Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Fortune Cookie

This New Year's Eve, my fortune cookie says: "Your courage will guide your future."

May courage, and light guide us all.

Happy New Year!

Prune Juice and Nostalgia

Funny how mention of the smallest things can bring back memories, especially at this time of year when one often waxes nostalgic.

A friend just made a joke about prune juice and I was reminded of my short-lived career as a go go dancer. During a summer break from high school, I ran away to the Catskills, and ended up in a resort for seniors where I worked as a busboy during the day, and a go-go girl at night. Being quite petite, and energetic, I took to the dance floor like a fish to water.

My first evening on stage, there was an older gentleman in the front row, my guess is he was about 80, but then I was 16, so anybody over 40 looked ancient to me. Guess I must have gotten a bit carried away, in my mini skirt, with the music, and when I looked down at him, he heaved, collapsed in his chair, and died. I panicked, and ran off the stage. I thought I was responsible for what looked like his heart attack, but management assured me it wasn't his heart, it was an overdose of prune juice. My career as a go go dancer ended right there

I've never been able to look at prune juice the same way again.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Santa: No Social Security Number, No Toy

Some children in Nashville this Christmas awoke to a barren Christmas tree because their parents weren't able to provide Santa with social security numbers.

What does it say about a country when two of its largest holiday gift givers, the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots, will decline applicants who are unable to demonstrate proof of citizenship, and income, according to an article in The Tennessian.

The Angel Tree program, based in Nashville, will have distributed Christmas presents to nearly 15,000 children and seniors throughout Tennessee in response to nearly 5,000 applications, and this program that matches gifts to families in need, is not shy about its requirement to produce a social security card.

Maj. Rob Vincent, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army, insists that "it's not a matter of whether they're legal or illegal," but whether parents requesting help with their Christmas gifts can prove their members of the community. The Salvation Army, he argues, wants to be sure to address "local need." But what kind of community would deny an indigent parent's request for just enough to cover the cost of a baby doll for her three year old daughter solely because the child's grandmother can't produce a social security card?

And, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots also has the same policy of requiring official evidence of citizenship, and proof of income eligibility before granting parents request.

There are some in high powered Washington think tanks who are cynical enough to suggest that parents may be "gaming" the system by applying to several charities for toys. They are the same folks who called for welfare reform while simultaneously lining the pockets of AIG. Well, here'a hearty Bah Humbug to those who can justify corporate fraud, yet who get out of shape because maybe, just maybe the child of an undocumented worker might be rewarded with a $10 teddy bear at Christmas. These are the same folks who often hire undocumented workers to mow their lawn, or fix their toilets, yet yell the loudest because a miniscule percentage of the millions in grants to government agencies might inadvertently wind up under somebody's Christmas tree of last resort.

To any but the most obdurate, intransigent Scrooge, the actions of the Salvation Army and the U.S. Marine Corps in depriving needy children in Nashville, and anywhere else in this nation, of Christmas are egregious especially when considering that other charities, like The United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, award millions in grants every year with no proof of citizenship requirement.

Any charity that would reject the children of immigrants at Christmas isn't worthy of the name.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Decriminalize Political Speech

In February, the Supreme Court will hear on appeal what many consider to be among the most important cases to address the constitutionality of political speech in recent times, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

And, in light of the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest jetliner heading from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day, it will be a test of the strength of the Bill of Rights, and more importantly, to see if the First Amendment will prevail.

The plaintiff in the case, Humanitarian Law Project, is a human rights group that often consults with the United Nations, and that has in the past assisted the Kurdistan Workers' Party, as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eela. They, along with administrative law judges and others, have had their right to free association challenged under legislation that dates back to Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, and the mid-1990's, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing; legislation that was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton.

The "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" was unmistakeably every inch a bipartisan effort, and is easily recognizable as the precursor to the USA Patriot Act. The objective of AEDPA was to cut off all sources of material assistance to any groups the State Department deems to be sources of international terror.

According to Free Expression Policy Project, the measure empowers the State Department to construct a list of "foreign terrorist organizations," and criminalize any "material support" to these groups. While parts of the law were struck down several times by federal courts, plaintiffs in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project are taking legislation that has had the chilling effect of derailing the First Amendment all the way to the Supreme Court.

So, on February 23rd, the highest court in the land will get to decide whether any of the four provisions of AEDPA constitute criminal activity. The penalty for being convicted of providing material support to a State Department blacklisted group can be as much as fifteen years behind bars. The definition of terrorism is said to be simply "any actual or threatened use of a weapon against people or property."

Two years ago, an appeals court found much of the law o be "unconstitutionally vague," and it will soon be the Supreme's turn up at bat to hear a challenge to a measure that, in the words of attorney for the plaintiffs, is "so sweeping that it treats human rights advocates as criminal terrorists...and makes advocating human rights or other lawful, peaceable activity a crime simply because it is done for the benefit of, or in conjunction with, a group the Secretary of State has blacklisted."

