Sunday, April 27, 2008

Feed the World (Or Not)

Much of our media has focused on Sam's club and like bulk food stores' recent decision to "ration" rice. By ration, at least in Sam's club, the restriction was something like only four huge bags of rice per person, per visit. Outside of restaurants, that's not a real story of rationing. Yet I heard at least three different reporters start their stories with "not since WWII has America rationed food . . ."

Yes, by all means, let's focus on this instead of the real story. Remember those millions of people around the world who were starving when you were growing up (eat your peas, people in Country X are starving). Well guess what. They're still starving. And, oh yeah, by the way, the real food shortage - the global one - is adding millions more to the list of people who are starving, or on the cusp because they can't afford the price of bread and grain anymore.
Today's WaPo started a series on the global hunger crisis that I'd recommend to all. Today's story is the New Economics of Hunger. The series will continue this week. Read it. Here's some to get you started.

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world's poorest nations. It is outpacing even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose 78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008, prices leapt 80 percent. . . .

People worldwide are coping in different ways. For the 1 billion living on less than a dollar a day, it is a matter of survival. In a mud hut on the Sahara's edge, Manthita Sou, a 43-year-old widow in the Mauritanian desert village of Maghleg, is confronting wheat prices that are up 67 percent on local markets in the past year. Her solution: stop eating bread. Instead, she has downgraded to cheaper foods, such as sorghum, a dark grain widely consumed by the world's poorest people. But sorghum has jumped 20 percent in the past 12 months. Living on the 50 cents a day she earns weaving textiles to support a family of three, her answer has been to cut out breakfast, drink tea for lunch and ration a small serving of soupy sorghum meal for family dinners. "I don't know how long we can survive like this," she said.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Wright stuff

I hope everyone saw the Bill Moyers interview with Senator Obama's former minister, Jeremiah Wright. From the media coverage and the fiery Youtube video footage--very selectively edited, of course--I was convinced I was going to behold the devil incarnate, right there on pbs. What I found instead was an eminently personable, highly educated and thoughtful individual who kept Bill and the audience spellbound for the whole hour with commentary on the Bible, African-American history, his ministry and congregation, American culture and yes, politics.

They did discuss the "god damn America" sermon Wright delivered the week after the 9/11 attacks. I honestly could not find anything majorly objectionable in it...his point was that while America had suffered a terrible blow in the murder of thousands of innocent people, America itself had done a lot of harm to innocent people through its domestic and foreign policy over the years, e.g. the treatment of native Americans, internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, its policies towards Palestinians and the discretionary war in Iraq. This isn't so different from European critiques of American policy in the post/9-11 world, which focus on the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 vis-a-vis the wars of the 20th century, in which some 50 million people--many civilians--perished.

So this was what all the fuss was about? I had to ask myself what you could deny in Reverend Wright's remarks. You could argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not deliberate murders of civilians, but a means of preventing many more deaths, and it might have been incendiary on his part to imply that God would damn America for its sins against others. But objectively speaking, what was untrue in Wright's remarks in that sermon? And why do people take such umbrage at this admittedly tough, but fair criticism of US foreign and domestic policy?

The only thing I can figure is that most people have grown up on American exceptionalism...the idea that America is blessed by God, that it is a shining city on a hill undimmed by human tears, that it should be exempt from criticism. I have always thought it was more a matter of being blessed by geography rather than God, but nevermind. If it is true that history is actually patriotic education in most schools, I guess outrage would be a natural reaction. But it would seem that if we are to emerge from the quagmire in which we now find ourselves, especially abroad, we ought to reorder the history curriculum for the kidz and convene Truth commissions all over the country for the older folks, in order to acquaint everyone with the underreported misdeeds of their country, so that they might avoid sending to Washington people disposed to commit such misdeeds in the future. People got a lot of learnin' to do, I think.

Maybe there is a job for Reverend Wright in his retirement? We need a lot more of the Wright stuff...let's send him on a nationwide speaking gig.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Beauty shop politics

I was just having my monthly hair trim at the neighborhood salon here in small town Oregon, and as wisps of hair tumbled to the ground, the talk turned somewhat surprisingly to politics. Usually, it's all about Little League, or the high school dance team, but I guess there is a sense that Oregon's votes might matter on May 20. Anyway, this was the essence of the conversation I overheard:

Client: Well, this election's turning out to be quite something.

