Saturday, May 31, 2008

The audacity of lost hope

That's the only way to characterize the position taken by Clinton's advocates, most notably Harold Ickes, at the DNC rules committee today. The Clinton position re Michigan is Clinton take all, Obama take zero, and all delegates seated--this despite the attempts of Michigan Democrats to come up with a solution that would be fair to all.

Update I: All's well that end's well. A reasonable compromise instead of Clinton's dishonest scheme to grab delegates in two states lucky to have their primaries count at all. I think the threat to take it to the credentials committee in July is an empty one. Clinton will have about two supporters left by then, while the rest of the party will be well into the campaign against McCain.

Update II (Sunday June 1): Lest there be any doubt about who was behind Icke's attitude, from today's New York Times:

The deal prompted one of her chief advisers, Harold Ickes, a member of the rules committee himself, to declare that Mrs. Clinton’s fight may not be over, even though Mr. Obama’s advisers say he is only days away from gaining enough delegates to claim the nomination.

“Mrs. Clinton has instructed me to reserve her rights to take this to the credentials committee,” Mr. Ickes said before the final vote, raising the specter of a fight until that committee meets. His words drew cheers from Clinton supporters, including many who yelled, “Denver! Denver! Denver!” — implying that the fight could go all the way to the convention in that city.

Mr. Ickes said the outcome for Michigan was a hijacking of voters’ intent because it assigned delegates to Mr. Obama even though he did not win them as his name was not on the ballot.

Mrs. Clinton was in touch with Mr. Ickes throughout the day, aides said, and she instructed him to conclude his remarks with that message to the party. It remained an open question, though, how much leverage Mrs. Clinton would have after the primaries concluded on Tuesday.

Update III: Marc Cooper's blog post on the DNC rules committee meeting hits many nails on many heads. The nut graffs:

Listening to the howling and pleading from Clinton surrogates and other sundry opportunists and operatives that seating these delegations was a civil rights issue is about as convincing as interpreting one of Uncle Jun's addresses to the Pipefitters Union as some sort of workers' manifesto.

Who's kidding who? The original DNC decision to authorize only four states to vote early was a blatant act of pandering to Iowa, NH, Nevada and South Carolina. The leap-frogging ahead of Fla and Michigan -- heartily suppported by each state's Democratic officials in defiance of the DNC-- was a blatant act of pandering to local constituencies. The ratification of the decision to punish both states by the Clinton and Obama campaigns was a further act of pandering to Iowa and New Hampshire. The decision to reconsider the just punishment and come up with today's compromise was a blatant act of pandering to Florida and Michigan. The notion of legitimacy attached to either one of those "elections," one in which Clinton had no opponent on the ballot and the other in which all candidates vowed not to campaign, insults the intelligence and panders to political morons.

The battle cry of "Den-ver! Den-ver!" by Hillary supporters in the wake of Saturday's decision is nothing short of a sort of collective psychosis. The same die-hard Democrats who spent the last eight years blaming Ralph Nader for the deficiencies of their own party have now embarked on a similar campaign to spoil the candidacy of the eventual and certain nominee -- Barack Obama.

Breaking the Silence--Israeli soldiers speak

The May 31 issue of the French daily newspaper Le Monde (still one of the world's great newspapers despite years of internal upheavals and cutbacks) includes an article on the latest report from Breaking the Silence, an organization of present and former Israeli soldiers dedicated to testifying about the brutalities and harassment routinely visited upon Palestinians in the occupied territories by the Israeli military. The new report, which is available on the group's Web site (a slightly different version of the site is here) and can be downloaded as a pdf here, consists of testimonies from soldiers stationed in Hebron between 2005-2007, where a small group of Jewish settlers (about 800 according to the Le Monde story) lives in the midst of this Palestinian city. The report was actually issued several weeks ago, so even Le Monde is late with its story; yet I have not seen anything about it in the mainstream American media (if anyone out there has, I would be happy to be contradicted on this.) According to the organization's press release:

"The booklet contains testimonies from almost all of the units who served in Hebron during the past two years. This proves yet again that the incidents in the booklet – incidents of looting, infiltrating houses for no reason, harsh physical abuse towards Palestinians, and firing at Palestinians contrary to any official IDF rules of engagement – are normative, and can not be described as "exceptional"."

The group's Web site includes a great deal of other material, such as videotaped interviews with soldiers about the things they have done and witnessed. Additional information about the group's activities, including a recent exhibition at Harvard and many additional testimonial videos, can also be found here.

News Update: As many of you no doubt are, I am watching the DNC rules committee meeting--in my case on CSPAN's intenet site. Is anyone else as amazed as I that this committee could be made up of people actively engaged in the Clinton and Obama campaigns, which really should automatically disqualify them from being members? I am sure that my naivete will be put straight by someone who can explain why it has to be this way. Nevertheless, it is still shocking to see Clinton's people on the committee going down the campaign's talking points rather than looking for the kind of compromise on the Florida/Michigan issue that Obama's people are trying to achieve. But Clinton's no-compromise, take no prisoners approach is doomed to fail, although has been successful in hurting the Democrats' chances to keep McCain out of the White House.

More Update: I read it in news reports, but to hear Clinton flak Harold Ickes imply that Clinton should take all her Michigan delegates and Obama take zero is stunning for its sheer audacity of hopelessness.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The frozen north and the first Eskimos

In this week's online edition of Science, a team of researchers from Greenland, Denmark, and other European laboratories report on the first (nearly) complete sequence of ancient mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is found not in the cell nucleus but inside small cellular subunits called mitochondria--which supply energy to living cells. It is inherited only on the maternal line, and researchers use it to trace the worldwide migrational movements of prehistoric peoples over thousands of years.

The paper (abstract available here, full access requires an individual or institutional subscription) is particularly interesting, however, because the mtDNA was extracted from the hair of a so-called Paleo-Eskimo who lived on the west coast of Greenland roughly 4000 years ago. As I point out in an accompanying news article in Science (sorry, same restrictions apply, but you can read Nicholas Wades' account in the New York Times), the DNA sequence of this particular individual is unrelated to both Native Americans and today's Eskimos (such as the Inuit who live in Greenland now), and is also unrelated to the immediate ancestors of today's Eskimos, the so-called Neo-Eskimos, who moved across the Arctic Circle from Asia beginning about 1000 years ago (we have some partial mtDNA sequences from Neo-Eskimos taken from other excavations in the Arctic.)

If the findings can be confirmed from ancient DNA from other Paleo-Eskimos (and the research team, led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, is hoping to do just that) it would mean that the very first Eskimos did not derive from the Asian populations that gave rise to the first Americans more than 13,000 years ago, nor were they the ancestors of today's Eskimos. Rather, the DNA evidence suggests that they were an entirely separate group whose ancestors lived in the Bering Sea area. The researchers come to this conclusion because the mtDNA from the hair contains a genetic marker very similar to that found today in small groups that live in the Bering Sea area, such as the Aleuts and a group of Siberian Eskimos.

If that all sounds complicated, it is! But the new study might help to untangle some of the roots, as it were, of the first humans who ventured into the frozen north--even if they left no living descendants.


Update: National Public Radio's site has an interview with the paper's lead author, Tom Gilbert, that is well worth listening to.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

McCain to Obama: Visit Iraq!

