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  • Friday, December 31, 2004


    Real "Fake News"

    It's difficult enough to find the facts in our broad daily media barrage but then there are the items that just make you shake your head. The 2004 Falsie Awards addresses some of the worst offenders in audacious "news" information from the past year. Here's a sample but read the whole thing to help you keep up on these trends in domestic propaganda... sorry, news reporting.

    Let's hear it for video news releases finally getting a smattering of the public scrutiny they deserve. A video news release or VNR is a simulated TV news story. Video clips paid for by corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations are commonly passed off as legitimate news segments on local newscasts throughout the United States. VNRs are designed to be indistinguishable from traditional TV news and are often aired without the original producers and sponsors being identified and sometimes without any local editing.

    When a VNR touting the controversial Medicare reform law ended with "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan, reporting," Senate Democrats called foul. The VNR, which aired on 40 stations between January 22 and February 12, 2004, was paid for by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ryan, the "reporter," was in fact employed by a production company contracted by the Ketchum PR firm to create the VNR for HHS. An investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that the VNR had violated a ban on government funded "publicity and propaganda." According to The Hill, a newspaper based in Washington, D.C., "VNRs are standard practice in the public-relations industry and local news reports often rely on them. ... However, the GAO said in its decision, 'our analysis of the proper use of appropriated funds is not based upon the norms in the public relations and media industry.'"

    Thursday, December 30, 2004


    Dark Numbers of Capitalism

    Capitalism seems to be an explicative structure currently enjoying an expansive phase. I've noticed that the capitalist model of an economic system seems to be spreading to include all sorts of other events and interactions. But the capitalist structure is an inappropriate model to use for evaluating and understanding many social or economic events.

    In Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics, he explains the concept of "dark numbers" in statistics. This is a number that is essentially a guess, often an educated guess, but still a guess. The example given is crime statistics. The number of murders in the US is fairly well documented because for every dead body a cause of death is required on the death certificate. The unknown number of murders (undetected, classified as accidental, no body found, etc.) is what is called the dark number. Relatively speaking, it's probably a small percentage of the total number of murders but it is still unknown. When calculating the number of murders in the US, the FBI (who compiles such statistics) adds the known number of murders reported from around the country to X (the "dark number") to get a total number of murders.

    Now, compared to the dark number of other crimes, murder rate statistics are fairly accurate. But take statistics on rape. First you have the number of rapes reported to the police. What percentage of rapes are reported to the police? 50%? 25%? 10%? Who knows for sure? It's a complex social crime with stigma, shame, violence and more surrounding it. All you can gather for sure is the actual number of rapes reported to authorities. From there, you have to start making assumptions about how many rapes are not reported. And that is very tricky. I'm making a point here about the difficulty in calculating the statistics about rape, not about the definition of rape (although the definition itself changes what's included in the statistic). The dark number in the number of rapes in the US is the difference between actual, reported rapes and the postulated unreported rapes.

    All this is to set up some of my meandering thoughts on the dark numbers of capitalist society. I've wondered about some of the statistics that are difficult to calculate about our economy. The so-called "black economy" includes illegal gambling, prostitution, illegal drug trade, and other things. These services and items must make up a portion of our economy but it's difficult to calculate because of their illegal nature.

    Another point that intregues me about statistics concerning the economy is the way an action or task becomes classified depending on who does it and whether paid labor is involved. An example is changing the oil in my car. I don't know how to do it. However I could do it with a little help from a manual. Oh, and I have to dispose of the used oil properly. And my unfamiliarity would probably mean it would take quite a bit longer than an experienced serviceperson, particularly the first time. Taking all that into account, I opt to pay $15 or so to have it done. It's easier for me. The point being by paying someone else to do it, the money enters the economy. If I do it myself, the cost of the oil is the only expense. OK, it's not the best example but it hints at what I'm talking about.

    Maybe I'm just nattering about inconsequential details concerning the economy but there's this concept I have that part of how the economy works is our collusion with it, our implicit agreement with certain ways of transacting tasks and services. Also the way the same task will transmute from free to paid depending on location. I pour myself a glass of water at home, free. I go to a restaurant, water is poured for me by a waiter, I'll ultimately pay for it with the cost of my meal and tip. I'd be perfectly happy to get up and get a pitcher of water and pour it myself but I might even be stopped by the staff if I tried.

    I don't feel I'm communicating this very effectively. Maybe I'll take another stab at it later.


    Conspiracies a Go-Go

    In a not very inspiring roundup of the Top 10 Conspiracy Theories of 2004, I found the bit below. Slightly related to this, I happened to catch the end of Torque, some sort of biker/action/CGI film. Two women were facing off on motorbikes. Behind one was a billboard for Pepsi, behind the other was a billboard for Mountain Dew(which is made by PepsiCo.) These filled and dominated two thirds of the frame while the women traded insults and taunts. It was one of the more blatant product placements I've seen. Well, no, there's always You've Got Mail, a film essentially constructed around an AOL trademarked phrase.

    7. What You Gonna Do When They Come For You?

    Propaganda of earlier decades is usually pretty easy to recognize. In hindsight, for instance, most of us can see that the duck-and-cover newsreels of the 1950s and '60s were selling Americans a bill of goods about the "survivability" of nuclear war.

    But how good are we at recognizing media PR today? Some would say not terribly -- at least if the popularity of reality TV is any indication. From Survivor to Fear Factor, reality shows all ask us to identify with people whose lives are being captured on camera, often almost continuously. And they encourage us to think that's okay.

    This is happening in the context of an increasingly intrusive surveillance apparatus in America and Western Europe, where the average city-dweller can expect to be photographed by closed-circuit cameras anywhere from a dozen to 73 to 300 times a day. Not many people complain about this, perhaps at least in part because Big Brother has changed the way Americans feel about Big Brother. But it's hard to imagine earlier generations accepting such a state of affairs, weaned as these generations were on novels and movies -- 1984, Fahrenheit 451, even Videodrome -- which warned that excessive surveillance would spell the end of freedom.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2004


    Google Scholar

    I'm interested in a new search option on Google that's currently in beta testing. It's called Google Scholar and searches specifically through academic and professional articles. It also seems to return results for citations of an article/paper even if the cited work isn't indexed by Google. I haven't had much chance to try it out but I'm optimistic because it may be a slight antidote to the enormous slush on the Web. Not that you can believe everything even in professional publications but I believe the odds are much better.


    Polling and Accuracy

    I'm always interested in how poll takers try to adjust for problems with sampling and such. I found this in Can Polling Be Fixed?

    Taking the public's pulse is a $6.6 billion industry that combines people skills and a certain artfulness with statistics. Good opinion surveys don't just ask questions - Who are you going to vote for? Have you had more than 20 sexual partners? - and then spit out numbers. Pollsters make adjustments, like giving more weight to answers from particular groups so the sample reflects the overall population they're trying to represent. Mathematicians and survey methodologists devote entire careers to getting more predictive and illuminating results.

    For example, a couple of weeks before the election, Science published an article by Drazen Prelec, an MIT psychologist. Prelec describes how to put the statistical thumbscrews on poll respondents - "a Bayesian truth serum," he calls it. (Bayesian math is a branch of statistics and probability theory.) In addition to posing a direct question to the respondent, the pollster also asks for a guess about how other people will answer the same question - "What percentage of people in the population do you think have had more than 20 sexual partners?" People telling the truth tend to overestimate how common their own answer was; the math's complicated, but basically we all think we're typical.

    Prelec's article addressed a small but vital problem. Mr. and Ms. America don't tell outrageous lies to pollsters, but they do tend to shade their answers to please interviewers - only a touch, maybe, but enough to change results. People say they plan to vote when they don't, or that they're paying close attention to an issue when they're not. But these little white lies are critical because pollsters use that information to determine if a respondent is a "likely voter," the linchpin question in any political survey. Screw that up, and the poll is worthless. In fact, many experts now suspect that volatility in political polls, especially in close races, is a consequence of flaws in the way pollsters identify likely voters.


    More on "What Liberal Media?"

    I find the title of "What Liberal Media?" somewhat strange. I keep wanting to try different inflections, stressing each of the words in turn.

    Some other bits picked up in the book:

    It's obvious that TV pundits do NOT have to rely on journalistic skills or even ethics. Those are not qualities needed in the fast pace of TV. Generally, who will remember what was said the next day? It's not like print (newspapers, etc.) where opinions and "facts" set out will be indexed, checked against a verifiable reality. Of course, TV pundits don't tend to be of the "reality-based" community.

    It should be obvious that the most popular TV pundits (O'Reilly, Limbaugh, etc), despite their claims to be "of the people", have annual incomes in the millions. They may even come from fairly privileged backgrounds.

