Saturday, November 29, 2008

The return of Samantha Power

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I'm giving thanks...

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Barbara Starr, Pentagon mouthpiece and mole in the journalism profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama: I look foward to you advising me, Hillary

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

Vatican forgives John Lennon

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Habeas corpus: A test for Barack Obama and Eric Holder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend updates:

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

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

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

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

Hat tip to PG for the alert.

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

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

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

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

Stop Bush Pardons

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bill Ayers speaks

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Eric Holder.

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stevie Nicks

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

Prehistoric family values

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

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

The basic research findings:

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

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

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

Phil Gramm: The Clinton years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The unsung heroes of Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Price noted this on her sheet and thanked the woman.

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

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

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

“ ’bama.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Birth of Childhood

That's the title of a fascinating, four-page story in the current Science by my partner on the journal's anthropology beat, Ann Gibbons. The story, which is available at this link for those with online access to Science, explores a critical question about human evolution. As the article's "dek" puts it: "Unlike other apes, humans depend on their parents for a long period after weaning. But when--and why--did our long childhood evolve?"

Ann goes on to give us the latest news and views on this topic. A few tidbits, to keep within the bounds of copyright restrictions:

Unlike our close cousins the chimpanzees, we have a prolonged period of development after weaning, when children depend on their parents to feed them, until at least age 6 or 7. Street children from Kathmandu to Rio de Janeiro do not survive on their own unless they are at least 6. "There's no society where children can feed themselves after weaning," says anthropologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. By contrast, "chimpanzees don't have childhoods. They are independent soon after weaning," says anthropologist Barry Bogin of Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K.

Humans are also the only animals that stretch out the teenage years, having a final growth spurt and delaying reproduction until about 6 years after puberty. On average, women's first babies arrive at age 19, with a worldwide peak of first babies at age 22.5. This lengthy period of development--comprised of infancy, juvenile years, and adolescence--is a hallmark of the human condition; researchers have known since the 1930s that we take twice as long as chimpanzees to reach adulthood. Even though we are only a bit bigger than chimpanzees, we mature and reproduce a decade later and live 2 to 3 decades longer, says Bogin.

New research into the evolution of childhood, Ann reports, creating some surprises. One direct human ancestor, whose skeleton looks much like our own, turns out to have grown up much faster than we do. The life histories of our closest evolutionary cousins, the Neandertals, remain controversial, but some researchers suspect that they may have had the longest childhoods of all. The new lines of evidence are helping researchers close in on the time when childhood began to lengthen. "Evidence suggests that much of what makes our life history unique took shape during the evolution of the genus Homo and not before," says anthropologist Holly Smith of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Ann also writes about a new fossil discovery, reported in the same issue of Science:

The new, remarkably complete female pelvis... suggests that life history changes had begun in H. erectus. Researchers led by Sileshi Semaw of the Stone Age Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington, found the pelvis in the badlands of Gona, Ethiopia. They present a chain of inference that leads from pelvis, to brain size, to life history strategy.

The pelvis is particularly wide. Ann explains what that means:

The wide pelvis suggests H. erectus got a head start on its brain development, putting on extra gray matter in utero rather than later in childhood. That's similar to living people, whose brains grow rapidly before birth... But if H. erectus's fetal growth approached that of modern humans, it built proportionately more of its brain before birth, because its brain never became as massive as our own.

Thus, H. erectus grew its brain before birth like a modern human, while during childhood it grew up faster like an ape. With a brain developing early, H. erectus toddlers may have spent less time as helpless children than modern humans do...

There's much more, so check out this issue of Science online or in your library for all the details. But in the meantime, you can listen to Ann discussing her story on the Science Podcast.

Hillary for Secretary of State?

Sigh, yawn... oh gosh, some people don't realize how much pressure there is on us bloggers. We have to have a passionate, edgy opinion on absolutely every subject and stick our noses into pretty much everyone's business. So instead of curling up with a good book on this rainy Boston Saturday, I guess I have to say something about the huge controversy over the reports that Obama has allegedly either already offered the Secretary of State position to Hillary Clinton or is seriously considering it.

