Thursday, April 30, 2009

Murder in Baku

I woke up this morning to read about the shooting in Baku today. Several other blogs from Azerbaijan have noted this event. While sometimes it seems that the population of the United States is inured to such events - which seem to happen almost weekly this spring - in Azerbaijan such crimes are genuinely shocking.

As a foreigner who lived and traveled in the country for a year, I have to say that it seemed to me one of the safest places I've been. Of course, traffic was quite dangerous, but even those drivers were usually not as crazy as they seemed.

I am very sorry that the country now has to experience such tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with my Azerbaijani friends.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What do you think?

Someone asked me last night about the surveys I used to post here. I haven't made one in a month or so, because the participation was low. Perhaps it was too long or complicated. So, this one is short and simple. I'd be interested in your opinion if you have three minutes. Click Here to take survey

I'll share the results in about a week - when I get a respectable amount of responses.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reagan's DOJ Prosecuted Texas Sheriff for Waterboarding

If Reagan's Department of Justice prosecuted this crime, why aren't we investigating the offenders now?

read more | digg story

Friday, April 24, 2009

What's the difference between Abu Ghraib and torture memos?

As I listened to this NPR radio interview with a former intelligence officer in Iraq yesterday, I was struck by the difference between the current reaction to the revelations about torture policy of the Bush White House and the reaction to the issue of torture that was raised after the photographic evidence of torture that leaked from the prison at Abu Ghraib.

Yes, there were newspaper articles and chest-thumping, but the level of outrage four years ago seemed considerably lower than it is now. Abu Ghraib was barely an election issue in 2004. OK - four years ago, we had grainy photos of tortured prisoners, not memos written in legalese. The Bush Administration at the time made the case that the people torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were just “bad apples,” but why did so many people believe him?

What are the differences in the situation? Which differences are most significant in affecting how the mass media and the political elite are responding to the issue?

When Abu Ghraib became a scandal, the war in Iraq was still being hotly fought by US troops. At the end of 2004, about 138,000 troops were on the ground. Now, there are roughly 140,000 troops, but President Obama has pledged to withdraw most of them by August 2010. So, with the conflict less “hot,” perhaps there is room for more scruples and reflection by the public?

Does the fact that the public now perceives that the Bush Administration engaged in foolish policies leading to the economic crisis mean that the public is more willing to doubt Bush & Co. about other matters?

Of course, the change in political leadership at the top makes a difference. For all his talk about “looking forward,” President Obama has no political incentive to cover-up the sins of his predecessor. Yes, this could cause the Republicans in Congress to be obstructionist, but it’s hard to see how they could be any more contrary than they are already.

And in the changed environment, there are countless of other political actors who have greater freedom of action to demand more accountability from the members of the Bush administration. The ability of these actors to affect policy four years ago was quite limited; now, their demands carry more weight.

But I wonder also about the overall political and social climate of the time. I visualize the individuals in a society, suspended like pebbles in some sort of conglomerate rock. While certain individuals may move out of the norm, the individuals in general are constrained by the mass surrounding them. How else to explain this recent outburst of a commentator on the Fox News network, of all places?

I don’t think that this somewhat Gramscian understanding of society contradicts the other explanation - that the difference in the reaction to the issue in torture is being led by the political elite. These explanations can coexist. I’m just hoping that the mass of public opinion in the United States will shift - perhaps glacially - to a position that grants greater value to human rights.
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By the way, Krugman steps out of his regular area of expertise to write an excellent column on the issue in today's New York Times. While I completely back a thorough investigation of the issue, I also think Elizabeth de la Vega raises some good points about the need to completely think through a strategy for future prosecution of those who formulated the policy.

Also, here's a good side-by-side comparison between the legal memos and what actually happened.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hannity volunteers to be waterboarded

This really should be pursued. He's made the offer - so it should be accepted. Fox News could even televise the event. It could be a fund raiser for injured vets. Perhaps Bill O'Reilly and Dick Cheney would also like to volunteer. After all, everyone but liberals knows that waterboarding isn't torture. Hannity has graciously offered himself as evidence to prove those liberals wrong.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Protesting an unjust decision

I chatted today - via e-mail - with Parviz, my former student who was expelled last month for writing about corruption at his university. He sounded defiant - but he also seems resigned to the fact that the expulsion from the university is unlikely to be reversed. I asked about his plans. Parviz said he is contacting international organizations and protesting the decision. I'm posting YouTube footage of a protest held earlier this week. The footage and an article about the case can be found at this site - but it's all in Azerbaijani.

