemen, start your search engines!)

Watching only the broadcast shows, I had thought that Braden, a cute but none-too-bright chunk of eye candy, was just sort of a big lovable doofus. At one point, he hurled this most-hilarious angry snap at Lydia for throwing him under a bus to save herself (which is what she did): “Hey, go back to Burbank!” They’re in Studio City, all of a mile and a half from Burbank. It’s like angrily hollering “Cross the street! I mean it! Cross the street!

I got the impression, thanks to CBS, that Chima was a foul-mouthed, high-maintenance diva I would rather be shot than spend time with. (Okay, she is.) I thought Jordan to be a sweet, very-much none-too-bright southern belle, and that Kevin was an attitude-dripping, hostile jerk (actually, I still think that), and that Evil had triumphed when Braden was evicted.

But there was the annoying blank. Julie Chen asked Chima, as the nominees for eviction always are, to say a few words to “plead her case,” which is almost always a boring waste of time speech of meaningless make-nice: “You’re all the greatest people on earth. I will love all of you until I de. I’d rather give my children to slavers than ever be parted from any of you, my closest friends on earth, whom I have known now for about a week and a half.” This was pretty much exactly what Braden’s speech was. “You guys are all awesome.”

But Chima’s speech was certainly something else. The puzzle was, what was it? Because the meat of it was just silence to us at home. Julie Chen can not be asked to ad lib, let alone handle a contestant who has apparently just said something so foul that CBS wouldn’t broadcast it. Julie came up with: “Well Chima, I think that’s the most memorable last plea speech we’ve ever heard,” which for Julie, is the equivalent of ad-libbing Hamlet’s soliloquy. But since we didn’t hear 90% of it, how can it be memorable? I can’t remember what I haven’t heard.

Then we saw the live vote, which was a tie, due to the treachery of Ronnie The Weasel, henceforth to be forever known as Voldedork. Breaking the tie, Jesse, to no one’s surprise, voted for Braden, and he was out the door. The nasty, evil bullies in the Athletes Clique (just as real life athlete cliques in real high school are always bullies) had triumphed.

That was how it seemed on the air. Off the air however, is another matter altogether.

It turns out, I learned netsurfing, that Chima was reminding everyone that, as witnessed on the live feeds by millions, well hundreds, well dozens, well “Jim,” Braden had called Kevin a “beaner.” We did get to hear him call Lydia a “bitch” and a “skank” on CBS, but given that she’d sold him out, and was, right at that moment, lying to his face about it, I’m inclined to be more lenient about those. If I had a drink for every time I’ve been called a bitch and/or a skank, I’d be too drunk to type this, which is why my amanuensis, Little Dougie, is doing the typing. But there is no excuse for “beaner.” None.

This, of course, changes the view of last night’s events by 180 degrees. Annoying as I find Chima, and she’s very annoying, if I’d heard Braden call Kevin a beaner, I’d have voted to evict him as well. Good riddance. Hey Braden, surf’s up. Hit the road. Back to Burbank!

And then there’s the ineptness of it. “Beaner” is a nasty term for Hispanics. My horrifically-bigoted Uncle Fred (now long dead, and not missed) used to use it all the time. Christmas Eve at his home every year was always a time to hear from Fred about Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men, and “Those Damn Beaners.” Is it any wonder I’m not a Christian?

But Kevin is “Blasian,” half-black, half-Japanese. There are a couple N-words Braden could have used more accurately if just as disgustingly; one of them is “nip,” and of course, there are all the more-popular gay slurs Braden could have slung, like “fag,” which it turns out (on the live feeds) is constantly popping out of Jordan’s mouth, but not “beaner.” (Jordan does not appear to dislike homosexuals. She’s been palling around with Kevin some, as well as Dr. Michelle, who claims on the live feeds to be “bisexual.” She’s just too dumb to understand that the word is offensive. I suspect she has to read the instructions on a box of toothpicks. More on her stupidity and ignorance below.)

CBS didn’t just not-broadcast the sound on Chima’s speech, but also omitted from broadcast Braden’s racist remarks themselves, even in the remarkable, lengthy montage of the emotional fireworks that were, truth be told, deliberately unleashed by Russell, who intentionally goaded Braden into confronting folks and having a tantrum, which, like a row of dominoes, set off emotional meltdowns in Lydia, Kevin, Jordan, and Jeff. Good TV!