Apart from the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch, and coalitions of sociologists and anthropologists, Humanitarian Law Project has another interesting friend.. A group calling itself "Victims of the McCarthy Era," with 32 members many of whom were either themselves blacklisted and/or incarcerated during the 1950's, or had family members blacklisted, for their guilt by association with the Communist Party, has signed onto an amicus brief, and urges that the Supreme Court follow an earlier ruling, Scales v. United States, that suggests "material support" bans must apply only to those who specifically support a group's illegal activities.

When President Obama speaks of threats posed by al Qaeda and what he calls "its affiliates," he invites not only fear and rancor, like his predecessor George W. Bush, but he's essentially comparing political organizations with corporate franchises. Surely, al Qaeda is not the terrorist equivalent of MacDonald's.

The dangers of seeing any one group as if it were an apocalyptic octapus with wide, and unambiguous tentacles, far outweigh any benefits. Any effort that has as its mission the prevention of human rights abuse, and discrimination must not be silenced in the name of making the world safe from terrorism. Indeed, to silence free speech is a form of terrorism, an act of violence against independent thought.

We urge the Supreme Court to uphold the ruling of a federal court and, in effect, nullify any legislation that is "unconstitutionally vague," that confers upon human rights activists guilt by association, and that criminalizes political speech.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Breaking News

Vatican to review security after Jesus makes a surprise visit.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Jane Q. Public and the Proposed Health Insurance Mandate

In an article I posted last night, "The Mandate and Massachusetts," there was the implication that requiring people in that state to carry health insurance drove them into foreclosure, or at least some have inferred that from what I wrote. So, let me be perfectly clear. What happened in Massachusetts after health reform legislation passed in April, 2006 was part of a national trend in foreclosures.

But, if you read the article closely, you'll also see that adding the cost of health care to the already overwhelming expenses of people who were marginally getting by in the first place was posited to be among the factors driving people into foreclosure, and not the only factor...not by a long shot.

When Jane Q. Public sits at her kitchen table at the end of the month confronted by a stack of bills, she will defer to what she considers most essential: rent, auto insurance, electric bill, utilities, car payment, credit card debt, and she will find herself prioritizing payments. In Massachusetts, as in other states, all too often people will try to do what they were taught was right: pay that dental bill, pay that creditor, etc., and they may find themselves choosing between paying the monthly mortgage and feeding their families.

In a state where housing costs are notoriously high, and outpace earning capacity, it's not surprising that one might find themselves with not enough money left to make the mortgage, or the rent, which is where the foreclosure, or eviction process begins. All my article suggests is that when Massachusetts mandated insurance, it became a little more challenging for Jane Q. Public to make her mortgage, and this may be a contributing factor, not the cause, of an egregious spike in homelessness in that state in the years after this legislation passed.

The plan Congress is fine tuning now, like the one in Massachusetts, will require working Americans to be responsible for buying insurance. This is called a government mandate. Some will say it's an idea whose time has come. I agree with Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees Union, that if the salary requirements are raised, or adjusted sufficiently to account for the cost of living, it's not a bad idea.

After all, a person making $50,000 a year whose only expenses are rent, food, and auto insurance should be able to spend 9% of his income on health insurance.

But, if you're going to ask a single female who earns $9 an hour, and puts in overtime so that she can have that something extra every once in awhile, who thus clocks in at $25,000--if you're going to take $240 a month away from her in monthly health insurance premiums, that's okay, too, as long as you realize that, out of her $25,000 annual salary, which works out to slightly more than $2000 a month, she has to pay federal, state, and local taxes, contribute to her unemployment and disability insurance, pay $1400 a month in rent, cover her car insurance, buy groceries, pay off the loan on her car, buy clothes, pay for gas, pay off credit card debt, etc., etc., etc. How may people ended up going into foreclosure, or being evicted because, in good conscience, they tried to pay off their credit card debt.

Let's not be stupid about this. If you're going to make something a government requirement, don't do it at a time when people are having a hard time meeting their rents and mortgages.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Mandate and Massachusetts

Now that the Senate has managed to get the 60 votes needed to pass the so-called health care reform bill, it's the perfect time to consider how a government mandate to buy insurance, or face penalties, has impacted the state on which this insurance "overhaul" has been modeled.

The Massachusetts legislature, more than three years ago, passed what then governor Mitt Romney called "universal health care," a bill requiring state residents to carry health insurance if they can afford it and, if not, pay more in state income tax.

Companies with more than ten employees were henceforth required to provide a "fair and reasonable contribution" to the premium of health insurance for employees, or face penalties, with the employer getting to decide what the words "fair" and "reasonable" mean.

It would seem that, in Massachusetts, the state has passed along the responsibility for providing health care to the employer to the employee, thus essentially "privatizing" health care.

