Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back in the U.S., back in the U.S., back in the U.S.S.A.!

That's United Silly States of America, of course. I just spent my first night on American soil in 4 months, and I can tell you that I slept the sleep of the just. The governor of my birth-state may be just one skipped heartbeat away from the presidency, the entire Republican convention is organizing to save New Orleans, and the weather here in Boston is sunny and beautiful.

But it was good to get out of the U.S. for a while, if nothing else than to soak up that international perspective that makes this blog so witty and urbane. While away I managed to make it to Barcelona, London, Devon, Bristol, the new excavations at Stonehenge, and Edinburgh, the latter just in time to catch the end of the international festival and a performance of Matthew Bourne's superb all-dancing version of "Dorian Gray," which could also be called "Dorian Gray Goes Gay." (I am sure Oscar Wilde would approve.) By the way, if anyone here has never been to Edinburgh, be sure to put it on your list of must-visits; Edinburgh is one of Europe's, if not the world's, greatest cities.

I have returned to the U.S. at a fun time, however, because it is oh so enjoyable to watch how stunned so many Republicans are at the very big mistake McCain has made in picking Sarah Palin. Remind me what the reasoning was? Oh right, she is going to help pick off those bitter Hillary supporters who are so angry at how their candidate was treated, that, in a show of solid sisterhood, they will vote for McCain and Palin, both of whom are against reproductive rights and for reversing Roe v. Wade, thereby setting the women's movement back 100 years. What's that you say? Only right-wing women opposed to abortion will vote for Palin in the end?

There must be another reason then. Oh, right, it's to shore up the Christian evangelist vote because Palin is even more righteous on values issues than McCain. What's that you say? Conservative Christian voters will vote for McCain anyway, and besides all the pundits say that they are no longer the formidable, decisive force they were during the last two elections?

Okay, then it must be because she hunts moose and is opposed to gun-control. What's that? Hunters and gun nuts are already committed to McCain?

Well, I am running out of ideas. Maybe they just didn't want Obama to corner the market on "inexperience."

By the way, the best way to counter any theoretical boost that Palin might give to McCain's attempts to pull in disaffected Clinton supporters would be to put Hillary out there and let her take the biggest shots at Sarah. And I am glad to hear that Obama is going to start hitting McCain on abortion rights issues this week, given consistent polls showing that a majority of both men and women in the U.S. support women's reproductive choice.

More on Sarah: Talking Points Memo delves into the allegations that Palin tried to get her brother-in-law fired and then fired his boss when he wouldn't do it. If this story pans out in the long run, could be bad for McCain--just how much vetting did his staff do, anyway?

Still more: Robert Creamer in The Huffington Post covers the bases very nicely in a long and satisfying analysis.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Time to play the age card

Since I was born in Alaska (before it was a state, even) I suppose I should be thrilled that a fellow citizen of my native state would become president if John McCain dies in office--which the actuarial tables say he probably will. But will my voice be entirely lost in the blogosphere if I say that this is one of the cheapest political stunts that this cheap bunch of political dead-enders has visited on the American people? After banging on about Obama's alleged lack of "experience," McCain taps for his VP someone who can't claim any relevant experience at all--even if she has taken some good stands on ethics violations in her own state.

So, picking Sarah Palin is nothing more than a sop to women voters, especially those who are still nursing their pain over Hillary's loss. But much as I despise Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin is not her--and I have enough faith that American voters, especially women voters, will see the difference.

Update: Ooh, the Sarah Palin hit pieces are flying already. This one from Chris Kelly at the Huffington Post. And a nice analysis from John Nichols at The Nation. And a typically acid post from Marc Cooper.

More Update: It may be my imagination, but as I watch a live broadcast of Sarah Palin speaking to the rally in Dayton, Ohio, is the fidgeting John McCain standing beside her already wondering if he has made a big mistake?

Palin punditry: All together now, how do we describe McCain's VP choice? "Bold, but risky." Those words are echoed more or less literally in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Providence Journal, CBC News, and even in media outlets in the U.K. and China (forgive me for not taking the time to provide the links.) A few even say that it reflects the "maverick" John McCain we've heard so much about. So the McCain campaign has succeeded in getting the media to see this as a bold move rather than a stupid, cynical, callous one that plays with the lives and futures of not only Americans but all those around the world who are affected by what America does--all for the sake of getting elected and maintaining today's economic and political status quo, which is what the McCain campaign is really all about. Seven houses for them, no houses for us. As for risky, let's hope so.

Is Putin right that Georgia's South Ossetia adventure was a U.S. election ploy?

The Bush administration, chiefly through its spokesperson Dana Perino, is having a lot of fun debunking Russian "Prime Minister" Vladimir Putin's suggestion that Georgia's recent actions were a put up job to help John McCain look like a tough leader. Putin does not seem to have any real evidence for the claim, and it does seem unlikely, at least in the way Putin imagines it.

But the flap serves to obfuscate a more important question, one that many asked some weeks ago but has not been answered, at least to my knowledge: Did the Bush administration and/or John McCain know in advance about Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s plans to try to retake South Ossetia, and did they approve of them? We do know that both Dick Cheney and John McCain have close ties with Saakashvili, and some might find it hard to believe that they were not aware of such a dramatic move--as well as the likely reaction by Russia.

Indeed, anyone who tacitly approved the Georgian incursion would be guilty of very bad judgement, even if it did give McCain the opportunity to sound "tough" aftewards. As I said at the time, Obama missed an opportunity to clearly distinguish his foreign policy approach from McCain's.

Speaking of Obama vs. McCain: I agree with those who think his acceptance speech in Denver was one of the best in many decades, and it may well do the job of getting his campaign on a more aggressive footing. But while he did more than before to draw the line in the sand between himself and McCain, he and other Democrats at the convention largely missed a very big opportunity to hammer Bush-McCain one one crucial point, as Glenn Greenwald argues in his Salon column: The extraordinary attempts of the Bush administration to ride roughshod over the U.S. Constitution since 9/11. For example, Obama could have made much out of the different reactions that he and McCain had to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boumedienne v. Bush, which upheld the right of habeas corpus for prisoners held at Guantanamo. As you will recall, Obama praised the decision and McCain condemned it, calling it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country"--that is, McCain, in essence, took the position that the President of the United States has the right to put people in jail and throw away the key, with no right of redress or court review. Obama could have put himself forward as the candidate devoted to protecting American freedoms, had he wanted to and had he dared to.

My next post will be from Boston, in the belly of the beast.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to do laundry 101

After a brief stopover in Paris, I will be returning to Boston this weekend to get ready for the new semester at Boston University, where I am teaching science and medical journalism this year. Good news: There is a good chance that my students will show up to class in clean clothes, thanks to this university tutorial on how to do laundry.

