Monday, December 19, 2011

Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il

 The deaths of these two leaders--one despised around the world, the other admired--are linked in ways that might not be immediately obvious. Havel argued that the "victims" of authoritarian Communism were, to a large degree, complicit in their own oppression and lack of freedom; they accepted the status quo for decades even though they had the power to change things. The Arab Spring is a latter-day example of how right Havel was about that.

Now pundits and analysts are pondering what will happen in North Korea now that Kim Jong-il is dead. Will his young son have the credibility and support necessary to avoid a possibly bloody battle for leadership? Will the people rise up and say enough is enough? If they don't, and if the transition is smooth and uneventful, North Koreans won't have anyone to blame but themselves. Indeed, as Havel so rightly pointed out, not everyone wants to be free so badly that they are willing to take serious risks for their liberty.

What tips the balance? When does yesterday's complacency give way to today's revolutions? If we understood that better, we might be able to control our destinies instead of letting others control them for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Israel has never been so ugly

Of late the "Jewish state" has been showing a face that many American Jews might not want to recognize: Racist, anti-democratic, and even terrorist. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Ari Shavit sums up the country's current mood, and places the blame squarely on its leaders. 

A few excerpts, but please click the link and read the whole thing:

We have never been so ugly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu seeks to silence the call to prayer over the loudspeakers of the country's mosques, and to shut down Channel 10 television. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expresses support for the Russian "democtator" who has just rigged elections. Defense Minister Ehud Barak stands by while Jewish settlers victimize Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox religious nationalists victimize female soldiers...

There has never been such a comprehensive attempt to remake the face of Israel and to replace it with something else. Under Netanyahu and Lieberman's leadership, Israel been turned into a country with the values of Newt Gingrich and the look of Vladimir Putin. What's happening here? And why now exactly? Why are anti-democratic forces at work now to run roughshod over human rights and human dignity and freedom? Why are the Jewish nationalists and ultra-Orthodox fanatics, along with Russian statism, bursting forth now all at the same time?

The answer, Shavit says, is Netanyahu. But I'm not sure it's that simple. Israeli voters have been endorsing their nation's right-wing politicians with increasing fervor in recent years, and it's safe to assume at this point that Israel's leadership reflects the increasingly warped viewpoints of the majority of its citizens. This move to the extreme right could not be possible without the complicity of a large number of American Jews, who have long turned blind eyes--innocently or not--to the oppression and human rights violations of the nation that claims to speak for all Jews everywhere. It's time for that to stop. Indeed, there are now plenty of signs that it is stopping, as more and more American Jews join groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Photo: Torched mosque in Tuba Zangaria/Avihu Shapira

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

US to Gaza: Round Two

Act now!!


Israel and the U.S. outsourced the siege of Gaza to Athens last summer by preventing 8 boats in the Freedom Flotilla 2-Stay Human from sailing from Greek ports to Gaza. Despite this we were able to bring world-wide attention to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Our efforts in Greece only fueled our determination to challenge the imprisonment of the people of Gaza. We said we would continue to sail and so we are!!!

At this moment, two boats are in international waters in the Mediterranean heading to Gaza.  One boat, the Saoirse from Ireland, includes parliamentarians among its passengers.  The other, the Tahrir, carries representatives from Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Palestine.  The U.S. Representative on the Tahrir, Kit Kittredge, was a passenger on the U.S. Boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope mission in Athens in July.  A journalist from Democracy Now is on the Tahrir also. Civil society organizations in Gaza await their arrival, and look forward to the delivery of letters collected from thousands of U.S. supporters in the To Gaza With Love campaign. 

We need your help to make this mission a success. Please take these actions immediately.

1. Check these websites for updates:  U.S. to Gaza, Irish Ship to Gaza and Canadian Boat to Gaza,  watch or listen to Democracy Now for live coverage from the Tahrir. Look for twitter hashtag #Freedomwaves.

2. Spread the word far and wide - send this alert to your contacts.

3. Call the State Department  and the White House- demand that they take immediate action to ensure the safe passage of these boats and to put an end to the siege of Gaza.

Call the State Department:

Here are some talking points or suggested messaging: 

Gaza has been under siege since mid-2006, depriving 1.6 million people of their liberty and basic human rights.  Although the siege has been condemned by the United Nations, the Red Cross, and many national governments, nothing has been done to ease the plight of these civilians.  Civil society has had to act where governments would not.  Two ships with 27 passengers from 5 countries are sailing to Gaza to confront the Israeli naval blockade, and to bring medical supplies and letters of support.

As Americans we insist that our government (which sends Israel $3 billion in military aid every year), demands that Israel insures the ships' safe passage and ends its illegal blockade of Gaza. There is absolutely no excuse to subject 1.6 million people to collective punishment. Ask your local press to cover this story.  Up-to-date information will be available at and




For immediate release, November 2, 2011
In New York: Felice Gelman, 917-912-2597917 679 8343
At sea: phone numbers will be released when you call the above press contact


Organizers say: "It is time to lift the siege of Gaza which deprives 1.6 million civilians of their rights to travel, work, study, develop their economy and be free."