Note that I say "allegedly," because the sourcing on this does not inspire confidence, ranging from "two Obama advisers" in the case of NBC's Andrea Mitchell to "advisers to the onetime rivals for the Democratic nomination" in today's New York Times. Journalism 101: Just because "sources" are saying something does not mean it is true, because some sources are in a better position to know (ie they are very close to the action) and other sources are just simply repeating what they think they have heard. This is one way that reporters sometimes get things wrong.

But let's say it is true. As a ferocious Hillary critic during the primary campaign, will I be happy about such a pick? No. Among the most discussed candidates, I would pick John Kerry. But do I think that Hillary Clinton would run away with U.S. foreign policy and run a "parallel government," as some commentators have suggested? Again, no. After all, she would be working for President Barack Obama, who would have the power to hire and fire her.

Is there some reason for people to think that Obama is going to be a weak president who will allow his foreign policy to be hijacked just for the sake of party unity or sending a message or some abstract notion of a "team of rivals"? Or even that he would hand his foreign policy over to Bill Clinton, which some have suggested a Hillary pick would really mean?

Or, as some have put it, is Obama crazy or crazy like a fox?

We've never had a president like Barack Obama before. You might think that some bloggers and commentators would have the intellectual curiosity to spend less time yakking about Obama's every move and more time watching what he does.

Now that he has actually been elected, that's my attitude, anyway.

Now back to that good book.

Afterthought: If someone other than Hillary Clinton ends up being Secretary of State, something tells me that the left blogosphere and the poobahs of progressive punditry (aka the nattering nabobs of negativism) are going to congratulate themselves for derailing this unfortunate choice. I think that would be a mistake, unless someone could come up with real evidence that it was so. Has there been any evidence that it is the style of Obama and his team to float "trial balloons" to see how everyone would react to a decision or a point of principle, before making it? Not much, as far as I can see. That's why so many of us supported him, and why it is so disheartening to see how quickly some "progressives" have leaped to brand Obama some sort of a sell-out. As I pointed out in an earlier post (the most heavily hit of any I have done since starting this blog), the left did not elect Obama, and it should not expect him to be at its beck and call.

Maureen Dowd doesn't think it would be so bad. I'm not a big Dowd fan, but she has an interesting column in Sunday's New York Times. She ends on this note: If Barry chooses Hillary as secretary of state, a woman who clearly intimidated him and taught him to be a better pol in the primaries, it doesn’t signal the return of the Clinton era. It says the opposite: If you have a president who’s willing to open up his universe to other smart, strong people, if you have a big dog who shares his food dish, the Bill Clinton era is truly over. Appointing a Clinton in the cabinet would be so un-Clintonian.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bail out G.M. workers, let the company go bankrupt

General Motors is begging for a bailout, and Barack Obama and his transition team are asking the Bush administration and Congress to supply it. Tom Friedman says any such move should be accompanied by lots of conditions, including throwing out the execs and making the company produce climate-friendly cars.

Here's another idea: Let the company go bankrupt, and use the money instead to give all 266,000 worldwide employees a one-year severance pay package. Assuming that the average pay is about $50,000 per year (probably an overestimate on the international scale), this would come to about $13 billion, much less than the minimum $25 billion the company and Obama are asking for.

Once the government has taken G.M.'s facilities into receivership, it can sell them cheap to investors willing to start a new automobile company dedicated to making fuel efficient, environmentally friendly cars.

I'm serious.

Zapped out

This blog, not to mention the entire world, has been so fixated on politics lately that we have forgotten some of the most important things in life--like great music. Ken Laster's radio program and podcast, "In the Groove," is all Zappa, all the time this week. Check it out at this link. Here's Ken's excellently chosen playlist, which highlights Zappa's fabulous instrumental skills:

Track * Artist * Album

Peaches En Regalia * Frank Zappa * Hot Rats
Cosmik Debris * Frank Zappa * Apostrophe
Waka / Jawaka * Frank Zappa * Waka / Jawaka
Yellow Pages * Alex Machacek * [ Sic ]
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing? * Frank Zappa * Roxy And Elsewhere
Blessed Relief * Frank Zappa * The Grand Wazoo
Montana * Frank Zappa * Overnight Sensation
Echidna's Arf * Ed Palmero Big Band * 12/12/07 Iridium
Inca Roads * Ed Palmero Big Band * 6/12/04 Bonn

Can't get entirely away from the news department. Not everyone is happy about the election of a Black president, if recent racist incidents at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are an indication.

