Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Supreme Battle

Tonight I watched a clip of ABC news coverage about the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court - just after reading MoveOn's talking points about the same nomination.

I'm not a legal scholar, but it seems like President Obama made a great choice. As I watched the ABC news report, I wondered about the news media in this country, which provides free air-time for conservative arguments, but gives much, much less coverage to the liberal point of view. The ABC piece was entirely composed of Republican complaints about the nomination - tired arguments that the judge might be "activist."

(There is this complete fiction that the corporate media push - that liberal judges are "activist," and conservative judges hew to the literal meaning of the Constitution. It's not that simple. Here's one discussion of the question.)

The ABC piece concluded with the news reader predicting that the Republicans would tread carefully in plotting their opposition to the pick because Sotomayor is a Latina, and the Republicans don't want to lose any more of this constituency. The way it was phrased emphasized the politics of the nomination, rather than Sotomayor's excellent qualifications.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Enjoying the scents & sights of spring in Appalachia

I realized the other day when I looked at this blog that I had a series of serious and even depressing items posted. Drugged soldiers. Torture rationales. Political repression.

All of these are serious issues and deserve serious attention. But - I don't want to give the wrong impression about my life - or life in general. It's spring in the hills of North Carolina. The rhododendrons are blooming. The magnolias are starting to bloom. The air is sweet with the scent of honeysuckle.

So - I thought to post some pictures of some of the flowers and local scenery I've photographed in the last week or so. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

U.S. military: Heavily armed and medicated

In deploying an all-volunteer army to fight two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on prescription drugs to keep its warriors on the front lines. In recent years, the number of military prescriptions for antidepressants, sleeping pills, and painkillers has risen as soldiers come home with battered bodies and minds. A truly frightening scenario - and a mirror also of the drug-dependent society the USA has become.

read more | digg story

Friday, May 22, 2009

Senate Votes to Block Release of Torture Photos for 5 Years

In an amendment to the $91 billion spending bill to fund the war in Afghanistan, the Senate voted to block the release of all post 9/11 detainee abuse photos for five years. The language is aimed at preventing a court from ordering their release in response to a freedom of information lawsuit.

read more | digg story

The Republican propaganda has been effective. And the truth is - many people just don't want to know what was done by the CIA and the other torturers. Advocating for disclosure of this information is not a vote-winning strategy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Disease of Permanent War

"The embrace by any society of permanent war is a parasite that devours the heart and soul of a nation. Permanent war extinguishes liberal, democratic movements. It turns culture into nationalist cant." This is written by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, a seasoned war correspondent. He knows a little about war.

To reach his conclusions about the moral consequences of war, it is not necessary to travel to a war zone. You can observe the moral corrosion of war in Russia, Azerbaijan, the United States, or in any of a multitude of other nations. War requires that we view other humans as "less than human," and in so doing, our own humanity is itself diminished.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Big Media Myopia: More Consolidation Won't Save Journalism

Some people have advances the sophistical argument that more consolidation will help the news business, because consolidation leads to richer owners, who can afford to make investments in the news outlets they have purchased. The only problem is - the more these owners are isolated from competitive pressures, the less likely they are to invest in improving the quality of the news media - whether it is broadcasting or newspaper.

This fact is glaringly demonstrated by the current crisis US newspaper business - the logical consequence of decades of breakneck consolidation with nary a thought given to the public good that the news media provide. So now - the industry is in crisis and Congress finally has woken up to the fact that the provision of even basic civic information is being threatened. The horse has left the barn.

What now? Your guess is as good as anyone's.

read more | digg story

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Opium of the people

One of the biggest time-sinks on the Internet is Twitter. For me. It's an easy method of procrastination. I can open it up & follow strange links to useless and amusing sites. This morning I remarked on this characteristic of Twitter - after reading somebody's account of the survival of tomato seedlings.

(I'm glad they survived - but why would I care?)

Anyway - I told my friend that Twitter can be useful for searching for subjects, and just for kicks I searched "Azerbaijan," to see if there were any news flashes about continuing civil unrest there.

Nothing about that - but all sorts of tweets and twittering about the Eurovision song contest. I remember last year - how that was all people were talking about in Azerbaijan. I couldn't get away from that tune that the was the entry that year- the one with the histrionic demon & angel screaming at each other.

My thought - reading all these tweets - was how Marx needed to be updated. Religion is not the opium of the people. Pop is the opium of the people. In the USA, people are more concerned about American Idol entrants than they are about Supreme Court justices. In Europe, I guess the priorities aren't that much different.

