can’t see the forest

Yes, but if it happened here…

Posted in activism, Iran, Obama, Politics, U.S. News, World News by Curtis on 6/23/09

U.S. President Obama has issued more statements condemning the government crackdown on Iranian protesters angry with the possibly fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.

The BBC reports:

Mr Obama said: “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.

“I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”

He said: “The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society.”

Mr Obama said of the allegations of meddling: “This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran.

“This is not about the United States and the West. This is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.”

Obama has already endured copious criticism on this issue from the GOP, whose leaders say the President has been too ‘soft’ on Iran since taking office. And the Supreme Leader of Iran has accused both London and Washington of meddling in Iran’s affairs and seeking to foment unrest for political gain.

The U.S. government finds itself in a delicate position with regards to the situation in Iran; from the outset, the Obama White House has pledged to take a less bullish, trigger-happy approach to negotiations with Tehran than the preceding administration. The U.S., already embroiled in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for which stateside support is rapidly dwindling, is struggling through its worst financial crisis in nearly a century. Even if Washington were sure that the Iranian election is fraudulent, it could offer little real support to Ahmadinejad’s opponents. Therefore, we can be relatively sure that what the President has to say about Iran will have scant resonance beyond the Beltway.

One thing that bothers me about diplomatic grandstanding on this issue is the question: What if it happened here? What if, rather than calmly accepting the Supreme Court-mandated first inauguration of George W. Bush, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and elsewhere? Would the U.S. government had been as restrained as it now feels compelled to ask of Tehran? Judging by the harsh civic responses on record to political protests in places like Seattle and Chicago, the answer is probably ‘no.’ It seems unlikely that such questions will ever be other than hypothetical, as the U.S. fosters a society in which copious creature comforts tend to ensure merely theoretical interest in political developments among much of its population.

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Segregation persists in Montgomery County, Georgia

Posted in civil rights, Georgia, Lifestyle, racism, society, sociology, U.S. News by Curtis on 6/22/09

The Telegraph reports that, though the inauguration of an African-American president may represent a civil rights milestone for many Americans and observers abroad, some segregatory practices are alive and well in Montgomery County, Georgia:

Kera Nobles’ senior prom should have been a high point of her life, as she celebrated graduation from her home town’s school system after 13 years of education.

But instead it has left the normally bubbly 17-year-old smouldering with anger. For, following a local tradition that seems extraordinary in a country which has elected its first black president, there was not just one formal dance for the 54 classmates who graduated from Montgomery County High, but two.

On the first night, a prom was held for the school’s white students; the following night came the celebration for Miss Nobles and the school’s other blacks.

“I don’t like segregated proms, there’s no need for it,” she said, her eyes still burning with hurt. “We went to school together and we all graduated at the same time. I feel like I’ve been deprived of something that was important to me.”

One concern I have as a U.S. Southerner is that people outside this region, and particularly outside this country, might reasonably acquire the impression that such flagrant racism is universal in this part of the world. This simply isn’t true. At the very least, it is today nowhere near as true as it once might have been.

My observation has been that racism here is largely a generational phenomenon—the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today are far less likely to harbor prejudicial attitudes than their parents and grandparents. Of course, this is not to say that racism is absent among young people, particularly since they are their parents’ children. Those young people who attend or have attended rural schools with small or non-existent African-American populations are much more likely to grow into virulent racism than their urban peers. I have seen it happen, too often.

That’s one reason why segregation, while it may make some comfortable in their ivory towers, is a very bad idea—today, tomorrow, and forever.

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Iran to Obama: Change in words not enough

Posted in foreign policy, Iran, Israel, middle east, Obama, Politics, U.S. News, US, World News by Curtis on 3/21/09

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In a video message to Iran delivered to coincide with the spring holiday of Nowruz, U.S. President Barack Obama may have departed significantly from Bush-era policies by opening the door to constructive dialog between the two nations. But his overtures disappointed many and were less than warmly received by the government in Tehran largely because they seemed to embody a continuation of carrot-and-stick diplomacy oriented toward rewarding a sovereign nation for “good behavior” rather than truly engaging it as an equal.

The BBC reports on the response from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini:

Speaking to a large crowd in the holy city of Mashhad, Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran had “no experience with the new American government and the new American president.”

“We will observe them and we will judge,” he said.

“If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude.”

In the speech, which was carried live by Iranian television, he said Iran was yet to see such a change.

“What is the change in your policy?” he asked.

