line -->
  • Tuesday, November 28, 2006


    Despite Objections from the Bush Administration

    This was a squib from Democracy Now! on Tues. 11/28/06:
    NBC News announced on Monday that it would begin describing the violence in Iraq as a civil war. NBC became the first television network to make such a decision despite objections from the Bush administration. On Monday National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said "We're clearly in a new phase." The Los Angeles Times reports that at least 524 people have died in Iraq since Thursday. [emphasis mine]
    That's the totality of the item. What caught my eye was the phrase "...despite objections from the Bush administration." I was wondering whether these were direct objections to NBC in particular over this story or just the Bush administration's general objections to news outlets using the term "civil war" as a descriptor of the situation in Iraq.

    The obvious point to me is: Why should the Bush administration have any say in what words a news organization uses to describe a situation their reporters observe? Of course, the consequences for defying the Bushites are quite real: the denial of access to press conferences, handouts, interviews, etc.

    The ability to describe an event seems to me a basic function of the media. We may question whether the words are accurate - that is the nature of public debate - but for the White House to essentially deny and penalize journalists for some descriptions, that is a highly cynical and manipulative form of censorship.

    Friday, November 17, 2006


    The Curious Case of "V" in Washington, DC

    Like many people, I was impressed with the political theatre of having a person costumed as the character "V" from the comic and film V for Vendetta go to the White House carrying "People’s Petitions for Redress of Grievances". The symbolism and appropriateness was beautiful to behold. Striking visuals always give power to such actions. But as I began to look a little deeper into the motivations and goals of the group behind the action, I was less thrilled.

    The We The People Foundation (WTP) has a high sounding mission statement which contains lots of generalities, stuff to easily elicit agreement from many US citizens:
    1. To protect, preserve and enhance the unalienable rights, liberties and freedoms of the people.
    2. To teach people that under our system of governance all power comes from the people and all government is limited by our written constitutions.
    3. To help people become better informed about the history and meaning of every provision of the Declaration of Independence and their State and federal constitutions.
    4. To help people become better informed about what is really going on in government.
    5. To help people become better informed about how to confront unconstitutional and illegal behavior by those wielding power in government at all levels.
    6. To institutionalize vigilance by the ordinary, nonaligned citizen-voter-taxpayers.
    However, their actual focus seems to be decrying and fighting the government's right to levy income taxes on the population. I get the impression they are probably philosophically aligned with the libertarians: small government, deregulation, etc. Robert Schulz appears to be the head of the organization.

    Then I began checking out a few names in the sidebar of their main page: Alan Keyes, Bay Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, Aaron Russo, Hutton Gibson, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin. These people aren't all necessarily members or part of WTP but they are all featured in video files available on the site (WTP-TV). These are all very conservative people. I mean, almost neolithic in outlook.

    Hutton Gibson is Mel Gibson's father, even more anti-semitic than his son and a Holocaust denier as well. Bay Buchanan is Pat Buchanan's sister and Treasury Sec. under Pres. Reagan. Alan Keyes stands almost alone as an ultra-right Republican Black politician. Joseph Sobran wrote for the National Review, has been accused of anti-semitism, and favors revision of Holocaust history. He has also been connected to the Institute for Historical Review which has also been accused of anti-semitism.

    So I find myself sighing heavily. I wanted WTP to be an organization I could like and get behind. Excellence in political street theatre tactics comes along so rarely. I admire the tactics. The group behind it, not so much.

    Monday, November 13, 2006


    US Military Headstones and Religious Symbolism

    I wrote earlier about the effort to allow the pentacle on Wiccan military gravestones as a symbol of the soldier's religion. A CNN story says that the wives of two dead soldiers who were Wiccan are suing the government to allow the pentacles on their headstone markers.

    The lawsuit was filed by Roberta Stewart, whose husband, Nevada National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan last year, and Karen DePolito, whose husband, Jerome Birnbaum, is a Korean War veteran who died last year.

