Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Note to regular readers

Most days over the next few months on the Mainsteaming Torture bookapalooza and road trip, regular posts will appear here daily. We're not rushing and will usually find internet access. But if there is nothing new here for a day or two, just figure we're momentarily off the grid and will be back.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Evidence this is a strange country


These gents don't seem to have heard of skin cancer.

End of summer ritual?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: Martha's Vineyard, August 2014

A reporter for the Martha's Vineyard Times, a local weekly, was both tickled and a little bored to be included among the press pool during President Obama's vacation on the island. He found the national journalists had a very superficial sense of his home turf.

The Times took an informal poll to see if these journalists, who are some of the best in the world at unearthing the truth, still saw the Island as an “affluent, exclusive enclave,” as so many of them describe it, after spending some time here.

The unanimous response was, “Yes.” They were informed that locals bristle at these descriptions, that the average wage on the Island is 70 percent of the state average, that there’s a critical shortage of affordable housing, and that many Islanders are barely making ends meet. ...

Those reporters would have their misconceptions reinforced if they encountered scenes like this. The sign marks the end of a town beach which is open for an affordable charge to town residents, their tenants, and guests. That sandy expanse is private property. There are many such off-limits spaces on the island.

The beach at Aquinnah, under the national landmark red clay cliffs, is open to the public. The Wampanoag tribe charges a $15 parking fee in the summer, but if you can walk a short distance, the wide sands and surf are yours -- even without a bathing suit.

Up on the cliffs, the historic Gay Head Lighthouse, recently transferred out of federal ownership to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, was opened to visitors this summer. This was the first time in my many visits that I was allowed to climb the metal circular stairs to the level of the revolving light. Proximity to the great lens is awe-inspiring. Once upon a time, a light house keeper had to check on it every few hours. We have better generators these days.

The lighthouse is endangered. The cliffs are eroding. If it is to survive, it must be moved in the next few years before too much land crumbles. Fundraising goes on apace.

This local resident is probably not endangered, by tourists or property owners.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Do our policy makers know what they are getting into?


New Yorker writer George Packer was "just barely" pro-war about George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then he reported directly from the U.S. adventure on the Euphrates and rapidly came to regret his early enthusiasm.

He worries about current moves toward further U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria occasioned by the military successes of the terrorist Sunni Muslim group ISIS, AKA the "Islamic Caliphate." He has assembled an excellent list of questions that U.S. leaders need to answer before blundering further into that maelstrom:

Too much of August’s sound and fury over ISIS is taking place in a vacuum of knowing and thinking ahead. Here are a few of the questions that any serious policymaker should address:

  • What kind of short- and long-term threats do ISIS militants pose to the U.S.? What are their capabilities and intentions? Between Obama’s “jayvee team” remark to Remnick, in January, and Chuck Hagel’s “beyond anything we have seen” comment last week, where does the truth lie?
  • What can air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria achieve without coördination with ground troops?
  • Are there any Syrian rebel groups that are still capable of functioning like the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi special forces in northern Iraq, as ground troops that can take positions abandoned by ISIS under U.S. air strikes?
  • When we talk about remaining “moderate” rebels, who are they, who are their leaders, what are their interests and loyalties, what is their fighting condition?
  • If Haider al-Abadi becomes the next Prime Minister of Iraq, what can he be offered in exchange for a pledge to end government support for the Shia militias that have alienated Iraqi Sunnis and created a base of popular support for ISIS?
  • How extensive is support among Iraqi Sunnis for the anti-ISIS uprising of leading sheikhs in Anbar province? Can American air power be brought to bear in conjunction with their efforts without strengthening ISIS? How much support would the Saudis offer in Anbar?
  • How can Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the Emirates be brought into a loose coalition against ISIS?
  • Is Iran willing to discuss a post-Assad government in Syria as part of a larger negotiation over coördinating strategies with the U.S. to destroy ISIS, the common enemy? If not, is there any ground for American-Iranian coöperation in the fight against ISIS?
  • Can Iran play any part without alienating the Gulf countries?
  • What is the larger American strategy to contain and defeat ISIS? What are its military, political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural aspects?

I have added emphasis to the items I consider the bare minimum about which the people of the United States should demand answers as our leaders drift toward a wider war. Vox provides a set of useful refutations of common myths about ISIS, in case you are looking for more food for thought.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tim Wu for NYS Lite Gov: democracy at work

Wow! Wow again! The New York Times has endorsed Tim Wu for Lieutenant Governor of New York State.

Wu is the inventor of the term "net neutrality" and the author of the essential book on the history of communications and democracy in the United States which I discussed here.