Okay, in the news today is McCain's challenge to Obama to visit Iraq because he is "ignorant of the facts on the ground" in the war zone--unlike McCain himself, who famously toured a Baghdad market in April 2007 and subsequently pronounced on how much improvement he had personally witnessed in the security situation. As many commentators pointed out at the time, the perimeter of McCain's own security cordon pretty much defined the limits of the improvement he saw that day, which was very short-lived indeed.

In yesterday's post, I complained that the mainstream news media were not providing the kind of context readers needed to interpret news stories such as this. Sure enough, today's account of McCain's challenge in the Los Angeles Times fails entirely to remind readers of the storm over McCain's own misguided factfinding mission, which surely is relevant to the overall story (I hope that Obama's campaign people will remember it and do the media's job for them; at any rate the New York Times also failed to mention this episode in its coverage of the same controversy today.)

I think most Americans realize, or should realize, that touring Baghdad in the company of generals who have their tongues so far up the asses of the members of the chain of command above them--and in this I include General David Petraeus, for whom the choice is either to rim the Commander-in-Chief or resign--is hardly an effective way to determine the "facts on the ground." Readers of this blog will have to excuse the scatological crudity of this particular post, which is the only way I can find to express my outrage about the fecklessness of our military leaders, but is it not remarkable that the world's "greatest superpower" has a military run by the saddest coterie of yes men (and yes women) seen since the European generals who ran World War I? Of course, our generals are only following the sterling example set by General Colin Powell at the United Nations, when he swallowed any lingering integrity he might have had left and made the "case" for the war in Iraq.

As for Obama going to Iraq: By all means he should do it, but I hope he takes along some people who actually know something about the country.

Photo: Sgt. Matthew Roe, U.S. Army, via Reuters

Update: The May 31 New York Times features a profile of retired admiral William Fallon, who was pushed out after his differences with the Bush administration over Iran, Iraq etc. became public.

The candidates speak: (with thanks to reg on Marc Cooper's blog)

Obama, Nov. 2002: “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

John McCain: “I believe… that the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators.” (March 20, 2003)
“Saddam Hussein is on a crash course to construct a nuclear weapon.” (October 10, 2002)
“This conflict is… going to be relatively short.” (March 23, 2003)
“Only the most deluded of us could doubt the necessity of this war.” (August 30, 2004)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Clinton's crushingly incredible dishonesty over Florida and Michigan

Better bloggers than Balter long ago pointed out the desperate hypocrisy of Clinton's insistence that the Florida and Michigan delegations be seated. Indeed, Clinton's position on this is so blatantly opportunistic and dishonest that it is in large part responsible for the contempt in which she is now held not only by Obama supporters, but by many who formerly either supported Clinton or at least thought her a worthy adversary in the fight for the Democratic nomination. I was reminded of this today when I read a piece by Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, which I am reproducing entirely below in addition to linking to it so I can be sure that readers of this blog who have not signed up on the Post site will have access to it.

Very simply, Meyerson goes over the basic facts of the history of this issue and demonstrates the hypocritical turnabout of Clinton and her supporters on the original decision by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to disqualify the two states' delegations--a decision that was fully supported by Clinton's people at the time.

My purpose for this is to make a point about the way the news media has handled this issue. Rarely have any news accounts about this controversy given this kind of background, necessary for understanding the issues involved. Rather, the media normally state both sides of the story as if each side had equivalently valid arguments, without questioning, probing, or providing the reader with the important information he or she needs to evaluate them. In the journalism class I recently taught at Boston University, we included a segment on "journalistic objectivity" which covered how journalists should handle controversies of this sort. The students agreed with me that being "fair and balanced" does not mean simply reciting a "he says, she says" balance sheet of quotations from each side and then leaving it at that. On the contrary, an honest and competent journalist has an obligation to probe and poke at the arguments, and, if those of one side have a tendency to deflate rapidly when pricked by the pin of factual inquiry, to make sure the reader knows it.

Since this was a science journalism class, we talked mostly about examples such as Darwinian evolution vs. creationism, or the evidence for global warming vs. climate change skepticism. But the same principles should apply to all journalism, even if most of the mainstream media is slow and reluctant to apply them. A more important and now obvious example is skepticism about the Iraq war, where the media not only probes Bush adminstration statements but now produces reams of investigative journalism about how badly things are going (in the case of the New York Times, for example, which was a major sucker for adminstration claims, such skeptical probing has almost become a way of seeking redemption for its serious journalistic sins of the past.)

Here then is Meyerson's column, which includes a few simple facts that I rarely see in news reports about the Florida/Michigan controversy. In addition, Meyerson underscores how many feminists have allowed their important movement to be cheapened by an appeal to dishonest, situational ethics:

Clinton's Two-State Two-Step

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; A13

On Saturday, when the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Committee meets to determine the fate of Florida and Michigan's delegations to this summer's convention, it will have some company. A group of Hillary Clinton supporters has announced it will demonstrate outside.

That Clinton has impassioned supporters, many of whom link her candidacy to the feminist cause, hardly qualifies as news. And it's certainly true that along the campaign trail Clinton has encountered some outrageously sexist treatment, just as Barack Obama has been on the receiving end of bigoted treatment. (Obama has even been subjected to anti-Muslim bigotry despite the fact that he's not Muslim.) But somehow, a number of Clinton supporters have come to identify the seating of Michigan and Florida not merely with Clinton's prospects but with the causes of democracy and feminism -- an equation that makes a mockery of democracy and feminism.

Clinton herself is largely responsible for this absurdity. Over the past couple of weeks, she has equated the seating of the two delegations with African Americans' struggle for suffrage in the Jim Crow South, and with the efforts of the democratic forces in Zimbabwe to get a fair count of the votes in their presidential election.

Somehow, I doubt that the activists opposing Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe would appreciate this equation.

But the Clintonistas who have called Saturday's demonstration make it sound as if they'll be marching in Selma in support of a universal right to vote. The DNC, says one of their Web sites, "must honor our core democratic principles and enfranchise the people of Michigan and Florida."

Had Florida and Michigan conducted their primaries the way the other 48 states conducted their own primaries and caucuses -- that is, in accord with the very clear calendar laid down by the DNC well before the primaries began -- then Clinton's marchers would be utterly justified in their claims. But when the two states flouted those rules by moving their primaries outside the prescribed time frame, the DNC, which gave neither state a waiver to do so, decreed that their primaries would not count and enjoined all presidential candidates from campaigning in those states. Obama and John Edwards complied with the DNC's dictates by removing their names from the Michigan ballot. Clinton did not.

Seating Michigan in full would mean the party validates the kind of one-candidate election (well, 1.03, to give Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel, who also remained on the ballot, their due) that is more common in autocracies than democracies. It would mean rewarding the one serious candidate who didn't remove her name from the ballot when all her rivals, in deference to the national party rules, did just that.

What's particularly outrageous is that the Clinton campaign supported the calendar, and the sanctions against Michigan and Florida, until Clinton won those states and needed to have their delegations seated.

