Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A quote on patrioticism

"It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government."
- Thomas Paine, (attributed)

Kristof Still Counting

141 Days of Bush's Silence
Today marks Day 141 of Mr. Bush's silence on the genocide [in Sudan], for he hasn't let the word Darfur slip past his lips publicly since Jan. 10 (even that was a passing reference with no condemnation).

Monday, May 30, 2005

Humanist Quotes of the day

"More important than any belief a man holds is the way he holds it."
- Sydney Hook

"Scepticism is the first step towards truth." - Diderot

Sunday, May 29, 2005

John F. Kennedy speech about the separation of church and state

In the new issue of Free Inquiry there is a quote from JFK's address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association which I had not heard of before. When I looked the speech up I was impressed and had to wonder, would a candidate brave enough to make such a speech in today's political climate stand a chance of election?

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote - where no church or school is granted public funds or political preference - and where no man is denied public officer merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is neither officially Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish - where no public official either requests or accepts instruction on policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source - where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials - and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church as treated as an act against all.
And the following words seem particularly relevant to today.

Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

Friday, May 27, 2005

An interactive lesson on US military interrogation

Check out this feature at Slate exploring the nature of abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib. From the feature's introduction and stated purpose:
This series provides the facts and law to illuminate and add depth to the torture debate—not to persuade you to support or oppose it, but to help you formulate your own views on where the acceptable boundaries may lie. We've tried to separate facts from analysis, using principally the primary documents made available through government reports, leaks, or Freedom of Information Act requests. The aim is to inform the national conversation about the way America acts in the war against terror.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Having reviewed Fast Food Nation I thought it only fitting to provide a link to an e-text of The Jungle, the book that first sparked the movement to improve labor conditions and institutue food safety laws within the food industry when it was published in 1906. Sinclair's descriptions of the conditions that existed within the meat-packing factories are quite literally horrific and profoundly disturbing if you consider that there were people running these factories that knew about such conditions and were content to do nothing.

Defending the rights of apostates

In Islam one of, if not the, worst crimes possible is that of being an apostate, a person who leaves the Islamic faith. In orthodox society apostasy is punishable by death. So long as countries that rule by Islamic law treat unbelief as a crime the people there will never truely be free.

With that in mind, I recently came across two speeches delivered to the UN which address the rights of apostates. This one, by Ibn Warraq, shows the contextual basis for the mistreatment of apostates under Islam and points out that laws criminilizing disbelief and discriminatory treatment of apostates are in violation of international law.

The second, by Azam Kamguin, argues that not granting freedom of religion is tantamount to complete elimination of free thought, and argues that change can not be affected in Islamic society so long as people are not allowed to question orthodox beliefs.

The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. We must win the right to criticize the religion without fear of retribution. Criticism, free speech, is the foundation of an open society. We need to criticise and use reason to solve our problems.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The perils of plutocracy - a review of Fast Food Nation

When I read Eric Schlosser's expose of the underbelly of the fast food industry in Fast Food Nation I was not surprised to read about how fast food is unhealthy. Everyone knows that, and if that was all this book was about then it would not be worth much consideration, but, thankfully, it is not.

The book offers a detailed cultural and historical examination of the birth of the fast food industry and its growth to its present day state. The real power of the book is the way that Schlosser is able to show, in a straight forward and non-polemical fashion, how the conglomerate corporations that run the food industry exploit workers, engage in questionable business practices, and work towards the elimination of the free market. And the most disturbing aspect of the book is that these corporations do this under the protection of the federal government.

"We have a saying at this company. Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies"

That was the president of Archer Daniels Midland during a meeting with Japanese executives which was secretly recorded. Archer Daniels Midland was investigated for price-fixing in the mid to late 90's and received the largest anti-trust fine in history. What is significant about this quote is that this type of thinking seems to be indicative of the way that these companies operate.