While his case is unusual in one sense - in many ways his situation isn't that odd. He is trapped, like so many Azerbaijanis. I suggested that leaving the country for awhile might be a good idea. It's not an option, he said. And even if it were - what does this mean? That the brightest and most courageous young people must leave the land of their birth?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hellhole - Is solitary confinement torture?

The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? The author makes a series of excellent points. A couple of sentences:"This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world."

read more | digg story

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An uphill fight

In some ways - I almost feel sorry for the authorities at Lenkoran State University, where my student Parviz was expelled last month. (The expulsion was just made public last week.) The authorities may not have understood his character. He's a very tenacious guy - and very brave. Very few students would dare to take on their professors and their school administrators over the issue of bribery.

If school officials thought that expelling him from the university would make the issue go away, they are sadly mistaken. Parviz is petitioning parliament on the issue, and I don't think he's just going to be quiet about the issue. He shouldn't. After all, I firmly believe the facts are on his side. I had so many people complain to me about the corruption in the school system when I was teaching over there. Americans who taught on Fulbright Fellowships talked about it. The students, of course, complained. One of my students - who herself wanted to become a teacher - couldn't enter her profession because she couldn't pay the requisite bribes. The system is shot through with corruption - and everyone knows it.

Silence is the necessary accomplice to corruption. Maybe the matter of Parviz will open the proverbial can of worms. Who knows where it will send? After all, it's not just the education system that is corrupt - as anyone who knows Azerbaijan will tell you. Several years ago, Azerbaijan was ranked lower than Nigeria in the corruption index compiled by Transparency International. When I talked to Azerbaijanis, this corruption was a source of shame for many, but the problem seemed like it was insurmountable, as daunting as the creation of a real democracy.

Here's a link to a little news conference held a few days ago on the subject of Parviz's expulsion from the university.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Young journalist suffers consequences for rocking boat

Parviz was one of my best students while I was in Azerbaijan. He was the only one of my students to actually produce articles about corruption in the nation's education system. I had quite a few students who spoke about it - but naturally it was a very daunting subject to tackle. Many of my students were still studying at universities - so really digging into this subject could be dangerous for their academic careers.

As it was for Parviz.

When he first suggested writing about corruption at the university, I cautioned him about taking on the subject. To do it right would be difficult, and would certainly anger important people. Nonetheless, he was resolute - and for his final project he wrote both blog entries and a long newspaper article on the subject - an article that named names. I was more nervous than he about publishing the article.

I don't think it was one article that caused the university to finally kick him out. Parviz is one of those students that is challenging or infuriating, depending on your perspective. Once he grabbed hold of an issue, he didn't let go - the mark of really excellent journalist. This time, Parviz obviously infuriated enough people at the university to close that door to him.

He has great talent and energy - so I don't worry about him finding some position that suits his interests. But to be honest, I do worry about his personal safety. Azerbaijan is a dangerous place for journalists who challenge the system. A number of journalists have been mysteriously assaulted and murdered in Azerbaijan in recent years. Currently, Uzbekistan is the only European or Central Asian country that has more journalists behind bars than Azerbaijan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Here is the little news item a friend sent me from a Yahoo group. I include it verbatim.

Parviz Azimov was expeled from University

Pressures to the Head of the South Regional office of Dalga Youth Movement

The head of the south regional office of Dalga Youth Movement Parviz Azimov has faced various prosecution and pressure by university authorities due to his articles and current acitivities. Finally, on February 27th he was expeled from Lankaran State University with false accusation. We would like to remind that, Parviz Azimov studies at the fourth grade at above-mentioned university and has not had any problems so far. University authorities, who could not find any evidences about his education, orginazed false sabotage against him. They accused him in alleged fight at the university and expeled him.

As Dalga Youth Movement we urgently request to stop this illegitimate act, to restore Parviz Azimov’s education at the university, and we want people who organized this sabotage against him apolagize. We state that we will use any possible means to restore justice and to defend Parviz Azimov’s rights. We call everybody to support us in our way of defending the law and human rights. We demand the related organs to fulfill their duties.

(Above is a photo of me presenting Parviz with his certificate at the end our classes. Notice we are both wearing jackets. The classroom was unheated and the average temperature of 40 degrees F. felt more like 33 F.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Watching Russian propaganda

I've been watching some Russian propaganda tonight- mainly because a friend of mine, an actor, sent me some links to it. Martin plays a cynical journalist for the BBC. If you don't speak Russian, you won't get much of it - although there are some parts in English.