“Did you remove the sanctions? Did you stop supporting the Zionist regime? Tell us what you have changed. Change only in words is not enough.”

Matters were not helped, perhaps, in that Obama preceded his address by extending certain sanctions against the Islamic republic for one year, citing threats to U.S. national security.

Iran is due to hold presidential elections this summer. Former President Mohammed Khatami, a figure widely viewed as more open to reconciliation with the West, was at one point slated to run for reelection but then withdrew from the race. Whether or not current President Amahdinejad, seen as a foreign policy hardliner, is ousted from office, the U.S. and Israel need not expect the election to bring any major changes to the political climate.

It is good that the new White House is willing to engage in dialog with Tehran, but the fact remains that, if the U.S. wishes genuinely to create goodwill and a sense of cooperation with Iran, it must itself take steps toward enacting several policy changes:

  1. First and foremost, the U.S. must openly rethink its complete and unmitigated support for the government of Israel, particularly as it pertains to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Since the U.S. is largely responsible for the arming and funding of Israeli military operations, and has traditionally backed Israel diplomatically against all odds, it is seen as a de facto partner in the blockades and military offensives which have recently crushed millions of innocent Palestinians in response to rocket fire from a relatively small number of militants. The U.S. could help matters by intensifying its commitment to a political solution for Palestine.
  2. The U.S. must recognize Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, and must adopt a policy of “innocent until proven guilty” towards its suspicions that Iran might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons. There remains no concrete evidence that Iran is working towards a bomb, but the hysteria over the idea continues to mount as Israel considers using missiles to destroy enrichment efforts. Iran may be willing to accept reliance on fuel enriched outside its borders, but not for nothing in return.
  3. The U.S. must work to end U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Iran. This could be made dependent on eliciting cooperation from Tehran on security issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the government may or may not be willing to give. But as long as such sanctions are in place, Iran is justified in feeling that it is being addressed as less than an equal, and little progress is likely.

In return, the U.S. should expect Iran to soften its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, to tone down its anti-Israeli rhetoric and provocative missile tests, and to become more receptive to cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, to keep realism on the table, we must remember that Iran reasonably views itself as a state under threat, surrounded on both sides by ongoing U.S. military operations and continually threatened by talk of missile attacks from Israel.

Obama’s latest move certainly signifies the hope of change, but it is not yet, for many, change we can believe in.

A Nail on the Head

Posted in economy, political opinion, U.S. News, USA by Curtis on 3/19/09

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In a CBC News article from this time last year, University of Maryland economist Pete Morici perhaps unwittingly summarized (and prophesied) America’s economic woes with great honesty and simplicity:

Living within your means would seem to be a universal wisdom. Not here.

If we do that,” says Pete Morici, an outspoken professor of economics at the University of Maryland, “if we pay off our bills, we’re going to consume much less than we produce. When that happens, the global economy will go into a severe recession.”

Nobody wants that.

Still, if Americans had more collective fiscal sense, they would look at their aggregate consumer debt — $2.5 trillion, not including mortgages — and they would hold their credit cards over candles. They would get rid of the expensive behemoths parked in the driveway and enter into a long, sober, luxury-free period of financial detox.

They would then tell their government to stop borrowing unimaginable sums from Chinese and Middle East investors. They would try to live in their houses and enjoy them for a few years, instead of treating them like financial milking machines.

But none of this is likely to happen, thank goodness. Because Americans are addicted to the opium of leverage. They love to buy, usually without much down payment or any down payment at all and then, as a market frenzy inflates the value of the thing they have bought to nosebleed levels, siphon off the artificial wealth and spend it anew.

Bingo–Jackpot!

Posted in Alabama, Alabama news, Crime, gambling, Lifestyle, News, police, Politics, U.S. News by Curtis on 3/19/09

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slot-machine

From our Local Interest Department:

In White Hall, Alabama—a rural community near Montgomery in which about one third of folks live below the poverty line–a state task force raided a bingo hall before dawn on Thursday, seizing more than 200 alleged illegal slot machines and “a large amount of cash.”

From the Associated Press via al.com:

A spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley says the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling organized the pre-dawn raid Thursday and are seizing machines suspected of being illegal slot machines.

No charges were immediately filed.

Collins Pettaway, an attorney for the charity that operates the bingo hall, says the machines are all legal and he is trying to get an injunction to block the seizure.

