can’t see the forest

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.

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Glenn Beck, the “912 Project,” and US Human Rights Abuses since 9/11

Posted in 9/11, conservative, FoxNews, Glenn Beck, human rights, media, News, Politics, Propaganda, USA by Curtis on 3/18/09

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To those in the U.S. and elsewhere who have remained blissfully unaware of just how retarded certain segments of the American mainstream media have become in recent years, I proudly and yet regrettably present FOX News commentator Glenn Beck and his “912 Project.”

Beck’s power base is his nationally syndicated radio show, The Glenn Beck Program. He was also aired on CNN/Headline News between May 2006 and October 2008, billed as “an unconventional look at the news of the day,” to say the least. But Beck has risen to greater prominence through his prime-time FOX News program, which began airing in January, pretty much concurrently with the beginning of the Obama presidency. It is only from this new soapbox that Beck has begun pulling out all the stops. The headlining guests on Beck’s first FOX show were Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, for starters.

Glenn Beck describes himself as a recovering alcoholic, a man whose early life was liberally peppered with tragedies in the family. Beck says, essentially, that God “stalked” him and forced him to reform. For overcoming personal tragedy and hardship, I heartily salute and warmly empathize with Mr. Beck; but it seems apparent that this recovery has come at a considerable . . . err . . . mental cost. Here’s a small sample of his polemics:

Beck, who once asked America’s first Muslim congressman, on air, to prove that he wasn’t working for “America’s enemies,” who uses his platform to “crush” atheists and to debunk anthropogenic climate change as some sort of leftist hoax, and whose commentary most generally consists of tearful, emotionally charged laments on the deplorable state of American society—though probably not in the sense you or I would mean—is launching “The 912 Project.” We’ll let Beck speak for himself on this one. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s mission statement as displayed on theglennbeck912project.com:

This website is a place for you and other like-minded Americans looking for direction in taking back the control of our country. It is also a place to find information that will assist you in navigating the rough waters we face in the days, weeks and months ahead. . .

. . .This is a non-political movement. The 9-12 Project is designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. The day after America was attacked we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.

That same feeling – that commitment to country is what we are hoping to foster with this idea. We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.

Glenn Beck is proud to invoke a state of tightly unified, pseudo-patriotic ecstasy in the U.S., as long as it operates according to the “9 Principles” (including “I believe in God and He is the center of my life,” and “Government cannot force me to be charitable”) and “12 values” (such as “reverence,” “thrift,” and “gratitude”) of his project. Which is to say, as long as everyone wholeheartedly agrees with Glenn Beck.

But, wait a minute. The United States on September 12, 2001 was a nation in the grip of fear, hysteria, and uncertainty. The things which brought the country together during that time were compassion for the bereaved (good) and lust for revenge on the perpetrators (bad). Aren’t most of us taught as children that decisions made in confusion and anger tend to be . . . well . . . bad decisions? And isn’t an appeal to return to “9/12” at least in some sense a roundabout way of asking for another “9/11”?

Of course it is! Beck appeals to a certain segment of the conservative populace in the U.S., one which is undereducated, underinformed, and overzealous with respect to issues they don’t really even grasp. Such people can only operate meaningfully when there is a common enemy into which they can channel their frustrations, some of which are legitimate until they are so sorely mishandled.

Joanne Mariner, via Counterpunch, gives a full and insightful survey of human rights violations committed by the U.S. beginning on September 12. Is this the America to which Beck wishes to return?

Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.

To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.

With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.

This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.

There is great cause to be anxious and even outraged in the realm of current events. Why does the United States support rogue states such as Israel and befriend human rights behemoths like Saudi Arabia, while making bellicose overtures to Iran for brandishing its own rhetoric and pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program? Why does it stand idly by through the Ossetias and Darfurs of the world, while plunging hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives into Iraq and Afghanistan? But the moment we stop thinking critically, asking and researching questions, and start vegging out in front of the TV with twinkies and soda, we enter the fruitless province of Beckistan. Within those too clearly-defined borders, the important things to be concerned about are illegal immigrants, God in the classroom, and the Satanic bane of homosexuality.

Even Shephard Smith, FOX News anchor and veritable conservative posterboy, found time to ridicule Project 912:

If it’s THAT broke, don’t fix it

Posted in economy, human rights, money, US by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The signs of recession are everywhere. At university, there is talk of combining classes and even of laying off untenured instructors. Air conditioning in the school buildings gets cut off at night and on weekends. Tuition rates are rising faster than usual. My drive from home to school is peppered with newly built strip malls, which are mostly vacant. Some families I know that were already living on the edge are not sure how they’ll make it through the year. Job loss is up, and new home sales are down.

