Archive for the 'World Events' Category

TSA: Keeping Us Safe From Sanity

Via Mike at Vagabondish, a seven year-old Florida boy is on the national “no fly” list, as he is clearly a terrorism risk:

Michael Martin is only 7 years old, a typical youngster who enjoys skateboarding and playing drums. Because he shares a name with a known or suspected terrorist, he has run into roadblocks three times before boarding an airliner, Krista Martin said.

Each time, she was unable to quickly obtain a boarding pass for him online or via an airport kiosk. She had to march to a check-in counter to sort things out, which she said was mostly an inconvenience but also “exasperating.”

Apparently, in a nation that uses predator drones and can digitally spy on its citizens, we are still not quite at that technologically advanced stage where we can discern between a small boy who enjoys drums and a suspected terrorist.

Just for context, a quick search for “Michael Martin” in New York state brought 157 results. Keep us safe, TSA, keep us safe.

Fixing History

Israel’s Education Ministry announced yesterday that it will release a third-grade textbook that acknowledges the suffering Palestinians endured with the formation of the Jewish state – via the SF Chronicle:

Previous editions gave only the Jewish narrative of the war, pointing out the Jews’ connection to the Holy Land and their need for a state because of persecution in Europe. That version focused on heroism of the Israeli forces and referred to the Palestinian flight as a voluntary escape.

The new edition adds the Arab perspective, noting for the first time that many Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees after the winners of the war confiscated their land and barred their return. [Full]

The catch? The new text will only be taught to Arab children, not Jewish students.

I can’t pretend to be informed enough on the Palestine/Israel issue to pass judgment, but the fact that the Education Ministry is even willing to concede the Palestinian viewpoint is evidence enough that it is legitimate on some level. If that’s the case, then why shelter Jewish students from having an open dialogue? Why try to cook the history books in a time when we need desperately to understand each other?

In a related event, Taipei announced plans to “drop references that describe mainland Chinese historical figures, places and artifacts as ‘national,'” the Education Ministry has announced.” (International Herald Tribune)

While I can understand Taiwan’s hesitancy to declare full-out independence (China has threatened military retaliation if it does so), this seems passive-aggressive. If you’re gonna say it, President Chen, then say it.

Meanwhile, Japan still won’t cave on its hardline of ignoring the realities of the past, despite the outrage it has caused. High-schoolers there continue to glaze over the Rape of Nanking (reduced to a footnote) and the oppressive occupation of Korea.

Amid all of this, we must question whether children around the globe are being educated about the social realities of our world. If regimes continue to sacrifice legitimate dialogue for the sake of legitimizing their politicized view, the rifts between us will only continue to fester – we must look back on our pasts honestly, or we will never move forward.

(Revised 07/24/2007)

Oil in Africa: Hypocrisy and Responsibility

On Monday, the Wisconsin State Journal ran the headline “Africa’s Golden Chance: Can the continent play the increasing interest of China, India and the U.S. to its advantage?” above a piece by Edward Harris of the AP. As I walked by a newsstand and saw the bold print, I cocked my head in confusion – something about it didn’t sit quite right.

Later I sat down to read the entire article and was even more dismayed by the narrative’s simplistic conclusion that foreign oil investors are going to be the economic saviors of the continent , if only the African leadership could get it together [HT to Chicago Daily Herald, as WSJ does not archive AP articles]:

Nigeria’s oil industry, like those of many other African countries, is primarily run by Western energy concerns. The companies who operate crude-pumping operations and share the proceeds with Nigeria’s federal government include Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total SA, Eni SpA from Italy, and US-based Chevron Corp.

But increasingly, China and India have been moving in, too. Chinese and Indian companies won big in a recent round of bids for exploration licenses, for example, and have become big consumers […]

Peter Pham, a professor of international relations at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., said: “Africa can no longer be safely ignored … that era of benign or not-so-benign neglect is over.”

It all adds up to a rare moment of potential influence for Africa, he says, but only if African leaders can end their own self-enrichment at the expense of their people.

“It’s a question of whether African leaders rise to the occasion,” said Pham, “or if it just becomes another moment to support themselves.” [Read Full]

Now, Pham has a point here – in the past many African leaders have simply shaved off hefty shares of the oil money, essentially pocketing what is rightfully owed to their people. However, putting all of the responsibility on African leaders and dubbing the burgeoning oil industry Africa’s “Golden Chance” overlooks several aspects of the reality.

Foreign investors, like China, owe it to the nations in which they invest to do so responsibly. I’m not talking about World Bank-style structural adjustment programs, but something even more basic. For example, China could perhaps stop selling arms to Sudan.

What is also overlooked here is that, from an employment aspect, oil doesn’t do much for the economy – the oil industry alone creates limited job opportunities, and it seems the trend for foreign investors is to bring workers from home anyway. If states were to set up a way of evenly distributing oil revenues it may flush the economy with more eager consumers; however, that scenario seems unlikely.

