Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israel's war crimes

Richard Falk, a United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Israeli Occupied Territories, catalogs Israel's violations of international law in The Nation online. A few excerpts:

Collective punishment: The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

Targeting civilians: The airstrikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.

Disproportionate military response: The airstrikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

And Falk raises the crucial issue of complicity in these crimes by all nations that have aided and abetted them:

The Israeli airstrikes today, and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel's violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, as well as those countries who have supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

The BBC is reporting tonight that the Middle East Quartet, that is the US, European Union, UN and Russia, are calling for a truce. That's promising news, although such calls always come after enough people have been killed to make it embarrassing for those who normally stand aside while Israel does what it wants.

By the way, the attack on Gaza has nothing to do with Israel's right to self-defense, because the rockets launched into Israel from Gaza had done minimal damage over the past year. The rocket launching is essentially a symptom of Palestinian rage and frustration at Israel's intransigence over making a true peace, and Israel's blatant campaign to create ever more irreversible "facts on the ground" in the West Bank--ie, to take over as much of that territory as possible--before someone, someday, gets around to calling a halt to its expansionism. Perhaps that someone will be Barack Obama, although that remains to be seen.

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

Israel's merciless reputation. Vivian Salama writes about the background to the Jewish state's latest round of brutality, online in the Washington Post.

Self-delusion on both sides. Robert Fisk writes about it in the Independent. A key graf:

One common feature of Middle East wars is the ability of all the antagonists to suffer from massive self-delusion. Israel's promise to "root out terror" – be it of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iranian or any other kind – has always turned out to be false. "War to the bitter end," the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, has promised in Gaza. Nonsense. Just like the PLO's boast – and Hamas' boast and Hizbollah's boast – to "liberate" Jerusalem. Eyewash. But the Israelis have usually shown a dangerous propensity to believe their own propaganda. Calling up more than 6,000 reservists and sitting them round the Gaza fence is one thing; sending them into the hovels of Gaza will be quite another. In 2006, Israel claimed it was sending 30,000 troops into Lebanon. In reality, it sent about 3,000 – and the moment they crossed the border, they were faced down by the Hizbollah. In some cases, Israeli soldiers actually ran back to their own frontier.

Update (Jan 1): New York Times reports on dozens of civilian deaths in Gaza.

Israel can't bomb its way to peace. So says the always wise Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times.

Reports on the impact of Israeli actions on civilians: Can be found at this link.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tanrıça ve boğa

That's the title of the Turkish translation of my book, "The Goddess and the Bull," which has just been published by Istanbul-based Homer Books. This is a long-awaited event. I don't expect many readers of this blog to rush out and buy it, but I am sure you can all appreciate that this is a big deal for any author.

The book is also available, of course, in English (see left hand column of this blog for more information.) It is meant for a broad audience, and if you have never read a book about archaeology before--or even if you have read hundreds--I think you will enjoy it.


That's a pretty cool logo, no? It's the banner for Science's new policy blog, to which yours truly is proud to be an occasional contributor. I have a post on a scandal brewing among French geologists that went up this past weekend, check it out here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Israel's actions in Gaza?

So far, a strange silence reigns among commentators and opinion pages in the American news media over Israel's actions in Gaza. While the Bush administration has put the entire blame on Hamas, the Obama camp has retreated to the "one president at a time" line, in stark contrast to Obama's outspoken rhetoric on many other issues--particularly the economy.

(CNN reports that Obama had an 8 minute telephone call with Condoleezza Rice about the Gaza situation.)

Overseas, however, commentators are actually speaking up about Israel's brutal actions, which are inevitably causing severe civilian casualties especially among children. Two leading left-of-center British newspapers for example, The Independent and the Observer, have already run pertinent editorials. The Independent's editorial, perhaps somewhat naively, looks forward to Obama's taking office and applying some wisdom and common sense to the disaster that the Bush administration pretty much ignored for the last 8 years:

Even in the midst of this depressing new turn of the cycle of violence, however, there may be hope. Already, we can imagine how Barack Obama, as US President, might respond to this bloodshed, and contrast it with George Bush's refusal to criticise the Israeli action in Lebanon.

I think it quite possible that Obama and Hillary Clinton will act more positively to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, but doing so will require acknowledging what the Independent editorial also states clearly: Hamas was democratically elected in Gaza, and as a result of Israeli policies:

The conflict between Israel and the people of Gaza is driven by democratic impulses. Hamas, the Islamic political party and paramilitary organisation, won control of the Gaza Strip in free and fair elections in January 2006. Its charter famously calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and, although that was hardly the issue on which those elections were fought, there can be little doubt about the depth and extent of hostility towards Israel felt by the majority of the population of Gaza.

On the other side, Israeli politics are dominated at the moment by the campaign for Knesset elections on 10 February in which Tzipi Livni faces the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu. Ms Livni, having advocated a policy of restraint, now supports the use of military force against the Hamas infrastructure.

The Observer, on the other hand, more squarely puts the blame on Israel, and predicts that the current attempt to crush Hamas will not only fail but make the organization stronger:

Even those Israeli and Palestinian politicians who are minded to negotiate are boxed into uncompromising stances, and for both the main reason is Hamas. But attempting to remove the problem with military power will not work. Hamas craves confrontation because its support increases when ordinary Palestinians are collectively punished, as has happened under the blockade. There are compelling reasons why Israeli politicians do not try to talk Hamas out of its militancy. But the near certainty of failure is also a more compelling reason not to try force instead.

The strength of Hamas in Gaza, as many observers have pointed out over the years, is squarely due to the failure of the United States and Israel to broker a deal with more moderate Palestinians as represented by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, we read every month about new houses going up in West Bank settlements, new humiliations against the Palestinians, and new provocations to Palestinian militants. This is a one-sided war, in which Israel holds all the cards, bankrolled by the U.S. and encouraged by the fecklessness and political weakness of Europe.

If Obama and Clinton wish to play a new role in the Middle East, the time for them to speak up for new policies is now. There is indeed only one President of the United States at a time, and Obama has made it clear who that is: himself. This is not the time to be coy or shy about the disaster unfolding in Gaza today.

Photo: Palestinian children killed by Israeli gunfire in Gaza in 2007.

Update: Humanitarian disaster in Gaza. A new report from CNN.