During the 1980s, as the risks of widespread contamination increased,the meatpacking industry blocked the use of microbial testing in the federal meat inspection program. A panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences warned in 1985 that the nation's meat inspection program was hopelessly outdated, still relying on visual and olfactory clues to find disease while dangerous pathogens slipped past undetected. Three years later, another National Academy of Sciences panel warned that the nation's public health infrastructure was in serious disarray, limiting its ability to track or prevent the spread of newly emerging pathogens. Without additional funding for public health measures, outbreaks and epidemics of new diseases were virtually inevitable. "Who knows what crisis will be next?" said the chairman of the panel.

Nevertheless, the Reagan and Bush administrations cut spending on public health measures and staffed the U.S.Department of Agriculture with officials far more interested in government deregulation than in food safety. The USDA became largely indistinguishable from the industries it was meant to police. President Reagan's first secretary of agriculture was in the hog business. His second was the president of the American Meat Institute (formerly known as the American Meat Packers Association). And his choice to run the USDA's Food Marketing and Inspection Service was a vice president of the National Cattleman's Association. President Bush later appointed the president of the National Cattleman's Association to the job.

Several chapters of the book are available here for on-line reading. The most powerful story is contained in the chapter The Most Dangerous Job which details the horrendous working conditions inside cattle slaughterhouses. Scroll down to the pg 186 excerpt and you will see the deeply tragic tale of Kenny Dobbins, a man who worked for a Monfort meat packing plant nearly till the point of death and then was discarded callously by the company.

"They used me to the point where I had no body parts left to give," Kenny said, struggling to maintain his composure. "Then they just tossed me into the trash can." Once strong and powerfully built, he now walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though his life were over. He is forty-six years old.
And while you're reading Kenny's story remember that the meat-packing industry has fought and opposed efforts to impose safety regulations in the workplace.

The positive thing to note from Schlosser's tale is that, despite industry efforts to prevent reform and general government reluctance to regulate these industries, fast food powerhouses such as McDonald's have been able to almost overnight affect changes within the industry when they are pressured for reform by their customers. That is why this book is so invaluable, as it helps to remind people of what goes on when they quit looking. Good thing that there are still journalists like Schlosser who are willing to keep an eye out for us.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

More on Silver Ring Thing

Allright, nevermind that Silver Ring Thing seems to be violating rules against using federal money to promote religious beliefs, this group, which is supposed to be acting in the best interests of the people who participate in the program, is distorting sound science to the detriment of the very people it is supposed to be helping.

From the CBS 60 Minutes report Taking the Pledge:

Pattyn doesn’t just preach the virtues of sexual abstinence. His show is full of negative messages about condoms – messages warning that condoms won’t protect kids from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

"We spoke with some of the kids after the show in Fort Meyers and they said that going into the program they thought that condoms did work, but your show convinced them that they didn’t," says Bradley to Pattyn.

"Right. Well, that’s good because we believe that condoms aren’t the answer," says Pattyn.
So to be clear, this group is not simply promoting abstinence, it is also actively discouraging the use of condoms.

"Pledging will help them delay sex for, say, 18 months — a year and a half," says Bearman. "It's a big deal in the lives of teenagers. Eighteen months is a phenomenally long time. It’s almost two school years."

So what's the downside?

"The downside is that, when they have sex, pledgers are one-third less likely to use condoms at first sex," says Bearman. "So all of the benefit of the delay in terms of pregnancy-risk and in terms of STD acquisition -- poof -- it just disappears because they’re so much less likely to use a condom at first sex.
And Bradley also notes that 88% of participants who take the pledge end up breaking the pledge. How can the continued funding of such programs be justified?

A rundown of what's in the news

There were so many things in the news today that I wish to comment on or simply bring more attention to that it would make more sense to put them all into one post rather than break them up. So here goes:

- Keeping in line with my previous post about the White House issuing a statement that they saw no need to respond to the House Democrats who wrote a letter asking for the President to address the Downing Street memo which asserted that leading to the invasion of Iraq "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" this article at the Washington Post details how the pre-war argument for invading Iraq was essentially bunk and that the administration over-sold knowingly questionable evidence.

