Sunday, April 20, 2008

Interview - American Inquisition

Interview with Prof. Eric L. Muller author of the book "American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II"

Talk - Peace Plan for Iraq

Hans von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, talks about "A TransNational Proposal for Humanitarian Peace In and With Iraq" given April 3, 2008 in Seattle.

People & Power - Food Shortages

People & Power examines the causes of the world food crisis that has lead to protests in more than 20 countries.

Pharmacists suggest monitoring system to detect painkiller abuse

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Queensland's Pharmacy Guild says there are more effective ways to prevent the abuse of codeine-based painkillers than an over the counter ban.

A Federal Government advisory board is considering the idea, after reports in the Medical Journal of Australia that some people are taking an excessive amount of painkillers, such as Nurofen Plus.

The guild's president Tim Logan says he would prefer to see pharmacists use a computer monitoring system to detect people who are buying too much of the drug.

"If the regulatory authorities wanted to enable pharmacists to detect when people are going around to different pharmacies getting lots and lots of packets of this medication and then misusing it, we are able to help them with that," Mr Logan said.

"We'd rather do that rather than just do a knee-jerk reaction making it prescription-only, overloading an already stressed medical system."

Exposed: the great GM crops myth

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By Geoffrey Lean

Major new study shows that modified soya produces 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent

Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis.

The study – carried out over the past three years at the University of Kansas in the US grain belt – has found that GM soya produces about 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent, contradicting assertions by advocates of the technology that it increases yields.

Professor Barney Gordon, of the university's department of agronomy, said he started the research – reported in the journal Better Crops – because many farmers who had changed over to the GM crop had "noticed that yields are not as high as expected even under optimal conditions". He added: "People were asking the question 'how come I don't get as high a yield as I used to?'"

He grew a Monsanto GM soybean and an almost identical conventional variety in the same field. The modified crop produced only 70 bushels of grain per acre, compared with 77 bushels from the non-GM one.

The GM crop – engineered to resist Monsanto's own weedkiller, Roundup – recovered only when he added extra manganese, leading to suggestions that the modification hindered the crop's take-up of the essential element from the soil. Even with the addition it brought the GM soya's yield to equal that of the conventional one, rather than surpassing it.

The new study confirms earlier research at the University of Nebraska, which found that another Monsanto GM soya produced 6 per cent less than its closest conventional relative, and 11 per cent less than the best non-GM soya available.

The Nebraska study suggested that two factors are at work. First, it takes time to modify a plant and, while this is being done, better conventional ones are being developed. This is acknowledged even by the fervently pro-GM US Department of Agriculture, which has admitted that the time lag could lead to a "decrease" in yields.

But the fact that GM crops did worse than their near-identical non-GM counterparts suggest that a second factor is also at work, and that the very process of modification depresses productivity. The new Kansas study both confirms this and suggests how it is happening.

A similar situation seems to have happened with GM cotton in the US, where the total US crop declined even as GM technology took over. (See graphic above.)

Monsanto said yesterday that it was surprised by the extent of the decline found by the Kansas study, but not by the fact that the yields had dropped. It said that the soya had not been engineered to increase yields, and that it was now developing one that would.

Critics doubt whether the company will achieve this, saying that it requires more complex modification. And Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington – and who was one of the first to predict the current food crisis – said that the physiology of plants was now reaching the limits of the productivity that could be achieved.

A former champion crop grower himself, he drew the comparison with human runners. Since Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile more than 50 years ago, the best time has improved only modestly . "Despite all the advances in training, no one contemplates a three-minute mile."

Last week the biggest study of its kind ever conducted – the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development – concluded that GM was not the answer to world hunger.

Professor Bob Watson, the director of the study and chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when asked if GM could solve world hunger, said: "The simple answer is no."

Unraveling Iraq

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By Tom Engelhardt

12 Answers to Questions No One Is Bothering to Ask about Iraq

Can there be any question that, since the invasion of 2003, Iraq has been unraveling? And here’s the curious thing: Despite a lack of decent information and analysis on crucial aspects of the Iraqi catastrophe, despite the way much of the Iraq story fell off newspaper front pages and out of the TV news in the last year, despite so many reports on the "success" of the President’s surge strategy, Americans sense this perfectly well. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 56% of Americans "say the United States should withdraw its military forces to avoid further casualties" and this has, as the Post notes, been a majority position since January 2007, the month that the surge was first announced. Imagine what might happen if the American public knew more about the actual state of affairs in Iraq -- and of thinking in Washington. So, here, in an attempt to unravel the situation in ever-unraveling Iraq are twelve answers to questions which should be asked far more often in this country:

1. Yes, the war has morphed into the U.S. military’s worst Iraq nightmare: Few now remember, but before George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, top administration and Pentagon officials had a single overriding nightmare -- not chemical, but urban, warfare. Saddam Hussein, they feared, would lure American forces into "Fortress Baghdad," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled it. There, they would find themselves fighting block by block, especially in the warren of streets that make up the Iraqi capital’s poorest districts.

When American forces actually entered Baghdad in early April 2003, however, even Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard units had put away their weapons and gone home. It took five years but, as of now, American troops are indeed fighting in the warren of streets in Sadr City, the Shiite slum of two and a half million in eastern Baghdad largely controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military, in fact, recently experienced its worst week of 2008 in terms of casualties, mainly in and around Baghdad. So, mission accomplished -- the worst fear of 2003 has now been realized.

2. No, there was never an exit strategy from Iraq because the Bush administration never intended to leave -- and still doesn’t: Critics of the war have regularly gone after the Bush administration for its lack of planning, including its lack of an "exit strategy." In this, they miss the point. The Bush administration arrived in Iraq with four mega-bases on the drawing boards. These were meant to undergird a future American garrisoning of that country and were to house at least 30,000 American troops, as well as U.S. air power, for the indefinite future. The term used for such places wasn’t "permanent base," but the more charming and euphemistic "enduring camp." (In fact, as we learned recently, the Bush administration refuses to define any American base on foreign soil anywhere on the planet, including ones in Japan for over 60 years, as permanent.) Those four monster bases in Iraq (and many others) were soon being built at the cost of multibillions and are, even today, being significantly upgraded. In October 2007, for instance, National Public Radio’s defense correspondent Guy Raz visited Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which houses about 40,000 American troops, contractors, and Defense Department civilian employees, and described it as "one giant construction project, with new roads, sidewalks, and structures going up across this 16-square-mile fortress in the center of Iraq, all with an eye toward the next few decades."

These mega-bases, like "Camp Cupcake" (al-Asad Air Base), nicknamed for its amenities, are small town-sized with massive facilities, including PXs, fast-food outlets, and the latest in communications. They have largely been ignored by the American media and so have played no part in the debate about Iraq in this country, but they are the most striking on-the-ground evidence of the plans of an administration that simply never expected to leave. To this day, despite the endless talk about drawdowns and withdrawals, that hasn’t changed. In fact, the latest news about secret negotiations for a future Status of Forces Agreement on the American presence in that country indicates that U.S. officials are calling for "an open-ended military presence" and "no limits on numbers of U.S. forces, the weapons they are able to deploy, their legal status or powers over Iraqi citizens, going far beyond long-term U.S. security agreements with other countries."

3. Yes, the United States is still occupying Iraq (just not particularly effectively): In June 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), then ruling the country, officially turned over "sovereignty" to an Iraqi government largely housed in the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad and the occupation officially ended. However, the day before the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer III, slipped out of the country without fanfare, he signed, among other degrees, Order 17, which became (and, remarkably enough, remains) the law of the land. It is still a document worth reading as it essentially granted to all occupying forces and allied private companies what, in the era of colonialism, used to be called "extraterritoriality" -- the freedom not to be in any way subject to Iraqi law or jurisdiction, ever. And so the occupation ended without ever actually ending. With 160,000 troops still in Iraq, not to speak of an unknown number of hired guns and private security contractors, the U.S. continues to occupy the country, whatever the legalities might be (including a UN mandate and the claim that we are part of a "coalition"). The only catch is this: As of now, the U.S. is simply the most technologically sophisticated and potentially destructive of Iraq’s proliferating militias -- and outside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, it is capable of controlling only the ground that its troops actually occupy at any moment.

