Saturday, September 30, 2006

Bye-bye, First Amendment

Erwin Chemerinsky writes in Saturday's Washington Post about a bill that passed the House of Representatives this week, almost unnoticed beneath the controversy over detainee rights. HR 2679, the Public Expression of Religion Act, amends 42 USC 1988, an obscure provision from the 1970's that allows plaintiffs to be reimbursed for their legal fees if they prove that the government violated their Constitutional rights. The new act, if passed by the Senate and signed by the President, would prohibit the awarding of legal fees if the case was brought on the basis of a violation of the First Amendment's "establishment clause": Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

The rights specified in the Constitution have no meaning if they are unenforceable, and how many of us have the financial resources to pursue a lawsuit with no hope of recovering our legal costs? Don't misunderstand this provision: if your claim is dismissed, you don't get legal fees anyway. This bill, if it becomes law, would mean that even if you have a valid claim that the government violated your rights, you have to pay all the legal costs yourself.

Chemerinsky is right: the only possible purpose of this law is to make it possible for governments to violate the Establishment Clause with impunity, knowing that few people have the ability to absorb the cost of defending the Constitution in court. This shameful bill must be obliterated by the Senate or struck down by the courts, because this treasonous direct attack on the Constitution must not stand. HR 2679 is the cornerstone of a new theocracy in which only the majority's religious views will be honored.

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Congressman Pedophile

U.S. Representative Mark A. Foley, a six-term Republican from the 16th district of Florida, abruptly resigned from Congress on Friday afternoon, just hours after receiving word from ABC News that they were going to go public with e-mails and instant messages that Foley allegedly sent to a 16-year-old Congressional page. First of all, I want to dispense with the spin that has already floated around on the Internet that Foley was just being a "mentor" or a "friend" to the unnamed page. Foley reportedly asked the page for details about his anatomy, asked him for details about how and how often he masturbates, asked him to take off his clothes, and asked him repeatedly if he had an erection or was feeling horny from their e-mail exchanges. The messages unequivocally crossed the line into sexual contact that would be inappropriate for any 52-year-old to initiate with a 16-year-old, but most especially for a Congressman with a Congressional page. Relationships such as teacher–student, boss–employee, priest–parishioner, and other intrinsically hierarchical power dynamics, require the utmost care in having any sort of sexual relationship, even between two consenting adults. News reports have emphasized that the page was male, but his age and his subordinate status are the much more important issues.

Read more...Congressman Foley built much of his career on a foundation of combating child predators, arguing for stronger penalties for people who use the Internet to sexually exploit children. He's a heinous hypocrite in that respect, and he inappropriately used his position of power to ingratiate himself with underage teens. But there are other issues that come into play here.

America has a truly warped view of children's sexuality. On the one hand, you have groups like NAMBLA who argue that a child is a sexual being, exactly like an adult, and should have the right to have a sexual relationship with someone five or ten times his or her own age. (Male-male pedophilia gets a disproportionate share of the attention, but, as people like John Mark Karr remind us, the overwhelming majority of pedophiles are male adults chasing after female children. If you doubt it, just do a search on the word LΟLΙΤΑS and you'll find plenty of sites catering to that market.) On the opposite side, you have groups, usually religiously based, who insist that anyone under the age of 18 is completely innocent of any sexual feelings whatsoever — unless they've been twisted by some dirty pervert. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. Even before birth, children demonstrate their sexual nature. Masturbation is a common form of self-soothing in infants, and it is quite common for young children to "play doctor" and to explore their fascination with their own private parts and those of other children. With the onset of puberty, masturbation becomes an almost universal pastime, and it is difficult to get teens to focus on anything other than sex. The key facts to remember are that children are always sexual beings, but that their sexuality is qualitatively different from adult sexuality. An eight-year-old is no more able to have a functional sexual relationship with a 50-year-old than to fly to the moon. As the child gets older, the line becomes much fuzzier; serious scientific research shows that many sexual relationships between a child only perhaps a year or two from the age of consent and an adult can be harmless to the child, or at the very least far less harmful than being dragged through the judicial system as a witness against their paramour. Simply put, some 16- and 17-year-olds are more ready to deal with sexual relationships than others, and it is a mistake to make the blanket assumption that any sexual contact between such a youth and an adult is harmful. Absolutely any sexual activity in private between or among freely consenting adults should be legal, without exception or reservation. In cases involving minors, there should be an honest accounting of whether the activity was truly harmful from the minor's perspective, or whether the prosecution is motivated more by its own unwillingness to accept the reality that sexual feelings don't just magically begin the moment you turn 18. This notion that we're going to subject the child to such an ordeal "for his or her own good" just cannot stand the light of day.

What Congressman Foley allegedly did was wrong because the youths with whom he traded these sexually explicit messages were in a subordinate relationship (giving the situation an inescapable taint of coercion), because Foley initiated the contact and pressed it forward, and because he ignored obvious signals of discomfort from the boys. He should be punished for those transgressions, and indeed I believe that he should go to prison for them. However, the longer America postpones having an open and honest discussion about the realities of children's and adolescents' sexuality, the more children will fall victim to creeps like this, the more teens will get pregnant, the more teens and pre-teens will get venereal diseases including HIV, and the more generations we will produce with the same warped views of sex. Of course, part of that warped view is that there is something wrong with an adult man having sex with another adult man, or a woman with a woman.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Hunters Point Protest

On 1966-09-27, a police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old who was fleeing the scene of a stolen car in the predominantly African-American Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in the southeast corner of San Francisco. The killing touched off several days of protest, often referred to as the Hunters Point Riot. Forty years later, those protests have almost been forgotten, but a new controversy — the invalidation of petitions calling for a referendum on the neighborhood redevelopment plan — coinciding with the anniversary led to a commemoration along with a whole new protest. I have photos, quotes, and commentary from Wednesday's protest.

Read more...The very first thing that struck me was that this group had much better slogans than most protests I've seen or participated in. There was none of the "Hey, hey, ho, ho" nonsense that I've complained about previously. Here are two of the better calls I heard:

No Justice, No Peace
No Racist Police!

Every day, the same old thang:
Oink, oink, bang bang!
They're catchy because they're not the same old recycled fill-in-the-blank stock chants. Although there was considerable attention paid to issues of police hostility towards the neighborhood and its residents, the focus was on the redevelopment plan, which opponents say was drafted with minimal input from the residents. The co-sponsors of the rally included POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, ACORN, Environmental Justice & Advocacy, and other groups.

Hunters Point March 01 Hunters Point March 02 Hunters Point March 04 Hunters Point March 05 Hunters Point March 08 Hunters Point March 08 detail Hunters Point March 09 Hunters Point March 10 Hunters Point March 11

On 2006-09-19, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled that, by his interpretation of a California Supreme Court decision requiring that all initiative petitions include all relevant documents, the petitions circulated to overturn the redevelopment plan for Bayview-Hunters Point were invalid; the issue will not go before voters in November unless Herrera's ruling is reversed. Organizers of the petition drive point out that the documents they were faulted for not including with the petition amounted to over 1,000 pages. They got over 33,000 signatures — far more than the 21,000 needed — with 70% of those signatures coming from white people who live in other neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Willie Ratcliff (sp?) of the San Francisco Bay View spoke about the petition drive. The old Coca-Cola bottling plant is being converted to apartments with 375 units, all at market rate: no provision is being made for low- or middle-income residents. Mr. Ratcliff also endorsed Yes on 90.
Sister Marie Harrison, one of the candidates for District 10 Supervisor, spoke of her optimism, saying, "Change is coming: I feel it on the wind!" She also demonstrated the impact of the City Attorney's ruling by having an assistant hold up the stack of documents that were supposed to have accompanied each copy of the petition. The printing costs would have been prohibitive, and the sheer weight would have made petitioning onerous in the extreme.
Minister Curtis Mohammed (sp?) of the Nation of Islam, Bay Area, spoke next. The following is a paraphrase of the substance of his remarks. Forty years ago, a young black man named Matthew Johnson was murdered here in Hunters Point by the San Francisco Police Department. That murder sparked not a riot but a revolt. If justice is not given, over time, the anger of the people rises. What kind of stand are you willing to take now to stop the hemorrhaging of our community? Law enforcement supports and sometimes instigates gang violence: we know where the guns come from. The same people who foment civil war in Africa and the Middle East are at work here in Hunters Point. Time out for talk, time out for game-playing, time out for double-dealing, time out for duplicity. In South Africa, we put rubber tires around the necks of those people who betray their own. Smiling people sometimes tell lies. We mus build our own destiny for our own people: put your life on the line for the community. We want to own the Projects.