The basic plot: An entomologist - born in Russia, raised in the US, travels to South Ossetia, just in time for the 2008 war to start. He's there to collect a rare butterfly - but his scientific mission is forgotten when the bullets start flying and the bombs start falling. Because he and his Russian assistant - a journalist - are there at the very beginning, they have proof that the Georgians started the war. But the Western Media doesn't want to hear their opinions or view the evidence. As my friend's character cynically tells them - it's a media war - and the news media collectively represent one of the most important weapons of war.

It was nice listening to Russian, and interesting to see Channel One's propaganda. It's not a very subtle piece. The Americans are at best clueless. Even the American "hero" is a ditz, accidentally inhaling a bug at one point. The Russian woman, at the other hand, is attractive, brave, gutsy, and honest.

The Georgians are brutal thugs who kill unarmed civilians.

The Russian are honorable soldiers, defending neighbors in need.

The South Ossetians are beleaguered and out-gunned.

I'm sure my friend got paid well.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Is political change coming in Georgia?

As I read this NYT article, I remembered a conversation I had with an Azerbaijani woman last year. She was bemoaning the lack of political change in her country, and pointed the acquiescent attitude of the Azerbaijani populace as one explanation for the authoritarian government there. She had been to Georgia, and recalled how ordinary women had erected barricades to stop traffic. This feisty attitude of the people made it harder for a dictator to dominate the Georgians, she argued.

I'm not sure if this is true, but certainly it does seem that the Georgians are pretty good about making their voices heard. What would be the result if the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili felt he could repress the demonstrators with impunity? Indeed, would he be more likely to repress them if his good friend John McCain were president?

(The above is an icon in an abandoned church near Sighnaghi, Georgia, that I photographed last summer.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wording makes a difference

One of the things we learn in political science is how the wording of polls is so important. I was thinking about this after reading the latest poll from the Marist Institute. In this poll, 55 percent of those surveyed approve of his foreign policy initiatives. Just a day ago, I was depressed by the high number of people who seemed to think that Obama's overtures in Europe were wrong-headed. But that was a different polling organization, and the questions were worded differently.

Required reading

The recent article by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books should be required reading for all civics classes in the United States. Of course, the students should also read the ICRC report that details the torture policies followed by the United States government. This is available for downloading at the NYRoB site.

Read this, and tell me again how the United States government is superior to that of the Soviet Union or Communist China. Yes, there are differences in how the mass of citizens are treated, but the treatment of the detainees at Guantanamo does not differ appreciably from the prisoners at Lyubyanka.

As Danner notes, a series of memos from the White House of George W. Bush detail the formulation of the torture policies. At this point, however, it's unclear if we will ever be able to read these memos. According to Scott Horten's piece in The Daily Beast, Senate Republicans are threatening to obstruct key Obama appointments if the contents of these memos is made public.

Massive public pressure will be needed to force disclosure of the contents of these memos. If the administration sees that it is more politically disadvantageous to continue the cover-up, the information will be released. But I don't think anything will happen without real pressure from the public on this issue.

I'm not terribly optimistic this will happen. I remember teaching a political science class several years ago. We were discussing the torture policies of the Bush Administration. After all, people knew what was happening, even if they didn't want to talk about it. Not one of my students would criticize policies that condoned the use of torture. Not one of these bright young students, the future of our country. It was a profoundly depressing day.

Newspapers don't matter?

One of my first jobs was delivering newspapers. I began working as a journalist while still in college. So, I bring a certain bias to the debate over the value of newspapers.

I began reading the day with a long rant about how newspapers don't matter. Just now, I have been reading the transcript of an interview aired on the program "On the Media" a few days ago.

You can listen to the interview here:

Take home message: newspapers matter a lot - for civic involvement and education, and hence for democracy.

High tech tools for revolution

The protests in Moldova are exciting, but really changing the government there is a huge task. It's one thing to call up a flash mob. Creating a stable opposition is a completely different task.

In Azerbaijan, young people also effectively used high-tech tools to organize opposition. They sent ext messages on mobile phones to organize flash mobs, for example. Members of the opposition also use Facebook to garner support for their causes. And yet, when the government wanted to change the constitution this spring, these tools were not even a bump in the road.

New tools are great and can make a difference for government opponents. But real political change depends on broader and slower moving changes in society and the economy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Trying to be an American

I really try to be an American. Within reason, of course. I don't patronize McDonald's. Or listen to country music. Or vote Republican. Or go to a conventional church. Or say the Pledge of Allegiance. Or shop at Wal-Mart. But - this is the country where I grew up, so I feel like I should feel more identity with it. But so often I am slapped in the face with the fact that I am a misfit here

These latest feelings come after reading another Rasmussen Poll. I really should cut these polls from my reading list, because they are depressing and I think they are slanted to the right. I noticed today that one of their guest columnists was Dick Morris, the infamous former advisor of Bill Clinton.