How we got to where we are today. Some important background, a bit dated (2002 in the New York Review of Books), from Hussein Agha and Robert Malley about what actually happened at Taba and Camp David. Israel has done everything it can to avoid making peace with the Palestinians, in hopes that it can crush them into submission instead. But the myths and propaganda say otherwise.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Jazz profiles: Dave Brubeck (and Paul Desmond)

I've raved a number of times about National Public Radio's superb jazz profiles series, but they have really outdone themselves this time with the latest installment, on Dave Brubeck. The program is an unusually skillful blend of music and interviews (including with Brubeck himself), which is saying a lot considering the series' already outstanding production values.

Particularly well done are the segments explaining Brubeck's jazz innovations (very educational for amateurs like me) and the portrayal of his complicated collaboration with alto sax player and composer Paul Desmond, who wrote the classic "Take Five." Desmond himself makes a brief interview appearance, in which he explains how he and Brubeck almost left out the bridging segment of "Take Five" which probably ended up being the key to its tremendous commercial success.

While Googling around, I found this very interesting Web site devoted to Desmond, worth checking out--and be sure to download the profile at the link above.

Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Season's greetings to all!

I hope all readers of Balter's Blog are with their families and loved ones. Very best wishes to my regular readers and the occasional ones too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

U.S. war criminals: have they suffered enough from history's judgement?

I'm going to cut to the chase and say that this is the basic conclusion of an editorial in today's Los Angeles Times, entitled "Is the Bush administration criminally liable for its lawlessness?"

Here is the basic question, as spelled out by the Times:

Whatever its other legacies, the Bush administration will be remembered for its contemptible disregard for the law in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. From the wiretapping of Americans without a court order to the waterboarding of suspected terrorists to the refusal to abide by the requirements of the Geneva Convention, many of the administration's policies can fairly be described as lawless.

But were they also criminal? Should officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, be put on trial, either in a court of law or in a forum like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission? As the Bush administration nears its end, calls for such a reckoning are coming from civil libertarians and some supporters of President-elect Barack Obama. Some even argue that President Bush should be indicted.

The paper's editorial writers go on, however, to find ways to let administration figures off the hook:

The former model is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal, in which several officials -- including President Nixon -- broke identifiable criminal statutes by obstructing the investigation of a burglary motivated by partisan politics. From there, of course, Watergate expanded into a web of criminal violations, from break-ins to the use of the IRS to punish political enemies of the Nixon White House. It's conceivable that individuals in the Bush administration violated criminal law. But if they did so as part of a post- 9/11 response to terrorism, it would be all but impossible to prosecute them successfully.

Besides, the scandal of the Bush administration wasn't a matter of individual, politically motivated violations of law. Rather, it was a systemic failure to take seriously the spirit as well as the letter of this country's commitment to the humane treatment of prisoners or the privacy rights of Americans secured by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

That's a failure in which Congress must share culpability with the administration. It was the administration that, with the help of compliant legal counsel, rationalized the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation and the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners of war and suspected terrorists. But, as the vice president argued recently, Congress at first either acquiesced in, or offered muted objections to, the administration's policies. That the failures were collective rather than individual makes them no less appalling, but it does suggest that a criminal prosecution will not remedy them.

The editorial goes on in that vein, and then concludes:

The Bush administration's lawlessness calls for a serious reckoning, one that already has begun with a scathing report by the Senate Armed Services Committee about the role played by Rumsfeld and other officials in the spread of abusive interrogation techniques. That's welcome and appropriate -- and a vindication of American institutions designed to investigate the misconduct of public officials. Further congressional investigation of the administration's spying program is also in order. But as enticing as many find the idea of putting Rumsfeld or Cheney in the dock, neither a show trial nor a truth commission would be the right way to expunge or atone for the abuses of this administration. Thankfully, those who sanctioned them will soon be history.

Read the entire editorial and see what you think, although we can expect more and more of this kind of argument in the coming weeks and months. The problem is that those who accuse Bush et al. of war crimes do so under statutes of international law as well as U.S. laws, which means that we--that is, we Americans--do not get the right to decide the issue. Indeed, similar arguments could be made about Nazi war crimes, which after all were approved by all levels of German society (who passed the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which were the basis of most subsequent actions against the Jews, in letter and in spirit? The German Reichstag.) And the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis in 1994 was likewise organized and carried out by a broad range of government officials.

The question of who should be charged, or not, for war crimes during the war on terror rightly belongs to international jurists and international courts, and sooner or later they will be invoked. When that happens, the U.S. Justice Department should provide them its full cooperation.

Homeless in Paris. My Paris colleague Katrin Bennhold, one of the finest journalists anywhere, has a story in today's International Herald Tribune about a homeless mother named Julie Lacoste, who is searching for an apartment for herself and her two boys as Christmas approaches. Despite the promises of the Sarkozy government in 2006 that homeless deaths would end within two years, deaths of homeless people are up in 2008 over 2007, Katrin reports. Lacoste, by the way, has a part-time job; Katrin brings the story alive by providing the details necessary to understand one person's sorrows. Kudos to her, and to the Trib's editors for giving her the space to tell the story.

Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet. The first apparent suicide in the Bernard Madoff investment fraud scandal is a French investment advisor (and presumed "feeder") based in Manhattan. His firm lost a reported $1.5 billion. (Other victims of Madoff include Steven Spielberg and a whole host of people who should have known better.) How is it possible that the titans of the financial world don't seem to know how wealth is created? That's the only thing one can conclude when investment wizards believe such high rates of return are plausible. Did they not bother to ask where Madoff was placing the investments, or were they told it was a "secret" when they did ask? (Perhaps making the fairy tale all the more enticing.) Well, perhaps they should read Balter's Blog on this subject, file: Madoff, or better yet go to some basic sources on the labor theory of value. "Das Kapital" would be a good place to start.

Marriage Saudi style. A judge has refused to annul the arranged (read: forced) marriage of an 8 year old girl to a 47 year old man to settle a debt. This is our great ally in the Middle East.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The philosophy of solidarity

Here is a story that gives one hope. According to a story in the French daily Le Monde, three philosophy professors on the way to a conference in Kinshasa in the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo were arrested for asking immigration police why a man being deported from France was handcuffed in his airplane seat. The original events took place on December 16, when the philosophers boarded an Air France flight and encountered the handcuffed deportee surrounded by five police officers.