A woman named Meesha spoke next, bringing a quote highlighting police racism way back in ... 2003! San Francisco police officers used brutal tactics to corral African Americans back into "their" neighborhood, saying, "As long as you people are here, we're going to keep doing this!" Meesha also spoke against Prop. 90. The next speakers, whose names I didn't catch, said, "Either you stand for something or you fall for anything!" and "Wake your game up! United Playaz tell you to put the guns down and help each other!"

Sister Stephanie Hughes from ACORN [the Association of Community Organizatinos for Reform Now] spoke next, speaking for ACORN in enouncing the City Attorney's decision on the Hunters Point redevelopment referendum. She spoke of the need for community control of redevelopment and land-use decision to bring about responsible redevelopment on the community's terms. Gentrification is forcing people out of their own neighborhoods.
Next up was Charlie Walker, another candidate for District 10 Supervisor. Charlie has lived in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood all of his life. The Redevelopment Agency did a study that showed that the Fillmore area redevelopment plan took unfair advantage of black people in the Western Addition, but now they're doing it again. "The Redevelopment Agency is designed to get black people out of the cities and back to the cotton fields! Why are black people fighting a war in Iraq but we can't get justice here?"
Lavon Barnes and B.J. Higgins spoke next for POWER, which has organized the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood — "the only difference here is there is no hurricane." The 3rd Street White Rail won't have a lot of people from this neighborhood on board. It's one minute to midnight. People are going to City Hall and finding that their names are not on the deeds to their homes. We need to take the struggle to the streets like in 1966.
Espanola Jackson, also a candidate for District 10 Supervisor, spoke about the "land grab" represented by the redevelopment plan. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, the District 10 incumbent, signed onto an agreement moving the boundary between Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley. The redevelopment plan includes an Olympic Village in Bayview-Hunters Point, but no one asked the neighborhood if they want an Olympic Village.
Billy "Jazz" Ellis wasn't able to attend in person, but sent a statement that was read to the rally. "Drive out the Bush régime!" In September 1966, Billy was 32 years old, working a split shift on Muni. During his break, he was looking for a store to buy a snack. A police officer told him, "You get your black ass out of here!" Because of his Muni uniform, he was able to explain that he was just going to the store, so the cop relented, but told him that he'd better not be heading down to 3rd Street, where the protest was being held. Of course, he did go. They sent tanks, machine guns, and the National Guard to the Bayview Opera House, but the people fought back. Racism and oppression are built into the system. Another speaker whose name I also didn't catch (Hey, I'm new at this!) from Poor magazine, told about the redevelopment of Chavez Ravine, a Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles that was considered "blighted." After the redevelopment, the entire character of the neighborhood was changed, because so many of the residents were forced to move out. The leaders of the petition drive spoke about the need for community input and the frustration of democracy in the rejection of the referendum petitions.
Sala Chandler, yet another candidate for District 10 Supervisor, gave an energetic speech, trying to get the crowd to show some enthusiasm. She spoke of the need for community involvement, and the need for people to vote.
Malcolm Exodus from the ACLU spoke about the need to push for Reparations for slavery. He dismissed the argument that the people who created and maintained the system of slavery are no longer alive and that those born after slavery should not be held to pay for the sins of their forebears, since those descendants have continued to benefit from the continued oppression of the descendants of slaves.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell did not make an appearance at the rally, although I doubt she would have received a warm welcome.

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Jesus Camp

Tonight, People for the American Way held a free screening of Jesus Camp, a documentary about young children going to an über-Christian summer camp in North Dakota. Some of these kids were as young as 7 or 8 years old, with the bulk of them in middle school. The preacher who runs the camp, Becky Fischer, talks about how various Islamic militant groups indoctrinate their children to lay down their lives for their religion, and advocates for a similar approach in Christianity. The difference between those future Islamic radicals and her future Christian radicals: "We have the truth." Spoken without the faintest trace of irony, her words are chilling.

In the camp, pastor Becky prays over the audiovisual equipment, asking Jesus to prevent Satan from causing a power failure — or a PowerPoint failure! The children are later shown praying to an idol (a lifesize cardboard image of President Bush), writhing on the floor in the grip of the Holy Spirit, and weeping for the millions upon millions of little friends who aren't there at camp because they never got to be born. One boy tells about how he was "saved" when he was five years old, because he felt his life was empty and he wanted something more. Another boy, not much older than five himself, weeps as he wrestles with his feelings of being a charlatan because his faith is not as solid as he feels it should be.

We're a month from Hallowe'en, so it's the season for scary movies. Go see Jesus Camp and think about what will happen if these Christian nutbags continue to amass political power.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Daniel Ellsberg on Torture

Daniel Ellsberg 2006-09-26
Daniel Ellsberg is best known for leaking what became known as the Pentagon Papers — a 7,000-page collection of classified U.S. government documents giving a frank assessment of the unlikely prospects for winning the Vietnam War — to the New York Times in 1971. The publication of those documents was instrumental in turning public opinion against continuing the war. The Bush Administration is continuing the efforts — begun before we even started pulling out our troops — to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War, and particularly to argue that it was only because America "lost its nerve" that we didn't achieve total victory. On Tuesday, Ellsberg came to the University of California's Boalt Hall Law School in Berkeley to talk about the Bush Administration, torture, the erosion of civil liberties, and the efforts to dismantle our very system of government. He focused particularly on John Yoo, a professor at Boalt Hall who also serves as one of the key architects of the Bush Administration's legal theories. I present here some of the points Mr. Ellsberg made, intermixed with some commentary and analysis of my own.

Read more...The U.S. Senate voted this week to expand the definition of enemy combatant to include anyone who commits or supports hostilities against the United States. Given the Bush Administration's quaking in fear over the supposed ambiguity of phrases like outrages upon personal dignity, it seems odd that they would encourage such an ambiguous phrase as supports hostilities against the U.S. Further, the Senate proposal would allow the President to suspend the habeas corpus rights of anyone he declared to be a threat. Those rights have roots going back for centuries before the formation of this country, and even before the western European discovery of the Americas. Bush and his cronies delight in tarring their opponents with the tag of pre-9/11 thinking, and Senator Russ Feingold (D–WI) denounced the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act as pre-1776 thinking, but the Bushies are engaging in pre-1215 thinking, allowing for a single individual to order the indefinite detention of any person with no legal recourse to even challenge their status as enemy combatants.