4. Yes, the war was about oil: Oil was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media or by the administration before the invasion was launched. The President, when he spoke of Iraq’s vast petroleum reserves at all, piously referred to them as the sacred "patrimony of the people of Iraq." But an administration of former energy execs -- with a National Security Advisor who once sat on the board of Chevron and had a double-hulled oil tanker, the Condoleezza Rice, named after her (until she took office), and a Vice President who was especially aware of the globe’s potentially limited energy supplies -- certainly had oil reserves and energy flows on the brain. They knew, in Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt phrase, that Iraq was afloat on "a sea of oil" and that it sat strategically in the midst of the oil heartlands of the planet.

It wasn’t a mistake that, in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney’s semi-secret Energy Task Force set itself the "task" of opening up the energy sectors of various Middle Eastern countries to "foreign investment"; or that it scrutinized "a detailed map of Iraq’s oil fields, together with the (non-American) oil companies scheduled to develop them"; or that, according to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, the National Security Council directed its staff "to cooperate fully with the Energy Task Force as it considered the ’melding’ of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: ’the review of operational policies towards rogue states,’ such as Iraq, and ’actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields’"; or that the only American troops ordered to guard buildings in Iraq, after Baghdad fell, were sent to the Oil Ministry (and the Interior Ministry, which housed Saddam Hussein’s dreaded secret police); or that the first "reconstruction" contract was issued to Cheney’s former firm, Halliburton, for "emergency repairs" to those patrimonial oil fields. Once in charge in Baghdad, as sociologist Michael Schwartz has made clear, the administration immediately began guiding recalcitrant Iraqis toward denationalizing and opening up their oil industry, as well as bringing in the big boys.

Though rampant insecurity has kept the Western oil giants on the sidelines, the American-shaped "Iraqi" oil law quickly became a "benchmark" of "progress" in Washington and remains a constant source of prodding and advice from American officials in Baghdad. Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan put the oil matter simply and straightforwardly in his memoir in 2007: "I am saddened," he wrote, "that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." In other words, in a variation on the old Bill Clinton campaign mantra: It’s the oil, stupid. Greenspan was, unsurprisingly, roundly assaulted for the obvious naiveté of his statement, from which, when it proved inconvenient, he quickly retreated. But if this administration hadn’t had oil on the brain in 2002-2003, given the importance of Iraq’s reserves, Congress should have impeached the President and Vice President for that.

5. No, our new embassy in Baghdad is not an "embassy": When, for more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, you construct a complex -- regularly described as "Vatican-sized" -- of at least 20 "blast-resistant" buildings on 104 acres of prime Baghdadi real estate, with "fortified working space" and a staff of at least 1,000 (plus several thousand guards, cooks, and general factotums), when you deeply embunker it, equip it with its own electricity and water systems, its own anti-missile defense system, its own PX, and its own indoor and outdoor basketball courts, volleyball court, and indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, among other things, you haven’t built an "embassy" at all. What you’ve constructed in the heart of the heart of another country is more than a citadel, even if it falls short of a city-state. It is, at a minimum, a monument to Bush administration dreams of domination in Iraq and in what its adherents once liked to call "the Greater Middle East."

Just about ready to open, after the normal construction mishaps in Iraq, it will constitute the living definition of diplomatic overkill. It will, according to a Senate estimate, now cost Americans $1.2 billion a year just to be "represented" in Iraq. The "embassy" is, in fact, the largest headquarters on the planet for the running of an occupation. Functionally, it is also another well-fortified enduring camp with the amenities of home. Tell that to the Shiite militiamen now mortaring the Green Zone as if it were… enemy-occupied territory.

6. No, the Iraqi government is not a government: The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has next to no presence in Iraq beyond the Green Zone; it delivers next to no services; it has next to no ability to spend its own oil money, reconstruct the country, or do much of anything else, and it most certainly does not hold a monopoly on the instruments of violence. It has no control over the provinces of northern Iraq which operate as a near-independent Kurdish state. Non-Kurdish Iraqi troops are not even allowed on its territory. Maliki’s government cannot control the largely Sunni provinces of the country, where its officials are regularly termed "the Iranians" (a reference to the heavily Shiite government’s closeness to neighboring Iran) and are considered the equivalent of representatives of a foreign occupying power; and it does not control the Shiite south, where power is fragmented among the militias of ISCI (the Badr Organization), Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the armed adherents of the Fadila Party, a Sadrist offshoot, among others.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has been derisively nicknamed "the mayor of Kabul" for his government’s lack of control over much territory outside the national capital. It would be a step forward for Maliki if he were nicknamed "the mayor of Baghdad." Right now, his troops, heavily backed by American forces, are fighting for some modest control over Shiite cities (or parts of cities) from Basra to Baghdad.

7. No, the surge is not over: Two weeks ago, amid much hoopla, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spent two days before Congress discussing the President’s surge strategy in Iraq and whether it has been a "success." But that surge -- the ground one in which an extra 30,000-plus American troops were siphoned into Baghdad and, to a lesser extent, adjoining provinces -- was by then already so over. In fact, all but about 10,000 of those troops will be home by the end of July, not because the President has had any urge for a drawdown, but, as Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote recently, "because of simple math. The five extra combat brigades, which were deployed to Iraq with the surge, each have 15-month tours of duty; the 15 months will be up in July… and the U.S. Army and Marines have no combat brigades ready to replace them."

On the other hand, in all those days of yak, neither the general with so much more "martial bling" on his chest than any victorious World War II commander, nor the white-haired ambassador uttered a word about the surge that is ongoing -- the air surge that began in mid-2007 and has yet to end. Explain it as you will, but, with rare exceptions, American reporters in Iraq generally don’t look up or more of them would have noticed that the extra air units surged into that country and the region in the last year are now being brought to bear over Iraq’s cities. Today, as fighting goes on in Sadr City, American helicopters and Hellfire-missile armed Predator drones reportedly circle overhead almost constantly and air strikes of various kinds on city neighborhoods are on the rise. Yet the air surge in Iraq remains unacknowledged here and so is not a subject for discussion, debate, or consideration when it comes to our future in Iraq.

8. No, the Iraqi army will never "stand up": It can’t. It’s not a national army. It’s not that Iraqis can’t fight -- or fight bravely. Ask the Sunni insurgents. Ask the Mahdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. It’s not that Iraqis are incapable of functioning in a national army. In the bitter Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Iraqi Shiite as well as Sunni conscripts, led by a largely Sunni officer corps, fought Iranian troops fiercely in battle after pitched battle. But from Fallujah in 2004 to today, Iraqi army (and police) units, wheeled into battle (often at the behest of the Americans), have regularly broken and run, or abandoned their posts, or gone over to the other side, or, at the very least, fought poorly. In the recent offensive launched by the Maliki government in Basra, military and police units up against a single resistant militia, the Mahdi Army, deserted in sizeable numbers, while other units, when not backed by the Americans, gave poor showings. At least 1,300 troops and police (including 37 senior police officers) were recently "fired" by Maliki for dereliction of duty, while two top commanders were removed as well.

Though American training began in 2004 and, by 2005, the President was regularly talking about us "standing down" as soon as the Iraqi Army "stood up," as Charles Hanley of the Associated Press points out, "Year by year, the goal of deploying a capable, free-standing Iraqi army has seemed to always slip further into the future." He adds, "In the latest shift, the Pentagon’s new quarterly status report quietly drops any prediction of when local units will take over security responsibility for Iraq. Last year’s reports had forecast a transition in 2008." According to Hanley, the chief American trainer of Iraqi forces, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, now estimates that the military will not be able to guard the country’s borders effectively until 2018.

No wonder. The "Iraqi military" is not in any real sense a national military at all. Its troops generally lack heavy weaponry, and it has neither a real air force nor a real navy. Its command structures are integrated into the command structure of the U.S. military, while the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy are the real Iraqi air force and navy. It is reliant on the U.S. military for much of its logistics and resupply, even after an investment of $22 billion by the American taxpayer. It represents a non-government, is riddled with recruits from Shiite militias (especially the Badr brigades), and is riven about who its enemy is (or enemies are) and why. It cannot be a "national" army because it has, in essence, nothing to stand up for.