One of the philosophers, Pierre Lauret, was thrown off the plane immediately, although not before being himself handcuffed "violently" by the police. Other passengers protested his treatment and that of the deportee, and a second passenger (not one of of the philosophers) was also ejected from the plane.

The other two profs, who had, together with Lauret, asked the police why the deportee needed to be handcuffed (a reasonable question, with five officers to keep him from--what, jumping out of the plane?) were allowed to continue on to Kinshasa, but were themselves arrested on December 22 when they returned to France.

According to Le Monde, a number of passengers had protested the treatment of deportees on previous flights, and immigration authorities are apparently getting pretty touchy about it. But it does my heart good to learn that some philosophers, rather than bury their heads in books about the meaning of life and how to live a good one, are acting out for justice in the real world.

And the subject of the conference the profs were attending? A meeting on international borders and the treatment of foreigners. Said Pierre Lauret, "that placed us in a delicate moral situation." Indeed.

"We can bomb the bejesus out of them..."

National Security Archive Update, December 23, 2008

"We can bomb the bejesus out of them all over North Vietnam."

Archive Publishes Treasure Trove of Kissinger Telephone Conversations

Comprehensive Collection of Kissinger "Telcons" Provides Inside View of Government Decision-Making;

Reveals Candid talks with Presidents, Foreign Leaders, Journalists, and Power-brokers during Nixon-Ford Years

Washington, DC, December 23, 2008 - Amidst a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon candidly shared their evident satisfaction at the "shock treatment" of American B-52s, according to a declassified transcript of their telephone conversation published for the first time today by the National Security Archive. "They dropped a million pounds of bombs," Kissinger briefed Nixon. "A million pounds of bombs," Nixon exclaimed. "Goddamn, that must have been a good strike."

The conversation, secretly recorded by both Kissinger and Nixon without the other's knowledge, reveals that the President and his national security advisor shared a belief in 1972 that the war could still be won. "That shock treatment [is] cracking them," Nixon declared. "I tell you the thing to do is pour it in there every place we can... just bomb the hell out of them." Kissinger optimistically predicted that, if the South Vietnamese government didn't collapse, the U.S. would eventually prevail: "I mean if as a country we keep our nerves, we are going to make it."

The transcript of the April 15, 1972, phone conversation is one of over 15,500 documents in a unique, comprehensively-indexed set of the telephone conversations (telcons) of Henry A. Kissinger--perhaps the most famous and controversial U.S. official of the second half of the 20th century. Unbeknownst to the rest of the U.S. government, Kissinger secretly taped his incoming and outgoing phone conversations and had his secretary transcribe them. After destroying the tapes, Kissinger took the transcripts with him when he left office in January 1977, claiming they were "private papers." In 2001, the National Security Archive initiated legal proceedings to force the government to recover the telcons, and used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the declassification of most of them. After a three-year project to catalogue and index the transcripts, which total over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection was published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest) this week.

Kissinger never intended these papers to be made public, according to William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, who edited the collection, Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977. "Kissinger's conversations with the most influential personalities of the world rank right up there with the Nixon tapes as the most candid, revealing and valuable trove of records on the exercise of executive power in Washington," Burr stated. For reporters, scholars, and students, Burr noted, "Kissinger created a gift to history that will be a tremendous primary source for generations to come." He called on the State Department to declassify over 800 additional telcons that it continues to withhold on the grounds of executive privilege.

The documents shed light on every aspect of Nixon-Ford diplomacy, including U.S.-Soviet détente, the wars in Southeast Asia, the 1969 Biafra crisis, the 1971 South Asian crisis, the October 1973 Middle East War, and the 1974 Cyprus Crisis, among many other developments. Kissinger's dozens of interlocutors include political and policy figures, such as Presidents Nixon and Ford, Secretary of State William Rogers, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Robert S. McNamara, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin; journalists and publishers, such as Ted Koppel, James Reston, and Katherine Graham; and such show business friends as Frank Sinatra. Besides the telcons, the Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977 includes audio tape of Kissinger's telephone conversations with Richard Nixon that were recorded automatically by the secret White House taping system, some of which Kissinger's aides were unable to transcribe.

Visit the Web site of the National Security Archive for more information.


THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The torturers are us

The findings of Stanley Milgram, the psychologist whose infamous 1960s studies demonstrated that average people would administer potentially fatal levels of electric shocks if told to by an authority figure, have apparently been confirmed. According to a new study reported in the San Jose Mercury, a psychologist at Santa Clara University in California is about to publish similar results in the journal American Psychologist.

The new experiments were carried out by Jerry M. Burger. Here are some details:

Burger's findings are published in a special section of the journal reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984. The haunting images of average people administering shocks have kept memories of Milgram's research alive for decades, even as recently as the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The subjects — recruited in ads in the Mercury News, Craigslist and fliers distributed in libraries and communities centers in Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale — thought they were testing the effect of punishment on learning.

"They were average citizens, a typical cross-section of people that you'd see around every day,'' said Burger.

In the study, conducted two years ago, volunteers administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An "authority figure'' prodded the volunteer to shock another person, who was playing the role of "learner." Each time the learner gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was urged to press a switch, seemingly increasing the electricity over time. They were told that the shocks were painful but not dangerous.

Burger designed his study to avoid several of the most controversial elements of Milgram's experiment. For instance, the "shocks'' were lower voltage. And participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment. In addition, a clinical psychologist interviewed volunteers to eliminate anyone who might be upset by the study procedure.

Like Milgram's study, Burger's shock generator machine was a fake. The cries of pain weren't real, either. Both the authority figure and the learner were actors — faculty members Brian Oliveira and Kenneth Courtney. (When Courtney failed to scream convincingly, a professional actor had to be hired; his voice was recorded.)

I don't think studies of this type should lead us to lament our innate cruelty, nor our innate desire to please authority--as I doubt that either quality is innate in the biological sense of the term. Rather, we should question the kind of society we live in and its values; and we should realize that even the president and vice-president of the United States can lead the nation in acquiescing to torture.

Photo: Stanley Milgram

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What future for Israel?