    Sunday, December 26, 2004


    Journalists and War

    I've recently watched a number of documentaries on journalists in wartime. Journalists in these situations are subjected to threats and violence, and often blame for not stopping what they witnessed and documented. This is from What About the Journalists?:

    Greg Marinovich, a freelance photographer, felt a deep sense of impotence as he witnessed a gruesome period of South Africa’s history in the early 1990s, when his daily routine involved taking pictures of people being shot or hacked to death. When he won a Pulitzer in 1991, he found it difficult to celebrate. The winning photos, taken for the AP, were of a mob savagely murdering a man. Marinovich had been unable to save the victim as he was dragged from a train in Soweto by five men who then beat and stoned him and stabbed him in the head before dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. “I felt shock, repulsion, fear, excitement, dread — always the dread,” he says. “Now, having said that, there is the issue of enjoying, and being excited at, getting good photographs. So all these weird and disturbing thoughts, combined with the fact that we were earning money, added to the guilt — terrific guilt.”

    During the same period, one of Marinovich’s best friends, Ken Oosterbroek, also a photographer, was shot dead in a crossfire just yards away from him in Tokoza township. Marinovich took a bullet in the chest in that incident and nearly died. He recovered, went back to work, and later buried two more colleagues who had committed suicide. Marinovich escaped the numbing trap of drugs and alcohol that ensnared many of the journalists he worked with, but he endured terrible spells of depression and, as he puts it, “destroyed some relationships.”

    Science suggests that a terrifying experience alters the chemistry in the brain. The amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that researchers believe is tied to memory, releases cascades of stress hormones such as adrenaline. Such hormones change the way the mind processes information during times of stress, lodging images like snapshots in the memory. This can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, when vivid recollections return well after the event, evoking the initial horror. Classic signs include panic attacks, the avoidance of people or reminders of the incident, and flashbacks or nightmares.

    These physical reactions compound psychological burdens such as guilt. Extreme stress can spawn other symptoms of distress, from insomnia to depression. Many mental health experts believe journalists should debrief as early as possible after the traumatic experience, so that disturbing thoughts don’t fester. This could be with colleagues at the hotel bar, or a couple of sessions with a therapist. The important thing is to process it. “It’s like carrying around a bowling ball if you don’t deal with it,” says Frank Smyth, the Washington, D.C., representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    Thursday, December 23, 2004


    Christmas not in Danger!

    Even I've caught word of some of these people talking about the danger of Christmas being outlawed. Crap, of course, but the noise still brings to mind the "Where there's smoke..." adage. A brief debunking is at CRJ Daily and worth reading. Essentially there are only three stories referenced by everyone CRJ cites.
    When not flogging the same three stories -- two of which are essentially false -- to create the appearance of a genuine national trend, the media is busy interviewing the same outraged representatives of a few conservative family groups trying to put the Christ back in Christmas. The Alliance Defense Fund, for example, has been cited in numerous stories in the past week, as has the Rutherford Institute, another conservative group.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2004


    Hinzman Hearing in Canada

    I don't know what the outcome will be for Jeremy Hinzman and his attempt to gain refugee status in Canada. The following exchange from his hearing in Canada outlines an attitude in the military so naked in malice and broad in its demonization that I was shocked. I don't know why I am shocked. From A Just Deserter:

    [Hinzman:]"We were going to Iraq to jack up terrorists. We were told this was a new kind of war, that these people weren't human and that they were not to be treated in a humane way. We were told by commanders in pep talks that these people are evil."

    Needing more specifics on who the army considered evil, presiding member Goodman asks, "Who were they referring to as terrorists?"

    Hinzman chillingly replies, "They associate everyone in the area as a terrorist."

    "The entire population of Iraq was considered a terrorist?" Goodman asks.

    "We referred to Iraqis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Yemenis, Iranians as terrorist, as they came from the Middle East," comes Hinzman's reply.

    Somewhat disbelieving, Goodman asks again, "All Arabs from that region were terrorists?"

    "Correct, sir."


    Positive Feedback

    I think I'm performing a public service by passing on this information. And please remember that this information is for educational purposes only. From The Ultimate Information Filter:

    Masturbation. It's nature's Prozac.

    Let me clarify: bad things are always easier to take if you're totally whacked out on endorphins. Since the election (2000 or 2004, pick one) the news has been one long, acrid stream of yuck. One wants to be informed but the news is so odious that it's hard to do it voluntarily. There is, however, a product out there that might make it easier for liberal-leaning ladies to Copper Top their way to educated bliss.

    The Audi-Oh is a vibrator that reacts to sound. Music, laughter, the ice-pick-through-the-skull squawking of your neighbor's parrot ... if the microphone can pick it up, it will make the vibrator (a separate component connect[sic] by a chord[sic]) emit a pleasant buzz.

    Appropriately placed, this ought to elevate your mood or the mood of a loved one in the time it takes to say "supercalifragalisticexpialidocious," especially if you really enunciate.

    While I've yet to use it for its intended purpose, I did put batteries in my sample Audi-Oh to see if it would work. I said "Hello" at the microphone. It went off like an outboard motor. That made me laugh and it went zzz-zzz-zzz, in an exact imitation of my laugh, which made me laugh harder and made it go off again. I had to drop it to break the spell. "Jesus," said a witness for whom I repeated the test. "Hallelujah," I thought. The possibilities the Audi-Oh presents for making life more wonderful seem endless. If anyone ever says to you "Will you come to my poetry reading?" you can now give an unequivocal "Yes!" without worrying that you'll want to stab yourself with a fork to dull the pain of the evening. Guys, give your girlfriend this gift and see if Monday night football, that song you wrote or the news of your layoff are greeted with a strangely distant smile. Musically, the Audi-Oh may present the first instance in which The Ramones, Slim Whitman and Handel's "Messiah," could be grouped together on a party CD (even if it's a party of one).

    And then there's the news. Fisher says that sales of the Audi-Oh have increased since mid-November and while it would be easy to guess that these were holiday gift purchases, I wonder about that timing. Mid-November is when a lot of disappointed women, whose morale hit rock bottom on Nov. 3, were climbing out of their depression. Maybe they heard of this device and got the same idea I did. You could start taking anti-depressants. You could avoid the news entirely, but that would leave you dangerously uninformed about what this administration and its blind followers are up to. Or you could get an Audi-Oh and keep yourself current without every story feeling like a kidney punch.

    I haven't filtered any information through the Audi-Oh just yet. It's still a little weird to me. But who wouldn't rather hear it all through a delightful hum? Imagine being able to watch "Hardfire" or "Crossballs," or whatever those gabfests are called and actually wanting to raise the volume instead of mute it. News hasn't been sexy since Clinton skipped out on D.C. This might change that.


    Wal-Mart Love

    I mean, how can you not kick Wal-Mart? Very successful business and crusher of people and local economies. A horror book that I thought captured the essence of that culture was The Store by Bentley Little. Not a great book but chilling nonetheless. This bit from Down and Out in Discount America sums up a central problem with the Wal-Mart business model:

    Al Zack, who until his retirement in 2004 was the United Food and Commercial Workers' vice president for strategic programs, observes that appealing to the poor was "Sam Walton's real genius. He figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with the business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow." That problem is cleverly solved by creating more bad jobs worldwide. In a chilling reversal of Henry Ford's strategy, which was to pay his workers amply so they could buy Ford cars, Wal-Mart's stingy compensation policies – workers make, on average, just over $8 an hour, and if they want health insurance, they must pay more than a third of the premium – contribute to an economy in which, increasingly, workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart.

    To make this model work, Wal-Mart must keep labor costs down. It does this by making corporate crime an integral part of its business strategy. Wal-Mart routinely violates laws protecting workers' organizing rights (workers have even been fired for union activity). It is a repeat offender on overtime laws; in more than thirty states, workers have brought wage-and-hour class-action suits against the retailer. In some cases, workers say, managers encouraged them to clock out and keep working; in others, managers locked the doors and would not let employees go home at the end of their shifts. And it's often women who suffer most from Wal-Mart's labor practices. Dukes v. Wal-Mart, which is the largest civil rights class-action suit in history, charges the company with systematically discriminating against women in pay and promotions.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2004


    Social Security and Women

    When I came across this on Lying Media Bastards, I felt very much the same about this so-called privatization of Social Security. The people who will profit from this restucturing will be the money handlers. I've been thinking some about the difference between macro problems (national economy, military force, etc) and micro problems (individual joblessness, homelessness, etc.). I see a confusion in some public discussions because examples of individual solutions are held up as representative of societial solutions. Thus, what is intended as a broad social safety net for retirement (Social Security) is changed into an individual solution ("retirement accounts"). No real conclusions but it's worth noting this... well, "bait and switch" comes to mind.