I think by now everyone is familiar with the theme and variations which have been presented to explain the economic ‘crisis.’ These explanations sound, to my ear, a bit more complicated than necessary. Is it the fault of starry-eyed first-time homeowners looking to begin their lives fresh out of college with the kind of spacious, effulgent lifestyle mom and dad worked 25 years to attain, or is it the fault of the beady-eyed lenders who agreed to finance them? Are the big banks to blame for using questionable mortgage securities as a profit scheme, or is the government responsible for allowing that investment paradigm to blossom unhindered?

These rhetorical questions dance around complex issues, but in and of themselves, I’m afraid their answers don’t speak to the central problems in the modern economy, which are systemic rather than specific, ideological rather than individual. There are lessons to be learned by inquiring into what went wrong where, but time marches on, and it seems to me that we ought to focus on things we can fix in the future, going forward.

For one, free market, capitalist economies require perpetual growth in order to remain stable. This means, above all, a growth in consumption; people are immersed in an environment in which products are seen as the answers to their problems, and when there are no more problems, new ones are created. This is a favorite strategy of tech gadgeteers and big pharmaceuticals. Yes, it’s funny how medical diagnoses like Restless Leg Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder seem to enter into parlance at about the same time as the drugs which treat them. You might as well not even own a cell phone if it can’t spit out the latest baseball scores or play your favorite MP3s at the touch of a button. Advertising and marketing people are, regrettably, something like the shamans of our shiny new civilization. The way to drive the economy forward is through ever-increasing consumption, even when it outstrips expendable income. The condition of being broke, after all, is merely the stepladder to a whole new level of product promotion and consumption: the product of credit.

Economies like ours also require continual growth in the pool of available resources, and continual shrinkage in pesky overhead costs, such as labor (with the recent trend being to divert a lot of those costs to marketing). This is why we have long, explosive, bloody, multi-trillion-dollar wars in places like Iraq, why we support states like Israel and Saudi Arabia while decrying the human rights records of states like Iran, why Nike runs massive production facilities in Indonesia in which the costs of grossly underpaid labor operations are calculated down to fractions of a second, and why veritable crises in humanitarian wastelands like Darfur or Palestine aren’t very interesting to policymakers.

The new U.S. administration’s solutions to the problem have mostly entailed government spending: hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy corporations just to keep them afloat for another quarter, mortgage relief to beleagured homeowners, and the creation or beefing-up of social programs, some of which are sorely needed. But one wonders what kind of band-aid such policies represent, and how long it can hold together. Talk of increased regulation is interesting and welcome, but what about a more fundamental discussion of what is being regulated, and why? I was taught that a state in which the government enters into a limited, supposedly need-based fiscal partnership with large-scale industry is practicing fascism. I guess that’s not the case when we do it.

Maybe it’s time that we began thinking of a healthy economy not as one which continually grows and deepens of its own accord (“It’s alive! It’s aliiiiiiive!”), but as one which maintains a healthy equilibrium with nature and promotes well-being and security across society, not just to the top-earning 1 percent or so. Let’s develop tenably altruistic concepts like microcredit and equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps accounting curricula need to be rewritten . . . maybe the numbers we’re tracking aren’t the right ones.

In any case, it’s easy to lust for quick fixes and immediate relief when we’re living with the reality of economic recession. But think of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who are hungry, thirsty, and ridden with disease. For them, there are no quick fixes and there is no way forward. How many meals or vaccines would an iPod or a Blackberry be worth to one of those individuals? The way we conduct our state and our economy are, in many senses, directly responsible for the plight of the world’s less fortunate, and they outnumber us perhaps 5 to 1, speaking optimistically. So is this economy worth fixing?

Israel Declares ‘Ceasefire’

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Citing that its objectives “and more” have been met over the course of its three-week offensive in Gaza, Israel has declared an end to military action in the Gaza strip which is currently thought to have claimed more than 1,000 Palestinian lives in addition to a much smaller number of Israeli casualties.

The BBC reports:

The Israeli prime minister’s announcement came in a televised address following a late-night cabinet meeting.

Israel’s “goals have been achieved, and even more”, Mr Olmert said, with Hamas badly damaged both militarily and in terms of infrastructure.