The Canadian ship Tahrir and the Irish ship Saoirse have successfully reached international waters, initiating the "Freedom Wave to Gaza." The boats have embarked from Turkey and are on the Mediterranean Sea.  In all, the 2 boats carry 27 passengers  from  Canada, Ireland, U.S., Palestine, and Australia.

Kit Kittredge on board the Tahrir was previously a passenger on the American ship, The Audacity of Hope, which attempted passage to Gaza last July.  Kittredge says, " The only obstacles in our way are Israel's military and the complicity of the Obama administration but in our sails is the wind of worldwide public opinion which has turned against the illegal blockade."

Ann Wright retired US army Colonel and former US Diplomat says, "We carry inspiration from the Arab Spring and the worldwide "Occupy" movements that are demanding freedom and justice. Where governments fail, civil society must act. As Americans we are fed up with our government's unquestioning support of Israel no matter how violent, illegal and  oppressive its actions.  We will not stand by and watch $30 billion of our tax money committed to buying Israel weaponry used to carry out this illegal occupation of Palestine including the blockade of Gaza."

Jane Hirschmann added, "Our sailing coincides with UN agency UNESCO's recognition of Palestine as a member state, defying US threats to cut off $80 million of US funding in retaliation. This shows the growing strength of opposition by the international community to U.S. and Israeli policies in Palestine. We call on the international community to go further and take effective action to lift the siege of Gaza. Hirschmann was one of the organizers this past summer of the U.S. Boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope which is still captive in Greece.




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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Israel Doesn't Want Peace Nearly as Much as It Wants the West Bank

This slideshow from Peace Now shows how it's being done. With thanks to Mondoweiss for posting it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ben-Hur and how the Los Angeles Times swallowed revised Jewish/Palestinian history whole

The excellent blog Mondoweiss describes a particularly interesting (I would say amusing but it's not really funny) example of the way in which Israel lobby groups try to distort the truth about Israel and Palestine. It's also an example of how easily newspapers like the L.A. Times are cowed into submission by such groups, even at the price of accuracy.

Please read it at the link.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama and Palestine

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N."
     --Barack Obama in his speech before the United Nations.

Peace would have come a long time ago if U.N. resolutions were actually enforced.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Israel on the run

Greetings from New York, where I will be based until just before Christmas. The blog is always more active when I am here, for no other reason than that I am more active when I am here--especially politically.

The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Turkey's apparent intention (let's just hope it's true) to escort ships taking aid to Gaza, and a number of recent victories for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, all add up to bad news for Israel's attempts to stall the peace process forever while taking over more and more of the West Bank. The writing is on the wall, and the Israelis have only themselves to blame. Oh, they can also blame the Americans, who have been Israel's worse friends, by indulging their ally in the delusion that injustice and oppression can go on forever without being resisted effectively.

On September 15, thousands will gather at Times Square in New York at 4:30 PM, and then march to the United Nations, in support of Palestinian statehood demands. This march is sponsored by a number of organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a proud member of the New York chapter. If you are in the vicinity, be sure to show up.

Photo: AP

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The blog is coming back, and it's going to be a riot

Yes, summer is nearly over, and it's time for me to start putting all my festering thoughts into print. The comeback will be slow and erratic at first, as I decamp for another fall teaching stint in New York at the end of this month, but it will happen.

Meanwhile, why does it take an actor and comedian to talk sense about the London riots? Last week in the Guardian, Russell Brand, in a piece entitled "Big Brother Isn't Watching You", took issue with the oft-repeated notion that the riots were "mindless." Of course, we all know that, even the politicians and law-and-order types who think that a little jail time is all it will take to cure the ills of British society--or at least convince the more privileged strata of British society that something meaningful is being done.

There are many eloquent passages in Brand's piece, but let me leave you with this one. Please click the link and read the whole thing. And clear your schedules for regular reading sessions of Balter's Blog.

Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, "mindlessly", motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers who brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that's why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.
These young people have no sense of community because they haven't been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron's mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there's no such thing.
If we don't want our young people to tear apart our communities then don't let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Truth and lies (from Netanyahu) about the Rafah border crossing

The Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which fights for the right of movement of the people of Gaza, has issued a new press release setting the record straight about the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which the Egyptians have now reopened (although subject to many restrictions.) In addition to the link above, I am reproducing the text of the release below.

Cartoon by the Brazilian artist Latuff.