    Wiccans worship the Earth and believe they must give to the community. Some consider themselves "white" or good witches, pagans or neo-pagans. Approximately 1,800 active-duty service members identify themselves as Wiccans, according to 2005 Defense Department statistics.

    This is a little misleading in some ways. It's important to remember that neo-paganism is a general category which encompasses a number of specific religions, one being Wicca. Some people who have championed the cause of putting the Pentacle on these soldiers' headstones have claimed that the pentacle is the "pagan" equivalent of the Christian Cross or Judaic Star of David. It is not. It is more specifically representative of Wicca. Ásatrú, another neo-pagan religion, would have a different symbol.

    This might seem like hair splitting to anyone who has never heard of these religions but it matters. A mix-up would be akin to putting a Star of David on a Christian's grave or a Cross on a Jewish grave. The point is that if soldiers want a symbol representative of their religion put on their grave, they should be allowed to have it.

    The Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) officially recognizes some 39 symbols for use on markers. Go on, look through them. It's an interesting collection. I'm curious about how many adherents to Eckankar have been in the US military yet it has an officially recognized VA symbol. (I find it tres amusing that images of Scientology and Christian Science symbols aren't on the VA page for copyright reasons.)

    Even Christianity Today (subtitle: A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction) had an editorial-type piece supporting the cause of putting the symbol on Wiccan headstones:
    If we are to keep faith with Sgt. Stewart and the other brave men and women who have died in service to the United States, then we must remember that all rights hang together. That is both the genius and the strength of the American system.

    Although our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian base, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just Christians. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians is for Christians to stand up and fight for the minority beliefs and religions of others.

    Without it, freedom will most likely be lost. And we will be left wondering whose freedoms we are really fighting for.

    This is a refreshing counterpoint to those Christians who use the same starting point (country founded on a Judeo-Christian base) to demand that the government be explicitly Christian. The implicit message is that other religions don't matter, aren't real, or are a threat to Christianity. The idea of religious tolerance and interfaith respect seems to rouse amazing amounts of bile in some Christian Fundamentalists.

    Religious pluralism: It's not just a good idea; it's the law.

    Saturday, November 11, 2006


    Forbidden Irish

    My housemate, She-Who-is-Known-as-Fierce-Celt, brought a story to my attention today. I think the relevance is cross-cultural and cross-national.

    The facts are a little blurry but a Celtic League press release (pdf) says:
    Ireland must call into question whether with the 'rebranding' of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] as the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] anything has changed in relation to police attitudes to the nationalist community.

    Máire Nic an Bhaird, a young woman from Belfast, experienced at first hand the attitude of the PSNI whilst chatting in Irish in the street with some of her teacher friends. It is alleged that a member of the PSNI left his vehicle and insulted her, demanding that she stop speaking that 'leprechaun language' and speak the 'Queens English in her country'. When, understandably she refused and stood up for her rights she was arrested and charged with obstruction and disorderly behaviour. [emphasis and bracket info added.]
    Irish (sometimes called Irish Gaelic) is the native language of Éire (Ireland). Speaking it was, shall we say, strongly discouraged during 19th and 20th centuries when England controlled the country. Thus it also has very strong connections to the Republican movement in Ireland, although I doubt its use is exclusive to that political community. In fact, it is slated to become an officially recognized language of the European Union on January 1, 2007.

    Of interest to me is the response on some of the message boards. (Here) It's obvious many people look down on the language, denigrating the woman merely for speaking it at all. I can't find any information indicating that Máire Nic an Bhaird, the 24 year old teacher who was arrested, did anything aggressive beyond answering the policeman in Irish rather than addressing him in English. Yet I've seen people assert that she was shouting Republican slogans at the policeman. The level of vitriol aimed at her is astonishing and reflects an obvious conflation of the language with the IRA's tactics and bombs.