But the success of the ceasefire depended on Hamas, he said. If militant rocket fire into Israel continued, Israel would return to force, he said.

How Hamas responds remains to be seen.

The group says any ceasefire must involve Israeli troops withdrawing from Gaza and an immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade.

It has been widely speculated that Israel would halt its incursion before the inauguration of a new U.S. President, since it is roundly understood—and of course denied by the Israeli government—that the support of the White House is a crucial factor in such actions. And Israeli officials know all too well that, regardless of whether or not their stated objectives have been achieved, the appeal of Hamas as a retaliatory vehicle for disenfranchised, ravaged Palestinians has been no more than temporarily shaken and, on the long term, probably vastly deepened. In light of that basic reality, one must ask what the real objectives of the assault have been. It is likely that they had little if anything to do with sporadic rocket fire and much more to do with inflicting the maximum amount of pain and suffering while the time was ripe.

Two Views Into the Darkness

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I wanted to highlight two articles dealing with the oppression and mutilation of Gaza which have recently appeared in Counterpunch. Each of them has something interesting and powerful to say about the situation there.

palestinian-loss-of-land

I have never traveled to the Middle East, and have in my time met only a handful of Israeli Jews or Arabs, or Palestinians. Yet the events in that beleaguered realm weigh heavily on my mind each day. Wherever my government’s support and therefore my tax money is used to unjustly maim, kill, and otherwise deprecate fellow human beings who strive for only a small part of the comforts I enjoy in the warmth of my den, there my thoughts are turned inexorably.

Why does Israel wreak such havoc on Gaza? The mainstream press is devoid of meaningful answers. Is it because of the sporadic rocket fire on Israeli cities such as Sderot and Ashkelon? Not hardly; even within the context-bleeped framework of Israeli yarn-spinning presented in the media these days, this does not make sense. If Israel merely wished the rocket fire to end, she could find much less bloodthirsty and roundly devastating ways to achieve this than indiscriminately killing Palestinians four hundred-fold and risking the lives of Israeli troops in a potential ground assault. There would be no need to put an economic stranglehold on an entire population for years running, just to stop some rockets. Why, come to think of it, she could simply offer Gaza all that it has asked for: self-determination and a real end to the Israeli occupation.

Does Israel fear Hamas, and truly see no way forward while it operates? No—we can easily imagine that living under the threat of Hamas rockets is a terrible existence for Israelis in the country’s south, to be sure. But this is of no more real concern to the Israeli government than the threat of terrorism at home was to the Bush administration when launching its incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that the largest threat posed by Hamas is that, for Israel, there will be no way backwards while it exists. Because, unlike the government of Abbas in the West Bank, Hamas has no appetite for the sugar dripping from the forked tongues of Israeli officials who would promise Gazans peace and give them only continued subjugation on terms that Washington and Tel Aviv see fit. Hamas will continue to call international attention to the travesties unfolding in the region, and will not shirk from defending itself against the occupiers, even when unfortunate and deplorable violence remains its only meaningful mode of self-expression among a world community which is all thumbs.

In Jennifer Loewenstein’s piece, “If Hamas Did Not Exist,” the situation is summed up admirably:

Strip away the clichés and the vacuous newspeak blaring out across the servile media and its pathetic corps of voluntary state servants in the Western world and what you will find is the naked desire for hegemony; for power over the weak and dominion over the world’s wealth. Worse yet you will find that the selfishness, the hatred and indifference, the racism and bigotry, the egotism and hedonism that we try so hard to cover up with our sophisticated jargon, our refined academic theories and models actually help to guide our basest and ugliest desires. The callousness with which we in indulge in them all are endemic to our very culture; thriving here like flies on a corpse.

Strip away the current symbols and language of the victims of our selfish and devastating whims and you will find the simple, impassioned and unaffected cries of the downtrodden; of the ‘wretched of the earth’ begging you to cease your cold aggression against their children and their homes; their families and their villages; begging you to leave them alone to have their fish and their bread, their oranges, their olives and their thyme; asking you first politely and then with increasing disbelief why you cannot let them live undisturbed on the land of their ancestors; unexploited, free of the fear of expulsion; of ravishment and devastation; free of permits and roadblocks and checkpoints and crossings; of monstrous concrete walls, guard towers, concrete bunkers, and barbed wire; of tanks and prisons and torture and death. Why is life without these policies and instruments of hell impossible?

The answer is because Israel has no intention of allowing a viable, sovereign Palestinian state on its borders.