Utilizing a market connector concept in which people price shop from a buffet of private insurance companies, the Massachusetts measure is similar to one currently under consideration in the nation's capital.

As Massachusetts may be seen as the paradigm for the health care overhaul Congress is now contemplating, it might be useful to take a quick look at some of the changes that have occurred in that state since the measure was passed in 2006.

While the foreclosure rate in 2007, nationwide, was nearly 80% higher than it was in 2006, foreclosures just outside of Boston "nearly tripled from January through September compared with the same period" in 2006, according to Hundreds of tenants in foreclosed buildings were evicted, or faced eviction by mortgage companies with the greatest concentration of foreclosures in lower income neighborhood. In a state with an historically expensive housing market, area home auctions hit the roof.

When forced, by state law, to buy auto insurance, faced with unwieldy rent, and the escalating cost of food, the mandate to acquire health insurance may be seen as a strong contributing factor to the sharp rise in homelessness in that state.

Granted, Massachusetts is not among the top five states when it comes to foreclosure and mortgage default, but what was an evolutionary trend nationally produced a dramatic, sudden spike in the New England state.

And, importantly, two years after its legislature approved what a former Republican governor likes to call universal health care, the Boston Globe reported the number of homeless people in Massachusetts had reached an all-time high. The demand on the mortgage payer to make their auto insurance premium, pay off their credit cards, feed and clothe their family was only exacerbated by the additional demand of having to allocate a portion of their paycheck to meet their state's mandate for health coverage.

What's more, ironically, a plan that was intended to reduce the number of people turning to hospital emergency rooms instead drove them into homeless shelters, and hotels. When considering that the official unemployment rate in Massachusetts is at 8.9%, below the national average, one can only imagine the havoc a national mandate to carry health insurance will wreak on the rest of the nation.

Reportedly, too, the Romney health care overhaul, in Massachusetts, has increased rather than decreased the overcrowding in hospital emergency rooms.

So, while Massachusetts may now brag that 99% of its residents have some kind of health insurance, it would be prudent for members of Congress, and the president, to take a long, hard look at the state's housing market, and ask -- at what expense?

With an unemployment rate that is expected to grow in the foreseeable future, this is not the time to demand that Americans help shoulder some of the government's burden in covering the uninsured by requiring they carry health insurance, or be fined. It's essential to be perfectly clear that, now more than ever, there is a difference between universal health care, and a government mandate.

Any reform that includes a mandate is reform in name only, and may ultimately prove to accomplish little more than to drive people from hospital emergency rooms into homeless shelters.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The front door...

Too often one forgets the obvious:

You have to get in the front door before you can rearrange the furniture

From Michael Winship

Where Are the Snows - and Shovels - of Christmas Past?

Michael Winship

We had our first snowstorm of the winter in Manhattan this past weekend and it served to remind me that I have not actually shoveled snow in decades - the result of living in a city where other people are hired to do it for you. It once was said that the definition of a city was a place where one could keep a mistress and buy a violin; to me it's a place where someone else does the sidewalks.

This is after all, a cosmopolitan island off the coast of the eastern United States, where patrols of garbage trucks with plows attached to the front - sometimes half a dozen of them at once - scraped our streets several times during the night and following day. We even have those trucks that melt 60 tons of snow an hour and flush it into the sewers, where presumably the alligators who live down there are
going, "What the...?"

It wasn't always like this - four decades ago, in February 1969, 15 inches of snow fell on New York one Sunday and the city was totally paralyzed. Nearly 40 percent of our snow removal gear wasn't working properly because of poor maintenance. The borough of Queens was especially hard hit, with neighborhoods unplowed for days and no bus service or garbage pick-up. Mayor John Lindsay was booed as he tried to tour the streets.

That winter, I was just finishing high school and shoveling snow was still an important, if not just about the only part of my physical regimen. As the season began, there were a couple of tiny rituals in my family that were observed at the beginning of each December: phoning Mr. Witherspoon to ask permission to use his hill for sledding (a formality - it was always granted) and negotiating a contract for shoveling the snow from the sidewalk and driveway of our neighbors across the street.

This was slightly more difficult, as the neighbors, an older woman and her daughter, were perceived by we kids as somewhat crabby, although the daughter, who was a nurse, impressed me mightily one summer afternoon when she deftly flushed with a large syringe of water a bug that had flown into my little sister's ear.

A deal was made - five dollars for the entire winter - shoveling, scraping, salting. A paltry sum by today's standards; hell, a paltry sum by 1969 standards, but we were neighbors and this was what you were supposed to do. And of course, this was in addition to shoveling out our own home, which was performed gratis because we knew what was good for us.

It does seem as if there was more snow back then. Of course, in upstate New York, we had snow like southern California has almost constant sunshine. One winter when I was small, I remember seeing helicopters - a rarity then - dropping feed to snowbound cattle. And there were times the snow was so deep that someone from the sheriff's office would arrive at our house on a snowmobile to ferry my pharmacist father to his drugstore to fill emergency prescriptions.