Bail out G.M., but throw out its execs. That's the basic advice from Tom Friedman in the New York Times today, who points out that the company and its supporters in Congress have only themselves to blame for its near-demise. Friedman also faults the United Auto Workers; while I would like to see the workers protected first and foremost, I have to agree that they must stop defending the company's environmentally disastrous policies if they want sympathy from the rest of us.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sarah Palin in 2012!

I can't believe how much the television media are talking about this. Great idea! Who better to energize that incredible shrinking Republican base and make sure that Obama serves two terms? I confess that I have a vested interest in the outcome, as I will be of retirement age during Obama's second term and don't want anyone trying to privatize Social Security--remember that brilliant Bush administration initiative? Had it passed, I would be stocking up on dog food right now before Purina goes bankrupt.

Of course Sarah will need a running mate to balance out the ticket. How about Rudy Giuliani?

Get your Palin paraphernalia at this link.

Obama and Afghanistan. The Tuesday November 11 Washington Post has an interesting article on changes that Obama and his advisers are considering in the war against the Taliban. Mistakes in Afghanistan could wreck Obama's presidency, so this bears careful watching.

Whatever happened to the white working class? New Yorker writer George Packer asks that question in his blog Interesting Times. And while we are on the subject, when is Hillary Clinton going to publicly admit that she was wrong about all that?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Note to my fellow leftists: Put up or pipe down (alternative title: Don't Moan, Organize)

I'm shocked--shocked!--to find out that Barack Obama is not a radical leftist. Why didn't someone tell me this before I voted for him? I feel so betrayed, so used. No sooner have the ballots been counted than Obama is thinking about appointing Democrats and possibly even some Republicans to important cabinet positions, instead of calling in Marxist-Leninist sages like Revolutionary Communist Party chairman Bob Avakian to help run the country.

Pardon the sarcasm, but I think certain segments of the American left need some tough love. It's no surprise that the far right has taken no time outs in its relentless attacks on Obama, but some far leftists view those progressives who supported Obama as dupes who have been "intoxicated" by the "change you can believe in" mantra. And many leftists are wasting no time going on the offensive against the President-elect, or, to put it more accurately, urging others to go on the offensive from the comfort of their computer chairs. Whenever you read or hear a leftist say "we need to build a mass movement," you can be reasonably sure that they are doing little or nothing to make this worn out cliché a reality other than preaching to the choir of other leftists and progressives. More on this in a minute.

This blog has not hesitated to criticize Obama in the past, nor do I expect progressives to stifle their concerns about the possible appointment of Lawrence Summers as treasury secretary (even if Summers is not really as guilty of sexism and racism as some claim) or the very pro-Israel Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. No one outside Obama's inner circle really knows how likely a choice Summers really is, and if it is a serious possibility, the outcry may well help prevent it from happening. Emanuel, on the other hand, is a done deal. But what deal has been done? The primary significance of this appointment, it seems to me, is that Obama wanted a good friend he could trust in charge of the daily workings of his presidency. What else it turns out to mean, in terms of the Middle East peace process or other matters, remains to be seen.

Before I go on, let's take a look at just how influential those progressives who rejected Obama turned out to be. One measure might be how well third party candidates did in this election. The answer: pathetically. Ralph Nader managed 0.5% of the vote, and Cynthia McKinney a paltry 0.1%. Oh, I know, the system was stacked against them, they couldn't raise anywhere near the kind of money that Obama and McCain did, the media didn't pay any attention, they weren't included in the debates--the usual excuses for leftists who have not yet understood that organizing means convincing people who do not yet agree with you to join your movement.