Today's International Herald Tribune features a story by Ethan Bronner about Avraham Burg, "How a Zionist in Israel went from leader to scourge." The occasion is Burg's book critical of the Jewish state, just recently translated into English, "The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." Burg is an Israeli who realized that the Zionist dream is over and that Israel's very survival depends on accepting new realities it. A few extracts from the Trib article:

Widely known by his nickname Avrum, Burg, a happily married father of six and the son of one of Israel's most admired and longest-serving government ministers, was talked about as a candidate for prime minister. Long before his 50th birthday, he had headed the World Zionist Organization and served as speaker of the country's Parliament.

But four years ago Burg not only walked away from politics. He pretty much walked away from Zionism. In a book that came out last year, and has just been translated and released in the United States, he said Israel should not be a Jewish state, that its law of return granting citizenship to any Jew should be radically altered, that Israeli Arabs were like German Jews during the Second Reich and that, in fact, the entire society felt eerily like Germany just before the rise of Hitler.

Pretty strong stuff, although the Israelis are much more used to, and tolerant of, such views that Americans, Jews or non-Jews.

What are Burg's prescriptions? He wants a new Jewish identity focused not on the particular but on the universal, asserting that "if we do not establish modern Israeli identity on foundations of optimism, faith in humans and full trust in the family of nations, we have no chance of existing." He wants Israel to dismantle the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and replace it with the headquarters for the International Criminal Court, making this the epicenter of international prevention of genocide.

One can only hope that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now that she no longer depends on Jewish votes nor needs to pander to them, will take advantage of the soul-searching now going on in Israel and help negotiate a just peace between that nation and the Palestinians.

Photo: Avrum Burg

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paris bound

After spending most of this year in Boston teaching, I am now on my way home to Paris. I am looking forward to seeing my family, going for my morning walks along the St. Martin Canal (see map at right), and generally enjoying a Paris winter (not as bad as it used to be, thanks to global warming.)

This blog's focus will necessarily change as well, at least to some extent. While I will remain attentive to events in the United States, being back in Europe will remind me that there is a whole big world out there. And that should bring a fresh, more international perspective to this blog--at least, let's hope so!

Back in touch soon...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

If the shoe fits, wear it

Here is the video, courtesy of the BBC. I have to admit that Bush showed good ducking reactions and kept his cool. Of course, it's not his life that has been ruined by the war in Iraq.

Photo: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Update: Ah, I found an embeddable version of the video:

Update: The shoe-thrower, Muntader al-Zaidi--who, because he is a journalist, I am obliged to call my colleague--has become a hero in the Muslim world. No surprises there.

Hit Bush with a shoe game (from Norway.) I recommend setting vinkel at 10 and stryke at 50 (with thanks to RP.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time to make money the old fashioned way?

Some of you may recall the old television ad for the Smith Barney brokerage term, which featured actor John Houseman declaring, "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it."

Of course, neither Smith Barney nor its clients actually "earned" the money they made, nor do any investors for that matter. Investors, whether large or small, are merely hoping to rake off some of the wealth created by the people who really do the work, whether the company or corporation invested in provides tangible goods or intangible services. Karl Marx got a lot of things wrong, but his basic analysis of capitalism stands today, particularly his theory of surplus value. Basically, capitalism is a system of exploitation, no matter how much we try to pretty it up. And that basic fact about capitalism remains true whether or not a better system (for example, socialism) is actually possible.

That's why it may seem hard to feel a lot of sympathy for those who have now lost their money because they put their trust in Bernard Madoff, the latest "Wall Street wizard" to be facing charges for investment fraud. But we should feel sympathy nevertheless, particularly for the smaller players in the investment game, who hoped to live better lives by finding something else to do with their extra money other than simply park it at the bank (where it would only lose value to inflation.)

That's just one more reason why the recent attacks on the United Auto Workers and the allegedly high salaries paid to its members (not true, actually) are so off base. Are those who work hard for a living supposed to accept an increasingly impoverished state and give up their hard won benefits? Is that the kind of future we imagine for working people? Are only those who have a little (or a lot) to invest in the stock market or other vehicles for making money off of others' labor allowed to have decent lives?

The coming depression is going to create a lot of hardship, and in fact already is. But one good thing might come out of it: The more disillusioned investors the crash produces, the more people might realize that the entire system is rotten to the core.

Photo: Bernard Madoff.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Michael's Playlist

As a new feature on this blog, I've added my personal music playlist to the left hand column, below the Favorites and Archives. It will change as I add songs to it, but here is a fully functional preview of what it looks like.

Afterthought: This playlist includes "Falling Into You" sung by Celine Dion, a performance that demonstrates what a truly great singer she could have been if she had not allowed herself to be so badly mismanaged and saddled with a repertoire of one crappy, sappy song after another. In "Falling Into You," Dion is in complete control of her voice. What a tragedy her career turned out to be, for music lovers at any rate.

Christmas reading list

Monday, December 8, 2008

Trouble in Afghanistan

There has been a lot in the press lately about the serious situation the U.S. faces in Afghanistan, including pleas by U.S. and NATO generals for more troops, which they are almost certain to get under the Obama administration. As I have said before, if Iraq was George Bush's Vietnam, Afghanistan could turn into Obama's Iraq--and wreck his presidency no matter how well he does on the economic front.

One can only hope that Obama and his team are paying attention to voices such as that of Kai Eide, the United Nation's special representative to Afghanistan. The New York Times gave voice to Eide's concerns on one of its back pages today (and buried on its Web site), but they are well worth paying attention to:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In unusually blunt remarks, the chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan warned in an interview this weekend that unless Afghanistan’s international partners conducted their military operations with more care and cultural sensitivity, redoubled their work to minimize civilian casualties and accelerated their reconstruction programs, they risked jeopardizing their efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country.

Eide asks questions that the Obama team should be asking itself:

“Are we sufficiently sensitive to Afghan concerns?” he asked. “Are we sure that we behave in a way that brings Afghan communities closer to the government? Do we listen sufficiently to the concerns we hear from the president and so many Afghans? I’m not convinced that we are.”

Obama has little time to get it right in Afghanistan, after so many years of the Bush administration getting it disastrously wrong. Indeed, it may already be too late.

Have we learned nothing? That's the question about Afghanistan posed by veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in the Independent (thanks to LKH for the link.)