Christmas seems different now, too, especially in this city. Two weekends ago, my sister was in town and she, my girlfriend and I went down to the Wall Street area where multiple Santa Clauses in various states of ho-ho-hilarity and inebriation slowly surrounded us. This, we learned, was SantaCon, an annual event of recent years described on its official Web site as "a not-for-profit, non-political, non-religious & non-logical Santa Claus convention, attended for absolutely no reason."

Although the organizers deny it, what it seems to have become is a glorified pub crawl, amusing at first, but a little intimidating as the red suits and white beards numbers grew in legion and sobriety steadily diminished, reminiscent of that old saying, "It's all fun and games until someone starts resisting arrest."

We retreated to the South Street Seaport where carolers from the Big Apple Chorus were serenading shoppers and sightseers. As they swung into "Jingle Bell Rock," this, too, triggered teenage memories.

Late each Christmas Eve, a bunch of us would gather, some with our band instruments from high school - a trumpet or two, a clarinet, a saxophone and trombone. We'd pile into a couple of automobiles and make the rounds of our small town, singing and playing carols: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Deck the Halls," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night."

We'd get out of the cars and crunch through the snowdrifts to our destinations; the homes of friends, mostly, and a couple of nursing homes.

The final stop was the county jail, where men would spend Christmas in cells for drunk driving or domestic disputes or non-payment of child support. As we performed, I always hoped we'd hear some voice from within, responding to our tinny renditions, like the old man in Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales, who answers the carolers' "Good King Wenceslas" in "a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole."

But we never did.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Friday, December 18, 2009

From Michael Winship: "Happy Holidays from America's Banks"

Happy Holidays from America's Banks

By Michael Winship

Never mind Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope. It's the audacity of the banks that takes your breath away. Mean old Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life seems like Father Christmas by comparison.

A recent report that Citigroup and Goldman Sachs may have received preferential treatment getting doses of the swine flu vaccine was enough to give Ebenezer Scrooge the yips. Then came news that in order for us to get back the taxpayer bailout money we loaned them, Citigroup is receiving billions of dollars in tax breaks from the IRS.

And there's a new study this week, "Rewarding Failure," from the public interest group Public Citizen, revealing that in the years leading up to the financial meltdown, the CEO's of the 10 Wall Street giants that either collapsed or got huge amounts of TARP money were paid an average of $28.9 million dollars a year.

In 2007, that amounted to 575 times the median income of an American family. Now, thanks in part to the banks' monumental malfeasance that led to our economic swan dive, food stamps are now being used to feed one in eight Americans, and a quarter of all the kids in this country. A new poll from The New York Times and CBS News reports that more than half of our unemployed have borrowed money from friends and relatives and have cut back on medical treatment.

The Times wrote that, "Joblessness has wreaked financial and emotional havoc on the lives of many of those out of work... causing major life changes, mental health issues and trouble maintaining even basic necessities." Yet according to the non-profit Americans for Financial Reform the reported $150 million that Wall Street is paying itself in compensation and bonuses this year would be enough to solve the budget crisis of every one of the fifty states or create millions of jobs or prevent all foreclosures for four years.

All of this wretched excess is occurring as more and more people can't afford a roof over their heads. Foreclosures were up another five percent in the third quarter - 23percent more than a year ago. Fewer Americans are willing to buy foreclosed properties, and the Obama administration's foreclosure prevention plan has been a bust so far - way too timid, critics say, and many of the banks won't play ball,
refusing to negotiate in good faith with homeowners desperate to hold on.

We got a first hand look at the crisis this week, when thousands lined up at the Jacob Javits Convention Center just a few blocks from our Manhattan offices to attend a mortgage assistance event sponsored by the non-profit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA). So many showed up for this leg of the "Save the Dream Tour" that on many days, staff and volunteers stayed to help until one in the morning.

NACA has had success getting homeowners and banks together to work out a deal to prevent foreclosure. But the big banks' return to the government of the TARP bailout money with which we underwrote them over the last 14 months is a mixed blessing - great to have the cash returned so quickly, terrible because any leverage Washington held over the banks because of the loans virtually vanishes with the payback. They're back in the saddle and not inclined to be of much assistance helping anyone else out, especially those in mortgage trouble.

As Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times wrote in the wake of President Obama's Monday meeting with Wall Street's top guns (three of whom failed to show up because of airport delays), "Executive compensation e_pay/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> , leverage limits and lending standards were all issues that Washington said it planned to change - and when the taxpayers were the shareholders of these firms, it probably could have done so. But now the White House has been left in the position of extending invitations, rather than exercising its clout. And in the figurative and literal sense, it is getting stood up."

Afterwards, Obama said, "The problem is there's a big gap between what I'm hearing here in the White House and the activities of lobbyists on behalf of these institutions or associations of which they're a member up on Capitol Hill."

