Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Perils of Palin

Los Angeles Times.

The most technologically advanced nation on Earth may be at risk of ending up with a an anti-science, creationist VP, but at least the folks over at Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network are jumping for joy...

At first blush, picking the 44-year-old Palin appeared to be a fairly straightforward bid for disaffected Democratic women -- those who remain unreconciled to Barack Obama's nomination and who were offended by his subsequent refusal to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket. In fact, during her brief remarks in Ohio on Friday, Palin cited Clinton and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro as her political antecedents. Palin even echoed Clinton's line about 18 million cracks made in the highest, hardest glass ceiling -- and then vowed to shatter it.

It's possible some Clinton supporters remain unmoved by her wholehearted appeals for party unity in Denver this week. Still, it seems unlikely that many will cross the aisle to McCain -- no matter who his running mate is. Clinton's admirers feel about her as they do not just because she's a woman but because she's a particular sort of woman.

Palin is emphatically not that sort of woman. She is, however, the sort who fires the enthusiasm of the religious right and the GOP's socially conservative wing. That's where her presence on the ticket really helps McCain, whose popularity in that crucial part of the Republican base never has been better than tepid. As a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network reported Friday, evangelical leaders literally hugged each other "in joy" when Palin's name was announced.

It's easy to see why. Palin is an evangelical Christian, a creationist and opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. (Alaska was one of the first states to amend its constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, and Palin supported that 1998 measure.) She also happens to be a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn. and a hunting and fishing enthusiast whose favorite dish is moose stew.

At some point, too, she'll have to face the formidable Joe Biden -- veteran chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- in a debate sure to hone in on her utter lack of experience with foreign policy and national security issues. If she isn't careful, Palin could emerge from that encounter looking a lot like Dan Quayle in drag.

Dan Quayle in drag, perish the thought...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama: an electrifying speech

With this kind of speech, Obama's chances of a landslide have just increased multiple times. Now let battle commence... is that the smell of Republican fear that seems to linger in the air?

On John McCain:

ObamaNow let there be no doubt. The Republican nominee, John McCain, has worn the uniform of our country with bravery and distinction, and for that we owe him our gratitude and respect. And next week, we'll also hear about those occasions when he's broken with his party as evidence that he can deliver the change that we need.

But the record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90% of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90% of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a 10% chance on change.

The truth is, on issue after issue that would make a difference in your lives - on healthcare and education and the economy - Senator McCain has been anything but independent. He said that our economy has made "great progress" under this president. He said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. And when one of his chief advisers - the man who wrote his economic plan - was talking about the anxiety Americans are feeling, he said that we were just suffering from a "mental recession," and that we've become, and I quote, "a nation of whiners".

A nation of whiners? Tell that to the proud auto workers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day and working as hard as ever, because they knew there were people who counted on the brakes that they made. Tell that to the military families who shoulder their burdens silently as they watch their loved ones leave for their third or fourth or fifth tour of duty. These are not whiners. They work hard and give back and keep going without complaint. These are the Americans that I know.

Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle class as someone making under $5m a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans? How else could he offer a healthcare plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatise social security and gamble your retirement?

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No healthcare? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.

Short analysis by
Jonathan Freedland, with video.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Evil in the US elections

A couple of days ago, I listened, like Marwan Bishara with bewilderment, to two interviews (back to back apparently) with respectively Barack Obama and John McCain, conducted by "Pastor" Rick Warren on, of all places, CNN. And my consternation grew even more when the Pastor tuned his attention to the burning issue of "evil", a topic that when listening to quite a few Americans, only Holy Land II seems to be the definitive authority on. Analysis by Marwan Bishara.

By Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's Senior Political Analyst, in New York

I could only shake my head in bewilderment, as I listened to the interviews Rick Warren, a Baptist pastor, conducted with Barack Obama and John McCain, the US presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

Most absurd during the two-hour special were the exchanges about "evil".

When asked how they would deal with evil if they were elected president - would they ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it - Obama said he would "confront it" while McCain said unflinchingly that he would "defeat it".

After this "civil forum" was broadcast on CNN, the network's so-called "best team on television" commented on the candidates' performance.

This only managed to add insult to injury.

One pundit commended McCain's steadfastness and courage in wanting to defeat, not merely confront, evil if elected president.

For the Republican contender evil is embodied in communism, Islamic fundamentalism and notably Osama Bin Laden, who he promised to hunt down.

Obama was also praised for acknowledging the existence of evil. He thought it present in Darfur but also on the streets of the US as well as in homes where parents abuse their children, and so on.

Evil is the enemy

The last time I checked, there was no legal or strategic interpretation of evil. An open-ended war on evil leads to Armageddon.

It makes absolutely no sense for a future leader of a superpower to speak of dealing with "evil" as commander-in-chief unless this term is used as populist propaganda during election season.

The threat of evil necessitates some sort of definition, otherwise, how can any president evaluate evil and apply the necessary measures to "confront it" or "defeat it"?

Sectarian and tribal wars in Africa and Asia, like religious fundamentalism, are modern phenomena that need to be rationalised first and foremost within our modern world.