Check it out--you might learn something!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Afghanistan: Still on the back pages

The news media, and Americans in general, can perhaps be excused for being distracted by the Democratic convention in Denver while very important developments go on elsewhere in the world. This blog has been banging on regularly about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and believe me, I wish it weren't necessary. But what is to be done when the "paper of record," the New York Times, continues to bury important stories on the back pages of its print edition, and places them way down on the list of stories on its Web site?

As I have pointed out before, this is the treatment the Times and many other mainstream media outlets routinely give to the repeated episodes of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes based on limited and often faulty intelligence. But a story half-buried on page A9 of today's Times, by the superb reporter Carlotta Gall, deserves much more attention. The article, entitled "Afghans Want a Deal on Foreign Troops," relates that the civilian casualties have prompted the Afghan Council of Ministers to "review the presence of international forces and agreements with foreign allies, including NATO and the United States..."

Now, I realize that the stance of the Afghan government is a minor matter in a country where the United States and its military are calling all the "shots," as it were, including who lives and who dies in the "war against terror." But this particular move by the Council of Ministers appears to be somewhat more serious, according to Gall's report. Some key grafs:

The ministers demanded a status of forces agreement, which would stipulate that the authority and responsibilities of international forces be negotiated, and they said that aerial bombing, illegal detentions and house raids by international forces must be stopped.

The declaration came after several military operations involving American forces resulted in heavy civilian casualties, most recently airstrikes in western Afghanistan on Friday that killed more than 90 people, most of them women and children, according to a government commission. The United States military is investigating the latest episode; it earlier said the airstrikes had killed 5 civilians and 25 militants.

As security has deteriorated in the country and economic conditions have worsened, the government and its international partners have encountered rising popular dissatisfaction.

Heavy-handed bombing raids and house raids, which are seen as culturally unacceptable by many Afghans who guard their privacy fiercely, and the detention of hundreds of suspects for years without trial at the Bagram air base and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have stirred up Afghans’ strong independent streak and ancient dislike of invaders.

The article goes on to describe the legal and diplomatic basis of current U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, making it clear that they are pretty much ad hoc arrangements. This means, in a nutshell, that the Afghan government's decision to review them should be taken very seriously, as it could result in dramatic changes in the way the U.S. does business in that part of the world. By the way, the Times has a long history of burying Carlotta Gall's important stories from Afghanistan. In her new book "The Dark Side," New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer describes how Gall fought to get the Times to print her stories about Afghan detainees who had been killed by U.S. interrogators in the early days after 9/11; the stories were delayed for a long time because Times editors could not believe that Americans would do such things (one of these cases became the basis of the Academy Award winning documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side.")

While we are discussing the Times and its coverage, I want to mention another story in today's paper that really makes me want to put my journalism professor hat on. The article, entitled "U.N. Envoy's Ties to Pakistani Are Questioned," by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti, reports that Bush administration officials are very upset with U.N. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for some apparently private contacts he has had with Pakistani presidential contender Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. My point is not to get into the issues involved, nor to defend Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and long a faithful member of the Bush administration and defender of its policies; but a careful read of this article should make clear to anyone that the story was nicely planted in the Times by Bush officials and that Cooper and Mazzetti, at least in this particular piece, served as little more than stenographers for their sources.

Of course, all sources have their motivations for leaking information, and consumers of journalism should always be asking themselves what those motivations might be. Yet it is not reasonable to expect all readers to have the sophistication to do so, which creates a certain amount of responsibility on the part of reporters to provide some guidance and insight about why and how they got the story in the first place. Just a couple of examples of what I mean, from the story:

Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. Other officials said Mr. Khalilzad had planned to meet with Mr. Zardari privately next Tuesday while on vacation in Dubai, in a session that was canceled only after Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, learned from Mr. Zardari himself that the ambassador was providing “advice and help.”

“Can I ask what sort of ‘advice and help’ you are providing?” Mr. Boucher wrote in an angry e-mail message to Mr. Khalilzad. “What sort of channel is this? Governmental, private, personnel?” Copies of the message were sent to others at the highest levels of the State Department; the message was provided to The New York Times by an administration official who had received a copy.

This is a clear case where the reporters got an enormous amount of help from a number of sources, so much so that it becomes clear those sources did everything they could to make sure that the story got printed. Here's a little more:

The conduct by Mr. Khalilzad, who is Afghan by birth, has also raised hackles because of speculation that he might seek to succeed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad, who was the Bush administration’s first ambassador to Afghanistan, has also kept in close contact with Afghan officials, angering William Wood, the current American ambassador, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter of Mr. Khalilzad’s contacts. Mr. Khalilzad has said he has no plans to seek the Afghan presidency.

The Times, along with some other newspapers, has begun "explaining" why sources are not identified in this boilerplate fashion, a practice that--if I recall correctly--began after the scandals involving the faulty reporting of Judith Miller and other reporters on WMD in Iraq. But this hackneyed phrase, which follows nearly every anonymous quote in the paper, is in reality an obfuscation. The source in question did not speak anonymously because "they were not authorized to speak publicly," but because, in this particular example, they clearly did not want to let it be known that they actually were speaking because they had been authorized to do so at the highest levels of the Bush administration! Is that not very clear? If not, it should be, and especially to sophisticated reporters--who have a duty to signal this truth in some way to their readers, even if it might dry up some of their higher-level sources. As terrific journalists like Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh have demonstrated time and time again, the best stories do not rely on them anyway.

Photo: Hamid Karzai/R.D. Ward, Wikimedia Creative Commons

PS--By the way, those concerned about the looming disaster in Afghanistan should find the news that Karzai allegedly pardoned men convicted of a gang rape, as reported Sunday in the U.K. daily The Independent, very disturbing indeed.

Update: The United Nations has concluded that U.S. and Afghan forces killed 90 civilians, including 60 children, in recent airstrikes, backing up the Afghan government account, reports the New York Times online this morning East Coast U.S. time.

More back page (August 27): This time on page A11, the Times reports that U.S. officers who allegedly murdered Iraqi detainees in cold blood will likely be charged with murder. The Times is not alone in putting both Afghanistan and Iraq on the back pages, but it does not serve its readership well by doing so.

Other important news: Credit to the Times here, for reporting that the Israeli group Peace Now has released a report concluding that settlement building activity in the West Bank has nearly doubled in the last year. Condi Rice is quoted as saying, as she always does about illegal settlement construction, that it is "not helpful" to peace prospects. What is also not helpful is allowing Israel to continue its current policies with no serious and credible rebuke from the U.S.

Surge not working (redux): A month ago I pointed out that this claim was no longer valid, and sadly there is more evidence against it every day--including today's bomb killing 25 police recruits in Diyala province. Obama and the Democrats have largely been avoiding talking about Iraq lately, but time to get back on message: Bush and McCain wrong, Obama right, about the war as well as the surge.