That's putting it mildly. This week, the American Bankers Association sent out an update and "call to action" memorandum crowing over its success watering down the bank reform bill that was approved by the House and urging its members to beat back similar legislation in the Senate. Self-righteously, it concludes, "As one of your New Year's resolutions, please vow to do everything in your power to show, and to
have your colleagues in your bank show, your Senators the right path to true reform."

It helps when the right path is paved with silver and gold. As "Crossing Wall Street," a November report from the Center for Responsive Politics notes, "The finance, insurance and real estate sector has given $2.3 billion to candidates, leadership PACs and party committees since 1989, which eclipses every other sector...
"The financial sector has also been a voracious lobbying force, spending an unprecedented $3.8 billion since 1998, while sending an army of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to make its case. That's more money than any other sector has spent on influence peddling. Not even the health care sector, which spun up a lobbying frenzy this year over health reform, has spent more."

The banks are making a list and checking it twice. And lest we forget, during his run for the White House, the finance sector filled Barack mObama's stocking with $39.5 million dollars worth of campaign contributions, more than any other presidential candidate.

God bless us, every one!

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at
Research support provided by producer William Brangham
and associate producer Katia Maguire.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Il faut dormir

Il faut dormir comme un ange avec l'habitude d'eternite.

et en anglais:

One must sleep like an angel that is used to eternity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How About A War Rebate?

When I went into the local cellular phone store the other day to check out the newest line of cell phones, I noticed that every phone came with a mail-in cash back rebate. I got to thinking about the whole notion of rebates, and whether the average tax paying consumer is also entitled to a rebate whenever a commander-in-chief, and the Pentagon, decide to commit troops to armed conflict overseas.

Forget about the worthiness of combat, forget about the stunning, but not surprising, announcement last week from Defense Secretary Gates Robert Gates that, after eight years of a combat operation whose mission was to capture Osama bin Laden, there is no "reliable information" about bin Laden's whereabouts, and hasn't been in years. Let's factor out who trained and armed the Taliban in Pakistan, and sent them off to fight in Afghanistan, let's not even talk about who really finances this war, China, and their commitment to "democracy," and instead focus solely on dollars spent.

So, for the sake of argument, let's say that the American taxpayer were to request his small slice of the billions made in profits, and demand a rebate on:

more than $1 trillion government analysts are willing to admit has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, though a Nobel laureate in Economics puts that figure closer to three times that amount

the nearly $700 billion allocated for the Department of Defense in 2010 federal budget, as of February, 2009, or roughly half the total budget of which $130 billion is targeted for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with an additional $50 billion held in reserve for DOD discretionary spending

And, let's just say that, as a precondition for giving even another penny to the masters of war, taxpayers asked for rebates of 2% in the form of a tax refund by the end of 2011, what would that come to? Any math majors out there? How much would that be when divided by 300 million Americans?

Yes, that's right, let's forget about the $5,000 tax credit to cover the cost of private health care, and instead provide a rebate to each and every American for each and every dollar spent on war. We can even think of it as another kind of deterrence. And, in the interest of fairness, why start with the 2010 federal budget through the date the president projects U.S. troops will begin withdrawal from Afghanistan--July, 2011, with the rebate made payable at year end in December 2011?

Of course, there can be no rebate to mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, husbands, and children of service men and women killed, maimed, or wounded in battle nor are we any closer to a time when high school graduates must no longer risk their lives because that is their only opportunity for higher education.

When one considers the egregious inequity when nearly three times as much money is being budgeted for the Department of Defense as for the Department of Education, and four times as much recovery money, what a statement about national priorities.

While it is true that U.S. budget deficits have reached new highs approaching $1.5 trillion for 2010, is it a coincidence that this is a conservative estimate of what has been spent on war since 2002?

Some,like Lawrence Wilkerson, contend that the bill for repairing military equipment, tanks, carriers, bombers and the like could be as much as $100 billion.

Not that anyone wants to see young people sent to battle inadequately protected, or prepared, but given the alacrity with which the banks are returning some of their bailout money, it's not unreasonable to ask the government to let people know when we. too, may expect to be bailed out, as well as when that rebate check will be in the mail.

Friday, December 11, 2009

From Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

The Land Mines Obama Won't Touch

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Many people are troubled that Barack Obama flew to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize so soon after escalating the war in Afghanistan. He is now more than doubling the number of troops there when George W. Bush left office.

The irony was not lost on the President, and he tried to address it in his Nobel acceptance speech. "I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land," he said. "Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other."

Granted, there's a gap here between the rhetoric and the reality. But there's always been something askew about Nobel Peace Prize, in no small part because it's given in the name of the man who invented dynamite, one of the most powerful and destructive weapons in the human arsenal.