The United Nations released a report a few days ago, claiming that torture in Iraq today is at levels above and beyond what was practiced under Saddam Hussein's rule. Many readers of this blog cast a jaundiced eye towards anything coming from the United Nations, so let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the U.N. report is wildly exaggerated, and in fact torture in Iraq today is only half as bad as under Saddam. That's a little bit like saying, "I stopped beating my wife with a baseball bat; now I only use a rubber strap." Torture isn't something like air pollution, where a little bit is inevitable. No amount of torture is acceptable, period.

John Yoo is one of a handful of legal scholars who hold extraordinarily extreme views of Presidential prerogatives. In one instance, 178 noted legal scholars joined together to denounce Yoo's interpretations of the Constitution and other fundamentals of law. Yoo believes that the President has the unchallenged authority to start a war. (Ellsberg has some experience with Presidents starting wars without bothering to consult the Congress: he worked for LBJ when that President led us into the Vietnam War.) Yoo also believes that there are no limits whatsoever, imaginable, concrete or hypothetical, to the President's unilateral authority as Commander-in-Chief in a time of war.

The United States Constitution is conspicuously silent on the matter of "war powers," unlike, for instance, Weimar Germany or ancient Rome. The limitations imposed by the U.S. Constitution apply equally in war or in peace, with rare exceptions, such as the ability for the Congress to suspend habeas corpus in time of rebellion or invasion. Even that power, though, cannot constitutionally be invoked for an overseas war.

Many legal experts agree that Yoo's interpretation of the Constitution is completely unfounded. Yoo claims that it was the clear intent of the Founding Fathers to continue the English king's power to start war, and that Congress' declaration of war is a mere formality, a recognition of a state of war that already exists. That interpretation stands the Constitution on its head. The precise purpose of the Constitution was to deny the President the power to start a war except to repel an attack. Even Andrew Jackson, an advocate of an expansive view of Presidential power, said that, unlike the king, the President cannot start a war. Yoo points to precedents such as President Truman's instigation of the Korean War without consutling Congress, but Senator Robert Taft, known as "Mr. Republican," took the lead in denouncing Truman's unilateral prosecution of the war. Time and again, Yoo takes examples of Presidential abuse of power and, rather than using them as cautionary tales to prevent their repetition, he uses them as precedents to justify ever more egregious abuses. Ellsberg said, "After Vietnam, I came to see that the Founders' intent was right." Yoo maintains that there are literally no limits to Presidential power in a situation of war, which by all accounts we will be in for the indefinite future.

Yoo also believes that the President is not bound by the United Nations charter, by treaties that have been duly ratified by the U.S. Senate (making them, under Article VI of the Constitution, "the supreme law of the land"), by any laws (hence Bush's reams of "signing statements" signalling his intention to disregard laws he doesn't like), or even decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Harold Koh, the dean of Yale Law School, said when the Bybee memo was leaked that under the interpretation advocated by John Yoo, the President can order torture, reinstitute slavery, or do anything else he wants.

Doug Castle, a professor at Notre Dame, posed Yoo a hypothetical situation: suppose the President says that he has to torture a prisoner by crushing the prisoner's son's testicles. Yoo responded that there was no law or treaty that could obstruct the President's "inherent authority" to make that judgment. Experience, from the Mafia and other organized crime organizations to the governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, demonstrates that threatening relatives is more effective in extracting accurate information than torturing the prisoner him- or herself. There are eyewitness accounts from the secret prisons currently operated by the United States of situations such as a mother being forced to watch as an interrogator forcibly sodomizes her son. Now that's what I call real Christian family values!

John Yoo points to the World War II detention of Japanese-Americans and Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War as precedents for the President's authority to order indefinite detention of terror suspects, but in doing so he not only ignores the revulsion those precedents evoke, he also overturns precedents of restraint pre-dating even Magna Carta. John Yoo wants to establish not a democracy, not even a constitutional monarchy, but an absolute monarchy, which is to say a dictatorship. President Bush only went before Congress seeking the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) for the Iraq War because of Secretary of State Colin Powell's insistence; John Yoo and others argued that it was unnecessary. The Founders viewed "unnecessary, evil wars" — wars of choice by the king — as the greatest danger to the people. Abraham Lincoln condemned President James Polk for provoking a war with Mexico, noting that the Founders said that the worst danger is for one man to get us into a war.

In 1776, roughly 1/3 of the American people supported the Revolution, another 1/3 supported the king, and the remaining 1/3 were indifferent. Alexander Hamilton wanted the executive to have all the powers of a king except the power to start a war. Daniel Ellsberg started out as a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, then moved as a civilian to the Defense Department, and then to the State Department. He viewed himself as the President's man, and viewed the Congress with contempt. In Vietnam, he saw that he was wrong. The Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honor, for the principles on which the Revolution was founded.

Ellsberg chastised the rest of the Boalt Hall faculty for failing to speak out against John Yoo's extreme positions: "Boalt Hall professors are outrageously failing their responsibility as reputable teachers" to oppose these radical interpretations. He went on to outline what he saw as the Administration's likely measures to consolidate power after the next 9/11-like event:

  • massive detentions, with hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners and others rounded up and held indefinitely
  • the elimination of all limitations on the NSA
  • resumed nuclear testing, by the United States and then inevitably by other countries
  • wholesale abrogation of the Bill of Rights, in a fashion analogous to the Reichstag Fire Decree and subsequent invocation of the Enabling Act,
    enabling the executive under the Weimar constitution to rule by decree without consulting the Reichstag
Of course, one obvious question is, how do we know that the NSA still has any limitations in practice? If Bush felt that he could order them to eavesdrop on communications involving "United States persons" in direct, incontrovertible, 180° violation of the FISA Act, what is to stop him from ordering them to expand their surveillance, for example to find out who leaked the National Intelligence Estimate or some other bit of embarrassing information? As for detentions, the CIA operates a non-secret prison at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, with conditions that are even worse than Guantánamo Bay. President Bush claims to have transferred the last 14 detainees from the secret CIA prisons to Gitmo, but the exact wording he used leaves him some weasel room: he only said that there are no more prisoners under that particular CIA program; he didn't say that there weren't other secret CIA prisons under some other program.

Ellsberg also raised alarm bells about the imminent possibility of an attack on Iran. Leaked memoranda — although it isn't clear whether they are authentic or planted by the administration — indicate that military commanders have been given a deadline of 2006-10-01, mere days away, to present comprehensive plans for attacking Iran and effecting régime change there. The Air Force appears to be confident that with repeated pinpoint bombing, they can blast through the bunkers in which the Iranian nuclear activities are conducted, but the other services do not share their confidence and believe that only a nuclear attack could take out Iran's nuclear capabilities. There is also the possibility of an Israeli attack, but, given the tentativeness of American plans to prevail with only conventional weapons, Israel would certainly have to go nuclear. Could Bush be desperate enough to provoke a war with Iran as an "October surprise" as a last-ditch gamble to retain control of both houses of Congress? I certainly hope, as I'm sure Mr. Ellsberg does, that it doesn't come close to that, but it's frightening to think how close we are to having a madman start a nuclear war — and I'm not talking about Ahmadinejad.

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Waterboarding isTorture, Period

There has been considerable discussion lately about what interrogation techniques are permissible, and under what circumstances, with a particular focus on methods that the CIA has admitted to using in the five years since the 9/11 attacks. One of those methods is called waterboarding, and it is unequivocally — under existing U.S. legal precedents — a war crime.