Milestone: This blog welcomed its 10,000th unique visitor today, since I started it last April. Thanks again to friends, readers, and commenters.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Blacks Debate Civil Rights Risk in Obama’s Rise

Yes, that is the headline of a story in the New York Times today. Here are a few key grafs, which show that the story is indeed about what the headline says it is about:

Mr. Obama has received overwhelming support from black voters, many of whom believe he will help bridge the nation’s racial divide. But even as they cheer him on, some black scholars, bloggers and others who closely follow the race worry that Mr. Obama’s historic achievements might make it harder to rally support for policies intended to combat racial discrimination, racial inequities and urban poverty.

They fear that growing numbers of white voters and policy makers will decide that eradicating racial discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity have largely been done.

“I worry that there is a segment of the population that might be harder to reach, average citizens who will say: ‘Come on. We might have a black president, so we must be over it,’ ” said Mr. Harrison, 59, a sociologist at Howard University and a consultant for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies here.

There can be no doubt that racism and its economic and psychological effects are still very much part of American life. But is this not really going too far? By this logic, any advances for Blacks in America could be interpreted the same way--that no more needs to be done--so perhaps the best way to bring about change is to, um, not let any change happen?

Okay, I am being facetious, but it seems to me that this kind of navel-gazing is just what we don't need in the civil rights struggle. How about a little more struggle and a little less whining about setbacks like, um, having a Black president. Obama himself has set a good example in that regard.

Denver doldrums: While I am not as worried as some people about the tightening of the electoral race, we certainly do not want to see the trend continue--and there is some legitimate worry out there that this might happen. Drew Westen at The Huffington Post says that there are two Obamas, one like John Kennedy and one like John Kerry, and the election may depend on which one gets the upper hand. Westen's piece is worth reading for his excellent analysis of where Kerry went wrong, and where Obama could go wrong still. Indeed, one huge mistake, unfortunately too late to correct, is to let the Clintons run roughshod over the convention and make it about them. This could turn into an embarrassing display of Obama weakness, and I am sure the Republicans are licking their lips over the spectacle.

More on race and Obama: This time from the always thoughtful Bob Herbert, in an opinion piece entitled "The Dog That Isn't Barking." The bottom line would appear to be that just getting Obama elected, and keeping him from being assassinated, would be an important advance for civil rights--and is enough for anyone to be worrying about right now.

More advice for Obama: This time from Paul Krugman, who argues that all the Democrats have to do to win is make the contest one between their party and the Republicans, rather than a personality contest between Obama and McCain. Give it a read.

Update (August 26): From all accounts of the Denver convention's first day, it looks as though the Obama campaign has heeded the advice of many bloggers and commentators and gone on the offensive against McCain, as well as the expected charm offensive about Obama himself. And Ted Kennedy's dramatic appearance takes just enough attention off of the narcissistic Clintons to redress that balance as well, at least for the moment. Let's hope things continue in this vein throughout the week.

More Update: My friend Marc Cooper has a much bleaker view of the convention's first day. I hope he's wrong, but I agree with his conclusion: Attack Mac!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hadrian and Antinous

I spent the afternoon at the British Museum today visiting the "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict" exhibition, which continues until October 26. It is well worth seeing, even if the presentation is somewhat superficial. One highlight for me was the display of a partial statue of the Roman emperor discovered recently at the site of Sagalassos in Turkey; I had visited the extensive excavations there a few years ago, before this particular find.

But the most interesting aspect of the exhibition was the considerable attention given to the story of Hadrian and the Greek Antinous, the emperor's male lover, who accidentally (maybe) drowned in the Nile--an event that sparked an Antinous cult all over the Mediterranean, which Hadrian encouraged (the cult seems to continue in some quarters even today.) Not only did the museum devote an entire room to the love story, but a statue of Antinous graced the entrance to the exhibition (see photo at right.) I noticed a few nervous parents trying to explain it all to their children, but the museum--and the British in general--deserve kudos for giving this ancient homosexual relationship prominence. The museum bookshop even carried several prominently displayed books about bisexuality in ancient times, which was more accepted than today (although only under certain circumstances; eg, the Romans thought it was fine as long as men engaging in same-sex behavior maintained their "virility.")

I wonder how an American museum would handle such a subject, or whether this aspect of Hadrian's life would be given more than a mention, if that? Many of today's curators are a timid lot, regularly caving in to pressure from Christian evangelists, "family values" groups, and other pressure groups, sometimes cancelling entire exhibitions due to political pressure.

Anyway, if you are in London between now and October, be sure to check it out.

Photo above: Statue of Antinous at the British Museum taken with my cell phone because I forgot to take my camera with me. French painter Édouard-Henri Avril did a much better job in this 19th century painting of Hadrian and Antinous in Egypt (Wikimedia Creative Commons.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Attack ads show wisdom of Obama position on campaign financing

I've been disappointed with a number of positions Barack Obama has taken over the past months, but the controversy over Obama's opting out of public financing for his presidential campaign left me yawning widely. Now the wisdom of his decision, and his rationale for it, is more clear than ever. The New York Times today (on page A14, unfortunately) reports that billionaire Harold Simmons donated $2.9 million to the "conservative" American Issues Project on August 12, and now that organization has committeed $2.8 million to run the above ad linking Obama with former Weatherperson William Ayers. Simmons previously donated $2 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose attack ads against John Kerry in 2004 were just as dishonest as this new ad against Obama.

Obama and his campaign staff clearly saw the folly of restricting their campaign spending, despite the huge amount of money they have raised, leaving McCain and his supporters free to finance millions of dollars in attack ads while playing innocent (note, in the Times article, the clear ties between the American Issues Project and the McCain campaign, despite various denials.) What I would like to see now is the Obama campaign get down and dirty with McCain, with a series of attack ads of its own--the one difference being that all the campaign has to do is tell the truth about McCain. No lying, no distortions needed.

PS--I think Biden was a good choice. More on that soon, that is, if I feel I have anything original or unusual to say about it. The blogosphere is a crowded place!

Important Update (August 27): The New York Times reports that the Obama campaign is taking an aggressive stance against this ad, including challenging its legality. That's better than Kerry's ineffectual and tardy defense against the Swift-boat attacks. Simmons is clearly acting as an agent of the McCain campaign, since he is one of its major fundraisers.

Even progressives can get it wrong department: Jay Rosen at PressThink busts Mother Jones magazine for supposedly busting Obama for hyping his historical role. An interesting read.