It was rumored that after Alfred Nobel brought his version of Frankenstein into the world, he was torn by guilt over his creation, his shame said to have intensified when a French newspaper prematurely ran his obituary with the headline, "The Merchant of Death is Dead." The article vilified him as a man "who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before."

What's more, until the end of his life he corresponded with a woman named Bertha von Suttner, who had briefly worked as his secretary. Many believe that Nobel was moved by a powerful antiwar book she had written titled "Lay Down Your Arms." Whatever his reasons, when his will created the Nobel Prizes he specifically included among them a prize for peace. Von Suttner became one of its first recipients.

After Nobel's death, events turned grim, as if to mock him further. The arms race exploded beyond anything he could have imagined. From the coupling of science and the military came ever more ingenious weapons of destruction that would take even more lives in ever more horrible ways.

One of the most insidious was the land mine, that small, explosive device filled with shrapnel that burns or blinds, maims or kills.

Triggered by the touch of a foot or movement or even sound, more often than not it's the innocent who are its victims - 75 to 80 percent of the time, in fact.

As a weapon, variations of land mines have been around since perhaps as early as the 13th century, but it was not until World War I that the technology was more or less perfected, if that can be said of weapons that mangle and mutilate the human body, and their use became common.

The United States has not actively used land mines since the first Gulf War in 1991, but we still possess some 10-15 million of them, making us the third largest stockpiler in the world, behind China and Russia.

Like those two countries, we have refused to sign an international agreement banning the manufacture, stockpiling and use of land mines. Since 1987, 156 other nations have signed it, including every country in NATO. Amongst that 156, more than 40 million mines have been destroyed.

Just days before Obama flew to Oslo to make his Nobel Peace Prize speech, an international summit conference was held in Cartagena, Colombia, to review the progress of the treaty. The United States sent representatives and the State Department says our government has begun a comprehensive review of its current policy.

Last year 5,000 people were killed or wounded by land mines, often placed in the ground years before, during wars long since over. They kill or blow away the limbs of a farmer or child as indiscriminately as they do a soldier. But still we refuse to sign, citing security commitments to our friends and allies, such as South Korea, where a million mines fill the demilitarized zone between it and North Korea.

Twelve years ago, at the time the treaty was first put into place, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams, an activist from Vermont who believes that by organizing into a movement, ordinary people can matter. She proved it, despite the stubborn refusal of her own country's government to do the right thing.

Last week, Jody Williams condemned America's continuing refusal to sign the treaty as "a slap in the face to land mine survivors, their families, and affected communities everywhere."

The Nobel Committee said that part of the reason it was giving the Peace Prize to President Obama was for his respect of international law and his efforts at disarmament. And twice in his Nobel lecture, the President spoke of how often more civilians than soldiers die in a war.

Then he said this: "I believe that all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I, like any head of state, reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakens - those who don't."

And still the land mine treaty goes unsigned by the government he leads.

Go figure.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of
the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday
night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Selective Subpoenas

Lawmakers have now decided to subpoena the Salahis, the Virginia couple who arrived uninvited to the White House's first state dinner last month. The couple will appear before the Committee for Homeland Security to answer questions as to what they were doing at the dinner, and why they went there in the first place.

For a country that has become consumed with concerns about national security, over the past eight years, why is it that Congress appears not only to selectively subpoena, but selectively enforce subpoenas? Why, for instance, is it possible for Karl Rove to evade a subpoena, and for a former vice-president, Dick Cheney, to tell George Stephanopoulos, back in 2006, that if he were to be subpoenaed, he would "probably not testify." Can a former public servant claim executive privilege when he's a private citizen, too? Does it advance national security to have two public officers operate below the radar of the law, and the U.S. Constitution, and not be answerable to Congress?

What is even more intriguing--how is it that when the new commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, testified before Congress about his planned mission in Afghanistan, not one member of Congress asked him about the secret assassination squad he headed that was kept classified by order of Dick Cheney for eight years? Why didn't anyone ask McChrystal to confirm or deny under oath his role in that clandestine operation?

The Central Intelligence Agency concealed information about what was euphemistically called a "counterterrorism program" for nearly a decade, and to this day, the exact nature of that program has never been publicly identified. While Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, said that he ended the program, he refused to describe what it entailed, and as the New York Times reported, back in July, "efforts to reach Mr. Cheney through relatives and associates were unsuccessful." Is it too late to subpoena Mr. Cheney to find out if the program Mr. Panetta disabled was the one first divulged by Seymour Hersh?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of transparency, but priorities seem to be as important as transparency. If the only crime the Salahis committed was making a fraudulent statement to get into a White House function, then it falls way lower on the Richter scale than what Karl Rove did, and Mr. Rove has successfully managed to evade a subpoena about his role in outing Valerie Plame. The former president of the U.S. Senate, Dick Cheney, publicly acknowledged that he would defy a congressional subpoena and most likely refuse to testify before Congress. And, when the former head of Cheney's assassination squad appears before Congress, not one peep out of any of our esteemed members of Congress about McChrystal's former job description. Why on earth not?