Perhaps this is the best moment to get something out of my system: Leftwing as I am and expect to always be, my gut feeling is that Americans should get down on their knees and thank the stars that at long last they have elected as their president someone who is as smart as Barack Obama. Why? Because in terms of the person, this is as good as it gets in today's America. As for the policies Obama will pursue, that will be determined by three primary factors: The demands of the constituency that elected him, the kind of grassroots movement those who want to push him to the left can muster, and his own inner lights. And I do think that Obama has the potential to be one of our greatest presidents, if for no other reason than that the crises we are facing call for a great leader of Lincolnian or Rooseveltian proportions.

Let's talk about who really elected Obama. There is no question that progressives and left-leaning liberals had a lot to do with helping Obama get on the electoral map, and in particular with beating Hillary Clinton. Yet Obama only won the nomination after months of hard-fought struggle, and he only barely squeaked by, despite Clinton's many, many errors, her refusal to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war, and her blatant opportunism (not to mention explicit and implicit appeals to racism.)

Once the general election campaign began, the role of the left took a smaller proportion still. The real credit goes not primarily to those progressives who gave "critical support" to Obama (a group I count myself part of), but to the tens of thousands of campaign workers who actually gave their time and energy and knocked on doors and staffed phone banks and registered voters and carried out the hundred and other organizational tasks it took to get him elected. In other words, the credit goes most importantly to those who really changed peoples' minds--and to the people whose minds were changed.

And folks, minds were changed like never before. Conservative pundits may want to convince themselves that Obama has no mandate to move the country even an inch to the left, but the reality is that his victory is a sure sign of a new political alignment. We always knew that California and New York and Massachusetts and Illinois would go for Obama. But Indiana and North Carolina? Colorado and Nevada? New Mexico? Minnesota? Florida? Pennsylvania and Ohio? Maybe even Missouri? Rednecks for Obama! If you haven't already done so, read Michael Sokolove's article in today's New York Times, "The Transformation," about how Obama won over white, blue-collar Levittown, Pennsylvania. Here is an excerpt from the piece:

Tina Davis is the council president in Bristol Township, which has the highest concentration of Levittown voters. She said she had endless conversations with constituents who said they would not vote for Obama. “Most of them couldn’t give me a real answer why,” she said. “I had some of them reciting those stupid e-mails saying he was a Muslim. I’m pretty blunt. I would just say to them, ‘You’re against him because he’s black.’ ”

She thinks some of those who argued with her and insisted till the bitter end that they would vote for Mr. McCain just stubbornly did not want to acknowledge they had changed their minds. In the end, she believes they ended up voting out of a different kind of fear — fear for their own economic survival. Self-interest trumped racism. “They had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put us in this hole,” she said.

The American people elected Obama, including millions who might never before in their lives have considered voting for a Black man--or even a Democrat. That's already a sea change, even if it doesn't mean that socialism is around the corner (although, thanks to McCain's inaccurate use of the term in his clumsy attempt to smear Obama, it might now be possible for leftists to talk about what the concept really means, or could mean.)

But the new political alignment is a mandate for Obama and his ideas, not for the American left and its ideas. Obama won his victory the hard way: He fought for it, organized for it, and inspired tens of thousands to go to work for him and millions to send him money. Meanwhile, the American left has little to show for all its rhetoric. A huge majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, yet there is no mass anti-war movement; there is a near consensus among Americans that the health-care system needs radical reform, but there is no mass movement for a single-payer plan; and while many progressives are unhappy with Obama's pro-Israel stance and the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, there is nothing in the United States that even remotely resembles a movement for justice for the Palestinians and an end to the Israeli occupation.

What will it take for such movements, which could indeed alter the course that Obama takes, to materialize? It will require leftists to do just a little less talking, writing, and blogging (and yes, that includes yours truly) and a lot more organizing and trying to convince people who do not now agree with them to change their minds--just like Obama and his supporters did.