Read more...During World War II, the Japanese army held thousands of prisoners of war, including American soldiers. Although the Geneva Conventions were expanded after the war, they existed before the war, and Japan was a signatory. However, in its pursuit of total victory at all costs, Japan chose to ignore its obligations under the Geneva Convention of 1929, using torture, slave labor, and other forms of abuse against military and civilian prisoners. After the war, Japan was widely condemned for the inhumanity of its policies, and many Japanese military officers were tried and convicted of war crimes under United States law. One of those war crimes was an interrogation practice markedly similar to what we now call waterboarding. Japanese interrogators covered the prisoner's face with a cloth (Our CIA uses cellophane.) and then poured water on it to create the sensation of drowning, and one Japanese doctor was sentenced to 25 years in prison for that and other abuses.

I've never been a prisoner of war; in fact, I've never been in the military, much less in combat. However, I did almost drown two years ago. I was swimming in a river with a current that was stronger than my badly out of practice swimming skills. By the time I realized I was in real trouble, it was almost too late. As I was desperately trying to swim over to the side, I reached the point of absolute and total physical exhaustion, the point where I could not move another muscle for love nor money, but the stakes were higher than that, and luckily I was out of the worst of the current and only a few more feet from shore. I summoned reserves of stamina I didn't even know I had, and managed to pull myself out of the water. However, I did pay a price for tapping into those reserves: I sat for a full 15 minutes with my heart racing about 150 beats per minute and my breathing almost matching that pace, and I vomited convulsively three times, completely emptying my stomach and still vomiting more. My pupils remained dilated for over an hour, despite bright sunlight. As horrific as that experience was, given a choice between repeating it or being subjected to waterboarding, I would go back to that river bank. My momentary close call was nothing compared to the deliberate and sadistic repeated infliction of the sensation of drowning.

If America is to say honestly that we do not practice torture, then we must not practice waterboarding.

The legal precedent is crystal clear: the CIA interrogators who engaged in waterboarding can be, and indeed must be tried and convicted in U.S. courts under U.S. law of war crimes. "I was just following orders" is not a defense against war crimes, so if their superiors approved or even specifically ordered waterboarding, that doesn't let the interrogators off the hook, although it does mean that any such superiors — up to and including President Bush — must join them in prison. Anything less will endanger Americans around the world for a generation or more.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pervez Musharraf on the Daily Show

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was the featured guest on tonight's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Musharraf made headlines a few days ago with the claim that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened shortly after 9/11 that the United States would bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if they refused to cooperate with us against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Musharraf also just published a memoir, In the Line of Fire.

Here is Jon Stewart's interview with Pervez Musharraf:


Jon Stewart: Now, I know it is customary in Pakistan to offer tea to a guest for hospitality's sake, so I have brought you — this is a jasmine green tea. (Thank you very much.) May I pour? (Yes, indeed.) Thank you, sir. (Very thoughtful of you.) Is this a tea that is recognizable to you? (Yeah, it is.) It's good? Is it a bargain tea? Have I insulted you in any way? (No, no, you didn't, but it is good tea.) This is an American delicacy: it's called a Twinkie. It's made up of a collection of things that are not edible, but when put all together, becomes edible; we don't know how they do it. So, please, to you, to your health, sir. Thank you so much for joining us; we really appreciate it. (Thank you.) Mmm! It's quite good. Is it good? Where's Osama bin Laden?

Pervez Musharraf: I don't know. Do you know where he is? You lead on, we'll follow you.

Stewart: Thank you very much, sir. I have to say this: I have to confess, I know not that much about the history of Pakistan, your history. This is a remarkable tale, told in very plain-spoken language, about a really difficult, volatile situation that you confront in Pakistan, holding together people that are moderate, people that are more extreme, people that are tribal, and trying to connect it all. How has that been to hold that together?

Musharraf: A difficult job, indeed, and especially made more difficult because international perceptions are pulling in one direction and domestic perceptions sometimes pull in the different direction, so I've had to learn the art of tightrope walking many times, and I think I've become quite an expert at that. I do a lot of —

Stewart: The diplomatic aspect of appealing to — It was very interesting to me to read your thought process after 9/11. You received a phone call from Colin Powell the next day, saying Get on board, or get off board

Musharraf: Yes, "You're with us or against us."

Stewart: Two days later, Richard Armitage, who's Undersecretary, calls and says, Oh, by the way, if you don't, there are some bunker-busters with Pakistan's name on it, but your thought process was very logical. Walk through us what you were thinking.

Musharraf: Thought process was basically the interest of my own country, the international interest of Pakistan, and the security of Pakistan, and in that, one did, of course, take into consideration that we're a nuclear state, and destabilization of a nuclear state would cause disturbance to the whole world, obviously, and one has to take very deliberate decisions that you do not cause such an upheaval. But basically, may I say, all said and done, primarily it was our — Pakistan's — national interest on which I based the decision. It happened to be in the interest of the world, also, and therefore we are pursuing it with all the vigor.

Stewart: It was interesting to me that one of your first thoughts was, Can we take these guys? in terms of America, when they said that — you know, I wasn't expecting that. I wasn't expecting one of your first thoughts to be, All right, so let's see, let's say we do go to war with America. Okay, hmm, hmm, hmm [hand gestures], and you drew it out on the board, and you thought, Nyeh.

Musharraf: Well, let me admit that we did take into consideration everything: should we adopt a confrontationist approach? And should we cooperate at all? Now, if we did not cooperate, then obviously somebody else would cooperate. They are going to — We knew that the United States was going to reach out to whoever did this terrible terrorist act of 9/11, and they happened to be in Afghanistan. There is no way of reaching Afghanistan except through Pakistan, so therefore, whether we are on board or not, they would be treading through Pakistan, whether through its airspace or through its land. Therefore this had to be taken into consideration, certainly.

Stewart: Why is it that the north and western provinces, the Waziristan and those areas, that are so difficult to gain control of, you recently made a truce with some tribal leaders in that area. I was thinking in America the idea of, say, making a truce with Florida — because we wouldn't; they don't deserve it! — but here you are, the leader of the state, and you're going to them. What is required in a truce with these leaders? Is it saying, We'll let you be, as long as you don't hurt the national interest?

Musharraf: First of all, we need to understand with whom are we reaching the truce, and then we need to understand what is the greatest danger that is confronting us there. Today, the focus has shifted from al Qaeda to Taliban in that area. Now, what is the greatest danger? Taliban are the people, they are the locals, they are the Pakhtun ethnic group, whereas al Qaeda were not the locals, they were outsiders, and they easily recognizable. These people are from the people, and now the greatest danger is that this Taliban movement gets converted into a Pakhtun people's movement. So therefore the important thing at this moment, as I see it, the strategy is, wean the people away from the Taliban. Wean the non-Taliban Pakhtun away from the Taliban Pakhtun. Now that is the basis of whatever we are doing.

Stewart: Will they no longer, then, give hospitality to the al Qaedas who live in that area, the bad Taliban, so to speak?

Musharraf: Yes, indeed. This is an agreement not to support the Taliban, but to fight the Taliban, to confront the Taliban.

Stewart: Well, that was interesting in the book. You are one of the primary targets of al Qaeda. You describe two assassination attempts — both on the same bridge, by the way. I'm not, again, a leader of a country — I'd come up with a new way to go to work. But the same bridge — this is al Qaeda trying to — apparently feeling that you have been successful in combatting them and terrorism.

Musharraf: Yes, indeed, we have been successful, because we have eliminated them from our cities. We caught over 600, about 680 of them, from the cities. They are no more in our cities, and therefore I keep travelling through the same bridge every time. Almost daily.

Stewart: Are the extremists in Pakistan a noisy minority? You seem to be at the forefront of the threats, yet you seem much calmer about it than we are.

Musharraf: Yes, I am, but [Stewart puts his head in his hands and then eats a Twinkie; Musharraf chuckles.]

Stewart: We're going to take a commercial. We're going to come back with a little more, Mr. President. (Thank you.) Thank you so much again for joining us. We'll be right back.