- The White House is continuing to stand in the way of scientific research for reasons that can not be described as anything but irrational. President Bush has promised to veto legislation that would allow federal funds to be used to conduct research on embryonic cells derived from fertility clinics. The embryos that Bush is so vehemently trying to protect are going to be discarded if not used. What is also frustrating is that many in the media covering this story continue to fail to point out that the President misled the American people when he said that scientists would have 64 stem cell lines available for research when in fact there were only 11.

- In Tim Golden's follow up piece to his article about prisoner abuse at Bagram I found these two points unsettling:
  • "Despite autopsy findings of homicide and statements by soldiers that two prisoners died after being struck by guards at an American military detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, Army investigators initially recommended closing the case without bringing any criminal charges, documents and interviews show."
  • "According to interviews with military intelligence officials who served at Bagram, only a small fraction of the detainees there were considered important or suspicious enough to be transferred to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for further interrogation. Two intelligence officers estimated that about 85 percent of the prisoners were ultimately released."
- As Afghanistan continues to seek to eliminate opium poppies I have to wonder if the cost of the war on drugs (a program that appears, to me at least, to simply not work) being extended to Afghanistan outweighs any benefit that might result. In this article from last December, Christopher Hitchens makes the case that it is the the war on drugs in Afghanistan that undermines attempts to create a stable society rather than the opposite.

- Chris Mooney (whom I also linked to in the point about stem cell research) blogs another case of the politicization of science reporting that the Fish and Wildlife Service has restricted the use of the most up-to-date science in determining policy relating to endangered species. From the press release of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility which Mooney links to:
By prohibiting consideration of individual or unique populations, Hall’s policy will allow FWS to declare wildlife species secure based on the status of any single population. This would allow the agency to pronounce species recovered even if a majority of populations were on the brink of extinction, or allow the agency to approve development projects that extirpate individual populations.
- This one is just plain tragic. The parents of Pat Tillman now believe that they were lied to by the US military and that their son's death was used as a public relations device. Pat's father expresses a sentiment that I have been feeling for some time now,
"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," he said. "Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has."
And Mary Tillman offers a poignant point: "If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else."

- It appears, not surprisingly, that the government of Uzbekistan is down playing the extent of the deaths that resulted from their violent crackdown on recent protests

- Still suffering the effects of the authoriatarian rule of Robert Mugabe, who recently stole another election, Zimbabwe faces a food crisis for the fourth consecutive year.

- The ACLU is suing the Deptartment of Health and Human Services over a faith-based abstinence only program that is alleged to be using federal funding to promote religious beliefs. This is EXACTLY what those of us who argued against Bush's faith-based iniatives feared would happen - that this policy would erode the seperation of church and state. This group, Silver Ring Thing, which states that their "mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life," has received over a million dollars in federal funding since 2003.

And as David Corn points out (although I would like to emphasize I'm not at all comfortable with describing this debate as a "war" as Corn does), that the larger issue is not so much that this occurs, but that a number of advocates for these programs refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with using federal money to prosletyze people in the first place.

Rep, Spencer Bachus, thought police

Bill Maher seems to be under fire again for not being politically correct, so to speak:
A congressman says comedian Bill Maher's comment that the U.S. military has already recruited all the "low-lying fruit" is possibly treasonous and at least grounds to cancel the show.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., takes issue with remarks on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, first aired May 13, in which Maher points out the Army missed its recruiting goal by 42 percent in April.
It saddens me how many people are willing to casually apply the charge of treason to their fellow Americans for holding a dissenting opinion. I am amazed at the number of people that only value democracy and freedom of speech so much as they apply to themself.

Monday, May 23, 2005

White House press secretary sees "no need" to respond to 89 House Democrats

From a recent piece at the New York Times
More than two weeks after its publication in London, a previously secret British government memorandum that reported in July 2002 that President Bush had decided to "remove Saddam, through military action" is still creating a stir among administration critics. They are portraying it as evidence that Mr. Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has acknowledged.

Eighty-nine House Democrats wrote to the White House to ask whether the memorandum, first disclosed by The Sunday Times on May 1, accurately reported the administration's thinking at the time, eight months before the American-led invasion. The letter, drafted by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the British memorandum of July 23, 2002, if accurate, "raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of your own administration."