Last August, when the DNC Rules Committee voted to strip Florida (and Michigan, if it persisted in clinging to its date) of its delegates, the Clinton delegates on the committee backed those sanctions. All 12 Clinton supporters on the committee supported the penalties. (The only member of the committee to vote against them was an Obama supporter from Florida.) Harold Ickes, a committee member, leading Clinton strategist and acknowledged master of the political game, said, "This committee feels very strongly that the rules ought to be enforced." Patty Solis Doyle, then Clinton's campaign manager, further affirmed the decision. "We believe Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina play a unique and special role in the nominating process," she said, referring to the four states that the committee authorized to hold the first contests. "And we believe the DNC's rules and its calendar provide the necessary structure to respect and honor that role. Thus, we will be signing the pledge to adhere to the DNC-approved nominating calendar."

Not a single Clinton campaign official or DNC Rules Committee member, much less the candidate herself, said at the time that the sanctions imposed on Florida or Michigan were in any way a patriarchal plot or an affront to democratic values. The threat that these rules posed to our fundamental beliefs was discovered only ex post facto -- the facto in question being Clinton's current need to seat the delegations whose seatings she had opposed when she thought she'd cruise to the nomination.

Clinton's supporters have every right to demonstrate on Saturday, of course. But their larger cause is neither democracy nor feminism; it's situational ethics. To insist otherwise is to degrade democracy and turn feminism into the last refuge of scoundrels.

Afterthoughts: Hi, it's Balter's Blog again. I would guess that the Clintons, and many of their supporters, are surprised that their bag of dirty campaign tricks has provoked such a hostile response from so many people. After all, it's "just politics," and we all know the game. As a dyed-in-the-wool leftwinger, I have often felt that the more cynicism and disillusionment about the American political system, the better; ie, the more likely that people would turn to more radical solutions to the ills of capitalism, including a dramatic reorganization of American society. And at times, for example during the 1930s and again during the 1960s, this formula seemed to work, as these two epochs in American history ushered in dramatic social and political changes--even if many of these changes did not stick in the end.

But while I still harbor few illusions in what some on the far left still call "bourgeois democracy," the Obama candidacy has brought hope to many that a more principled, honest politics is possible in the United States. (By the way, the term "bourgeois democracy," which appears to have been coined by Lenin or at least was often used by him, is open to interpretation: Some leftists take it to mean that the very notion of democracy is bourgeois, while others, including myself, reserve the term for democracies that are really run by the rich and the social class to which they belong--like most Western countries, including the United States.)

It may turn out that Obama, if and when he is elected president, will turn out to be just another bourgeois democrat. But as I have said many times before, an Obama victory--even just in the Democratic primary race--would be a blow against the incredible cynicism and opportunism that Clintonism has come to represent. If the winds kicked up by the Obama campaign achieve nothing more than blowing open the windows of hope, that would be a first and very necessary step towards meaningful change.

Update I: Bad news for Clinton: The New York Times reports that Democratic Party lawyers say only half of the delegates from Florida and Michigan can be seated, or each can be given half a vote, but no more. This in a 38 page memo to the DNC.

Update II: Democratic Party pollster Mark Mellman, in an opinion piece in the Times today, argues that Obama is doing better with white, non college-educated voters than either Al Gore or John Kerry did in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Interesting reading.

Update III: 111 countries, but not the United States, have voted for a cluster bomb ban, and some reports stress the change of heart by the British government which has now dropped its opposition to a ban. As I noted in an earlier post, Hillary Clinton's atrocious position on this issue, identical to that of the Bush administration, is yet another reason to reject her candidacy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Flying Saucers from the British Isles

Today's International Herald Tribune features a story by reporter Sarah Lyall about the British government's release of UFO sighting reports between 1978-2002, including a sketch of a flying saucer on skis apparently prepared by an alert member of the public.

I have always had a soft spot for flying saucers, because when I was about 14 years old I went through a flying saucer phase (kind of like dinosaurs but for teenagers.) I was quite impressed, however, to find out that a number of very serious adults were flying saucer advocates. For example, the very first book I read on the subject was by Donald Keyhoe, now deceased, a retired Marine officer who became a leader in the campaign to get the U.S. government to tell us everything it knew about alien invaders. Another very adult source on UFOS was Captain Edward Ruppelt, the former head of the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book, which monitored sightings over many years before folding up shop in 1970. After he left the project in the 1950s, Ruppelt wrote a book called "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects" which was required reading by UFO fans, in large part because of Ruppelt's obvious credibility. As I recall the book (fairly vividly after more than 40 years), it was quite reasonable, admitting that there were a number of sightings that were difficult to explain but not going so far as to conclude that UFOs were space craft from other planets.

Indeed, I recall a fairly bitter debate between the two major wings of the flying saucer movement: One faction wanted to stick to reports of objects, feeling that stories about abductions by little green men and the like compromised the "credibility" of the campaign to open up government files on the subject; while the other wing argued that if there were flying saucers, beings of some sort must be flying them and thus it was reasonable to think that they would be spotted from time to time. Without doing any research whatsoever on the subject, I will bet that the exact same debate is going on today.

Moreover, UFO believers continue to insist that the government is hiding the true evidence it possesses (eg Roswell etc.) in order to avoid a "panic" among the population, as occurred when Orson Welles produced "War of the Worlds" on radio. Why, in this day and age when we have watched no end of Steven Spielberg movies, the straight scoop about flying saucers should cause a panic here on earth is beyond me, but that is still the argument behind this particular conspiracy theory.

Anyway, the Trib article is funny reading, and I hate to spoil the ending but the little green man story it tells at the end gives the UFO phenomenon a nice English touch:

None of their accounts were as detailed as that of a 78-year-old ex-soldier in Aldershot. His story, which he told to a UFO investigator, can be found in the newly released files.

Out fishing in 1983, the man had just poured himself a cup of tea, he recalled, when he was approached by two four-foot-tall beings wearing pale green overalls and large helmets. They led him into what turned out to be their ship — "I thought, Christ — what the hell's that?" he said — and, apparently considering whether to subject him to extraterrestrial experiments, suddenly announced: "You can go. You are too old and infirm for our purposes."

"Anxious to avoid causing offense," the report said, the man asked no questions, even obvious ones like, what planet do you come from? Instead, he returned to the riverbank, where he finished his tea (by then cold) and resumed fishing.

He was reluctant to tell his family, the report says: "I knew my wife would say 'No more fishing for you, old man.' "

Art: It Happened One Night, Doris Taylor, Roswell, New Mexico

News Update I: Isn't this always the way it goes? Today's Trib also has an obituary from the Associated Press of J.R. Simplot, who helped make French fries an American staple and ended up becoming a major supplier of frozen fries to McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King. Now I love French fries as much as the next person, but what has this high-fat product done to our waistlines, our obesity and diabetes and heart disease rates? At least Simplot does not seem to have suffered from his own product: He died a billionaire at age 99.

News Update II: The day wouldn't really be complete without a post about the presidential campaign(s). Today Ariana Huffington argues on her Huffington Post site that Clinton supporters who say they won't vote for Obama are inviting in a president with a terrible record on reproductive rights. Good point, but frankly I am not too concerned about this. Most American women are smart enough to get the point once Obama is the official nominee. As I said in an earlier post, right now, like it or not, the best friend of American women is a Black man. Obama has never seen the campaign as about identity politics, even if some of his supporters have; but Clinton certainly has seen it that way, overtly, which may be just one more reason she has lost. Time to move on from all that.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday jazz interlude

Check out Ravi Coltrane's MySpace page, where among other cuts you can listen to "Dear Alice," Ravi's haunting tribute to his late mother Alice Coltrane.