[commercial break]

Stewart: Welcome back, we're here with President Pervez Musharraf. In your book, it's an incredible autobiography of a life, a very interesting life. There is no mention of Iraq; is that because you felt like it was such a smart move and has gone so well that to mention it would be gloating?

Musharraf: No, I think we were so overly concerned with our area — I have mentioned about, in a passing reference to Iraq, and I know that the situation, whatever the reasons of going there, I won't get involved in a debate on that, but it has led certainly to more extremism and terrorism around the world.

Stewart: So, we're safer?

Musharraf: No, we are not. We are not safer, but I believe in looking at the present and trying to work out strategies for the future: that's what we should concentrate on.

Stewart: When you met with the President, you met with our President a few days ago, are you able to speak candidly with him about what you feel is working and what isn't, and does he seem open or paying attention or does he, let's say, have the TV on?

Musharraf: Well, first of all, we didn't discuss Iraq, if you are meaning that, but we did discuss Afghanistan, and the environment around on our side of the border. He was listening carefully.

Stewart: 'Cause he sleeps with his eyes open; I just want you to know that. All right, Mr. President, we're delighted that you're here, but we have to put you on the Daily Show Seat of Heat. Let's say, if there were an election held in Pakistan today — and not, clearly, for your job, because you're doing a wonderful job — for, let's say, the mayoralty of Karachi, or ombudsman, or something, and we put up two candidates: George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. Be truthful: who would win a popular vote in Pakistan?

Musharraf: I think they'll both lose miserably.

Stewart: You're off the Seat of Heat, sir; well done. In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, it's on bookshelves now. President Pervez Musharraf.
Just a quick plug for the project I'm currently volunteering for: World Can't Wait: Drive Out the Bush Régime, with the Day of Mass Resistance, 2006-10-05. The Bush Administration is undermining the moral basis of our war on terror, undermining Constitutional principles such as the separation of powers, abrogating our international obligations, funneling our tax dollars to corporations and wealthy individuals, wasting the blood of our soldiers, and making America and the world less safe. We the People need to do more than meekly stand on the sidelines tut-tutting and waiting for someone to speak out.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

World Can't Wait News Conference

The organizers of the World Can't Wait protest in San Francisco held a press conference this afternoon on the steps of City Hall. The focus of the briefing was the San Francisco Police Department's foot-dragging on issuing permits for the protest march and rally. First, the permits were flat-out denied. Then the rally was given a permit, although it was moved from Union Square (an upscale shopping area) to Justin Herman Plaza (at the end of Market Street, near the Ferry Building), but the permit for the march was denied because of unspecified "homeland security concerns." Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are most assiduously protected when the speech and assembly are political in nature, since those two freedoms form the bedrock of democracy, but, despite having had two previous World Can't Wait protests come off smoothly, the SFPD still feels that the group is somehow a threat to public safety.

The most alarming bit of news at the press conference was that some unknown person telephoned the office of San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and told him that his presence at the briefing was no longer necessary, apparently because the issue was supposedly resolved. Supervisor Chris Daly made an appearance, along with Carlos Villareal from the National Lawyers Guild.

After the press conference, the SFPD met again with World Can't Wait organizers, who presented a revised plan for the march (reflecting the revised location of the rally, among other things). The SFPD is reviewing the proposed route and other details, but World Can't Wait expects the permit to be issued Tuesday. The rally will begin at noon on Thursday, 2006-10-05, at Justin Herman Plaza, adjacent to the Embarcadero BART station. Some time around 4 p.m., speakers will begin introducing a tribunal to hold a mock trial of George W. Bush for war crimes. Speakers and musical performances will continue through the evening until about 9 p.m. There will be an overnight vigil at Justin Herman Plaza, followed by a press conference at 9 a.m. on Friday, 2006-10-06. Further details of the march route and the lineup of speakers and performers will be available shortly.

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Administrivia: Tinyurl in the "Read more..." links

[geeky trivia not of interest to most of you] Read more...The very astute (or obsessively detail-oriented) might notice a "tiny" change in the blog, specifically in the "Read more..." links that appear in some of the longer entries. In the past, the "Read more" link has pointed back to the URL for the full post; the problem is, since there is already a link to the full post at the bottom of the entry, Technorati's indexing algorithm was seeing double and got confused, causing my posts not to show up under the tags shown at the bottom. The solution was to use a format for the "Read more" link that will not confuse Technorati; I chose to use TinyURL, which is a redirection service.

TinyURL is especially useful for very long URLs (web addresses) that you want to send out in an e-mail; for example, you might go to a map site to give directions to an event. Rather than asking people to type in a convoluted string with all sorts of encoded information about the location, or to start from scratch, or even to hope that their e-mail program didn't mangle your URL, you can simply use TinyURL. For example, this very post can be accessed as There are a couple of other similar services, but I'm partial to TinyURL, which operates without ads, and takes you immediately to the desired web page.

For any of you not concerned with such picayune details, just be assured that nothing nefarious is going on with those strange links.

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World Can't Wait in San Francisco

Thursday, October 5th has been designated as a national day of protest by the organization World Can't Wait, with actions planned in more than 60 cities across America. However, here in San Francisco, the police have thus far refused to issue the necessary permits, citing, of all things, "homeland security" as the reason. World Can't Wait is holding a press conference at San Francisco city hall Monday at 1 p.m.; we'll see what they have to say.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Condi on 60 Minutes

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was featured in the first segment of tonight's season première of CBS News 60 Minutes, in an interview with Katie Couric. She spoke about her personal experience with racism and terrorism, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960's, but she went on to talk about Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other foreign policy issues of the present day.

Read more...Katie Couric asked if Condi regrets using her personal credibility to sell the Iraq War, given the fact that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Do I wish the intelligence had been better? Absolutely. I have wished every day since we learned. The idea that somehow because the intelligence was wrong, we were misleading the American people, I really resent that. I really resent it. I resent it, because the administration was using the best available intelligence. And so everybody thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He'd used them, for goodness' sake.
Well, Ms. Rice, I don't care whether or not you resent the accusation, the fact remains that it is true. The Bush Administration was clearly not using the best available intelligence. They were taking the word of sources with code names like "Curveball"; that alone should have tipped them off that the intel was less than reliable. The experts on biological and chemical weapons will tell you that they have a very limited shelf life — any such WMD's that Saddam had left over from the first Gulf War would have been utterly useless (or worse) by 2003. There is no question that Saddam wanted to have the capability to make more, but he didn't have that capacity in 2003 and couldn't just snap his fingers and will it into being. He also didn't have any active nuclear weapons program, and that would have taken years to bring to fruition, to bring about the "smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud," to borrow a phrase I heard somewhere. The Bush Administration cherry-picked the intelligence to support the case it had already decided to press: the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy, in the words of the Downing Street Memo. Saying that you resent the idea that you were deliberately misleading the American people is a bit like Duke Cunningham resenting being called corrupt.

On the subject of democratization, though, Condi betrays her delusions and those of the administration she represents.
Secretary Rice: I'm a true believer in the process of democratization as a way to overcome old wounds. And I believe that if we don't do that, then people who have had their differences, people who have resolved their differences by violence or by repression, are never going to find a way to live peacefully together.

Katie Couric: Is it really priority number one in terms of philosophically and pragmatically for the United States to be spreading democracy around the world?

Rice: Well, first of all, the United States is not spreading democracy. The United States is standing with those who want a democratic future.
No, actually, Ms. Rice, the United States is spreading democracy at the point of a gun. "Spreading democracy" is President Bush's last desperate grasp at a justification for the invasion of Iraq. We aren't "standing with those who want a democratic future," we made the unilateral decision to bring democracy, and indeed to impose it by force.