Gisha response to Egyptian announcement on opening date of Rafah Crossing: If Israel wants a say in passage via Rafah, it should permit passage between Gaza and the West Bank

Gisha welcomes the announcement that Egypt will expand the ability of Gaza residents to travel abroad via Rafah Crossing, which has become Gaza's gateway to the world, in light of Israel's closure of Gaza's airspace and territorial waters and restrictions on travel via Erez Crossing. Gisha notes the need also to permit passage of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, recognized by Israel as a single territorial unit whose integrity is the basis for a two-state solution.
Since the capture of an Israeli soldier in June 2006, Israel has vetoed the implementation of the U.S.-brokered 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access which gave Israel security supervision over Rafah Crossing in exchange for a commitment to permit access between Gaza and the West Bank. If Israel wants a say concerning passage via Rafah, it should implement its commitment to allow Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.
The Egyptian commitment concerning Rafah includes longer operating hours, no numerical limit on passengers, and visa-free travel, except for men aged 18-40. Crossing for Palestinians is expected to continue to be limited to those listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry. The expansion does not appear to include passage of goods, which are restricted to the Israeli-controlled crossings and subject to prohibitions on construction materials and export.
Background – Netanyahu Mislead Congress.
Since Israel closed Gaza's airspace and territorial waters and all but closed Erez Crossing to Palestinians, Rafah Crossing has become the gateway to the outside world for 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. Crossing via Erez (on the border between Gaza and Israel) is limited to "extraordinary humanitarian cases, especially urgent medical cases", preventing Palestinians from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank.
Rafah Crossing was operated according to the U.S.-brokered Agreement on Movement and Access until June 2006, when Israel announced its suspension following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comment before the U.S. Congress that in Rafah, "the European observers evaporated overnight" failed to note that the "evaporation" was ordered by Israel, which refused to allow the EU border mission observers to reach their post and has objected to the implementation of the agreement ever since. The EU observers have been waiting in their hotel in Ashkelon for the last five years, waiting for Israeli permission to return to Rafah.
Rafah remained mostly closed from June 2006 to June 2010, when Egypt opened it in the wake of the flotilla incident for limited categories including holders of foreign passports or visas and those seeking medical attention in Egypt. Between June 2010 and January 2011, 19,000 people per month on average crossed Rafah in both directions, 47% of the number of people who crossed monthly in the first half of 2006. Crossing for Palestinians is limited to those listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry. Since the 2005 "disengagement", goods have not been permitted to pass via Rafah, except for humanitarian assistance which Egypt occasionally permits through Rafah.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

DSK: Who's the victim here?

I've just arrived in New York from Paris, with the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn resonating on both continents. In the eyes of the law, of course, he's innocent until proven guilty. But that hasn't stopped a lot of nonsense from spouting out about the case, especially in France, where I make my home most of the year. First, about half the French seemed convince that this is some sort of a plot, launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy or by one or more of DSK's Socialist Party rivals. Key to these plots are that DSK was somehow "trapped" into attacking the hotel maid, or that she was somehow paid to make up the story; my taxi driver on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, a Socialist and supporter of Francois Hollande, was full of such theories (yes, all journalists should be ready to pull a taxi driver story out of a hat, I'm no exception.)

Some of Slate's French collaborators dissected this notion is a piece called "Dominique Strauss-Kahn Conspiracy Theorists Are Embarrassing Themselves," which I recommend you read. The authors make the following important point:

The potential crime, as they see it, is all about DSK's weakness rather than his strength and the maid's weakness. Yes, we must respect that DSK is innocent until proven guilty. But to consider the case simply as a conspiracy theory or an "ambush" on a "libertine" is to transform the presumption of innocence into a presumption of guilt on the part of the accusers.

A similar point is made by the French feminist activist Magali de Haas in an interview in the weekly L'Express. The article is in French, but de Haas says that all the attention is being focused on DSK and his tragic downfall, rather than on the victim of the alleged crime. De Haas points out that many French people see this at most as a case of a lady's man going a little too far, instead of the serious crime he is accused of, and tend to think of sexual violence as some sort of joke. De Haas reminds readers that an estimated 75,000 women are victims of sexual assault each each in France, and concludes that DSK is not being accused "of an affair of morals, but a crime."

There does indeed appear to be a victim in this case, a young African immigrant who has all but been identified by name in the news media. Whether she is an agent of Sarkozy or of the Socialists remains to be seen; but I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Many are the ways...

... that Israel has sought to cleanse the West Bank of its Palestinians and steal their land.

Yesterday a story in Haaretz by Akiva Eldar detailed how Israel authorities stripped the residency status from 140,000 Palestinians between 1967 and 1994. The details are in a document the newspaper obtained under Israel's Freedom of Information Law; basically their residency permits were cancelled if they stayed abroad for too long, but they were not warned that would happen.

The Guardian also carries the story; should I hold my breath until a major US media outlet covers it also, like the New York Times? Or just let my breath out with a sigh?

Thanks to Mondoweiss for linking to this story. To keep up with what is really going on in Israel and Palestine, be sure to subscribe to their feed, and consider making a donation to these seekers of truth.

Photo: The Allenby Bridge. AFP/Getty Images

Afterthought. All is not bleak, however. CUNY's reversal of its decision to revoke Tony Kushner's honorary degree is a sign that the Israel lobby's power is waning.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Israeli leaders: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

The Israeli narrative has run its course, and it's time for those who believe in justice and an end to the brutal occupation of Palestinian lands to take their turn to speak. The disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren's speech at the University of California, Irvine is in the finest tradition of civil disobedience and speaking truth to power.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hiding in plain sight? So was The Purloined Letter

It seems intuitively unlikely, as so many have pointed out, that Osama bin Laden could have been hiding out in a large, obvious compound in a wealthy suburb less than a mile from a military academy without Pakistani authorities--or at least Pakistani intelligence officials--knowing about it.