Yes, it's alarming that anybody could get within a hundred feet of the president of the United States at a private White House function especially given that the demands on the secret service are 400% greater today than they were under George W. Bush, so why doesn't Congress subpoena the secret service agents who allowed that to happen in the first place, and who have been placed on administrative leave?

When former attorney general Alberto Gonzales appeared before a congressional panel to discuss who signed off on enhanced alternative interrogation techniques, and when, Gonzales alluded to other "programs" that had not yet been divulged. The then-attorney general referenced other programs not once, but a few times, and no one asked him to spell out what he means.

By not demanding equal time for all wrongdoers, and those who threaten national security, to come forward and tell the whole truth, Congress itself becomes a co-conspirator in those misdeeds.

Missing in Action

I've been missing in action lately as I was infected at work with a terrible head cold which is now in my chest. As I have a history of pneumonia, I'm hoping that it goes away fast.

I will be back soon, but please accept my best wishes for Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 04, 2009

"The Afghan Ambush" by Michael Winship

Courtesy of Bill Moyers Journal, and Public Affairs Television:

The Afghan Ambush

By Michael Winship

The decision has been made. The months of meetings and briefings are over. Tuesday night, the President made it official: 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.

Along with Friday's announcement of an additional 7,000 from our NATO allies, after all those weeks of debate and consultation, the result's pretty much exactly what our commander over there, General Stanley McChrystal, asked for in the first place.

As they used to say in the old war movies, we're in it now, up to our necks. More than ever, this is Obama's War. The mess he inherited from the previous administration is now his mess. And while many Republicans may don their helmets, rattle their empty rusty scabbards and shout that escalation is the only way to go, their temporary declarations of support are just that - temporary. Pats on the back are simply their way of finding the proper place to stick the knife.

Last week's Gallup Poll showed that while 65 percent of Republicans support sending all the troops McChrystal wants, only 17 percent of Obama's own Democrats do; 57 percent want a troop reduction. In other words, ignoring the entreaties of a majority in his own party Obama is going to war cheered on by the opposition that will do everything in its power next fall to bring him and his fellow Democrats down.

Friday's New York Times reported, "President Obama 's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan over the objections of fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill is straining a relationship already struggling under the weight of an administration agenda that some Democratic lawmakers fear is placing them in a politically vulnerable position."

Next year's midterm elections could be a disaster for the Democrats. That's what happened to Lyndon Johnson. After winning by the largest plurality ever in 1964, bringing with him huge majorities in the House and Senate, in 1965 he escalated the Vietnam War. The next year, Democrats lost 50 seats in Congress.

That's just one of the possible effects of this fateful decision, one that could scuttle Obama's campaign promises of social and other reforms just as surely as the Vietnam War did President Johnson's. Guns and butter, LBJ said; for a time he thought we could pay for both. We could not.

Money that could be spent generating jobs, improving education, fighting global warming and world hunger is poured into this bottomless chasm of war. Some estimates put the ultimate cost of occupying Afghanistan at a trillion dollars. Add that figure to the mind-numbing numbers we've already spent on the occupation of Iraq. It keeps mounting even as our cities and states are running out of cash, unemployment benefits are drying up, and we're trying to figure out how to pay for health care reform - which some politicians are suggesting we back burner so that we can "focus" on the war in Afghanistan.

Yet nothing is certain about our objectives there. The original goal of capturing Osama bin Laden was lost long ago, and so scattered now are our motives and so shaky our rationale that, prior to President Obama's speech, the Pentagon was asking the public to Twitter what "points and/or issues" they thought the President should highlight.

Nor is there any real evidence that the administration is serious about the 18-month timetable for withdrawal that the President announced in his West Point address. As The New Republic's Michael Crowley wrote, "The pledge is a largely empty one: In a conference call, White House officials made it amply clear that the extent and pace of any drawdown would be based on conditions on the ground. Theoretically, Obama's promise tonight could entail withdrawing 100 troops in July 2011 and pulling out the rest ten years later. Much as the White House wants to deny it, what we've got here is an open-ended commitment."

Our own military says Osama bin Laden's true believers have been reduced to a relative few, chased across the border into Pakistan or scattered as far as Yemen and Somalia. As for the Taliban, there seems to be a growing belief among many generals that at least certain factions can be bought off, much as the support of certain Sunni insurgents was paid for in Iraq, fueling the so-called "surge" that's increasingly mythologized as victory. But what part of "take the money and run" does the Pentagon not understand?

And when it comes to training the Afghan police and army, and continuing to support the corrupt and dysfunctional government of Hamid Karzai - such a wager has all the makings of the sucker bet to end all sucker bets. Toss into that pot disputatious warlords fueled by self-interest, the opium trade and hostility toward any outside occupier, and the already slim odds fade to mathematical improbability.