Ms. Rice rejects the notion that the U.S. is a bully, imposing its values on the world:
Rice: What's wrong with assistance so that people can have their full and complete right to the very liberties and freedoms that we enjoy?

Couric: To quote my daughter, "Who made us the boss of them?"

Rice: Well, it's not the matter of being the boss of them. It's speaking for people who are voiceless.
Again, no, Ms. Rice, it most emphatically is a matter of being the boss of them. George W. Bush didn't consult the Iraqi people when he decided that it was time for them to have democracy. The movement for democracy did not come from within Iraq, but entirely from Washington. We decided that thousands of Iraqis should die or be maimed in the pursuit of democracy. We decided that their infrastructure should be crippled for years. We decided that their democracy was worth our engaging in torture even beyond the levels that Saddam inflicted on his people. How is that "speaking for people who are voiceless"? It's dictating to them, which ain't exactly the same thing, and that is why America and the world are less safe as a result of the policies of the Bush Administration.

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Quotes are excerpted from the transcript on the CBS News web site, used under the Fair Use provisions of 17 USC 107.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Interrogation techniques

The Bush Administration continues to push for unfettered authority to use whatever interrogation techniques it deems acceptable in extracting information from prisoners believed to have some connection to terrorism. It considers the so-called "vague language" of the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3, with its prohibition against "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment," an impediment in that pursuit.

Much of the argument in Washington has centered on "clarifying" the rules under Common Article 3, as to what techniques are "humiliating," "degrading," or "outrages upon personal dignity." Is waterboarding humiliating and degrading, or just cruel and inhumane? (Never mind that "cruel treatment and torture" are also prohibited.)

The bottom line is extraordinarily simple and straightforward, and it boils down to a principle that should be familiar to President Bush: the Golden Rule.

Any treatment of prisoners that the United States would find objectionable if some other country — or non-state actor — engaged it against our citizens, should be ruled out in our interrogation of prisoners. Can there be any doubt that Americans would rise up in the streets, demanding military retaliation, if some foreign power subjected our citizens to waterboarding, stress positions, cold rooms, and other techniques we know the United States has already used?

Say all you want about how the terrorists are savages without conscience who are out to kill as many of us as possible; that's irrelevant to this discussion. The question is, what example do we want to set for the rest of humanity, as well as for our own future generations?

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Enzyte's Swelling of Shame

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, the company that makes Enzyte, the "natural male enhancement" product with the ads that make me eternally grateful for the existence of fast-forward, is experiencing ongoing legal difficulties. This spring, BPN settled (without admitting wrongdoing) claims brought by several states, including their home state of Ohio, alleging deceptive business practices. The charges, though, have escalated to the federal criminal level. Several former executives pled guilty in February to charges related to unauthorized credit card billings for "free" samples of their products — charges brought as a result of complaints to the Better Business Bureau. The owner and founder, Steve Warshak, is facing more than 100 criminal charges. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously sent warning letters to BPN regarding various violations of laws and regulations, including misleading product labels and improper claims of medical benefits of products that have not been properly tested (Avlimil, for female sexual dysfunction, and Rogisen, for night-vision problems), and for falsely claiming to have been certified by the FDA for Good Manufacturing Practices, but this appears to be the first criminal enforcement action. The criminal allegations include false claims regarding the development of Enzyte, endorsements by fictional doctors, false claims of having a customer services department, and repurposing Rovicid, a prostate health product, as a heart medication.

The "Smilin' Bob" character on their TV ads may have "a generous swelling of pride," but he looks to be in serious danger of losing "the respect of the neighborhood."

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fundamentally flawed

I stopped by my local independent bookstore, Books Inc., this evening. Their featured guest was the Rev. Dr. Mel White. He's not exactly a household name, but you've probably heard his work at some point: he used to ghostwrite for both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but then he finally reconciled his homosexuality with his belief in God. His first book, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, told the story of that journey. He went on to co-found Soulforce, a group dedicated to "freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance." Tonight, he read from his new book, Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right.

Read more...Reverend White paints a picture of the fundamentalist Christian movement and its use of an anti-gay agenda to build its own power base and work towards an America where religious liberty is a forgotten relic of our secular past. Mel White and about 200 people from Soulforce met some years back with Jerry Falwell and members of his church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell said afterwards that he had gone too far with his anti-gay rhetoric, but when the church service they shared appeared on Falwell's web site, it was edited to show things that never actually happened, including 7 members of the Soulforce group joining an ex-gay ministry. I'm no longer a Christian, and certainly not a theologian, but I do remember something about "bearing false witness," fairly high up on God's priority list — indeed, much higher on the list than the part about lying with a man as with a woman.

In the early days of the modern Christian Right, the leaders used "the godless Soviet Union" as a foil to unite with people who didn't support their true goals, but, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, they needed new targets: abortion and homosexuality. On 1994-05-16 to 18, fundamentalist Christian anti-gay activists met behind closed doors in Glen Eyrie, Colorado, to plan their campaign to "end homosexuality in America." The litany of vitriol since then is well documented, with everyone from Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed to Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps. The objective of their movement is not to end "special rights," but to deny homosexuals even the most basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution. After that, they intend to remake America into a Christian nation — which it has never been and will never be — in a Christian version of the Taliban's Afghanistan.

The threat posed to America by fundamentalist Christians is nothing less than fascism, a return to the horrors of our Puritan forefathers. But it's more than that: it's a betrayal of the very Christian principles these people espouse, things like Love thy neighbor and Judge not lest ye be judged. America in the early 21st century is seeking a strong leader with moral clarity and firm resolve, which makes us sitting ducks for the kind of demagoguery propounded by these evil, godless men.

Christianity is not our enemy, just as Islam is not our enemy. The fatal flaw in both fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity is the absurd notion that there is only one True religion and that everyone must follow it. No matter the flavor — fundamentalist orthodox Judaism, fundamentalist paganism, or fundamentalist FSM — it is the fundamentalism that is our enemy, because fundamentalist absolutism is fundamentally and absolutely incompatible with liberty. The gay-bashing of the self-righteous so-called Christian Right is no better than the woman-bashing of the self-righteous Taliban or the Jew-bashing of the self-righteous Nazis.

On the other side, no heterosexual relationship has ever been damaged — much less destroyed — by the mere existence of gay marriage. There is no army of pedophiles out to seduce the children, although there is an army of wackos out to brainwash adult gay people into believing that they can somehow become exclusively heterosexual. America needs to realize that the anti-gays are a far more virulent threat to our nation than the fags, dykes, and trannies.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Bill Clinton on The Daily Show transcript

President William Jefferson Clinton was the guest on tonight's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Here's what Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart had to say to each other:


Jon Stewart: [prolonged audience cheering] That is a lot of love. People are crazy about your Global Initiative.

Bill Clinton: I think they like it because we're actually doing something.