Beautician: Yes, it's been pretty interesting so far, hasn't it?

Client: That Obama, he scares me. He just scares me.

Beautician(clearly a beauty shop diplomat): They ALL scare me.

Client: Obama has just too many ties to the terrorists. They want to see him elected because they can push him around.

Now, my tongue is already purple from my having bitten it over my mother's backing of HRC. It got a lot purpler today, because i didn't want to drop a bomb in the middle of all that beauty shop bonhomie. But I have to wonder a) how typical those sentiments are, i.e. that Obama is in league with "the terrorists;" b) whether this kind of disinformation is responsible for some of the problems he has had with elderly and/or blue-collar voters, and c) whether or not superdelegates and others ought to take into account these kinds of sentiments in helping to choose the nominee. Is it really too much to expect of American voters to embrace someone quite different from the "normal" presidential candidate, even when the situation in the country demands quite substantive change?

What do you think?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fighting World Poverty

There are many organizations that are working to help make life better for people around the world. Two of them are ones I've contributed to for a little while now and wanted to share with others.

The first is Kiva, a group that works with international partners to make micro-loans. For as little as $25 you can help someone fulfill their dream. The money isn't a gift, but a loan. Money is raised from a number of different people contributing to the loan fund. For instance, my small $50 contribution was only a part of the $4,000 lent to the Inocente Group of Guatemala by Kiva through a group called the Friendship Bridge. The Inocente Group is made up of women weavers who make and sell goods to support their families. This is their second micro-loan. As Kiva notes:
They will invest their loans in tiny translucent beads of every color, with which they will make intricate bracelets, necklaces, and other crafts, like eyeglass chains. Others will invest in thread for weaving. They are skilled in the art of weaving fine huipiles, the traditional Mayan blouse, which can take up to three months to make. They also weave skirts, scarves, and head wraps. All the women are ‘ambulantes’, meaning they carry their products with them, most often in a basket on their head, through the streets of Panajachel, bargaining with and selling to the hundreds of tourists that come through the town. Laura Teresa, a voice for the group, shares that for every 1000 quetzales of investment they will earn about 2000 quetzales.
The biggest danger I've found in supporting people through Kiva is that it can be addictive. At $25 or $50 a time, I end up lending more money than I intended to. A good thing in the end :). When your money is repaid, you can use it to lend to another individual or group, or take it back. And no, you don't get interest. In fact, they ask for a small donation for the Kiva organization with each loan to keep the group operating. Take a look through some of those who are looking for a hand up - I bet you'll find someone you can't resist helping!

The second is probably better known to most of you, it's One. Yes, it's Bono's group. They offer a variety of ways of helping out. They range from free - sign a declaration for a commitment to end poverty, to buying one of those ubiquitous wrist bands (white in this case), T-shirts and such. Become a volunteer, or even just add One to your Facebook page.

Neither One nor Kiva will take that much time, or even that much money. But both are working to help. So help them do that.

Life in a Polygamist Compound

A few outtakes from Carolyn Jessop's memoir, "Escape" for some insight into life with a FLDS compound. She was the 4th wife of Merril Jessop. She left him in 2003 before he moved to the recently-raided Texas compound. Her book was published in October.
In a favorite children's game, called Apocalypse, kids act out the FLDS vision of the end of the world. According to FLDS lore, Native Americans who were mistreated and killed in pioneer days will be resurrected in the end times, when God will allow them to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them (the presumably also-resurrected settlers). In return for this indulgence, "resurrected Indians" will also be "required to take on the job of protecting God's chosen people"—FLDS members—by killing FLDS enemies with invisible tomahawks that can sever a person's heart in half.

I was beginning to notice other things about the world around me. One was that some of the women we'd see in the community when we went shopping were wearing dark sunglasses. I was surprised when a woman took her glasses off in the grocery store and I could see that both her eyes were blackened. I asked my mother what was wrong, but the question seemed to make her uncomfortable and she didn't answer me.