I cannot pretend to be an expert, but I will argue that oil on the continent will not be the saving grace for Africa. Historically, the extraction of natural resources for consumption abroad has brought little good to the African people, why would the rules change now? Foreign and local investment into infrastructure – into roads, utilities, hospitals, banks, business, etc. – along with education, is likely the only way the continent will pull itself up by its bootstraps.

(Revised 07/12/2007)

Violence & Islam: Exploring the Roots

It is a question that has been heavily pondered in silence – by myself, and I imagine by countless others: Why have so many violent, hateful people proclaimed their murderous acts to be in the name of Islam?

Today, Newsweek‘s Michael Hirsh asks it out loud, and explores what he calls Islam’s ‘Death Cult,’ the destructive aberration of a tradition that has been used to justify the countless atrocities of recent days:

Yes, we understand that many Muslims are angry—about the Iraq War, about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the usual list of grievances. But there are many people, in many different societies and cultures, who are angry about many things. Would any other culture or religion produce a group of doctors and professionals who apparently deemed it morally correct to kill innocent people in large numbers? Has something gone wrong with Islam itself, or at least the culture it has produced? To merely pose that question, of course, is to play with political dynamite. But it must be asked. []

Hirsh addresses this question thoughtfully through careful historical analysis, and examines the political roots of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam that appears to be at the core of much extremist activity. Counter to what has likely become the dominant perception held by the West, Hirsh discovers that the history of Islamic radicalism is relatively short, and that the religion’s past is not any more violent than that of Christianity.

Recent events, however, highlight the perverse direction that extremist off-shoots have taken:

In one widely cited recent case, insurgents allegedly tried to trick a 6-year-old boy into blowing himself up at an Afghan police checkpoint, fitting him with a suicide vest they told him would eject flowers at the push of a button. Police managed to free the child. [LA Times]

Indeed, something must be terrible awry when “26 percent of younger Muslims (in the U.S.) say suicide bombing can be justified under some circumstances,” a statistic cited by Hirsh from a recent Pew study. This coming from members of a supposedly peaceable religion?

Hirsh concludes that Islam is facing a dangerous reality – a cancer of violence within itself that is, however small, absolutely lethal. He adds that only those within Islam are in a place to sever the violent limbs that have sprouted from the faith – while I mostly agree, I feel that it as least partly up to those on the outside to see things for what they really are.

I don’t consider hateful Christians as true followers of Christ’s teachings, nor hateful Buddhists as true followers of the Dharma. While it is undeniable that some deviant modern aspect of Islam has bred a culture of violence, we must not make the mistake of assuming a connection between the the true heart of that faith and the destruction wrought by those blinded by hate .

Happy July 5th: America’s Political Hangover

Ah, the morning after! The booze and hot dogs have left our systems, and the pops of exploding fireworks are remembered only by a mild case of tinnitus. Flapping open the morning newspaper to face America’s political reality as we nurse cups of coffee only exacerbates the lingering effects of too much sun and alcohol.

I realize that being overly cynical can be irksome, but today I’m prepared to be that guy. The state of our nation is just too far down the toilet to shake it off with independence day-brand patriotism.

Scooter Libby’s recent commutation is perhaps the best, or at least most recent, reminder of how upside-down things have gotten. It is evidence not only of the hypocrisy of the current White House, but also of the absence of the right’s supposed moral compass and of the fact that the political elite are no longer bound by the trappings of law. Slate’s Harlan J. Protass puts a finger on how this point has been clearly, if not overtly, demonstrated:

The specific bases Bush gave for the commutation are that the 30-month prison sentence was too harsh for Libby’s crime, that he was a first-time offender who had a long history of public service, that his conviction had already damaged his career and reputation and caused his wife and young children to suffer, and that sentencing Judge Reggie Walton rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended that he consider “factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation.” …

Consider, in that light and in comparison to Libby, the case of United States v. Rita, which the Supreme Court decided two weeks ago. As Douglas Berman describes at Sentencing Law and Policy, Victor Rita also got “caught up in a criminal investigation and ultimately was indicted on five felony counts based on allegations that”—like Libby—”he lied while giving grand jury testimony.” Rita was convicted. At sentencing, he argued that he should receive a sentence below the range in the federal guidelines because he was elderly and sick, had served for 24 years as a Marine, including tours in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, and was vulnerable to abuse in prison because he’d worked in criminal justice on behalf of the government.

After receiving a within-the-guidelines sentence of 33 months, Rita appealed on the ground that the sentence was unreasonable given the nature of his offense and his personal circumstances. The Bush administration opposed Rita’s appeal. The government argued that 33 months was reasonable simply because it complied with the federal guidelines.

[Read Full]

Bush, Cheney and the rest of their lot have continually demonstrated that the administration’s prerogative is to plug their ears to the outcry of the American public and shift the pieces of the political and military chessboard as suits their endgame.

Alas, pointing a finger solely at the right would be overlooking the great weaknesses of the left of that have allowed us to be trampled so.