    On ElBlogador, I found this at the end of the comments by someone named Colleen:
    I was in Belfast this morning to lend support to Máire Nic an Bhaird, the 24 year old school teacher that was put in jail over night for speaking her native language on the streets of the city in which she lives. I spoke to her briefly and asked her many of the questions that have been posed here in this forum. On the night in question it appears that she was announcing to friends that she had a lift home and saying goodbye to them in Irish. She was not chanting republican slogans! A police man approached her and actually grabbed hold of her and said she couldn't speak Irish. She was doing nothing wrong at all. She was not trying to get out of a misconduct scrape by using Irish, she was minding her own business and the police officer approached HER. He told her that he would put her in jail if she continued to speak Irish -- that she lived in the UK and that English was the language she should be speaking. She responded calmly to him that he could not put her in jail for speaking in Irish. But he did. I agree that the way the case is being described in the media puts such an emphasis on efforts to have her trial in Irish that no one has grasped how awful the incident really was. It is also very unfortunate that other political parties in addition to Sinn Féin have not condemed this incident. I watched the film 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' a few months ago and in the very beginnng a 17 year old boy is shot for giving his name in Irish. It's a startling scene and I remember thinking how grateful I was that I lived in an era where this couldn't happen. I went today to stand outside the courthouse in Belfast because I'm appalled that such antiquated attitudes toward the Irish language are oficially upheld anywhere, least of all Belfast, and that these attitudes have not been immediately and severely criticized by the public at large. No matter what one's interest, ability or personal feeling towards the Irish language is, how could anyone not agree that people are allowed to speak it in private conversations on the street wherever they choose? [sic throughout and emphasis mine]
    I think it takes little imagination to transfer this situation to the US where non-English speakers are routinely demonized. Aggressive measures to make English the "official" US language are common despite evidence that the overwhelming majority of immigrants (legal and illegal) become conversationally proficient in English within their first year in the US. Yet many US citizens seem fearstriken by the idea of a "brown menace" threatening to consume "white" culture.

    To borrow from Futurama's Bender: "Racism is such an ugly word. I prefer Xenophobia. The "X" makes it sexy."

    Friday, November 10, 2006


    The Curious Case of Current US War Funding

    Here's a fact that may be obscure to you (it was to me): The War in Iraq is not funded out of the normal US Federal Budget voted on by Congress. All those supplemental spending and "emergency funding" bills that Congress passed over the years to fund the war have, in past wars, always been folded into the normal budget process within a reasonable amount of time.

    If a war is an ongoing expense and will be for the foreseeable future, then it becomes part of the federal budget. The government plans for it. Emergency funding is just that: unexpected and sudden need for funding. Yet once or twice a year Congress votes on "emergency" funding for the war to the tune of 60 to 80 billion dollars. Now why is that?

    In related news, I knew the budgets submitted by Prez Bush had been increasing at a greater rate than those by Prez Clinton but it still boggles me exactly how much these submitted budgets have being increasing.

    Budgets submitted by Clinton for Fiscal Years (FY) between 1996 and 2001 rose from $1.6 trillion to $1.8 trillion, an increase of $200 billion over a 6 year period. (These numbers are obviously rounded quite a bit.) In a similar period, from 2002-2007, Bush's budgets increased from $2 trillion to $2.8 trillion. Perhaps you also missed the little jump between Clinton's last budget and Bush's first of $200 billion, equal to Clinton's total budget increases over 6 years.

    So, to recap, Bush has increased his proposed budget amounts at approx. 5 times the rate of Clinton. Clinton's last budget was for $1.8 trillion, Bush's current proposal is for $2.8 trillion, an increase of $1 trillion. (I intend this as an observation, not necessarily a partisan attack.)

    And, lest you forget, those emergency supplemental requests for funds for the war are not a part of the budget. If you included those, my (very loose) estimate is an additional $250 billion for the war beyond the budget. My estimate is based mostly on this Cost of War page which lists the supplemental allocation of funds passed by Congress.

    Welcome to another endrun around fiscal responsibility in government.