Many would be more convinced of Pakistani government claims of ignorance if OBL had been hiding in a cave, as some imagined.

But I'm reminded of the great Edgar Allan Poe story "The Purloined Letter," one of his Auguste Dupin detective pieces (the others include the gruesome "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.") You can read "The Purloined Letter" online here. I won't entirely spoil the plot, but basically a letter has been stolen and the bumbling police can't find it despite a careful search of the premises of the main suspect; Dupin shows them that the letter was hiding in plain sight.

So imagine that OBL got tired of living in caves, and that he wanted to be near civilization, live with his family, and have something approaching a normal life (which, given his Islamic fundamentalist asceticism, did not require him to go dancing or to the cinema.) Where better to hide than in plain sight?

I am not saying this is what happened, I am just saying that it could have happened this way, and what seems logical to conventional minds is not always the truth. After all, U.S. intelligence agencies, with all their satellite technology and human assets, took several years to track OBL down. Was it an intelligence failure, or just a failure of the imagination?

Update: Now that I've written this, I Googled to see if anyone else had made this connection. A number of people have, which I find heartening for two reasons: 1) Not everyone follows conventional reasoning, and 2) American literary traditions are still alive.

Photo: William S. Niederkorn, Berg Collection, New York Public Library

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Did the Navy Seals shoot an unarmed man who was already dead?

It's hard to know who is going to get more batty over the killing of OBL, the left or the right. Cindy Sheehan, on her Facebook page, says we are all patsies if we think he is really dead. And some right-wingers say he has been dead for a long time. Then some civil libertarians, like Glenn Greenwald, think his civil rights might have been violated (Greenwald's claim that the mainstream media would continue insisting that OBL was armed proved untrue the second day.)

My own feeling is that making a big deal out of any of this is a loser, especially for the left that I am part of. I think we need to let Obama have this one, let him be an American hero, and it will all blow over soon enough (as soon, that is, as the White House gets its story straight.)

Meanwhile, anyone who thinks OBL's rights were violated can always make a donation to the ACLU. After all, we can't bring OBL back--unless he is already back, working again for the CIA.

Who's sorry now? A former student of mine reminds us of this exchange between McCain and Obama during the second presidential debate. Thanks to JM for this walk down memory lane (or should I say the avenue of forgetting?)

Obama: If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.

McCain: He said he wants to announce that he's going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable. You know, if you are a country and you're trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion. When you announce that you're going to launch an attack into another country, it's pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The man who shot Osama Bin Laden

I'm sure that many fascinating details about the raid against Bin Laden's compound just north of the Pakistani capital (what did Pakistani intelligence know and when did they know it?) will emerge in the coming days and weeks. Despite its huge symbolic importance, however, it is unclear how much Bin Laden's death will impact Al Qaeda's terrorist operations around the world, as former CIA agents and other talking heads are already pointing out.

What seems more certain is that this momentous event will have a huge effect on domestic politics in the United States. The far right, Tea Party fringe will have a very difficult time from here on out questioning Barack Obama's patriotism, his seriousness about fighting terrorism, and even his religious background (continued claims that he is a closet Muslim will begin to fall increasingly flat.) And the mainstream Republican Party, which has been riding the coat-tails of the far right's thinly disguised racist assault on Obama, is going to be left with having to argue domestic policies on their merits--or at least, increasingly so.

One might also hope that Obama, whose backbone in the face of right-wing criticism has often turned to jelly, will now be able to buck up and get in touch with his inner liberal--especially as his re-election next year would now seem to be all but assured. At the very least, activists and others to Obama's left should be presented with new opportunities to hold this administration to at least some of the promises it made during the last election.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Opening Gaza's prison gate

Over the past several days Egyptian officials have indicated that they will permanently open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, although there seems to be some confusion over it. Israel has of course objected strenuously, but Egyptian officials have pretty much told the "Jewish state" to mind its own business (note that I put Jewish state in quotation marks because its population includes a significant number of non-Jews.)

A press release from the Israeli human rights group Gisha, issued today, shows why we should support the Egyptian decision: Israel is trying to starve the Gazan population into submission, and doesn't want anyone to see the documents that prove it.

Here is the first paragraph of the Gisha statement, but please read the rest:

On Thursday, April 28, 2011, the state appealed the Tel Aviv District Court ruling that the Defense Ministry must provide Gisha with the "red lines" document, in which the Defense Ministry apparently determined the minimal number of calories residents of Gaza should be allowed to consume, as part of the restrictions on the transfer of civilian goods into the Gaza Strip. The district court ruled that the Freedom of Information Act requires disclosure of the document for the sake of public interest in transparency.