You can count on one thing, as long as we are "training" and "advising" the Iraqi military, however many years down the line, you will read comments like this one from an American platoon sergeant, after an Iraqi front-line unit abandoned its positions in the ongoing battle for control of parts of Sadr City: "It bugs the hell out of me. We don’t see any progress being made at all. We hear these guys in firefights. We know if we are not up there helping these guys out we are making very little progress."

9. No, the U.S. military does not stand between Iraq and fragmentation: The U.S. invasion and the Bush administration’s initial occupation policies decisively smashed Iraq’s fragile "national" sense of self. Since then, the Bush administration, a motor for chaos and fragmentation, has destroyed the national (if dictatorial) government, allowed the capital and much of the country (as well as its true patrimony of ancient historical objects and sites) to be looted, disbanded the Iraqi military, and deconstructed the national economy. Ever since, whatever the administration rhetoric, the U.S. has only presided over the further fragmentation of the country. Its military, in fact, employs a specific policy of urban fragmentation in which it regularly builds enormous concrete walls around neighborhoods, supposedly for "security" and "reconstruction," that actually cut them off from their social and economic surroundings. And, of course, Iraq has in these years been fragmented in other staggering ways with an estimated four-plus million Iraqis driven into exile abroad or turned into internal refugees.

According to Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times, there are now at least 28 different militias in the country. The longer the U.S. remains even somewhat in control, the greater the possibility of further fragmentation. Initially, the fragmentation was sectarian -- into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions, but each of those regions has its own potentially hostile parts and so its points of future conflict and further fragmentation. If the U.S. military spent the early years of its occupation fighting a Sunni insurgency in the name of a largely Shiite (and Kurdish) government, it is now fighting a Shiite militia, while paying and arming former Sunni insurgents, relabeled "Sons of Iraq." Iran is also clearly sending arms into a country that is, in any case, awash in weaponry. Without a real national government, Iraq has descended into a welter of militia-controlled neighborhoods, city states, and provincial or regional semi-governments. Despite all the talk of American-supported "reconciliation," Juan Cole described the present situation well at his Informed Comment blog: "Maybe the US in Iraq is not the little boy with his finger in the dike. Maybe we are workers with jackhammers instructed to make the hole in the dike much more huge."

10. No, the U.S. military does not stand between Iraq and civil war: As with fragmentation, the U.S. military’s presence has, in fact, been a motor for civil war in that country. The invasion and subsequent chaos, as well as punitive acts against the Sunni minority, allowed Sunni extremists, some of whom took the name "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia," to establish themselves as a force in the country for the first time. Later, U.S. military operations in both Sunni and Shiite areas regularly repressed local militias -- almost the only forces capable of bringing some semblance of security to urban neighborhoods -- opening the way for the most extreme members of the other community (Sunni suicide or car bombers and Shiite death squads) to attack. It’s worth remembering that it was in the surge months of 2007, when all those extra American troops hit Baghdad neighborhoods, that many of the city’s mixed or Sunni neighborhoods were most definitively "cleansed" by death squads, producing a 75-80% Shiite capital. Iraq is now embroiled in what Juan Cole has termed "three civil wars," two of which (in the south and the north) are largely beyond the reach of limited American ground forces and all of which could become far worse. The still low-level struggle between Kurds and Arabs (with the Turks hovering nearby) for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the north may be the true explosion point to come. The U.S. military sits precariously atop this mess, at best putting off to the future aspects of the present civil-war landscape, but more likely intensifying it.

11. No, al-Qaeda will not control Iraq if we leave (and neither will Iran): The latest figures tell the story. Of 658 suicide bombings globally in 2007 (more than double those of any year in the last quarter century), 542, according to the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, took place in occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly Iraq. In other words, the American occupation of that land has been a motor for acts of terrorism (as occupations will be). There was no al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia before the invasion and Iraq was no Afghanistan. The occupation under whatever name will continue to create "terrorists," no matter how many times the administration claims that "al-Qaeda" is on the run. With the departure of U.S. troops, it’s clear that homegrown Sunni extremists (and the small number of foreign jihadis who work with them), already a minority of a minority, will more than meet their match in facing the Sunni mainstream. The Sunni Awakening Movement came into existence, in part, to deal with such self-destructive extremism (and its fantasies of a Taliban-style society) before the Americans even noticed that it was happening. When the Americans leave, "al-Qaeda" (and whatever other groups the Bush administration subsumes under that catch-all title) will undoubtedly lose much of their raison d’être or simply be crushed.

As for Iran, the moment the Bush administration finally agreed to a popular democratic vote in occupied Iraq, it ensured one thing -- that the Shiite majority would take control, which in practice meant religio-political parties that, throughout the Saddam Hussein years, had generally been close to, or in exile in, Iran. Everything the Bush administration has done since has only ensured the growth of Iranian influence among Shiite groups. This is surely meant by the Iranians as, in part, a threat/trump card, should the Bush administration launch an attack on that country. After all, crucial U.S. resupply lines from Kuwait run through areas near Iran and would assumedly be relatively easy to disrupt.

Without the U.S. military in Iraq, there can be no question that the Iranians would have real influence over the Shiite (and probably Kurdish) parts of the country. But that influence would have its distinct limits. If Iran overplayed its hand even in a rump Shiite Iraq, it would soon enough find itself facing some version of the situation that now confronts the Americans. As Robert Dreyfuss wrote in the Nation recently, "[D]espite Iran’s enormous influence in Iraq, most Iraqis -- even most Iraqi Shiites -- are not pro-Iran. On the contrary, underneath the ruling alliance in Baghdad, there is a fierce undercurrent of Arab nationalism in Iraq that opposes both the U.S. occupation and Iran’s support for religious parties in Iraq." The al-Qaedan and Iranian "threats" are, at one and the same time, bogeymen used by the Bush administration to scare Americans who might favor withdrawal and, paradoxically, realities that a continued military presence only encourages.

12. Yes, some Americans were right about Iraq from the beginning (and not the pundits either): One of the strangest aspects of the recent fifth anniversary (as of every other anniversary) of the invasion of Iraq was the newspaper print space reserved for those Bush administration officials and other war supporters who were dead wrong in 2002-2003 on an endless host of Iraq-related topics. Many of them were given ample opportunity to offer their views on past failures, the "success" of the surge, future withdrawals or drawdowns, and the responsibilities of a future U.S. president in Iraq.

Noticeably missing were representatives of the group of Americans who happened to have been right from the get-go. In our country, of course, it often doesn’t pay to be right. (It’s seen as a sign of weakness or plain dumb luck.) I’m speaking, in this case, of the millions of people who poured into the streets to demonstrate against the coming invasion with an efflorescence of placards that said things too simpleminded (as endless pundits assured American news readers at the time) to take seriously -- like "No Blood for Oil," "Don’t Trade Lives for Oil," or ""How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?" At the time, it seemed clear to most reporters, commentators, and op-ed writers that these sign-carriers represented a crew of well-meaning know-nothings and the fact that their collective fears proved all too prescient still can’t save them from that conclusion. So, in their very rightness, they were largely forgotten.

Now, as has been true for some time, a majority of Americans, another obvious bunch of know-nothings, are deluded enough to favor bringing all U.S. troops out of Iraq at a reasonable pace and relatively soon. (More than 60% of them also believe "that the conflict is not integral to the success of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.") If, on the other hand, a poll were taken of pundits and the inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia (not to speak of the officials of the Bush administration), the number of them who would want a total withdrawal from Iraq (or even see that as a reasonable goal) would undoubtedly descend near the vanishing point. When it comes to American imperial interests, most of them know better, just as so many of them did before the war began. Even advisors to candidates who theoretically want out of Iraq are hinting that a full-scale withdrawal is hardly the proper way to go.

So let me ask you a question (and you answer it): Given all of the above, given the record thus far, who is likely to be right?