Lieutenant Governor isn't much of an office and it is very unlikely that Wu will win the Democratic primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's hand-picked conservative running mate, Kathy Hochul.

Still the endorsement says a lot about how politics proceeds in one-party Democratic states -- all the large, urban ones. Within the Democratic party, you have the money party -- our very own rich people. And then there are the more populist Democratic constituencies -- various, not always compatible, communities of color, most single women of many communal identities, and the educated young, regardless of race or gender. In one-party states, these groups duke it out for control of the party and political positions. The money party often has more unity than the contending populist fragments, but when the latter get together, they have the votes.

In one-party Democratic states, if this contest isn't happening, democracy is in trouble. Political pulling and hauling -- that maligned "partisanship" -- never goes away. It just changes shape.

Inconsistent narratives of Yazidis and Kurds



This week, the New York Times described the plight of "400,000 Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with roots in Muslim and Zoroastrian traditions [and] have been forced to flee their enclaves" in Iraqi Kurdistan by ISIS, the violent jihadis also styled the "Islamic State." The break with their longtime Muslim neighbors was violent and traumatic.

“Our Arab neighbors turned on all of us,” said Mr. Habash, who recounted his story from a makeshift refugee camp on the banks of a fetid stream near the city of Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We feel betrayed. They were our friends.”

... The extent of the collusion is hard to map. Many Yazidi families interviewed did not have firsthand information of Arab neighbors aiding ISIS. And in some cases, Arabs risked their lives to save persecuted friends.

But amid the chaos, an emotional truth has emerged: ISIS has destroyed the peaceful coexistence that many northern towns once cherished.

Yvo Fitzherbert describes a different Yazidi experience, by way of interviews conducted in Turkey where he lives. Xal İsmail Ferhad, one of the refugees, concurs in horror at betrayal by his long time neighbors.

Throughout our conversation this gentle, openhearted man in his sixties kept on repeating, “I want the world to know what the Arabs did to us.”

But the same man gushes about the generosity of other Kurds (mostly Muslims) who saved many lives. Though the peshmerga -- the troops of the Iraqi Kurdish semi-autonomous government -- were brushed aside by ISIS, Kurdish guerrillas of the YPG (People Defense Unit) and YPJ (Women’s Defense Unit) won an escape corridor for some 100,000 Yezidis marooned on barren Senjar Mountain.

“If the YPG hadn’t come to the mountains, our people wouldn’t have survived. They are our saviours”, Ferhad passionately explained. It was a point Ferhad kept on emphasising, how YPG have won the heart and trust of all Yezîdîs. When asked if he trusted the YPG more than any other forces, specifically the peshmerga, he said, “Of course. We will give all our boys to them. I will go myself... We are the same mentality as the YPG and PKK.”

Fitzherbert describes these forces as thriving in Rojava (literally, ‘Western Kurdistan’) where three cantons have adopted a "grassroots democratic model" as a consequence of a libertarian socialist evolution led by the imprisoned Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Representatives are made up of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, with at least one third of all representatives, female. ...

...From his prison, Öcalan wrote, “the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.”

... Democratic Confederalism, which Öcalan simplifies as essentially “democracy without a state” has already begun to be put into practise in Rojava. It seems that Senjar has now become part of this revolution, and as far as Ferhad is concerned, he hopes it is something which the Yazidis of Senjar will embrace. Whether the US-backed Kurdish Democratic Party like it or not, the guerrillas are there to stay. And they are fighting for a new kind of freedom.

Perhaps from tragedy something wonderful springs. All reads quite rosy, doesn't it?

Reading these two contrasting articles, what I felt was humility. I have almost no idea what is going on in that remote part of the world. I know the fog of war obscures it. I know human beings are suffering. And I also know that, living in a state and a civilization that has played a role in turning these peoples' lives upside down, I should at least try to understand and try to prevent our rulers from making things worse!

I have adopted the New York Times transliteration of the label "Yazidi" and the place "Senjar" to make this post read slightly more coherently. These authors use different spellings.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bookapalooza is back on the road

Rebecca will be speaking about Mainstreaming Torture tomorrow in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wanted children -- simple truths


While I applaud the work [organizations and individuals like this friend of mine] that share thoughtful and moving first-person stories about choosing abortion, I think there is another group that needs to speak up, loudly and publicly, about reproductive rights. And that is those of us that were able to fully and freely choose when to become parents.

I am one of those people, and so is my husband. We chose to become parents, but even more importantly, we chose when not to become parents. We chose not to become parents when he was in school and I was unemployed; we chose not to become parents when our relationship was unstable; we chose not to become parents when I was recovering from two surgeries in five months and he was changing jobs; we chose not to become parents when I switched careers. We chose not to become parents over and over for a very long time, even though during that long time we often talked how much we wanted a child.