Afghan civilian deaths: The New York Times sees fit to print on page A6 of its August 24 edition the news that Afghan president Hamid Karzai is putting the number of civilian deaths in a U.S. airstrike at up to 95. I would urge readers to peruse this particular article carefully, because between the lines it is easy to see the callousness and disregard for human life with which the "coalition" is mounting its operations in Afghanistan. Karzai has protested these civilian deaths time after time with little effect, making his leadership of the country a joke and the future of the military campaign there a looming quagmire for either President Obama or President McCain.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

China Wins Propaganda Gold; NBC Medals in Self-Censorship

I am in transit today between Bristol, Stonehenge and London, so today, courtesy of Blogger's email blogging facility, we have a "guest blog": New Yorker staff writer George Packer's "Interesting Times." Please read:

Because no Americans made it to the men's 1500-meter final, I had to stay up till 2:30 last night to see it on NBC. The premier event in track and field (always thrilling because it's 1200 meters of tactics giving way to 300 meters of all-out sprinting) was relegated to the late-late-show, after beach volleyball and BMX dirt bicycling. What else is new? James Fallows, who writes from China for the Atlantic, already warned us to expect highly nationalistic coverage of the Games, no matter whose broadcast; American television isn't even the worst.That's not the subject of today's complaint. Here's my complaint: the Beijing Games have not gone a-flop. They've been a huge success. I certainly don't begrudge the Chinese people their richly deserved kudos. What rankles me is that the Chinese government's extremely effective full-court press against any negative moment marring the coming-out party has hardly been remarked upon. Has NBC mentioned the blanket denial of citizens' petitions to protest? The old women sentenced to re-education camps for daring to complain about poor compensation for their destroyed houses? The arrests of activists, or even those seeking permission to protest, before and during the Games? While Mary Carrillo is checking out panda bears and kite-flying, and Bob Costas is coaxing Michael Phelps to share victim stories from his big-eared childhood, couldn't the network send a reporter to Beijing's designated protest zones, which remain completely empty by government fiat? My viewing has been less than complete, but I doubt I've missed any rigorous journalistic probing. The media's self-censorship runs too deep. I'm not asking NBC to spoil the fun. I'm pointing out how hugely successful the Chinese government's propaganda campaign has been. Again, no surprise. But do we have to be so helpful?

Wed, 20 Aug 2008 14:54:03 -0500


Update: Human Rights Watch concludes that allowing China to host the Olympics set human rights in that country back rather than forward.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Liberals freak out!

I'm still on holiday, and in transit from the Devon countryside to the big city of Bristol today, so just a quickie:

A post by Rebecca Curtis in The Huffington Post entitled "Summer Love, Fall Freak-Out: The Bradley Effect and Why Obama Will Lose Without Hillary" sums up the kind of panic spreading among some Obama supporters when they see the fluctuating presidential election polls. The Bradley Effect, as some will recall, refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial election, which Tom Bradley appeared to be winning handily according to the polls but lost by a wide margin. The received wisdom has always been that white voters somehow just couldn't bring themselves to vote for a Black man on election day, even though they intended to and told pollsters they would.

You will have to read Curtis' full post to get the flavor of this argument, which seems to have many Obama supporters freaked out despite the solidity of the most important polls of all: The electoral college vote, which has consistently put Obama way ahead week after week.

Of course, that too could change, but the important issue is: What should the Obama campaign be doing about the uncertainties and challenges of running against McCain? Too many well-meaning supporters are reaching for the kind of desperate, anything-to-win measures that are sure to be transparent to voters and undermine even further Obama's image as a bold leader who truly represents something different. His shifting positions on nearly every issue of the day, clearly influenced by the coterie of "advisors" around him (why is the role of an advisor nearly always to give bad advice?), have already done him damage, and handed McCain a lot of ammunition to use when the debates get underway.

And I find Curtis' post particularly objectionable, because it basically implies that Americans will simply find their inner racists on election day and pull the lever for McCain as if in some sort of spell. This ignores the enormous sea change in attitudes that allowed Obama to win the Democratic nomination, and most importantly, it ignores the important lesson that racism is best dealt with straight-on (as Obama has done when at his best), and not by shucking and jiving and pulling Hillarys out of hats.

More about Obama: For a healthier attitude towards the campaign and its challenges, see this commentary online in The Nation by Robert Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuvel. And for a different view from a different Balter, see the Comments section of this post. I would be interested in hearing from others as well!

Monday, August 18, 2008

La Grotte Chauvet: 10 years of research, but how old is it really?

In this week's issue of Science, I write about the last decade of research at Chauvet Cave in southern France, where spectacular drawings of horses, lions, rhinos, bison, bears and other creatures have been radiocarbon dated to as old as 32,000 years ago (the actual calendar ages are probably even several years earlier, but there is no agreed upon radiocarbon calibration curve for dates older than 26,000 years--although scientists are working on it.)

The link to the Chauvet story is accessible only by those with an individual or institutional subscription to Science, but you can hear me talk about the story and the findings in this week's Science Podcast, which you can access for free at this link. (Update: The story is now available on my Web site, please click here for full text and pdf choices.)

Here are a few grafs from the article:

Sometime during the last ice age, artists entered a cave in southern France, lit torches and fires, and began work on a masterpiece. Squatting on the cave floor and wielding pieces of charcoal, the artists first drew the outlines of two rhinoceroses locking horns. Then, standing up and moving to the left, they sketched the heads and upper bodies of three wild cattle. Finally, a lone artist stepped forward to execute the pièce de résistance: four horses' heads, drawn with exquisite shading and perspective in the center of the tableau, each horse displaying its own expression and personality. This, at least, is how researchers studying the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France envision the creation of the famous Horse Panel.

But some archaeologists are challenging the early dates for the art:

But as the team continues its work, a small but persistent group of archaeologists continues to question the age of the paintings. "Chauvet is the world's most problematically dated cave art site," says archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, U.K., whose most recent challenge was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE). That contention--which the team vigorously rejects--has critical implications for our understanding of the origins of art. "The fundamental importance of Chauvet is to show that the capacity of Homo sapiens to engage in artistic expression did not go through a linear evolution over many thousands of years," says cave art expert Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse (UT), France. "It was there from the beginning."

The artists of Chauvet painted a lot of animals that were dangerous to them, probably from a distance. But they shared the cave with the now extinct cave bear:

The team has found about 4000 cave bear bones, representing nearly 200 animals, on the cave floor, including a skull that was apparently placed deliberately atop a limestone block. Archaeologists have long debated whether humans hunted cave bears, worshipped them, or had some other relationship with these now-extinct animals. The artists clearly saw them from time to time: Chauvet's menagerie includes 15 drawings of cave bears.

I go into a lot of detail about the dating controversy. But one researcher, at least, argues for a different way of looking at the cave:

In any case, the significance of Chauvet goes beyond the "oldest art" debate, says anthropologist Margaret Conkey of the University of California, Berkeley. "Chauvet was an expression of the sensibilities, beliefs, and social relations of anatomically modern humans in this part of the world," she says. "What was it about their lives that made imagemaking in caves meaningful?"

Photo: Part of the famous Horse Panel/Courtesy of Iain Davidson.