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

[Tomdispatch recommendations: For another numbered piece on Iraq, check out Gary Kamiya’s eminently sane reprise of the Ten Commandments as applied to the launching of the 2003 invasion -- to be found at ("Commandment I, "Thou shalt not launch preventive wars…"; Commandment VI: "Do not allow neoconservatives anywhere near Middle East policy… Special Bill Kristol Sub-commandment VI a: Stop giving these buffoons prestigious jobs on newspaper-of-record Op-Ed pages, top magazines and television shows. They have been completely and consistently wrong about everything. Must we continue to be subjected to their pontifications?"). Also let me offer a Tomdispatch bow of thanks to’s daily "Media Patrol" column. Someone at that site with a keen eye for the less noticed but newsworthy pieces of any day (and an always splendid set of links) makes my life so much easier, when gathering material for essays like this one.]

Piling On: Borrowers Buried by Fees

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By Gretchen Morgenson

Slowly but surely, a handful of public-minded bankruptcy court judges are drawing back the curtain on the mortgage servicing business, exposing, among other questionable practices, the sundry and onerous fees that big banks and financial companies levy on troubled borrowers.

It isn't a pretty sight, if you are a borrower. But shining a light on this dark corner certainly qualifies as progress.

The cases come out of bankruptcy courts in Delaware, Louisiana and New York, and each one shows how improper, undisclosed or questionable fees unfairly penalize borrowers already struggling with mortgage debt or bankruptcy.

Given the number of new borrowers falling daily into the foreclosure mire, dubious practices by servicers are beyond troubling. Foreclosure filings rose 57 percent in March over the same period in 2007, according to RealtyTrac, the real estate and foreclosure Web site. It also said that banks repossessed more than 50,000 homes last month, more than twice the amount of one year earlier.

If even one of those repossessions was owing to improper fees or practices, that would be one too many.

The case out of the Eastern District of Louisiana, overseen by Judge Elizabeth W. Magner, is especially depressing. It involves Dorothy Chase Stewart, an elderly borrower and widow whose original loan of $61,200 was serviced by Wells Fargo. Judge Magner cited "abusive imposition of unwarranted fees and charges," and improper calculation of escrow payments, among other things. She found Wells Fargo negligent and assessed damages, sanctions and legal fees of $27,350.

The heart of the case is that Wells Fargo failed to notify the borrower when it assessed fees or charges on her account. This deepened her default and placed her on a downward spiral that was hard to escape. And Wells Fargo's practice of not notifying borrowers that they were being charged fees "is not peculiar to loans involved in a bankruptcy," the court said.

During a 12-month period beginning in 2001, for example, Well Fargo assessed 13 late fees totaling $360.23 without telling Ms. Stewart or her late husband, whose name was on the loan before he died. Even though the terms of the mortgage required that Wells Fargo apply any funds it received from the Stewarts to principal and interest charges first, the late fees were deducted first. This meant that the Stewarts' mortgage payments were insufficient, making them fall further behind - and keeping them subject to more late fees.

Then there were the multiple inspection fees Wells Fargo charged the borrowers. Because its computer system automatically generates a request for property inspections when a borrower becomes delinquent - to make sure the property is being kept up - the $15 cost of the inspections piled up. The court noted that the total cost to the borrower for one missed $554.11 mortgage payment was $465.36 in late fees and property inspection charges.

From late 2000 and 2007, Wells Fargo inspected the property on average every 54 days, the court found. But the court also determined that inspections charged to Ms. Stewart had often been performed on other people's properties. Of the nine broker appraisals charged to Ms. Stewart from 2002 to 2007, two were said to have been conducted on the same September day in 2005 when Jefferson Parish, where the Stewart home was located, was under an evacuation order because of Hurricane Katrina.

The broker appraisals were conducted by a division of Wells Fargo that charged more than double its costs for them, the court found. It concluded that the charges were an undisclosed fee disguised as a third-party vendor cost and illegally imposed by Wells Fargo. The bank also levied substantial legal fees and failed to credit back to the borrower $1,800 that had been charged for an eviction action but that had been returned by the sheriff because it never occurred.

While Wells Fargo claimed that the borrower owed $35,036, the judge said the actual figure was $24,924.10. The judge ordered Wells Fargo to provide a complete loan history on every case pending with her court after April 13, 2007.

A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank "strongly disagrees with many aspects of the recent bankruptcy rulings in New Orleans and plans to appeal these matters. Wells Fargo continuously works to enhance its bankruptcy procedures to comply with the requirements of the bankruptcy courts throughout the country."

The second illuminating case emerged in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware and involved a problem that lawyers representing troubled borrowers say they often encounter: fees levied after a borrower has satisfied all obligations under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and the case is discharged.

Mortgage lenders argue that their contracts allow them to recover all the fees and costs they incur when a borrower files a Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan, even those not approved by the court and charged after a case is resolved. But borrowers contend that because such charges have not been approved, they should be disallowed.

Judge Brendan Linehan Shannon put forward this example: If a lender imposed $5,200 in charges on a borrower to cover weekly property inspections and the court disallowed $4,000 of it, lenders still contend that they have the right to try to collect fees after the case concluded that the court did not approve.

"This cannot be," the judge wrote. "If the court and the Chapter 13 Trustee fully administer a case through completion of a 60-month Chapter 13 plan, only to have the debtor promptly refile on account of accrued, undisclosed fees and charges on her mortgage, it could fairly be said that we have all been on a fool's errand for five years."

Finally, borrowers can be cheered by an opinion written this month by Cecilia G. Morris, bankruptcy judge in the Southern District of New York.

The case involved Christopher W. and Bobbi Ann Schuessler, borrowers who had $120,000 of equity in their Burlingham, N.Y., home when their bank, Chase Home Finance, a unit of JPMorgan Chase, moved to begin foreclosure proceedings. The couple had filed for personal bankruptcy protection, which automatically prevents any seizure of their home.

But the bank moved for a so-called relief from the bankruptcy stay, and claimed the couple had no equity.

The Schuesslers got into trouble because Chase had refused a mortgage payment they tried to make at a local branch. Testimony in the case revealed a Chase policy of accepting mortgage payments in branches from borrowers who are current on their loans but rejecting payments from borrowers operating under bankruptcy protection.

The Schuesslers did not know this. When Chase rejected their payment, they briefly fell behind on their mortgage, according to the court documents. Then Chase moved to begin foreclosure proceedings.

"Without informing debtors, Chase Home Finance makes it impossible for JPMorgan Chase Bank branches to accept any payments," Judge Morris wrote. "It appeared that Chase Home Finance intended to commence an unwarranted foreclosure action, due to 'arrears' resulting from Chase Home Finance's handling of the case in its bankruptcy department, rather than any default of the debtors."

Court documents also state that Chase was unable to show that it had tried to communicate with the borrowers before it began efforts to seize their home. The judge concluded that the way Chase deals with bankruptcy debtors is an abuse of the process. She instructed Chase to pay the borrowers' legal fees.

Thomas Kelly, a Chase spokesman, conceded that the bank had made some mistakes in the Schuessler case, especially the fact that the branch teller had not advised the borrowers where to send their payment when it was rejected.

"Payments from customers in bankruptcy require special handling under bankruptcy law so tellers are requested to tell customers to mail in the payment or call the toll-free number on the back of the form," he said. "In light of the judge's concerns we are reviewing our practices." He also said the bank had followed industry practice in moving to foreclose quickly "so we could meet the guidelines for servicing loans for investors."

"These cases clearly indicate that bankruptcy courts are no longer being fooled by the maze of fees, firms and flim-flams of the mortgage servicing industry," said O. Max Gardner III, a lawyer who represents borrowers in Shelby, N.C. "The servicers and their lawyers should recognize the clear and present danger of these decisions while they still have time to turn their ships around and do the right thing."

Military Medical Malpractice: Seeking Recourse

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By Walter F. Roche Jr.

Outrage over a recent spate of incidents spurs fresh efforts to overturn the Feres doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court decision denying active-duty service members the right to sue over medical errors.

Minutes after routine surgery for acute appendicitis in October 2003, Staff Sgt. Dean Witt, 25, was being moved to a recovery room at a Northern California military hospital when he gasped and stopped breathing.