In order to be defused or prevented altogether, such conflicts must not be defined or determined by the universal fight between good and evil.

The same applies to street gangs and abusive parents; they require rational explanation and social analyses in order to deter them or best prevent them form carrying out their actions.

In all such cases of violence, there is an urgent need for education, justice, fairness and the rule of law as well as a moral compass, not some religious crusade, to guide us.

But the US media was more than happy to report how the Democratic and Republican candidates were speaking of confronting and defeating evil.

In doing this, US media has pandered to the religious majority in the country.

Religiosity in the US

According to a Pew June 2008 study, 92 per cent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, and nearly 80 per cent think miracles occur.

Most Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world, and one in five Christians speaks or prays in tongues - ecstatic worship or prayer using unintelligible speech.

But while the US has traditionally been religious, it has also been traditionally tolerant.

Since the 1960s, evangelical churches have become politically proactive as faith-based organisations went on to exercise increasing influence over politics in the US and especially within the Republican party.

In recent years, the less strident and more mainstream Christian and evangelical churches like Warren's Saddleback where the two candidates were interviewed, became more active then the southern right-wing churches represented by the likes of Pat Robertson.

The fact that McCain and Obama's first joint appearance (not debate) was coordinated and hosted by an influential religious preacher speaks volumes about the influence of organised religion on politics in the US.

Politics in a bubble

Such theological/political journalism is unthinkable anywhere in Europe or in so-called democracies around the world. Calling one's enemy or their ideology or religion evil is the language normally used by such groups as al-Qaeda, not constitutional democracies.

If religious interviews were done with such fanfare and influence in a Muslim country, democratic or otherwise, western and especially US media would have made mockery of such an imposition of religious fundamentalism on political process.

For most outsiders, the US is in denial over its own "evil doing" around the world. Obama and McCain could see evil in Darfur but would not admit that the invasion and occupation of Iraq on false premises or for oil is no less an evil act.

To his credit, Obama broke out of the delusional discourse of the US as the-city-on-a-hill to underline the need for humility when confronting evil so that the US does not perpetrate its own evils.

But for some people around the world, it may be a bit late for that.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Crufts: Going to the Dogs?

A dog is not just for Crufts, it's for life

Behind the genteel, cuddly and quintessentially British dog show "Crufts", lie some ugly truths many of us have been aware of for quite some time: that inbreeding of pedigree dogs leads not only to seriously deformed, practically disabled animals but that this from of eugenics also concentrates genetically inherited dog diseases in a wide variety of breeds. I watched the documentary last night and was truly appalled. Pushed to its illogical conclusion, intense inbreeding within the pedigree can make several breeds a sterile, genetical cul de sac in few years from now...

Read it here for a version with video links.

Pedigree dogs are suffering from genetic diseases following years of inbreeding, an investigation has found.

A BBC documentary says they are suffering acute problems because looks are emphasised over health when breeding dogs for shows.

The programme shows spaniels with brains too big for their skulls and boxers suffering from epilepsy.

The Kennel Club says it works tirelessly to improve the health of pedigree dogs.

Pedigree animals make up 75% of the seven million dogs in the UK and cost their owners over £10m in vets' fees each week.

Poor health

The programme, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, says dogs suffering from genetic illness are not prevented from competing in dog shows and have gone on to win "best in breed", despite their poor health.

It says physical traits required by the Kennel Club's breed standards, such as short faces, wrinkling, screw-tails and dwarfism, have inherent health problems.

Other problems occur because of exaggerations bred into dogs by breeders trying to win rosettes, it adds.

The programme shows a prize-winning cavalier King Charles spaniel suffering from syringomyelia, a condition which occurs when a dog's skull is too small for its brain.

It also features boxers suffering from epilepsy, pugs with breathing problems and bulldogs who are unable to mate or give birth unassisted.

It says deliberate mating of dogs which are close relatives is common practice and the Kennel Club registers dogs bred from mother-to-son and brother-to-sister matings.

Scientists at Imperial College, London, recently found that pugs in the UK are so inbred that although there are 10,000 of them, it is the equivalent of just 50 distinct individuals.
Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, said: "People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals.

"In some breeds they are paying a terrible price in genetic disease."

Breeding practices

RSPCA chief vet Mark Evans was interviewed for the programme.

He said: "The welfare and quality of life of many pedigree dogs is seriously compromised by established breeding practices for appearance, driven primarily by the rules and requirements of competitive dog showing and pedigree dog registration."

But Kennel Club spokeswoman Caroline Kisko said it is "working tirelessly" to help improve the health of pedigree dogs.

"Any dog may be shown but it is up to the judge to decide if it fits the breed standard," she said.

"It is when characteristics become exaggerated that health problems can occur.

"This is something that the Kennel Club does not encourage and actively educates people, including judges, against doing as part of its Fit For Function, Fit For Life campaign."

Barack Obabykiller? FAQ: infanticide


The Democratic nominee claims another victim.