Yet learning that Braden has called Kevin a beaner, and that Jordan routinely uses “fag” utterly changes my perceptions of all of the folks who voted to evict the ever-annoying Chima. How could Jordan, Casey, Laura, Dr. Michelle, and Jeff have voted to keep that bigot in the house? I had been starting to like Jordan, Casey, and Jeff. Russell, incredibly sexy as he is, and despite clearly being a strong BB strategist, is also a bully and a bore. Lovely Jesse is obnoxious and self-involved to a degree that makes Tyra Banks look like Mother Theresa. Voldedork is evil. Lydia is a liar and a drama queen, and Chima is insufferable, but next to bigoted asses like Jordan and Braden, they’re all contenders for sainthood.

CBS needs to let the TV viewers see just how appalling these people are.

And what does it say about the America that these young people come from? Since when are words and attitudes like these acceptable anywhere? I live about two miles from the Big Brother House. I went past the studio where the BB House is on my way elsewhere all of 4 days ago, yet these people and I seem to occupy different universes.

To quickly skim over a few highlights from the week’s broadcasts: The Haves and Have-Nots competition to avoid being sent to the hell room, and to get decent food, involved assembling tubes to allow liquid to flow through some Rube Goldberg devices. Egomaniacal Voldedork (Well, he’s evil, and he himself wears a shirt that says “Dork” right on it.), even as his shirtless appearance was making me nauseous (Voldedork, wear a shirt at all times!), nonetheless delighted me in this competition. This “man” with no life never tires of telling us how he’s the smartest person in the house, blissfully unaware of Dr. Michelle’s PhD, and the fact that Russell is three times the strategist he is. So when he utterly botched the competition, getting smoked by even the dumbest folks in the house (Jordan, the breasts named Laura, and Jeff who never reads) in a competition that depended solely on intellectual puzzle-solving skills, I roared with laughter.

Oh, and Voldedork said that Braden was from “Planet Klaatu,” when any true sci-fi computer geek would know that Klaatu was an alien, not a planet. It’s Mork from Ork, not Ork from Mork, you dork.

This loss was followed by Chima’s spoiled-diva meltdown about having to sleep on flat pads and eat slop, and her near-quitting the show over it. Grow up, lady. (The live feeds also reveal Chima to have a vocabulary that would scald the ears of sailors.)

Voldedork also showed during the week that he has a future as a reporter, because saying something to him in confidence is the surest way to make sure that everyone in the house knows it within seconds! He compulsively betrays every secret told to him, and has no problem lying to people’s faces about it. Russell, who though a bully and an egotist, is nobody’s fool, has already cottoned to this fact, but so far some of the others are still believing the little weasel’s bull. He’s playing all sides against the middle.

How pathetically stupid is Jordan? Well here’s a direct quote from her in the Diary Room, telling us about her – ah – challenges in the tube-maze competition: “Only thing I was confused about, he [Braden] kept going like ‘90 degree angle, 180 degrees.’ I had no clue what he was talking ’bout. I was like ‘talk in English, my terms here, so I can understand’.” Of course, not only is “90 degree angle, 180 degrees,” perfectly clear English, but these are terms one generally becomes familiar with in the fourth grade. If Braden knows them, how obscure can they be? Maybe if he’d used words she does know, like “fag,” she’d be able to follow him. My cat is smarter than Jordan. My shoes are smarter than Jordan.

The veto competition was even funnier. Basically they were playing a word game that involved making the longest word you could with giant Scrabble tiles they had to scoop out of giant, fake-pus-filled zits on a huge face in the yard. Whoever came up with this game has serious complexion issues.

Several of the players idiotically decided on what long word they wanted to spell before acquiring tiles, and then looking for the specific tiles they wanted, when the tiles all were randomly distributed under globs of revolting goo, instead of doing the intelligent thing, and collecting tiles first, and then seeing what word you could make from them.

But the players’ real downfall was that, in this competition, spelling counted. Oh dear. Giant Scrabble tile racks don’t have Spell Check.

Meathead Jesse, sure he was going to win, spelt out “continously.” Unfortunately for Jesse, it’s spelt: continuously. Once again, in trying to show how smart he is, he revealed how ignorant he is.

Natalie wasn’t so ambitious. She spelt “last.” She spelled it correctly, but the winner would be the longest correctly-spelt word. She had ten minutes, and “last” was the best she could do.

Chima, who was an eviction nominee and needed to take it seriously and win, revealed a rack that said: “Super ality.” “I tried to spell superficiality, but I couldn’t find the letters.” I could see why that word would have sprung to her mind, but why not spell what you could with the letters you had? She could have just spelled “super,” and been ahead of Natalie, and she could have spelt “reality” and tied the game with Russell. Instead, she got no points. Remember, she’s in the Brains Clique. The Brains Clique isn’t Mensa.