A student nurse assisting an understaffed anesthesia team tried to resuscitate Witt and failed. Inexplicably, Witt’s gurney was wheeled into a pediatric area. Lifesaving devices sized for children, not a 175-pound adult, proved useless, according to an internal report on the incident.

Medical personnel at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base screamed at each other. A double dose of a powerful stimulant was mistakenly administered. When a breathing tube was finally inserted, it was misdirected, uselessly pumping air into the patient’s stomach. Errors compounded errors and delays multiplied.

By the time a breathing tube finally was inserted correctly, Witt had devastating brain damage. Three months later, he was removed from life support and died. Witt, who grew up in Oroville, Calif., left behind a wife and two children, including a 4-month-old son.

"This medical incident was due to an avoidable error," concluded an unpublished internal report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

Despite questionable medical care criticized in the report, the bereaved family could not sue for malpractice because Witt was an active-duty airman. Under limits stemming from a Supreme Court ruling nearly 60 years old, military hospitals and their staffs are immune from malpractice claims - even for the most egregious lapses - if the victim is an enlisted member on active duty.

A series of court rulings since 1950 have upheld the original decision, known as Feres vs. United States, denying members of the military the right to sue for damages over medical errors or even deliberate wrongs.

Barbara Cragnotti of Medford, Ore., learned of the Feres case after her son Joseph suffered lung and neurological injuries from undiagnosed pneumonia while under a military doctor’s care. Joseph Cragnotti was in the Navy and had nearly completed training for submarine duty when he was stricken.

Military medical personnel failed to provide antibiotics, and her son ended up having multiple surgeries. He lost part of a lung. His mother said his condition deteriorated further after doctors at the naval hospital in Bremerton, Wash., took the sailor off a needed drug, causing seizures and permanent neurological damage.

Joseph Cragnotti, now 28, has left the military but still needs treatment for his medical conditions.

His mother joined VERPA - Veterans Equal Rights Protection Advocacy - a nonprofit group determined "to expose and remedy" what it calls "the un-American Feres doctrine."

Barbara Cragnotti, now head of the organization, foresees more trouble as wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan strain a taxed military health system. "Congress is not going to act until the public forces them to," she said. The military medical establishment is "hiding behind the Feres doctrine."

Christine Lemp, whose husband, James, 35, died after receiving questionable medical care at Missouri’s Ft. Leonard Wood, said accountability was lacking. "One of the most disturbing things is that these doctors can do anything and nothing happens," she said.

Army Capt. James Lemp was diagnosed with a stomach virus in 2003. Hours later, he was brain-dead from a stroke-like condition called vertebral artery dissection. Experts hired by his wife said that with proper treatment, he would have had a 90% chance of recovery.

Defending the Doctrine

Feres supporters say the doctrine is necessary to protect the military from costly, time-consuming trials that could compromise military discipline. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former fighter pilot, called Feres "a reasonable approach to ensuring that litigation does not interfere with the objectives and readiness of our nation’s military."

For years, the Department of Justice and the Pentagon have joined forces to fend off legal and legislative challenges to Feres.

"Nobody wants some judge meddling in military matters," Paul Harris, then a deputy associate attorney general, told a Senate committee in 2002. "It would have dire implications."

Harris, now in private practice, said he stood by his position that "it would be unconscionable to subject the military to an adversarial civil trial process."

But fresh attempts to repeal Feres are in the works, spurred in part by the case of Marine Sgt. Carmelo Rodriguez. In January, a CBS News TV crew had just arrived to interview him when Rodriguez - holding the hand of his 7-year-old son - died. Rodriguez, 29, an Iraq war veteran from New York, had been ravaged by cancer that he and his family blamed on years of misdiagnoses.

Military doctors had mistaken a deadly melanoma for a wart.

His case prompted Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) to promise renewed efforts to overturn Feres. Previous bills have passed easily in the House but died in the Senate.

"No service member should ever become sick or die as the result of poor military medical care," Hinchey said. "I believe our military has outstanding doctors, but if those doctors fail our men and women in uniform, then there must be some system of accountability."

Military Is "Sole Remedy"

One former military doctor told The Times that military medical staffs were well aware that Feres shielded them from malpractice claims by active-duty patients or their survivors.

The doctor, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, served on the medical staff at Travis Air Force Base. He said staff shortages were chronic there and at other Air Force installations where he worked.

Under such circumstances, he said, "they’ll take anyone."

James B. Smith, a New Jersey lawyer who served as a military trial judge during a 30-year service career, said the theory behind Feres was that since the military provided full medical care for members and lifelong veterans benefits, there was little practical need for financial damages for malpractice. "The military is already providing for you, and that’s your sole remedy," Smith said.

The 1950 Feres decision encompassed three separate cases. One involved a soldier named Rudolph J. Feres who died in a fire caused by a faulty barracks heating system. The others were the victims of medical malpractice. One had sued after a towel nearly 3 feet long was discovered in his abdomen, left there by military surgeons.

The court was interpreting the Federal Tort Claims Act, which gives citizens a limited right to sue the government for wrongs resulting from the actions of federal employees or agencies.

But the Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Robert H. Jackson, reasoned that active-duty members of the military could seek other remedies for such wrongs, including Veterans Administration benefits. "The compensation system, which normally requires no litigation, is not negligible," Jackson wrote.

The Supreme Court came within a single vote of overturning Feres in 1987. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the dissenting opinion for the four-member minority: "Feres was wrongly decided and heartily deserves the ’widespread, almost universal criticism’ it has received."

Among the curious aspects of Feres is that it bars malpractice suits by active-duty military personnel but not by their spouses or other family members, who also are entitled to treatment at military hospitals.

"It doesn’t make any sense," said Washington-based lawyer Eugene Fidell. "If a doctor malpractices on a dependent on one day, the family can sue. But if he commits the same malpractice the next day on a GI, they can’t."

An investigative panel convened by the Air Force shortly after Witt’s surgery concluded in its still-unreleased report that "due to assignments, deployments and recent ill health," the anesthesia unit at the Travis Air Force Base hospital was badly understaffed.

"There is insufficient manning to support operational tempo and the teaching mission of the hospital," the report said. It found that the authorized complement of seven anesthesiologists was down to four available for duty.

"This medical incident was due to an avoidable error," the report said. "The practice of anesthesia at a medical center should not rely on the minimum standard."

In response, Travis officials said the hospital could increase its anesthesia unit only if the Pentagon provided additional personnel. Base officials declined to comment on any aspect of the Witt case, citing privacy restrictions.

Legal Challenge

Despite the long legal odds, Witt’s widow, Alexis, is determined to challenge Feres in court. This month she was formally notified that her administrative claim against the Air Force had been declined, an expected rejection that exhausted all options but litigation.

"As a family," said her sister Carmen Voegeli, a Marine veteran, "we have a right to know what happened. How dare the military use these men and take away their rights."

One haunting coincidence that could be a factor in the Witt family’s challenge of Feres involves a nurse anesthetist who helped treat the airman. After Witt’s death, her license was revoked by the state of California for "negligence and/or incompetence."

The same anesthetist had been on duty a year earlier when 22-year-old Texas airman Christopher White died after routine surgery on his shoulder. As in the Witt case, post-surgery care of White was criticized by the state nursing board.

White’s family did not try to take legal action. If it had, that might have brought attention sooner to problems in the anesthesia unit.

His father, Harris White, said lawyers had advised him that he could not sue because of the Feres doctrine.

Bank of England to Detail Swap Plan for Easing Credit

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By Mark Deen and Jennifer Ryan

The Bank of England tomorrow will release its plan to swap government bonds for mortgage-backed securities in an effort to ease credit costs and help British homeowners, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said.

This will ``unfreeze the situation we've got at the moment,'' Darling said today in a BBC television interview. ``What the Bank of England will do is in effect lend the banks that money. In the meantime, the Bank of England will take a security,'' he said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government is looking for ways to promote lending after an increase in borrowing costs caused banks from HBOS Plc to Lloyds TSB Group Plc to curb credit. That raised the cost of mortgage loans, even after central bank policy makers cut the benchmark lending rate three times since December to help avert a U.K. recession.