The Pope's miracles. It seems that the Vatican has decided to count Sister Marie Simon-Pierre's supposed recovery from Parkinson's disease after praying to Pope John Paul II, despite questions raised earlier about just how miraculous this particular miracle really was. But it will be interesting to see what the Vatican manages to dig up for the second miracle required for beatification. Perhaps if someone recovers from the childhood trauma of the sexual abuse by priests that John Paul II proved to be so complacent about, that might do the trick.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Donald Trump demands proof that Barack Obama actually exists

The intrepid Donald Trump, having forced Barack Obama to release the long form of his birth certificate, upped the ante yesterday and launched an investigation into how he got into Harvard University with allegedly bad grades.

Breaking news, exclusive to Balter's Blog: Trump will today challenge the White House to prove that Barack Obama is a real living, breathing human being, and not the result of holographic projections and other high-tech tricks by the Democratic Party, designed to create the illusion that a handsome, politically liberal Black man has actually been elected president of the United States when everyone knows that is impossible (or at least extremely unlikely.)

Obama supporters are likely to find this new challenge particularly daunting, especially since "birthers" have already demonstrated conclusively that the long-form birth certificate was an elaborate forgery. Trump and his investigative team have already found witnesses willing to testify that Obama was making campaign appearances at multiple places at the same time during the 2008 election battle; and they suspect that sophisticated electronic equipment in the White House basement, linked to orbiting satellites, might be responsible for this devious illusion.

Of course, Trump et al. say, the liberal news media has long been in on the plot, pretending to interview Obama and Photoshopping photos of the alleged president, coloring them in when they appear a little too transparent against bright backgrounds.

The White House has plans to counter these accusations in the coming days, and is reportedly considering releasing classified documents showing that "Donald Trump" is actually nothing more than a figment of his own demented imagination.

Update: Bad news, as a result of Obama's posting his long-form birth certificate, someone has already stolen his identity. This imposter is pretending to have the courage of his convictions, but wimping out and caving in whenever he is attacked by the Republicans.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Israel's deadly fire

A few days ago the excellent Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an investigative piece by Shay Fogelman into one of the deadliest massacres of the Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza in the winter of 2008/9. The "dek" on the story gives a good preview of what is to come:

Four mortar shells fired by the IDF 'at a military target' in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead landed on a busy Al-Fakhoura Street and killed dozens of civilians. An investigation by Haaretz finds that the army's answers are not consistent with its own reports about the day of the shelling and that there are also major contradictions with facts made public here for the first time.

If that's not enough to get you reading the piece, try the first paragraph:

"Looking at the photographs of the children who were killed on Al-Fakhoura Street in the Jabalya refugee camp during Operation Cast Lead just over two years ago, one is particularly struck by the face of Lina Hasan. All the children are innocent in the photos - some smiling, others offering a shy gaze. That's the way children are. But there is something about the look on Lina's face that makes you stop and look hard at the few photos that remain of her life. She was 10 years old when she died."

Most of the world sat by doing little or nothing while Israel launched an assault on Gaza that killed an estimated 1400 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. And yet, as David Remnick put it recently in a "Talk of the Town" piece in the New Yorker, "The Palestinian question is not an internal matter for Israel; it is an international matter."

Perhaps it's time that United Nations troops eject the Israeli military from the West Bank, end the siege of Gaza, and insure the security of both Israelis and Palestinians while a Palestinian state is set up? That would be a logical result of the likely declaration this September, by the UN General Assembly, of a Palestinian state on the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It may be a fantasy, but sometimes dreams come true.


Al-Fakhoura Street in the Jabalya refugee camp after the mortars landed.
Photo by: AP

Monday, April 25, 2011

How about an editorial for Bradley Manning?

The New York Times and other publications have done a great job mining through the documents released by Wikileaks to find stories that readers need to know about. Yesterday, the Times published a trove of documents about the detention of alleged terrorist suspects at Guantanamo under both the Bush and Obama administrations; and in an accompanying editorial, the paper told us why their importance trumps the desire of the government to keep them secret:

They describe the chaos, lawlessness and incompetence in his administration’s system for deciding detainees’ guilt or innocence and assessing whether they would be a threat if released.

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts.
Innocent men were picked up on the basis of scant or nonexistent evidence and subjected to lengthy detention and often to abuse and torture. Some people were released who later acted against the United States. Inmates who committed suicide were regarded only as a public relations problem. There are seriously dangerous prisoners at Guantánamo who cannot be released but may never get a real trial because the evidence is so tainted.

The documents have been made available to the press by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and his collaborators, and they were allegedly provided to Wikileaks by Bradley Manning. Wouldn't it be nice if the Times ran a series of editorials defending its sources and alleged sources from attempts to prosecute them for performing what is clearly a public service?

Update: Great leftists think alike. Some very similar thoughts from Robert Scheer at Truthdig.

What does IQ really measure?

That's the subject of my latest online story for ScienceNOW.