    Wednesday, November 08, 2006


    Voting Just Encourages Them

    Of course I voted! I'm being funny.

    Yet, as usual, there is a kernel of truth in my post title. It's good to vote the old rascals out. The blame for the current vasty mistakes can be spread thick upon the entire gaggle of politicians, Republican and Democrat. True, I think the Repubs deserve the lion's share of blame because of their arrogance and dominance of Congress for so long. But I'm not eager to exempt any of the current crop of Congressional money-suckers and influence whores.

    New people are elected and yet the Washington culture, darkly tainted by lobbyists and sub rosa agreements, remains in its corrupted glory. The rot infects all politicians who come to the city with bright dreams of change and reform. Then come the rationalizations: "It will take time," and "You don't understand the factors at play," and "We need to carefully consider the effects of our actions." Promises of progress become excuses of delay and proudly ambiguous speeches.

    We see it every time.

    Monday, November 06, 2006


    Free at Last?

    I've tried to keep my bitching and moaning to a minimum about not having any convenient highspeed internet access options available where I live. I finally bit the bullet and had a Hughsnet satellite connection installed.

    I can tell it's not quite as fast as other types of highspeed access and there's a slight delay between requesting a page and the download of it. As they say in the promotional info, not recommended for Voice over IP (VoIP) or "twitch" games. Still, my housemate Fierce Celt and I can be online at the same time, a massive improvement over taking shifts with the computer phone line. Costwise, this will probably save us money in the long run, between dropping ISPs and the extra phone line.

    Happy happy, joy joy.

    Sunday, November 05, 2006


    True Believers, Authoritarianism, and Incivility

    I caught most of a segment on Book TV with John Dean and Gore Vidal in Beverly Hills, CA. Gore Vidal* was quite funny. I can't remember ever having heard him speak before.

    Dean was discussing his most recent book, Conservatives Without Conscience, and talked of sociological theories about Authoritarian Personalities and the radical Right today. Dean, a conservative of the old school (i.e., Goldwater and probably pre-Reagan), thinks this explains a great deal about how the radical Right behave today.

    I was particularly gratified to hear him distinctly draw a line between Fascism of the Mussolini and Hitler type and what we have in the US today. Dean clearly thinks we may be going down the road to Fascism but feels the term is not accurate or descriptive of what is actually in place. I've also maintained that using the term shuts down debate and discourages clearly evaluating the current political state. Although I have to admit when I look at the Fourteen Defining Characteristics Of Fascism by Dr. Lawrence Britt, I certainly see the parallels.

    *As a total aside, I remember reading a Gore Vidal book in 8th or 9th grade. Another student at the school, Christopher Buckley, asked how I could read that crap. Had he read it? No, but his father (William F. Buckley, Jr.) had some sort of long term grudge disagreement with Vidal. I didn't really understand what this vitriolic fight was all about, my political I.Q. being quite low at the time. Of course, now I know that Buckley and Vidal are almost as far apart politically as you can get in Washington terms. And then there was that little TV debate in 1968 where Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley called Vidal a "queer".

    Friday, November 03, 2006


    Hacking Democracy

    I have only watched the first 15 minutes of a 90 minute program so I may be speaking prematurely by saying everyone should watch Hacking Democracy, a documentary on HBO. I don't think anyone who watches it will ever again cast their vote on an electronic voting machine.

    I'm no stranger to the many reports of problems with electronic voting but this doc lays out the concerns and evidence in a very strong manner. A highlight was a candidate going in to check the machines shortly before an election and actually filming the voting machine transferring her vote to another candidate. As the doc points out, because most reported cases of this happening come from voters voting in the privacy of the booth, this situation is rarely documented and caught on tape. In this instance, these were real world machines already set up for a real election.

    The situation of having private companies owning and keeping secret the technology for voting seems intolerable to me. I guess there is a stream of thought in computing that says keeping the technology secret provides a form of security but that argument doesn't hold much water with me. Secure is not synonymous with secret.