Whitehall resident Doris Gresham says she was in the gaming center when state troopers arrived about 5 a.m.

The bingo hall is located on U.S. 80 about 20 miles west of Montgomery.

The thought occurs to me that if the great state of Alabama could just let good folks like Doris yank the lever in peace, perhaps my state university wouldn’t be turning off the air conditioning in shifts and considering a hiring freeze, the roads around here might get serviced regularly and in reasonable time, and maybe the police could divert their valuable resources to fighting some real crime.

Just possibly.

U.S. refuses to sign U.N. declaration in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality

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Standing alone among the major Western powers, the delegation from the United States refused to sign on Thursday a non-binding United Nations resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality.

The measure, co-sponsored by France and the Netherlands, was signed by 66 countries. In at least 80 nations, homosexuality is a criminal offense; in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is punishable by execution.

BBC News reports:

The countries signed a declaration sponsored by France and the Netherlands demanding an end to legal punishment based on sexual orientation.

Sixty other countries of the UN’s 192 member states, including a number of Arab and African states, rejected the non-binding declaration.

They said laws on homosexuality should be left to individual countries.

Gay men, lesbians and transsexuals worldwide face daily violations of their human rights.

France and the Netherlands drafted the declaration in part to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signatories included all 27 members of the European Union, Japan, Mexico, and Australia, as well as three dozen other member states.

France’s human rights minister, Rama Yade, called the lack of U.S. support “disappointing,” especially for a country which so vocally prides itself on its defense of human rights abroad.

Why did the United States refuse to sign? An MSNBC article explains:

According to some of the declaration’s backers, U.S. officials expressed concern in private talks that some parts of the declaration might be problematic in committing the federal government on matters that fall under state jurisdiction. In numerous states, landlords and private employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the federal level, gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military.

Carolyn Vadino, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., stressed that the United States — despite its unwillingness to sign — condemned any human rights violations related to sexual orientation.

Gay rights activists nonetheless were angered by the U.S. position.

“It’s an appalling stance — to not join with other countries that are standing up and calling for decriminalization of homosexuality,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

She expressed hope that the U.S. position might change after President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

The federal government of the United States has never concretely expressed that Equal Protection—the Fourteenth Amendment provision which is supposed to force states to guarantee the extension of rights to all citizens—applies to matters of sexual orientation. It has left the legislation of sexuality open to the various states, such as California, where voters last month passed Proposition 8, a measure defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Consequently, many gays in the U.S. feel merely tolerated and frequently openly discriminated against by U.S. law. They say the federal government should take a stand against anti-gay laws and use Equal Protection to ensure compliance at the state level.

Syria represented a group of 60 countries which refused to sign the declaration. The Vatican City also abstained, stating that, while it supports an end to anti-gay laws and persecution, its view is that such a declaration “gives rise to uncertainty in the laws and challenges existing human norms.”

And that, French and Dutch delegates might argue, is exactly what the declaration was intended to do.

un-flag

‘Endgame’ in Iraq? And what game would that be, exactly?

Posted in economy, energy, foreign policy, iraq, Iraq War, middle east, News, U.S. News, USA, World News by Curtis on 12/15/08

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robert-gates2

U.S. Defense Secy. Robert Gates

BBC News reports that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, slated to keep his post after Obama takes office in January, has told U.S. troops on an airbase in Iraq that their mission is in its ‘endgame’:

Mr Gates said the US military presence would undergo a “significant change of mission” next June when troops are due to withdraw from Iraq’s urban areas.

Under a recently agreed deal between the two countries, US troops will completely withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

However, the US general leading US troops in Iraq has said he expects some soldiers to stay in cities beyond June.

The Iraqi parliament voted in favour of the new security deal with the Americans last month. Iraq’s government has hailed the agreement as the prelude to the return of full sovereignty to the country.

Not that this is the first time we’ve heard such talk, of course. But this time, Pentagon officials may actually be speaking from their icy black hearts.

Commanders on the ground in Iraq expect to restore native control to all 18 Iraqi provinces by June, under the terms of a new security deal with the government of Prime Minister Maliki. U.S. voters will expect incoming president Barack Obama to deliver on his promises of a deliberate but expeditious withdrawal from Iraq.

But it isn’t all campaign politics; the simple truth is that, while automakers badger the U.S. Congress for a handout of a few billion dollars, the staggering financial costs of the occupation of Iraq—in the hundreds of billions per annum—continue to create debt and leave federal and industrial resources ever more tightly stretched. The presence of 150,000 troops in Iraq is edging towards the logistically untenable, and recent developments have created an environment in which withdrawal on Washington’s terms is becoming more opportune.