While you are at it, be sure to add Jeffrey Siegel's excellent "Straight No Chaser" program to your list of jazz podcasts.

Back soon with more on politics, including some thoughts on the 30-year fallout of Jimmy Carter's decision to allow the Shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment.

Update: Speaking of the Trane family, this week Ken Laster's jazz podcast (about which I have blogged before) features a great segment of John Coltrane compositions played by other artists. The podcast also includes a bunch of summertime-themed jazz. Ken's show is by far the best jazz program around, so be sure to subscribe to it and support it--jazz is one dying art that refuses to die!

More jazz: Readers in, and visitors to, New York City might want to check out the weekly jazz series at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd St. I have never been there myself but hope to check it out when next in the city this fall. It is, however, recommended by writer and jazz columnist Ishmael Reed.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The assassin's bullet

I think it's a good sign if Hillary Clinton subliminally realizes that the only way she is going to get the nomination is if Barack Obama is assassinated. Let's just hope there are no moles in the Secret Service.

Update I: Clinton has been going on for months about how she would be the stronger candidate against McCain, despite poll after poll indicating that Obama would do just as well if not better in such a matchup. Even in California, where Clinton won the primary, times have clearly changed: A Los Angeles Times/KTLA-TV poll reported today indicates that both Obama and Clinton would beat McCain in the state, but Obama by a greater margin. As wiser bloggers than I have suggested, it's time for the superdelegates and Democratic Party leaders to put an end to this, and I think they will quite soon.

Update II: Some similar thoughts today from Marc Cooper, plus a nice long list of Clinton's excuses for why she is losing.

Sunday Update: I'm not a big Maureen Dowd fan (although her "Obambi" nickname for Obama will go down as a great classic) but she hits the nail on the head today on Clinton's fantasies about how she could still become the nominee. And the always great Frank Rich outdoes himself today in eloquence and perceptiveness as he links the revival of "South Pacific," and the emotional response audiences are having to it, with our present-day agonies over war, race, and the hopes for national redemption.

Photo: Abbie Rowe/JFK Library

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tracing Humanity's Path

This blog has been hitting the politics pretty heavily lately, which seems justifiable given that the future of humanity is at stake in the decisions we make now. But today in ScienceNOW, Science's online news service, I report on an interesting paper about humanity's past, which includes the surprising finding that the Americas might have been been colonized in multiple waves rather than one primary migration. The paper, in the journal PloS Genetics is available here for those who want all the technical details; my story for more general readers can be found here (it can be accessed for free for 30 days); and the text of the story is below.

Update: I just heard from team leader Daniel Falush that there is a YouTube version of the slideshow tracing humanity's journey, complete with music!

Tracing Humanity's Path

By Michael Balter
ScienceNOW Daily News
23 May 2008

Most researchers agree that modern humans got their start in Africa and then spread throughout the world beginning about 50,000 years ago. But scientists are still working out the details of how the planet was peopled, such as who went where, and when. A new study, employing sophisticated modeling techniques, confirms the prevailing Out of Africa model but also comes up with some surprises, including evidence that the Americas' first human inhabitants arrived in multiple waves.

Archaeologists and anthropologists worldwide have dug up plenty of skeletons over the years, but the bones seldom say much about where ancient peoples originally came from. Thus researchers have tried using variations in the genes of living individuals to trace their ancestries back to prehistoric times. In general, the closer two modern populations are genetically, the more likely that they share a common ancestry; yet this ancestral heritage is sometimes obscured by genetic changes that have taken place over thousands of years, as well as by interbreeding between populations. Happily, efforts to get around these complications have been boosted by an ever-growing mound of data about genetic differences between human populations.

A team led by geneticist Daniel Falush of University College Cork in Ireland developed a new mathematical model to compare not just individual genes or short DNA segments, as previous studies have done, but also very long stretches of DNA. Falush and his colleagues analyzed 32 DNA segments, each consisting of more than 300,000 base pairs, from 927 people representing 53 different populations from around the globe. Plugging this huge amount of data into computer simulations, the team worked out which migration scenarios were most likely to have created the genetic variation we see today. The results, reported today in PloS Genetics, suggest that modern humans peopled the world in nine phases, beginning in Africa, moving on to Europe and Asia, and finally colonizing the Americas and the Pacific islands. (The team illustrates humanity's journey in two movies accompanying the paper; see below.) The team did not try to date the migrations.

The study came up with two unexpected findings. One is that the people of the Orkney Islands, to the north of Scotland, share some ancestry with Siberians, possibly because some ancestors of modern Orcadians ventured to Asia via the Arctic Circle. The team also found that North and South America were colonized independently by at least two different waves of migration from different parts of Asia, although both waves appear to have arrived via the Bering Strait. This conclusion contradicts the conventional view, which postulates just one migratory wave out of Asia.

"I like the paper very much," says Jonathan Pritchard, a human geneticist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. "It's a very novel and creative way of thinking about the data" that "may provide a better representation of human history." Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that the team's approach "holds great potential to give us important and novel insights into the peopling of the Americas." Nevertheless, Malhi cautions that the multiple migrations Falush and his colleagues detect in the Americas might be an artifact of ancient population movements "more complex than the simple models created in this study can accommodate."

Related sites

Watch human populations march across the globe in two movies created by Falush and his colleagues:

  • Deathwatch not dead

    You will note that Slate's Hillary Clinton Deathwatch has been reinstated in this blog's sidebar, because, um, she is not yet dead! I will probably have some more thoughts about her "courageous" show of "determination" later on. (Actually, some reasonable thoughts on her petulant and destructive attitudes can be found at Obsidian Wings, by a feminist.)

    Update I: Speaking of Slate, today Ron Rosenbaum weighs in with a column entitled "In Praise of Liberal Guilt: It's not wrong to favor Obama because of race." The piece is worth reading, even if I personally feel that it makes no more sense to vote for Obama because he is Black than to vote against him for the same reason, nor to vote for Clinton because she is a woman than to vote against her because she is a woman. But Rosenbaum makes some good points, including one comment I do heartily agree with: "...Hillary Clinton's problems, it seems to me, stem less from sexism than from Clintonism."

    Update II: The New York Times reports today that Barack Obama will be filling in for Ted Kennedy as commencement speaker at Wesleyan University, where Kennedy's stepdaughter will be among the graduates. This is a reminder that Obama, in addition to all his other talents, is a brilliant politician. As I have said before, it is best not to see Obama as a savior, but to view his candidacy as a window of opportunity for social activists of all stripes to make their moves.

    Update III: Also in the news today, John McCain has now rejected the support of pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement he sought and got despite Hagee's well-known bigotry, especially against gays and Catholics. But it turns out that he has also been insulting to Jews. Now that is just going too far! Let's hope that McCain's "pastor problem" haunts him for at least as long as Obama's has. (More about Hagee's long-known anti-semitism from Max Blumenthal today on The Huffington Post.)

    Update IV: Slate does a daily roundup of the daily papers, which I subscribe to (a friend asked me yesterday how I keep up with all this news, I told her that we journalists are news junkies and of course you have to be obsessive to be a blogger) and here below is an excerpt from today's. Now what is wrong with this picture? I will tell you what: Senate Democrats have voted en mass to spend $165 billion more of our money on war. As I said yesterday, this doesn't even raise an eyebrow in the news media and among most Americans these days. And now Republican "mavericks" are heroes because they agreed with Democrats that it was okay to spend the money as long as we threw in a small fraction of this total for domestic spending? Tell it to the soldiers who are still fighting and dying in Iraq.