FLDS leaders don't look kindly on modern medicine. During childbirth, "a doctor was never present, nor was pain medication ever used. Women were expected to be perfectly silent during childbirth. If a woman screamed or made loud noises she was criticized for being out of control. Sometimes she'd be reprimanded by her husband during her delivery."

Some of Carolyn's stepdaughters were married to Jeffs, and she feared his temper. She writes: "One day he brought one of his wives into the [school] auditorium, which was packed with boys. Annette had a long braid that fell past her knees. Warren grabbed the braid and twisted and twisted it until she was on her knees and he was ripping hair from her head. He told the boys that this was how obedient their wives had to be to them."
I feel for the mothers whose children have been taken from them, but have to ask with Texas authorities - who speaks for the children?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Or $170,000 Per Wife?

Something I'm going to miss from this administration is that no matter when you think you've seen just about everything, a new piece of utter weirdness or corruption comes around the corner. Sure it's bad for the country, but where will our comedians and editorial cartoonists be in a post-Bush era?

The latest piece of fun from this administration is the revelation that $1.7 million in defense contracts have been paid out to companies owned by leaders of the same polygamous sect that is now on every cable news channel. Yup, Warren Jeffs' sect.

As CNN's site notes:

CNN has learned that between 1998 and 2007 the United States Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency purchased more than $1.7 million worth of airplane parts from three companies owned by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which practices polygamy.

Those companies are Utah Tool and Die, Western Precision and NewEra Manufacturing. Today, the companies all operate under the name NewEra Manufacturing, a company based in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ah, but one of the best pieces of this all is that some of the deals were made with Jeffs' sect AFTER (yes, that is AFTER) Jeffs was placed on the FBI "Most Wanted List" and was on the run.

And what does the Pentagon have to say (let's remember this was all taking place while Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense) about all of this?

"We do not consider religious affiliation or marital status when selecting vendors, but illegal activity is certainly cause for termination of a contract and perhaps even debarment, which could prevent a contractor from doing business with department ever again. However, DoD is not aware of any criminal allegations against anyone managing the companies in question."
Ok yeah, sure, with Afghanistan & Iran, they are busy over there in the Pentagon, but you think they might take a look at the FBI most-wanted list from time to time, don't you?

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Finally, a real bipartisan solution to our Presidential election woes, courtesy of an Oregonian newspaper reader in Portland:

"The United States could elect a coalition government. That way, Hillary can run the country, McCain can bring the beer and Barack can make the speeches."

I think Middie Mac/Tailhook John would be particularly well-suited to his role, don't you?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A sobering reminder

We've all been reminded this week that there IS in fact a war on, with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker giving testimony on the Hill as to our "progress" in Iraq. I didn't detect any tangible signs of "progress," but then I didn't last time they were there, either. Nonetheless, it was heartening to hear serious people actually discussing this fiasco in a way that lands it on the front pages.

Prior to the Petraeus/Crocker testimony, NPR's Talk of the Nation, a staple of my commute to work, invited journalist Chris Jones to talk about his recent article in Esquire magazine, "The Things That Carried Him." Jones followed one American casualty in Iraq, Sergeant Robert Joe Montgomery of Seymour, Indiana, from the place where he died in an IED explosion in Iraq to his final resting place in his hometown. The care taken in this article to describe every facet of this journey, from his comrades' touching farewell through the preparation for burial at the morgue in Dover, Delaware to his funeral and burial in his hometown, is extraordinary and moving.

What hit me hardest of all, though, is that this long goodbye has been repeated over 4,000 times now--4000 men and women have passed through the Dover mortuary and been returned to their families in a box. And those 4,000 all have families and friends who will never be the same, whose lives will be permanently altered. You have to ask yourself, "for what?!"

It is very tough reading, but you can get started by clicking here. Yes, there IS a war on, and the toll keeps mounting.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Smog and Tyranny Games

Pity the poor Chinese government. After the crack downs at Tiananmen Square in 1989, that government was forced to endure world criticism and losing its most favored nation status for a brief period. Amazingly, given those harsh punishments of the early 1990s, the Chinese government continues to repress dissent within its borders (even those "borders" that include Tibet) and try its best to imitate the British Government of the 19th century in African policy.