Supporting the troops? USA Today reports that the Pentagon knew about the dangers of IED's (improvised explosive devices) to U.S. troops in Iraq but did basically nothing to develop more protective vehicles. The story is based on an investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Workers sit down

In a refreshing sign that workers aren't necessarily going to take layoffs laying* down, employees at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago responded to the plant's closing by sitting down rather than walking meekly out the door. Employers have been used to calling the shots about who works and who doesn't, who eats and who doesn't, and who has health insurance and who doesn't. That needs to change, and it needs to change now.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a period of unprecedented worker militancy, and many of today's unions--despite their current emaciated, weakened state--got their start during those historic days. Unions could once again play a historic and heroic role, if they fight in the interests of the entire working population and not just their own narrow, ever decreasing ranks.

Photo: Strikers occupied the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, for 44 days between December 1936 and February 1937 (University of Michigan.)

*Update: In my zeal to make an alliterative pun, I made the kind of writing mistake I counsel my students against: Using the verb to lay, which means to put something down on something, instead of the verb to lie, which means to recline. Mea culpa!

Sitting down: a left perspective. It really won't do to rely solely on the capitalist press for information about this strike, so here is an account from the Socialist Worker online.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

That city by the bay

I've been on the road this week, visiting friends on the West Coast, so blogging has been nonexistent--not that there is not plenty to talk about. I hope to be back in action by the end of the week. Meanwhile, enjoy this view of San Francisco, where I will be dining with an old friend this evening.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The return of Samantha Power

Human rights activist and scholar Samantha Power, who was banished from the Obama campaign after calling Hillary Clinton "a monster" during the primaries, is back advising Obama on the transition, particularly in the State Department. Most likely she was never really gone, as Obama does not seem stupid enough to deprive the country of one of the most passionate and brilliant advocates for human rights we have.

Power is hated by both the far right and the far left for her advocacy of armed intervention in human rights emergencies like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.

The question of intervention is obviously a legitimate matter for debate, but Power's continued presence in the Obama orbit is a sign that human rights might become a real priority rather than an opportunity for empty rhetoric.

Balter's Blog milestone. This blog has now welcomed 40,000 unique visitors since it began in April. Thanks again to one and all, and especially to those who have taken the time to leave comments.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm giving thanks...

... that things have turned out the way they did this year.

This blogger has been busy with paying jobs and family visits the past week, but hope to be back online again soon. Meanwhile, have fun and don't eat too much.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Barbara Starr, Pentagon mouthpiece and mole in the journalism profession

I've just witnessed one of the most atrocious journalistic performances in recent memory. In a breaking news segment about the Bush administration's decision to send Salim Ahmed Hamdan to Yemen to serve out the remaining weeks of his 66 month sentence, Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr declared that Americans would be "dumbfounded" at this development.

Hamdan, supposedly Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard, was sentenced by a military jury, which took into account the 61 months he had already served in Guantanamo. The sentence was widely seen as a slap in the face to the Bush administration--and this by military men, mind you--for prosecuting such a low-level player and trying to make him out to be a major terrorist. Indeed, the conviction of Hamdan is pretty much all the Bush administration has to show for its promise to bring Al Qaeda terrorists to justice.

So what business does Starr have telling us that Americans would be or should be "dumbfounded" when Hamdan is close to serving his full sentence, the one handed down by the military court that the Bush administration created? And especially when Barack Obama has asserted clearly that he intends to close Guantanamo anyway?

Starr has a long, long reputation as a Pentagon mouthpiece (I put it more strongly in an earlier draft of this post but professional courtesy requires that I tone it down.) This is just another example. She is a disgrace to the journalism profession.

Photo: CNN (until they yank it away, that is.)

Update (Nov 25): It took some time for other news media to report this story (possibly because they required more confirmation and details before doing so, unlike the scoop-hungry Starr who clearly did not even understand the legal basis for the decision), but the New York Times has it this morning along with some needed context. Indeed, Starr's "dumbfounded" remark reflected either a total ignorance of the case and its history, a desire to pander to the ignorance of some CNN watchers, or both. It also seems likely that the Bush administration, which was apparently poised to argue that it could continue to detain Hamdan despite his sentence being almost over, thought the better of it once Obama made it clear again last week that he intends to close Guantanamo. Indeed, the Washington Post story on Hamdan's transfer to Yemen reflects some of the Bush administration thinking on this.

Psychologists say no to John Brennan for CIA chief. Read about it at this link. With thanks to PG.

Second guessing Obama. Marc Cooper says don't. At least not yet.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama: I look foward to you advising me, Hillary

A walk down memory lane. With thanks to Talking Points Memo.

Vatican forgives John Lennon

Reuters is reporting that the Vatican has forgiven Lennon for saying that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" back in 1966.

This is just more evidence that the Catholic Church is way behind the times. Jesus forgave John Lennon a long time ago.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Habeas corpus: A test for Barack Obama and Eric Holder

As many of you may have heard, Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Leon has ordered the release of five Algerian detainees held for the past seven years at Guantanamo. As the New York Times reports,

It was the first hearing on the government’s evidence for holding detainees at Guantánamo. The judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in Washington, said the government’s secret evidence in the case had been weak: what he described as “a classified document from an unnamed source” for its central claim against the men, with little way to measure credibility.

“To rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court’s obligation,” Judge Leon said. He urged the government not to appeal and said the men should be released “forthwith.”

The detainees ordered released included Lakhdar Boumediene, for whom the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that habeas corpus applied to the Guantanamo prisoners was named (the Court's opinion was rendered last June.) Buried in the article, however, is the following amazing passage:

But Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal terrorism prosecutor, said the decision highlighted the difficulties of courts’ reviewing wartime decisions about who qualifies as an enemy combatant. Mr. McCarthy said those were decisions “our system of divided powers consigns to military professionals in the executive branch, not judges.”

This is really extraordinary, because it indicates that some prosecutors, and perhaps many in the Bush administration, still do not "get" the Supreme Court decision, which is precisely that prisoners can appeal their detention on habeas corpus grounds and thus that such decisions are indeed consigned to judges in the final analysis. In other words, McCarthy, and those who think like him, still believe they are above the law.

According to the Times article, the justice department has not yet decided whether or not to appeal Leon's decision. And that's where Barack Obama and his attorney general pick, Eric Holder, come in. Obama praised the Boumediene decision (while McCain violently opposed it.) Obama and Holder must communicate loud and clear to current attorney general Michael Mukasey (assuming that Mukasey recovers from whatever caused him to collapse yesterday, in which case whoever takes his place) that any appeal will be immediately cancelled once Obama takes office. We only have one president at a time, but we also only have one Constitution at a time. That Constitution dictates that the five detainees must be released immediately.