More on Chauvet: Some years ago, the writer John Berger, who lives in France, described his experiences during a visit to the cave (which is off limits to the general public) in The Guardian. His personal account, along with several others, is collected in a volume in French available here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

John McCain: Shooting from the hip

Today's New York Times features an article about John McCain that tells us everything we need to know about why he is not qualified to be President of the United States. The article, by David D. Kirkpatrick, traces McCain's early response to 9/11, and it is a sobering read about his judgment in challenging times--especially as we are now faced with the challenge of dealing with a newly confident Russia. Although we know that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and other members of the administration secretly had Iraq in their sights long before 9/11, McCain's gut reaction to 9/11 showed a lack of restraint that I find alarming.

A few key grafs:

Within hours [of 9/11], Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Nor did McCain cool down after those first heated days after 9/11:

Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”

Some of his supporters think this kind of attitude is just wonderful:

To his admirers, Mr. McCain’s tough response to Sept. 11 is at the heart of his appeal. They argue that he displayed the same decisiveness again last week in his swift calls to penalize Russia for its incursion into Georgia, in part by sending peacekeepers to police its border.

Well, let's just pause here for a moment. McCain has not been "tough" with Russia about its incursion into Georgia--not at all. He has merely parroted the same kind of blustering blather that we are hearing from Bush and Condi Rice, empty words with nothing to back them up. We all know, or at least we should know, that the United States is not going to get involved in a military confrontation with Russia, and we also know that talk about "sanctions" is the way that weak and confused leaders who are not holding many cards try to make us think they are being "tough"--as the response to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program demonstrates full well.

Now, back to McCain's response to 9/11:

His critics charge that the emotion of Sept. 11 overwhelmed his former cool-eyed caution about deploying American troops without a clear national interest and a well-defined exit, turning him into a tool of the Bush administration in its push for a war to transform the region.

“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”

Show me somebody to hit. Well, McCain doesn't seemed to have changed much, nor to have learned much, since 9/11 and our misadventure in Iraq. But somehow I think that many Americans have, including many Republicans. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Obama has not been hitting McCain harder on the Iraq war, and moreover, that Obama has not put real distance between his position on how to deal with Russia and that of McCain and Bush (Obama's main concern has been trying not to appear "weak.")

We need a president who realizes that the United States is no longer the only superpower, if it ever was, and who understands that testosterone-fueled fantasies about taking out terrorists and Russians Terminator-style are for boys on the school playground and not world leaders. In other words, we need a president with the maturity to hold his (or her) fire and actually think situations through. Indeed, tough-talking, would-be leaders like McCain should go back and take a second look at all those John Wayne movies they grew up on. They would realize that even Wayne did a lot more talking than shooting.

PS--Frank Rich is back from vacation with lots of other questions about McCain.

Afterthought: The basic U.S. strategy towards Russia, which has now backfired, has been to increasingly encircle it with members of NATO, with Georgia and the Ukraine the next links on the chain. Whose brilliant idea was that? Americans should ask themselves that question.

Afterthought Update (August 18): A long analysis in today's New York Times gives some good hints.

More thought (August 18): Americans concerned with the Russia-Georgia conflict could do with more of the kind of sober and realistic commentary coming from the Europeans, including this analysis by journalist and historian Max Hastings in today's Guardian.

Some glimpses of the real John McCain:

Friday, August 15, 2008

President Obama: Free John Walker Lindh

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was reading Jane Mayer's new book "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals." Reading a book like this, or the many other books written about the Bush administration's crimes and misdemeanors over the past years, is an eerie experience: To those of us who have been paying attention all this time, it sounds very familiar; and yet having the vivid details of what our government has been up to behind the scenes gives the last 7 years since 9/11 a nightmarish quality, almost like a waking dream state. It is all true, and yet how could it be true?

Anyway, Chapter 5 of Mayer's book, "Detainee 001," tells the story of the capture and torture--yes, his treatment was torture under the Geneva Conventions--of John Walker Lindh. I have never read such a detailed account of what the so-called "American Taliban" was put through, even though there was no evidence, and still is no evidence, that he ever intended to commit hostile acts against the United States. For the full details, do read Mayer's book, but a few salient points:

1. Lindh maintained, with no evidence to contradict him, that he had joined the Taliban to fight the Northern Alliance and had no knowledge of plans to attack America.

2. There is no evidence whatsoever that Lindh had anything to do with the death of CIA agent Mike Spann.

3. U.S. officials left a bullet in Lindh's thigh for weeks, claiming that they needed it to "preserve the chain of custody of the evidence against him, " as Mayer characterizes it.

4. Lindh was never told that his parents had hired a lawyer to represent him when he waived his rights not to be questioned, even though he had asked for a lawyer almost immediately after his capture.

5. Before being questioned Lindh was subjected to sleep deprivation, calorie deprivation, and extreme cold while being held in a steel container.

6. Lindh's treatment was approved at the highest level of the U.S. government, which gave the "green light" when some interrogators hesitated and mounted a vindictive campaign to ruin the career of a young Justice Department attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who cautioned that the handling of his prosecution was unethical and illegal (please click on the link to hear from Jesselyn herself, and learn about her book "The Canary in the Coalmine.")

7. Lindh was convicted in the end of only one of the 10 original charges against him, and that charge had nothing to do with terrorism against the United States.

Lindh's lawyers, and his parents, have asked President Bush to commute his 20 year sentence, and that request has been supported by many others, including newspaper editorialists. Lindh's treatment and subsequent conviction and imprisonment were one of the first steps in the Bush administration's systematic attempts to throw away the Constitution in its "war on terror." Barack Obama has spoken out against Bush and co's unconstitutional acts. The conviction and imprisonment of Lindh, at worst a misguided young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is unsafe and unsound. If Obama is elected, let one of his first acts be to remove this stain on the American Constitution and on American values, at least as we profess them to be.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/image in public domain

Some sense about U.S. policy towards Russia: From New York University Russia expert Stephen Cohen, writing in The Nation online.

Scumbag Department: The Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten takes apart right-wing racist dirtbag Jerome Corsi's bestselling book "The Obama Nation," but then focuses attention on the mainstream publishers that are profiting from this kind of scurrilous and dishonest "literature." I am ashamed to say that the publisher of Corsi's book, Threshold Editions, is owned by Simon & Schuster, also owner of the Free Press which published my own book "The Goddess and the Bull." Anything to make a buck, even if it stokes up the absolute worst in America and Americans.

Department of Willful Stupidity: The Veteran's Administration doesn't want to help disabled vets register to vote. I wonder why?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Blogging from Devon

For the next several days I will be blogging (maybe not quite so often, however) from Devon, England, where I am on a semi-vacation. Until I get out and take some photos (assuming that the rain stops) here is a generic photo of this beautiful corner of the world.

Back soon...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's put the Boot to those Russians!

So far I have held back from a full blog post on the terrible and crucially important war between Russia and Georgia, because I think that the links I provided at the bottom of the previous post provide a great deal of important information and insight--and make it clear that this is not a black and white situation where Russia is simply the aggressor (although its actions have clearly been aggressive) and Georgia is the helpless victim (which would require ignoring Georgia's aggressive and provocative actions in South Ossetia.)