    This is from A True Safety Net:

    Social Security is the foundation of women's economic security in retirement. The program provides 90 percent or more of the income received by more than 40 percent of unmarried women – widows, divorced and never-married women. Without Social Security, more than half of older women would be poor. But Social Security also provides less widely known protections that are critical for women and their families earlier in their lives.

    Social Security offers support to Americans when the unexpected happens. It replaces lost income for workers and their spouses and children when a worker becomes disabled or dies prematurely. For a young family, Social Security provides the equivalent of a life insurance policy worth over $400,000 and a disability insurance policy worth over $350,000, according to the Social Security actuaries. Because they have higher rates of premature disability and death, these insurance benefits are especially important to African American and Latino women and their families. One in five African American and Latino beneficiaries is under age 55, compared to one in 10 white beneficiaries.

    Monday, December 20, 2004


    Yushchenko Health Problems

    I've been following the Ukrainian election problems very fitfully and not closely at all. But I was surprised by this little tidbit on Yushchenko's long history of health problems. Check out the complete story at Counterpunch. I don't really know whether it's entirely accurate but it's still interesting.

    Many outside observers believe the assassination plot story precisely because of its geographical context: the former Soviet Union. Few in America could imagine a candidate risking attempted murder of his opponent in the run-up to a U.S. election, but after all, this is a former Soviet country. The Ukrainian government--with the whole world watching--was willing to risk assassinating a high-profile political figure weeks before polling day, or so it seems. Common sense should be the first indicator that the Yushchenko campaign has concocted a tall tale. Yet, even supposing a diabolical government plot to murder Yushchenko were plausible, other factors call the poisoning version of events into question. Most important is the fact that Yushchenko has a long, documented history of serious illnesses, and his latest ailment could well be just the latest installment.

    Yushchenko's medical records show that from 1994 to 2004 he had the following diseases: chronic gastritis, chronic cholecystitis, chronic colitis, chronic gastroduodenitis, infection of the bowels, and Type II diabetes. According to medical experts, this plethora of intestinal problems would have required the patient to adhere to a strict diet, but Yushchenko had a habit of falling off his dietary wagon with unfortunate effects. In September 1996, after a birthday party at which he ate and drank heavily, Yushchenko complained of pains in his right side and a burning mouth. The diagnosis: chronic cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). Yushchenko's most recent complaints--nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach and intestinal pains--indicated he had probably violated his prescribed meal plan yet again.


    Catholic League president William Donohue

    Fascinating. This fellow Donohue seems a little shrill in his righteousness. Media Matters for America has a collection of things he's said on various political shows. Just fascinating.
    I will stake my reputation on it right now! People will be paralyzed when they see this movie [The Passion of the Christ]. They will be breathless. It will bring people back to the church, and it will be a good thing for Catholics and Jews. And the people who are clamoring this -- this rhetoric, this cacophony against Mel Gibson, boy, are they going to have to pay for it when it's all over! [CNN, Paula Zahn Now, 2/4/04]

    Name for me a book publishing company in this country, particularly in New York, which would allow you to publish a book which would tell the truth about the gay death style. There are certain things that the left won't tolerate. They are censorial at heart. Indeed, the signature appetite of the left has always been power. Now, they are running up against the American people. [MSNBC, Scarborough Country, 2/27/04]


    Tempering US Citizens

    There are actions by our current government that I have trouble fitting into a coherent structure of policy. Some ideas make sense to me, whether they are deliberate or the by-product of the administration's world-view. One idea I believe is that this administration is pushing massive deficits because eventually that will make it possible to cut social programs. Politicians don't want to be seen as the ones cutting back social programs but if they have no choice because there is no money, well, it will just have to be done.

    An idea occured to me (and I'm probably not the first) about the government's almost supernatural ability to incite hatred of the US around the world: The government is trying to temper the general US population. I mean like tempering steel to make it stronger. The idea is that the incredible mess that is our so-called foreign policy is designed to stir up anti-American feelings and actions. That whole "adversity makes us stronger" shtick seems to work very well on a portion of the US population. If there are more attacks on US targets, so much the better. Then the US citizens will see the righteousness of US military retaliation, the appeal of "patriotism" will be stronger, dissent will be shouted down, and might will be right.

    More and more I feel trapped in a living version of Orwell's 1984. If you raise your voice in protest but no one can hear, did you really speak?

    These rambling thoughts were sparked by this article speaking about some of the current "blowback" from US actions abroad.


    Christmas and Capitalism

    I've known for a long time about the economic results of Christmas shopping but I'm still always a little stunned every time I hear that one quarter of annual consumer spending happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And with the trade deficit growing, we have this tidbit from AP:
    Bush's comments on the dollar came one day after the government reported that the U.S. trade deficit hit a monthly record of $55.5 billion in October.

    Bush told reporters that the trade deficit was "easy to resolve. People can buy more United States products if they're worried about the trade deficit."

    This sounds remarkably similar to the advice from Bush after 9-11 that the public could help by shopping. In related shopping news, this is from Les Fleurs du Mall:

    There's a simple explanation for this turnaround: we gave over to the pre-rational phenomenon known as the orgiastic ritual.

    To paraphrase the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, the orgiastic ritual is an activity cooked up by the group to scare away the very bad scariness of existential isolation. It's usually something a little racier than holiday shopping, but in this culture holiday shopping is frenzied and ritualistic enough to count. We meet in the marketplace, we all go a little crazy together, we have some fun, we make some mistakes. And in the end we're worn out and full of that good feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

    The problem for anyone trying to remain sane and responsible during the holidays lies in what the "something larger" is.

    Maybe it's nothing more than a consumer-driven economy that requires a massive end-of-year cash infusion just to keep the wheels from coming off. Indeed, the retail sector has come to rely on the holiday season. Analysts predict that one quarter of this year's retail spending, or $220 billion worth, will take place during the 29 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The day that starts it all off is known in the biz as Black Friday for its legendary power to push retailers safely into the profit column for the year. From that point on the experts, like priests reading the entrails of slaughtered beasts, anxiously watch for signs of how big the holiday shopping season – and therefore the year – will be.

    Saturday, December 18, 2004


    What Liberal Media?

    While reading Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?:The Truth about BIAS and the News, I was annoyed to find that the appendices were online. Then I went online, looked at them and found some of them worth the effort.

    The Nation's Media Concentration Chart helps you visualize exactly who owns what in the media universe. It covers the "Big Ten" and includes all the usual suspects: News Corporation, Sony, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, Walt Disney, General Electric, etc. I've usually gotten my fix of trying to understand the media through the Project Censored books. However, I think this is the source for what's in Censored 2005. It also includes an article from The Nation by Mark Crispin Miller, a media analyst/critic. The Chart is a little hard to read though.

    Another good appendix is on Fact-checking Ann Coulter. I've been somewhat doubtful of Ms. Coulter's sources but who has the time to check such things out? Apparently, someone does. And how! Plenty of misquotes and problems with faulty renditions of verifiable news. I'm not really that interested in Ms. Coulter. I figure letting her stew in her own acidic juices is justice enough.


    War in Iraq

    As I've often commented, I hardly ever watch mainstream news anymore. One of the biggest reasons is the amount of "news" I have no interest in seeing: sports, so-called human interest stories with little content beyond the "heartwarming" or "tragic" elements, etc. When I boil it down, actual content that informs me might be only 0-5 minutes. So, like many, I go searching for my news. Sometimes I worry that I'm only seeking out news that supports my particular views. But I still think that's preferable to being fed news which is incomplete or, worse, pointless and bland.

    So it is with Iraq. I was recently tipped to Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatches. His entries in his blog seem immediate and concerned with the news on the ground in Iraq. He's not "embedded" with the US military so sees things and talks to people who are affected by US actions in Iraq. He has plenty of firsthand observations and quotes from regular people. I find this more informative than the glossy and almost impersonal reports given by the mainstream media. In some ways, I think that the fewer extended corporate relationships a journalist has, the more they are able to write freely. Is the result more accurate? I'm not sure but the truth seems closer to the surface.

    Dahr Jamail also sprinkles photos throughout his pieces. I have to warn you that some of them are not easy to look at. A recent piece on identifying the dead in Fallujah includes photos taken of dead bodies. The photos were being shown to people so they might be able to identify relatives. Photos with stories are usually linked to the text rather than integrated into the text, allowing you to bypass them if you want.


    Am I a Wimp?