    Oh, I should also say something about the gay marriage controversy, which is also referred to below. This is an example of the endless capacity of some people to dish out bullshit and others to swallow it. What is the main argument against gay marriage? That it endangers, um, marriage! (Remember the "Defense of Marriage Act", signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996?) Well, but, gays are FOR marriage! They WANT to get married (or at least be able to.) I suppose for some people, if just anyone can get married it sort of cheapens the symbolic and sacred nature of the holy union of matrimony which God Himself hath decreed must be between a man and a woman, at least I think He hath decreed it although I cannot cite chapter and verse right now--but I am sure someone out there can.

    PS--Curious about which Senators voted against the "Defense of Marriage Act" back in 1996? Let Balter's Blog do the research for you: Roll call here. Of course, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama were in the Senate back then, but the 14 naysayers showed a lot more "courage" than Bill Clinton did at the time.

    today's papers
    Jumping Ship
    By Daniel Politi
    Posted Friday, May 23, 2008, at 7:25 AM ET

    The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with the Senate voting to approve $165 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a bill that also devotes billions more in domestic spending, including a major expansion of veterans' education benefits. A surprising number of Republicans broke with President Bush and joined Democrats to pass the bill with a 70 to 26 vote. It was a poignant sign that Republicans, particularly those facing reelection, aren't afraid to ignore Bush's wishes and provided hints that electoral politics have deeply fractured the Republican Party. The Los Angeles Times leads with a new inhouse poll that shows a majority of registered voters in California oppose the state Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriages and support a constitutional amendment to ban these types of unions.

    Thursday, May 22, 2008

    Other people's children

    The New York Times reports that an American airstrike in Iraq killed 8 civilians including two children. I am going to reprint the entire article below, but can we just think about this for a moment? Does anyone out there have children? If your children were killed in such a manner, you would never forget it, never forgive it, no amount of "compensation" would make it better, and you would live with it every day for the rest of your life. But we don't give a second thought when it happens to people on the other side of the world. It is truly shameful that the American people, myself included, have allowed this war to go on for so long while we play political games like we have with the Democratic nomination all these months--thus letting the Democratic controlled Congress off the hook all this time.

    PS--The photo above is not from this airstrike, but one last year. I can assure you there were plenty of images to choose from.

    More later. For now, please read:

    May 23, 2008

    U.S. Airstrike Kills 8 Civilians in Iraq

    BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said an American helicopter strike on Thursday killed eight civilians including two children and an elderly man during an assault near the northern Iraqi town of Baiji.

    American officials confirmed that two children had died in an American assault on Sunni insurgent suspects in the area and expressed regret. Iraqi officials, however, said the incident was likely to stoke anti-American resentment.

    An Iraqi police official in Salahuddin Province said the American forces were carrying out an air assault in al-Mazraa village, near Baiji. He cited police officials in the village who said that the people were shot from the air while running away.

    The American military said the dead civilians were two children traveling in a car used by suspected insurgents who showed “hostile intent.”

    In a statement the military said it has begun an investigation, but said the targets of the operation were “known terrorists” and accused them of hiding behind civilians, “thereby endangering others around them.”

    It said the deaths happened during a raid on fighters belonging to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Sunni insurgent group in Iraq that American intelligence officials have said is led by foreigners.

    The American military statement said that the suspects targeted had been operating a weapons storage facility and were believed to be associated with a suicide bombing network, and a senior Qaeda “facilitator” who helped foreign fighters in Iraq.

    “Unfortunately, two children were killed when the other occupants of the vehicle in which they were riding exhibited hostile intent,” said the American statement, which was released in Baghdad.

    Col. Mudhir al-Qaysi, of the Baiji police, said: “Baiji policemen went to the scene and found the killed family unarmed, and the bodies were burned and torn apart.”

    Colonel Qaysi said the actions would reinforce the negative image of American forces locally. “The scene of the bodies is ugly and these acts are unacceptable,” he said. “We were hoping that the American army would seek to improve its image after many crimes carried out by its soldiers in Iraq.”

    The deaths came only days after widespread anger in Iraq over the admission that an American sniper used a Koran as target practice near Baghdad.

    American military officials say the sniper was disciplined and removed from Iraq but the Iraqi cabinet called for him to be prosecuted.

    President Bush made a personal apology to Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

    After the Baiji incident Col. Jerry O’Hara, an American military spokesman, said that the American-led coalition “sincerely regrets when any innocent civilians are injured that result from terrorist locating themselves in and around them. We take every precaution to protect innocent civilians and engage only hostile threats.”

    The deaths follow a similar incident south of Mosul on May 10 in which American-led forces, targeting aides of what the Americans called a Qaeda foreign facilitator, opened fire on a suspect’s vehicle.

    American officials said their soldiers fired three warning shots then opened fire when the driver refused to stop and they saw one man making “threatening movements.”

    The shots killed a woman and child, as well as two armed men inside the vehicle. On that occasion the American military also expressed regret for the death of innocent civilians “during our operations to rid Iraq of terrorists.”

    Update: Other People's Money One of the mysteries of the Iraq war is how little reaction there has been, in Congress and among the American people at large, to the incredible corruption and waste of taxpaper's money (not to mention waste of lives) that the war in Iraq represents. One of the leading reporters on that story has been my friend and colleague James Glanz, who reports on this once again in today's New York Times. In a piece entitled "Iraq Spending Ignored Rules, Pentagon Says," Glanz notes that an audit of $8.2 billion in taxpaper spending found that almost none of those outlays followed spending rules and that much of it was not accounted for. Few seem to give these kinds of stories more than a blink of an eye, even though we are constantly being told that there is not enough money for schools, transport, Medicare, etc. etc. War spending would seem to be a sacred cow, even in a nation where 2/3 of the population thinks the war in Iraq is a mistake. The lack of reaction reflects a strange passivity in a population that certainly is opinionated enough on any other subject you can name.

    Blog of Rights

    I learned today from the ubiquitous and all-knowing Glenn Greenwald that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has started a blog, with heavy emphasis on torture (does anyone still do that these days?) Anyway, since I am on three deadlines today and unlikely to do any serious blogging myself, please visit the ACLU's site, but y'all come back now!

    Update: Speaking of torture and the ACLU, the Washington Post today has a story about debates in the White House over "harsh interrogation" methods and how warnings about them were pretty much ignored--information that came to light in part because of memos released to the civil liberties organization (registration at the Post site probably required to read the story, but really, in this day and age any informed and concerned citizen should be registered at least on the sites of the Post as well as the New York and Los Angeles Times.) As for who won those debates, I will just say that FBI officials who raised concerns were more or less treated like they were patsies for the ACLU...

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    The dead Iraqi and the smiling woman

    The photo at the left is one of the most famous that came out of the Abu Ghraib scandal: A smiling Sabrina Harman next to the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, who died after being hung by the arms in a shower by interrogators after he was arrested for allegedly providing explosives to insurgents. The New York Times Web site has a long investigative essay by filmmaker Errol Morris, whose new documentary about Abu Ghraib, "Standard Operating Procedure," opened recently. Morris' essay is essential, riveting reading for its deconstruction of the photograph, the smile, and the coverup of al-Jamadi's death that this and other photographs ultimately exposed. Most fascinating is Morris' quasi-defense of Harman, his reinterpretation of what the smile means, and the way that its constant publication and republication has helped to deflect attention from those really responsible for the crimes at Abu Ghraib.