The Huffington Post reports that the next trick up McCain's sleeve is to accuse Barack Obama of "infanticide." Deal Hudson (real name) is one of 80 people on McCain's Catholic advisory board. Because of Obama's "no" vote on a partial birth abortion bill while a state senator in Illinois, Hudson likes to say things like this on his website:
Infanticide is becoming a touchy subject for Barack Obama.

(Fun fact: Hudson previously resigned from the Bush-Cheney campaign for allegedly getting an 18-year-old former student of his drunk and having sex with her.)

Does Deal Hudson even know what infanticide is? And for that matter, do you? Read our FAQ.

Why is Barack Obama being accused of Infanticide? Isn't that the stuff a Guatemalan sprays on my lawn?

No, that's pesticide. Infanticide is the killing of babies.

Oh, like abortion?

Um, hello, Pat Buchanan! No. Abortion is when you terminate a fetus you don't want, and infanticide is when you kill a baby that you did want.

Ahhh. Isn't that what China does to girl babies?


My God! Barack Obama is killing Chinese babies?

No. A Catholic advisor to John McCain is calling Barack Obama an "infanticider" because, as a state legislator, he voted "no" when Illinois tried to pass the "Born Alive Infant Protection Act."

What? Barack Obama doesn't want to protect infants who are born alive? What kind of freak is he?

Well, that bill was loaded down with other sketchy stuff like a stipulation that would allow doctors to be prosecuted. It was badly written, and even criticized by conservatives, and that's why he didn't vote for it.

So Barack Obama does NOT want to kill my baby?

As far as I know.

Hmm. Would Barack Obama at least take my baby for the weekend so I could get some goddamn sleep?

Probably not.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Q&A: Violence in South Ossetia


Russian and Georgian troops have been fighting over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.

The separatist administration in South Ossetia has been trying to gain formal independence since breaking away in a civil war in the 1990s.

Russia already had troops in the region, on a peacekeeping mandate, before the outbreak of fighting. But Moscow also supports the separatists.

What is the status of South Ossetia?

South Ossetia has run its own affairs since fighting for independence from Georgia in 1991-92, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It has declared independence, though this has not been recognised by any other country.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, back under full Georgian control.

Why do Ossetians want to break away?

The Ossetians are a distinct ethnic group originally from the Russian plains just south of the Don river. In the 13th Century, they were pushed southwards by Mongol invasions into the Caucasus mountains, settling along the border with Georgia.

South Ossetians want to join up with their ethnic brethren in North Ossetia, which is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

Ethnic Georgians are a minority in South Ossetia, accounting for less than one-third of the population.

But Georgia rejects even the name South Ossetia, preferring to call it by the ancient name of Samachablo, or Tskhinvali, after its main city.

What triggered the latest crisis?

GeorgiaTension has risen since the election of President Saakashvili in 2004. He offered South Ossetia dialogue and autonomy within a single Georgian state - but in 2006 South Ossetians voted in an unofficial referendum to press their demands for complete independence.

In April 2008 Nato said Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance at some point - angering Russia, which opposes the eastward expansion of Nato. Weeks later, Russia stepped up ties with the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In July Russia admitted its fighter jets entered Georgian airspace over South Ossetia to "cool hot heads in Tbilisi". Occasional clashes escalated, until six people were reportedly killed by Georgian shelling. Attempts to reach a ceasefire stuttered.

How did it escalate?

After further exchanges of fire, Georgia launched an aerial bombardment and ground attack on South Ossetia on Thursday 7 August, only hours after the sides agreed a ceasefire. By Friday, Georgian forces were reportedly in control of Tskhinvali.

Russia responded by pouring thousands of troops into South Ossetia, and launching bombing raids both over the province and on targets in the rest of Georgia. Within days, Russia had seized control of Tskhinvali.

Why is Russia involved?

Russia insists it was acting as a peacekeeper in South Ossetia, rejecting Georgian accusations that it has been supplying arms to the separatists.

But it has vowed to defend its citizens in South Ossetia - of which there are many. More than half of South Ossetia's 70,000 citizens are said to have taken up Moscow's offer of a Russian passport.

Until recently Russia said it respected Georgia's territorial integrity, and only wanted to look out for Russian citizens. But, following Georgia's military action, Russian PM Vladimir Putin said it was now unlikely that South Ossetia would reintegrate with the rest of Georgia.

Could the conflict spread?

Tensions have risen in Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia to the west. Breakaway leader Sergei Bagapsh has vowed to expel all remaining Georgian forces; Russia has sent thousands of reinforcements, saying it will not allow Georgia to carry out a similar operation on a second front.

What about Georgia's links to Nato?

President Saakashvili has made membership of Nato one of his main goals. Georgia has had a close relationship with the United States - sending troops to join the US-led coalition in Iraq - and has been cultivating ties with Western Europe.

There are those who believe that Mr Saakashvili may have been hoping to draw Nato into a conflict with Moscow, making their alliance a formal one.

But analysts say it is difficult to imagine Nato allowing itself to be drawn into a direct conflict with its Cold War rival after managing to avoid that for so long.

In fact, some say Nato will now be wary about getting closer to Georgia when it has so many outstanding territorial issues.