And Mclellan's response?

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters on Tuesday that the White House saw "no need" to respond to the Democratic letter. Current and former Bush administration officials have sought to minimize the significance of the memorandum, saying it is based on circumstantial observations and does not purport to be an authoritative account of American decision making.
Might I remind Mr. Mclellan that the 89 Representatives who wrote that letter were democratically elected to represent the interest of the citizens of their districts. I would also remind him that in a democratic society the government is to be accountable to the people for its actions, so when members of Congress ask the President to address a document which questions the integrity of a war engaged in the name of the American people there most certainly is a need to respond.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

On stress

Although this article by Robert Sapolsky, one of the leading stress researchers, is two years old, it is quite informative and goes into detail about the nature of stress. Considering the ubiquity of stress in our everyday lives, the article may be of some benefit. From the introduction:

Over the centuries, society's approaches to treating the mentally ill have shifted dramatically. At present, drugs that manipulate neurochemistry count as cutting-edge therapeutics. A few decades ago the heights of efficacy and compassion were lobotomies and insulin-induced comas. Before that, restraints and ice baths sufficed. Even earlier, and we've entered the realm of exorcisms.

Society has also shifted its view of the causes of mental illness. Once we got past invoking demonic possession, we put enormous energy into the debate over whether these diseases are more about nature or nurture. Such arguments are quite pointless given the vast intertwining of the two in psychiatric disease. Environment, in the form of trauma, can most certainly break the minds of its victims. Yet there is an undeniable biology that makes some individuals more vulnerable than others. Conversely, genes are most certainly important factors in understanding major disorders. Yet being the identical twin of someone who suffers one of those illnesses means a roughly 50 percent chance of not succumbing.

Obviously, biological vulnerabilities and environmental precipitants interact, and in this article I explore one arena of that interaction: the relation between external factors that cause stress and the biology of the mind's response. Scientists have recently come to understand a great deal about the role that stress plays in the two most common classes of psychiatric disorders: anxiety and major depression, each of which affects close to 20 million Americans annually, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

Friday, May 20, 2005

New York Times obtains copy of military investigation into Afghan prisoner deaths

"The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example." - George W. Bush

After reading this piece from the New York times detailing the death of two prisoners as a result of abuse in Afghanistan (as reported by the Pentagon in its criminal investigation) the above words from President Bush ring forth as empty rhetoric (and if Bush had any knowledge of what was detailed in the Bagram report - it was an outright lie.) By no stretch of the imagination can we be said to be leading by example.

Just look at several disturbing highlights from the article:
  • Yet the Bagram file includes ample testimony that harsh treatment by some interrogators was routine and that guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity. Prisoners considered important or troublesome were also handcuffed and chained to the ceilings and doors of their cells, sometimes for long periods, an action Army prosecutors recently classified as criminal assault.
  • Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were "remarkably similar" to those used at Bagram.
  • Military spokesmen maintained that both men had died of natural causes, even after military coroners had ruled the deaths homicides. Two months after those autopsies, the American commander in Afghanistan, then-Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, said he had no indication that abuse by soldiers had contributed to the two deaths. The methods used at Bagram, he said, were "in accordance with what is generally accepted as interrogation techniques."
  • The platoon had the standard interrogations guide, Army Field Manual 34-52, and an order from the secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, to treat prisoners "humanely," and when possible, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But with President Bush's final determination in February 2002 that the Conventions did not apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda and that Taliban fighters would not be accorded the rights of prisoners of war, the interrogators believed they "could deviate slightly from the rules," said one of the Utah reservists, Sgt. James A. Leahy.
  • He also added a detail that had been overlooked in the investigative file. By the time Mr. Dilawar [one of the two prisoners who died as a result of abuse] was taken into his final interrogations, he said, "most of us were convinced that the detainee was innocent."
So here we see that prisoner abuse was routine, that men who were under investigation for prisoner abuse were transfered to Abu Ghraib where similar abuse subsequently took place, that the military lied about the cause of death of the two prisoners, that this mistreatment of prisoners resulted in part from the President's decision that detainees should not be afforded the human rights provisions of the Geneva convention, and ,most dissapointing, that a man believed to be innocent died as a result of interrogator abuse.