PS--I have argued in a number of recent posts that progressives should stop hyperventilating about the meaning of every alleged Obama appointment, on the grounds that who he picks is not a reliable guide to what his policies are going to be. On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable for anyone who disagrees with something that Obama actually does to be vocal about it. If, for example, Obama did not come through on his pledge to close Guantanamo, I would be outraged and you would be hearing about it here. But he said he will do it, and for now, I believe him.

Weekend updates:

The Price of Our Good Name.
That's the title of an editorial in Sunday's New York Times, laying out proposals for how to close Guantanamo that were developed by Human Rights Watch.

More on Eric Holder
. From Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, an earlier post just updated. And for those concerned about the Marc Rich pardon, here are some of the things that might come up at Holder's confirmation hearing.

Bush leaving scientific wreckage behind. The Washington Post reports that James McCarthy, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of the journal Science, to which I am a regular contributor), has raised the alarm about the scientifically illiterate people the Bush administration is giving permanent jobs to before it leaves office:

In one recent example, Todd Harding -- a 30-year-old political appointee at the Energy Department -- applied for and won a post this month at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, he told colleagues in a Nov. 12 e-mail, he will work on "space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data." Harding earned a bachelor's degree in government from Kentucky's Centre College, where he also chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans.

Hat tip to PG for the alert.

Killing the messenger. South American governments criticized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have recently taken to making false accusations against human rights workers to deflect attention from their findings. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has used this tactic frequently; in a recent statement, the two organizations take Colombian president Álvaro Uribe to task for doing the same thing. Human Rights Watch has also issued a report urging Barack Obama to respect human rights in the so-called fight against terrorism.

Who's regulating the regulators? The lede of this article in Sunday's Washington Post says it all:

When Countrywide Financial felt pressured by federal agencies charged with overseeing it, executives at the giant mortgage lender simply switched regulators in the spring of 2007.

Read the rest to get a glimpse into how the financial world got us into this mess.

Stop Bush Pardons

And there's a petition you can sign at this link.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bill Ayers speaks

A couple of days ago, Terry Gross interviewed Bill Ayers on NPR's "Fresh Air." Ayers had decided to remain silent while the McCain campaign was using his name to attack Obama, but now he is talking.

I would urge everyone to give it a listen, and pay particular attention to Ayers' discussion of the decisions and choices he and others made during the Vietnam War.

Ayers, pointing out that neither he nor other members of the Weatherman group ever killed anyone (other than themselves), asks who was more morally culpable, the people who tried to stop the Vietnam War or the people who killed millions of Vietnamese while prosecuting it.

After listening to the program, you might conclude, as I did, that someone like John McCain--who dropped bombs on the Vietnamese people in an illegal and immoral war--is a moral midget compared to a man like Ayers, who tried to stop it.

Obama's hawks? The Los Angeles Times reports today on concerns by anti-war activists that Obama is appointing people who supported the war in Iraq to his cabinet, despite his anti-war stand during the campaign. I think this is a legitimate concern, but there is one problem: Why didn't the anti-war activists build an effective anti-war movement all these years? Then there would be sufficient pressure on Obama to do things differently. Instead, there were only a handful of large but largely token marches early in the war, which were mostly organized by the super-sectarian left group behind the organization A.N.S.W.E.R. In effect, anti-war leftists abandoned their posts and let the far left run the anti-war movement, which called marches only when it served their sectarian purposes. The rest of the left relied on Congress to stop it, and when that didn't happen, relied on Obama. Well, Obama has told us what he is going to do: Withdrawal of troops within 16 months of taking office. If the left wants better than that, it will have to organize for it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, et al.

Once again this blogger feels compelled to place fingertips on keyboard and issue an electronic yawn over all the buzz about Obama's appointments. The news media and the blogosphere are in a tizzy over what they take to be the meaning of placing lots of folks who served in the Clinton administration--including the former First Lady--in positions of importance and influence. This isn't "change you can believe in," goes the chorus, it's the "restoration" of the Clinton era. "Progressives," who had a long list of other "progressives" they wanted to see in the cabinet and other posts, have got their knickers particularly in a twist over this (forgive me if I don't bother to provide links to all this, most readers will have seen it already.)

Has Obama already sold out his campaign promises before he is even president?

Somehow I doubt it. Last Sunday on "60 Minutes," for example, Obama stated clearly that he was going to close Guantanamo and stop torture in its tracks. He didn't say he was going to appoint a presidential commission to study whether it could be done or not, nor that he was going to ask attorney general candidate Eric Holder's opinion about whether it should be done. And today's New York Times quotes Obama as clearly stating that he was not going to let the economic crisis slow down the action on climate change he has long advocated:

In his only public appearance on Tuesday, Mr. Obama indicated that he intended to move rapidly on one of the most ambitious items on his agenda, tackling climate change. Speaking to a bipartisan group of governors by video, the president-elect said that despite the weakening economy, he had no intention of softening or delaying his ambitious goals for reducing emissions that cause the warming of the planet.

“Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” Mr. Obama said. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

Note that Obama did not ask the permission of whoever he is planning to appoint as energy secretary before repeating this pledge. Nor did he ask Tom Daschle, who has just been picked as the nominee for secretary of health and human services, whether it was okay to launch into health care reform. And somehow I think that Hillary Clinton, if she is picked for secretary of state, will go out of her way to make sure there is peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that we do not get into a war with Iran--despite her prior slavish dedication to every idiotic thing the Israeli government has done and her saber-rattling at Iran during the primary campaign.

I am not saying that Obama might not end up breaking every single one of his campaign promises. It's happened before. But the notion that his cabinet picks are an indication of what his policies will be seems, to me at least, to be illogical and inconsistent with the history of previous presidencies. All of these people will be under Barack Obama in the government, not above him, and there is no reason--at least no reason right now--to think that they will dictate to him or even influence him to change the core principles on which he ran for office.

For example, I will not be happy if Lawrence Summers returns as treasury secretary. There are much better choices. But if Obama did appoint him, would it mean that the deregulation policies largely behind the current economic crisis will be brought back, despite everything we have learned in the past months? Of course not. Another way of asking the question might be: Is Obama stupid? Is he crazy? Or just crazy like a fox?