    I feel so wimpish after reading the response on LyingMediaBastards about the "Turn your back on Bush" idea. My original post is here. I didn't really think of the idea as some big activist event, just something to do if you happened to be at the inauguration. Last time there were big protests and eggs thrown, and you know? I don't think I heard much about the protests until I saw Fahrenheit 9/11. I just think the "Turn your Back" thing is nice symbolism, not a reason to organize buses to go to DC to do. It's casual activism.

    Thursday, December 16, 2004


    Documentary? Sort of.

    With the current swell of documentaries flooding theaters and DVD players, it's important to remember that not all of them are factually based. This seems like a good example of what is basically propaganda, disinformation, or Public Relations in nature. From A Dubious Doc:
    In an interview in Movie Maker magazine, another of the film's producers, Martin Kunnert, said: "Getting a theatrical release for a documentary film is still rare. We lucked out in that our distributor, Magnolia Pictures, [which also put out "Control Room" and "Capturing the Friedmans"] was eager to get the film in theaters before the presidential election."

    A call to Magnolia Pictures in New York was answered by a man who, lowering his voice when asked about "Voices of Iraq," whispered, "Nobody here wanted to release this and we didn't do any of the promotion on it. [Mark] Cuban steamrolled us on this." (Cuban owns Magnolia Pictures, the Dallas Mavericks and much more.)

    Jeff Riechert, the Magnolia Pictures contact for "Voices of Iraq," said that while his company is technically distributing the film, Manning, Selvage & Lee (MS&L) is coordinating the publicity. MS&L has the public affairs contract for the U.S. Army. The firm's revamp of the Army's image with the reality TV-style "Army of One" ad campaign is credited with enabling the Army to meet its recruiting goals after a long slump. According to MS&L Managing Director Joe Gleason, he and his colleagues also deliver key targeted messages about the war in Iraq to specific constituencies.

    Was the left-leaning art house crowd one of those constituencies? Is the government hiring documentary filmmakers to propagandize the U.S. population?

    Nobody involved with the film is willing to say who initially put up the money for the film or how they ended up represented by the Army's PR firm.


    Aspects of Judicial Activism

    The term "judicial activism" is often used as code for "liberal policies" but that isn't always the case. It's just that the conservative press almost never notes when the activism is in their favor. The following is from The Legacy of Judicial Activism:

    It also raises the question: How can conservatives possibly square the Rehnquist Court's activist legacy with their own anti-activist rhetoric? Well, it turns out there's a trick: There are actually two different kinds of activism — conservative and liberal — and conservatives don't count decisions within their own tradition as, well, activism. In teasing this out, Keck explains that the two activist traditions have very different objectives. Conservative activists want to achieve limited government — particularly at the federal level — and tend to get there by arguing that Congress is interfering with economic or states' rights. By contrast, liberal activists want to protect the core freedoms that allow vulnerable minorities to participate in the political process. They give extra scrutiny to laws that affect those minorities, and invalidate those that they judge to put politically tinged freedoms at risk. The heyday of conservative activism was the early New Deal era, when the Court struck down one after another of FDR's legislative initiatives; Roosevelt put an end to that by threatening to pack the Court. The heyday of liberal activism was the Warren Court era of the '50s and '60s and the early Burger Court period of the '70s, which has left a legacy (including Roe v. Wade) that rankles conservatives to this day.

    As to how conservatives have developed a guilt-free approach to their own brand of activism, the key to understanding this is the doctrine of originalism. The idea behind originalism is that the Court can tear a mighty swathe through acts of Congress without really engaging in activism if it is channeling the original intent of the Framers.

    Tuesday, December 14, 2004


    Gary Webb

    I respect the power of the press to act as a watchdog on the government. The story of the Contra/CIA/cocaine connection is important and worth remembering. Gary Webb did his research in the face of much opposition from the mainstream press. From Gary Webb R.I.P.:

    In 1996, journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that forced a long-overdue investigation of a very dark chapter of recent U.S. foreign policy – the Reagan-Bush administration’s protection of cocaine traffickers who operated under the cover of the Nicaraguan contra war in the 1980s.

    For his brave reporting at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb paid a high price. He was attacked by journalistic colleagues at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the American Journalism Review and even the Nation magazine. Under this media pressure, his editor Jerry Ceppos sold out the story and demoted Webb, causing him to quit the Mercury News. Even Webb’s marriage broke up.

    On Friday, Dec. 10, Gary Webb, 49, died of an apparent suicide, a gunshot wound to the head.

    Whatever the details of Webb’s death, American history owes him a huge debt. Though denigrated by much of the national news media, Webb’s contra-cocaine series prompted internal investigations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department, probes that confirmed that scores of contra units and contra-connected individuals were implicated in the drug trade. The probes also showed that the Reagan-Bush administration frustrated investigations into those crimes for geopolitical reasons.

    Unintentionally, Webb also exposed the cowardice and unprofessional behavior that had become the new trademarks of the major U.S. news media by the mid-1990s. The big news outlets were always hot on the trail of some titillating scandal – the O.J. Simpson case or the Monica Lewinsky scandal – but the major media could no longer grapple with serious crimes of state.

    Even after the CIA’s inspector general issued his findings in 1998, the major newspapers could not muster the talent or the courage to explain those extraordinary government admissions to the American people. Nor did the big newspapers apologize for their unfair treatment of Gary Webb. Foreshadowing the media incompetence that would fail to challenge George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq five years later, the major news organizations effectively hid the CIA’s confession from the American people.


    Chris Hedges

    I went to school with Chris Hedges long ago and but only recently became aware of his work as a war correspondent. I think I also saw him on a panel on C-SPAN within the last year or so. His book, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," is a thoughtful examination of the nature of war. I respect his experience in war zones and his ability to articulate the costs of war for the survivors of war. The dead and wounded are easy to count. (well, except for the Iraqis.) What the living bring back is less tangible and quantifiable. The following is from an interview with YES! Magazine named War is not a Noble Enterprise:

    Sarah van Gelder: We tend to think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a medical or psychological condition. But your book suggests that there are also issues of morality and identity involved.

    Hedges: I think you raise a good point. Morality does play deeply into that sense of trauma, because when you're in a combat situation (and I think you have to go there to understand), your reactions have to be instantaneous. If you hear a sound behind a door, you don't have time to ask questions, so often you shoot first and ask questions later. And this we have seen in Iraq, where soldiers and Marines at road blocks have fired on cars filled with children and families that they initially feared were hostile.

    When you are in a combat situation like that, you realize how easy it is to commit murder, how easy it is to commit atrocity, because you are so deathly afraid -- and with good reason. But the consequences are devastating, because what you have done is to shed innocent blood, and often the blood of children. So you bring back not only the trauma of the violence, but that deep darkness that you must carry within you for the rest of your life -- that you have been responsible for the death of innocents.

    So it isn't just an issue of trauma; it is, as well, an issue of morality. This is a horrible burden to inflict, especially on a young life. It's why war should always be waged as a last resort, because the costs are so tremendous, not only to families who lose loved ones and will spend the rest of their lives grieving, but for those who return and for the rest of their lives bear these emotional and psychological burdens.

    People cope with that in different ways. Some of course deny it. Some, even combat veterans, will try to perpetuate the mythology of glory and honor and heroism and patriotism. Others, who have more courage and more honesty will confront what they did by trying to live a life of atonement, by seeking a kind of redemption for the acts they carried out. I think that leads them to a much healthier response, and hopefully sets many on the road to recovery. I think we saw this with the conflict in Vietnam, although not exclusively with Vietnam, because my father and all my uncles fought in World War II -- the supposedly "good" war -- and they hated war when they came back.

    Monday, December 13, 2004


    Always Back to the Torture

    I'm still amazed that the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals haven't brought down some resignations or dismissals in the Bush Administration. The following from a Mother Jones interview helped me understand a little bit. No one’s really talking about Abu Ghraib right now, and the new Red Cross report about abuse "tantamount to torture" at Guantanamo was barely a blip. Why don't Americans care more about this issue?

    Mark Danner: I think this isn’t really a question of public opinion, but of the government not having instituted any process of formal investigation that can really get at the broad issues of treatment of prisoners and torture. This isn’t an accident. What you have here actually is a strategy from the Bush administration to contain what could have been a scandal that could have brought down senior officials and could have lost them the election. After the disclosure of the photographs in late April, they put in place a plan of action designed to contain the scandal. Essentially, you had a chain of responsibility that began on the ground level at Abu Ghraib with soldiers who actually were abusing and torturing detainees and stretched up into the White House, ending ultimately with the president himself. Each of the investigations put in place looked at several links in that long chain. None of them actually was able, or even empowered, to look at the entire scandal and the entire chain of responsibility. Only Congress or some kind of special prosecutor would have been able to do that. And because Congress was in Republican hands, the administration was able to quash any such broad investigation. Now, all of that is deeply regrettable, but I don’t necessary think it means the public doesn’t care about it. It simply means that the government is in the hands of one party and that one party has been extremely disciplined and effective in containing the scandal from the beginning.