Perhaps it's a question of agency and transparency. The public can see the singers perform. They can cast their votes by telephone. The public in Azerbaijan seems to have far greater input into the winner of a Eurovision song contest than it does in the formulation of government policies.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Moscow prepares for gay rights showdown

It's possible that a gay pride parade can be held peacefully in Moscow. But I doubt that it's possible in 2009.

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Students could pose challenge to government

The author, Liz Fuller, has reported from this region for several years, but I don't sense a close grip on the political realities of the country. For example, I can't see the authorities "quietly abandoning the Aliyev personality cult and tapping into accumulated oil revenues to finance a broad program of material benefits intended to make the political status quo more palatable." And in her last paragraph, she betrays a belief that elections in Azerbaijan are about counting votes. I'm not sure about that either.

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Analysis: Europe should foster better ties with Azerbaijan

This energy analyst urges Europe to support Azerbaijan in its struggle to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. He makes no comment about the current Azerbaijan leadership and the recent repressive actions in that country.Yes, supporting a fair peace settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh is important, but it's also important to push for the process of democratization in Azerbaijan. Appeasing corrupt oil-rich regimes is not in the long-term interest of Europe or the people of Azerbaijan. Economic decisions should not be divorced from political reality.

read more | digg story

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Congress’s Torture Bubble

Democrats should expect to answer these questions - about what they knew when and what did they do about it. This does not mean that they should shy away from asking the hard questions. If we are to move beyond the terrible policies of the Bush Administration, we must honestly confront all the questions.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are Americans really that satisfied with health care?

Is this true?

"Everyone likes the idea of reform, but most Americans remain quite satisfied with the quality and accessibility of their own health care, and very worried about policies that would impair that quality or access."

It's a quote from today's column by William Kristol in the Washington Post. He urges Republicans to start focusing on the vulnerabilities of the Obama Administration. It's worth reading, even if you voted for Obama, just to see what sort of advice the Republicans are getting.

But I was curious - is his statement really true - that most people are "quite satisfied with the quality and accessibility of their own health care?" He doesn't cite a particular poll - so I'm wondering which one he's thinking about. There is this CNN poll, that finds 8/10 Americans satisfied with their health care. Three quarters of the sample also judge the cost of health care in this country to be too expensive.

This 2003 ABC poll finds that "most Americans, or 54 percent, are now dissatisfied with the overall quality of health care in the United States — the first majority in three polls since 1993, and up 10 points since 2000." Did health care really improve that much since 2003? To be honest, I didn't think that health care reform was much of a priority for the Bush Administration. Perhaps I was distracted by the screams of prisoners being tortured.

In a Harris Interactive/Health Day poll earlier this year, half of the 2,491 adults surveyed said they either "strongly" or "somewhat" supported the president's plan to overhaul health care. Twenty-nine percent said they were still not sure about the plan, and 20 percent expressed opposition to the Obama proposals. And in June 2005 the Lake Snell Perry Mermin poll found that 27 percent picked rising health care costs as their top economic concern. The other concerns were wages not keeping up with costs (18 percent), a secure retirement (14 percent), higher taxes (12 percent ), and rising gas prices (9 percent).

I know that poll results have much to do with how questions are worded. At a gut level, I question Kristol's assumption that most Americans are "quite satisfied" with their health care. I wonder about this statement especially now that so many have lost employer-provided health care benefits during this recession.

Which polls is Kristol reading?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Notes from a foreigner

While I am a native born US citizen, I often feel like I am living in a foreign culture. The language down in North Carolina is certainly understandable. Most of the time. But it's a different culture for me - born & raised a Yankee.

This came to mind this morning when I heard something on the radio about Confederate Memorial Day being celebrated today. According to Wikipedia, this holiday was officially yesterday in North & South Carolina. It marks the death of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in 1863 & the capture of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in 1865.

In 2000, May 10 was made an official holiday in South Carolina, a compromise that also allowed Martin Luther King Jr. Day to gain status as a holiday. So, government offices are closed today, May 11.

I chatted quite a bit with locals yesterday & no one mentioned the "holiday." I didn't hear any "rebel yells." Didn't notice an unusual number of Confederate flags flying.

While the holiday didn't seem to spark much controversy locally, I do believe that the conflict is latent, not resolved. Just a few weeks ago, an African-American official in Alabama came under fire after removing Confederate flags from a graveyard. To African-Americans, the flags clearly indicate support for a regime that kept them in slavery. How can one note take offense at that? I have African-American friends who have expressed their feelings about it to me.