As more prisoner abuse comes to light and appears to be systemic rather than isolated it becomes more difficult to deny the charge that such abuse is a result, at least in part, of policy formulated by Alberto Gonzalez.

Instead of blaming Newsweek for America's ills, perhaps the White House should start looking towards holding itself to the standards of human rights which America is supposed to represent.

Newsweek responsible for anti-American sentiment?

Newsweek has recently come under fire for an article in which they reported that a reliable source uncovered an internal Pentagon document that found that a Qu'ran had been flushed down the toilet during an interrogation at Guantanmo Bay. Shortly after the Newsweek article came out violent protests broke out in Afghanistan and Pakistan that led to the death of 16 people.

After the Pentagon denied the story and the source of the story told Newsweek that he could not confirm his initial statement Newsweek retracted its claim that there was a Pentagon report detailing abuse of the Qu'ran.

By relying on single source that could not corroborate the report Newsweek was guilty of poor journalism and made an error that served in part as a catalyst to set off violent protests.

But the White House has been using this incident to shift the blame for America's damaged reputation to Newsweek when in reality the government has done far more harm to our reputation than the Newsweek story did. And while Newsweek has disavowed their error and apologized for it, the Bush administration has yet to take accountability for any of the things it has done to undermine American's reputation. In essence, Newsweek is being used as a scapegoat and a device to divert criticism away from the administration. Consider:

- Although Newsweek retracted its story that an internal investigation had revealed abuse of the Qu'ran, allegations that Qu'ran has been abused are common and still under open investigation.
"Contrary to White House spin, the allegations of religious desecration at Guantanamo such as those described by Newsweek on 9 May 2005 are common among ex-prisoners and have been widely reported outside the United States. Several former detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram airbase prisons have reported instances of their handlers sitting or standing on the Koran, throwing or kicking it in toilets, and urinating on it."
- Newsweek has been blamed for the deaths that resulted from the riots in Afghanistan, but General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes that the riots were not necessarily the result of the Newsweek article.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says a report from Afghanistan suggests that rioting in Jalalabad on May 11 was not necessarily connected to press reports that the Quran might have been desecrated in the presence of Muslim prisoners held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Air Force General Richard Myers told reporters at the Pentagon May 12 that he has been told that the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else.
- As pointed out in this article at Slate, things such as the faulty evidence used to justify invading Iraq, the prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and the practice of sending prisoners to countries that engage in torture have negatively impacted the reputation of America and have resulted in a significant amount of deaths.

The White House should not be given a pass on its complicity in engendering anti-American sentiment because of Newsweek's poor judgement in presenting a poorly sourced story.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

US Senate receives a tongue lashing

MP George Galloway was recently asked to testify before a Senate subcommitte investigating the Oil For Food scandal. Galloway appeared Tuesday before the commitee to defend himself against charges that he had profited from Iraqi oil sales, and released an invective that the Senate could not have been expecting.
"Now, Senator, I gave my heart and soul to oppose the policy that you promoted. I gave my political life's blood to try to stop the mass killing of Iraqis by the sanctions on Iraq which killed one million Iraqis, most of them children, most of them died before they even knew that they were Iraqis, but they died for no other reason other than that they were Iraqis with the misfortune to born at that time. I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq. And I told the world that your case for the war was a pack of lies. "

“I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. "

"Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies. "If the world had listened to Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to President Chirac who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the anti-war movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today. Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens. You are trying to divert attention from the crimes that you supported, from the theft of billions of dollars of Iraq's wealth. "

"Have a look at the real Oil-for-Food scandal. Have a look at the 14 months you were in charge of Baghdad, the first 14 months when $8.8 billion of Iraq's wealth went missing on your watch. Have a look at Halliburton and other American corporations that stole not only Iraq's money, but the money of the American taxpayer."