Jeff doesn’t read books. In fact, I doubt he could read a stop sign. His word revealed was ‘tectronics.” That’s not a word. “I couldn’t find an ‘H’,” was his lame excuse. You see, he was trying to spell “technotronics,” which is also not a word, so he misspelled a nonexistent word. He could have spelled “sonic” or “strict” neither of which would have won but are at least actual words. Russell summed it up well when he said, “Jeff is a moron.” But Jeff looked great shirtless as he revealed his illiteracy. I’d play Strip Scrabble with him anytime, since I know I’d win.

Lydia, who was on the block and should have been playing to win, revealed “ci i liza tion.” She was trying to spell “civilization,” but why not spell a word you have the letters for? How about “action,” Lydia? It wouldn’t have won, but it’s a complete word. And it’s not like Liza Minnelli was likely to be watching anyway, unless she’s planning to marry Kevin, which she might well be.

When Russell revealed his word as “shotgun,” he got laughed at, but it won. 7 letters, spelling a real word, one he probably usually associates with the word “wedding.” Yup, in a game about spelling, one of the athletes won. The plain fact is that this boorish-but-gorgeous bully boy is actually smarter than most of the Brains Clique. At this rate, he could win the whole series, not that I’d mind looking at his beautiful bronzed pecs all summer.

Russell is also a pot-stirrer. He deliberately goads the people he’s targeting, which makes for good viewing, and also works strategically, as it got Jeff to alienate his own team members, and provoked Braden’s outbursts that revealed his ugly racist side which got him ousted. Russell came to play, and he’s doing it well.

Following the eviction, a dull Head of Household competition was held, with the players guessing what the public answered to questions like “Which clique does America think would skip school because they had a zit?” “Which clique does America think would most likely misspell ‘athlete’ in a spelling competition?” (With enormous irony, it was illiterate Jeff who got that one right: “The Athletes.”) “Which clique does America think would most likely skip the prom?” etc. This list of softballs was finally won by Voldedork. The King of Evil has become Head of Household. It was a more horrifying resolution than the tragedy at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Given that there has been more drama and emotional fireworks in the first week than in some whole seasons, this looks to be a fiery summer in Studio City. Check in again next week for more.

Cheers darlings.

To read more of Tallulah Morehead, go to
The Morehead the Merrier.

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Eleanor Smeal: Why Is the FMF Refusing to Abandon the Women and Girls of Afghanistan?

July 16th, 2009 admin No comments

This piece was co-written with Helen Cho, Feminist Majority Foundation Board Member.

Afghanistan is in deplorable condition. There’s no disputing that.

Some feel that we should just walk away.

We cannot endorse this position because the cost to women and girls would be too high and the U.S. responsibility for the current failed state of affairs in Afghanistan is too heavy.

If the U.S. were to pull out of Afghanistan, the United States would be once again breaking our promise to the Afghan people, and the country would likely fall under Taliban control.

Afghans, especially the women and girls, know something about the Taliban: their oppression and horrific human rights abuses. We can never forget they stripped women and girls of all human rights — the right to education, mobility, visibility, health care, employment, the list goes on. And more recently these terrorists have destroyed hundreds of girls’ schools, killed journalists, local women’s leaders and murdered women teachers in front of their students. They have filled water pistols with acid and disfigured the faces of young girls walking home from school. No wonder only 4% of Afghans would support the Taliban returning to power and 58% think they pose the biggest danger to the country. (BBC/ABC Poll, Dec. 2008).

Since 1996, the Feminist Majority Foundation has been immersed in a campaign to support Afghan women and girls in their fight against the brutal oppression of the Taliban. Long before 9/11, we protested and helped stop UNOCAL’s proposed gas and oil pipelines that would have provided the Taliban with millions of dollars in annual fees to support their reign of terror. We joined Afghan women’s groups and other concerned citizens, launched an awareness campaign, gathered and delivered hundreds of thousands of petitions. Together we stopped the U.N. and the U.S. from recognizing the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan.

To begin to understand the scope of the U.S.’s responsibility in Central Asia, we have to revisit the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union during the cold war years. During the war against the Soviets, the CIA covertly supported mujahideen fighters with billions of dollars in funds, weapons and equipment. Some of those fighters later became known as the Taliban. The U.S. also backed and funded vicious warlords who committed gross human rights abuses. A few of them are now members of the Afghan cabinet and parliament.