What role does the United States play in this terrible conflict which brings such misery to the lives of Palestinians and many Israelis? I haven’t the space or the energy to delve into a complete history of U.S.-Israel relations. But Washington’s support of Israeli hegemony and its persistent ideology of victimhood has been openly voiced at times, and even those whose only knowledge of world events comes from the usual suspects among media outlets are generally aware that Israel operates largely with American military equipment, American diplomatic support, and American tax dollars—a portion of which are directly funneled back into American arms dealers. Ralph Nader, in his “Open Letter to President Bush,” expresses his thoughts on the matter:

Your spokespeople are making much ado about the breaking of the six month truce. Who is the occupier? Who is the most powerful military force? Who controls and blocks the necessities of life? Who has sent raiding missions across the border most often? Who has sent artillery shells and missiles at close range into populated areas? Who has refused the repeated comprehensive peace offerings of the Arab countries issued in 2002 if Israel would agree to return to the 1967 borders and agree to the creation of a small independent Palestinian state possessing just twenty two percent of the original Palestine?

The ‘wildly inaccurate rockets,’ as reporters describe them, coming from Hamas and other groups cannot compare with the modern precision armaments and human damage generated from the Israeli side.

There are no rockets coming from the West Bank into Israel. Yet the Israeli government is still sending raiders into that essentially occupied territory, still further entrenching its colonial outposts, still taking water and land and increasing the checkpoints. This is going on despite a most amenable West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abbas, whom you have met with at the White House and praised repeatedly. Is it all vague words and no real initiatives with you and your emissary Condoleezza Rice?

Peace was possible, but you provided no leadership, preferring instead to comply with all wishes and demands by the Israeli government, even resupplying it with the still active cluster bombs in south Lebanon during the invasion of that country in 2006.

The arguments about who started the latest hostilities go on and on with Israel always blaming the Palestinians to justify all kinds of violence and harsh treatment against innocent civilians.

From the Palestinian standpoint, you would do well to remember the origins of this conflict which was the dispossession of their lands. To afford you some empathy, recall the oft-quoted comment by the founder of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, who told the Zionist leader, Nahum Goldmann:

‘There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz; but was that their [the Palestinians] fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’

Alfred North Whitehead once said: ‘Duty arises out of the power to alter the course of events.’ By that standard, you have shirked mightily your duty over the past eight years to bring peace to both Palestinians and Israelis and more security to a good part of the world.

palestine-boy-tankI hope for the sake of all that the violence and hostility can end. Yes, that is my sincere wish, but it is not my highest hope. My highest hope is that a peace can be achieved without the usual price of humiliation, continued subjugation, and business as usual that has in the past been so carefully tacked on by Israel when dealing with her “attackers.” As history has amply demonstrated, peace at the price of sovereignty and the basic human rights of a people is a peace in name only. One can achieve peace by allowing one’s self to be beaten into submission. Peace is always viscerally preferable to violence, but one must ask: what does it mean?


à la manière de 99

Posted in foreign policy, imperialism, Patriotism, Politics, Psychology, USA by Curtis on 12/21/08
Oh, say, can you see?

Oh, say, can you see?

(click image)

. . . avec le plus profond respect possibile.


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Dear World . . . Sincerely, Palestine

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occupation-and-defense

free_palestine

The Heathlander recently posted links to annual reports by various human rights organizations to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review concerning the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The article which includes the links represents the views of Richard Falk, a UN human rights investigator recently relieved of his position because of his “hostile views” toward Israel. The findings of a few of these reports are summarized below.

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, carved chiefly out of what had been colonial possessions of the United Kingdom. While many support the existence of a Jewish homeland, particularly in the wake of the events of the Second World War, fewer agree that these particular lands should have been ceded to the control of relatively new Zionist immigrants rather than to the Palestinian ethnic groups which had resided there for centuries. The Zionist settlers believed that they enjoyed a religious “right of return” to the area according to scripture, a controversial notion which, even where accepted, is not generally held to entail such brutal disregard for the sovereignty and basic human dignity of Palestinians.