The reproductive rights movement made it possible for us to not be parents before we were ready. Politics and policies that support contraception, comprehensive health care, and educational opportunities contributed to our ability to become as stable as possible in our own lives and our relationship before taking on the awesome responsibility of raising a child. ...

Sarah Erdreich

I encountered this shortly after reading one of Jonathan Cohn's Q.E.D. emails that explained, once again, why access to affordable birth control underlies the social arrangements we take for granted (and which patriarchal conservatives abhor.)

Many conservatives look at the price of oral contraceptives, available at places like Target or Walmart for as little as $9 a month, and wonder why anybody except the very poor would need help paying for it. But numerous studies have shown that even modest co-payments can reduce use of medications, particularly when you’re talking about less affluent people who must be careful with every dollar they spend.

... [During the 1960s] ... the teen pregnancy rate fell by about 25 percent. What changed? ... The Food and Drug Administration first approved the pill in 1960.

It wasn’t just teenagers on whom the introduction of cheap, highly effective medical contraception had profound effects. It was also older women, including married women, who gained the ability to control the timing of pregnancy and child rearing. It meant these women could have fewer children, if they wanted, and that they could time their child-bearing years in ways that would allow them still to go to school and to go to work.

It is not at all coincidental that, with the suddenly widespread use of birth control, women became much more likely to go through college and graduate school and to be part of the workforce—and, more generally, to make the kind of money that would allow them to be more economically independent

Control of our reproductive capacity is what makes the lives of contemporary women possible. Are we going to let obscurantist flat-earthers turn back the clock? As always, poor women are at risk first.
***
Kaiser Health News reports it is not only flat-earthers who want to cut women off from using birth control to choose when they have kids.

How much leeway do employers and insurers have in deciding whether they’ll cover contraceptives without charge and in determining which methods make the cut?

Not much, as it turns out, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

Kaiser Health News readers still write in regularly describing battles they’re waging to get the birth control coverage they’re entitled to.

In one of those messages recently, a woman said her insurer denied free coverage for the NuvaRing. This small plastic device, which is inserted into the vagina, works for three weeks at a time by releasing hormones similar to those used by birth control pills. She said her insurer told her she would be responsible for her contraceptive expenses unless she chooses an oral generic birth control pill. The NuvaRing costs between $15 and $80 a month, according to Planned Parenthood. ...

More at the link.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Good news headline


If true, shows that the administration has its collective eyes on the job.

The heavens and earth declare the glory ...

After a week of unremitting human horror -- Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Ferguson -- this (best in full screen mode) reminds how small we are.
H/t Bad Astronomy.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

So what do people protesting in Ferguson want?


HuffPo reports that demonstrators have presented demands via three spokespeople. Here the list as shared by the local group Organization for Black Struggle.

Immediate Demands
(These demands are being fine-tuned as the struggle goes on.)

Local Demands
1. Swift and impartial investigation by the Department of Justice into the Michael Brown shooting
2. Immediate arrest of Darren Wilson
3. County Prosecutor Robert McCullough to stand down and allow a Special Prosecutor to be appointed
4. Firing of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson
5. “Immediate” De-escalation of militarized policing of peaceful protestors
6. Ensure the protection of the rights of people to assemble and peacefully protest
7. Hold law enforcement officers accountable for excessive use of force on peaceful protestors
8. Immediate release of individuals who have participated -- their right assemble and peacefully protest

National Demands
1. Obama to come to Ferguson to meet with the people whose human rights have been violated by aggressive and militarized policing, including the family of the victim – Michael Brown.
2. Eric Holder to use the full resources and power of the Department of Justice to implement a nationwide investigation of systematic police brutality and harassment in black and brown communities
3. Ensure transparency, accountability, and safety of our communities by requiring front facing cameras in police departments with records of racial disparities in stops, arrests, killings, and excessive force complaints
4. Immediate suspension without pay of law enforcement officers that have used or approved excessive use of force. Additionally, their personnel information and policing history should be made available to the public.

Sure, these folks are asking for the moon, but if it takes an ugly broad daylight killing by a cop and two weeks of noisy protests to get any attention, it makes sense to use every bit of your moment of national attention. And if this is not a police state, "transparency, accountabiliy, and safety" are completely reasonable expectations.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: signs at the Fair

The Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair is a refreshingly low key affair given the island's justified reputation as a vacation playground for the affluent.

Farmers display their prize animals and vegetables. Judges mull the quality of their offerings.

Small children have their own corral.

So do lost people.

Among the judged school childrens' creative projects, there's a proud patriotic statement ...

... displaying a very special selection of stars.

Click on any of the photos to enlarge.


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