Please click the link to read, but here is the first paragraph:

Kids who score higher on IQ tests will, on average, go on to do better in conventional measures of success in life: academic achievement, economic success, even greater health, and longevity. Is that because they are more intelligent? Not necessarily. New research concludes that IQ scores are partly a measure of how motivated a child is to do well on the test. And harnessing that motivation might be as important to later success as so-called native intelligence.

Credit: Psychology Today

PS--Due to a technical glitch comments on this blog have not been posting. That should now be fixed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bradley Manning gets to mingle with Fort Leavenworth prisoners

Let's put things in perspective: Bradley Manning, if he is indeed the person behind the documents released by Wikileaks, is a hero. The revelations have led to hundreds of news and feature stories in major media outlets across the planet, and given us new information and insights into what our "leaders" were doing behind closed doors. He is a hero just as Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, was a hero to earlier generations.

Questions about his treatment in detention, which some have branded as torture, continue to be raised. Now he is to be moved from Quantico to Ft. Leavenworth. Government officials deny that this is because his conditions of detention at Quantico were criticized, saying that his needs as a prisoner can be better handled in this high-security federal lockup.

But I think there is great reason for concern. This chilling passage in the Washington Post story linked to above is just one example of what I mean:

The new facility, they said, will be more open, have more space, and Manning will have a greater opportunity to eat and interact with other prisoners there.

I don't know about you, but the opportunity to mingle with the other prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth doesn't sound like an improvement in conditions for someone accused of a strictly political crime and who is still innocent in the eyes of the law.

A number of organizations have been active in defending Bradley Manning, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been particularly vocal about his case. Here is the latest statement from Kucinich on the move to Ft. Leavenworth. At the very least, the Obama administration knows that we are paying very close attention to how Bradley Manning is treated.

Kucinich Responds to Defense Department Moving Pfc. Bradley Manning to a Maximum Security Prison at Fort Leavenworth

Demands Written Assurances of Protection of Rights and of Person

Washington D.C. (April 19, 2011) - Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) today issued the following statement in response to a report by the Associated Press that the Department of Defense will move Private First Class Bradley Manning from Marine Corp Base Quantico to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, a maximum security prison.

"Absolutely nothing the Department of Defense has done so far with respect to Pfc. Manning provides any assurance that his basic human and constitutional rights are being protected. The Department of Defense has refused to provide timely answers to even the most basic questions and have thus far refused to allow me to meet with him.

"Any move of Pfc. Manning does not change the underlying fact, which has not been disputed by the Department of Defense, that he has been held under conditions which may in fact constitute 'cruel and unusual punishment' in violation of the 8th amendment.

"I will demand assurances in writing from the highest levels of the Department of Defense that moving Pfc. Manning will ensure his rights are better protected than they were when he was at Marine Corp Base Quantico and he will be kept safe under all circumstances.

"I will continue my demands that the Department of Defense grant my legitimate request to meet with Pfc. Bradley Manning to fulfill my oversight responsibilities as a member of Congress and a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The American people demand accountability," said Kucinich.

More on why we owe thanks to Bradley Manning. Earlier this week Foreign Policy published a piece by Colum Lynch exposing what it calls the "heavy-handed" attempts by the U.S. to help Israel at the United Nations, mostly behind the scenes of course--including attempts to prevent the Goldstone report from being forwarded to the Hague. The source for the story: Wikileaks cables.

Wave of vandalism hits non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel. So reports Haaretz. Ultra-Orthodox youth apparently responsible. Welcome to the Jewish state, where little Nazis decide who is Jewish.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mass Killings of Gazelles Marked Rise of Human Civilization

This has been turning into a science blog lately, but no worries, I will be getting back to politics soon.

Meanwhile my latest online ScienceNOW can be read at this link. As always, the first paragraph:

The mass killing of wildlife by humans is not a modern phenomenon. A new study concludes that around the time the first cities were founded in the Near East, people herded hundreds of gazelles into long stone passageways that ended in circular pits, where they would slaughter every animal. These massive hunts may have been rich with symbolism at the time, yet the authors argue that they have left the gazelles of the Near East a highly endangered species today.

Photos: Death traps. Migrating gazelles were caught and slaughtered in long stone structures called desert kites (upper right.)
Credit: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy; (map insets) Google Earth

20 things to do with Matzah. Brought to you by Michelle Citrin and William Levin.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Language May Have Helped Early Humans Spread Out of Africa

Here is my latest contribution to science journalism. Click the link to read the whole thing, but here as usual is the first paragraph to get you started:

The story of humanity's prehistoric expansion across the planet is recorded in our genes. And, apparently, the story of the spread of language is hidden in the sounds of our words. That's the finding of a new study, which concludes that both people and languages spread out from an African homeland by a similar process—and that language may have been the cultural innovation that fueled our ancestors' momentous migrations.

Credit: Mark Dingemanse/Wikipedia

Goldstone report accurate say other members of investigating team. The coverage of this in the U.S. media has been very poor, but the UK's Guardian carries an important story regarding the original conclusions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Early Birds Smelled Good

I've been very busy lately between trips to South Africa, Nantes, and now Toulouse for a prehistory meeting--so little time to do political comment right now.