    And this quote is about one of the things I find most maddening about politics in general but most particularly the current administration: the use (or misuse) of descriptive words. The deliberate application of completely inappropriate words to describe events or legislation. "Clear Skies," my ass! In your writing, you focus a lot on the language that’s been used to justify or downplay torture, particularly the euphemisms the administration has used, like “sleep adjustment” for sleep deprivation. Can you talk more about the use of such language and the role it plays?

    MD: One of the virtues, if you can call it that, of the Abu Ghraib scandal is that we’ve been offered a window into the realm of government decision-making having to do with interrogation and torture. And so we enter this -- one has to call it Orwellian, to use a much overused word -- realm of euphemism in which keeping somebody awake for 72 hours, or making them stand on a box and telling them they’ll be electrocuted if they move, or handcuffing them high up on a cell door so that they lose all feeling in their arms, are somehow “sleep adjustment.” You have this panoply of euphemism in which procedures that are painful, psychologically damaging, and physically debilitating are described in ways that suggest they are not harmful and they’re simply “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some of the news media have adopted these euphemisms and refuse to call things what they are. It’s a general harshening of the public perception and the public sensitivity to what should be an appreciation for human rights.


    Again with the Torture

    From When Bad Things Happen (To "Bad People"):

    The subdued reaction is testament, in part, to the Bush administration's skill at spinning this kind of news. (God knows, they've had practice.) Officials from the Pentagon and Defense Department flat-out denied the allegations. And General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made this stirring defense: “We certainly don’t think it’s torture.... Let’s not forget the kind of people we have down there. These are the people that don’t know any moral values.”

    Maybe it doesn’t seem like torture because we don’t have pictures like we did at Abu Ghraib. Maybe it doesn’t seem like torture because it’s not as bad as the video-taped beheadings that have begun to dominate our news in recent months. And anyway, they had it coming, right? Better their discomfort than our destruction. A brief reality check: out of the 550 detainees in Guantanamo, only 4 have been charged. That’s 3 years, 4 charges, 550 people, and no protection under the Geneva Conventions, which call for the detainees to be treated as prisoners of war until a competent tribunal determines that they do not merit this protection.

    Sunday, December 12, 2004


    Damned Lies and Statistics

    I've been reading Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians and Activists by Joel Best (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). It's a relatively short book and easy to digest. I'm surprised by how much I'm enjoying it. Math isn't my best subject. I didn't do well in it in school and I have a slight aversion to anything more complicated than simple addition, multiplication, etc. In short, I'm what author Best refers to as a typical American with innumeracy. Innumeracy is "an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance." Best calls it "the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy." "Just as some people cannot read or read poorly, many people have trouble thinking clearly about numbers."

    We live in a world of numbers: polls, population statistics, crime rates, etc. Because of innumeracy, we often gloss over when reading or taking them in. In other words, we rarely actually evaluate the accuracy or reliability of these statistics. We often just take them on trust; trust that the numbers and their importance is being reported accurately, trust that the basic techniques of gathering the raw data is reliable and representative of an actual situation, and trust that the raw data is being presented correctly in statistics and charts.

    In general, this book teaches you how to evaluate statistics. It doesn't have much actual math. If you can understand the example below, you can probably understand the rest of the book. Best gives great examples, many of which I was aware of but didn't know about the flaws in their creation or dissemination. Here's one example from the chapter on "Mutant Statistics".
    Consider one widely circulated statistic about the dangers of anorexia nervosa (the term for eating dangerously little in an effort to be thin). Anorexia usually occurs in young women, and some feminists argue that it is a response to societal pressures for women to be beautiful, and cultural standards that equate slenderness with beauty. Activists seeking to draw attention to the problem estimated that 150,000 American women were anorexic, and noted that anorexia could lead to death. At some point, feminists began reporting that each year 150,000 women died from anorexia. (This was a considerable exaggeration; only about 70 deaths per year are attributed to anorexia.) This simple transformation -- turning an estimate for the total number of anorexic women in the annual number of fatalities -- produced a dramatic, memorable statistic. Advocates repeated the erroneous figure in influential books, in newspaper columns, on talk shows, and so on. There were soon numerous sources for the mistaken number. A student searching for material for a term paper on anorexia, for instance, had a good chance of encountering -- and repeating -- this wildly inaccurate statistic, and each repetition helped ensure that the mutant statistic would live on.

    Yet it should have been obvious that something was wrong with this figure. Anorexia typically affects young women. In the United state each year roughly 8,500 females aged 15-24 die from all causes; another 47,000 women aged 25-44 also die. What were the chances, then, that there could be 150,000 deaths from anorexia each year? But, of course, most of us have no idea how many young women die each year ("It must be a lot..."). When we hear that anorexia kills 150,000 young women per year, we assume that whoever cites the number must know that it is true. We accept the mutant statistic, and may even repeat it ourselves. [emphasis in original]
    [Update 11/11/05: In the interest of presenting a slightly counterbalancing factor in the numbers of women who die of anorexia each year, it should be noted that "anorexia" is rarely listed as the cause of death on death certificates. The figure above estimating that "about 70 deaths per year are attributed to anorexia" is apparently only citing those deaths which list anorexia as the "cause of death" on the death certificates. Like people with AIDS, women with anorexia rarely specifically die of it; technically, they die of the complications and secondary effects of long-term anorexia (e.g., renal or heart failure) which are more likely to show up on death certificates than anorexia. So the actual annual number of anorexia deaths is unknown but it is undoubtedly larger than 70. Just as obviously, the number is nowhere near the 150,000 figure. At a guess (and that's all it is: a guess by someone who doesn't have any knowledge on the subject), I'd estimate the lower end of annual anorexia deaths at about 120 and perhaps 500 at the upper end. I repeat: I have no evidence for either of these figures so don't bother to cite me as a source. I'm just an ignorant bastard spouting off.]


    No Nudity please, we're Americans

    I swear the US has to be the most schizophrenic about the human body of anyone in the world. Hardcore pornography is widely available but seeing the nude human body? Horrors! Naked breast? It will undoubtedly warp the sensitive minds of children and incite rape among the weak of morals. Better cover the breasts of the statue of Justice at the Justice Department. It is creepy and strange and such an attitude of denial. Perhaps we should bring back streaking. If you're going to do it, do it soon because it will probably be a felony in the near future. From FCC Wary of Greeks Baring Gifts at Games:
    In response to one or more indecency complaints, the Federal Communications Commission has asked NBC to send it tapes of its coverage of the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Athens, the network confirmed late yesterday.

    It's unclear what aspect of NBC's coverage of the ceremonies has knotted the knickers of someone who has corresponded with the FCC, word of which was first reported by trade paper Mediaweek on its Web site late yesterday.

    But on the day of the Opening Ceremonies back in August -- about six months after Janet Jackson bared her breast during CBS's broadcast of the Super Bowl -- NBC took some questions from sports reporters who were on the scene. These were guys who apparently don't go to museums much and had watched the dress rehearsal and seen performers representing classical Greek statues and mythological gods and goddesses in the various states of undress that were so fashionable in days gone by. They demanded to know whether NBC intended to subject the flower of American youth, watching back at home, to such a wanton display of Greekness.

    (The Opening Ceremonies also included thespians depicting lovers frolicking in the world's largest puddle and a young woman in a shift wading about aimlessly in the same puddle. She appeared to have been impregnated by someone who was radioactive, but we cannot say with certainty whether that was Greek or just weird.)

    Saturday, December 11, 2004


    Human Rights Day

    The following is from a good overview of some of the major US human rights abuses from the last year. I've touched on a few of them in this blog on occasion. Not that there aren't plenty of other abuses throughout the world but I seem to follow the US events a little more closely. From Human Rights Last:
    Today is the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States has long provided global leadership on human rights. Today, however, that influence is starting to wane. The Bush administration is sending mixed signals about its commitment to defending human rights at home and around the world. The White House is undermining America's moral authority, as more nations begin to see the United States as a part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Moral leadership starts at home.


    Support Our Troops?

    I feel torn about the individual soldier in the US military. On one hand, I believe the real problem is with the policies of the US government, a juggernaut of the world using military force with impugnity and disregarding its effects on other nations. In that regard, the ordinary soldier, often with limited options outside of military service, is not responsible for the larger orders that come down to him/her as part of the military.