This poll claims that only 37 percent of US residents recognize that their country was dismissive and arrogant toward Europe. I read this poll after watching a little snippet on CNBC on the same issue, referencing President Obama's recent overtures to Europe and the Muslim world. Apparently, a majority of US residents don't recognize arrogance or think that it's a good thing. The woman on the TV screen, a Republican "consultant," of course, was opining that the US had nothing to apologize for because, after all, it is the world's super-power. Have these people been paying attention? In what universe do they live? I suppose it's the universe where US soldiers were warmly greeted by the grateful residents of Baghdad. I suppose it's the universe that does not contain problems such as global warming, problems that require cooperation, not arrogance.

Spring Sounds and Sights

From a frustrated herpetologist.

Monday, April 6, 2009


This is a funny blog entry I stumbled across. It's worth reading to the end just for the image of Glenn Beck.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Let's have a war!

I was reminded of an old punk song today: Let's Start a War.

No, former President Bush is still safe in scrubland of Texas. The thought was prompted by this little piece in the Rasmussen Reports. Rasmussen does polling on all sorts of things - and apparently 57 percent of the US public wants a military response to the attempted missile launch by North Korea.

Wow. Let's jump first to the military response, without considering other options or the real consequences of taking on a heavily militarized country. What sort of military response does the public want? Perhaps bombing? That's always popular. It seems so sanitary - to drop bombs from a safe distance and believe that pesky political problems will be eliminated neatly.

What lessons have been learned in the last eight years? Do people really think that war is the best solution to complex problems?

I am not an expert on North Korea - but I am sure that a military response carries the risk of dangerous repercussions. I'm hoping that the people deciding the response to the missile launch consider those repercussions carefully.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Indy printing co. in Baku plans to close

I had disturbing news today from my friend Shahbaz Khuduoglu, owner of the Chap Evi Printing House in Baku. He announced this week that his business is in danger of closing after losing its largest client, the Yeni Musavat Newspaper. That newspaper is now taking its business to the Azerbaijan Printing House.

Yeni Musavat is one of the largest opposition newspapers. I don’t know much about the Azerbaijan Printing House, other than it raised its rates for newspaper publishing a year ago. And I know that the general director of the printing company also happens to sit in parliament, an elected member of the president's political party. What does it mean when one of the main opposition papers shifts its account to a business run by a political ally of the president? I'll let you figure that out.

Shahbaz has printed everything from Harry Potter books to dry legal commentaries. He is an independent publisher, and he used to work as an independent journalist. This is not the first obstacle he’s faced. A few months ago, I was in a meeting where we discussed trying to assist Shahbaz with a grant to buy presses to replace the antiques now used by the business. The power distribution company Barmek tried to cut off electricity to Chap Evi four years ago. Simultaneously, the landlord was trying to evict the company.

But the main problem stems from the central government. The Azerbaijan government fears independent thought, and will continue to suppress it wherever possible.

Here’s a little article on the subject written on the web page of the Institute For Reporters Freedom And Safety.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Council of Europe official warns Azerbaijan over constitution changes

The head of the Council of Europe's Chamber of Local Authorities says amendments to Azerbaijan's constitution violate commitments that the country made on democracy when it joined the Council of Europe.

Will President Aliyev or his supporters care? Perhaps a little. Not much.

read more | digg story

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I've stopped rolling

I can't say - I'm home - because where I live doesn't really feel like home. I have barely resided in this place for two weeks. And - I'm uncertain if I'll be residing here come June. But - last night I completed my trip through New England, rolling into North Carolina about nine p.m.

I'd hoped to post more poetry and art work from my hosts along the way - but this plan just didn't work out. It's easy enough to check out the work of my friend Seth, , with whom I stayed for the last couple of days on my trip. I'll also include a picture of some of the deer that hang out by his house in rural Pennsylvania.

Because I will be less mobile in the weeks ahead, I suspect that this blog might become more of an ongoing commentary of what will be my dominant concern for the coming year - my doctoral dissertation on the political impact of media ownership consolidation.

Traveling is more fun that writing a doctoral dissertation - but it doesn't yield much of a regular salary. (Of course - a Ph.D. doesn't come with any guarantees either!)

Here are a few photos from the trip.