During the 1960s, I belonged to a far left group, which published a newspaper. We were all required to sell that newspaper every weekend, at factories, schools, and shopping malls, as a requirement of membership (it was one of those "democratic centralist" organizations you may have heard about, all centralism and no democracy.) No one really liked doing it, even though it was our best way of making contact with the kind of people we were trying to influence. In fact, the leader of our organization managed to convince us that he should be exempt from selling the paper for "security reasons." Real organizing and winning people over are hard tasks, thankless on a day to day basis, and it's understandable why so many leftists prefer to talk to each other. But unless the American left breaks out of its self-imposed isolation, a president like Barack Obama is the best we can do--and as I said above, that's not really so bad.

So go ahead, comrades, talk it up, scrutinize every appointment and every policy move that Obama makes. Let him have the benefit of all your left consciousness and your proletarian wisdom. If you can manage to organize a march, I will come along. But in the meantime, forgive me if I spend a lot of my time cheering on the man the American people elected--"critically," of course.

Photo: Lawrence Summers/Flickr /World Economic Forum

Great minds think alike department: My blogger-journalist-journalism prof pal Marc Cooper is kind enough not only to link to my post above but to provide a lot of important perspective of his own, particularly about the union movement, its participation in the election, and the challenges workers face in the immediate now.

Afterthought: There is one cabinet appointment I am particularly eager to hear about: Who Obama will appoint as Attorney General. That will tell us what he might do about Guantanamo and whether the United States will put the torture regime behind it.

What would a progressive cabinet look like? The left publication In These Times took a stab at it, a perfectly reasonable thing to do--even if progressives have little influence at the moment to bring to bear on the final decisions.

The rebirth of social activism? Progressives who supported Obama think it might be possible, according to an article in today's New York Times.

Bush still on the warpath against the environment. Despite all the kissy-face between Bush and Obama, the former is still apparently planning to leave the latter with a pile of bad last-minute regulations. Now that's something that progressives should get kicking about.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

America elects first Muslim socialist terrorist as president

He's a Muslim, possibly an Arab. He wasn't really born in America. He pals around with terrorists. He's a socialist who wants to spread the wealth around. He's a tax and spend liberal. His pastor hates America. He's not patriotic. His wife hates America. He hates Israel. His wife hates whitey. He breaks his promises. He's a corrupt Chicago politician. He's inexperienced and wants to talk to dictators. (Psst... he's also Black.)

Yet somehow he got elected anyway. Barack Obama has had enough mud slung at him to bury most any other candidate, and yet he is still standing tall. Why? Because enough Americans stood tall with him to make the difference--including millions who might never have been expected to. Sure, one might expect that the lies and dirty tricks wouldn't work in California or New York or Massachusetts or Illinois. But they also didn't work in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They didn't work in Florida or Virginia. Nor in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Minnesota; and not in North Carolina or Indiana either. And even in those "red states" that did go against Obama, millions of people saw through the lies.

So this election isn't just about one of the most charismatic and perceptive politicians this country has ever seen, and perhaps doesn't even really deserve. It's about the majority of Americans finally wising up to what is going on around them. They may not always be this smart, and millions of Americans have shown that they can be amazingly gullible at times. But at the moment their eyes seem to be open, and that creates a window of opportunity for remaking this nation into what it really could be--and what, as Obama understood better than all those who tried to tear him down, it really wants to be.

Old Dreams, Present Opportunities. On the eve of Obama's victory, Ken Brociner wrote in In These Times about what it means for the 1960s generation, whose utopian dreams had almost faded out in recent decades.

The view from abroad: GAZA — From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens. Even where the United States is held in special contempt, like here in this benighted Palestinian coastal strip, the “glorious epic of Barack Obama,” as the leftist French editor Jean Daniel calls it, makes America — the idea as much as the actual place — stand again, perhaps only fleetingly, for limitless possibility -- Ethan Bronner, in today's New York Times.

More views from abroad. Le Monde's international roundup of TV announcements.

More video clips here:

The Bradley effect. One of the little extra pleasures of this election is that we have probably heard the last of this nonsense. As Glenn Greenwald points out in Salon, for the most part Obama outperformed the polls' predictions.