    Update I: While we are on the subject of coverups in Iraq: Truthdig's "Truthdigger of the Week" is former Army sergeant Adrienne Kinne, who helped reveal that the military knew that Baghdad's Palestine Hotel had been targetted for strikes even though reporters were staying there. Two journalists were killed when the hotel was attacked, including one who filmed his own death.

    Update II: In an opinion piece in today's International Herald Tribune, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders writes about the staggering cost of war and military spending, much of which is dissipated in corruption and waste. I was particularly struck by a quote from President Dwight Eisenhower with which Sanders begins his piece, thoughts that no Republican today would dare to utter:

    "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

    News update: What's this? Can it be?? According to a story just in, Israel has been holding peace talks with Syria in Turkey. Can you believe this policy of appeasement? Don't the Israelis know that Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and that one should never talk to such folks? Don't the Israelis know about Hitler and Munich and Chamberlain and all that? Haven't they read their history books? Um, what's that you say? Oh. Right. Never mind!

    News update II: The New York Times today delves into this doublespeak by the Bush administration in an article entitled "Advice Given, but Not Always Followed, by White House."

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Clinton's cluster bombs

    Today's International Herald Tribune carries a report on a meeting in Dublin yesterday where diplomats from more than 100 countries discussed an international treaty to ban cluster bombs. As the article points out, the three biggest producers of cluster bombs--the United States, Russia, and China--have opposed such a ban and did not send representatives to Dublin. However, the ban has received the support of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon and Pope Benedict XVI; and according to the Trib story, nine British generals also backed the treaty in a letter published Monday in the London Times (the generals included former field commanders in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.)

    As I have mentioned earlier, in 2006 Hillary Clinton voted against an amendment introduced into the Senate by Dianne Feinstein that would have barred the Defense Department from buying, using, or transferring cluster bombs unless it could be guaranteed that they would not be used in or near civilian areas--as Israel did wantonly during its recent invasion of Lebanon. Seventy senators, including Hillary Clinton, voted against the ban; 30 senators, including Barack Obama, voted for it (see the roll call here.) Most observers assumed that Clinton did not want to be seen as criticizing Israel, a fair assumption given that she ran to downtown Manhattan to attend a pro-Israel rally right after the Lebanon invasion to show her unqualified support.

    This is the kind of "experience" and "judgement" that Hillary Clinton brings to the world stage. Thank God the primary campaign is almost over.

    Update I: Speaking of members of Congress and their voting patterns, historian Andrew Hunt--one of the blogosphere's best and brightest up-and-comers--talks today about North Carolina Representative Walter Jones and his fight to keep his seat after turning against the war in Iraq. You will remember that in the now distant past, Jones, a Republican, lobbied for renaming the French fries in the House dining hall "Freedom Fries" after the French expressed doubts about the wisdom of going to war. Jones later had a change of heart about the war (Andrew describes it in detail in his post.) That principled stand led conservative Republicans to oppose him in the North Carolina Congressional primary earlier this month, unsuccessfully as it turned out--yet another bad sign for the party's changes this fall. Hillary Clinton, of course, has yet to express any remorse over her vote to authorize the war, which is one reason why she will not become president of the United States any time soon.

    Update II:
    Dan Clery, Science's deputy European news editor, reports (see below) that he has completed the 10 km run for diabetes, but I will keep his widget up a few more days as I see he has not yet met his target (see column on the left.)

    Dan sez:

    "I completed the Woodbridge 10 km race on Sunday with a time of 55 minutes. At this rate of slowing, by the time I'm 54 I'll be doing it at walking pace.
    Anyway, many many thanks to all those who supported the run with donations to Diabetes UK. If you still want to contribute, the website will continue to take donations for another 2 months. Just click on:

    Update on cluster bombs: May 28: News report emphasize Britain's abandonment of it's U.S. ally on this issue, Gordon Brown has instructed government negotiators to drop opposition to the cluster bomb ban.

    Monday, May 19, 2008

    The ignorance of poverty and the poverty of ignorance

    Hillary Clinton was very proud of her big primary win in West Virginia, especially her very high support among what she called "hard working Americans, white Americans" (and no, I don't think this was some sort of slip of the tongue, I think she was just revealing her true thinking to us--more below.) Hillary is expected to win big in Kentucky on Tuesday, and I am sure that once again she will tell us how "proud" she is of that victory.

    Frankly, I don't think she should be so proud of winning big in two states with the highest levels of ignorance in the nation. Now, when I say ignorance, I don't mean that the white working people of West Virginia and Kentucky lack knowledge and wisdom about what it is to be poor and to struggle to make a living all one's life. In those departments, working class people of all colors generally know more and have a better understanding than middle and upper class folks, and maybe even have fewer illusions about government and the capitalist system (these are all generalizations, of course, and even stereotypes, but they serve a purpose in making the point.)

    Yet when it comes to understanding what is going on in the world outside and beyond one's own limited circumstances, I think there is a good argument that having a college education is a good indicator. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, West Virginia ranks 51st in percentage of people 25 years and older who have a college degree, with only about 16%; Kentucky ranks 48th with about 19%. New York and California have 29% and 28%, respectively, and Massachusetts has 35.5% (all states that Clinton has won, agreed, but in which she also kept the pandering level down and campaigned intelligently--more on that below.)

    To many, even to raise these issues smacks of elitism, and much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama seems to have greater appeal to young, college educated people and of course African-Americans. Yet are we not at a point in history where a little bit of knowledge might be preferable to the kind of cluelessness and ignorance demonstrated by the presidency of George W. Bush? Now, Bush has two college degrees, and while he was not a very good student, he certainly is not stupid in the sense of being uneducated--rather, his is the kind of willful stupidity that I suspect results from a conscious choice to remain ignorant, indeed to make ignorance a virtue. This is the kind of stupidity one sees in people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, as well as their avid followers.

    Indeed, stupidity can be seen as an existential issue: Bush's election and re-election over 8 years could be understood as roughly 50% of the American people wanting a president who is at least as stupid as they are, and roughly 50% wanting a president at least as smart as they are. It all comes down to whether we want to intelligently solve our problems or bury our heads in the sand.

    Although Bush's stupidity represents a choice, the situation in places like West Virginia and Kentucky is probably much more complicated. The kind of ignorance that stems from lack of educational opportunities can seem like stupidity, and perhaps sometimes is, but it is not necessary willful and intractable--even if some politicians might try to exploit it for their advantage.

    As I have said in previous posts, there is a big difference between Clinton and Obama in one key aspect: The degree to which they pandered to ignorance and stupidity. As Obama increasingly threatened her chances, Clinton increasingly pandered to the worst in Americans, exploiting their racism and (unsuccessfully as it turns out) their desire for quick fixes like a summer gas tax holiday. Amazingly, she has by and large failed, even though her opportunism and pandering began long before the campaign.