"Have a look at the oil that you didn't even meter, that you were shipping out of the country and selling, the proceeds of which went who knows where? Have a look at the $800 million you gave to American military commanders to hand out around the country without even counting it or weighing it"

"Have a look at the real scandal breaking in the newspapers today, revealed in the earlier testimony in this committee. That the biggest sanctions busters were not me or Russian politicians or French politicians. The real sanctions busters were your own companies with the connivance of your own Government."
The full transcript of Galloway's statement can be read here

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A quote on fanaticism

"The worst vice of the fanatic is his sincerity" - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Bill Moyers speaks out in defense of himself and a free press

Bill Moyers, who has recently been targeted as an example of "liberal bias" at PBS recently gave a speech at the National Conference for Media Reform responding to increasing political pressure to make PBS and NPR more "balanced." Here I highlight some of the points made:

At the start of the speech Moyers explains why it is that he is under attack
One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at “NOW” didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.
Moyers went on to point out the danger of propaganda
Hear me: an unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.
He then pointed out the similarity between current efforts to "balance" PBS and Nixon era efforts to silence critical journalists
After all, I’d been there at the time of Richard Nixon’s attempted coup. In those days, public television had been really feisty and independent and often targeted for attacks...According to White House memos at the time, he was determined, (quote), “to get the left wing commentators who are cutting us up off public television at once; indeed, yesterday, if possible.” Sound familiar?

Nixon vetoed the authorization for CPB with a message written in part by his sidekick and soul mate, Pat Buchanan, who castigated Vanocur, McNeil, “Washington Week in Review,” “Black Journal” and Bill Moyers as, (quote), “unbalanced against the administration.” It is familiar.
Moyers then concludes by pointing out that PBS is heading in the direction in becoming an arm of government rather than a tool of the people.
I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying out for the White House. But that’s what Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing.
The full transcript which I linked to earlier is worth reading.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Out of town

I'm out of town for the weekend, so until I have some time to post something more substantial, here is an interesting web documentary about human evolution to keep occupied with.

Click here to check it out

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Another administration paid journalist uncovered

As reported at America Blog, a fourth journalist has been revealed to have been paid by the federal government to write positive reviews for administration policies. If a full scale investigation was conducted how many more cases of the Bush administration corrupting the freedom of the press would be revealed?

Tom Ridge on terror alerts

In an article for USA Today, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge asserted that the color-coded terror alerts were raised against his wishes on many occasions. This raises the issue of why the alerts were raised when Ridge believed the intelligence did not justify it.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'"

Congress restricts the use of torture

From the New York Times:
Congress barred the government on Tuesday from using any money in a newly passed emergency spending bill to subject anyone in American custody to torture or "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" that is forbidden by the Constitution.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Towards a secular Islam

Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society

From their mission statement:
We believe that Islamic society has been held back by an unwillingness to subject its beliefs, laws and practices to critical examination, by a lack of respect for the rights of the individual, and by an unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints or to engage in constructive dialogue.

The Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS) has been formed to promote the ideas of rationalism, secularism, democracy and human rights within Islamic society.

ISIS promotes freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry, freedom of conscience and religion – including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief - and freedom from religion: the freedom not to believe in any deity
That last point is important considering that apostasy is a crime punishable by death in parts of the world.


I've commented in the past about the threat of fundamentalism in America, and I think that some people view criticism of the Religious Right as an attack on religion itself. It is not. While I, myself, am not a believer in any religion I value freedom of conscience to much to ever try and force my disbelief on anyone else. What I would hope to communicate to those that are believers is that these fundamentalists, if given the chance, would indeed force their beliefs on others. Freedom of religion would actually be one of the first things to go under their rule.

I found this comment in the forum at the Ohio Restoration Project website. The goal of the site is the generation of "Patriot Pastors." Consider that this encapsulates the mind set we are dealing with.