The leap of logic I am talking about, just to reemphasize the point, is the assumption that Obama's future policies can be predicted by who he picks to help him govern. I could be wrong, but I think this is very faulty logic. More likely, he is picking the people who he thinks can best carry out what he wants. And when is the last time we had a president who seemed to have such a clear idea about that, and what was best for the country?

Obama is going to do plenty of things I won't agree with (he is already way off track on Afghanistan, as I have argued many times on this blog.) But leftists and progressives like me didn't elect him, and we can't expect him to be something he is not. All we can expect is that he will better than what went before him, and if we are lucky, better than anyone we have seen in a long, long time.

Photo: Eric Holder.

Afterthoughts: Many senators, and many liberals and progressives, really wanted Joe Lieberman's scalp, and for good reason (on an emotional level, I would have been just as thrilled as everyone else if he had been punished for being such a very, very bad boy.) But Obama decided to turn the other cheek (thus proving, at the very least, that he really is a Christian.) The brilliance of Obama's position on this will be obvious soon enough. Could there be any better way to disarm your enemies than to forgive them? Try it some time.

Great minds again. No sooner had I posted this than I saw my pal Marc Cooper has very similar thoughts. Marc and I have been agreeing on most things for nearly 25 years, so no surprise there.

More great minds. Marc's latest post, "Confining Billary," rounds up the wisdom of several commenters, including yours truly, about what Obama might be up to with this Clinton nomination. Check it out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stevie Nicks

Just because she is so great, because this is an incredibly beautiful song, and because without music life is not worth living.

Prehistoric family values

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a very cool paper that claims very early genetic evidence for the nuclear family--4600 years ago, at an early farming site in Germany. The link is free for 4 weeks from today, but here are a few extracts from my story:

When Barack Obama moves into the White House in January, he'll bring his wife and children with him. The nuclear family is not only as American as apple pie but also the cultural norm in most societies across the world. New genetic and chemical analyses of 4600-year-old burials in Germany suggests that family togetherness has deep roots, going back at least as far the beginnings of agriculture in Europe.

The basic research findings:

... a team led by Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide, claims to have worked out some family relationships in a remarkable series of burials uncovered in central Germany in 2005. At the early farming site of Eulau, German archaeologists found four graves containing 13 individuals who had apparently met a violent death. Two graves were particularly well-preserved: In one, an adult male and female had been placed on their sides, face to face and arms intertwined with two boys; in the other, an adult woman was buried facing away from two girls and a boy. Working with the German team, Haak and colleagues were able to extract enough mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from the skeletons in the first grave to conclude that the two adults were the parents of the two boys. In the second grave, the team concluded that the three children were probably brothers and sisters, although the adult female was not their mother. Rather, the researchers suggest, she might have been an aunt or a step-mother.

The paper also reports evidence from strontium analyses of their teeth that the men and children in the graves came from the local area, but the women came from afar--examples of what researchers call patrilocality and exogamous mating. To get the full story, please click on the link.

Photo: Together in death. Genetic analysis suggests that a mother, a father, and their two boys were buried in the same grave. Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences.

Phil Gramm: The Clinton years

Today's New York Times features a front-page article about Gramm entitled "A Deregulator Looks Back, Unswayed," by Eric Lipton and Stephen Labaton. Since this is the kind of piece that many people, including myself, tend to skim rather than read all the way through, some of the most important messages might be overlooked. These include the fact that much of the deregulation that threatens to take our economy down and has already destroyed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people was enacted during the administration of President Bill Clinton, and not over his protests. As the article points out high up,

Many of his deregulation efforts were backed by the Clinton administration. Other members of Congress — who collectively received hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from financial industry donors over the last decade — also played roles.

One of Gramm's key victories came late in Clinton's term:

In late 1999, Mr. Gramm played a central role in what would be the most significant financial services legislation since the Depression. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, as the measure was called, removed barriers between commercial and investment banks that had been instituted to reduce the risk of economic catastrophes. Long sought by the industry, the law would let commercial banks, securities firms and insurers become financial supermarkets offering an array of services.

The measure, which Mr. Gramm helped write and move through the Senate, also split up oversight of conglomerates among government agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, would oversee the brokerage arm of a company. Bank regulators would supervise its banking operation. State insurance commissioners would examine the insurance business. But no single agency would have authority over the entire company.

“There was no attention given to how these regulators would interact with one another,” said Professor Cox of Duke. “Nobody was looking at the holes of the regulatory structure.”

The arrangement was a compromise required to get the law adopted. When the law was signed in November 1999, he proudly declared it “a deregulatory bill,” and added, “We have learned government is not the answer.”

And lest anyone think that Clinton was a helpless bystander during all of these deregulation efforts:

In the final days of the Clinton administration a year later, Mr. Gramm celebrated another triumph. Determined to close the door on any future regulation of the emerging market of derivatives and swaps, he helped pushed through legislation that accomplished that goal.

Created to help companies and investors limit risk, swaps are contracts that typically work like a form of insurance. A bank concerned about rises in interest rates, for instance, can buy a derivatives instrument that would protect it from rate swings. Credit-default swaps, one type of derivative, could protect the holder of a mortgage security against a possible default.

Earlier laws had left the regulation issue sufficiently ambiguous, worrying Wall Street, the Clinton administration and lawmakers of both parties, who argued that too many restrictions would hurt financial activity and spur traders to take their business overseas. And while the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — under the leadership of Mr. Gramm’s wife, Wendy — had approved rules in 1989 and 1993 exempting some swaps and derivatives from regulation, there was still concern that step was not enough.

After Mrs. Gramm left the commission in 1993, several lawmakers proposed regulating derivatives. By spreading risks, they and other critics believed, such contracts made the system prone to cascading failures. Their proposals, though, went nowhere.

But late in the Clinton administration, Brooksley E. Born, who took over the agency Mrs. Gramm once led, raised the issue anew. Her suggestion for government regulations alarmed the markets and drew fierce opposition.

In November 1999, senior Clinton administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, joined by the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Levitt Jr., the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued a report that instead recommended legislation exempting many kinds of derivatives from federal oversight.