Exit right. For Bush and Cheney.

The happiest woman in America? I'm guessing Cindy McCain.

Tensions between McCain and Palin camps come to light. So says the Los Angeles Times and many other media outlets. Take it outside, folks, in here we are busy rebuilding the country.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why I'm not blogging the election

Because it's already over. I'll be back soon, on the other side of history.

Update (11:48 PM): Wow. Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Minnesota, maybe even Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina. I was confident, but I wasn't that confident. Perhaps I underestimated the American people. John McCain certainly did.

What President Obama Means. Marc Cooper in one of his most eloquent commentaries ever. Read it.

Photo: Madame Tussauds

Monday, November 3, 2008

A 12,000 year old shaman burial?

Today on Science's online news service, ScienceNOW, I report on a spectacular archaeological find in Israel. A team led by Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found the grave of a 45 year old woman from the Natufian era, a pivotal period in human prehistory when hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle down and getting ready to start farming. Some tidbits from my story, which is free for 4 weeks from today before it goes behind the paying wall:

Before there were priests or doctors, people seeking solace or treatment for an illness often called in a shaman, an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Archaeologists working in Israel now claim that a 12,000-year-old grave of a woman buried with various animal and human body parts is that of an early shaman. If true, it could mean that shamanism arose during a critical period in human cultural evolution.

By the way, some shamans claim the ability to predict the future. Last month, for example, a group of 11 shamans from a faith-healing organization in Peru predicted how the U.S. presidential election was going to go: 11 picked Obama as the winner, and 2 picked McCain.

Here's more:

...recent excavations at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, may provide new support for prehistoric shamanism. Hilazon Tachtit was occupied by the Natufians, a people who inhabited the Near East between about 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. Most archaeologists see Natufian culture as a transition between hunting and gathering and the sedentary lifestyles of early farmers. At Hilazon Tachtit, a team led by archaeologist Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found the remains of at least 25 people, most in collective burials. But one was treated differently. A woman, about 45 years old when she died and whose pelvis and spine were deformed, was buried separately, accompanied by a menagerie of animal remains. Among her grave goods were tail bones from wild cattle, a wing bone from a golden eagle, the shells of 50 tortoises, and a large foot from another person.

The team, which reports its findings online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, notes that tortoises, cow tails, and eagle wings play a role in the ritualistic practices of many shamans today and that many societies ascribe special powers to physically disabled people. "It seems that the woman in the Natufian burial was perceived as being in a close relationship with these animal spirits," the authors write. They suggest that shamanism either sparked, or was the result of, the cultural upheavals that accompanied the agricultural revolution in the Near East.

I quote some Natufian experts who are generally enthusiastic about the discovery. For example:

"This is an extremely important report on a rare find at a critical time of cultural evolution," says Brian Hayden, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

But one archaeologist suggests caution, commenting that "it ain't necessarily so." Be sure to read the whole story at the link.

Credit: P. Groszman (illustration drawn to scale)

Obama's grandma, RIP

It's incredibly sad that Barack Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has not lived to see her grandson elected president of the United States. But given how much is at stake in this election, I might be forgiven for saying that she died when it would do the most good.

The McCain campaign has done its utmost to try to demonize Obama as some sort of alien "other," and some right-wing slimeballs even expressed the view that his trip to visit his grandmother in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago was a put up job designed to elicit sympathy. As outrageous and cruel as that suggestion was then, it would be well deserved revenge if it turned out that her death helped to "humanize" Obama just at the moment when millions of so-called "undecided" voters are about to go to the polls or are already voting.

In a similar vein, is it really a coincidence that Dick Cheney endorsed John McCain at the worst possible moment, right before the election? Would I be a conspiracy theorist if I suggested that Bush and Cheney, fed up with McCain's attempts to portray himself as the real anti-Bush candidate, decided to throw a banana peel onto his last curve on the road to the presidency?

I won't be blogging the election, by the way, but spending the evening with friends and colleagues instead. But I can assure you, no matter what happens tomorrow, I will be crying my eyes out.

Photo: Obama for America.