    Take Iraq: It was clear to millions of us on the eve of the 2003 invasion that the Bush administration was determined to invade the country no matter what the facts, and we were skeptical about the justifications given (including whether Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction, for which there was no smoking gun evidence at the time.) When Clinton voted to authorize the war in Iraq, she failed to join the nearly two dozen fellow Democrats who were clearly skeptical and voted against the amendment. This was certainly not because she had better information than they did (in fact we now know that she did not even bother to read the entire intelligence estimate on which the argument for war was based); she voted for the amendment because she had already decided to run for president by then and figured she would do better among the very white working class voters whose ignorance of the facts about the Iraqi situation Bush himself was already counting on. Had she realized that voting for the war would be a serious liability later on, she certainly would have found the "courage" that opponents like Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, and even the Republican Lincoln Chafee managed to muster in that time of hysteria and flag waving.

    (I guess I don't need to say that one is only courageous when taking a principled stand entails real risks? In Lincoln Chafee's case, the Democrats thanked him in 2006 by putting up a mediocre candidate and kicking him out of office.)

    Several years have now gone by, and Clinton is still depending on the ignorance and gullibility of the white working class folks of states like West Virginia and Kentucky who have also disproportionately sent their sons and daughters to fight and die in Iraq--depending on them to help her make her last gasp arguments for why she should be given the Democratic nomination in the face of the victory of Barack Obama, who has refrained admirably from pandering to the lingering ignorance and stupidity of the American people. In doing so, Obama has judged correctly that Americans are not as stupid and ignorant as they once were: Eight years of George Bush have been a true education.

    And this is the real point: The Democratic Party always has a choice about what kind of politics it wants to pursue. There is the politics of opportunism, pandering, and triangulation, which takes people "where they are at" and tries to propel politicians into office by appealing to the worst in the electorate; and then there is the politics of education, persuasion, and appealing to Americans' better nature. Clintonism represents the former strategy, and Obamism, so far at least, has relied mostly on the latter strategy. What happens next depends not so much on what Obama does or does not do, but whether political activists and others who care deeply about the future of their country take advantage of the opportunities this rare moment in history can offer.

    Update I: In an opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times, columnist Gregory Rodriguez also explores the meaning of Clinton's appeal to white voters. Rodriguez suggests that Clinton's appeal to this group in part reflects its insecurities in the face of the demographic changes occurring in the United States (remember the old racist adage? "If you're white, you're right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're Black, stay back." Perhaps not so true nowadays.) I find his message a bit mixed, but agree with the ending:

    "Like black or Latino activists who insist that a particular congressional district should be represented by one of their own, the disgruntled white working-class, non-college-educated voters might be demanding that their majority status still translate into something at least symbolically meaningful to them.
    But that doesn't make it right. No matter who wins the presidency, there is one thing we ought to learn from this campaign. In our rapidly diversifying nation, where we are all becoming minorities, the idea that any given group has an inalienable claim on a particular political seat, appointment or office based on demographics has officially outlived its usefulness.
    Romantic notions of ethnic self-determination and multiculturalism may have once served to dismantle empires and garner attention for forgotten minorities. But today they are more likely to nurture the kind of white nationalism on which Clinton has placed her last political hopes."

    Update II: On his blog Andrew's Tiki Lounge, historian Andrew Hunt discusses Bush's "appeasement" speech and raises the interesting historical point that the senator who wished he had talked to Hitler was a Republican--albeit one with a reputation as a humanitarian reformer. Check it out.

    Update III: I put the above points much more succinctly in a comment on Marc Cooper's blog post today about John McCain:

    "The contest between Obama and McCain may end up being close, because traditionally about half of Americans vote for a president at least as stupid as they are and about half vote for a president at least as smart as they are. It’s an existential choice, really, because every American is capable of being stupid or smart. The one thing Obama has got going for him is that this time around a higher percentage seem to realize how stupid they have been the past 8 years."

    Update IV: The May 31 International Herald Tribune has an opinion piece by Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason," about the false and dishonest use of the term "elitism" by Hillary Clinton as well as those on the political right. The title of Jacoby's piece is "Best is the new worst." Well worth reading.

    Sunday, May 18, 2008

    Sunny Sunday in Paris

    Sunday in Paris would not be complete without a walk along the Seine River and a "manif" (ie manifestation, French for a demonstration.)
    Back to more serious blogging on Monday, with an international perspective of course.

    PS--My Boston University student Joseph Caputo, who started the blog Science Metropolis this last semester as a directed studies student under my supervision, gets a writeup today in the Boston Globe. The irony of this is that he taught me how to blog rather than the other way around--my role was to make sure his posts were relevant, help him with his writing, and give him guidance on expanding his audience. A real success story!

    Photos: Michael Balter

    Friday, May 16, 2008

    Unidentified Flying Obamas?

    Well, I just returned to Paris from Boston, kicked up my feet on my Eames ottoman and turned on CNN International just in time to catch the tail end of Larry King's program on UFOs (featuring, as usual, a coterie of fantasists with little or no rebuttal from more scientifically informed folks.) Of course, as we all know, the government has been covering up the evidence of alien visitations since at least the 1950s; and as we also know, every new president, when he (or she) comes into office, is given the codes to our nuclear arsenal and a briefing on the real truth about flying saucers.

    This means that before we choose a new president, we would be wise to give some thought to which one of the three candidates is best equipped, in terms of maturity, wisdom, and the kind of universal outlook that sensitive intergalactic relations require, to handle the startling truth about UFOs--Clinton, Obama, or McCain. I've given this some careful thought. Hillary Clinton, of course, probably already knows about this from her time as first lady (Bill's discretion is not to be counted on, of course), and, if given the opportunity, might try to get the aliens seated at the Democratic Convention this August. McCain, whose close association with Bush administration policies--including its obsession with secrecy--is well known, would probably pull the veil of secrecy on the alien presence even tighter, although his moderate stand on immigration suggests that he might at least tolerate their presence and not declare interstellar war on them.

    That leaves Obama, whose somewhat mild suggestions that we should be talking to Iran and other hostile states was attacked head on yesterday by Bush in a speech to the Israeli Knesset. Could Obama's apparent softness on potential alien invaders leave earth at the mercy of superior beings with advanced technology? Possibly. On the other hand, an Obama presidency might be just what is needed to unite the entire Milky Way. Food for thought.

    Thursday, May 15, 2008

    Jazz interlude: Joshua Redman

    I will be 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean between Boston and Paris this evening, so in the meantime please enjoy some of saxophonist Joshua Redman's music, which you can play on his MySpace page.

    For the next three months, blogging will be from Europe and from a European perspective--but no worries, you can take the American out of America, but you can't take the America out of the American.

    À bientôt...

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Obama, Hamas, and the Jews

    As we all know, Clinton trounced Obama in West Virginia last night. Sadly, as Patrick Healy put it in the New York Times today, "racial considerations emerged as an unusually salient factor." Racism is certainly not the only reason that Obama lost, but the Clinton campaign has done everything it can to make sure that race was indeed an important factor in this campaign. No matter (at least for the moment.) The "facts on the ground" are that Obama has the nomination locked up, as demonstrated by the flood of superdelegates and other endorsements coming over to his side even as he was losing this latest primary (and the convincing Childers victory in Mississippi demonstrates that playing the race card doesn't always work, even though Republicans did their best to tie this Democratic candidate to Obama; for some interesting thoughts on what it all means, read Chip Collis in today's Huffington Post.)