Indeed, even the mainstream media, including the New York Times, has handled this story with a lot of nuance and responsibility in the face of bellicose and ultimately empty statements from George W. Bush, John McCain, and others (with a little catchup from Obama, whose first diplomatic instincts were healthy but who does not now want to look weak in the face of all the testosterone currently flowing over the conservative side of the fence.)

But I couldn't help getting a real laugh out of Max Boot's opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times, entitled "Stand Up to Russia." Boot, a foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign, says that unless Russia withdraws from Georgia, it should be hit with sanctions, such as kicking it out of the Group of 8 and freezing its bank accounts. But according to Boot, that is not nearly enough:

We should also do more to help Georgia defend itself. Sending American troops is out of the question, but we can send American equipment. That's what we did in 1973 when Israel appeared on the verge of losing the Yom Kippur War, and it is a favor we should extend to our embattled ally in the Caucasus. The greatest bang for the buck would come from two inexpensive hand-held missiles: the Stinger to destroy Russian aircraft and the Javelin to destroy tanks. Pictures of long columns of Russian vehicles advancing slowly down winding mountain roads indicate that a few well-placed missiles could wreak havoc with their operations.

Doesn't this sound like a great idea? Give Georgia even more weapons than they have already been provided by the U.S. and Israel so that they can whip the Russian military and show who's boss? There won't be any American troops helping them, of course, and probably not any American airplanes or missiles either, but I am sure the plucky Georgians will give it their best shot. And when a Russian aircraft is shot down with an American missile? Hey, what me worry! I will bet that Boot's column has provided a lot of laughs for the equally testosterone infused guys at the Kremlin. Boys will be boys (and remember, despite the news coming out of the Olympics and Afghanistan, testosterone is the world's number one drug problem.)

All this really shows is that the days of the neocons, and their conceit that America will always be the world's only superpower, are numbered--and I mean in weeks, not months or years. To put it bluntly, the current situation now thoroughly exposes people like Max Boot for the blustering fools they have always been, if the Iraq war had not already done it.

For the moment, however, Russia may have saved the U.S. from itself, as news comes in that it has ordered a halt to military operations in Georgia--having, nevertheless, achieved its objective of making sure that Georgia has no further say in the future of South Ossetia. And somehow I don't think that Georgia will be joining NATO any time soon, which means that the entire episode is a blow to the Bush administration's inept and incompetent strategy in the area.

As I said earlier, over the past decades the U.S. has taught the rest of the world to use military force as a first rather than last resort, and its pupils have learned well. If the teacher now has a whole world full of unruly students on its hands, well, what goes around comes around.

PS--Pardon me for also pointing out that France, not the United States, has taken the lead in trying to resolve the crisis. Perhaps the Europeans will finally step up to the plate where the U.S. has repeatedly struck out, for example in the Middle East.

More Boot: Our Max has also expounded on the need to arm Georgia online in Commentary. Thanks to Grumpy Old Man on Marc Cooper's blog for pointing out this link.

Was Georgia the "October surprise" in August? That's the theory put forward by Robert Scheer on Truthdig, who suggests that the episode was stoked by neocons eager to make McCain look strong and Obama look weak: "Before you dismiss that possibility," Scheer writes, "consider the role of one Randy Scheunemann, for four years a paid lobbyist for the Georgian government who ended his official lobbying connection only in March, months after he became Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser." Interesting theory, but I don't give it much credence, for one main reason: The Georgian-Russian war underscored the bankruptcy of the whole Bush-McCain approach to foreign policy, and made them look weak rather than strong. Russia won, remember?

Israel's "peace" offer: The BBC, quoting Ha'aretz, reports that the Israelis have offered to give the Palestinians land in the Negev Desert equivalent in area to 5.4% of the West Bank in exchange for keeping 7.3% of the West Bank, including the largest settlements, all of which are illegal. The Palestinians rightly say they will reject this ridiculous offer. It is time for the U.S. and Europe to start twisting Israel's arms until it gets serious about making peace. And why not put those settlers in the Negev? If it's good enough for the Palestinians, it should be good enough for the Israelis (Beersheba is a very nice town, I spent a few days there some years back.)

The Anthrax Case: My Science colleague Martin Enserink delves into the science behind the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins. The link is free for 4 weeks from today.

Death in immigration custody: The August 13 New York Times carries a tragic and infuriating story about an immigration detainee who died in terrible pain while in custody, from cancer that was undiagnosed until 5 days before his death. Immigration authorities had refused to give him proper medical care, accusing him of faking. The level of cruelty and neglect detailed in the story is so severe that it makes me ashamed to be a member of the human race, let alone an American. One important aspect: After marrying an American citizen, the immigrant, Hiu Lui Ng, had to wait 5 years for a green card. This is really outrageous. When I married a European citizen and moved to France, I had my working papers in 3 months. The Times also provides links to a long series of articles about previous cases where immigrants have died in custody due to neglect and other absurdities of the immigration system.

It's the Stupidity Department (a new feature of this blog that, sadly, will be posted all too often): Family store in Los Angeles gets hit by graffiti all the time; family has mural painted on walls of store, graffiti stops; city says "too much signage" and paints mural over; graffiti is back. Too stupid to be true? No, read all about it in Steve Lopez's column in the Los Angeles Times.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The psychology of torture

I've just started reading Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side," about how the United States turned to torture as a weapon in the "war against terror," and I may have some comment on it when I am done. Meanwhile, in yesterday's Boston Globe, psychologist/psychoanalyst Stephen Soldz penned an opinion piece entitled "Ending the psychological mind game on detainees" (registration on the site probably required.)

Soldz's piece is a sharp attack on psychologists who have helped American interrogators torture their subjects, and on the failure of the American Psychological Association to take a firm and unequivocal stand against members of the profession who were involved in this. A few key paragraphs:

... a steady stream of revelations from government documents, journalistic reports, and congressional hearings has revealed that psychologists designed the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, which included locking prisoners in tiny cages in the fetal position, throwing them against the wall head first, prolonged nakedness, sexual humiliation, and waterboarding.

Soldz says that psychologists appalled by these revelations looked to the APA to take a strong stand on the matter. But:

The APA, however, failed to take clear action. While the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association quickly and unequivocally condemned any involvement by its membership in such activities, APA leaders quibbled over whether psychologists had been present at the interrogations and questioned the motives of internal critics.

When the leadership appointed a task force on the ethics of psychologist involvement in interrogations, the report was strangely unsigned, and the members' names were kept secret from APA members and the media. Finally, it was revealed that a majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment, with four having served in chains of commands implicated in detainee abuses. Three of the four nonmilitary members have since denounced the task force process and two have called for the report to be rescinded.