Mr. Gramm helped lead the charge in Congress. Demanding even more freedom from regulators than the financial industry had sought, he persuaded colleagues and negotiated with senior administration officials, pushing so hard that he nearly scuttled the deal. “When I get in the red zone, I like to score,” Mr. Gramm told reporters at the time.

Finally, he had extracted enough. In December 2000, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was passed as part of a larger bill by unanimous consent after Mr. Gramm dominated the Senate debate.

Yet there is one line in this article that really struck me, because in many ways it gets to the heart of the overall problem:

Mr. Gramm would sometimes speak with reverence about the nation’s financial markets, the trading and deal making that churn out wealth.

Think about this for a moment. Do trading and deal making really "churn out" wealth? A more accurate way to put it is that the financial markets churn up wealth, the wealth created by those who actually produce things, whether they be goods or services. And in the churning, the wealth is redistributed upwards, from the working and middle classes to those who become increasingly wealthy for no other reason than that they have their hands on the buttons and levers of the economy. One doesn't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist to see that Wall Street, aided by people like Phil Gramm and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, has taken the hard-earned mortgage payments of homeowners and sliced them and diced them into "derivatives" and "swaps" and other instruments of expropriation and exploitation. And since the money flows always upwards rather than downwards, working people have to continually beg for loans from those who have accumulated all of this wealth just so they can have roofs over their heads.

Marx wasn't right about everything, but he was right about the main thing: Capitalism is a system of exploitation of those who have less by those who have more. Unfortunately, the primary alternative, socialism, has been discredited by the worldwide Communist movement, which merely substituted one form of oppression for another (you perhaps have heard the old joke: What's the difference between capitalism and Communism? Answer: Under capitalism man exploits man; under Communism it's the other way around.)

Barack Obama is a big fan of capitalism, although it would be fair to say that he is also an advocate of what some call "capitalism with a human face." We haven't had that for a long time; perhaps it would at least be a start on the right road.

Photo: John McCain (R-AZ) with former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm (L)/ Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images file (I couldn't find a photo of Gramm with Bill Clinton, which is no surprise, but his footprints are all over Clinton's legacy.)
Supporting our troops. The Times also carries a story about the tremendous difficulties returning veterans face in holding on to their houses and getting disability benefits processed. Would it be a stretch to say that the Bush administration and those politicians who are always banging on about "our troops" are completely and totally full of shit?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The unsung heroes of Ohio

I am very late catching up with some back issues of the New Yorker, but today I was reading a pre-election Reporter at Large piece by George Packer entitled "The Hardest Vote: The Disaffection of Ohio's Working Class" (you can read the whole thing at this link.) I was very struck by one long passage about an Obama campaign worker who canvassed alone in a traditionally racist, rural part of the state. Please read it, as it will give you an idea of the kind of very heroic people who were responsible for his victories in places a lot of people (including Hillary Clinton) never thought he could really win.

Photo: Abandoned house on Route 42 just south of London, Ohio/ Scottamus.

One day in Athens, I met Latisha Price. She was a big-boned blonde of thirty-seven, with a raw complexion, an Appalachian twang, and a forthright, vulnerable manner. “I come from a very bad background,” she said within minutes of meeting me. Her mother had been an alcoholic, and Price had grown up in a series of foster homes, attending fourteen different schools. From the age of fifteen, she had been on her own, falling in with a series of abusive men, about whom she didn’t want to say much. At twenty, she got a job in a nursing home; she still works there, as a cook and a nursing assistant.

“I noticed the union people would stand up for themselves,” she recalled of her early days on the job. “And they seemed to be like a small family, a voice. I never had that. That’s how I got active, and got so gutsy and eager to always jump in—I learned that from the union. When I first started, I was like a little mouse in the corner because I had so much drama in my life. I was too caught up in staying alive.” Price, who now lives on a farm with her boyfriend, thirty guns, and every kind of domestic animal except pigs, runs the S.E.I.U.’s Obama office in Athens, with two graduates of Smith College working for her.

Price and I drove down Route 33 from Athens, into Meigs County and a town called Pomeroy, which once had been a loading dock for coal barges and now lay prostrate and blighted along the Ohio River. Across the river was West Virginia. Inasmuch as Price had a home town, Pomeroy was it.

“Meigs County is one of the worst,” Price said as we drove. “We’re going to a racist area—I won’t lie to you. I have heard, pardon my French, ‘Get the fuck off my porch, I’m not voting for no nigger.’ ” A few days earlier, she had twice been chased away by dogs. Price canvassed for Obama alone day after day, with a can of Mace in the car. She had learned not to wear an Obama T-shirt. People didn’t react well—they seemed to take it as someone telling them whom to vote for.

She parked on a street that ran along the foot of the rock face looming over Pomeroy. It was early afternoon. There was no sign of life on the street except for two boxers in a yard, unleashed and barking at us. Price told me that their collars would register a shock if the dogs crossed a buried wire.

“I’m not scared of my home town,” Price said. “I’m a pretty tough girl. Gotta be.”

She had a list of voters—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—and we began to go door to door. Some of the residences were boarded shut, some were trailers with appliances lying out front. One or two were large, lavishly decaying houses with overgrown gardens. A front porch was sealed off by fallen branches.

A middle-aged woman in a nightdress peered out of a screen door. Price began her pitch.

“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”

The woman hesitated, then turned away to speak to someone inside. A man’s voice called out, “We’re not voting this year.”

Price noted this on her sheet and thanked the woman.

She didn’t leave the sidewalk to speak to the owner of the two snarling dogs. He said that he would probably vote for McCain, because he was a veteran. A shirtless young man in his underwear, who seemed to have just woken up, said that he was an Obama supporter and knew a few others. There was an AIDS ribbon tattooed on his right shoulder. “The ignorant ones that don’t vote, they say Obama’s a nigger and he’s going to be assassinated,” the young man said. “That is classic Meigs County.” Farther down the street, two women and a little girl—three generations of a family—were getting out of a car. The grandmother said that she was undecided. She thought that McCain was wrong on the war, but she wasn’t sure about Obama. Price left her with some literature and her phone number.

At the door of a trailer, Price knocked, then knocked again. Finally, the screen door opened a few inches. A white-haired, white-skinned ghost of an old woman identified herself as Betty.

“If the election was held today, have you decided who you’ll vote for?”

“ ’bama.”