    On the other hand, I feel that every person is personally responsible for their actions. A chain of command is not a substitute for personal ethics and morals. It's argued that a military cannot be composed of individuals acting independently, that it needs the cohesive structure and strict obedience to command to operate efficiently and decisively. In war, there is often no time for discussion at the lower levels.

    Yet I return to the my fundamental belief in personal responsibility. The basic nature of the military is to break down an individual's moral sense, the sense of right and wrong, and rebuild that sense oriented to the chain of command. No, I'm not saying that soldiers have no moral sense or that they are mindless automatons. But they are required to act in accord with their orders. Refusal of an order is not an option. The will at the top of the hierarchy becomes the will at the bottom.

    I find the phrase "Support Our Troops" both nauseating and an affirmation of the blamelessness of the individual soldier. They are not to blame for the broader orders from the top of the chain of command. Yet I hold every one of those soldiers responsible. In my reasoning, the actions of the soldier are the direct result of orders. These soldiers have put themselves, voluntarily, in the direct path of achieving results and goals based on those orders. They have become the hands of the machinery of war through their own choice. I don't hate them (generally) but I also don't want to "support" them in any sense of the word. Maybe I just think too much.

    Gee, I hope this isn't considered seditious or treasonous. And that's the irony in our great land of the individual. Advocating ultimate individual responsibility might be seen as being bad for morale or giving comfort to our enemies. Individualism is great. Except when it would be detrimental to our military goals. Or to corporations. Or to a representative form of government.

    Another perspective from Jim Hightower. For information on Pablo Paredes, a naval petty officer, third class, who has refused to be deployed to Iraq, go to Citizens for Pablo, and Democracy Now!. He has obviously done some thinking on these same lines.


    Why Language is Important

    I love language and vocabulary, the art of verbal description and wit. While running through various ways to describe the non-plot of the movie The Bourne Supremacy in my head, I realized how much the choice of different words completely changed the meaning and the emotional impact of a sentence. [The rest of this has absolutely nothing to do with the movie; that was just the starting point for this rant.]

    The following sentences may describe similar events but each of them conveys different information about a situation. If you try to envision what each of sentence describes, differing emotional resonances will occur within you at each sentence. (Well, this assumes you have some sense of empathy and feeling.)

    A woman calls for help.
    A woman cries out for help.
    A man calls for help.
    A man tries to kiss a woman and she calls for help.
    A woman's boyfriend tries to kiss her and she calls for help.
    A man's girlfriend tries to kiss him and he calls for help.

    The point I'm trying to make is that each sentence triggers a different imaginary (or real) scene. We fill in the details. I note that I find it difficult to imagine the last example sentence. I don't really know what the point of this exercise is but it somehow seemed important. And, no, I'm not high. *sigh* Maybe I'm just easily amused by playing with words.

    Friday, December 10, 2004


    Posse Comitatus Today

    There are many interesting details in this article on the eroding separation between the US military and civilian police and law enforcement agencies. It ties together several trends and events that I knew of but didn't see the connections. From Bush's Posse Roundup:

    Over the past three years, the Bush administation has accelerated a trend of using the military as a tool in our nation’s domestic affairs. From its support of the Total Information Awareness surveillance vacuum cleaner, to its use of Pentagon spy planes during the Washington-area sniper shootings in late 2002, to its attempt to empower military officials to seize Americans' financial and other private information without a warrant, the Bush administration gives grave cause for concern about the growing role of the armed forces in our daily life.

    Unfortunately for our democracy, in recent decades, the restrictions on using the military at home have been eviscerated, particularly under this sitting president. And because the Bush administration is so intent on secrecy, and because the Congress during Bush’s presidency has almost totally defaulted on its duty to conduct oversight, we have little idea of how often the Posse Comitatus law is now being violated. The few Bush efforts that have become public do not inspire confidence.

    The Patriot Act of 2001 created a new Information Office in the Pentagon that promptly launched work on the Total Information Awareness (TIA) system, which was a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). TIA was intended to create a massive dragnet to build dossiers on American citizens—seeking “connections between transactions – such as passports, visas, work permits, driver’s licenses, credit cards, airline tickets, rental cars, gun purchases, chemical purchases – and events such as arrest or suspicious activities and so forth," according to Undersecretary of Defense Pete Aldridge.

    Another major assault on Posse Comitatus occurred when two snipers went on a rampage in the Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. The Bush administration quickly called in Pentagon spy planes to canvas the entire Washington area. The use of the RC-7 planes, operated by military personnel, appeared to be a brazen breach of the Posse Comitatus Act. But the mass panic that gripped the Washington area indicated how feeble the status of Posse Comitatus is. In the political world after 9/11, laws appear to provide far less restraint on the use of the military than in the past.

    The military planes provided no information that aided the apprehension of the suspects. Instead, they epitomized how a massive federal-state-local response did nothing to compensate for a shortage of street smarts and common sense detective work. The response by local governments and the FBI to the sniper rampage was one of the biggest Keystone Kops episodes in recent U.S. history: the FBI had ignored five different people who contacted them months before the shootings to warn about John Allen Muhammad's homicidal comments, local police ignored eyewitness reports about the snipers' Chevrolet Caprice at the scene of shootings, and the snipers' auto passed through at least five police roadblocks erected after their attacks. Eventually the two suspects were caught in routine law enforcement fashion. The military’s efforts went for naught —they only signalled the Bush adminstration’s willingness to apply military force to the domestic populace.


    Winners of the P.U.-litzers

    "The P.U.-litzer Prizes were established a dozen years ago to provide special recognition for truly smelly media performances." Here's a sample from this amusing piece:
    MANDATE MANIA: Too many winners to name

    It became a media mantra. Two days after the election, the Los Angeles Times reported that "Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51 percent of the vote." Cox columnist Tom Teepen referred to Bush's vote margin as an "unquestionable mandate." Right-wing pundit Bill Kristol argued that Bush's "mandate" went beyond the 49-states-to-one landslides of Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. Reality check: This was the narrowest win for an incumbent president since 1916. As Greg Mitchell wrote in Editor & Publisher: "Where I come from, 51 percent is considered a bare majority, not a comfortable margin. If only 51 percent of my family or my editorial staff think I am doing a good job, I might look to moderate my behavior, not repeat or enlarge it."

    Thursday, December 09, 2004


    Gee, Gay Rights are Scary...

    I have to say the following story is sad. "ooh, the tide of public opinion is against us! Better cut back on the scary proposition of "equal rights". Don't want to scare the straights! They're so easily offended!" As a veteran of AIDS actions in the eighties, I lean more towards stepping up action in response to the recent state amendments prohibiting same-sex marriages rather than toning things down. F--- 'em if they can't handle it.

    I'm quoting from this NYT story because it becomes unavailable to non-subscribers after some time:

    Leaders of the gay rights movement are embroiled in a bitter and increasingly public debate over whether they should moderate their goals in the wake of bruising losses in November when 11 states approved constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriages.

    In the past week alone, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, has accepted the resignation of its executive director, appointed its first non-gay board co-chairman and adopted a new, more moderate strategy, with less emphasis on legalizing same-sex marriages and more on strengthening personal relationships.

    The leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, concluded that the group must bow to political reality and moderate its message and its goals. One official said the group would consider supporting President Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program.

    "The feeling this weekend in Las Vegas was that we had to get beyond the political and return to the personal," said Michael Berman, a Democratic lobbyist and consultant who was elected the first non-gay co-chairman of the Human Rights Campaign's board last week. "We need to reintroduce ourselves to America with the stories of our lives."


    Soft on Torture

    When stories come up about abuses of POWs, US military "excesses" or the death of civilians, and people protest about using such tactics, I hear a certain argument: War is not nice. The argument is that sometimes things are done in war that are unpleasant, unethical (compared to peacetime) and morally abhorent. These things have to be done to win, to protect (fill in patriotic phrase or value here.) This is the essential nature of wartime and to view it otherwise is to be naive about it. There's also the suggestion that citizens who protest such actions care more for the "enemy" than their own people.

    This is a classic dualistic approach to ethics, in wartime or any time. The "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists" understanding of things. This is a very comfortable and almost natural view. It's easy to comprehend and makes it very easy to judge a situation based on a few standards of division. "My country, right or wrong." If we do it, it's right and necessary; if they do it, it's wrong and reprehensible.