I pray that America will succeed in becoming a one-party, Christian-based nation. There is no room in our nation for persons who stray from our deeply held beliefs, and for those who do, God's punishment should be both swift and severe. It's obvious that the democratic party is the party of the devil, and even more obvious that George Bush and * Cheney are truly God's "terrible, swift sword". When we gain enough power to change/eliminate the many Godless courts, we can then begin the holy task of correcting the laws that prevent people of our faith from demanding compliance to our way of life. When this day comes, God will look down and smile, while non-believers will run in fear.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Quotes of the day

In light of the recent movie release of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy here are some quotes from Douglas Adams, the humanist author of the book of the same name which inspired the movie:

In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and is generally considered to have been a bad move - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then?"
He blinked at me as if I was stupid.
"Well what do you think you do?" he said. "You die of course. That's what deadly means." - Last Chance to See

Even the sceptical mind must be prepared to accept the unacceptable when there is no alternative. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable... There is another theory which states that this has already happened. - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife. - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The art of Max Ernst

Being as big a fan as I am of the surrealist art of Dali and others I'm a little bit embarrased to admit that I was unaware of the work of Max Ernst until I saw a slide show of his art today at Slate. I have to say, Ernst has earned himself a new fan.

Check it out for yourself

Sunday, May 08, 2005

People of Darfur still dying

Nicolas Kristof pointed out last week that the last time President Bush had spoken about Darfur was January 10, and that now the administration actually appears to be backtracking on its policy.

I'm starting to fear that by the time the world decides to do anything about Darfur the only thing left to do will be to apologize for not having done anything.

And articles like this one offer little reassurance:
Revelations of a covert rendezvous in Washington between top CIA officials and the head of Sudan’s secret police have starkly exposed just how hollow and hypocritical are the US administration’s expressions of concern for the plight of millions of Darfuri peasants, who have been systematically targeted by Sudan’s rulers in a vicious 26-month-long campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

Torture, again

Let's take a look at some comments from Attorney General Alberto Gonazalez in the recent AP story Most detainee prisoner abuse reports don't qualify as torture
Many of the accounts detailing abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay by American military and civilian personnel don't meet the definition of torture, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said.
True, but recall Gonzalez previously changed the definition of torture. As the article continues
Gonzales, who grew up in Houston, said Congress requires proving that intentional infliction of severe physical and mental pain or suffering occurred to have a prosecutable case of torture.
How convenient. Nevermind the consequences of an individual's behavior so long as they promise they didn't mean it.
"This president has said consistently that the United States does not condone torture and does not as a matter of policy engage in torture, and if anyone is in violation of the president's directive or the law, they will be held accountable," he said.

Gonzales has been criticized for approving an August 2002 memo while he was White House counsel that said laws prohibiting torture do "not apply to the president's detention and interrogation of enemy combatants." The document also said "injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions" must occur for an incident to qualify as torture.

Right, we're against torture, but just to be clear, nearly anything short of death isn't torture and besides, torture laws don't apply anyway.

If I told someone that I did not approve of anyone robbing them, but that for something to be theft an intent to cause a person financial ruin must be demonstrated and that a person's car, house, credit cards, and bank account all had to be stolen before an incident could qualify as theft and that laws prohibiting theft don't apply to them would my condemnation of theft carry much weight?

The Downing Street Memo

From the July 23, 2002 leaked memo of a meeting between Britain's head of MI-6 and the Bush administration:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
This is fairly damning considering that the administration maintains that it was not committed to military invasion of Iraq until March 2003. As of yet, the White House has not commented on this memo, and the media has shown a disturbing lack of interest in this story. Does not the public deserve to know if they were being lied to or not?

"But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

No administration that functions on this basis has a right to call itself democratic or use the rhetoric of freedom and democracy as a justification for action, for such is a pervision of the very principle of democracy. In a liberal democracy policy is supposed to be fixed around intelligence and facts, not vice versa.

Aldous Huxley on Propaganda

Previously, I had written about the importance of clear language and referenced the work of George Orwell in which he warned of the danger of poor language corrupting thought. This post is something of a continuation of that theme, except this time we'll be examinig the issue from the perspective of another famous writer - Aldous Huxley, the author of the dystopian Brave New World.

Orwell's work is better known and it is Orwell who people think of when they speak of thought-control, but a case could be made that it is Huxley's critique that is the more pertinent.