    This blog has been very tough on Hillary, but it is time to start raising some questions about Obama. In yesterday's Times, Larry Rohter reported on Obama's efforts to assure American Jews that he is Israel's unwavering friend ("Confronting Questions, Obama Assures Jews of His Support.") Of course, it is probably very difficult for anyone to be elected president of the United States without going through this particular ritual (for a detailed account of how this ritual is conducted, see Glenn Greenwald's post on the subject yesterday.) Yet those of us who have harshly criticized Clinton for opportunism and pandering would be hypocritical if we don't call Obama on the carpet for the same tactics, even if we might understand the reasons all too well.

    One key litmus test for Jewish support, it would seem, is to refuse to talk to Hamas. And according to Rohter's article, Obama is carefully toeing the line:

    "Mr. Obama has sought to distance himself from the diplomacy of Mr. Carter. The former president, who has called Mr. Obama’s candidacy 'extraordinary' but has stopped short of endorsing him, has also angered Jewish leaders by using the word “apartheid” to refer to some of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

    “'I have a fundamental difference with President Carter and his decision to meet with Hamas,' Mr. Obama said last month in a speech to Jewish leaders in Philadelphia. 'We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction.'”

    Rohter also reports that Robert Malley, who was an advisor on Mideast affairs to Bill Clinton and has come under intense criticism for coauthoring a cogent analysis in the New York Review of Books of the failure of the Camp David talks to achieve a peace deal (as well as other more recent sins of less than 100% support for Israeli positions), "severed his ties to the Obama campaign after he learned that The Times of London was preparing to publish an article disclosing direct contacts he had with Hamas."

    (This episode is reminiscent of the Samantha Power episode, in which Obama jettisoned one of the most eloquent and qualified advocates of a principled human rights stand because she called Hillary Clinton a "monster"--not a very smart thing to do, perhaps, but certainly understandable given Clinton's increasingly divisive behavior.)

    The truth is that there can be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless everyone is talking to everyone else. Indeed, Jimmy Carter's visits with Hamas leaders and other enemies of Israel is precisely what anyone who is serious about peace in the Middle East should be doing. And hypocrisy abounds in this particular debate, because in fact both Israel and the United States have always had back channels communications with all actors in the conflict, and always will.

    I said that talking to Hamas is what anyone who is serious about making peace would do, no matter how fiery the group's rhetoric about destroying Israel (something it would never be capable of doing, given unwavering American support for that country's security.) But in my view, Israel is not serious about making peace--not at all. And it never has been. Essential reading in this regard is the book Israel/Palestine : How to end the War of 1948 by the late Tanya Reinhart, in which--among other things--she deconstructs the Camp David deal and undermines the myth that this represented anything approaching a generous offer on the part of Israel (Reinhart also demonstrates how Israel's version of what happened was adopted unchallenged by news media around the world, even while many Israeli news outlets provided a much more nuanced and honest view.)

    My purpose here, however, is not to write a treatise on Mideast politics. It is to say that if Obama wants to be the president who finally helps resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict (thus, by the way, making Americans much safer from terrorist attacks, since this festering sore is the number one recruiting tool for the Osama bin Ladens of this world), sooner or later he will have to stop toeing the line of Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel and strike out on an independent course. That means he will have to depart from the failures of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to tell Israel bluntly that it has to give up the settlements in the West Bank--settlements that are the smoking gun evidence that Israel hopes to take over most of Palestine and leave the Palestinians with little or nothing.

    I think that most American Jews now realize that peace will only come with a just settlement of this conflict, one that recognizes Palestinian aspirations for freedom and independence. But for decades, Israeli leaders have played American Jews for suckers, taking advantage of the ignorance of most of them about what is really going on in the region and enticing them into complicity with cynical, oppressive policies towards the Palestinians (more on this in a future post.)

    Obama has a chance to be the third two-term president in a row. The last two presidents, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, have utterly failed to resolve the Mideast conflict despite the 16 years between them they had to do it. Obama could succeed where they failed--but only if he tells American Jews what they need to hear, not what (some of them) want to hear.

    PS--You can find more comment on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians in my earlier post on this subject, "Passing over Passover."

    Update: John Kerry has a lengthy defense of Obama against Republican misrepresentations of his position on Israel and Palestine in today's Huffington Post. Although I think Obama is tilting way too much in Israel's direction, I agree that it is odious of Republicans to exploit the issue and lie about his position--as Kerry demonstrates they have.

    Photo: Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    I am woman, hear me roar

    This morning's Los Angeles Times features an article from West Virginia by staff writer Faye Fiore, entitled "In West Virginia, women for Hillary Clinton haven't quite given up the dream." As Fiore puts it:

    "Two candidates are vying for the same moment in history. For every point of pride welling up in those who hadn't thought they might see a black man become president, there is a counterpoint of disappointment for those who thought it was finally a woman's turn."

    It certainly is about time we had a woman president. And Hillary Clinton might have been that woman--had she not followed the advice of men like Bill Clinton and Mark Penn and run a dirty, macho campaign, and had she not voted for the war in Iraq because she thought she had to be seen as "tough" to be a viable presidential candidate, and had she not tossed back whiskeys and talked about shooting ducks or whatever behind her family's cottage and ducking sniper fire in Bosnia. It could be argued that the most serious drug problem in the world today is testosterone, and having a woman president just might have provided an antidote--if it were the right woman. You don't have to be a diehard sociobiologist or evolutionary psychologist to see that whether for biological or cultural reasons or both, women generally tend to be better at reconciliation and compromise than men, qualities we badly need on today's world stage.

    But of course, I am not being realistic: These are not the qualities we are looking for in a Commander in Chief (sound military trumpets here.) On the other hand, in the race between Clinton and Obama, the more "macho" of the two is losing, and the more "feminine" of the two is winning. That is grounds for hope.

    Update: Clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat, writing in today's Huffington Post, takes up some of the same issues in a piece called "Revenge of the Wimp Factor." Ducat starts off as follows:

    "What has become disturbingly evident in the last few months of the primary campaign is that Hillary Clinton is not merely carrying the torch of the 'old politics.' She is also the ironic bearer of the old masculinity, a knuckle-dragging version of manhood that is defined in terms of domination. In this view, 'the man' is whoever can stick it to the other."

    The rest of the piece might be a little over the top, but worth reading anyway.

    Photo: Dale Sparks/Associated Press

    Monday, May 12, 2008

    Future waves

    I've been teaching journalism at Boston University this past semester, which has been a terrific experience, not least because I have had a great deal of contact with young adults just starting out in their lives and careers. Today the "BU Today" Web site posted the first in a series of short videos with graduating seniors. This one features a couple who met the week before their very first classes at BU and have been together ever since. I think it is worth watching, if nothing more than as a reminder to those of us a little further along in life of the hopes and enthusiasm with which so many young people start off. Is it too much to hope that these two will not end up as cynical about life in America as many of us more seasoned folks have?

    On that note: Regular readers of this blog will notice that the Hillary Deathwatch widget is now gone. That's because the Hillary Deathwatch is now over, and the McCain Deathwatch has begun.

    Update: The Huffington Post today has two interesting posts on the Clinton-Obama campaign, one from the always interesting Barbara Ehrenreich about Hillary's taking feminism in the wrong direction and the other from Robert Creamer giving 10 reasons why Obama beat Clinton. Check it out.

    Photo: Jochen Dieckfoss