In October, the Iraqi government officially opened its oil reserves—the third-largest proven reserves in the world—to dozens of foreign investors, under the terms of an ownership contract which was never made public. Crude oil prices have recently plummeted in the wake of decreased demand, but with the hands of international oil companies on the spickets in the petroleum paradise of southern Iraq, OPEC is now largely unable to effectively counter in many markets. Critics of the U.S. administration have long maintained that gaining the ability to exert this kind of pressure on oil markets, from the Middle East to Venezuela, has always been a primary goal of the occupation of Iraq.

Talili AirbaseAnother important prerequisite for withdrawal which is now a fait accompli is the establishment of a series of ‘megabases’ throughout Iraq, including some of the largest such facilities anywhere on the globe. TomDispatch reports:

By now, billions have evidently gone into single massive mega-bases like the U.S. air base at Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It’s a “16-square-mile fortress,” housing perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops, contractors, special ops types, and Defense Department employees. As the Washington Post’s Tom Ricks, who visited Balad back in 2006, pointed out — in a rare piece on one of our mega-bases — it’s essentially “a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq.” Back then, air traffic at the base was already being compared to Chicago’s O’Hare International or London’s Heathrow — and keep in mind that Balad has been steadily upgraded ever since to support an “air surge” that, unlike the President’s 2007 “surge” of 30,000 ground troops, has yet to end. . .

. . .Think of this as the greatest American story of these years never told — or more accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple of these mega-bases — never shown. After all, what an epic of construction this has been, as the Pentagon built a series of fortified American towns, each some 15 to 20 miles around, with many of the amenities of home, including big name fast-food franchises, PXes, and the like, in a hostile land in the midst of war and occupation. In terms of troops, the President may only have put his “surge” strategy into play in January 2007, but his Pentagon has been “surging” on base construction since April 2003.

Aside from providing a bottomless boon to salivating contractors, these airbases ensure that, even with the vast majority of manpower extracted from the region, the U.S. can continue to project its power into the Middle East to protect its diplomatic and economic interests. This sends a strong message to the re-emerging Russian Federation as well as to regional powers such as Iran.

So while it may be true that the official U.S. mission in Iraq is coming to a close, in the sense of realpolitik, the ‘game’ may be just beginning.

The climate changes, but not much else

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While European leaders congratulate themselves at the close of a two-day Brussels summit on climate change, their numerous critics are left shaking their heads in dismay.

An agreement was reached whereby EU nations will be required, by 2020, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% as compared to 1990 levels. Additionally, the pact calls for a 19% reduction in CO2 emissions from automobiles by 2015, and for measures to increase the use of renewable energy and to improve on overall fuel efficiency in the coming years. Also laid out was a carbon emissions trading scheme, perhaps the most comprehensive of its kind yet put into place in the world economy.

The Guardian reports that the product of the talks represents a major victory for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as he nears the end of his six-month tenure as President of the EU. The European Parliament is set to write the decisions into law next week.

“This is a major advance,” said [UK] prime minister, Gordon Brown. “Europe after these decisions remains the leader on climate change.”

coal-plantBut critics complained that the package was too little too late, that EU leaders had capitulated to fierce lobbying from European industry, that the loopholes in the system and the awarding of pollution permits free to most non-energy firms in the scheme would trigger a bonanza in windfall corporate profits.

“Industry has to do next to nothing,” said Claude Turmes, a leading Green MEP from Luxembourg, who helped to draft part of the legislation. “If they are honest, these leaders know they haven’t agreed something really ambitious.”

“This could have been one of Europe’s finest moments,” said Robin Webster, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “But huge loopholes allow big energy-users to carry on polluting.”

Barroso admitted that the terms of the deal could bring windfall profits for industry, reversing the logic of the polluter pays principle that is supposed to underpin the carbon trading scheme.