Democrats continue to tiptoe, hypersensitive to polls and staying carefully ambiguous on certain points as to not make a statement from which they couldn’t easily backpedal. When did the donkeys lose their balls? Our presidential front-runners won’t even take a stand for what is right on the issue of gay marriage:

According to several gay rights activists, Hillary Clinton and Obama give largely similar statements in private meetings on their opposition to same-sex marriage, citing religious concerns and the fact that older generations of Americans view the term “marriage” as a commitment between a man and a woman.

The activists say they trust the candidates’ opposition as heartfelt, while at the same time acknowledging that the candidates’ staffers have told them that taking a stand in favor of same-sex marriage is too risky politically.

[Washington Post]

How terribly authoritarian it is to deny a basic personal right to people who love each other.

Meanwhile, the death toll in Iraq has horrifyingly soared well beyond 3,500 – far surpassing our grave losses at the towers September 11th. Bush may not be listening, but it is up to the elected representatives to shout our dissent louder nonetheless.

As I sit here in a cafe writing these criticisms, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that I have the freedom to do so – so far, I’ve never had to fear that I might be taking my life into my own hands when I write a blog post, as is the case in Iran, Egypt and many other nations around the globe.

I’m not against the idea of America; quite to the contrary, I consider myself a patriot of sorts. But it is the fool, and not the patriot, who blinds himself to the surrounding reality and remains complacent. We must slog our way out of this stagnant political hangover, and make way for a nation that punishes the wicked, accepts diversity and understands that we are not an island in the world.

Celebrating 50 Years of ‘On The Road’

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.

Yesterday marked 50 years since those words were first published, the opening lines of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road. It was a work that inspired the beats, and continues to send ripples through generations.

To celebrate, students at Naropa University, a Buddhist college in Boulder, Colo., gave a marathon reading of the novel – according to the AP, about 150 people attended the 12 hour cover-to-cover session, where fans and some close friends took turns reading.

My first interaction with Kerouac was with another novel, Dharma Bums, which hit a soft spot as I entered a coming-of-age exploration of religion at the tender age of 17, and was first flirting with Buddhist thought. As many others surely feel, Kerouac’s writing spoke to me in its own mad way, and I gobbled it up – next was On the Road, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris and Visions of Cody. (The latter of which I will somewhat shamefully admit to having never finished, as the 100 plus pages of pure transcription from taped dialogue was too much for me to digest.)

The way Kerouac viewed his life has certainly shaped my own – he saw all these experiences out there, just waiting to be eaten up and lived. Though carefully introspective and aware of moral questions, he gave no heed to the daily concerns that limit most of us from really grabbing life by the balls, so to speak. He was a traveler, in the fullest sense of the word, roaming North America from East to West, down to Mexico City and across the ocean to Tangiers and Paris. He sought enlightenment from people, from music and from poetry – in my view, from all the right places.

If I had never read Kerouac’s works, I would surely be living in a more closed-in space. His poetry and novels gave me the feeling that I had a companion, in another place and time, who could help me break out into the full color of the world.

The True Cost of a Few Dollars

A set of new labor regulations in China will protect workers’ rights by setting standards for temporary employment, layoffs, severance pay and working conditions, the AP reported Friday.

The enactment of the new law was catalyzed by a recent corruption scandal in a rural province, where it was uncovered that a group of 32 migrants were being made to do slave-labor at a brick kiln. Among the group were children and mentally-disabled people, who toiled in horrific conditions 18 hours a day, under the watch of guards and dogs:

The brick kiln was operated by a foreman identified as Heng Tinghan, but owned by the son of the local Communist Party chief. According to local villagers, the brickworks were illegal but still allowed to operate with the tacit agreement of the local police and officials because the party boss’s son owned them.

The extraordinary revelations were followed by an open letter circulated on Chinese Internet fora, alleging that at least 1,000 children aged between eight and 16 years have been enslaved in the illegal brick kilns in Shanxi province. []

The twist? The new labor laws were reportedly met with vocal concern from foreign investors, who were alarmed that regulations might drive up the cost of business. This friction led the Chinese government to drop an aspect of the original legislation, which would have mandated that layoffs be approved by state-sanctioned workers’ unions:

They argued that overly restrictive rules could raise costs and hurt business. A report issued yesterday by the legislature on the approved law did not mention such union approval.

It said a company that plans to lay off more than 20 workers has to inform its union and listen to its opinion. []

This new regulation is certainly a step in the right direction, but is despicable that investors would sooner hold on to a few more dollars than see a higher quality of life for the Chinese people.

China is in a period of rapid growth and development; if this pattern continues (as it surely will) then it will eventually cease to be a nation of cheap labor – as it should. China’s skilled workers deserve to have job security and a comfortable existence, and they deserve pay that will allow them to enjoy the fruits of a booming economy.

Our continued demand for outsourced cheap labor will hurt everyone involved. This is evident in the layed-off American factory worker who continues to shop at Wal-Mart because he doesn’t see the connection between the loss of his livelihood and “saving” a few dollars by purchasing sweatshop-made foreign goods. The rhetoric of globalization and free trade doesn’t hold water when the playing field stays uneven.

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