You've made your decision, Mr. President, and good luck with it. But turn back as fast as you can. It's an ambush.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at


When I say "I" is figurative, I mean it quite literally.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Afghanistan---the Sisyphus War

As Albert Camus once said, "The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor." After tonight's speech, there can be little doubt that Afghanistan will be, for Obama, the Sisyphus war.

At best, war is a difficult enterprise, but by his decision to fan the fires of a conflict that is languishing, and extinguishing itself, this president will share the distinction, with Sisyphus, of endlessly trying to defy gravity.

This was a speech of contradictions--an increase of troops in order to facilitate withdrawal, a desire to stabilize, and support an unstable, and corrupt government, and a refrain that has become at once familiar, and tired, one that harps on 9/11 as justification for prolonging a struggle from which even Sisyphus would have been spared.

Who can forget image of Gates and Clinton, Defense and State, sitting side by side, collaborators in seeing to it that this newest inhabitant of the Oval Office is fed his minimum daily requirement of Kool-Aid. Only one who forgets that U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan longer than Iraq could accept the rationale behind not merely extending their stay, but increasing their numbers by 50%.

Have those who govern this country become so cynical that they think the American public will believe, even for an instant, that we're sending a fresh crop of young men and women into harm's way to inflict "freedom" on yet another part of the world?

Do the heads of State and Defense, and the commander-in-chief, expect any literate adult to believe that it's possible to eradicate bin Laden, and Al Qaeda, without involving Pakistan?

Is it any secret who trained bin Laden when he was a Freedom Fighter in Afghanistan? Is there any doubt about where U.S. funds went that were funneled into Pakistan for the ten plus year period during which General Musharraf ruled?

Why would anyone expect to find a fugitive from the CIA, one who was allowed to escape months after 9/11, to be hiding out in the same cave in Tora Bora for the past eight plus years?

The target date for withdrawal is eighteen months away. In light of the eight years already invested in the region, there can be little doubt that in July, 2011, this administration, like that of its predecessor, may find itself condemned to watching a rock fall back on itself.

Caught in the Cross Fire

The President spoke to thousands of cadets at West Point on Tuesday and, as anticipated, announced the deployment of another 30,000 troops starting after the first of the year.

Cameras scanned the crowded auditorium where the speech was delivered. One could see the fresh, if sombre faces of those who have chosen the military as their career, and will soon be called upon to join the front lines an ever-expanding battlefield thousands of miles away.

Forgetting, for a moment, whether or not the World Trade Center was attacked by Afghanistan in 2001, and forgetting whether or not it was Al Qaeda or the Taliban who attacked us; forgetting, too, whether Al Qaeda is even in Afghanistan, and overlooking the quintessential question -- how can any serious effort at counterinsurgency not at least partially include Pakistan, one's focus was inextricably drawn not to those were present to hear this latest war speech, but those who were absent.

Looking around the auditorium at West Point, what one didn't see are the faces of those service men and women who, in a moment of anguish, ended their lives while on duty in Iraq, and Afghanistan. What is not factored into military service is what the Defense Department has tried to sweep under the rug, over the past eight plus years, the fact that the suicide rate over the past decade among combat forces has reached record levels. And, while efforts at containment appear to be working, combat suicides in 2008 will be the highest yet.

When called upon to send condolence letters to families of those who have served their country honorably, and given their lives in military service, the President will not be writing a personal letter to loved ones of those who committed suicide. So far this year, there have been more than 60 confirmed suicides in the Army alone. In a culture of machismo, despair is seen as a sign of weakness. By not acknowledging the service of those who have succumbed to despair, the subliminal message is "stay tough out there," but toughness is not synonymous with insensitivity. Indeed, insensitivity, and feelings of invulnerability often lead to the kinds of abuses by interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

Being in touch with the reality of armed conflict can only lead to despair. Being called upon for protracted, and repeat tours of duty often does result, understandably, in depression.

When President Obama addressed those spanking clean uniforms at West Point, he was not addressing a group of pawns on a global chessboard. This speech was not intended to be a pep rally for a Special Ops videogame. These are not toy soldiers. They are young men and women prepared to die for their country and, more precisely, for the illusion that they're dying for their country. The commmander-in-chief owes it to them to acknowledge their efforts, great or small, even those whose disillusionment has led them to turn their weapons on themselves.

The White House has said that not sending letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide is longstanding policy, and one that is not of their making, but it is an egregious policy that needs to be overturned. All this policy does is transfer feelings of hopelessness, worthless, and disenfranchisement from the fallen service member to loved ones back home.

And, factoring out the whys and wherefores, whether this administration is telling the truth or not about the reasons for U.S. involvement in the region, as long as there are any troops going to war at all, it is just and reasonable for the commander-in-chief to formally acknowledge, and honor, all those who have served this country, even those trapped in a cross fire not of their making.