Stewart: What is the purpose? You've got together all these important world leaders, business leaders, they're donating money —

Clinton: And leaders of non-governmental movements in America and all around the world, including a lot of people from very poor countries who are doing remarkable things, and we come and meet for a couple of days, and we talk about four subjects:
  1. global warming
  2. alleviation of poverty
  3. global health challenges, and
  4. religious and racial reconciliation

Stewart: And then the conference closes with a comic. (Yeah.) Just to, you know, bring —

Clinton: That's my job. I tell jokes at the end. But you can't — the deal is, if you're a businessperson or a philanthropist or just an interested bystander, you can't come to this conference unless you commit to actually do something in one of these four areas. Last year, we raised about $2.5 billion from 300 commitments encompassing about 500 people, and so it's amazing. I think people like it because there's a very minimum of speeches: the speeches, the tiny number, are short, and most of it is conversation, and we talk about what we're going to do. Then people make commitments, sign on the dotted line, I give 'em a certificate, and we go out and do things. I think it brings people together — for example, I'm working on this climate change initiative with the biggest cities in the world, and its two main funders are Barbra Streisand and Rupert Murdoch; they never did anything together before. (Wow.) I like politics, and my differences with the current government are pretty clear, but I think that it is unrealistic to think that there's never anything we can agree on and actually get up in the morning to do something to make better.

Stewart: You've seen tangible results. (Oh, absolutely.) You're starting to see efforts paying off on the ground.

Clinton: Absolutely, yes, and we'll report. Some of them are not even the biggest dollar numbers. I'll give you an example: a doctor named Bruce Charash had an interesting idea, and it cost $300,000 to organize, to get all the medical professionals in the country and all the operating rooms in the country to donate sterile surgical equipment and materials and other medical equipment to him and let him distribute it to doctors in developing countries that otherwise wouldn't have it. He's generated millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of equipment that would've just been thrown away. In the operating room, sometimes there'll be a big package that's sterile and then inside there'll be five different packages of things that'll be used in surgery. Maybe only two of the five will be used, and under their rules of the hospital, they throw the other three away, but they're perfectly safe, perfectly good, perfectly sterile. Now they send 'em to Bruce, he gets 'em to some poor country, and they save lives.

Stewart: All right, so what, in your mind — you worked in government for most of your career, now you're out, you're doing private initiatives and these types of things. What's more effective? What are you having more fun doin', and what is more effective?

Clinton: Oh, well, this is more fun, and it's good because I can get people together and minimize the —

Stewart: Rupert Murdoch, you're good friends now with George H. W. Bush —

Clinton: Yeah, we're doin' work on the Katrina area and in the tsunami area, around the world.

Stewart: Is it — once you remove politics, do you suddenly think to yourself, Boy, that veil prevented us from doing so many of the things we wanted to do? Going back, would you change the way that you approach politics?

Clinton: I don't think I could have, because as governor, my vote and support went up among Republicans every year I was governor, every election, because I did reach out. When I was President, I tried to do it, and they had a different view: they believed that they could win by polarizing. That was Newt Gingrich's theory, and it was this White House's theory in a lot of the —

Stewart: No, no, he's a uniter, not a divider. I think I read it somewhere.

Clinton: On the other hand, you know, I made up my mind I was gonna have a good relationship with the President, and that I would be clear where I disagreed with him, and when he did something I agreed with, I would applaud that. So I'm tryin' to change the culture and the climate, but you asked me another question. I think I'll have to live a long time before I can do as much good as a former President as I did as a President, but when you're doing it — because, when you're President, you can get up every day and really do things that affect millions of people. On the other hand, you can also be paralyzed by events. So, when you're a former President, you can have a bigger impact in a narrower field. You can pick — you can say, I'm gonna work on these three or four things, and I don't have to worry about today's headlines diverting me.

Stewart: But you don't have the machinery behind you to effect the kind of change that you —

Clinton: That's right, but eventually you can. But I think politics and government are still very important. The point I would try to make to everybody when they ask me Which is more important? is, it's not either-or. If ever there comes a time when everyone you vote for wins, and they do everything you think they should do, there will still be a gap between what is and what ought to be, at home and around the world. It's just inevitable.

Stewart: That gap is inevitable. So, are we —

Clinton: So, people like you and me, private citizens, have more power to do public good than ever before, and we should step into the gap. And unlike previous times — it's great if you're rich, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett deserve the world's thanks and gratitude: it's amazing what they're doing — but you don't have to be rich. In the tsunami, Americans gave $1.2 billion, 30% of our households gave, over half of them over the Internet. That's stunning. So that means that if everybody that's watching The Daily Show decides tomorrow that they think the biggest thing in the world is to make America free of foreign oil, and they want us to go into biofuels, and there's a fund that promotes that, and everybody that sees this show gives $10 or $15 or $20 — not big money — if they all do it, you can change the world.

Stewart: You might want to cast a wider net. I've seen our —

Clinton: Well, I don't know. My daughter says it's the news source of choice now for all discerning young people.

Stewart: We'll see about that. We're going to take a break, and we're gonna come back. The former President will be on The Daily Show's Seat of Heat.

[commercial break]

Stewart: Welcome back to the show. We're sitting with President Bill Clinton, and this is — I know you've faced some perilous times as President, as ex-President you've had, obviously, surgeries (You look great, by the way, your health is very good.), but this is — I don't know if you've ever faced something.... This is the Daily Show Seat of Heat.

Clinton: I could have another heart attack right here. (No! Don't have another heart attack, please.) It's all your fault.

Stewart: Mr. President, Hillary Clinton may be running for President. If so, what is the key to defeating her? [laughter] Your move.

Clinton: Getting more votes.

Stewart: Getting more votes? Is she running for President?

Clinton: I don't know. She's not now running for President. I don't know, I don't know if she will or not. I don't, and that's the truth, and I think I would know if she were, if she had decided.

Stewart: There'd be a Post-It®, probably, on the fridge.

Clinton: Yeah, you know, we talked last night a long time about Ann Richards, and her book being reissued, we talked about a lot of things. (Unbelievable.) Unbelievable. I loved her very much, and so did Hillary, but I don't know. I do know this: if she did run and win, she'd be great, she'd be really good. I do not know if she's gonna run, I don't know if she'll win if she does, but if she ran and won, it would be good for America. That's what I believe.
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Friday, September 15, 2006

Telecom Non Grata

I just wrote about Cornell University's incessant e-mails, so, while I'm on the subject of people who just won't leave you alone, I should tell you about my least favorite telephone company, PowerNet Global, a.k.a. PNG Communications, of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Read more...Back in 1995, in the early days of "personal 800 numbers," I signed up with a company that turned out to be a reseller of PNG's alleged services. They activated my toll-free number and started billing me, but neglected to tell me what the number was — making it rather difficult for me to get any use from the service. Repeated calls to their so-called customer service department invariably went to a voicemail box, which was usually already full. Finally, after three weeks, I managed to get a living person, who told me the number. A few months later, though, I was testing my service and dialed my own number from another telephone. To my surprise, I was connected with a housewife in South Dakota. I called and complained, so they reconnected my toll-free number — to a subscriber in Pennsylvania! I called again, and left my work phone as a daytime contact number, so they connected my personal 800 number to my work phone. Things went along fairly smoothly for a while, but in 1997, I found another vendor, and leapt at the chance to leave PNG forever in my dust.

No such luck. After dragging their feet on the switch of "RespOrg," PNG finally released the number to the new provider. In 2002, though, they began billing me a monthly minimum on the account that I had closed five years earlier. I filed an informal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and got a reply indicating that a computer mix-up had led to the erroneous billing, but I was also assured that it would never, ever, ever happen again.

No such luck. Last month, I got another bill from PNG, this time for the "telecom infrastructure fee," "network access charge," "Federal Universal Service Fund surcharge," and "High Cost Fund B." Another complaint to the FCC brought the answer that the erroneous bill was a result of a computer error in 2002! To wit: "The complainants' information was in our billing system in preparation for the possible migration of American Telecom Network customers in 2002. Even though the complainant did not receive service from PNG, the account remained open in our system. Recently PNG restated the Network Access Charge creating a new Telecommunications Infrastructure Fee (TIF) of $.99. Due to the TIF and tax on the TIF exceeding one dollar, al accounts in our system, including the complainant's, received an August invoice. The outstanding balance has been credited and the account has been closed permanently." If only I should be so lucky. Given the fact that they promised in 2002 to close the account permanently, my skepticism is alive and well.