But since I make most of my living as a science writer, I can at least share my latest contribution to that literature: A story on the olfactory abilities of early birds, nothing to sniff at!

You can read it at the link, here's the first paragraph to get you started:

About 65 million years ago, most of the dinosaurs and many other animals and plants were wiped off Earth, probably due to an asteroid hitting our planet. Researchers have long debated how and why some species survived the so-called Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, marked in ancient rocks by a transition called the K-T boundary. A new study suggests that one group of survivors, the birds, may have sniffed their way across by evolving an enhanced sense of smell.

Credit: Courtesy of Witmer Lab/Ohio University

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Stripping Bradley Manning naked

I've been meaning to comment on the moral vacuousness of President Barack Obama's comments on the abusive treatment of Bradley Manning, but Marjorie Cohn, a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, has said what needs to be said: Manning's treatment amounts to torture.

Cohn's comments, originally posted on the American Constitution Society blog and reposted the other day by, make reference to Obama's position as follows:

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama defended Manning’s treatment, saying, “I’ve actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures . . . are appropriate. They assured me they are.” Obama’s deference is reminiscent of President George W. Bush, who asked “the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government” to review the interrogation techniques. “They assured me they did not constitute torture,” Bush said.

Is it not amazing that someone like Obama, whose demonstration that he had his own moral compass had so much to do with his election, now defers to the Pentagon for "assurances" that solitary confinement and stripping prisoners naked is A-okay? The man who would pretend to lead us now needs to follow the moral compasses of those who have not stripped themselves bare of all principles--people like former State Department official Phillip J. Crowley, who was forced to resign after he commented publicly on Manning's mistreatment.

By the way, how do we explain this penchant among those supposedly charged with protecting our national security--from Abu Ghraib to Quantico--for rendering prisoners nude on the flimsiest excuse? Perhaps this is a job for the psychologists.

Update: Crowley still has no regrets. So he tells the BBC, as reported by the Guardian.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Juan Cole: An Open Letter to the Left on Libya

The best and most carefully reasoned statement I have seen so far, from a left perspective, in support of the U.N. intervention in Libya.

The problem with so much left "analysis" these days is that if you apply the same analysis to each and every situation, no matter how different, it is no longer analysis but rote thinking.

Please read Cole's post carefully and all the way through, especially his deconstruction of the notion that the West is just trying to get its hands on Libya's oil (which it already had.) His ending statement is particularly important:

"I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left."

Hugo Chavez backs repression in Syria. The nation's president, Bashar Assad, is a "brother" and a "humanist" according to the Venezuelan leader and left icon, who accuses Washington of being behind the unrest in Syria. Fortunately, Chavez's support for Qaddafi has already made many leftists think twice about just how much of a "socialist" he really is.

A nuanced analysis of the Libyan intervention. From Paul Street. Well worth reading, especially if you're a leftist and don't know what to think.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How a Dinosaur Is Like a Vacuum Cleaner

Yours truly has recently added Science's dino beat to his repertoire of science writing. Here's the first paragraph of my latest contribution to the dino literature. Click the link to read the rest.

The plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs, such as Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus (formerly called Brontosaurus), were the largest animals ever to walk on Earth, weighing up to 80 metric tons. Many also sported very long necks—though researchers have debated their purpose. Now, using some fancy mathematics and an analogy with vacuum cleaners, two scientists in the United Kingdom may finally have the answer.

Photo: iStockphoto

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya and the left

My thoughts on the intervention in Libya are clear: I'm for it 100%. And my friend and colleague Marc Cooper, a journalism prof at the University of Southern California, explains better than anyone else why leftists are wrong to oppose it. So I am going to quote him in full:

This Is Not Iraq

 Michael Moore accuses Barack Obama of acting like George w. Bush.  Danlel Ellsberg gets himself arrested outside the White House. Others on the left waffle and shuffle and — in my view– abstain on the moral issue underlying the U.S. and allied attack on Gaddafi. (Though it isn’t clear if Ellsberg, whom I generally respect, was protesting only the anniversary of the war in Iraq or was also opposing the action in Libya).

I have no idea what the outcome of this will be. I don’t know what the endgame is, or if Obama and his allies know either.  Nor do I know what all the consequences of this action will be.

I do know this much: if every exercise of American military power took place in the context we see today, I would be much less of a general opponent of its use. Notice I said general opponent. That’s different than being an automatic opponent as some apparently are.  If one believes the old Maoist claptrap that the “primary contradiction” is between “the people of the world and U.S. imperialism” then you should probably stop reading now.

The world, as it turns out, is a much more complicated place with myriad faces of evil (including Mao’s heirs) and to choose up sides in a dogmatic, knee-jerk fashion is something we can ill afford.
In short, as I said weeks ago, it will give me great pleasure to see Gaddafi’s planes blown from the skies, his tanks burnt to a crisp and his regime smashed to smithereens. Nor would I mind terribly much if a missile hit his compound while he donning one of robes in the shower.