By offering commercial lenders government bonds, the central bank will add to their inventory of liquid assets and make it easier for them to both raise cash and lend, especially to consumers seeking mortgages. In return, the government will hold riskier mortgage-backed assets as security.

The central bank and the Treasury may offer a swap of 50 billion pounds ($100 billion), the British Broadcasting Corp. reported yesterday. Former Bank of England policy maker Willem Buiter said that may not be enough. The authorities may need to provide double that amount to kick-start the mortgage market, he said in an interview.

Stabilizing Markets

A Bank of England spokesman declined to comment on Darling's remarks when contacted today by Bloomberg News.

The plan's success ``all depends on the scale,'' Buiter, a London School of Economics professor, said on April 18. ``If they do 5 billion it's not going to do much. If they do 55 billion it would help deal with the overhang of illiquid mortgage-backed securities that mortgage lenders have on their balance sheet and prevent them from engaging in any new lending.''

``This is an essential initial step in trying to get the financial market stabilized and that in turn will help the mortgage market,'' Darling said today. ``We can re-open the financial markets, because that is an essential pre-condition for the provision of mortgages.''

The U.S. Federal Reserve last month made up to $200 billion available to banks in return for debt including mortgage-backed securities and in December created a lending vehicle to make credit available to banks as an alternative to borrowing at its discount rate, which may carry a stigma.

Collateral Requirements

To date, the Bank of England widened its collateral requirements just for three-month lending. It only accepts top- rated government securities at its weekly auctions. It has already cut interest rates three times since credit markets seized up in August as it tries to shore up growth. Economists expect two more reductions by the end of the year, according to the median of 41 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey.

If successful, ``the liquidity support facility may help relieve at least some pressure on the Monetary Policy Committee to cut rates,'' said Nick Bate, an economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. in London.

Darling, who didn't specify the size of the swap program in the interview, said he wants British banks to be as transparent as possible in declaring losses on bad loans. He also urged them to pass on interest rate cuts to consumers.

Rebuild Capital

``It's important the banks begin now to expose the extent of their losses and explain now how they are going to rebuild their capital,'' he said.

Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, the U.K.'s second-biggest lender, is considering a share sale to shore up capital depleted by credit-related writedowns and its part in the acquisition of ABN Amro Holding NV last year, according to a person with knowledge of the plan.

``I would like to see banks do more to pass on the interest rate cuts,'' Darling said.

At the same time, the finance minister urged patience, saying the credit crunch partly needs time to work itself out. Darling said one analogy was to someone with a dose of food poisoning, which ``just has to work its way through the system.''

``We can help the process and the Bank of England's measures tomorrow will help the process, which in turn will help the housing market,'' he said.

The Bank of England's most recent reduction in the cost of borrowing was on April 10, when it cut its benchmark interest rate by a quarter point to 5 percent.

The gap between borrowing pounds for three months and the benchmark rate still reached a 3-month high of 93 basis points on April 14. On April 17, financial institutions bid for 50 billion pounds in the bank's weekly auction, the most since January and triple the amount on offer.

"Hero" John McCain as Phony and Collaborator: What Really Happened When He Was a POW?

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John McCain’s been getting kid-glove treatment from the press for years, ever since he wriggled free of the Keating scandal and his profitable association – another collaboration, you might say -- with the nation’s top bank swindler in the 1980s. But nothing equals the astounding tact with which his claque on the press bus avoids the topic of McCain’s collaborating with his Vietnamese captors after he’d been shot down.

How McCain behaved when he was a prisoner is key. McCain is probably the most unstable man ever to have got this close to the White House. He’s one election away from it. Republican senator Thad Cochrane has openly said he trembles at the thought of an unstable McCain in the Oval Office with his finger on the nuclear trigger.

What if a private memory of years of collaboration in his prison camp gnaws at McCain, and bursts out in his paroxysms of uncontrollable fury, his rantings about “gooks” and his terrifying commitment to a hundred years of war in Iraq. What if “the hero” knows he’s a phony?
Doug Valentine has written the definitive history of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam. He knows about the POW experience. His dad, an Army man, was captured by the Japanese and sent to a POW camp in the Philippines for forced labor. Many of his mates died. Doug wrote a marvelous book about it, The Hotel Tacloban.

Now Valentine has picked up the unexploded bomb lying on McCain’s campaign trail this year. As he points out, he’s not the first. Rumors and charges have long swirled around McCain’s conduct as a prisoner. Fellow prisoners have given the lie to McCain’s claims. But Valentine has assembled the dossier. It’s devastating. We’re running it in our current CounterPunch newsletter and we strongly urge you to subscribe.

Some excerpts from Valentine’s indictment.

“War is one thing, collaborating with the enemy is another; it is a legitimate campaign issue that strikes at the heart of McCain’s character. . .or lack thereof. In occupied countries like Iraq, or France in World War II, collaboration to that extent spells an automatic death sentence.. . .The question is: What kind of collaborator was John McCain, the admitted war criminal who will hate the Vietnamese for the rest of his life?

“Put it another way: how psychologically twisted is McCain? And what actually happened to him in his POW camp that twisted him? Was it abuse, as he claims, or was it the fact that he collaborated and has to cover up? Covering-up can take a lot of energy. The truth is lurking there in his subconscious, waiting to explode. ”

“McCain had a unique POW experience. Initially, he was taken to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp, where he was interrogated. By McCain’s own account, after three or four days he cracked. He promised his Vietnamese captors, “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital ...

“His Vietnamese captors soon realized their POW, John Sidney McCain III, came from a well-bred line in the American military elite. . .The Vietnamese realized, this poor stooge has propaganda value. The admiral’s boy was used to special treatment, and his captors knew that. They were working him.”

“. . .two weeks into his stay at the Vietnamese hospital, the Hanoi press began quoting him. It was not ‘name rank and serial number, or kill me’. as specified by the military code of conduct. McCain divulged specific military information: he gave the name of the aircraft carrier on which he was based, the number of U.S. pilots that had been lost, the number of aircraft in his flight formation, as well as information about the location of rescue ships.”

“…McCain was held for five and half years. The first two weeks’ behavior might have been pragmatism, but McCain soon became North Vietnam’s go-to collaborator…..McCain cooperated with the North Vietnamese for a period of three years. His situation isn’t as innocuous as that of the French barber who cuts the hair of the German occupier. McCain was repaying his captors for their kindness and mercy.

“This is the lesson of McCain’s experience as a POW: a true politician, a hollow man, his only allegiance is to power. The Vietnamese, like McCain’s campaign contributors today, protected and promoted him, and, in return, he danced to their tune. . .”

Subscribe now.

Making Polite “Conversation”

Suddenly everyone is having a “conversation”. The word has come of age. I see it bowing and scraping on the opinion pages and tv talk shows three or four times a day. Its formulaic sidekick is the equally irksome “if you will”, beloved of Wolf Blitzer, John King and the other tv anchors and correspondents. “If you will” is something between a sheep-like cough and a verbal tailwag, a signifier of decorum, itself a prime ingredient of the “national conversation”.

National conversations” are clubby affairs. Their prime purpose is to exclude the unconversational, meaning intellectual or verbal excess; above all, unseemly questioning of the essential functionality of the existing system. Indeed, I began to keep an eye out for the term a few years ago when I read a column in which some rabble-rouser was haughtily black-balled as most definitely not being part of the national conversation.

It’s possible that the “national conversation” got its start as an effort to dignify the interactions of the “chattering classes”, a phrase which had its origin as a right-wing snarl, in the Thatcher years. Real men and real women didn’t chatter. They moved briskly forward with the business of “governance”, yet another irksome locution.

Ayers and the Weather Undergound

Dave Lindorff said some nice things about Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground last week. CounterPuncher Dan Cassidy, author of How the Irish Invented Slang (CounterPunch Books, winner of an American Book Award last year) fired off this letter to Dave, with a cc to us.

Dear Mr. Lindorff,

I think your remarks on the Weather Underground’s positive effect on the old new left, and SDS in particular, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s are misguided and off the mark. I am sure Ayers has become a progressive force in Chicago and applaud him for his transformation.