Both authors were critical of the dangers of nationalism, but while Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm emphasized the dangers inherent in Stalinism and fanatacism, Huxley was able to emphasize the capacity of a capitalist society to subject its citizens to the same dangers of thought control. The difference being that the form of thought control that Huxley envisioned was more insidious than Orwell's because it was less explicit and resulted from the public's lack of interest in knowledge rather than from any active suppression of information.

In his essay Propaganda in a Democratic Society (originally a chapter in Brave New World Revisited) Huxley writes

There are two kinds of propaganda - rational propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed, and non-rational propaganda that is not consonant with anybody's enlightened self-interest, but is dictated by, and appeals to, passion ... Propaganda in favor of action that is consonant with enlightened self-interest appeals to reason by means of logical arguements based upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth. Propaganda in favor of action dictated by the impulses that are below self-interest offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals, so that atrocities come to be perpetrated in the name of God and the most cynical kind of Realpolitik is treated as a matter of religious principle and patriotic duty.
Huxley goes on to note:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not forsee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
Huxley viewed the media with the capacity to either do good or harm:

Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensible to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator's armory.
And he seems especially prescient where he finds that

In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite.
The ultimate message echoes the same warning that I quoted in the previous post:

Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metephysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A Zen maxim

"Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bush administration moves to open more of our national forest preserves

From Newswire via Yahoo:
Today the Bush Administration announced that it was ending protections for roadless portions of National Forests. The plan drew blunt criticism from environmentalists, members of Congress and Governor Bill Richardson (NM), all of whom say it will lead to logging, mining and oil drilling in an ever-shrinking portion of National Forests that remain wild and pristine. The Bush plan strikes down the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which restricted roadbuilding and resource extraction on 58.5 million acres of Federal forestland in 38 states known as roadless areas.
This coming from a man who likens himself to Teddy Roosevelt in regards to environmental conservation.

Kansas debates evolution

Ok, I was all set to just let this one go. I was reading this AP story and I wasn't going to say anything. I was going to bite my tongue and just wait to see if anything came of it. But then I read this towards the end of the article:
Charles Thaxton, who lives near Atlanta but is a visiting assistant professor of chemistry at the Charles University in the Czech Republic, also presented another key criticism of evolution. He testified that there's no evidence that life formed from a primordial soup.
See, this is the sort of thing that is terribly frustrating to people that have more than a passing understanding of evolutionary theory. One, it is misleading in that while there may not be any evidence that life formed out of primordial soup there is evidence that life forming out of a primordial soup is plausible. Secondly, and more importantly, this cannot be a "key criticism of evolution" because what the professor is actually addressing is abiogenesis, a related but seperate theory. It's like citing a criticism of the Big Bang theory as criticism of the heliocentric theory.

Washington Post editorial on torture

In his editorial Torture Whitewash, Eugene Robinson asks the pertinent question regarding the US use of torture:
How can President Bush preach to the world about democracy, about transparency, about the rule of law, and at the same time disregard national and international law at will? What message can Vladimir Putin be hearing? Or the dictators in Beijing? Or the mullahs in Tehran?

A poem

Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelly

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
'Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The hypocrisy of prisoner transfer

From the NYT's article U.S. Recruits Rough Ally to be Jailer:
The police repeatedly tortured prisoners, State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups reported. The February 2001 State Department report stated bluntly, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights."
That was before 9/11. But since 9/11:
Now there is growing evidence that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan's treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it admonishments from around the world, including from the State Department.
So what is it - are we against the use of torture or not? We don't condone torture and believe in basic human rights but we don't have a problem sending off prisoners to places that do condone torture and don't believe in basic human rights? This is some serious double think or it may just be that our gov't isn't being completely sincere when it says that it is against the use of torture.

Why else would Alberto Gonzalez solicit a memo which found that the detainees captured in the "war on terrorism" should not be granted prisoner of war status and afforded the rights granted them by the provision of the Geneva convention? As Reason magazine pointed out
All kinds of semantic games can be played on the topic but the bottom line remains that the Bush anti-terror team has operated under the notion that treating detainees in ways that prisoners of war could not legally be treated might be a good idea post-9/11