But for many white southerners, the flags mean something else. Pride in local history? Feistiness? I'm not sure. It would be an interesting subject for study - a good doctoral dissertation, but not mine.


From another foreign country, Azerbaijan, I got news this morning from a friend about the arrest of about 50 protesters yesterday in Baku. The US Embassy actually made some pointed criticism of the arrests.

Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani blogger, has some interesting observations on the current political situation in the country and some links to some video coverage of the protests. The students were seized because they were protesting that the government is refusing to allow days of mourning for the victims of the massacre on April 30.

I read about the arrests and I think about the "dictator's dilemma." I became familiar with this concept during a class I took on dictatorship taught by Katri Sieberg at Binghamton University. The concept is quite simple. Because the dictator's rule is absolute, in some ways his information about his own subjects is the most imperfect. After all, who wanted to inform Stalin about the failure of the five-year plans? Who wanted to tell Saddam Hussein about the condition of his army?

In this low information environment, the dictator is unable to properly assess threats to his rule. He faces the choice about how severely he should repress - harshly or not so harshly. The safer option usually appears to be harsh repression.

So, this is what the students face. The government fears that acceding to their demands will just lead to further problems. The authorities fear that if they loosen up and allow tacit criticism of the government, who knows where a little free speech might lead. (Remember the chants about corruption during the May 1 protests?)

By the way, even if you don't speak Azerbaijani, check out this video. I think it conveys some of the sadness and frustration among the students.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The American Press on Suicide Watch

I'm not optimistic about the public at large paying for hard news coverage. I'd love to be proven wrong.

read more | digg story

Monday, May 4, 2009

Duke the Dancing Parrot

NPR recently aired a piece about parrots and their sense of rhythm. I remembered my sister's parrot - which I photographed a month earlier - and decided to make this brief testament to Duke's terpsichorean abilities.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Survey results

I make no pretense that my surveys are scientific. I make them just for my amusement, really.

So, the latest - unscientific - results are 100 percent of the respondents do not feel that disregarding the Geneva Conventions to enable the use of torture on detainees has made the United States safer.

But - what should be done about it? Nearly 43 percent feel that there should be prosecution of top decision makers. An equal number feel there should be prosecution of everyone involved. The remainder feel that there should be a thorough investigation, but amnesty for everyone involved.

And the swine flu? I think its currency is already passing, only a week or so since it came to the attention of the public. Roughly 43 percent of respondents said they were worried.

If you want to take the opinion survey, click here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Demonstrations in Baku


What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

by Langston Hughes


Azerbaijan is far from Harlem of Langston Hughes, but today I was thinking about the concepts he expresses in this poem. A friend of mine sent me information this morning about the student demonstrations in Baku.

Here also is a link to the blog of Ilgar Mammamadov. He was one of the first political bloggers in the country, and I see that he was at the protests and is writing about them.

An Azerbaijani friend of mine later explained that the students wanted a day of remembrance for the victims, but the police were trying to control all the expressions of sorrow. I think the authorities are reflexively trying to restrain all spontaneous expressions. At the demonstration, the students were told to disperse. Also, the police interfered with the demonstration - with plain-clothed policemen telling the students to go in one direction, while uniformed cops sent them a different way.

This repressive reaction on the part of the government is part of living in an authoritarian country. All spontaneous action and communication is suspect - even if it is patently non-political. But - by trying to restrain such natural and human impulses - the authorities only will make things worse for themselves. The control will chafe more on the feelings of the people - who know that the government does not represent them - but feel powerless to make any changes.

Interesting - that in one of the news accounts here, the students are quoted as chanting "No terror, no corruption."

While the government may argue that it innocent in this particular terrorism incident, the complaints about corruption certainly hit close to home.

Such government repression can create serious consequences for the people in charge. Think Bloody Sunday, Jan. 22, 1905, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg were killed by the tsar's police. Or - perhaps more relevantly, think of Qara Yanvar, when 26,000 Soviet troops stormed Baku and killed hundreds of unarmed residents of the city. The killings were followed by stubborn resistance and 40 days of mourning, while the country engaged in a de facto strike. While the intervention by the soldiers was to maintain Soviet power, the opposite occurred. The country declared its independence the following year.

I'm not saying in anyway that the student demonstrations are similar to either of these historical events. But - I do believe that in situations when a population does not feel represented by its government, non-political events can have political consequences that are surprising and seem to be out of proportion.