Since 1967, Israel has occupied lands which were ceded to the Palestinians under a U.N. agreement, pursuing what many feel are policies of expansion, oppression, and apartheid against Palestinians. Additionally, Israel, which possesses without acknowledgment the sole known nuclear arsenal in the region, continues to threaten other surrounding powers—particularly Iran—which have criticized its occupation of Palestinian lands and cruel treatment of Palestinians. At one point or another, it has occupied lands belonging to all of its Arab neighbors; yet the Israeli government continually represents itself as an innocent victim of anti-Semitic violence, refusing to acknowledge that such violence, while unfortunate and deplorable, represents desperate guerrilla-type self-defense on the part of the disenfranchised Palestinians.

west-bank-wallIn 2006, Hamas, frequently described as an “Islamic militant” or “terrorist” organization due to its sponsorship of guerrilla activities against the Israeli military and some civilians, won free elections in Gaza. Since then Israel has aggressively boycotted the government in Gaza using blockades, military incursions, and other harmful and violent means which amount to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens. The West Bank, in contrast, is now presided over by a U.S.-backed government.

The United Nations has, on too many occasions to count, reprimanded Israel and called for an end to these atrocities. Such proceedings are routinely boycotted by Israel, the United States, and sometimes a few other member states, while being overwhelmingly supported by the majority of the international community. The United States provides billions of dollars in financial and military aid to Israel annually, and is characteristically quick to defend Israeli hegemony and expansionism in the region in the name of self-defense.

The following are direct or paraphrased excerpts of just a few of the many 2008 reports to the UNHRC concerning conditions in Palestine. For the full set of reports, visit this page. These documents represent merely the latest additions to a huge book detailing many of the atrocities visited against the Palestinian people according to a pattern of U.S.-sanctioned abuse which stretches back for decades.

(more…)

Charles Platt on Texas-style justice and the U.S. penal system

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Science-fiction author Charles Platt published this piece in BoingBoing describing a visit to see his penpal Son Tran, a homicide convict and inmate in Texas jailed for gang-related killings at age 17. Not only does Platt describe the prison environment with the vivid eloquence of a seasoned narrator, he reminds us of the idosyncracies and absurdities inherent in the medieval penal system flourishing in what is supposed to be one of the world’s more enlightened states:

This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.

Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.

The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.

The United States has the highest prison population, as a percentage of the general populace, of any nation on Earth, according to a King’s College, London study—762 per 100,000, more than half again as many as Cuba and about six times as many as China.

Platt notes that, from about 1925 to 1975, the U.S. prison population stayed near the international average. Since then, it has mushroomed. Platt suggests that reactionary social conservatism and a sensationalist media coupled with large building and maintenance budgets makes our penchant for lock-ups possible and helps give vigor and vitality to a culture of fear and retribution.

Great article.

Iraqi judge: Shoe-throwing journalist was beaten

Posted in al-Zaidi, George Bush, iraq, middle east, News, protest, USA, World News by Curtis on 12/19/08

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al-zaidi2

According to the investigating Iraqi magistrate, Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at visiting U.S. President George W. Bush and called him a “dog,” was beaten while in custody and had bruises on his face to show for it.

The Guardian reports:

The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush was beaten afterwards and had bruises on his face, the investigating judge in the case said today, as a senior cleric in Iran urged others to wage a “shoe intifada” against the US.

The reporter, Muntazer al-Zaidi, had bruises on his face and around his eyes, said the judge, Dhia al-Kinani said.

Zaidi was wrestled to the ground after throwing the shoes during a Sunday press conference by Bush and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

He remains in custody and is expected to face charges of insulting a foreign leader.

Kinani said a complaint about Zaidi’s treatment had been filed on his behalf and court officials “will watch the footage to identify those who have beaten him … He was beaten and we filed a case for that. Zaidi did not raise a complaint and he can drop this case if he wants to.”

Clerics in Iran have praised al-Zaidi’s bravery, and his actions have been similarly hailed throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez said that, while the throwing of shoes was uncalled for, the sentiment was justified. Al-Zaidi has asked the forgiveness of the Iraqi Prime Minister; if convicted of insulting a head of state, he could face up to 15 years imprisonment. Prime Minister Maliki has the authority to grant a pardon, but only if a conviction is first handed down. The Iraqi parliament is currently sharply divided on the issue.

Earlier, the journalist’s brother had claimed he was beaten in custody and was taken to an American military hospital for treatment for a broken arm, broken ribs, and other injuries. The court ostensibly intends to closely review video footage to determine if al-Zaidi’s injuries were sustained merely during the struggle to take him into custody, or were incurred or exacerbated later, while in detention.

In Muslim culture, feet and shoes are regarded as especially unclean; the throwing of shoes is therefore one of the most degrading physical insults which could be visited on a person.

I thought Barack Obama would be a shoe-in; I just didn’t know Bush would be a shoe-out. But if the shoe fits . . .

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.

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