Now the good news:

Not surprisingly, unrest among APA members is growing. Many members, including the founder of the APA's Practice Directorate and the former head of its Ethics Committee, have resigned in protest.

This month, ballots went out for a first-ever referendum to call a halt to psychologist participation in sites where international law is violated. And dissident New York psychologist Steven Reisner, a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, is running for the APA presidency. His principal campaign platform is for psychologists to be banned from participating in interrogations at US military detention centers, like Guantanamo Bay, that violate human rights and function outside of the Geneva Conventions. In the nomination phase Reisner received the most votes of the five candidates.

What can you do? If you are anywhere near Boston later this week, you can join in protests at the annual meeting of the APA:

At our annual convention in Boston this month, other APA members and I will rally against association policies encouraging participation in detainee interrogations. We will be joined by community activists, human rights groups, and civil libertarians to demand that APA return to its fundamental principle of "Do no harm." Psychologists owe it to their profession and to the cause of human rights to oppose abuses, not participate in them.

I don't know Stephen Soldz personally, but he sounds like the kind of ethical and socially engaged psychologist we could use a lot more of. On his Web site you will find links to his group Psychoanalyists for Peace and Justice and other important resources.

Update: The August 17 issue of the Boston Globe reports on the protest that took place outside the APA meeting.

Russia vs. Georgia: I will have more to say about this later, but for the moment this alarming situation should make it clear that the United States is no longer "the world's only superpower." That conceit has now been falsified by both China and Russia, and the blustering militarism of the Bush administration will have to give way to a new American humility and diplomacy (this will also require a new attitude on the part of those Americans who think their country can continue to be the international bully.) Is Obama up to the job? I'm not sure, but John McCain certainly is not.

More on Russian vs. Georgia: The mainstream media has given prominent play to the anti-Russian stance of the U.S. and Europe, but Georgetown University historian Charles King provides some more balanced nuances in an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor.

Still more: Please take the time to read the ever-wise Fred Kaplan's piece on the conflict in Slate. The bottom line: The Bush administration doesn't have a clue what it is doing in the region, it needlessly encouraged Georgia to take steps that would provoke Russia (nasty as that country has become), and it has no clue what to do now. A story of neoconservative delusions and total diplomatic incompetence. And for a very interesting perspective from a non-interventionist group, read Justin Raimondo's analysis on

Friday, August 8, 2008

It's the stupidity, stupid!

Paul Krugman, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times entitled "Know-Nothing Politics," raises what might really be the core issue of the current presidential election campaign: stupidity. As many readers will, um, know, Know-Nothingism has a long and proud history in American politics. More about that in a minute.

Krugman's column is specifically about Know-Nothingism in the debate over energy policy, but he gives the term an interesting definition:

What I mean... is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

Krugman says that this was part of George W. Bush's appeal to many voters:

Let’s also not forget that for years President Bush was the center of a cult of personality that lionized him as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority. “Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man,” declared Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2004. “He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.”

But very importantly, Krugman points out that intellectuals, or at least those who think of themselves as such, are not immune from the siren call of Know-Nothingism:

What’s more, the politics of stupidity didn’t just appeal to the poorly informed. Bear in mind that members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002, even though the flimsiness of the case for invading Iraq should have been even more obvious to those paying close attention to the issue than it was to the average voter.

I think the proper conclusion to draw from all this is that stupidity is not an inherent quality in people inferior to you and me (it's always the other guy who is stupid, right?), but rather a political choice. Indeed, it is more than a political choice, it is a life choice--even if it doesn't necessarily last a lifetime, as those who have woken up and smelled the coffee can attest.

Nor is the relationship between ignorance and stupidity as straightforward as one might think. Are we stupid because we are ignorant, or are we ignorant because we have chosen to be stupid? Now, hard working people (and not just white ones) don't have as much time as intellectuals to read the New York Times, The Nation, and surf the internet for hours at a time, but anyone who has spent time in a working class environment will know that there is potentially a lot of wisdom there, the kind of wisdom that a lifetime of hard times can give you. And how many mothers and fathers of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq have switched from blind support for that war to vigorous opposition, when it became clear that stupidity can have a very high price? Not just Cindy Sheehan, I can assure you.

If we agree that stupidity is a political choice, that conclusion has some important ramifications. Like many on the left, I avidly read Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" when it first came out a few years ago, thinking I was going to find some answers to the stupidity crisis. While the book was very good--it made clear that the Republicans had made great inroads into the heartland by exploiting conservative "values" to induce people to vote against their own best economic interests--I came away dissatisfied, because Frank never really put his finger on what really was the matter with Kansas. It is one thing to say that someone was hoodwinked, fooled, lulled into false consciousness, etc., and another to explain how and why anyone would let that happen to them.

In my view, stupidity, unless one is mentally impaired--a rare medical phenomenon--comes down to an existential choice: Do we take charge of our own lives, or do we allow others to manipulate us for their own ends? And if it is an existential choice, then blaming Fox News, Karl Rove, or other outside forces and influences doesn't get at the core problem--which is that in the end, Americans have to take individual responsibility for their own intellectual lives.

Perhaps social and political activists should think of themselves of therapists, helping stupid people to get in touch with their inner smart person. Yet it is sad that it takes 8 years of war and a disastrous presidency before the percentage of people willing to do so creeps up even above the 50% mark.

More thoughts on ignorance: From Bob Cesca at the Huffington Post.

Tom Tomorrow takes a look at stupidity.

Impeachment news: The possible impeachment of Pakistani president Pervez Musharaff, that is. Perhaps he should resign and go help out with the military coup in Mauritania, where his talents might be more appreciated--at least by the generals there.

John Edwards' affair: I didn't jump to blog about this--no blogger likes to be just another voice in the blogosphere--but I also knew that I could count on someone else to express my attitude. My journalist-blogger friend Marc Cooper has now done just that, in a post entitled "John Edwards: Why His Affair Matters." And yes, Bill Clinton's "affair" with Monica Lewinsky mattered too, for many of the same reasons.

Goodbye to racial politics? Well, maybe not quite yet, but Bob Herbert finds joy in the primary defeat of Nikki Tinker.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Will President Obama tell us the truth about UFOs?

The wife and I were working late at home this evening, so for a little background entertainment we were watching episodes of "The X-files." In the last one to air Mulder and Scully had to deal with a boyfriend and girlfriend who were abducted by aliens. Scully was of course skeptical, but Mulder believed the kids--and of course he turned out to be right.

This reminded me that since the government has been covering up the truth about UFOs for some 60 years, every president during that time should have been briefed about the extraterrestrials who have been visiting our world--although according to this authoritative UFO Web site, rogue military and intelligence officials kept President Jimmy Carter in the dark. Nevertheless, according to this same source, President Dwight Eisenhower had a meeting with the aliens in 1954, and I think it likely that Bill Clinton would have insisted on seeing the full case file on this well-kept secret (although not kept well enough to prevent some 80% of Americans from thinking that the government is hiding what it knows.)