    My point? Not sure, just that I've been thinking about this a little with the nomination of Alberto Gonsalves for Attorney General, a man who was able to render legal advice to the President justifying the use of torture on prisoners. This is from Blocking Mr. Torture:
    In addition to serving as the president’s lawyer, Gonzales is, in fact, Mr. Torture himself: the man who laid out for the Bush administration the arguments for voiding the Geneva Conventions and end-running the War Crimes Act, thereby providing legal cover for the horrors inflicted on those unfortunate enough to disappear into the new American global gulag.

    Gonzales’ January 25, 2002 memorandum sanctioning the Bush administration’s torturing ways has become an infamous addition to the post-Orwellian canon. In it, he argues that President Bush runs the risk of being prosecuted as a war criminal — unless he decrees through an executive order that what Gonzales termed the “quaint” Geneva Conventions don’t apply to his own behavior. To put it another way, Bush doesn’t break the law if he decides that he’s above the law.

    Gonzales doesn’t appear to have a predilection for inflicting pain. He’d rather simply kill people. As death penalty expert Alan Berlow wrote in the Washington Post, before Bush promoted him to the Texas Supreme Court, Gonzales penned the first 57 of the “execution summaries” of the 152 men and women whose state-sponsored death Governor Bush then signed off on. Some of Gonzales’ summaries are infamous, like the one that helped send Terry Washington and his 58 IQ points up to heaven.


    Military Channel

    And this is different from 24 hour news channels how? Oh, "throughout the ages." A bit of a twist there. From The Military Channel:
    That's right – Discovery Communications International (DCI), a media behemoth that boasts 60 networks representing 19 entertainment brands (including TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Kids, and, in partnership with the New York Times, the Discovery Times Channel) will "re-launch" its six-year-old Discovery Wings cabler next month as the Military Channel, focusing on all aspects of the armed forces, military strategies and personnel throughout the ages.

    "By covering all aspects of the military and the people who define it, we will extend the Discovery brand, create a service that appeals to our existing viewers and attract new viewers and sponsors," said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks US, who called military-related issues "a topic of fascination and relevance in our world."

    In case you were unaware, the fairly obscure Discovery Wings, launched in July 1998, focused on aviation and related subjects. Now Discovery is partnering with the likes of the USO, the National D-Day Museum, the Web site, and the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to develop programming for the channel, along with educational campaigns and public service announcements.


    E-mail Tips

    I found this worthy of copying because it's such a concise guide. I've emphasized my faves. I've waded through my own share of unintelligible subject lines in my nearly twenty years online. Holy shite! Has it really been that long? Uh, maybe only nineteen? From AmericaBlog:

    John's Top Tips for Insuring Your Email Does NOT Get Read

    1. Don't include any subject line at all - that ALWAYS gets my attention.
    2. Make the subject something catchy, like: "Read this"
    3. Just send me a URL with nothing else in the content of the message.
    4. Send me some article, from God knows where, and don't include the URL of the article so I can link to it, or even confirm if it's for real.
    5. Send me WORD documents as attachments, I never read those because of viruses.
    6. Tell me to post an article that's already on the blog.
    7. Ramble for a long time and don't get to the point until, oh, the 7th paragraph.
    8. Ask me a question that you
    could answer quite easily with Google. [Or by actually reading what I've written on the subject. Do you have ADD or what? Oh wait, that's me...]
    9. Send me an email about a typo I've made (which is fine) and then get really bitchy and holier-than-thou about it (not so fine).
    10. Complain incessantly about me not posting some article or link you've sent as if I'm doing it on person just to spite you.
    11. Don't update the clock on your computer so your email automatically flies to the bottom of the heap since my computer thinks it's hours old.
    12. Send me that email about "Dear Dr. Laura" that quotes Leviticus and talks about selling Mexicans as slaves. That's as funny now as it was FOUR YEARS AGO WHEN IT WAS WRITTEN.

    Wednesday, December 08, 2004


    Oath of Office

    While listening to Richard Clarke speak about the title of his book "Against All Enemies," I was reminded of the oath of office taken by many who serve in the federal government. I haven't read his book but I felt compelled to look up Clarke's reference. I looked around at this cute little government kid's site and found this:

    According to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, a President's term of office begins at 12:00 p.m. (noon) on January 20th of the year following an election. In order to assume his/her duties, the President-elect must recite the Oath of Office. The Oath is administered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The President-elect places his hand on the Bible, raises his right hand, and takes the Oath as directed by the Chief Justice. The Oath, as stated in Article II, Section I, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, is as follows:

    "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

    That didn't include the phrase but the oath for Vice-President and Congresscritters does. For the oaths below, I wonder whether there is any alternative provision for, say, those who may feel that it is sacrilegious to swear to God. I won't even go into the possibility of atheists or Goddess worshippers taking the oath.
    The oath was revised during the Civil War, when members of Congress were concerned about traitors. The current oath is as follows:

    "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."

    According to Title 28, Chapter I, Part 453 of the United States Code, each Supreme Court Justice takes the following oath:

    "I, [NAME], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [TITLE] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.''


    EULAs and You

    The strangeness and legality of EULAs has always stuck in my craw. Something in me can't really believe that these things are legally binding. I guess that there is nothing in the canon of law that says that you have to actually understand a contract to agree to it. Still, I can't help but think that, considering some of the vocabulary and language in EULAs, most people who agree to them do not completely understand all the ramifications and details embodied in them. Anyway, this bit from Teach Greed caught my eye:
    And then, after you eagerly unchain your presents, get ready to see a lot of contracts called end user license agreements (EULAs). These are the dense chunks of text that you always scroll through and ignore before hitting the "I Agree" button and installing the latest version of Windows. For nearly a decade, courts have been upholding these preposterous little things, despite the fact that you're rarely given the chance to see them before you buy something and that you don't actually have to sign them. People have taken to calling them "click-through agreements" because when you click "I Agree," it's as binding as signing a contract.

    What's even more insane are the terms these contracts put forth. Some of them force you to agree that you won't publish reviews criticizing the product; others say that clicking through the contract means the vendor can check to see what other kinds of software you're running on your computer. Still others say that you can't uninstall the product using another vendor's software - which means that if you use Spybot Search and Destroy to remove the spyware that's bundled with a program, you could be violating your EULA.

    Copy-prevention tech and EULAs make the whole gift-giving thing feel even more hypocritical and wrong than it already does. Why would I want to give my sweetie a neat entertainment device or program if it might spy on him or her or simply stop working if he or she tries to run it in a nonapproved player?


    More Kinsey

    The movie Kinsey has stirred a fair amount of vituperative attention. Here's some quotes from an overview of his career and the effect of his work on public perceptions and knowledge of sex and sexuality. From The Joy of Sexology:
    Months earlier, conservative activists had launched an onslaught against the film. Radio host Laura Schlessinger and Judith Reisman, author of a book titled Kinsey, Sex and Fraud, tried to place ads in a Hollywood trade publication alleging Kinsey was a pervert and a pedophile. (Their ads were declined as obscene.) Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, two social conservative organizations, later bombarded newspaper film critics with mailers impugning Kinsey's character and research. When Kinsey opened to the public, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a network for chastity educators, organized foot soldiers to picket theaters and hand out pamphlets titled "Casualties of Kinsey." The group's director, Leslee Unruh, explained that "Kinsey should be looked upon in the history books as Hitler, as Saddam Hussein."

    While conservative pitchforks have been raised at each of these harbingers of the sexual revolution, the anger directed at Kinsey even today, a half century after his death, is unique. For decades, every member of Congress who has tried to choke the spigot of federal funding for sexuality or AIDS studies has hurled invectives at both Kinsey and the University of Indiana research center that bears his name. When the 50th anniversary of his books arrived, conservatives marked the occasion by founding new anti-Kinsey advocacy organizations, such as Restoring Social Virtue and Purity (RSVP). Each year, the Abstinence Clearinghouse devotes two hours of its annual conference to debunking a man whose fame and influence peaked generations ago.

    Why does Kinsey hold such a distinct place in conservative crosshairs? The answer is the same reason that his studies of American sexual behavior were so influential when they first appeared. Unlike Freud, whose theories were debated by the educated classes, Kinsey published books that everybody read – or read about. And unlike Henry Miller, Bob Guccione, or Xaviera "the Happy Hooker" Hollander, Kinsey didn't present himself as an advocate of sexual license, but as an objective scientist describing the sexual profligacy and heterogeneity that already existed in American culture. It was the apparent impartiality of his data that so shook America's settled notions of sexuality, as deeply as Darwin's theory of natural selection did the literalist biblical notions of creation.

    Kinsey quit teaching two years later to conduct the first large-scale survey of Americans' sexual experiences. He perfected his interview techniques, developed a shorthand to record answers without disrupting a conversation, trained a handful of research assistants, and hit the road for the 48 states in a modified truck with an extra fuel tank and heavy springs for cross-country terrain that his students had nicknamed the "Kinsey juggernaut." His goal was to collect 100,000 sexual histories; he ultimately got 18,000.