Do I believe that the interventionist forces are selfless humanitarians? Hardly.

Do I think they are hypocrites for intervening in Libya while giving cover to the repressive regimes in Bahrain and Yemen (and Saudi Arabia and Jordan). You bet.

Do I think this intervention is a horrendous blunder and act of aggression as was the invasion of Iraq? NO.

Absolutely not. Double absolutely not.  Libya has been the stage for a popular uprising for the last several weeks, the same one sweeping much of North Africa and the Arab world.  The western military intervention now taking place against a clearly delusional and butcher dictator comes, effectively, in direct support of the revolutionaries facing down the regime. This action also comes with the full support of the Arab League. It comes with no opposition from any member of the UN Security Council.
Further, this action comes at a time when not only Libyans, but also tens of other millions of Arabs have invested their hopes in regional renaissance.  I am proud, I am happy that the U.S. — for once and for whatever calculation– finds itself on the side of those fighting against oppression. In some sense, then, I see this action by the Obama administration to be somewhat redemptive. After decades of supporting one Arab dictatorship after another and, precisely, after watching the Iraqi debacle of the last decade, I feel we sort of OWE the Arab world the surprise of showing up, albeit erratically, on the right side of things.

Let me also add that the success of the Gadaffi regime in smothering the rebellion in blood would be quite a destabilizing force for the very young and unsure Arab revolution which has sprouted in Tunisia and Egypt and which struggles to be born elsewhere. I feel great solidarity with the insurgents in Libya and would aid them any way I could. If the U.S. Navy wants to pitch in, I’m good with that.
So with all of the reservation noted above, of course, I support the military action.  My greatest fear, only, is that it won’t be effective enough.  But I stand with the Arab League, with the National Council in Benghazi and with the overwhelming majority of Libyans in supporting this action and hoping it will accelerate the fall of Gaddafi,  I support this action just as I would have supported a U.S. military strike in favor of the Kurds and Marsh Arab uprising that took place right after the Gulf War. I support this action the same way I would have supported the U.S. opening an air bridge before it was too late in Rwanda.

I am ready to be called a Cruise Missile Leftist or a running-dog imperialist rather than have silently watched Gaddafi carry out his threat of two nights ago to enter Benghazi, show “no mercy” and hunt down his opponents door to door.  I will leave that latter task to Hugo Chavez.

Let me also concede, in advance, that there will be civilian casualties involved. This is inevitable in any armed conflict.  I supported the Salvadoran revolutionaries in the 1980′s and I saw with my own eyes more civilian casualties than I cared to count.  There were piles of civilian casualties during the Spanish Civil War and IF only the West had militarily intervened on the right side it would have saved the Spanish from four decades of Franquismo.

But it is Gaddafi,  not the cruise missiles, that has already killed thousands and who rather blithely threatened to kill thousands more.  Want to stop the killing of civilians in Libya? So do I. The best way is to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

P.S. Here is the worst sort of mumbo-jumbo from your run-of-the mill “leftist analyst” (whom I have know for years — even back when she was a Maoist and relaundered herself as some sort of reasonable “analyst” an shrouded with the legitimacy of the Institute for Policy Studies).  Strip away all the bullshit and her argument seems to boil down to a fearthat the Western powers will actually expand their actions to overthrow Gaddafi — even though she claims she would like to see him go. Huh?  My fear is that they won’t!

What she doesn’t say, which is the real point of her piece, is that she plain opposes the use of American military power under any conditions and for any reason–period.  She says she wishes, instead, there were some of global anti-intervention force like the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Another huh?  Those brigades were boots on the ground, a step farther than the evil imperialist powers say they are now willing to go. So, apparently, she would support a ground-based armed force to support the Libyans, so long as they were unofficial poorly-trained Communists and not professional Americans or Brits?

A couple of untidy historical reminders. The International Brigades, for better and for worse, were directly supported by the Communist Third International and therefore by a state power, known as the Soviet Union. If the Republican forces had won, they would have a had a real problem mediating the geopolitical interests of the Soviet state which had its direct representatives under arms on Spanish soil.  Personally, I think the Brigades fought on the right side and many of their members were great heroes in spite of their Stalinist pedigree.  But they lost. Remember?  They lost because the Western Powers would not intervene in Spain for the Republicans (as they were mostly sympathetic to the fascists) nor did the Soviets (and anyway they were on the verge of signing the Hitler-Stalin pact). Well, to be more precise, the Soviet army did not intervene on the Republican side but the ComIntern and KGB agents  were very much in Spain and helped to royally fuck up things. I would suggest a reading of Orwell’s magisterial Homage To Catalonia to get a good sense out of the less than honorable role played by the Communists in undermining the Spanish Revolution and squandering the sacrifice of many of the individual Brigade fighters.

But back to the point. Bennis’ argument is really gibberish. And it’s sad that the official left employs such pathetic arguments at this point in history. Her solution to the crisis? Issue manifestos and pine for a non-existent brigade of global socialists to intervene. No thanks.