Once the Soviet Union was defeated, George Bush Sr., then President, promised the U.S. would help Afghans rebuild. Instead the U.S. walked away.

Afghanistan erupted into a devastating civil war. The Taliban emerged “victorious” with help, it is believed, from Pakistan and its Intelligence Service, the ISI.

During the period from the Soviet Invasion (1978) through 2001, between 5 and 7 million Afghans fled the country of some 26 million. The Feminist Majority Foundation sent a team to Pakistan to interview refugees who were fleeing from the Taliban over the Afghan border. Afghans were the single largest refugee population in the world. They told our team of the atrocities being committed. Refugee conditions and those within Afghanistan were abominable. The country was also suffering from a horrible drought. Some experts believed one million Afghans would starve to death. Prior to 9/11, the Feminist Majority Foundation urged the increase of food allotments to the World Food Program for Afghans suffering from the Taliban and the drought. We also tried to get the Taliban listed as a terrorist organization — to no avail.

After 9/11, the U.S. bombed Afghanistan, the Taliban were deposed, and the second Bush administration promised a Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan.

As long-time peace activists, we did not support the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. As a member of Win Without War, we opposed the war in Iraq for many reasons. But let’s be clear — it was directly after the Bush administration abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq that conditions further deteriorated into the mess we’re facing today.

Given that non-violence is part of our mission statement, we, at the Feminist Majority, never expected to be asking for more security in the form of international peacekeeping troops (ISAF) back in 2002. (It is this outdated fact sheet that Sonali Kolhatkar and Mariam Rawi cite and we thank them for reminding us how important it is to keep our website updated.) But when we traveled to Kabul after 9/11 to find out what the U.S. could do, security is what Afghan women wanted first and foremost.

The Afghans we spoke with were more than gracious considering what our government had put them through. We were heartsick over the conditions we saw, inspired by the stories of struggle, and devastated by one question that we kept hearing over and over:

“Where were you (U.S.) after we defeated the Soviets?” They had not forgotten the first time the U.S. abandoned them.

Early in 2002, the Afghans were also extremely worried that if U.S. focus turned to Iraq, their needs would be forgotten again. Their fears were well founded.

After Bush II invaded Iraq, NATO and the U.S. did not adequately fund the redevelopment effort. Instead, the U.S. hired contractors who overcharged, botched projects, and did not come close to meeting their goals. Moreover, humanitarian aid was dispensed mostly through large international NGO’s with high overhead costs and relatively high western salaries, with little actual aid to Afghans.

In the last seven years, there have been some successes. In 2000, girls were not allowed to attend school. Last year, the U.N. reported that 6 million children attended school. More than a third were girls. 49% of health care workers are women. Women comprise 25% of civil service workers.

But make no mistake. Afghanistan is in terrible shape. The Taliban have gradually returned. Nothing is as it should be, which is why we are asking for no less than a Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan, the same way we did for Germany and Japan after World War II. Afghanistan’s water, sewage, electrical, and their once proud hospital systems have been all but destroyed by 30 years of war. We bombed it. We have an obligation to rebuild it.

Though we’d prefer that all U.S. funding be spent on development aid, we cannot in good conscience advocate the immediate military pullout that some are suggesting. The 2009 UN Humanitarian Action Plan noted that in 2008, “Approximately 40% of the country, including much of the South, remains inaccessible for most humanitarian organizations.” Last year, 92 aid workers were abducted and 36 were killed, double the number from 2007. In recent public opinion polls, Afghans put security in their top three concerns right after food. Without stabilizing the country, there can be no significant redevelopment effort.

In March, President Obama announced a significant change in the Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy. He shifted the focus from Iraq to this troubled region not a moment too soon. The Taliban had taken over the Swat Valley in Pakistan and were within 100 miles of its capital. In case anyone was wondering if the Taliban had changed its ways, they promptly closed girls’ schools, began flogging young women publicly, and committed other atrocities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban nailed a 70-year-old woman to a tree for allegedly talking with the enemy.

The new administration’s strategy recognizes the need for development and reconstruction. The military appears to be changing its priorities, announcing that protection of civilians is their first priority. Virtually everyone knows that a military solution alone won’t work. Yet, we cannot ignore that security and the Taliban are among Afghans’ top concerns.