If ever you need telecommunications services of any kind, get tin cans on a string before you even think about doing business with PowerNet Global. Their incompetence, both on the technical level and on the billing level, knows no bounds. Since "PNG" is also an abbreviation for "Persona Non Grata," I prefer to call them Telecom Non Grata.

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Why does Cornell University keep spamming me?

The e-mail address attached to this blog gets a lot of spam, as is true for pretty much any e-mail address that appears on any web page. What perplexes me, though, is one particularly recalcitrant spammer: Cornell University. Their alumni affairs department sends me notices of upcoming events, despite the fact that I have never attended Cornell, and in fact have never even set foot on their campus. When I was 13, I had a rather serious case of hero worship for astrophysicist Carl "Billions and Billions" Sagan, but that's about as close as I've ever been to Cornell.

When I first got an e-mail from Cornell, I sent a polite note back asking to be removed from their mailing list. When I continued receiving spam from them, I escalated my complaint to the university's computer services department. The spam stopped for a while, but today I got another spam from Cornell.

I have never requested e-mail of any kind from Cornell. My only contact with them has been to ask them to stop sending me unwanted e-mails.

Why does Cornell insist on spamming me?

If anyone from Cornell is reading this, the magic words are "closed-loop confirmed opt-in." Don't run an e-mail list without it.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stephen Colbert is NO LONGER Lincolnish

On Monday's Colbert Report, Stephen made a minor change that most of you wouldn't even notice, but here at the Third Path, we tend to perk up at things that reference Lincoln or Madison. We're just funny that way. In the opening credits sequence, Stephen Colbert stands amidst a swirl of descriptions. For several months now, he ended with LINCOLNISH, but Monday that slot was filled with the new word SUPERSTANTIAL. It is the profound hope of all of us at the Third Path — but especially our commandant, Lincoln Madison — that, despite the diminished prominence of the term, Stephen Colbert will remain forever Lincolnish.

After all, we'd hate to have to put Mr. Colbert on notice, or, worse yet, work for régime change at The Colbert Réport.

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Jon Stewart is back!

The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks also marks the return from hiatus of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as The Colbert Report. Tonight, Jon Stewart opened with this a discussion of the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, commenting, "[A]s you know, nothing is typically more accurate than the made-for-TV movie, so why shouldn't 9/11 get the same respect the Amy Fisher story gets?" He then seguéd into an examination of the evolution of President Bush's relationship with terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.


Jon Stewart: No doubt about it: five years is a long time. So much so that as the President spent the past week giving various speeches on our nation's security, he felt compelled to remind us how this whole damned thing started.
George W. Bush [2006-09-05]: To hear the words of Osama bin Laden earlier this year, "Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers among us."
Stewart: Osama? That name's one for the old Where Are They Now? file. Oh, no, seriously: where is he?, NOW! Perhaps the rekindling of Bush's interest in Osama bin Laden is a sign of how far we've come in the last five years. We've progressed through all five stages of grief. First, there was Denial:
Bush [2002-03-13]: He's the ultimate parasite. He found weakness, exploited it, and, uh, umm, met his match.
Stewart: And then Anger:
Bush [undated]: I don't care, dead or alive, either way. I mean, I, I, uhh, umm — it du'unt matter to me.
Stewart: And then Anger again:
Bush [2001-12-10]: This man wants to destroy any semblance of civilization for his own power and his own good.
Stewart: And the next stage — well, Anger:
Bush [2001-12-14]: This is a man who is so devious, so [raises eyebrows] cold-hearted, that, uhh, he laughs about the suicide — so-called suicide bombers that lost their lives.
Stewart: And of course:
Bush [2001-12-10]: I can't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah.
Stewart: Not sure what "stage" that was, not sure where to put that one — other than, on our show, as often as possible. And finally, as with anything tragic, Acceptance:
Bush [2002-01-22]: A fella came the other day in the office and said, "Well, are you worried about Mr. bin Laden?" I said, "No, I'm not too worried about him."
Stewart: And then for some reason back to Denial:
Bush [2004-10-13]: Gosh, I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. That's kind of one of those "exaggerations."
Stewart: All right. So apparently the President has his own stages of grief: There's Denial, Anger, Anger, Anger, Hanukkah, and of course Acceptance. And then, I believe, Denial. So, five years later, the key question is, What is the state of our nation? Mr. President?
Bush [2006-08-15]: America is safer than it has been, but it's not yet safe.
Stewart: Puzzling words. Clearly walking a narrow verbal tightrope. What does he mean, exactly? For more, we go to Washington, and our Senior White House Correspondent, John Oliver. John, thank you so much for joining us. The President says we're safer, but not yet safe.

John Oliver: That's right, Jon. The truth is, since 9/11, due to the vigilance of the Bush Administration, not a single major terrorist attack has taken place here on U.S. soil. But dangerous Islamo-fascists continue plotting new methods of hurting us!

Stewart: You're saying the Bush Administration hasn't yet achieved its goals for winning this war?

Oliver: This White House has, by sheer force of will, secured our ports and prevented numerous potential attacks. With Bush at the helm, Americans can rest easy. There are murderous murderers out there, with nothing but murder on their minds, and they'll stop at nothing — even murder.

Stewart: So the message, then, that the administration sends out, as it pertains to the midterm elections is...?

Oliver: This administration has put America on the right track towards total, unprecedented safety.

Stewart: I see. So, when you...

Oliver: If you vote for Democrats, you may as well give al Qaeda a death ray and a manual! [aside, to camera under the desk, with pixellated image] This is going much better than I expected it to!

Stewart: I'm sorry, John, what camera are you talking to now?

Oliver: It's my real-time blog. Hello, fan!

Stewart: All right — so, we're safe, but we're not safe? How is that possible?

Oliver: Well, in addition to attacking our way of life, bin Laden is waging a more subtle, sinister campaig, attacking the way we communicate. Pre-9/11, the idea of being safe without being safe would have been preposterous! If you were safe, you were — almost by definition — safe, but bin Laden wants our country living in a netherworld between a word and its antonym.

Stewart: How is that even possible?

Oliver: I hope you're sitting down. Two years ago, satellite imagery revealed this: a secret syntactical training Subsequent infiltration of this facility revealed this: it appears bin Laden is developing a new, lethally confusing form called the Osamative. This new form would — if introduced into our school system — render millions of innocent children incapable of comparing individual things to other things in the same category. And, Jon, that would be like — that would be like ... umm, oh, I don't know what to compare it to. Oh, my god! It's happening already!

Stewart: John, John, so the President says, because of him, we're safe? (Right.) But not safe? (Exactly.) But his first chance to show he'd learned the lessons of 9/11 was Katrina, and those were failed.

Oliver: That's because he had yet to learn the lessons of 8/29. And how could he possibly learn those lessons in a pre-8/29 world?

Stewart: So now, post-8/29, the President has made us safe from natural disasters as well?

Oliver: We haven't been attacked by another hurricane since! The proof is in the pudding, Jon.

Stewart: All right. In summation:

Oliver: George W. Bush is the right man to lead us in the era "post-" whatever calamity he leads us into next. America, Jon, is safe. But for how long?? [ominous music] Jon?

Stewart: Thank you very much. John Oliver from the White House.

The astute among you will already have noticed that the sequence of Bush quotes was rearranged for narrative clarity, rather in the style of a made-for-TV minisegment.

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