    Bev Harris and her organization are central figures in the documentary. I don't really remember whether there was split or whether they were always separate organizations but there is also Black Box, which seems more like a blog covering electronic voting in the news with opinion thrown in. Harris and Co's seems a much more complete site with lots of related links. Black Box seems very determined to not be mistaken for Harris's group. I don't know what's up with that. Ah, there's some information in this Wikipedia article on Black Box Voting. However there seem some questionable facts in the article. Such as
    In the U.S. presidential election, 2004, about 25% of voting was done on electronic voting machines. As of February, 2006, 80% of all votes in America were counted by only two companies: Diebold and ES&S, and there was no federal agency with regulatory authority or oversight of the US voting machine industry.
    This makes it sound like 80% of ALL votes cast are counted by Diebold and ES&S. I'm fairly sure they mean 80% of the 25% of votes cast electronically are counted by Diebold and ES&S. Bad editing there, I think. [EDIT: I may be wrong on this. Some sources say the total number of votes counted by these companies is over 80% right now but I haven't tracked down a good explanation of what I perceive as discrepancy between the electronic voting machines (25% of the total vote) and the assertion the companies count a much higher percentage of the total votes. Perhaps something to do with centralized tabulators which count the precinct votes? I don't know.]

    Still, the situation in the USA with electronic voting is tragic. I'm lucky I live in a small town with a wooden ballot box and paper ballots in a state not rushing onto the electronic voting bandwagon. If I lived elsewhere, I would probably demand a paper, absentee, or provisional ballot rather than use these damn machines. And this is even taking into account that doing so would vastly increase the odds that my vote wouldn't be counted at all.

    Democracy Now! did a story on the doc including an interview with Bev Harris.


    Pop Culture Always Lies

    In the US, we live awash in the effervescent bubbles of popular culture: its references, its images, its music and sounds. Sometimes, even, its words. Usually the words are signature phrases from movies or TV shows, expressive of a dramatic moment or a theme. It might be a configuration of words which astounds us or amuses us.

    In popular culture, phrases can become touchstones, common experiences for many people. Such experiences serve to bind people together and provide a semi-universal pool of cultural memory which people can draw upon. Depending on the group or sub-culture, people draw upon the wide availability of these cultural denominators to speak with each other from common experience. I guess it's called "watercooler culture."

    I have great respect for words and the power of words. Even simple words and phrases can move me to tears or laughter.

    I am a reader. Moreover, I read for pleasure, to acquire information and to gather informed opinions. I like curling up with a book for the afternoon. I like exploring the unknown pleasures of a book new to me. The cynic in me suspects that I am a dying breed in the US. Am I hopelessly out of touch with today's urges for twitch games and txt msgs and blipverts?

    While "teh internets" provide all kinds of sources and information, I still find it limited and surprisingly spotty. Books, for all their faults, often contextualize the information they contain. As much as I love web surfing and the serendipitous discoveries generated by following links hither and yon, the very nature of the medium insures wildly varying levels of quality and accuracy of the information found.

    I think our popular culture (read: TV, movies, and music) has become a sinkhole, swallowing our energy, our thoughts, our visions. We believe this pop culture is fulfilling our dramatic and artistic needs, telling us stories, shaping deep modern mythologies. I think the situation is precisely the opposite: the myriad stories drown us, eat away our souls, and leave us desperately empty.

    Just because I'm writing this screed, that doesn't mean I'm immune from the siren song of US popular culture. I watch TV and movies. I listen to music. I'm not an anchorite. I'm not speaking from an ivory tower where I only read "good" books and never sully my brain with mass entertainment. I partake of pop culture all the time.

    The point? I think there's a reason so many people in the US are gullible and believe the most specious crap our leaders put out for consumption. I think the reason is the populace's unquestioning acceptance of the products of our media. Why do we believe the lies? Because we spend hours each day identifying with false premises on TV. Can we tell fact from fiction? Really, can we? I'm not so sure.

    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?