For over 12 years, we have been listening to and working with Afghan women and Afghan women’s groups to learn what they want supported. Dr. Sima Samar is the Director of the Independent Commission on Human Rights, the highest ranking woman in the government of Afghanistan. An M.D. and founder of Shuhada, which runs health clinics and schools for underserved women and girls as well as for men and boys in Afghanistan, she is also the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Sudan. When she talks, we take notes. From a recent U.S. visit, this is what Dr. Samar urges and we support:

1) Human rights, especially the rights of women, must be a central focus.

2) The U.S. and Afghanistan must work together as partners with shared responsibility.

3) The U.S. must stop supporting and funding corrupt warlords who violate human rights. The culture of impunity must be stopped.

4) Security must be re-established until the Afghan army and police can take over. Private or “community” militias must not be funded.

5) Insist on accountability and transparency for aid funds and contractors.

6) Any long term plan must include job creation and development aid.

7) Women’s rights cannot be negotiated away in the name of peace. This kind of peace would not be sustainable.

We are grateful for our many friends and colleagues in the peace movement who have joined the effort to support the courageous women and girls of Afghanistan. Together, we have helped designate substantial U.S. funding for women and girls programs in Afghanistan — $367 million to date. Right now we are working for passage of the Afghan Women’s Empowerment Act with $100 million for critically needed education, employment, and health care programs and we continue to emphasize the need to fund Afghan women-led programs of Afghan nonprofits. We are also working to increase the numbers of trained midwives. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Only 14% of Afghan women have access to a trained childbirth attendant.

Our past governments’ failed policies over 30 years have directly contributed to the current conditions in Afghanistan. We, at the Feminist Majority Foundation, feel we owe it to the Afghan people, especially the women and girls, to keep our promises to stay this time, and help them clean up the mess.

For more information on the Feminist Majority Foundation’s work in Afghanistan, see www.feminist.org/afghan.

Eleanor Smeal is the Co-founder and President of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), a progressive nonprofit organization dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health and non-violence, All the FMF’s work incorporates a global focus in the struggle to win equality and improve women’s lives worldwide.

Helen Cho is a writer, poet and Feminist Majority Foundation Board Member. She traveled to Afghanistan as part of the FMF’s fact-finding delegation in 2002.

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Maternal Mortality Gets Obama Spotlight While Aid Dollars Decline

July 14th, 2009 admin No comments

A roomful of pregnant women waiting for their prenatal care appointments at La General Hospital in Accra, Ghana, got a treat on Saturday when President Barack Obama stopped by to compliment the hospital’s maternal health services.

“Part of the reason this is so important is that throughout Africa, the rate of infant mortality but also maternal mortality is still far too high,” Obama told the pool of reporters following him. Ghana’s maternal mortality ratio is about 40 times that of the United States.

Obama’s visit put the spotlight on a United Nation’s Millenium Development Goal (MDG) that, according to a new report (PDF), has seen the least progress so far out of the collection of goals aimed at halving extreme poverty by 2015. The sluggish gains made in reducing maternal mortality over the past eight years – MDG 5 – may even be reversed, especially in the poverty-stricken countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In fact, the global economic crisis could hamper progress on all eight of the targets established by world leaders in this “blueprint for a better world.”

“Maybe this is an opportunity,” notes Francesca Perucci, chief of Statistical Planning and Development for the U.N. Statistical Division, which coordinated data gathering and preparation of the 2009 report. “Maybe donor countries will finally start giving attention to the message that is loud and clear: We don’t see progress on MDG 5.”

The halfway progress assessment shows that the developing world still accounts for 99 percent of women who die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The U.N. and its partner agencies measure progress on maternal mortality by tracking cause of death and monitoring access to emergency obstetric care and prenatal visits. Over the last decade, the U.N. figures have barely changed.

So far, donor countries have expressed their intention to maintain the funding targets they set for the Millenium Development Goals in 2000, but the targets are a percentage of their gross domestic product and the actual dollar amount will be reduced as the economy contracts.

“You have to consider this is a time when the poorest countries will see their own internal domestic resources decrease, so they’ll need additional money, not less,” said Perucci. “If aid decreases, this will jeopardize any positive trends.”

The limited resources have led agencies to focus on projects that deliver immediate results, such as purchasing and delivering bed nets to reduce malaria. This will likely mean less less funding for equipping hospitals with staff that can treat pregnancy complications.

“With maternal mortality, you have to rethink the overall health system. It’s a lot more complicated,” said Perucci. To reduce maternal mortality, the U.N. suggests building more hospitals, improving transportation systems so that women can reach them in time, and informing expectant mothers of what they need to do when complications arise.