And the world responds by . . . well, not by doing much, at least on the governmental scale. Individuals and Non Government Organizations on the other hand, have been hard at work - using the national spotlight the games gives China to remind us that repression, torture and genocide aren't necessarily the tools of a government seeking world support. (Then again, each has been used by American governments over the last 200 years, not that we've ever cared much for world support -- maybe we're the model China is emulating after all.)

As the Olympic torch was moved through London, it took over 2,000 police to keep protesting crowds away from the runners.

The most intense scuffles on Sunday occurred as the torch moved through the heart of London, from the fashionable residential district of Notting Hill Gate through Hyde Park, Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, before crossing the Thames and moving east to Tower Hill and on toward its destination at the future British Olympic site. The torch was protected by an inner guard of Chinese security men wearing blue-and-white Olympic tracksuits and an outer cordon of yellow-jacketed British policemen on foot, on bicycles and motorbikes.

At points along the route where the crowds of protesters were thickest, including Whitehall, Scotland Yard security chiefs deployed double rows of crush barriers in a bid to keep the demonstrators back. Where streets narrowed, including Oxford Street, the torch was placed in the back of a single-decker bus and returned to the runners only after the crowds had thinned.
While British PM Brown has said that he'll be at the games, French president Sarkozy has said he would boycott them unless China cleaned up its act, at least a little. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech President Vaclav Klause said they would not travel to Beijing for opening ceremonies in August because of the crackdown in Tibet. Within the Bush administration, Geo says that he'll be going, but I anticipate that VP Cheney will rush his butt on over to China months before the games start to trade government repression secrets with his peers. And there's so much for them to chat about, as the WSJ notes:

Although China has a long tradition of stifling dissent, Beijing itself promised human-rights improvements for the coming Olympic Games. That makes the case of Hu Jia -- an AIDS activist and blogger who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after using the Olympics to criticize China's record on human rights -- even more disturbing.

As Geoffrey A. Fowler and Sky Canaves report, the high-profile verdict, after a Beijing court found Mr. Hu guilty of subversion and libel, heightens concerns among human-rights activists that the Beijing Olympics, instead of improving China's rights record, may actually be intensifying a crackdown on dissent. In the city's 2001 pitch for the Games, Liu Jingmin, then deputy mayor, said "by applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city's development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights."

Amnesty International officials agree with this sentiment, noting that the months leading to the games may be very dangerous for those within China who dare to speak their minds.

China's crackdown on peaceful activists has deepened in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, according to Amnesty International.

The human rights group has accused Chinese authorities of using "excessive, sometimes lethal" force to disperse protesters in Tibet, and of imprisoning human rights protesters in Beijing in a pre-Games "clean-up"."The crackdown has deepened, not lessened," said Amnesty International's Australian director Claire Mallinson."This is because of, not despite, the Olympics."

Chen Yonglin, a former first secretary in the Chinese consulate-general in Sydney, said he expected more activists to be placed under house arrest as the crackdown would probably continue until July, one month before the Games. The former diplomat, who left his post in 2005 and was granted a permanent protection visa by Australia, said Chinese authorities were also "clearing out" some 300,000 so-called "petitioners" from the outskirts of Beijing.

Petitioners are peasants from rural China who travel to the capital seeking legal redress on a range of issues. Amnesty's Australian China Campaign Coordinator, Sophie Peer, said there had been "serious human rights violations" in recent days."These actions cast doubt on whether the Chinese authorities are really serious about improving human rights in the lead-up to the Games," she said.

The issue of boycotting the Chinese Olympics this summer has been bouncing around in nation after nation. China's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu has been quoted as saying that boycotting the games "is the same as leaving the Olympic family. It will undermine their own interests. . . . We have been opposed to boycotting the Olympic Games for any reason. It is a sports event for people around the world. It is not a venue for the discussion of political issues or a platform to give a political show.''

Wat Jiang forgot to mention is that in 1980, China boycotted the Moscow Olympics (as did the US). Apparently what was good for China in 1980 is not good for the rest of the world in 2008.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

No News Isn't Always Good News

Sometimes it just means that a blogger has been hiding under the covers at home with bronchitis. Ugh. We will return to harass and annoy soon, we promise.

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