In particular, critics feel the accords go incredibly soft on certain industries, such as coal processors—which, although among the very worst emissions offenders, will be given generous discounts in the carbon trading arena—and steel refineries. Industries such as these will hardly flinch in the wake of this “major advance.”

arctic-ice-melt

CSMonitor: Projected Arctic melting

According to the New York Times, President-Elect Barack Obama has placed confronting climate change second only to the revitalization of the U.S. economy on his to-do list, and in its acknowledgement of the issues at hand, his administration is sure to represent a marked improvement over the Bush years. Indeed, on Tuesday Obama met privately with 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore to discuss climate change and energy policy, though the Obama camp denies a potential role for Gore in the new White House. But environmentalists are skeptical as to just how far the impassioned rhetoric will carry over into reality come January; if European leaders consider the kind of agreement just reached in Brussels to be a colossal step forward, one wonders if substantiation of the change Obama has in mind is bound to prove commensurately disappointing. Obama’s plans are ambitious, but his ability to enforce them remains unproven.

Political leaders tend to shy away from forcing stringent environmental standards on industry because such measures can have significant front-end overhead and can make certain products at least initially unpalatable to consumers. This wariness is only amplified in times of economic crisis. Americans can expect the new President to be far more forthright and engaging on environmental policy than his predecessor, but should not harbor illusions. Lobbyists are still lobbyists, capitalism is still capitalism, and automobiles still run—mostly—on gasoline.

The Joose is no longer loose

Posted in celebrity, Crime, Hollywood, justice, law, News, O. J. Simpson, U.S. News by Curtis on 12/5/08

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From BBC News:

Ex-US football star OJ Simpson has been jailed for up to 33 years for the kidnap and armed robbery of two sports memorabilia dealers in Las Vegas.

Describing Simpson as arrogant and ignorant, Judge Jackie Glass said the evidence against him was overwhelming.

He and an accomplice, Clarence Stewart, were convicted on 12 counts in October.

Simpson, eligible for parole in nine years, made an emotional plea to the court, saying he was “sorry” and “confused”. His lawyer is to appeal.

In 1995, the former Buffalo Bills player was acquitted of murdering his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman in what was dubbed “the trial of the century”.

Not that this is the most important news I could be reporting.

But, dude, he did it. Yeah, that. I mean—c’mon. I vividly remember being glued to the chase, and then watching my mom watch every freaking minute of that trial. And it went on forever and ever. Then there was the multi-million dollar acquittal. ‘Cause, if it doesn’t fit . . .

Not that this constitutes justice. He still got away with it. But at least now he’ll be where he belongs, in my humble opinion. At least for a while.

Focus Group Markets Belligerent Language against Iran

Posted in foreign policy, Iran, marketing, Politics, U.S. News, USA, war, world, World News by Curtis on 11/23/07

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99 has birthed another cow, and with good reason.

From Mother Jones’ Washington Dispatch:

Laura Sonnenmark is a focus group regular. “I’ve been asked to talk about orange juice, cell phone service, furniture,” the Fairfax County, Virginia-based children’s book author and Democratic Party volunteer says. But when she was called by a focus group organizer for a prospective assignment earlier this month, she was told the questions this time would be about something “political.”

On November 1, she went to the offices of Martin Focus Groups in Alexandria, Virginia, knowing she would be paid $150 for two hours of her time. After joining a half dozen other women in a conference room, she discovered that she had been called in for what seemed an unusual assignment: to help test-market language that could be used to sell military action against Iran to the American public. “The whole basis of the whole thing was, ‘we’re going to go into Iran and what do we have to do to get you guys to along with it?” says Sonnenmark, 49.

Soon after the leader of the focus group began the discussion, according to Sonnenmark, he directed the conversation toward recent tensions between Iran and the United States. “He was asking questions about [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad going to speak at Columbia University, how terrible it was that he was able to go to Columbia and was invited,” Sonnenmark says. “And he used lots of catch phrases, like ‘victory’ and ‘failure is not an option.'”

. . .

“Of all the focus groups I’ve ever been to,” Sonnenmark wrote in a subsequent email to a group of fellow volunteers for the 2006 Senate campaign of Jim Webb, “I’ve never seen a moderator who was so persistent in manipulating and leading the participants.” (Webb is lead author of a Senate letter warning President Bush not to attack Iran without congressional approval; see here and here.)) The gist of the event was “anti-Iranian,” says Sonnenmark.

If the group’s organizers were testing the case for military action against Iran—even as a last resort—Sonnenmark believes they could not have been encouraged by the results of this focus group. “I got the general feeling that George Bush didn’t have a shot in hell” of winning public support for an Iran attack, she says. Some members of her group suggested that if Hillary Clinton were elected president she might have more credibility in making such a case. As for the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, Sonnenmark’s impression was that the group’s members did not believe it was up to them to judge.