Access to family planning services could also improve maternal health. Contraceptive access hovers around 22 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, and is especially limited in refugee camps. But even these programs may be hard to expand. The U.N. report points out that funding gaps for family planning programs have been conspicuous since the mid-1990s.

Read more from WideAngle.

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Arianna Huffington: Bearing Witness 2.0: You Can’t Spin 10,000 Tweets and Camera Phone Uploads

July 14th, 2009 admin No comments

China just delivered a stunning, real-world demonstration of the changes rocking — and transforming — modern journalism.

When deadly riots broke out in the western province of Xinjiang last week, the Chinese government sprang into message control mode. It choked off the Internet and mobile phone service, blocked Twitter and Fanfou (its Chinese equivalent), deleted updates and videos from social networking sites, and scrubbed search engines of links to coverage of the unrest. At the same time, it invited foreign journalists to take a tour of the area.

That’s right, it slammed the door in the face of new media — and offered traditional reporters a front row seat.

China’s leaders realized that it’s one thing to try to spin the on-the-ground views of bused-in reporters (”To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports,” in the words of the government’s PR agency), but quite another to try to spin the accounts and uploaded images of tens of thousands of Twittering and cell-phone camera-wielding citizens.

The Chinese have clearly learned the lessons of Iran.

The same can’t be said about New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who, writing about covering the Iran uprising, recently claimed:

To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.

No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

How bizarre is it that Cohen chooses to attack the tools of new-media-fueled reporting by citing the very event that highlights the power of those tools — and the weakness of his argument?

Indeed, search engines, news aggregation, live-blogging, and “miracles of technology” such as Twitter, Facebook, and real-time video delivered via camera phones, played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to “bear witness” to what was happening in Iran.

The truth is, you don’t have to “be there” to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.

Obviously, there is tremendous value in being an eyewitness. But we have to always keep in mind that the conclusions drawn by eyewitnesses are greatly influenced by the eyes doing the witnessing.

Malcolm Muggeridge famously called this “the eyewitness fallacy” — the tendency of people to see, in eyewitness accounts, what they want to see.

As a longtime writer and editor for the New York Times, Cohen should be particularly aware of the limitations of eyewitness accounts.

“Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, [a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade] pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also accompanied MET Alpha on the search for him and was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information about the program and seeking their protection.” So wrote an embedded Judith Miller, “bearing witness” to the “silver bullet” proof of Iraqi WMD in the Times in April of 2003.

Miller was certainly there to vividly describe “the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder.” And her account feels so real. But it was oh so wrong.

Miller was hardly alone in seeing what she wanted to see when it came to Iraq. On-site reporting, as Cohen notes is not free, but, too often, neither is access. Bob Woodward wrote two books, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, that, in retrospect, glaringly demonstrate the sometimes-high cost of access. Woodward got his eyewitness scoops; the White House got a portrayal of Bush as a scrupulous, honest, highly moral leader. It wasn’t accurate, but it sure was a pretty exclusive eyewitness account. It wasn’t until a third book, ironically with much less eyewitness accounting, that Woodward belatedly began getting the Bush presidency right.

Another example of the limitations of Cohen’s credo that “to bear witness means being there” comes courtesy of his fellow Timesman, executive editor Bill Keller. Three days after the fraudulent Iranian election, and well after the street protests had been revved up and hundreds of videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets had been posted, Keller — in Iran to “bear witness” — reported:

“With this election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad] appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.”

Not exactly a miracle of eyewitness reporting.

In his column on Iran, Cohen writes movingly about being torn when he was forced to leave: “We journalists are supposed to move on. Most of the time, like insatiable voyeurs, we do. But once a decade or so, we get undone, as if in love, and our subject has its revenge, turning the tables and refusing to let us be.”

I share his love for impassioned journalism, the kind that earned Upton Sinclair, I.F. Stone, and George Orwell their well-deserved place in history. But this is precisely the kind of journalism that is so often derided and dismissed by those who think the function of journalism is simply to offer up both sides of a story or an issue and then get out of the way.

Cohen says he has left a “chunk” of himself back in Tehran. We should all be leaving chunks of ourselves behind when we encounter not just people demanding their freedom abroad, but those here at home who are losing their jobs, who can’t get health insurance, and whose houses are being foreclosed. And we should leave a chunk of ourselves with them not just once every ten years, but every day.

New media is not replacing the need to “bear witness,” it is spreading it beyond the elite few, and therefore making it harder for those elite few to get it as wrong as they’ve gotten it again and again — from Stalin’s Russia to Bush’s Iraq.

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