But my personal experience of the WU and Ms. Dohrn at Colombia and Cornell found them to be a mostly upper- and upper-middle class, immature, narcissistic group of misguided ultra-leftists who had no understanding of the working class or the need to build a mass base. They were, in fact, an impediment to efforts to build a broader based anti-war movement. They engaged in divisive sectarian tactics in scores of meetings I attended, and further divided an already divided student left. Unlike the Panthers, or the IRA, for instance, they had absolutely no base within the working classes. For a guerrilla army, even a small one, to have an effect on the struggle against imperialism it must be rooted in working-class and poor communities. The Panthers came out of the streets of Oakland. They were born there The IRA were all products of the historic nationalist communities in the north of Ireland, both rural and urban. The IRA had only 500 ASU [operational volunteers] in the field at any given time, yet fought the Brit imperialists to a standstill. The ANC’s armed wing was also rooted in the same types of working-class and rural communities. The Weather Underground was rooted in the middle and upper-middle classes of the US and had no base whatsoever in working-class and poor communities. They were a farce.

I was there. I knew many of them. They were legends in their own mind. That said, I have no doubt Ayers has transformed himself into a decent man who works for a progressive agenda. We all grow up. The WU was an immature, narcissistic bunch of mostly rich kids, who played at revolution and whose only base was in the townhouses of their rich parents.

Dan Cassidy

Michael Moore’s Oscar Speech

A while back Jeff Gibbs sent us this note about John Ross’s piece on the dark side of the Oscars. It fell between the cracks but here it is. Jeff, you’re on at last:

“A very enlightening and well written article. I must take issue with one thing though, your assertion that Michael Moore went on a “self-promoting tirade after winning an Oscar for "Fahrenheit 9/11." The Oscar was for "Bowling for Columbine.’ I was there. I don’t think saying ‘shame on you Mr. Bush’ is self-promoting. It was a very, very painful thing to do then, and remains so. Our entire production team decided to give up having our names mentioned or being thanked before millions in order that Michael might take a stance against the war. His reward for speaking out is that he has endured unrelenting and brutal personal attacks including several threats to his physical safety put forth on both FOX and Clear Channel since then.

“Alas, everything he has said in our next film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ has proven to be all too true. I for one am tired of potshots at one of the few well-off Americans who risked his own personal and artistic well-being to so effectively speak out against the war. If more of his peers in Hollywood and the media had the same courage ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ might never had to have been made, and Michael would not have to endure relentless attacks from both the right who hates him for speaking against the war and even more so for reaching hundreds of millions of people, and the left, who seem determined to bring down anyone who actually rises above incompetence to threaten the other side.

Jeff Gibbs
Co-producer, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’
Field Producer, ‘Bowling for Columbine’

I’ll Really Miss George Bush

Miss him? Alexander, how can you say such a thing? But I do. He’s done the Empire all the harm he can. Who needs Barack Obama to polish up Uncle Sam’s image with some fancy talk? Besides, Bush was in top form during the Pope’s White House visit. What other president would have shambled up to his Holiness, made as if to give him a hug, and said to the Vicar of Christ, “Awesome speech.”

I should add that I’d been saddened by the First Lady’s appearance in recent months, albeit the decline is predictable, given the hell that must be the poor lamb’s personal circumstance, shackled to that dunderhead. But in the Pope’s visit Laura was spectacular in her beauty and aplomb. Her and Pope Benedict’s white ensembles were the talk of the vestry. I imagine the couple will soon drift apart after quitting the White House. There’s been gossip of angry exchanges, and Crawford would be very constricting.

Government Authority Is Crossing a Line

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By Raul Reyes

Last week, Eloisa Tamez, 73, lost the latest round in her ongoing fight with the U.S. government. A judge ordered her to let Washington survey her land near Brownsville, Texas. It lies in the path of a proposed border fence. Now, Tamez, heir to an original Spanish land grant dating to the 1700s, fears that her property will be seized with good reason.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently waived more than 30 laws in order to expedite construction of the border fence. He did so with little regard for the concerns of residents, local officials and environmentalists.

And though the proposed path would cut through the properties of many citizens, it would bypass land owned by the wealthy and politically connected. The Texas Observer reported that the fence would detour around the River Bend Resort and golf course, as well as developments owned by the Hunt family, whose members are major supporters of President Bush. The fence would also cause irreparable damage to wildlife; two Texas nature preserves would wind up in Mexico. They’d likely have to close.

Chertoff maintains that the fence is necessary because Americans have been adamant about border security. Yet two recent polls by CBS and CNN show that Americans rank illegal immigration lowest on their short list of the most pressing national problems.

The fence wouldn’t solve our immigration crisis. It would simply divert crossings to other places along the 2,000 mile border. It would do nothing about the 12 million unauthorized migrants already here. In fact, nearly half of all illegal immigrants entered the country legally and overstayed their visas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right in assessing the fence as a waste of money.

Moreover, Congress has ceded too much power to Chertoff. In 2005, it granted him the authority to waive laws while prohibiting federal appeals courts from reviewing his decisions, undermining the system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution. Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club have filed petitions with the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the waiver. I hope the court accepts the case and voids the grant of power. Alternatively, Congress should revoke this power because it is being abused.

In the meantime, Chertoff has free rein to destroy fragile ecosystems, flout our laws and trample on the rights of citizens like Tamez. How sad that we are willing to undermine our Constitution for an expensive, wasteful monument to American insecurity.

For Chris Matthews, Misogyny Pays Handsomely

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By Eric Boehlert

Tongues are still wagging over The New York Times Magazine’s cringe-inducing cover story about MSNBC talker Chris Matthews. The cringes came courtesy of the name-dropping Matthews, whose raging insecurities danced across nearly every page of the piece. As Digby noted after reading the opus, "He fulfills every single Village media cliche: obsessive social climbing, deep personal insecurity, primitively sexist and racist and just plain dumb."

Question: Is Chris Matthews the Michael Scott of political talk show hosts? And if so, does that make MSNBC the Dunder Mifflin of cable news?

Matthews has harvested a bumper crop of outrageous remarks during this extended primary season. Specifically, fueled by his obsession with the Clintons (he can’t recall attending a single Beltway party where the couple has not been discussed), Matthews has unleashed a flood of sexist commentary.

On that front, of course, the Hardball host has not been alone. This election season, we’ve seen a cavalcade of white, middle-age men express their deep, personal contempt for the first serious female contender for the White House. Contempt, of course, that has nothing to do with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s policies or her beliefs. Instead, it’s been an oddly personal disdain dressed up as political analysis.

The way Mike Barnicle on MSNBC said Clinton "look[ed] like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court." The way Bill Kristol on Fox News said that among the only people supporting Hillary Clinton were white women, and "[w]hite women are a problem, that’s, you know -- we all live with that." The way CNN’s Jack Cafferty likened Clinton to "a scolding mother, talking down to a child." The way Fox News’ Neil Cavuto suggested Clinton was "trying to run away from this tough, kind of bitchy image." The way MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson announced that "when [Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." The way Christopher Hitchens on CNBC described Clinton as being "sort of alternately soppy and bitchy.’"

That’s all taken place in open view. And while a blog swarm did engulf Matthews in January, followed by a forced, pseudo-apology by the host -- and his attacks did prompt some women activists to carry picket signs outside the MSNBC studios -- the openly sexist comments have produced very few condemnations from within the industry and even less soul-searching from the (mostly male) press corps. In fact, in Matthews’ case, the sexist outbursts have helped propel his career. That’s how he landed on the cover of the Times magazine.

Why? Because misogyny pays.

Question: If Chris Matthews had been forced to apologize to Sen. Barack Obama for divisive, personal comments the host had made about the candidate, and if the comments had prompted civil rights groups to protest outside the MSNBC studios, do you think Chris Matthews, three months after the fact, would be photographed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine with an uproarious grin on his face?

For me, there were two key takeaways from the Times opus. The first was that Clinton-bashing -- and specifically, misogynistic Hillary-bashing -- pays off in the form of magazine cover stories. And second was that political journalism is a farce.