    In 1948, he dissected the nation's sex life in the first of two volumes (of a planned series of nine), Sexual Behavior In The Human Male. He methodically sliced Americans' bedroom experience by marital, premarital, and post-marital experiences; by frequencies of intercourse, masturbation, and orgasm; by preferences for position, foreplay, and gender of partner. In 173 graphs and 162 tables, Kinsey correlated these trends with subjects' occupation, education, hometown, church attendance, age at onset of puberty, and a dozen other variables to find, for example, that better educated couples prolong foreplay; that men and women reach their sexual peak at different ages; that blue-collar workers tended to have affairs earlier in their marriage, while white-collars workers tended to stray later. Physiologically, Kinsey demonstrated that masturbation doesn't cause infertility, that nearly every part of the body is sensitive to some degree of erotic stimuli.

    Tuesday, December 07, 2004


    Indecency and the FCC

    From a Mediaweek article:
    The number of indecency complaints had soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year , Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.”

    What Powell did not reveal—apparently because he was unaware—was the source of the complaints. According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group. [Calculation of this percent from the 240,000 quoted above results in approx 4800 complaints NOT from the PTC.]

    In such a system, even the number of complaints becomes an object of contention. For example, the agency on Oct. 12, in proposing fines of nearly $1.2 million against Fox Broadcasting and its affiliates, said it received 159 complaints against Married by America, which featured strippers partly obscured by pixilation.

    But when asked, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau said it could find only 90 complaints from 23 individuals. (The smaller total was first reported by Internet-based TV writer Jeff Jarvis; Mediaweek independently obtained the Enforcement Bureau’s calculation.) And Fox, in a filing last Friday, told the FCC that it should rescind the proposed fines, in part because the low number of complaints fell far short of indicating that community standards had been violated.

    All but four of the complaints were identical…and only one complainant professed even to have watched the program,” Fox said. It said the network and its stations had received 34 comments, “a miniscule total for a show that had a national audience of 5.1 million households.”

    Monday, December 06, 2004


    Roots of Terrorism

    What you rarely hear said about causes of terrorism. From The Elephant in the Room:
    Then came a rude question from the audience: Is it not striking that even in an academic-type setting like this, elephants must remain invisible? Is it not ironic, that the U.S. Defense Science Board, in an unclassified study on “Strategic Communication,” completed on September 23 but kept under wraps until after the Nov. 2 election, let the pachyderms out of the bag? Directly contradicting the president, a panel of the Defense Science Board gave voice to what virtually all in that ornate Senate Caucus Room knew, but were afraid to say. It named the elephants.

    Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States.

    "Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy...

    "...Nor can the most carefully crafted messages, themes, and words persuade when the messenger lacks credibility.”


    Divestment and Israel

    There are all sorts of considerations when it comes to Israel and the Occupied terroritory. As defenders of Israel are quick to say, it is the only democracy in the middle east. Some defenders are also quick to equate any questioning of Israel's actions in the Occupied terrortories with anti-Semiticism. It's a complex situation. As an ethically targeted tactic, divestment seems like a possible way of expressing a protest against Israel's actions in this situation. Last I heard, during the current (last several years) uprising, there are 4 Palestinian dead to every 1 Israeli killed. From Flashpoint Israel:
    The Presbyterians' decision to consider divesting such businesses from its $8 billion portfolio, coupled with the prospect that the Episcopal Church and other churches might do the same, is adding to tensions that have risen over recent years between mainline Protestant churches and the American Jewish community over their differing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Mainline churches have supported Israel since 1948 and reject terrorism; they also have longstanding ties to churches in the Holy Land and are critical of Israeli military practices in the territories. Illegal expansion of Israeli settlements and a new security wall that encroaches on Palestinian land are making a viable Palestinian state less feasible, Presbyterians and others say. With the U.S. government taking little action to help matters, they add, unusual measures are required.

    "The decision to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment ... was not taken lightly," the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a Presbyterian leader, wrote to members of the U.S. Congress. "It was born out of the frustration that many of our members, as well as members of other denominations, feel with the current policies of Israel and those of our own government."

    The Presbyterians say their aims are to influence the practices of companies and use their resources — an $8 billion portfolio — in morally responsible ways. "We have to be principled; we respect human rights and the legitimacy of international law, and when Israelis or Palestinians breech either we'll take a hard look at our investments," says the Rev. Marthame Sanders, who was in ministry in the West Bank.

    The church's committee on socially responsible investment will identify firms that provide services or equipment to support the military occupation or Jewish settlements; finance or assist in building the wall; or provide help to Israeli or Palestinian groups that commit violence against innocent civilians.

    Sunday, December 05, 2004


    Torture by Any Standard

    I like Molly Ivins. Sometimes I find her Texan writing voice a little grating but I understand it. Her outrage in this article really speaks to me. I suggest reading the whole article but here's some quotes:

    One's first response to the report by the International Red Cross about torture at our prison at Guantanamo is denial. "I don't want to think about it; I don't want to hear about it; we're the good guys, they're the bad guys; shut up. And besides, they attacked us first."

    But our country has opposed torture since its founding. One of our founding principles is that cruel and unusual punishment is both illegal and wrong. Every year, our State Department issues a report grading other countries on their support for or violations of human rights.

    In a way, Abu Ghraib, as bizarrely sadistic as it was, is easier to understand than this cold, relentless and apparently endless procedure at Gitmo. At least Abu Ghraib took place in the context of war. At Guantanamo, there is no threat to anyone – Americans are not being killed or hurt there.

    Our country, the one you and I are responsible for, has imprisoned these "illegal combatants" for three years now. What the hell else do we expect to get out of them? We don't even release their names or say what they're charged with – whether they're Taliban, al Qaeda or just some farmers who happened to get in the way (in Afghanistan, farmers and soldiers are apt to be the same).

    If this hasn't been established in three years, when will it be? How long are they to be subjected to "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions"?

    In the name of Jesus Christ Almighty, why are people representing our government, paid by us, writing filth on the Korans of helpless prisoners? Is this American? Is it Christian? What are our moral values? Where are the clergymen on this? Speak out, speak up.


    Too Controversial to Broadcast

    This is a strange story that's been brewing over the past week. Apparently, CBS refused to accept and air an ad from the United Church of Christ (UCC). NBC announced that "Because the commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the (CBS and UPN) networks."

    This link will take you to a story summarizing some the details and includes a link to the ad. This is a link to AmericaBlog which includes copies of the official denial from CBS. It also shows that the negotiations for airing this ad had been ongoing for ten months. Here is a quote from that AmericaBlog link that sums up a least one problem with the rationalization by CBS:

    3. The second sentence from CBS "Because this commercial..." seems to be suggesting that because the Bush administration is opposed to civil rights for lots of different people, then ANY pro civil rights or pro-equality/inclusion message about any minority groups in America is "current" and "controversial" and thus CBS will no longer run ads promoting anything positive about blacks, gays, or people with disabilities, among other groups.

    And more generally, CBS is saying that all the Bush administration has to do is make an issue controversial by talking about it, and CBS will pull the ad, becausea then, per se, the ad is about a controversial current issue. Think about that. CBS just gave the Bush administration absolute veto power over ANY AD the network ever runs. If the Bushies don't like an ad by a company that gives more money to Dems, they can complain about that company and its products, thus making that company part of the "current controversy" and the ad gets yanked.


    Cheer Up, Liberals

    Nice little rallying essay on The Democratic Underground. Starts with very bleak humor but picks up nicely. Worth a look. Here's a sample:

    We have a conservative government and a liberal culture because conservatives are better at scaring the crap out of voters, and liberals are better at wringing tears and laughter out of moviegoers. Nixon, that master of the dark political arts, once said that "people vote more out of fear than hope." Great art, though, is not about fear. It's about hope. Conservatives yearn for a Hollywood in which a "Left Behind" sequel sweeps the Oscars every year, but that will happen when Billy Bob Thornton is elected governor of Arkansas. The conservative mind is not creative. Artists imagine a new reality; conservatives want the world to remain the same, or return to the way they think it used to be.

    Why is Hollywood so liberal? Because good acting requires the empathy to put yourself inside another person's skin. Empathy is not a Republican trait. This year, John Kerry had the backing of Oscar winners Steven Spielberg, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks. It was rumored that Bo Derek campaigned for Bush. And she's not known for her acting. Bush was also fawned on by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, two non-actors whose performances involve stripping off other peoples' skins.

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