At any rate, I think that all truth-seeking citizens should insist that Barack Obama, if he is elected president, put an end to this official secrecy and open the government files on UFOs. Yes, not so long ago this knowledge would have created a major panic, which is why succeeding governments, in their misguided concern for public safety and security, have kept it from us. But the country has changed, Americans are more mature, and they are ready to face whatever the universe can throw at them.

Indeed, I think that Obama should make full disclosure about UFOs a key plank in his campaign, which would really put McCain on the spot. If he hesitates just a bit, it will be clear that he is trying to hide something.

Barack Obama: May the force be with him!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

George Tenet, the CIA, the White House, Ron Suskind, and that fake letter

I hope everyone is paying close attention to the potentially explosive flap over allegations in Ron Suskind's new book, "The Way of the World," that the White House ordered the CIA to fake a letter between the former head of Iraqi intelligence (Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti) and Saddam Hussein that links Iraq with 9/11. We've got an unusual situation on our hands, because the key allegations are not anonymously sourced but supported by on the record interviews with two former CIA officials.

But this is a case where the details matter a lot. Thus the two officials, Robert Richer and John Maguire, are now denying that they told Suskind any such thing.

We do know that the letter existed, because it was reported on by the Sunday Telegraph back in 2003 (see the very end of this updated story for the date of publication.) For a lot of good details on this story, check out Dan Froomkin's long piece on the affair in the Washington Post. This does not look like something that will go away soon. And given how many people in the CIA allegedly knew about this letter, it shouldn't be too hard for other reporters to follow Suskind's trail and confirm the story, if it is true--nor for Suskind to provide further validation himself.

And if it is true? Well, I have not very sympathetic to the campaign to impeach Bush and Cheney, considering it a waste of time and a diversion, but at the very least one would hope that Congress begins an immediate investigation of the matter. And let the chips fall where they may.

Image: George Tenet sitting behind Colin Powell at the United Nations/CBS News

PS--The Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten has an interesting piece today about how the book was publicized, which also includes some good insights into what this all might mean.

Update: Ron Suskind sizes up the day's events on The Huffington Post. And Marty Kaplan, same venue, wonders (not very hopefully) whether the rest of the mainstream media really will follow up on Suskind's revelations. I am a bit more hopeful than he is: I think some reporters will try, but we shall see.

Update (August 7): Ron Suskind discusses his new book, including the fake letter allegations, on NPR's program "Fresh Air." A must listen.

Update (August 8): The Moderate Voice blog raises some good questions about the controversy over the letter, which we know somebody produced and gave to the Sunday Times. Does it matter exactly who in the Bush administration did it? Maybe not, but we need to know anyway.

Update (August 11): It looks as though John Conyers and the House Judicial Committee are finally getting around to looking into the allegations about the letter, after a fairly "muted" reaction to the claims. I can understand why Washington would be slow to react to this: It is serious enough that our representatives would actually have to do something about it if it were proved to be true.

More stuff: Some ideas about why the CIA guys might have changed their stories.

Is madness the price of a big brain?

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a new paper in the open access journal Genome Biology suggesting that schizophrenia is a byproduct of the evolution of the human brain, and more specifically of the huge energy requirements that brain expansion on the human line required. The link is free for four weeks from publication, so I am providing the text below.

These news items are very short, so I was only able to give the gist of a series of very interesting experiments this research team--which also included famed ancient DNA researcher Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig--carried out to test this hypothesis. The full paper is available free at this link.

The notion of a specific link between schizophrenia and brain evolution was probably first put forward by University of Oxford psychiatrist Tim Crow, who saw schizophrenia as a consequence of a "speciation event" that led to Homo sapiens, language, and advanced cognition. I discussed some of Crow's research along these lines in the last section of a feature article in Science several years ago called "What Made Humans Modern?" (you can access it free at the link.) More recently, psychiatrist Jonathan Burns of the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, who is quoted below, has argued for what he calls the "social brain hypothesis" of schizophrenia, most notably in his book "The Descent of Madness"; indeed, many current theories about why we have big brains are related to the need to maintain our complex social relationships and organizations (see, for example, the ideas of Robin Dunbar and others.)

Madness: Price of a Big Brain?

By Michael Balter
ScienceNOW Daily News
5 August 2008

A new study suggests that the debilitating disease schizophrenia may be a byproduct of the genetic changes that fueled the evolution of the expansive human brain. The idea, still preliminary, is that the massive energy demands of the brain may make it vulnerable to mutations in metabolism-related genes.

Up to 1% of people will eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia, a disease that can cause delusions and hallucinations and severely impair a person's ability to relate to others. Nobody knows what causes schizophrenia, although recent research implicates defective genes. Because schizophrenia affects "social cognition," a hallmark of human evolution, some researchers have hypothesized that the disease is caused by aberrations in genes key to the evolutionary expansion of the human brain.

To test this hypothesis, an international team led by evolutionary biologist Philipp Khaitovich of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in China and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, set out to see how many brain-related genes implicated in schizophrenia underwent positive natural selection since humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor between 5 million and 7 million years ago.

First, the researchers looked at published databases of positively selected brain genes, which have been classified into 22 categories according to their function. They found that six of the categories included a high proportion of genes also implicated in schizophrenia; the genes in these six categories relate to energy metabolism.

So the team focused its search on energy pathways in the brain. Using a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers measured the concentrations of 21 metabolites key to nerve function in the brains of 10 deceased schizophrenia patients and 12 normal human controls. Specifically, they examined an area of the prefrontal cortex implicated in social cognition. Nine of the metabolites, such as lactate, choline, and acetate, showed significantly different concentrations--some higher, some lower--in schizophrenics and normal humans. That finding, the authors say, confirms previous studies that brain metabolism is "substantially altered" in schizophrenia.

The researchers then looked at whether those nine metabolites might be important in human brain evolution. When they measured the concentrations in the same area in chimp brains, the team found that the differences between chimps and normal humans were much greater for those nine than for the 12 metabolites not implicated in schizophrenia, suggesting that energy pathways implicated in schizophrenia were also altered by human evolution, the team reports this week in Genome Biology. And 40 genes involved in these nine schizophrenia-related pathways also differed much more between chimps and humans than genes associated with the other 12.

The authors suggest that the human brain, which uses 20% of the body's total energy supply compared with about 13% for nonhuman primates, runs "very close to the limit of its metabolic capabilities." So close, they say, that small changes in energy-related genes could fairly easily cause mental problems.

"Schizophrenia may be the price we pay for our big and complex brains," says Jonathan Burns, a psychiatrist at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, who calls the findings "very exciting." But Daniel Geschwind, a neurogeneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautions that it is too early to relate the changes in metabolism to "any specific human cognitive feature."

Photo: Kevin Bird/Copyright ©2006