It’s a farce because Matthews has clearly been crowned the Hot Journalist of this election cycle. He’s already received loving, Page 1 treatment from the media-centric New York Observer, as well as a February "valentine" from The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. And now the Times piece, which clocked in at 8,000 words, the type of space the prestigious magazine usually sets aside to profile presidential candidates and heads of state. Keep in mind that within the Beltway’s ego-driven media culture, with its all-publicity-is-good-publicity view of the world, there’s no question that kind of cover treatment by the Times is seen as a coveted status symbol, no matter how many cringes the actual article may have induced. The cover story conferred a very simple message: Chris Matthews has been anointed a media star.

It’s just so sad. Remember when campaign cycles generated Hot Journalists who actually accomplished something? Who actually practiced the craft and helped change journalism for the better by providing us with a deeper understanding of unfolding campaigns, who painted vivid portraits of the players involved? For instance, the way Richard Ben Cramer famously captured the 1988 race and how Sid Blumenthal and Joe Klein left their marks on the 1992 contest?

Other than to insult Hillary Clinton, what, exactly, has Chris Matthews done during 2008 to be crowned some sort of hot media property? It’s a serious question. What kind of journalism does Matthews practice? Because I don’t recognize it when I watch his program or see him on the nights the primary returns come in.

What’s so depressing for the journalism profession is that the Times profile barely takes a moment to even ponder what contribution, if any, Matthews is making to journalism. The article certainly doesn’t suggest Matthews has a unique talent. Yes, he’s ubiquitous on television and appears to have no filter between his brain and his mouth. He’s also obnoxious and self-centered, which the article makes perfectly clear. But those are personality flaws, not journalism skills.

Nor is Matthews’ misplaced self-importance, like when he compared his role in this campaign to Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite covering the 1968 White House race, or when he likened himself to Howard Cosell chronicling Muhammad Ali. (Elsewhere, Matthews compared himself to Richard Nixon and NBC’s Tim Russert to John F. Kennedy. Ugh, just stop it already.)

But where are the examples of Matthews’ leading insights during this campaign? The Times offers no examples, and I’m not sure anyone can find any. And even more depressing, the Times doesn’t seem to think it’s important or even relevant.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Times helped tap him the Hot Journalist, but Matthews doesn’t really display journalistic skills, let alone produce journalistic achievements, that the Times can point to. Why? Because, today, it’s beside the point.

The sad fact is the article itself, inadvertently, acknowledges that there really are no standards for campaign journalism anymore. Why else would the article, in all seriousness, compare Hardball with Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? Those are comedy shows, professional parodies. Hardball is supposed to be a premier political talk show. The Times sees no difference between the two. Then again, perhaps news consumers shouldn’t either.

And, no, in case you’re wondering, Matthews is not generating huge ratings during the campaign, so that’s not why he’s been designated hot. Despite the Times’ claims about how the "thrilling 2008 presidential campaign has been a boon" for MSNBC and "something of a heyday" for Matthews, Hardball’s ratings are rather middling this year compared with the mighty gains others have posted during the historic White House campaign. CNN, for instance, has ridden the Obama/Clinton wave into first place in prime time, beating Fox News for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Also note that MSNBC recently canceled Tucker Carlson’s show, which aired at 6 p.m. ET, right before Hardball, and replaced it with a weekday campaign show hosted by NBC’s David Gregory. Almost overnight, the Gregory show has been able to secure an audience similar in size to Hardball, which has been on the air for more than a decade.

No wonder the NBC brass is considering cutting Matthews, and his $5 million salary, loose.

So if Matthews doesn’t display any actual journalism skills in terms of unearthing scoops or edifying the race, and if his ratings are just so-so, what explains Matthews’ Hot Journalist status?

Answer: Misogyny.

Matthews is hot because he dumps all over Hillary Clinton, saying rude, sexist, and demeaning things about her week after week, and the Beltway media crowd thinks its edgy and insightful and loves to watch. (As the Times noted, "Some of [Matthews’] most devoted followers are Washington media figures.") Matthews, desperate for attention and approval, sees that media elites love his sexist shtick so he lays it on thicker and thicker. Media elites then turn around and anoint him the Hot Journalist.

For Matthews, his boorish behavior is simply an outgrowth of his profession as a Clinton-hater. His television career was first built on obsessive disdain for Bill Clinton during the impeachment years. That pattern of contempt extended into Matthews’ gruesome, dishonest attacks on Al Gore in 2000 (he would "lick the floor" to be president, Matthews used to joke), and has now continued with his 2008 coverage, which is laced with sexist commentary.

But if he says wildly offensive and sexist things on the air, why isn’t Matthews shunned instead of toasted? Why would the so-called liberal New York Times lavish so much attention on him?

Simple: The press plays dumb about the misogyny, and the Times magazine article was a perfect example. (The political press hates the word misogyny and considers the idea to be cuckoo. Click here to watch Keith Olbermann jump down Elton John’s throat for even daring to utter the word in the context of the Clinton campaign.)

Yes, the Times profile acknowledged the fact that critics, including Media Matters for America, have accused Matthews of sexist behavior. But the Times quickly cordoned off that discussion to mostly mean that Matthews leers at women.

In a typical passage from the Times profile, Matthews tries to flirt with actress and Obama supporter Kerry Washington, whom MSNBC head Phil Griffin invites on Hardball at an event. "He wants you on because you’re beautiful," Matthews said. "And because you’re black." Matthews handed Washington a business card and told her to call anytime "if you ever want to hang out with Chris Matthews."

New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog, in an item praising Matthews, picked up on that passage and suggested:

Places like Media Matters will doubtless point out this interaction as further evidence of Matthews’s demeaning attitude toward women, but they’d be missing the point. Matthews is a sexist in the same benign way your grandfather is, but at least he tells the truth.

First off, "benign" sexism? That’s an interesting notion. Is that sort of like "benign" racism? (Just asking.) Secondly, New York Magazine completely misses the point, because it adopts the same premise The New York Times does: this idea that Matthews is sexist because he ogles women both on and off the air.

Yes, that sort of behavior is problematic and inappropriate for the host of a political news program. (Am I not stating the obvious here?) But what the media conveniently ignore is the hateful, gender-based language Matthews uses to describe prominent (Democratic) women. It’s behavior commonly referred to as misogyny.

In the Times article, Matthew claims he’s completely innocent to the charge of demeaning women on the air: ’’I don’t think there’s any evidence of that at all. I’ve gone back and looked. Give me the evidence. No one can give it to me. I went through all my stuff. I can’t find it."

Actually, the evidence that Matthews was looking for remains hidden in plain sight. As Media Matters’ Jamison Foser noted, examples of the host’s sexist and demeaning comments are plentiful. It’s just that the Times politely chose to ignore them. So readers still probably have no idea that Matthews:

  • featured a Photoshopped image of Clinton sporting "She Devil" horns while discussing Republican efforts to demonize her;

  • repeatedly likened Clinton to "Nurse Ratched," the scheming, heartless character from the mental hospital drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest;

  • referred to Clinton as "Madame Defarge" and described male politicians who endorsed Clinton as "castratos in the eunuch chorus";

  • compared Clinton to a "strip-teaser," wondered whether she was "a convincing mom," referred to Clinton’s "cold eyes" and the "cold look" she supposedly gives people;

  • claimed that "some men" say Clinton’s voice sounds like "fingernails on a blackboard."

But oops, those aren’t funny or clever or "benign." Instead, they’re offensive to people who at least pretend to care how women are portrayed in the press. So The New York Times plays dumb and pretend Matthews is just a tad horny. That’sthe extent of his sexism; he’s incorrigible. And c’mon, what’s more adorable than watching powerful men in their 60s publicly lust after women often half their age?

Please note this odd, yet crucial, point: Matthews’ openly sexist streak extends only to Democratic and liberal women, and that’s another reason the press plays dumb. Because media elites would never anoint Matthews the Hot Journalist if he went on and on about how Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was too ambitious, or how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was "witchy," or how the voice of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) sounded like fingernails being run across a chalkboard, or how Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) had "cold eyes."

That would be considered offensive and out of bounds. But to suggest Clinton’s a "witchy," "anti-male" Nurse Ratched? That’s deemed by the Beltway elites to be shrewd, astute, and fearless.

See, misogyny pays. And according to the Times, Matthews has three Mercedes in his driveway to prove it.